Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Hermes Gadelha

The walls of Hermes’ office were covered in beautiful art – which we later found out had been painted by his dad. It was a lovely space to be in as we sat down early on a Monday morning and talked about his love for teaching.

Could you give us a quick preview of what you Humans of Bristol Lecture will be about?

I will be a very long story, told in a compact form. It’s about how people like Newton, Alan Turing, Michael Phelps, or even Boris Johnson, are all connected. And how, in particular, mathematics is the thread that connects all these stories. People are expecting me to talk about sperm, because that’s what I research, but what I really want is for the audience to come out with a view of something which is much bigger, which connects all of us and many branches of Science.

Do you think that teaching is more engaging and people find it easier to understand when it’s explained through a story rather than just as disconnected facts?

Yeah, because as human beings, we don’t like to be just told information. I say to my students: ‘mathematicians are not calculators; we are creative beings’. And mathematics is a technique that you use, like when you explore your creative space through painting. So, stories are a way to get through to students. I don’t see our work here in Engineering, or Mathematics, or Biology, to be any different from the Humanities, in which people work creatively. Creation is literally to merge things, and to bring to life. This is what we try to do, and stories are the basic way to do that. Otherwise, you lose the meaning behind mathematics.

For example, when we teach Calculus, students have to do hardcore calculations. This can sound really boring at first. But you could connect this to a story, ask where this calculation comes from and where it leads to, and discuss the impact that these calculations could potentially have in your life. Stories are a way for us to empathise, and that’s the main difference between humans and data.

We live in an era of data, right? Data science is everywhere. You’re flooded with data at this very moment, every single detail here is data. But humans do something different – we interpret this data, throwing away the things and the things we do want and then we put a meaning to that. We love to give a meaning to things that are meaningless. For example, when you see a beautiful view, it’s literally just data. Just light that’s coming through to your eyes. But if you think of it like that, it’s too dry, and what’s the point? So, we put a meaning to it and appreciate the view.

It’s the same with university. It’s not just information, it’s not just a degree. So, we to connect with our students, because it’s more than just data. We tell stories to teach, because it’s more than just the formulae.

Do you find sometimes that your students find teaching like this a little bit strange, especially if they are used to more traditional facts-only teaching?

Yes, sometimes, but I want them to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the everyday aspect of any job can be very hard. You have to have the same enthusiasm and motivation and face the same pressures every day. It’s the same when you’re studying a course – the calculations will be difficult, they will be complicated, the students will not understand them at first and they will struggle. But teaching can help to change this perspective. It’s all relative, right? So if you’re looking at the same thing every day, why not try looking at it from a different angle? We could look at it from a different perspective and ask, is this the same? Is th another learning? So really, teaching can change the lens that you’re looking through and help you to see your subject differently.

But you can’t necessarily do this every day. It’s something that as a lecturer you have to attempt and try out. I often think, ‘how many times have I already taught this?’ and ‘how can I learn something new from this?’. So, every time I teach a lecture, it’s always completely different. I teach 250-350 students, it’s a huge audience, but every cohort has a different personality each year. You have to treat them as individuals. For instance, I like to make jokes, but the same jokes don’t work every time with every group. It’s amazing, because each lecture then is unique and private to those students. It also depends how I feel on that day. I understand that my students are all different, and they understand that I’m just human.

I remember one day that was really funny, it was an absolutely mad day where I had meetings back to back and I had no time. I decided to cook some really nice Chinese noodles for lunch. By the time it came to the lecture, I really wanted to eat, but I didn’t have time. And I thought, maybe I can have lunch whilst I give the lecture? So I asked they students if it was alright and they said yes. And then I was talking in the lecture and I’d be like ‘wait, wait one minute while I have a bite of my lunch’, in the middle of 250 people, and they found this hilarious but I was just really hungry! But if you think about the alternative, and I hadn’t eaten, I would have been grumpy. I wouldn’t have been able to eat until like 6pm on my busy schedule, and that’s not sustainable, so it was so nice that the students were like ‘actually you know, it’s fine, he’s only human as well’ and there is this type of understanding between us.

It’s great that you’re showing the students that you’re just human. A lot of what we try to do with the Humans of Bristol University is to try and bridge the gap between students and staff, to show that we’re all just human.

Exactly, exactly. Another example was when I came up with a hand signal between me and my students. Because there are so many engineering students who know me, but I don’t always recognise them, or know their names. But if I go to the harbour, or the gym, they will be there. I thought it would be nice for us to have a way to identify each other. So I introduced this: I said, how about we have a pact between us, like a secret hand signal, so if you see me in the street, you do it, and I recognise and we can say ‘we’re family, I know you!’. And they really do it! If I go to the supermarket, I see them there, and they do it! It’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, and having a bad day, and then I see someone do the signal, it really changes my mood you know, in that moment. It’s almost like there is a connection.

I think it’s difficult sometimes, for international students, with the different landscape and different culture and everything. But I’m the same, I’m married to an English woman and she works in Classics, and I always bring a lot of stories from my background. Especially about language, because I’m not always really good with how I express myself [in English]. But I started seeing students be more confident with me and coming to me after class. Especially sometimes in teaching, a word will come to me in Portuguese, and then I make a joke, and teach them a little bit about it, so they understand why I did it. I think all students can empathise with me, both the English and the overseas students, because I am a little bit of both. I’m Brazilian, but I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m having a baby(!), who will be half English and half Brazilian, so I understand these problems.

It must make such a difference to students who have a dual-nationality identity crisis, or for those whose first language isn’t English to see someone talking openly about it. Clearly your students appreciate you and the way you teach – you only came to Bristol this year and have already been nominated as a Best of Bristol lecturer!

For me it was really a big surprise. But I had decided to take some risks. I’ve had a lot of teaching experience in the past at different places, and I’ve always been more cautious. But now I’ve reached the age where I know that students will be able to manage – they are very resilient and you don’t have to treat them like school children. You can experiment and try new things. I think I have a relationship with them and I think they respect me so I can actually take more risks.

For example, in their final lecture I made them a song. I took the lyrics from Wonderwall and changed them to put the mathematical equations in instead. I called it Mathemagical! At school in Brazil I had teachers that were very talented with a guitar and would sing us songs to teach us history. I always wanted to do it, but I never quite had the skills to do it. Especially for 700 people! What I’m trying to say is, it might sound that I’m very confident, but no, that was a risk. But the students made me feel very secure. It was pretty embarrassing, you know, I said, guys “we’re all going to sing together”. So I put the song on the projector and they did! That was wonderful. And again, it’s one of these things I don’t think I will manage to replicate. It was very organic for this particular group for this particular year. But it’s a nice thing because it’s special, isn’t it?

We wonder what the Gallaghers would think of this particular rendition…

What advice would you give to lecturers at Bristol if they’re thinking of taking risks in their lectures, but aren’t feeling confident to do it?

To trust the students, because I think they are the best thermometer. Especially when they understand that staff are human. There are many ways we assess our teaching through feedback and forms. Students will come and go, but their feedback stays. Imagine if you’d been lecturing for 30 years and you receive feedback that says you are a ‘bad lecturer’. This might be true or maybe not, but this would be devastating for the lecturer.

If you take the perspective that we are all human, you can see that students are , and academics are. When they meet these two different worlds collide, and we can forget the human side of it. I think the best way to deal with this is to make yourself knowable as a person as well, not just a lecturer

I think a better model is just for everybody to be nice to each other. If someone is not managing to do something, try to be a bit more generous, it could be because of something you don’t know anything about, and you will not understand. We are all made of hundreds of crazy connections. But when you start to see students as attendance percentages or grades, then you lose their whole story.  

I always tell my students: ‘you think I’m very clever because I’m teaching you this year, but the only difference between me up here and you sitting there is that I was born earlier.’ What’s the difference? It’s time. You can’t change time. Students will make mistakes, but they grow really fast in three years, four years. PhD and postdoc students, for example, if they stay in academia, will be the next lecturers So, you have to see the students as people and know that they’re very powerful. Many people are very clever here, but there will be always be people who are cleverer.

It’s really nice to hear someone talk passionately about teaching, as sometimes it feels like we’re such a research focused university.

