BILT Student Fellow Jonny Barnes, interviews Alexia Kirov (MA Medieval Studies) about her experiences of research-based assessments.
00:00:00 Jonny Barnes
Hello and welcome to the BILT broadcast.
Today I’m speaking to Alexia Kirov, who won one of the commendations for her presentation at the recent festival of undergraduate research. Alexia studies an MA in medieval studies and did her bachelors at Bristol, Hello Alexia.
00:00:19 Alexia Kirov
Hello Johnny, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
00:00:24 Jonny Barnes
So today we’re going to talk about research rich assessment and research in the curriculum. So my first question to you is, when did you realize that research was sort of part of your degree?
00:00:38 Alexia Kirov
That’s a really interesting question because I know, you know when you come from, you know, I came straight from school to university having done, you know, just finish my A levels where the questions are very kind of rigid, you have to say, this, this and this, in order to get into this band of assessment and you know you could write an amazing answer, but if it doesn’t include A04 and A03 then it’s you know, it’s not going to get the top marks. Whereas when you come to university, obviously there is a mark scheme as well, but it’s a, It’s a lot more open to kind of your interpretation of the question and things like that.
00:01:13 Alexia Kirov
And in terms of.
00:01:13 Jonny Barnes
00:01:15 Alexia Kirov
When I realized that you know research was part of it, but we were always given the freedom to come up with our own essay titles if we wanted to, or to adapt the existing ones to encompass like a different primary text or text than those that we had studied in the seminars. I should probably mention that my undergraduate degree was in English, so obviously you know we’re reading a lot of books. You know we had a set of, kind of set of set texts that we would you know study for each module every term. But if you wanted to read something, say if it was, I don’t know, it’s Victorian fiction, you know, if you wanted to do your essay on a different author from that period or a different Charles Dickens novel, for example, you know you had that option, but you know I didn’t kind of go off-piste, you know, from the beginning of first year. Of course, you know when you’re starting out at university level, it’s probably safer to stick with the primary text that you’ve studied in class, you know, and I think you’ll probably feel more secure in doing that, it’s a big enough change, you know, getting used to writing at university level without kind of having to come up with your entire kind of own idea of what you should write on an as well. But, right from the beginning of TB1 in first year what was really emphasized to us was that we should at least go beyond the reading list in our secondary reading, you know when we’re looking at journal articles and things that if you wanted to get, you know a good mark, you have to kind of do your own research in that way. So in a sense you know, right from the beginning, you know research was kind of integral and I think it was then that I realized that it’s this sort of through the exploration and the kind of journey of looking at different secondary sources is where you kind of can solidify and expand your own ideas, because it’s like you know, what do you agree with? What do you disagree with? And you know most importantly, are there any gaps that haven’t been discussed yet and can you kind of come in on that part? And I really, you know, always enjoyed that exploration and I think one of the most, the best things about that is when you start out looking for one thing and then that leads you to sort of 10 other things and like different avenues to explore. I think that’s the kind of most enjoyable part of the research for me, and that, you know, has always been a part of it because we’ve always been encouraged to do that.
00:03:40 Jonny Barnes
Yeah, absolutely. When I was doing my bachelors it’s all you keep on finding new things that you really want to talk about when you’re like, oh, this 4000 words just isn’t enough.
00:03:50 Alexia Kirov
00:03:51 Jonny Barnes
00:03:53 Jonny Barnes
Sometimes you feel like you could write a doctorate on so many things.
00:03:56 Alexia Kirov
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think you know that thing 4000 words, you know when you’re, again, you know in first year I think our longest essay in first year was maybe 2500 even that seems like a lot when you’ve got to do all the research, and I suppose it is if you’ve never done anything like. And I, I think you know, having to you know when we got into second year 3000 words and then eventually 10,000 words, which was my dissertation and was what the paper I gave at the festival was based on, you know, 10,000 words seems like just so so much beyond anything you’ve ever done and that can be kind of, you know, can make you quite nervous, you know, how am I ever going to finish this? How am I going to, you know, find enough to say that’s going to kind of all, be you know, good enough? kind of thing. But then when you’re researching, as you said, you know, you kind of realize you could go on forever. There is kind of no end point and you know it just keeps evolving and evolving. And then I suppose that can make you quite nervous too. You know, like oh, when am I going to stop? Am I going, if I stop will I have kind of missed out actually the kind of gem that is, you know, five papers away and I’ve stopped here and I’ve just missed out on the kind of best thing that would make it all come together. So I suppose you know that’s that’s one of the things that you have to learn to sort of deal with, and I’m I’m still learning to deal with in my masters now, but, I think there was one particular assignment actually that wasn’t my dissertation that did help with that kind of learning you know when to keep going with the research and also when to stop and I think it was very helpful actually. And you know if we’re talking about kind of research rich assessment, I think this was a really good example of that.
