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

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Jamie Lawson (BoB edition!)

After winding our way through the Hogwarts-like corridor of the Arch & Anth building, we met Jamie Lawson in his office. An Anthropology lecturer, Jamie was nominated by his students to give a Best of Bristol lecture last year. We caught up with him to see what he’s been working on since, as well as talk about his experience with Best of Bristol and his thoughts on giving students opportunities to explore topics outside of their disciplines.

Tell us a bit about what you’re researching at the moment…

Most recently I’ve been researching the Puppy Play community, which is a socio-sexual, queer community of practice – or subculture – involving people who take on the persona and mannerisms of dogs for a period of time. We gathered data over a period of two or so years and we’re currently outputting papers from that. We have had a couple published, and there’s a couple more in the works once I get round to writing them! That’s where I’ve been focusing mostly and we’ll see what happens next.

That’s pretty unique! You must be one of the only researchers looking into that, is that exciting?

Yeah sure! There’s me and my co-author, and there’s only two other papers that are published on the topic by academics working elsewhere. Other than that, nothing has been written about Puppy Play so yeah it’s very exciting to be on the leading edge of something…not quite sure what!

It’s good to be working in something that’s quite niche and I guess that’s reflective of queer subcultures in general. That community has gone through a process from being quite a niche group to be something that suddenly had a lot of public attention, so there’s some parallels there with the way research has played out.

Your Best of Bristol Lecture last year also looked at the LGBTQ+ community. Could you tell us some more about that?

My BoB lecture was called: “Over the Rainbow: A Brief Social History of Queer Resistance”. I took the opportunity to talk about the historical origins of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

I began by talking about the black and brown stripes that have recently been added to the rainbow flag to represent the people of colour who have been left out of a movement that was, to a noticeable extent, started by them. Queer and trans people of colour were integral to the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. The addition of the stripes caused a really strange amount of resistance from within LGBTQ+ groups, particularly from white gay men, although not exclusively, some of whom objected quite strongly to the inclusion of some new stripes.

People were saying things like ‘race/ethnicity/skin colour were never part of the original rainbow flag so why should they be now?’. But that’s precisely the issue. LGBTQ+ people should know very well if you don’t include people then they get automatically excluded – you have to actively push against processes of oppression and exclusion.

My lecture then stepped back to look at the origins of modern homophobia and heterosexism in colonialism and Victorian attitudes in particular to sex and sexuality. This touched on the idea that as European Powers, and Britain in particular, conquered and colonised other parts of the world, they exported certain ideas with them.

This includes white supremacy and the idea of European civilisation being superior, alongside really rigid gender norms that underpin how a lot of European societies function. I was trying to draw a connection between anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric and racism, all wrapped up in this idea of a colonial world view.

So I guess that’s quite a lot. I covered quite a lot of things. It was fun though, I enjoyed it and people seemed to get into it. It was a nice opportunity to be able to talk about that sort of stuff in a public facing lecture.

Was it something that you had lectured about before?

In bits and pieces. I had a few of my students come along and one of them said that they had seen me talk about components of it in various different lectures over the years but it was really interesting for them to see it all together in a single story.

How different was the experience of lecturing for a much broader audience, as opposed to lecturing students with a view to future exams or assessments?

I’d done a certain amount of public engagement before – I enjoy it very much. This particular lecture was a challenge because it was a mixed audience: students, members of the public, friends and academics. So, it’s a challenge trying to pitch the lecture appropriately for people who have different levels of knowledge or engagement. But it’s always fun, I quite enjoy lecturing without the assessment hanging over the top of everything.

Do you enjoy teaching through lectures? And, as part of that, do you think that lectures are a good way to educate people?

I enjoy a lecture. I think it’s a very powerful way of putting across information. I enjoy giving lectures – it’s not the only way of delivering information for sure. In my time I’ve taken part in many different forms of public engagement including showing some short films based on research, panel discussions, less formal sort of things.

It was really nice and personally very gratifying to have my skill as a lecturer recognised.

Having being recognised for how good your lectures were, has it affected how you’ve given them since?

It was a nice feeling of… validation, is that the word? It made me feel more confident that I’m doing things well, particularly the fact that it was a student-led award. That made it all the more meaningful because students are my primary audience. I think lectures should be engaging and entertaining and informative. And I guess my audience thinks I met at least some of those aims. So it was a nice confidence boost certainly…and I got this nice paperweight!