I have to say that I’ve always loved teaching. My Dad is an artist and when I didn’t know what to do in my life he would always say ‘what is your service? What is the thing you’re going to give back?’. Teaching for me is the only way to have real impact in real time. All the other things I do, like research, they’ll take three weeks to three years to reach anywhere. And let’s say we published many papers, fantastic. But then again, they will take a few years and maybe a handful of people will read them. The real impact is generated here in universities as we teach students.

So the final question we’ve been asking all the Best of Bristol lecturers is: if you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol, what would it be?

I think it would be to add some kind of really creative event where students and lecturers could be on the same level, so you can forge connections. What I would love is to have connections that will potentially last over time because students graduate and then we don’t hear from them and don’t’ find out what they get up to. So, not really for teaching, but basically for making friends. Let’s do pottery or something!

I think that would be really great. I spoke to a postgraduate student for a Humans of Bristol interview and she said when she was an undergrad she felt like she didn’t have any connection to her lecturers, but when she started her postgrad they treated her like she was on their level.

This is a criticism for all the universities I think across the planet – they want to grow too much. Have more seats for the students. Grow more and more, have fewer and fewer ways to connect. I don’t think the infinite growth, capitalist growth, is made for humans. I think this will be a big mistake. I think the most successful universities will be the ones that we will still feel some kind of connection too. Because, really, the information you learn at university, anyone could find in their own time. You could study at home without a university. But here, the connections we make and the stories we hear, that’s the true learning at university. The exams you do you’re going to forget. But the important thing is how you learned and that you can do it by yourself. Here we are all just a bunch of humans learning together – why don’t we embrace this fully?

Toby Roberts & Emily Kinder, BILT Student Fellows

Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Andy Radford

Andy Radford (right) shares a moment with a Pied Babbler, one of many species he’s worked with in the field over a diverse research career.

I met Andy in his office in the Life Sciences Building, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the ASS Library, talking about Best of Bristol, recognising that things don’t always go the way you plan (especially working as a scientist in the field), and how (re?)finding our love of nature might be the key to fighting the climate crisis.

Could you tell me a little bit about what your research group does and how that led into the reef acoustics research you’ll be talking about in your BoB lecture?

Our research has two main themes. The first is pure behavioural ecology, predominantly looking at social behaviour and vocal communication. Specifically, how vocalisations are used to mediate cooperation and conflict, and how animals eavesdrop on other species and learn to translate their foreign languages to gain additional information. We study these topics mostly with animals in their natural habitats, including the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project in South Africa and various bird species in Africa and Australia. I’ve worked on these general themes since my PhD, which rather frighteningly means for nearly 20 years now!

But then 10 or 11 years ago, we were interested in trying to work on a more applied subject; something that has more practical relevance and that ties to conservation. Around that time, Steve Simpson arrived from Edinburgh to work here in Bristol and we happened to have our first children within a couple of months of each other. So, we ended up getting to know one another by walking with babies in slings across the downs and occasionally stopping in a pub to have a pint. We talked about our backgrounds and research interests – Steve’s a marine ecologist and fish biologist, with a focus on underwater acoustics; my background is as a behavioural ecologist, with those interests in social behaviour and vocal communication – discussing what we could potentially work on together. And, we decided to investigate man-made noise as a major, but relatively little-considered, global pollutant. At that point, a decade ago, very little research had examined the impacts of noise on anything other than humans; in the oceans, there had been a few studies on cetaceans, but hardly anything on fish or invertebrates despite the huge numbers of species and their importance. So, we decided to set up a research programme to do that – looking at the impacts of noise, particularly in marine environments.

Our initial experiments were short-term playbacks of sound in aquaria. But, both Steve and I are field biologists at heart, and ideally you want to be studying animals in their natural habitats for ecological validity. So, a lot of the work that we have done since on the impacts of man-made noise takes place on coral reefs. Coral reefs are naturally very noisy places (many animals produce sounds for one reason or another), but there’s also lots of noise generated by humans from things like motorboats. While we’ve been out on those reefs studying noise impacts, we’ve also witnessed the devastation caused by global warming: the bleaching of the corals. We’ve shown that bleaching then changes the soundscape because species that make noise move away. Suddenly the reef sounds very different and that has knock-on consequences for the recruitment of fish too.

A lot of our work now is therefore considering how human actions change coral reef soundscapes and what impacts that has for wildlife. That can be pretty depressing, but we are also working to find and test potential solutions to mitigate the problems and improve the situation moving forward.

And one of the ways to improve the situation is by using noise to encourage some of the species that have been lost from the reef back?

Yes, absolutely! In terms of the soundscape, it’s worth giving a little bit of background. Coral

reefs are inherently noisy places. Despite what Jacques Cousteau said about a ‘silent world’, the underwater world is really noisy and no more so than on coral reefs. They’re the cities of the ocean – bustling environments where fish and invertebrates are generating lots of sounds to communicate with one another. Collectively, that means each reef has a unique sound that it generates. And those soundscapes are vital to many species.

Soon after hatching, lots of marine creatures head out into the open ocean for a period of weeks or even months, and then come home to a reef for the rest of their lives. One of the cues that they’re using to find a home is sound. With bleaching events, the soundscape is changing and becoming diminished, and we have found with experiments that is less attractive to those returning tiny creatures; they are less likely to recruit to and to settle in areas with degraded soundscapes compared to healthy ones. However, there’s a possibility that you can try and reverse that by enhancing the current sounds with playback, something we call acoustic enrichment. That’s playing back healthy reef sounds on more degraded habitats, to boost the sound of them. What we found in an experiment we ran for 40 days is that if you do that, not only do you initially attract more fish, but that the community rebuilds faster. You’re kickstarting the recovery process on these degraded reefs. It’s not a silver bullet solution – you need to do it in combination with other restoration efforts – but if you can accelerate the initial recovery processes and provide hope. You need those fish and those invertebrates to help the coral by cleaning away the algae and creating space for the corals to grow. Corals alone can’t rebuild themselves or, if they do, it’s incredibly slow; you need this synergy going on, so you get this positive feedback loop.

Even if such restoration methods are small-scale, they are important; you need to build incrementally. If we think that the only solution is to solve climate change, the climate crisis, then we’re in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires nations to agree to something and that isn’t going to happen quickly. But, if you can start making a difference locally, then that gives hope to people locally and then more broadly, that things could be better. Also, for the species that are there, you’re potentially building some level of resilience. So, although you might be acting in one small regard, if it builds resilience for bigger problems then that could have positive consequences, and potentially give us breathing space to solve the bigger issues. If everything dies, before we can solve the big issues, then it is hopeless. And we don’t want it to be hopeless. There are good reasons to try to make a difference at a localised level whenever possible.

Are you able to bring your research into teaching? And do you find that that’s useful for students and for yourself?

Yes, absolutely. Obviously, it depends a little on what you’re teaching. When you’re teaching first year classes, that’s about general principles and broad-scale ideas, but I still try and bring in a little bit of research because you want it to be exciting and inspiring. As you go through different years, increasingly it’s more and more research-led. In terms of third-year courses, you’re hoping to describe examples of cutting-edge research as part of what’s going on.

I think it’s really nice if at least some of those examples are your own, because then students are not seeing you as just someone standing at the front delivering this material and walking  out again. You’re telling them about your story, and your research and your anecdotes, and what you’re doing in the field and what you’re doing research wise. And that, I think, personalises it and makes a better connection and hopefully makes it even more exciting, rather than it being in the abstract. Science is not just about the hypotheses, the methods, the findings; it’s also about the journey to get there, including all the things that went wrong. I really like putting those kinds of stories and our own research into lectures. Whether the students like hearing about it, you’d have to ask them…

Well I enjoy hearing about it, even just the little things like getting us to sing happy Birthday to your daughter helps to make more of a personal connection (Andy got his entire 3rd year Social Evolution module to sing his daughter Happy Birthday at the start of a lecture – apparently she loved it, but not quite as much as the unicycle she was given).

I think that’s half the joy of teaching – it’s not just about imparting knowledge. Because, if it was just about imparting knowledge, I could send you all an email or video-record a lecture, stick it up on Blackboard and be done with it. I think, or at least hope, that lots of teaching is actually about inspiring, rather than imparting facts. You can read books and you can read papers and you can gain facts. If all I do as a lecturer is give you a bunch of facts, that’s pretty dry; it’s also not really that different from finding it out for yourself. To me, it’s much more about trying to inspire a love of the natural world and of biology. If that love, and an understanding of the importance of the natural world, is there then that hopefully pervades the thinking of people whatever walk of life they go into. Not just those who are going to be biologists, but those who become lawyers or business leaders or financiers. If the next generation of decision-makers have an understanding of the natural world and its importance, then we have a better chance of rescuing the planet before it’s too late.

