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Humans of Bristol University: Hazel McShane

Hazel McShane is a final year Physics and Innovation student and co-founder of SATIS, the female urinal. We caught up over Zoom on an outrageously sunny day to talk about the possible benefits of lockdown, the pros and cons of academic freedom, and an Egyptian goddess.

How are you coping with lockdown? How has your university experience changed?

Weirdly? Not a lot. Because I finished all my physics modules, I have just been focusing on my innovation project now, I’d be just in the library anyway. I used to live in the library to be fair, but now I’ve created this library space by myself. The innovation lecturers are pretty good, I have meetings with them every other week, checkups for how my dissertation is going. Been holding virtual meetings on Zoom, a lot, love a bit of Zoom, and Skype for Business and all the other platforms. I live with eight others, so it’s quite nice. I think I haven’t felt it as much because I’m always with so many people.

I think it’s an experience for lots of people that suddenly you have a bit more time than you had before. You’re forced to slow down and there are definitely things that I don’t miss about like everyday life. So I think it’s okay to like some aspects of lockdown.

Taking the pressure off yourself as well. If there is a day and you can’t work at all before I’d beat myself up about it, but now because we’re going through such an unprecedented thing. Even if you just managed to get up, I think some days that’s enough. Just letting yourself off as much as possible is key.

So, for anyone who doesn’t know, can you tell me a little bit about innovation?

Oh, that’s a very good question. Innovation. I’m not such a fan of the word itself, it feels like a bit of a buzzword that doesn’t lock it to something. But I guess that shows how broad it is. It’s so hard to describe because it covers so many different things. The first few years it’s quite theory-based, but it teaches you just countless soft skills which are just so useful for later in life. It’s preparing you for the actual real world, like public speaking, working in teams, working transdisciplinary, networking.

There’s also a lot of teaching in design systems thinking and how to design for people with people which I find the most interesting, rather than designers staying in a cubby-hole thinking they know what the world wants. The whole point of innovation is you have to go out and test your ideas. And quite often your assumptions are wrong, they want you to fail fast but fail forward. I’m a late bloomer to loving the course, but I’ve fallen madly in love with it now. A bit of a shame because I can’t be there now!

I think there is something to be said for being in a ‘risk-free environment’ that studying university creates- it’s one of the only places where even if you have a terrible idea, the process is what’s appreciated.

Exactly. It’s quite interesting, for instance, I’ve been doing loads of pitching events now for SATIS the female urinal I’m trying to launch. And like, you do see a lot of people making similar mistakes with public speaking or they don’t engage people. For example, with a business pitch, you really need to outline a few key elements and loads of people do miss it in the real world.

I think within the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, they hone in on certain skills; we’ve given hundreds of pitches over the course of the four years. We’re just used to feedback- constant feedback- and learning from it. It’s quite cool, as a kid, I was the shyest person and would never dream of public speaking. It’s nice that I’ve constantly had to do it. Even though initially I hated it, now I feel more comfortable doing it. 

So speaking of Satis, the female urinal, can you tell me about it? How did that come about?

It actually stemmed from working at festivals in my summer breaks, I had to choose between going to the loo or getting food because the queues for the ladies was just so long. As soon as you notice this inequality, you see it everywhere, like women just have to wait in line at every single public gathering. Whether at a football game or going to the cinema, women have to wait in line. And it’s such a subtle inequality that’s played out again and again ever since we’re little kids, whose time is more important a woman’s or a man’s. Anyway, for my final year projects, I also wanted to build something. I think that was another a key aspect. I wanted to actually learn how to build prototypes, which is another great thing about the Innovation Centre, the prototyping lab, and Mark (the technician) in there. It’s just amazing. I want to tackle this inequality, like the social side, was so amazing and I really believe in it. And also, it’s an interesting area around female health and taboo. People’s attitudes to female peeing and female health, in general, is just a bit off. It’s more nuanced now, but taboo is still there. So exploring those three elements: gender inequality, the social taboo and actually building something were the drivers informing SATIS.

We have been making it so all types of women can use it. For example, it’s got support when you squat down. This stems from interviewing women, where they would say they liked leaning against the tree or a friend. Also, it’s important to note, I don’t want to revolutionise the toilet. The toilet space is important. Our urinal is for situations when you can see the queue sprawling out the door, so you can just go pee and get back on with your day. Some people get really upset when we talk about peeing, but I don’t know why people get offended, it’s just having a wee. 

For innovation, instead of a thesis, we choose how much we want to write based on what kind of ‘demonstrator’ they call it. We were meant to have an end of year showcase with COVID and everything got cancelled. So we’re meant to build a demonstrator that could be anything:  government policy stuff, or it could be a fully-fledged business, or a be research and development department project. I’m pretending to be within an r&d department at a femmetech company. They’re just so flexible about what kind of work you want to produce. They’ll just help you out with whatever thing you want to produce. It’s pretty mad. I’ve got friends who actually went out to India to work on plastic. Their helping women in a specific part of rural India. Then there’s also some friends of mine who are creating AI for machine learning to streamline game design. The variation in what we’ve all got up to is great.