When we’re shortlisting lecturers and topics for BoB this year, do you think it’s important that we try to ensure the lectures cover topics that people might not be exposed to otherwise, like yours last year?

I guess it’s up to you really, what you want to see portrayed. For me personally, I’m a queer researcher, I work on queer subcultures and I’m a gay man and that’s something that I bring into most work that I do. It comes up in lectures not infrequently. It was nice to assert that identity publicly with the university and the student support behind me, that felt very powerful. I think showcasing diversity and giving minority voices some volume would be a worthwhile aim for the Best of Bristol awards.

There’s a lot of sentiment within Bristol that the curriculum needs to be decolonised, and I don’t think, outside of the Best of Bristol, a lot of students get the opportunity to hear the sort of things you covered in your lecture.

Yeah. One of Anthropology’s big things is critiquing colonialism, so yes I agree, it’s notoriously absent in the university setting, you don’t hear a lot of people at higher levels talking about colonialism, although Bristol has made a lot of positive moves recently, with the work of the Centre for Black Humanities, and the appointment of the first Professor of the History of Slavery. And notoriously or mind-blowingly, and I say this as somebody who was at one point at school in this country, we don’t educate our children about Britain’s role in Colonialism really. You learn about the empire and you learn about the dissolution of the empire and you learn that this thing exists. But you never quite appreciate the systematic violence that Britain was complicit in. You never really learn about Britain’s role in the slave trade; that’s always taught as something that was an American thing.

When I teach that sort of stuff to students here it often comes as a bit of a shock. And I think what I tried to do in my lecture was to demonstrate the impact of colonialism: that the racism which comes directly out of colonialism connects to the heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia and cis-normativity that comes out of colonialism as well.

The struggles of minority groups are distinct; everybody faces their own distinct lines of oppression, but nevertheless they are connected. Best of Bristol was a nice opportunity to be able to put all of that together for an audience that was outside my degree program so might not have heard that sort of stuff before.

You mentioned that you’re able to bring your identity into the research and lectures that you do. Do you think then that your research is valuable not just to the wider research community, but to you as an individual?

It’s an important question. Another option I could have chosen for my Best of Bristol lecture was to present a talk I’d given before which is a story charting my personal history – how I moved from being a very biologically, evolutionarily focused academic working on sex and sexuality, to much more sociological, phenomenological research. A move from quant to qual, from numbers to interviews, from a really strongly heteronormative discipline to being a queer researcher. That talk is called “How I became a queer Anthropologist”.

I think this is sort of the opposite of what you said to me. Because as researchers we’re often encouraged to leave ourselves out of the work we do. And one of the big things that happened to me was a realisation that my personal identity was inextricably connected to the work I do – I think that’s true of all researchers. People aren’t encouraged to reflect on that.

It’s not so much about what my research does for me, it’s about what I bring to my research.

Would you like more opportunities for students to be able to go and see lectures in other departments?

Yeah, absolutely. Unequivocally yes. I think it would be really lovely to be able to offer some sort of general education for students. Some universities do general 1st years, where you specialise in 2nd or 3rd year on their actual degree course. That’s a nice idea, but at the same time it’s really useful to have students specialise in their discipline. Swings and roundabouts on that.

It would be really cool, for example, if people doing science degrees did learn a bit about colonialism because it’s really important in the way science develops. It’s something we discuss in anthropology – the really complex but very important connections between colonialism and evolutionary theory itself, how those things are intertwined and reinforce one another to some extent.

And vice-versa it would be handy if students could head out from anthropology and encounter all sorts of things. I think being able to approach knowledge for the sake of knowledge would be wonderful. But that is a privilege, having time, resources, money to spare to be able to do that, I’m aware.

The Best of Bristol is a really nice opportunity for students to be able to encounter things outside of their discipline in an engaging lively way, with nothing riding on it either. As you said at the beginning, no exam, no assessment; let’s just talk about some stuff.

Toby Roberts and Emily Kinder – Student Fellows

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Billie Gavurin

Billie Gavurin is in her third year of studying for a PhD in English and History. Billie is on a Teaching Scholarship and has been at Bristol since her undergraduate degree in English and Classics. I met up with her to talk about the transition between undergrad and postgrad, her scholarship and teaching as a PhD student. 

Do you think there’s been a difference with how you’ve interacted with the university as an undergraduate and now as a postgraduate? 

Oh yeah. And it’s been strange in some ways. Obviously, the dynamic between you and the department really shifts as you move into a research degree and start becoming more active in your own research. You’re treated more as a colleague, and it feels really strange to make that shift to working alongside academics who lectured you when you were an undergrad. It’s quite funny, but I love the department and it’s been really nice spending more time here. 