You can do the research, but you need people to put it into practise. You can shout from the rooftops about the problems, but we need to convince big businesses and governments to make some fundamental changes. Convincing them is much easier if embedded in those companies and in those walks of life are people who have an inherent understanding and love of the natural world, because then you’re not beating against a closed door; you’ve got a starting point. So, I think a lot of that is what the teaching is about, rather than just delivering another set of facts. To be honest, it would be very dull if lecturing was all about just that too. It’s fun to be able to throw in current ideas, your own stories and to have more of a dialogue with students.

Do you think that education about the climate crisis and teaching that gives people a love of the natural world needs to be embedded in all courses, not just subjects like Biological Sciences?

Yes, I would think so. Ultimately, the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems, if not THE most pressing problem, for the human population. It’s such an enormous challenge, that we clearly aren’t going to solve it only with a small cohort of people doing research – we need people in all walks of life to have an understanding of how major this problem is, and if a solution is going to come, it isn’t going to be one thing that needs changing. It’s going to be a multitude of different things that are going to have to change. And that means all levels

from individuals right up to governments. And as I said, if that’s going to be the case, then you need people in all walks of life to have an understanding, and ideally a love of, the natural world. So that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everybody has to do a year of biology and global change. But, I think it is something that probably needs greater air-time, across subjects, rather than just being in biology or geography or environmental science.

Even within Biological Sciences, we’re looking to increase that level of training compared to even a decade or five years ago. We need to embed more of those ideas right from the start of our degree programmes and then all the way through rather than it just being the occasional course or it being something you hear about on the side. We’re constantly adapting degree programmes, as any department will do, but this is one really clear thing where we’re ramping up through all the years. However, I agree with you, that some of that thinking and training should be apparent more broadly than in just biological degrees.

Do you find that the Biological Sciences department is quite responsive to change and you’re able to adapt the curriculum to respond to these kinds of things quite well?

You can think about that at two levels. In terms of individuals within the department, then yes. Because all of us as biologists recognise these issues. I think there’s a general feeling that we need to be teaching more about, for example, the climate crisis. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but there needs to be more right from year one. And often that teaching and training should be mandatory; it’s as important as anything else at the moment. Therefore, everybody should get some basic training in that even if you then decide to specialise in other regards later on, which is absolutely fine. We are in lots of discussions at the moment about how we might embed that better and where in the degree programmes that might fall.

But, making any changes is, sadly, slightly more complicated than us thinking ‘Wouldn’t this be a good idea?’. It’s not that we’re necessarily having pushback from the University. It’s just a procedural thing that requires boring, long paperwork changes and sign-off, rather than anybody saying there’s fundamentally something wrong about wanting to change. It just can’t happen overnight; you have to go through those processes. However, it’s certainly something that is in progress at the moment.

Going back to what you mentioned earlier about talking about when things have gone wrong in experiments – do you think that’s something that needs to be talked about more at University? It’s not always going to be perfect, things are going to be difficult and you’re going to fail sometimes..

I definitely think so, and I think that’s important at different levels. I think it’s important for individuals to recognise, but also then in terms of the bigger picture about the fact that science isn’t perfect! I sometimes joke that one day, if I ever had the chance, I’d like to write a book in which for each chapter, the first page is just some Methods section from a published paper and the rest of the chapter is the story of how that came about. When you read the Methods section of a paper, everything sounds completely smooth. But I know from my research, the reality is all the things that went wrong, all the iterative changes that you had to go through to get yourself to a finalised project. Showcasing this to earlier career people is really important; it’s never the case that we had these plans, we went out, we implemented it, thanks very much. The reality is that what you see written is the endpoint of all sorts of failures and hardships and changes and iterations. I think that’s really important for people to know. And if giving examples of where we have had epic failures is useful, then I am all for giving those examples (even if they result from my own stupidity)! There’s actually a lovely hashtag that does the rounds about epic fieldwork failures.

Yeah, I heard about someone in the department who glued themselves to a crocodile

Yeah, I think she got stuck to a crocodile whilst trying to attach a tag! To me, that is part of the joys of science; part of the fieldwork journey is accepting it doesn’t go right all the time (in fact, most of the time). Half of your training really is about how to overcome that rather than thinking you can design something perfectly sitting at a desk, go out, get it right. That’s not how science operates. But that’s not the impression sometimes created by all these papers, that have these perfect Methods sections. Maybe we need to talk even more about that to make that clear.

When things are going wrong out in the field what is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated?

A love of science and of the natural world. These days, I get to do precious little fieldwork myself, now I’ve got kids and loads of commitments here. So, I sometimes think, what am I missing? And actually, some of what I miss is simply being out in the natural world. Sure, you’re spending a lot of your time in those situations focused on whatever species you happen to be studying, but there’s all this wonder going on around you. You can’t help but see and be part of it if you’re out twelve hours a day for six months. It’s also lovely because often the next big questions to tackle are inspired by watching your study species; you’re in the ecosystem and seeing things you can’t read about. Lots of the best scientific ideas come because, day in day out, you are with a study organism and you’re seeing something and then all of a sudden you start thinking ‘hang on a minute; that’s a bit weird’. And then you realise it’s happening more than you thought, because now you’re seeing it happen. You think ‘what the hell is that about?’ And that’s the next research question.

When things are going wrong, don’t get me wrong, you can get enormously frustrated. You just have to find a way through it. When I was working in southern Africa and spent all day chasing birds through the forest, I used to go for a run on the beach or take my dog out or go horse riding or go drink too many Castle lagers in a bar in the evening. Just trying to have some balance and remember that everything working all the time is never going to happen and you need to pick yourself up to go again!

I think the other thing that’s really apparent now is not just about failures in fieldwork, but you have to overcome bigger stuff and have that resilience. It’s this idea about ecological grief, the idea that we are changing the planet at such an unprecedented rate; it’s devastating to see. If you see bleached coral reefs and you are used to seeing them as these vibrant cities of colour – one of our PhD students evocatively says you find yourself crying into your mask

underwater. And you can’t help but be affected by that. Something we’ve started talking about and writing about more is what do you do about that. Because, if that anxiety and that grief overwhelms you, it’s very difficult to find solutions and think how to move forward. How do we restore those ecosystems if we’re paralysed by that grief?

I think there’s two things here. One is that environmental scientists don’t have much in place to help them through this. I think we’ve got lots we can learn from the medical profession and from the military, for example. In those walks of life, there is lots of grief, but they have much more in place to help members of those professions to overcome that grief and then keep going and move forward. I also think it would help if more and more people were to talk about ecological grief, so that people experiencing this didn’t feel like they can’t say anything because they’ll just be told ‘get a grip, get over it’. You shouldn’t have to be dispassionate as a scientist all the time. If you care about the natural world and you’re seeing it be damaged day in, day out, then it’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious about that or to feel grief. Even just the act of talking about it can help. And then it’s about trying to solutions? Those solutions don’t have to be 20 years in the future at a government level; we can start building solutions at a local scale. Start to make a difference and start to feel positive. And if so, maybe that itself helps with the grief and you get this positive feedback loop.

So as the final question – we’ve been asking the same question to all of the BoB lecturers this year. If you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol (not thinking too much about time and money) what would it be?

If there were genuinely no constraints, financial, time wise or anything, and if we ignore for a moment issues about carbon offsetting, I would take everybody out into the natural world more, and embed them in it for a bit. At the moment, the constraints in terms of university and school teaching mean you might do the occasional day trip or just possibly you do a week-long field course. But, I’d love to show people the joy of being out in the natural world and seeing what’s there, and also experience first-hand some of that devastation that we’re causing. Ideally, I’d also show them how we can make a difference. So, you can get that wonder, the devastation and the idea that we need to think about the solutions. Rather than just lecturing about the issues, telling stories and having them as slides, be able to put people into that experience themselves. That’s always going to be more powerful. Lots of our undergraduates or our postgraduates are lucky enough to have travelled, but lots haven’t. And so it would be a chance to open their eyes, not just through lecture slides, but by being somewhere, like diving on a coral reef or walking through a forest or out in the Kalahari Desert, whatever it is, that would be an amazing thing to be able to do.