00:05:43 Jonny Barnes
Tell us more.
00:05:44 Alexia Kirov
So it was, one assignment for Victorian fiction I did in 3rd year and we had to do a study of a primary source and I think we were pretty strongly encouraged not to pick a text or like a literary quote, unquote ‘text’. So we were meant to be looking at these online archives and finding things like from newspapers or magazines and things like that.
00:06:08 Jonny Barnes
00:06:09 Alexia Kirov
So I ended up looking at so many different things you know, cartoons kind of about railways which are obviously being introduced at the time and things like that and our lecturer gave us, you know, I think there’s been some really important advice, I always kind of think back on, you know, don’t be afraid to go down lots of rabbit holes because it’s what you need to do. You know, if you’re doing research, you know you’re not wasting time if you come across, you know, 10 things that aren’t useful. You know if, if you know you’re kind of going on the right path to finding what you need to find, you know they’re just steps in the kind of journey to getting you where you need to be. You know, obviously there comes a time where you do have to rein it in and write a few thousand words and get it done. But yeah, I think you know just, having the confidence to kind of keep going and you know, looking for what you need to find is very important.
00:07:03 Jonny Barnes
Yeah, absolutely. So do you think that this assignment helped you for your dis? Or did it make you worried that because you had this extra bit of research, what were your thoughts about it? Sort of at the time and in hindsight. Like how did you feel?
00:07:17 Alexia Kirov
Yeah, so I think we did this in TB2 and you know my dissertation was all year so it was. It came kind of in the in the second part of that and I suppose at the time we were kind of happy almost for the break, you know, at least we had to you know we didn’t have to read another massive novel.
00:07:36 Jonny Barnes
00:07:36 Alexia Kirov
It was, and I think they designed it for that. You know, they know, the lectures know that the workload is kind of intense at that point, so they gave us something where we had to kind of develop the research skills that we’d need for the dissertation, but, kind of not take up so much time where we’d have to read this massive novel, and then also kind of find loads of secondary reading. So I think it was, you know, immediately helpful, in that you know it was almost a nice break from the kind of very intense you know days in the library, reading loads of things, because we’re finding loads of kind of fun, different sources, but I think you know in hindsight, it was a very useful exercise to me in terms of you know, I think just learning to both, you know, be confident in the kind of exploration stage you know, not worrying that all my deadlines coming up you know, in a week and I’m still, you know, trying to find you know, what’s going to be the kind of best source my essay, but at the same time also being selective.
00:08:40 Jonny Barnes
Mmm yeah, definitely. And how do you think that your, so you mentioned that your, what you presented at the research festival was your dissertation. So how did it feel for you taking away something that was ultimately sort something you did for your degree and making it sort of extracurricular? So like taking out something that you have to do and doing something by choice, how did you find that?
00:09:05 Alexia Kirov
That was really, really lovely actually, because, you know it wasn’t up until right at the end of second year, when I was picking my dissertation that I suddenly changed to doing old English because I was going to do it on contemporary poetry because, not surprisingly, I hadn’t done too much old English, you know, before I came to university it was, at the end of second year that we did, or you know, the second term of second year that we started it. So it wasn’t, you know, always my plan to do old English, but you know, exploring it during my dissertation is what led me to do my masters now in medieval studies.
00:09:42 Jonny Barnes
00:09:44 Alexia Kirov
Because, you know, I think, it can seem a bit of a niche subject, you know. Sometimes you’d tell people and their like ‘oh that, that’s interesting, like how did you get into that?’. So yeah it was, it was through doing my dissertation really that I that I got into kind of where I am now doing medieval studies. So being able to carry this element of my dissertation on from third year to where I am now has been quite helpful, given that it has been quite integral to you know, the degree I’m currently studying. But yeah, just to be able to kind of give it a life beyond, you know the submission point on Blackboard because you spend so much time on it. And you know having it be part of kind of something bigger and you know looking at everyone else’s papers which were you know, very different, you know all on such interesting, diverse topics. Was really nice because you kind of feel like, especially this year when so much is online, it kind of felt more like you’re at a like student research community, almost which was which was a really really good thing.
00:10:50 Jonny Barnes
00:10:53 Alexia Kirov
And yeah, it was also nice to sort of rethink certain parts of it because, you know, a year on or almost a year on, you know, hopefully, if I’ve done a bit more of this degree, you know you mature a bit as I thinker, so rethinking a couple of elements and also kind of, or editing it down again because you know you can’t fit 10,000 words into like a 7 minute paper. As much as I tried to! And also kind of making it accessible to people that haven’t, you know, studied the subject before and I think that was something else that was quite nice about it. You know, hearing everyone else’s papers that had been kind of, you know, obviously tailored so that everyone could kind of understand them and getting insights into all of these different subjects.
