photo of bristol with colourful houses
Teaching Stories

Urban Spaces. Civic University.

The University of Bristol has pledged to make the city a better place1. Our research institutes are leading the charge to action this2, but how can we connect our research to our teaching? How can we support our students to consider the relevance and applicability of their studies to the real world on their doorstep? 

Here are four innovative ways that you can think about engaging your students with the idea of the “civic university”. Shared resource templates to support these approaches are available from BiLT, such as risk assessments, health and safety guidance, photography and film consent forms, and UoB’s indemnity insurance. 

1. Primary data collection 

Primary data collection in the city can be tailored to suit a broad range of subjects. In Chemistry, first year students ascend ladders to check air quality monitors. In Archaeology, students visit local cemeteries and record observations of burial sites such as demographics and mortality rates.   

Most data collection has simple requirements: notebook, phone camera and a space for sharing the data. This type of fieldwork is well suited to formative groupwork but can also contribute to summative assessment. 

The benefits of incorporating primary data collection early in the undergraduate curriculum include: 

  • Improves confidence in handling primary data and conducting research; 
  • Develops teamworking skills; 
  • Provides an opportunity for transferable skills such as film making and good health and safety practice. 

Staff can consider using this data within their research so that students’ research is seen to be valued and incorporated into larger projects. This enhances students’ sense of the value of their coursework. 

2. Designing for the city 

Designing for the city can include civil engineering projects, temporary city installations and exhibitions, and embedded urban technologies, to name a few.  

The tools needed for this approach can range from simple pen, paper and observational walks, to advanced design software packages. It can be purely classroom based, or engage with external organisations. The permutations are endless. But at the core is the ethos of creating an asset for a defined public space. 

By choosing a specific space or type of space for the asset, students need to keep in mind the limitations of that space. This approach works well in groups, with dedicated groupwork sessions supported by staff.  

A suggested facet of this approach is to “throw a spanner in the works” in the middle of the project. For example, telling students that their planned asset must make a 20% reduction in budget, to reflect real world dynamic challenges. 

The benefits of the design approach include: 

  • Enhances appreciation for the complexity of applying theoretical learning into real world contexts; 
  • Develops adaptability in challenging circumstances; 
  • Increases creativity and innovation skills. 

This approach can also invite direction from external collaborators who suggest assets for students to develop to meet particular needs. This might include local community groups or Bristol City Council. This relevance can support students’ improved sense of the value of their studies.  

3. Equitability and Sustainability 

Take students on a series of local fieldtrips across Bristol, incorporating observation and primary data collection. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for considering how your subject relates to social, environmental and economic challenges faced in different ways in different city districts. 

You can take students on walks, on public buses or hire buses, depending on your budget and accessibility requirements. Sites might include the industrial landscape of Avonmouth, the historic harbour and docks, the mix of nature and residential in St Werburgh’s, or the Clifton bubble. 

Students can be tasked with seeing how their subject relates to the SDGs in the applied context of the city. This approach can be delivered as an “outdoor lecture” or through directed tasks for students to conduct in the various outdoor settings, perhaps with printed template worksheets. 

The benefits of this approach include: 

  • Enhances cohort cohesion, as students undertake a shared experience; 
  • Encourages engagement with themes of sustainability and global challenges; 
  • Greater understanding of the lived experiences of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. 

This approach works well as a shared start of term activity that brings the whole cohort together and is then integrated into successive classroom sessions as a point of reference. It can also invite co-delivery with external organisations visited during fieldtrips. 

Specific questions posed to students could include: 

  • How should we innovate the city to prepare it for the future? This might consider rising sea levels, emerging technologies, increased populations, housing shortages, changing demographics, transport, etc. 
  • Is Bristol a City for All? This might consider designed abelism, economic zones and divisions, the density and provision of healthcare, etc.  

4. Haptic experiences

Space for reflection and the individual experience is intrinsically valuable. One way to invite introspection is to consider haptics (see Paterson 2007). This considers the sensorial world created in different places in the city, the sights, sounds, smells, textures and “Bristol vibe”.  

Students can take theoretical concepts of phenomenology3 and sensorality and apply them to lived personal experiences, expressed through personal reflective writing. Sites can be visited multiple times to see how weather, events, and the time of year affect the experience of space, place and meaning. For example, St Nicholas’ market visited on a Monday morning is an entirely different space to a Saturday Christmas fair. Landscapes too are dynamic and ever changing, where a summer stream can transform a winter river. 

Haptic investigations can impact new ways of understanding the world and invite fluid readings of space and time. It can also challenge recorded experiences in the literature. For example, antiquarian explorers recorded their observations from the subjectivity of an able-bodied male (Johnson 2012). Students can be tasked with questioning urban spaces from other perspectives, such as from the viewpoint of women, children, or the elderly. 

We can also invite intercultural dialogue in understanding the senses, as they are both physically and culturally perceived (Classen 1997: 401-410). The senses are not confined to the five we learn in school (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), they extend to inclination, temperature, acceleration, hunger, time, etc. How these senses are externally controlled or created can be queried, such as through the design of public spaces. 

References: 

  • Paterson, M. 2007. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, affects and technologies. Oxford: Berg 
  • Johnson, M.H. 2012 ‘Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology’ Annual Review of Anthropology 41, pp. 269-284 
  • Classen, C. 1997 ‘Foundations for an anthropology of the senses’ International Social Science Journal 49(153), pp. 401-412 

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/february/civic-agreement.html 
  2. For example, the Cabot Insitute’s City Futures theme https://www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot/what-we-do/city-futures/ 
  3. One’s personal experience of a place, including one’s feelings, emotions and senses.

Coming soon- a podcast, ‘The City as a Learning Space’ – only available on the BILT Broadcast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Ash Tierney