News

In interview with… Lee Marshall

In Autumn 2019, Professor Lee Marshall from SPAIS was awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to organise mindfulness lessons for 1st year Sociology students. In this blog post, Lee answers questions about the project.

Why did you set up this project?

There were two reasons. The first is that, like a lot of academics, I am concerned about the levels of stress and anxiety that students today seem to experience. I know from my own experience that mindfulness can be an effective strategy for managing stress and I wanted to give new Sociology students the opportunity to learn some techniques that may help them in the future, even if they didn’t consider themselves ‘stressed’ at the time.

So this wasn’t just for students who were stressed?

No. In fact, I told the students that if they were suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety, or if they had experienced any kind of trauma in recent months, then this scheme may not be appropriate for them and I offered to help them find more appropriate forms of support available within the university. For this project, I emphasised mindfulness as a pre-emptive technique, a way of proactively looking after your mental health rather than responding to any particular crisis. You don’t just start going to the gym when you’re recovering from a broken leg. I wanted them to start thinking about mental health as something that could be positively managed.

What was the second reason?

The second reason is separate but connected. I have been involved in teaching sociology first years all of my career and I know that it can be very difficult for students to create friendship groups with others on their course. This isn’t a new issue – it was the same when I was a sociology undergraduate many years ago. The emphasis on independent study within sociology and other subjects like it means that students spend much less time together than, say, medics, and this can be a contributory factor to loneliness and anxiety. I hoped that by creating an extra-curricular activity that they would do with other Sociology students, it may help create a group identity which reduced any feelings of isolation.

How did you organise the project?

I used the money from the BILT grant to buy in a professional mindfulness company, Positivemeditation.com, who ran 6 sessions along with a short taster session for people to get a sense of what it might be like. These sessions ran on Thursday afternoons, and there were drinks and snacks afterwards to enable more of a social situation. Initially, I had intended to participate in the mindfulness sessions along with the students, but then I realised that having an old professor hanging around may put a dampener on any kind of group bonding! So, in the end I recruited some third-year sociology students to manage the sessions for me. I publicised the project via the first-year unit that I teach, which all sociology students have to take.

Did you get a lot of interest?

There was quite a high level of interest. When I emailed third years recruiting volunteers to the project, almost a third of students responded. Some of that would have just been people thinking about ‘employability’ opportunities, but a great many talked about what a good idea it was and how mindfulness had helped them deal with periods of stress and anxiety. After I publicised it to the first years, about a fifth of them – 30 or so – turned up to taster session. Following that session, 19 signed up to take the course.

How did it go?

Initially it went quite well. The first two sessions were very well attended, and the students told me that they were enjoying the sessions. But there was then a break because of reading week, and the strike action seemed to have an effect on students’ attendance. The later sessions had much worse attendance, between 4 and 8 students.

So do you think the project was a failure?

That’s hard to answer. Obviously, it didn’t do what I hoped it would do – there is not a blooming sociology community growing out of this project in the way I hoped. Nor have I managed to persuade many first years to proactively look after their mental health. But, at the same time, it is clear that the project was really helpful for those who stuck with it. The feedback I got at the end was very positive. One student wrote that “the mindfulness sessions were brilliant. They were run very well and supportively. I feel like I have new tools in my toolbox to handle being human.” That’s important, and I am happy that those students got something out of it. So, I don’t view the project as a failure, but it didn’t succeed in the way I wanted.

What lessons have you learned from the project?

The main one – which I knew from prior experience, if I’m honest – is that if you try to put on extra-curricular activities, you need an individual – normally a member of staff – to continually act as a cheerleader, motivating students and encouraging them to attend, otherwise momentum fades away quickly. This was one of the problems I was trying to address with the project, but I didn’t resolve it. When I made the decision to not take part in the actual lessons myself, I lost the position that might have enabled me to keep more people committed to the project. If I ran the project again, I would think hard about that decision.

Would you run the project again?

No, at least not as it was constructed this year. It required too much organisation, and the financial costs were too high, for the small number of students who benefitted from it, even though I’m happy for those individual people. I’m also not sure that one individual, or one individual project, can do much to change students’ orientation to a more proactive management of their mental health, even though I do think that is really important. It needs a more institution-wide approach, I think. At the same time, the initial responses I got from the third-year students especially indicate that there is potential interest in more mindfulness-style activity, perhaps at a subject or school level. It would be good if something could be developed that addressed that.

Humans of Bristol University, News

Best of Bristol: Michael Malay

A person holding a frisbee

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Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.

As the February storms raged across an already embattled Britain (weather-wise and politically), Michael and I took refuge in the Multifaith Chaplaincy to contemplate why hope might still be possible for us. After our cups of tea brewed, I congratulated Michael on his BOB award and we promptly entered what would prove to be a fruitful and therapeutic discussion around the relationship between his personal experiences and his teaching.

Michael, from what I have heard from fellow Liberal Artists and your award, your environmental humanities lectures for the “Ideas and Society” module are going down a treat. Do you recall what attracted you to thinking about the connection between the state of the Anthropocene and radical hope?

I can actually trace it back to a particular moment. I used to live up in the Peak District in Sheffield, this was right after the 2017 General Election when the Labour Party were close to winning. We were raking over the ashes of frustrated hope when a friend of mine suggested a book that helped him come to terms with the sense of despair and mourning that ensues after uninvited political events. I asked what it was called, he said it’s called “Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit.  

One of the claims that Solnit defends is that history always moves in non-linear ways. We have this presumption that action A will always lead to action B. But in actual fact, we can never fully comprehend where action A will lead, it can lead us to results so far away that it is simply impossible to fathom.

Rebecca Solnit tells a story of a woman who was part of an anti-nuclear lobby group who started protesting nuclear facilities before scientists found the link between living in close proximity to nuclear activity and deformities in children. This woman said she felt like a weirdo standing outside the White House alone protesting this niche cause. But the leading politician who introduced new regulations for nuclear energy was asked “what gave him the inspiration for devoting his life to this cause?” he replied by saying how he saw a woman protesting outside Washington DC protesting alone and this gave him the motivation to take up the cause with the benefits of access to diplomats.

With this in mind, I think the book reminds humans not to despair if we can’t immediately see a clear positive outcome from an undesired event. History does not work in this linear way. Instead, we ought to anticipate a manifold of different kinds of hope emerging from darkness.

I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to you personally?

I don’t think I had a conscious appreciation of nature as a young person, as I was totally immersed it as a child. I think most children are just immersed in it. It is an intuitive relationship before it is a critical apprehension.

I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. I didn’t really have much access to the natural world there. But when I was 10 my father moved to a very rural part of Australia and we lived on a canal in a small boat and you could take it out in the morning and see the Dolphins before starting your day, that was something I valued. To have the whole ocean ten minutes away from you was pretty special.

I recall you integrating trips out to the sea into your teaching? How was that experience for you and the students?

Oh yes. That trip to Severn Beach was part of a “Teach Out” during the industrial action last year. It cost as little as £1.50 for students to go and learn outside the the classroom, which meant I did not have to cross the picket line. I guess there was no plan to that trip because it was consciously about going out with no aim. Not going to bolster marks for the essays but go to see what the light was doing, what the ocean was doing. Once you give up the learning and teaching ambitions, you create a more informal space that can help students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with others. I think the main outcome of the trip was the chance to notice and appreciate the natural world.

This seems like a mindful experience, something of immense value in the context of low levels of wellbeing among students. In line with thinking about students as subjects, how might learning about hope affect students who are experiencing a volatile era of climate uncertainty and political unsettlement?

The moment you talk about hope, you carry a great burden of responsibility. This is because you are offering something everyone (including students) is looking for. We don’t usually understand hope to involve critical engagement but talking about hope without any critical engagement at all can be a dangerous undertaking. The idea of a critical hope, not a naive or unjustified hope, but a hope that places demands on you seemed more appropriate for my teaching. An unreflective kind of hope can confiscates you of your energies. The “I am hopeful, so I don’t need to take action” mindset.

The critical hope I want to teach is a hope that increases your obligations not diminishes them. I might hope for something to come to pass, for a change, but I actively participate in the change I am looking for, this is think requires more reflection.

What has been giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope?