How did you get funding for it?

So we’ve entered three competitions, actually won all three, which is really cool. There are loads of pockets of money in loads of places. For example, there’s the New Enterprise Competition, which is linked to the University of Bristol. They offer funding grants for even when you just have an idea, they’ll fund you £200. If you get to the development stage where you pitch your more fully formed idea, you could win £1000. And then there’s also a £10,000 phase, that my friends have just won when you have to provide a business plan. There are loads of funding opportunities within the University of Bristol and with their grants as well, you don’t even have to give up equity, it’s amazing. And then I also looked around online, there’s a fund with Innovate UK, but also, Amber, my co-founder for SATIS, found this competition within HSBC called Grow your Community. It’s all about social projects that create good in the world. The Bristol Careers Service is really good at sending out emails about various grants and competitions, but you have to subscribe to them. And get an Ethernet cable, it has changed my world. When you’re pitching online and your WiFi goes just plug the Ethernet in and it gives you top priority.

Where did the name SATIS come from? 

SATIS is named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of flooding.

That is hilarious.

Just let it go, you know pee freely into our specially designed pedestal. She’s also a fertility symbol and a war symbol. We like that she’s both. I wanted to call it ‘the female urinator’ at one point because all the female weeing aids are called ‘SheWee’ or ‘Lapee’, or ‘Madame P’. I just didn’t want to fall into the delicate pink category for women. 

What are the pros and cons of having that much choice and freedom about what you want to do and how it should be presented?

For me, it was absolutely perfect. That’s because I knew I wanted to make this female urinal. I came with an idea. I think it can be tough, whenever you get too much freedom, you’re just like, what do you want from me? Especially as we’re the first year, the lecturers have actually never done this before, so they don’t necessarily know what they want. But they’ve kept it vague I think, purely to make sure anything we produce can be taken in as work and marked. In the past, I found it challenging having everything so vague, but it meant I had to learn for myself. It wasn’t this defined narrative like many other disciplines are. I do physics as well with it, and with physics, you do tend to be right or wrong. So with Innovation, you’re kind of left to explore everything.

Do you think it would be beneficial to have elements of innovation in your other core, so in physics, or in whatever discipline that people choose to do with?

For sure. I really wish everyone had the opportunity to study a little bit of the innovation. As well as it preparing you for later in life, it almost keeps you like a kid. When you’re young all your ideas are treated as if they are worth something, it kind of keeps this creativity alive. It’s worth trying out stuff. I think a lot of other students that don’t get that aspect, most people that do innovation, end up believing in themselves a bit more because you’ve had this safety net to try out stuff. You feel like your ideas are actually worth stuff again. Because when you grow up you feel you have to do certain things. Whereas innovation keeps it wide whilst also then you realise like, for example, when I went to apply for a startup fund like the one from  GrowBristol I felt I could chat to them. Again, I’m being vague because innovation is hard to define, but it would be great if everyone could have a bit of innovation. 

Do you feel like innovation helps students to be more confident in themselves? 

That’s exactly it. Firstly they help you gain confidence in yourself and your ideas. But they also provide help, you can go to them for anything, even a lecturer that isn’t teaching you would help. Just being in the centre itself is great, it serves as a hub for amazing people. Like, one day Amber and I were just like working there, and we managed to create a few different connections with a couple of lectures that helped us then meet this guy Rob, who was a festival organiser for Glastonbury and Boomtown. So we then got to chatting with him. And you know, if I ever have a problem, like I was trying to do the financials the other day and trying to evaluate my business, and I had no idea. So I reached out to one of my former lecturers Andy, and he replied super quickly. I’ve never met anyone like him. I never asked a single question in Physics, I’m not saying that’s why I didn’t do so well, but it was because I was scared of asking questions. I don’t know if other students are like me, but within Physics, I never felt comfortable that I knew enough to ask the teachers or the lecturers. Whereas in Innovation, I don’t feel stupid asking anything. That means asking about those little niggles can help you progress.

Thank you to Hazel for taking the time to talk to me, to see how SATIS is progressing, you can follow there Instagram here.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

An interview with...

An interview with… Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.

What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?

It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.

While there are plenty of publications about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination, reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.

Why do you think this performative culture persists?

Performativity is a term synonymous with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’ performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and ‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas, such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing assignments.

Student performativity has developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group assessment goes largely unchallenged.

What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined in the book?

There are important long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded for simply being compliant.

What is the one message readers will take away from it?

Well, here are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the ‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.

My second message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really means.