00:11:40 Jonny Barnes
00:11:41 Alexia Kirov
So yeah, just thinking about your research in a slightly different way, you know, how can I make this, you know, thousands of years old medical charm interesting to people that you know, do complete different subjects? And I think that was quite a rewarding experience.
00:11:57 Jonny Barnes
Yeah, absolutely. I loved that what you mentioned earlier, the phrase you used was, you brought your research to life. So the thing that I love about research within the curriculum is that there is the opportunity to use it further on. We’re not just writing an essay and having it sit, I mean, we don’t even have physical hand in anymore! But it will sit on a server somewhere at the university until, until it’s one day deleted. But what I love about research that you can use in the future is that you’ve presented and that will forever be something, and you’ve engaged more students in the topic. And I just really love how that can have a much more lasting impact than, even the dissertations which you walk past in the library and look at all the students, that they sort of have had a lasting impact.
00:12:58 Alexia Kirov
Yeah, definitely and I’m actually giving a paper at the University of Kent Post Graduate Conference now. Again, based on my dissertation, I mean this is a 20 minute paper, so it’s a bit longer than the one that I’ve that I gave here. And you know, it’s not, it’s not exactly the same thing. It’s kind of taking another aspect like one of the first chapter of my dissertation rather than this one, which was the last. But again, because you know, it’s a year down the line tweaking it a bit, kind of rethinking certain ideas, and I think you know what was really nice about having this experience, you know, I handed in the abstract for this I think maybe two days after I did the festival, you know, I didn’t know I was going to get a prize or anything like that you know, I just really enjoyed the experience and I thought, well I may as well try and do something else like that, you know, give it a go and you know, it got accepted, which I’m quite excited about, but I don’t think I would necessarily have had the confidence to do that if I hadn’t, you know, had that experience. So yeah, I’m really grateful for having had the opportunity to, you know, start my paper giving career if you like, in such kind of a nice and supportive environment, you know there wasn’t loads of pressure and it was just, you know, a really good opportunity.
00:14:22 Jonny Barnes
Lovely, so where do you think that you’re going to take your research career in the future? Seeing that you’re well on your way?
00:14:32 Alexia Kirov
Oh, hopefully! So I’m doing my masters part time at the moment, so I’ve got another year until I start my dissertation and so obviously my Masters dissertation is the kind of most immediate place where I’ll be doing that, I’m hoping to do, probably old English again and I’m really enjoying the kind of medical humanities aspect which I’ve been working on, you know, with the undergraduate dissertation and these papers. So possibly something like that. But yeah, I am beginning hopefully to think about maybe doing a PhD. So yeah, I need to get working on the applications, maybe if I want to, you know, get that sorted for next, the year after next year, but yeah, that is what I, I’d really like to try and do at least because yeah, I just really enjoy it really, there’s not, not much more to give as a reason as to why, other than I, I really want to. Yeah, I just find it fun, really. I never ever expected to be, you know, for that to be my plan when I came to university. You know, I think it was like, oh I’ll do an English degree or become a high flying journalist and things like that. But yeah, I just found, as I said, you know the kind of exploration and finding things that you never, you know, you never knew existed and you’ve never thought about before you know, I found that really enjoyable. So yeah, I just want to continue that as long as I can, really.
00:16:06 Jonny Barnes
Yeah, that’s really interesting. And of course the best of luck for the PhD.
00:16:09 Alexia Kirov
00:16:12 Jonny Barnes
So just lastly, did you have any other thoughts? Anything else that you wanted to add?
00:16:16 Alexia Kirov
I just, to thank you know everyone at the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching for the opportunity that I had and also if any students are watching or listening to this to, to take the opportunities that are on offer to you. Because I mean, you know, I’m definitely guilty of this, you know you see things in in newsletters, come into your inbox, I think that’s how I discovered this and you know, you don’t necessarily read it all, or you know, you think I’ll read that later and you just inevitably don’t get the chance to because everyone so busy. But I just, you know, I saw this opportunity and I thought, well I may as well just submit an abstract. You know it’s only 250 words. What have I got to lose? And you know, it’s turned, already turned into, you know, the opportunity itself and now I’m doing this, and it’s led to me you know, having the confidence to do the other paper. So yeah, just if any students are listening, watching, you know, take the opportunities that we’re so kind of, privileged to have at university.
00:17:20 Jonny Barnes
Thank you Alexia for talking to us today. There are lots of interesting things that Alexia has raised, particularly the license she was afforded since her first year to decide her own essay titles and the freedom which that has given her to explore sources outside of the main reading list. As well as Alexia’s excitement of bringing her research to life within the Festival of Undergraduate Research, and let’s not forget the words of wisdom from one of her lecturers, ‘don’t be afraid to go down rabbit holes because that’s what you need to do! I’m sure those words, are words that will stay in our mind for some time when we think about the authenticity of the assessments we’re setting and thinking about how we embed research within the undergraduate curriculum.