Last week I had an interesting discussion with students. We were talking about T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland. This poem, written in 1922, seems remarkably relevant, in the context of Australian Wildfires and declarations of a climate emergency. The group dialogue around the meaning of the poem came to be seen as a despairing given our current climate. One of my students raised a perceptive thought in the discussion, he said “My generation is the first generation to become aware that an open future may not lie ahead.” We got to this point where we sense that the only predicable thing now is unpredictability and exposure to threat. It seems like these were the only things that we can now count on.

Regardless of the brute reality, we went back to the poem and at the very end of the poem after all this drought (spiritual and ecological) there is a moment of thunder in the mountains and a trickle of rain follow. It was quite a relief to get to this moment after the constant imagery of immense barrenness. We latched onto that moment of the poem and said if it can rain after all this barrenness. We said there is still a glimmer or a gleam of hope here; there still seems to be the possibility for a liveable future. The new future won’t resemble old ideals of the pastoral and organic harmonious relations between man and nature. But if it can still rain after the devastation of this poem, then there is a responsibility to work towards that glimmer. It is not an indifference to the catastrophe but a motivating phenomenon.

I think that is the notion of hope that Rebecca Solnit is working with when she reminds us that “In the word emergency is the word emerge“.

Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this volatility.

I can understand why activists and young people can get burnt out really quickly. We always come up against the formidable immovability of entrenched capitalist systems. There is this juxtaposition between the insights of possibility and the rigid status quo. The possibility of freedom seems in sight but always meets the perpetual threat of imprisonment and constraint.  Sometimes we have to just sit with this tension between the open-endedness we all desire and the immovability of the systems to recognize that amid all the uninvited outcome some form of hope lies ahead in the future despite this feeling so faraway and distant at times.

The bit of that story I enjoyed most was the fact that you are learning from students as well as students learning from you. What new teaching methods do you hope to bring to students in the future?

I have recently been taking a course with an herbalist called Nathan in Stroud. Before we even asked what can these plants do for us, Nathan asked me to take a willow branch and dance with it, or watch the flower underneath the light, we had to get to know the environment we were learning about in an embodied way. I have been trying to introduce strands of Nathan’s thinking into my teaching in a limited way, as there is only so much teachers can do within the confines of a seminar room. Trying to introduce the possibility of joy and of activity and of whole body concentration into the learning experience is something I want to do more of, especially considering the body is such an integral part of the knowing experience, we are not just “brain in vats” at University. We cannot develop by mere comprehension of abstract concepts without any actual experience to resemble some of this abstract learning.

For instance, in my Liberal Arts ‘Ideas and Society’ class, I recently took students to Royal Fort Gardens just to be present with nature for a little while, to sketch our surroundings, to write poetry about our time in nature. We were not merely reading about trees and their accompanying naturalistic concepts, but we were just standing under the canopy and using our own lived experience to tune into the value of nature. To offer a memorable experience that fosters new ways of learning.

I believe it should not seem “odd” to go to the park and just look at the tress. We are whole bodied people with diverse experiences and different ways of learning from tactile learning, to auditory, to visual I think we benefit from offering diverse ways of learning.

It does seem odd, especially because most of academia rejects mind-body dualism and turns towards thinking about perception from the standpoint of embodied existence. Like why are we still employing the same teaching methods such as large lecture halls, and chalk boards which have been within the University since its inception? I believe the teaching methods ought to evolve with the advances in knowledge about the human condition.

Yes, there seems to be a lag between what we intellectually know about the conditions for human condition and the way we teach. I would like to see more encouragement about taking up teaching methods based on the starting premise of human embodiment.

Who influenced you most whilst at University?

My most influential lecturer was in Brisbane when I took an optional English course whilst studying Economics. His name was Peter and he made the class fun and made students laugh. He had a way of getting students actively involved in the emotions of the book, I still think that was a valuable experience that still resonates with me.

 If there was something serious happening in the book, he had a way of making students feel it, to be with the suffering of the character: intellectually and personally.

I like that idea because I get the sense that this kind of teaching can create an opportunity to connect both between peers and between staff and students. What are your thoughts on “professional distancing” at University?

Nathan often says, “You can only work through difficult and traumatic experiences if you feel completely safe in the company of who you are sharing these emotions with.” I think there is something worthwhile in the difficult exploration of emotions in the classroom and investigating literature provides a space for that. I do think we are shying away from troubling emotions in the classroom and sometimes I think it might be productive to engage with these emotions. The intellectual and emotional do seem interwoven when it comes down to engaged learning.

On an individual case-by-case basis we not only want to be a tutor, we want to be a human who is “fully there” and “present” with students. But on a practical level, academics are still responsible for a large number of students. I guess what it really comes down to is having more staff to match the number of students who will yearn for fuller relationships.

I actually just signed up for the Alumni Network where we can talk about very human questions with students rather than negotiating essay marks and administrative concerns. The e-mails we receive the majority of the times tend to cover the latter, so the network offers a space for a fuller relationship with students. I hope the BOB lecture also provides an opportunity to connect with students in a more informal way.

Owen Barlow, Student Fellow

Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Keir Williams

Outside the Centre for Innovation, using top-quality modelling and photography skills from both of us

Keir and I met in a design studio in the Centre for Innovation. Throughout the interview, staff and students alike would come in to fetch or print things and everyone knew each other, giving the centre a real sense of community. This was particularly fitting as we went on to discuss how he teaches community and participatory methods, as well as the effect of dyslexia on his work and his unusual and colourful journey into lecturing.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you lecture on and what your teaching style is?

Here at the Centre, I teach a few different units with slightly esoteric names, ‘Being Human’, ‘Past, Present and Futures’ and Live Client Briefs. My official title is Lecturer in Design Thinking, but it’s closer to being a lecturer in Design Research. My teaching focuses on participatory methods of research and design. So how you get other people to become researchers and participate in the process that you’re creating or get them to determine the process themselves. In my wider work, I create spaces for people to participate in. That could be research, that can be sound system parties, it can be dance classes, it could be music events, it could be art projects, it just depends on the context, really. What I teach at the Centre is how we work with other people and how we work in groups to develop ventures in different ways. As part of this, I teach innovation. It’s hard to define innovation as it’s contextual and there are so many models out there. We teach our students how to develop an innovative approach to the world and what we mean by innovation. To be innovative you need to be able to map social contexts, situations, phenomena, in a way that allows us to model it, that allows us to disrupt it or to support it.

I teach project-based work. Our first-year citizen science project gets to go and work with groups of local people in nature reserves around Bristol to develop a participant lead science experiment. For their other project students have to create a venture that creates value for someone or create an intervention that brought people into social interaction in the public space. This enables them to engage with the city as a context for research and consider how we make value for people. Underlying my engaged teaching is quite a lot of social and design theory, that comes from a lot of different places relating to my background.

So, how does your background affect the way you teach?

I’m a bit of a weird fish. I’m dyslexic and didn’t do well in assessments at school. I got eight GCSEs, no A-Levels. I did an art foundation which meant I could get into university using a portfolio of my work. I did a fine art undergraduate degree, and then was a technician and building services staff at the fine art department I studied in. I also started my own business doing videos, and a reggae sound system that’s got the longest running Reggae night in Europe. We toured and do a lot of festivals and still do. I did a Masters in Fine Art which was paid for by the AHRC with living costs. When I finished I taught on the Masters for a couple of years part-time. At the time I lived in a warehouse in a rough bit of Birmingham, where we had a gallery, and did big art parties with giant papier-Mache animals props and costumes that turned into a night called DJ sexmachine and super best friends which we toured, which was like a really campy draggy drunken night that we used to do weird performances with.

DJ sexmachine and his super best friends

I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did my art foundation, which changed everything for me. I didn’t get support but it changed how I saw myself and how I work. Before my PhD, I was doing a lot of work as an artist for galleries, a lot of playwork, performance art and a lot of playwork with kids with special needs. Through the sound system and my playwork, I started to work with a group called Tourette Hero who develops creative projects that challenges societal norms of disability. Jess Thomm who runs Tourettes Hero has Tourette’s and she uses her experience of Tourettes to create work. We worked together on a bunch of projects including stuff at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and lots of community and play settings around London.

At the same time as doing any academic stuff, I am also still a practising artist. This year I had a show at We The Curious with our arts collective. As a collective, we’ve been going up to the Arctic north of Norway to do an art project in an old fishing village that has the first industrial fishing processing plant in the world. Our collective is made up of a team of six artists, we’ve been doing it for 4 years. The reason I mention this is that projects like this inform and structure my teaching. In this case, we developed a project based on this for my first year and post-graduate students. It allowed us to draw on staff from the museum and use We the Curious as a venue for our annual student conference. I’m not strictly one discipline. I’m not strictly a computer scientist, I’m not strictly an artist or a designer. But all of those things feed into my practices for innovation. My work is about being self-motivated, overly enthusiastic, curious, and finding ways to help other people to learn and play.

Side note: I highly encourage readers to visit Kier’s website if you want to see more of his work, which you can find here. It’s a bit of an experience.

My question is, how do you bring those skills into teaching; you’ve obviously done a really wide variety of things outside of academia.

For me, there are three components to my work: research, practice and teaching. They are dependant on each other. I can’t teach if I’m not doing current research. I can’t do research and make art if I’m not teaching. With the two major shows I’ve done in Bristol over the last two years they became projects for my first years and master’s students. Another example is the oral history project I did for the M Shed museum, to showcase people involved in the Bristol music scene over 70 years. I worked with a second year to create portraits for the vinyl copies of the interviews I recorded. This project allowed us to draw on the museum staff to teach and provide feedback throughout the student’s projects. The first project asks our students to use the recordings I created and present issues that arose from them for an audience outside of the museums typical demographic.

In terms of my actual teaching, I see it as a performance. That is I use the skills I learnt through contemporary dance, capoeira and performance art to engage and include all of my students in the projects I’m passionate about. I never had lectures or seminars or university and never taught in that way till I started lecturing outside of art and design. What I find interesting here at the university is that the ‘flat teaching’ we do is a new, innovative form of teaching. For me and this is how I‘ve always done it. I see my teaching approach as the same for young kids with special educational needs and masters students. I have an empathic approach that creates a space to learn that is created based on the lived experiences of my students. I am also academically rigorous. I can be quite pingy and I feel sometimes I come across as quite over-enthusiastic, and a bit ditzy. But actually, the skill is to be ‘ditzy’ and enthusiastic to gather all the information and get involved in the world and then refine that into something useful within the structures of academia or creative practice. Whether that’s a narrative, an exhibition or an academic paper.

Dance Tents at Shambala

As someone who’s neurodiverse and disabled, I struggled at school, even though I’m from a fairly privileged background, white middle-class academic parents, I really struggled. I had people who supported me and helped me get through when I didn’t think any of these systems would work for me and I feel like that’s now my responsibility to do that for other people. Uplifting other people, right? The first thing I do in my first lecture is say that I’m dyslexic and I’m really overenthusiastic and at times very silly and that’s what makes me, me. I do this at the beginning of every term and I bang on about it a lot. If I spell a word wrong when I’m writing on a board, then I tell them to just imagine a little red line underneath it because I don’t care. What it does, is it draws out people with disabilities to come talk to me if they want to, to make that kind of thing possible.

I think a lot of people when it comes to something like Bristol university is scary, right? If you’re coming from a non-public school background or, you know, you don’t necessarily have a privilege that some students do. It’s why I wear casual clothes I wear because it gives that sense of not being “You have to be proper now because you’re in university” right? And not getting rid of that curiosity and joy and experience that drives students to come to uni. I’ve had students with working-class backgrounds say, “I feel so unconfident, everyone else knows what they’re doing, they know how to be and how to dress”. I think it’s really important to create a space where they don’t, they can feel that their experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.


One of the things I’m looking at is elements of Bristol University engaging with the wider community, which on your website, you do quite a lot of. Is that something that you feel like affects your students in a positive or negative way?

Yeah, so most of the stuff we do is based around engagement in communities, and also problematizing the idea of communities right, so ‘what is a community?’, ‘who makes a community?’. I think I lead by example and this comes back to the importance of having a practice while teaching. The work within Norway was working with a refugee centre that’s up there, here we worked with communities in Avon mouth, for the music project we worked with old punks, trip-hop stars and local residence. There are issues that have to be addressed so that any ‘community based’ work is conducted without harming the students or participants. I’ve just done a project for our PGT students with Universities theatre collection. The issue was none of our students had ever done work relating to participatory arts, theatre or live art. They’ve never done events and they’ve never done collections because our masters are drawn from a huge range of different countries and disciplines. The problem of doing participatory, engaged work is if I’d sent out students straight away to talk to communities and experts based on the collection, they could have made some really serious mistakes. There’s that adage of ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’. I kind of think it needs to be the opposite because you can’t do that in situations with community groups where you can hurt people through unintended consequences of the way we work as researchers.

Fundamentally if you want to work with a group of people you want to find out about them, you want to see how they do things and you potentially want to help them to make change. You can’t just chuck a lot of students out there. So, what we have to do is create some sort of a structure for them to do it. What we end up doing, is creating structures that allow them to do some participation and work with some communities and also think about their own communities. For me it’s a craft as much as it is a discipline in that you have to do it, you will never be perfect and you have to adapt it every time you do it. There are certain core skills you need in terms of personality and talking to people but there’s also a set amount of theory you need to understand in terms of power relationships, but also realising your limitations, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly. To get students to do that’s incredibly tough, I think but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s what we try to do over the four-year course.


Other than the specific community-based skills that they gain, do you see the work they do affecting other parts of their learning?

Oh yeah. I think there should be more recognition that the university is part of the community, that it’s within the same social structures. This is the danger with some of this stuff sometimes, that you end up with this kind of deficiency model of going to work with community groups. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think a lot of our students have that idea that you’re going to go to somebody to fix them. Whether that’s Barton Hill or northern Nigeria, it feels like you know, we’re going to help these people as opposed to this notion of there’s an exchange going on. The deficiency model says you have a problem only we can fix. What we promote is going to work with people you say ‘we are here, we have certain skills and experience that you don’t, you have skills and experiences we don’t, let’s create something together’.

In their professional lives, students are not going to just do what they’ve learnt in their discipline. As a physicist, you are part of a community of other physicists and scientists, you have funders, and social and cultural issues to deal with. You have to talk to you have to communicate your ideas, you have to work in a lab or office, you have to, you know to negotiate with the world. There’s all this stuff that still exists if you’re a physicist or an actor. The work you need to do with others is not separate from the discipline.

The benefit for our students in working with ‘communities’ outside of the university is that it gives them the skills to practically go and talk to people and do things that aren’t just in their comfort zone within the university. And it offers them a huge body of evidence, skills, data, tools, methods, experiences, to build their own practice from. Its more than our students feeling good about and doing socially engaged work with people. The work they do with people outside of the university becomes an exchange, and it should be an exchange.

I have one more question that we’re asking all of the BoB lecturers this year: What do you feel the most positive change to learning and teaching that we can make at University?

Make it free. Make the whole thing free and don’t base it solely on UCAS entry.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News

Neurodiversity and Digital Accessibility

Last week we hosted the third of our Digital Accessibility events, this time with Dafydd Henke-Reed, Senior Accessibility Consultant with AbilityNet. Dafydd has been diagnosed with Autism and Dyslexia and spoke about his personal experiences of Neurodiversity.

Dafydd speaking at the event.

Dafydd was engaging and open about his experiences growing up, going to University and the technology he uses day to day. From the very start he highlighted that Autism is a spectrum and that we were hearing what Neurodiversity means to him.

From Cognitive Brick Walls to being horrified when friendly lecturers asked him to move forward from the back row of a lecture theatre, we heard about the barriers and obstacles he had faced.

What stood out for me…

“Dyslexia could be solved with tools; Autism was about learning how to thrive in a seemingly hostile culture.”

Dafydd had refused support related to Autism at University. Tactics such as large yellow “appropriate allowance when marking” stickers felt like a brand. This is pertinent; many students may not disclose their “disabilities” due to previous experience or because they find allowances intrusive or counterproductive. In fact, with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder may not consider it a disability in the first case, it’s just the way they are. If we are to be truly inclusive, then we need to design our learning experience to remove barriers and everyone benefits.

“Come over for group study and we’ll get beers and pizza in? Hell no!”

Dafydd spoke about how he found groups and teamwork challenging. He’ll use digital tools like Slack or instant messaging to communicate rather than walking to a colleague’s desk. He also praised electronic tickets (“I won’t lose them”)

He showed us the Speech to Text (STT) and Text to Speech (TTS) systems he uses every day along with the spelling correction functionality.

Do’s and don’ts

The excellent UK Gov “Do’s and Don’ts” guides were given a name check again, this time for Dyslexia and Autism. If you haven’t seen them, check out these lovely visual guide posters. I think they should be printed out in every office!

Designing for users on the autistic spectrum. Do use simple colours; write in plain language; use simple sentences and bullets; make buttons descriptive; build simple and consistent layouts. Don't use bright contrasting colours; use figures of speech and idioms; create a wall of text; make buttons vague and unpredictable; build complex and cluttered layouts. Designing for users with dyslexia. Do use images and diagrams to support text; align text to the left and keep in a consistent layout; consider producing materials in other formats (for example audio or video); keep content short, clear and simple; let users change the contrast between background and text. Don't use large blocks of heavy text; underline words, use italics or write in capitals; force users to remember things from previous pages - give reminders and prompts; reply on accurate spelling - use autocorrect or provide suggestions; put too much information in one place.

Martin Nutbeem

News

Bristol University and the Climate Crisis: Reflection on The Role of Higher Education Teaching and Public Engagement in Addressing the Climate Emergency

I am a student with considerable climate anxiety. I worry constantly about how my own actions could possibly lead to the demise of human society and am often left apoplectic with rage at the seemingly blasé attitude of governments around the world, and occasionally that includes my own university. Although it is a significant accomplishment that Bristol was the first university to declare a climate emergency, I often look around at the computers that won’t turn off or the enormous amount of plastic and paper wastage at Freshers Fair and think, is this enough? How could the university be doing more? 

Although this conference did not solve the climate crisis, it was a great relief to see a variety of staff from an array of areas expressing their concerns and thinking of possible solutions. Not to mention, the guest speakers from universities in South Africa offered an insight that we should be considering significantly more when talking about the climate crisis: we are not the ones that are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster. Our university does not have droughts or 4 hours on then 4 hours off of power. You thought the strikes were bad? Imagine only being able to use the internet half of the day. Professor Coleen Vogel illustrated this beautifully and although her talk did not soothe the anxiety, it did contribute to the sense of urgency that characterised the day and brought a universality to the crisis.  This conference demonstrated to me that the university not only has to mitigate these consequences for itself but has a responsibility to inform students about how their actions impact people across the world. 

One of my favourite speakers of the day (other than one professor who sang and gave us a deeply needed wake up 3 hours into the conference) was Professor Keri Facer, who spoke about ‘living on a lively planet’. What really struck me about her talk was that it went beyond the doom and gloom approach to climate change, lecturing on how we need to reexamine our relationship with the planet and each other. For the first time (to me) it presented climate change as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than a signifier of the apocalypse. I often feel that climate change can be disempowering, particularly for young people, as it undeniably presents some giant obstacles. This outlook, however, is less than useful as it means that every step in the right direction feels like dropping a stone into a void. Keri’s lecture demonstrated a different approach and climate change finally felt like something that could be a learning process for the human race. 

The other speakers were absolutely fantastic, open and urgent but also presenting options for how to move higher education forward. It was incredible to have staff from such a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that conversations were extremely interdisciplinary and each talk brought about a wide variety of responses. The talks themselves also included an ‘arts-based approach’, including creating a transformative engagement toolkit to building lasting partnerships with civil society. Hearing this side of the argument was refreshing, as the science-heavy focus has often felt like it leaves fifty per cent of the population in the dust, not to mention that the inclusion of community engagement already had me absolutely invested. 

However, although I enjoyed the day and was grateful to be part of the conversation I couldn’t help but think: Is this how we treat an emergency that is causing half of Australia to catch fire and kill over a billion animals? That’s caused three cyclones in Fiji in the past two weeks alone? This event demonstrated to me that the university needs to take its role as a world leader seriously but also that there are impassioned academics who are trying to take that role. One of the professors said that climate change presented an opportunity for academics to use the social capital we have been afforded and to use it to create change. We have the opportunity to truly lead the charge in the fight against climate change and for that, we need drastic action. 

News, Student Voice

Bristol students to host wellbeing conference

University of Bristol students have come together to host a free wellbeing conference open to students, staff and members of the public.

The conference, which is themed ‘Looking to the Future’, is being held on University Mental Health Day and will feature a mix of discussions, workshops and creative exhibitions.

The organisers hope that the event will encourage an open dialogue between attendees about wellbeing in the university and wider community.

The Bristol Wellbeing Conference is a collaborative event which is being hosted by the Bristol SU Wellbeing and Education Networks, and the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.

The keynote speaker will be Dr Dominique Thompson, an award winning GP, young people’s mental health expert, TEDx speaker, author and educator. Having previously been the Director of Service at the University of Bristol Students’ Health Service, Dominique has now launched her own student health and wellbeing consultancy to assist organisations in improving their student support offer.

Ellie Leopold, Chair of the Wellbeing Network and one of the event organisers, said:

“We wanted to set up the conference as a way of celebrating the progress that has been made with wellbeing at the university, but also recognise the changes that still need to happen.

It’s really exciting that this is a completely student-led conference and we hope that lots of people come and engage with this important issue.

I’m particularly looking forward to the morning panel discussion on the student mental health and wellbeing survey. Bristol is one of the few UK universities to assess and report on student mental health and I think that’s something to be celebrated. To realise the potential of the survey though, we need much greater student engagement and the Bristol Wellbeing Conference is the perfect platform from which to kickstart the future of wellbeing at our university!”

The conference will also feature a panel to look at the Future of Wellbeing in the Curriculum, reflection on the University of Bristol Mental Health and Wellbeing Student Survey results and a series of workshops and panels.

The conference will take place on Thursday 5 March and tickets can be booked online.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Rose Murray

Dr Rose Murray is an Associate Director of Learning and Teaching and a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences. We sat down in Rose’s office in the Life Sciences Building, the home of all the school’s teaching focussed academics, to chat about her journey through Bristol and her love for her job and the city.

What’s your journey been like in higher education and in Bristol so far?

I did biology as an undergraduate student, I actually did it in Bristol, so I’ve never left Bristol. It’s a tribute to how much I like the place! 

In my third year I decided I wanted to do a PhD. So I applied for lots of different PhDs, and got some rejections at first. I got about three rejections before I got any acceptances – it’s important to remember it’s not always the first one that you’ve set your heart on. But in the end a really good opportunity came up in the building, working on plant viruses.

Then, as I was coming towards the end of my PhD, there were seven members of staff going on sabbatical at once. That was proving really difficult because, oh my god, you’ve got seven members of staff not teaching, how on earth are we going to deliver all that teaching? So they created three job posts for teaching associates. I applied for one of those and got it. That was initially only a 10 month contract and then it extended here and there, and gradually, the job became a real position within the department. Rather than seeing it as a kind of temporary stopgap, it was actually ‘Oh, this can work really well. Why don’t we build this into the structure of our school?’.

A few years later, my current position came up – they wanted someone a bit more senior to lead the pathway three team which is the teaching focussed lecturers. So I applied for that and got it. Initially that they’d offered the job to someone else much more senior who had 10 years experience at the time. I was in my late 20s so really didn’t feel like I had any experience. Pretty terrifying. And then the other person didn’t accept. So it was like ‘oh gosh, I’ve got the job. That’s really scary’. But I grew up and my confidence grew. I knew I was always going to enjoy it, but I was able to take ownership of the job. 

Now we’ve got a team of 10 of us who sit in our office (9 Biological Sciences, 1 Earth Sciences). Our mission is to teach, but also to help promote teaching excellence within the school. A number of us sit on the Teaching Committee, where our job is to drive innovation, which I think we’ve done through a number of different initiatives over the last few years. We try to have that headspace where we are thinking about how we can improve what we do, give the students a better student experience and learning experience, and be more inclusive. All of these different things that, to be perfectly honest, a pathway one member of staff who does teaching and research really just doesn’t have the time to even think about. I don’t know how they do their job! Managing a research group; thinking about the next grant; teaching; doing all the school admin jobs, it’s really, really tough.

Do you think it’s really important that the department and the University put more in place to support pathway three?

Yeah, absolutely. Without a doubt, and I think it’s going to be done right. 

We conduct our own pedagogic research and go to all the teaching and learning conferences so we engage in that network, and speaking to peers who are in the same position as us, we’ve seen it can be done wrong. You can be hired in and seen as a sort of, not a real academic. That can be how a lot of traditional academics see us, which can be quite hard. And I think I’m guilty of feeling a bit defensive about that. Even though our department is very supportive. Also in other institutes, pathway three staff are in a different building.

So there’s a physical divide?

Literally yeah. A really nice thing about us moving into this office is that it’s in the middle of the building, so it’s in the heart. We do have that integration. And we’re trying to become more integrated into the workings of the school and also share good practice. 

I think it’s essential if we’re ever going to keep up with our competitors. We are a Russell Group University, we’re really strong with our research, and we’ve got a really good reputation. But many of our competitors who are might not be near us in the traditional standings because they aren’t a research strong University can be a lot more focused and engaged in their pedagogy. The majority of their staff will be like us, in that their main job is teaching and thinking about teaching.  

We are a top research university and our teaching is research-led – there are plenty of arguments for saying that, even if our teaching wasn’t very good, that being taught by top researchers is a good thing because it filters through to the teaching, and when you do your practical projects, you do it a researcher’s lab, for example. But I think the best approach is to have this mixture where research feeds into teaching and we’re working together so that we’re all-round excellent, not just in teaching.

What would you say research-led teaching means to you?

I actually did a workshop on this, there’s like four different meanings! What some people see it as is teaching by researchers, which is one way of looking at it. I think a more important way of looking at it is research-informed teaching. So you are teaching the research that is happening. You are teaching students to be researchers. Research-informed teaching is not only informed by the subject, but also by pedagogic research. Those come together. At our third year, for example, our units are very much research-led or research-inspired, because we don’t teach on subjects that we’re not experts in. Whereas first year you might be teaching stuff you’re not an expert in because your expertise is too niche. Although, I don’t think anyone’s ever really an expert until they’ve had a lifetime of experience in a given field!

It’s great when you see a lecturer clearly passionate about what they’re teaching about, and I guess that’s because they’re researching it.

In your interview for the Bristol Teaching Awards a few years ago, you made a really great point about how you can use your passion for a subject to in to persuade people that parts of biology they might not think are interesting, are in fact, really interesting. Do you find it challenging teaching subjects that students might already have preconceptions about?

It can be. We have a general first year where you learn everything from microbes to humans, the whole diversity of life. It can be a bit frustrating for zoology students that don’t want to learn about plants. It’s a challenge, but it’s definitely more fun because you can get your passion across. Why was I drawn to working in plants? Things like food security and the global, grand challenges we’re facing. That’s what I try to communicate.

You’re always going to get people that are, even after all of that, still not interested and that’s fine. That’s just part of life. You know, some subjects are interesting to some people. But what is quite nice is that you see in the feedback that some people really enjoyed it. Which makes it worthwhile.

It can be challenging, but that’s more of a motivator for me than a deterrent, I think. It’s much more gratifying to convert people than to just be preaching to the converted.

In the Molecular Genetics module you taught on last year, I really enjoyed that you made your lectures exciting and tried to mix it up with breaks and quizzes. Is that something you enjoy doing too?

I try! Molecular genetics was quite a hard one actually because it’s quite content heavy. It’s much easier for the first year but even in third year I try to do it, because it’s good practice that I’ve learned about. I’m sure you’ve heard that the attention span of your typical student is about 20 minutes, so it’s hard work sitting through an hour’s worth of content. You can’t expect someone to take it all in.

Also, no-one wants to be teaching to a room full of people who are quite clearly drifting off, who won’t be able to be engaged and interested. So trying to break it up with quizzes or silly things can sometimes just help to give the brain a rest. Trying to do things interactively is also really fun. It can give a different feel to the lecture and it wakes you up as a participant because you’re doing something, you’re not just listening passively.

Lecture breaks came up in student staff liaison committee as a positive thing from the students, so it’s something that we’ve tried to encourage the whole school to do. But some lecturers will feel more confident to do it than others. It’s always harder to try new things as you get more experienced. Especially when it’s out of your comfort zone. It’s part of our mission to try to assist with that, not shoehorn people into a position that they’re not going to feel comfortable with.

We’re also moving towards more flipped learning as well – having videos or reading to do beforehand, and then in the session, it’s a lot more interactive. They are generally much better for learning – you obtain that higher order learning through problem solving. I think lectures have a place and they are great ways to deliver a lot of content. But we’ve got a diverse student population, which is great, and that usually encompasses a lot of different learning styles. To be more inclusive, not only for different learning styles, but different backgrounds and different groups of people, you’ve got to diversify your teaching style. And it’s much more fun. It’s fun to try something new and do something a bit different and to interact with students. You can do more to help. If all we need from lecturers is to stand at the front and talk, why don’t we just record everybody and we can play that every year? What’s our role? We need to carve out a purpose and make it a meaningful and worthwhile experience to come to university.

I suppose you’re probably used to it now, but the thought of it would terrify most students, do you find it quite nerve wracking standing up to give a lecture to 250 people?

When my supervisor said a lecturing opportunity was coming up, in my head I was like ‘No way, I don’t want to stand and lecture people, that’s terrifying’. But there was a side of me that realised this was a valuable opportunity and would be a really good thing to do. And that first lecture was mortifying. I spoke a million miles an hour and I finished it in 35 minutes. It got to half past and I thought ‘oh no, I’m nearly at the end’.

It’s not so much of a problem now but it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying! But it’s a great skill to feel comfortable with, public speaking is so useful. And I do still get nervous, but so much less than I ever was as a student, back then it was the most terrifying thing to do!

We had to do presentations for our practical project this week and I was so nervous. Did you have project students this year?

I did, myself and Bex Pike had students working on pedagogy-based projects. For example, some of our students were looking at how education about climate change can change the outlook of school students. Things like giving a practical solution to climate change. That was a really fun lesson! We went and planted loads of trees and they evaluated whether the students had a more positive outlook on climate issues. They wanted to see if they could inspire hope, although it was hard to pin that down exactly. But we saw a much more positive outlook, which was obviously a really good thing, especially when eco-anxiety is so prevalent. It’s been really fun to branch out and try something different. It’s great for the students if they do want to go into teaching which is a massive destination for many of our graduates. It seems right to offer something like that.

Students seem to love the Practical Projects and the Field Courses we do in Biological Sciences, there’s always really positive feedback, particularly for the field courses. How is that as a teaching experience for you?

It’s a great thing that we offer. Thankfully, it’s recognised at our school level that it’s a really valuable part of our degree. We hope that we never, never get rid of it. Even though it’s a huge investment in terms of staff time, and money. I think at any one time, there could be as many as like 17 different courses choose from. Obviously, compared to just delivering all of that teaching to one group, it costs a lot more. But all of the staff that do it love it. You actually get to know your students and you’re much more involved, doing far more practical activity. Students get to know us as people not just lecturers at the front of the lecture theatre.

I know from personal experience having gone through it myself that it [attending field courses] was the turning point in our year when everyone started to get to know each other and suddenly this network comes together.

That’s why as part of overhauling first year, we’re bringing in a field trip in week three for the entire cohort. We want there to be a stronger community for our students. It’s better for everybody that it exists. It’s better for students because you have more people to talk to. The more comfortable you feel with the other people the more likely it is that you’re going to share a wellbeing issue and support each other. There’s a lot of studies that say that the greater the community, the better learning experience.

It’s really fantastic that you’re integrating community into the curriculum.

So as a final question – you’ve been in Bristol all the way through your university career, what is it about the city or the university that you love?

I’m a small town girl, I’m from the West Country. That’s not to say I didn’t look at going to lots of different places. But then when I came to Bristol I just settled in really well. There’s these big anxieties before you come to Uni, and I’d already gone through these, so I thought why would I want to have to do all that over again?

I love it here, I love the architecture and the way the city looks. I love that there’s so much to do here but it’s a small enough that you can pretty much walk everywhere. I like that it’s a green capital which feels really in tune with a lot of work that we do. And the people are great.

Why not Bristol? I’ve got my dream job. I feel incredibly lucky every day to come to work. Honestly, I look forward to it. Well, maybe not every day! But whenever anyone asks what I do I feel so proud to say what I do as part of this institute. I can legitimately say I absolutely love what I do. I would never want to do anything else. I can’t think of a job that I would enjoy more, even though that’s a bit corny!

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow, February 2019