Do you feel like as you’ve become more of a researcher than a student, you’re now more on the same level with the staff? 

Well it doesn’t feel like that exactly, no. I don’t feel like that about my own research yet, but they’ve certainly been very gracious and they definitely make you feel like they respect the work that you’re doing and regard you as someone who is working as a researcher in their own right. 

You say you feel like you’re on a similar level to staff now, does that mean you didn’t feel like you were a researcher when you were an undergraduate? 

I think it’s something that came more and more as I moved through my degree. When I very first started, I didn’t see myself as a researcher at all. And I think probably however I had been treated, I wouldn’t have seen myself as a researcher because I still felt like a kid. But by the time I was in my third year, I had to do a dissertation. It wasn’t optional, because of the way the course was structured at the time. I really didn’t want to do one, but I had to and I think it was actually one of the best things I could have done. I was so glad I was pushed into doing a dissertation because that was the first time I was doing independent, really independent, research and it completely led me into what I’m doing now and I’m so glad that I did it. So that shift really showed me that academia was really what I wanted to be doing. 

That’s really interesting because in certain parts of the university dissertations or extended projects aren’t compulsory. So, for English, when I was an undergraduate, the dissertation was only 6,000 words and it was optional. 

Yeah, it was optional for English then too. The only reason mine wasn’t was because I was a joint honours student and we had to do them. I was really angry at the time that I had to do one, but I’m so glad that I did. I actually do think everyone should have to do a dissertation in English now, after all, it’s an English degree. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but I do think everyone should have to do some kind of more extended research project 

What do you think the other benefits of doing a dissertation or an extended piece of research are? 

I think having the ability to do independent research is so applicable beyond academia. Obviously, academia is not what everyone wants to do, but I think having that ability to go off and do your own research is going to be helpful in pretty much any career that you go on to do. That kind of independence should really be fostered I think. 

Definitely, I agree. So, I wanted to ask you about your teaching scholarship. Could you just explain what it is? 

Yes, I am on a teaching scholarship whereby I teach 3 hours a week across the year. Sometimes that’s front-loaded so that I do more in the first half of term. For example, last term I did six hours a week and now I’m not doing any this term. But it works out as 3 hours a week and as a result of that teaching, my fees are waived. So, I don’t pay tuition fees for my PhD’ 

How much would your fees have cost a year? 

I think just a bit over £4,000 a year, so a significant saving across the three years of the PhD. Obviously it also means I’ve had a lot more teaching experience than you might expect for a PhD student at this stage, which is good, but it has been hard to balance my research degree with the amount of teaching I have to do, it has been difficult. 

Just to be clear – you don’t pay any fees, but you’re also not paid anything else, like a stipend? 

I’m not paid anything else, no. Which means that I am reliant on my family, they are great about it, but it’s something that I have very mixed feelings about. I have mixed feelings about a scholarship that only really works if you have external support, it’s not going to work for every student. And I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be in this position.  

It must put you in a difficult position because if you’ve got your research degree, and then six hours of teaching, you don’t also have the time to have a part time job. 

Exactly, exactly. So, I have very complicated feelings about my scholarship. I love teaching, I really love teaching. And it’s shown me that, and I’ve become much better at teaching than I would have if I’d have had limited experience of it. I love working with my students. But I have very mixed feelings about the scholarship itself, even though I’m glad I’m on it. It’s complicated I think. 

Do you think teaching has helped you to learn more about your subject? 

Yeah absolutely I do. I think because it makes you consider it all in a totally different way, and I think ideally, academia should be aiming to talk about complex things in the clearest and simplest way possible. In order to be a good teacher, you have to be able to put complex ideas into clear and simple language. I think it’s a really good thing to be forced to do. I think there can be a bit of a bubble where things get a bit overly complex in academia, and having to go back to explaining things clearly to people and making sure they understand, is really good for me as a researcher as much as it helps me as a teacher. 

 How about your wellbeing, as teachers? Are you offered support? Because obviously you’ve got a lot to balance. 

I do have a lot to balance. I feel very supported by the English department, I’ve always felt like there are people I can go to. But perhaps relying more on the kindness of individual tutors who I’ve developed a relationship with over the time that I’ve been here rather than a sense that there is a really strong support network through the university as a whole.  I think there should be support specifically for Early Career Researchers who are teaching and the stress that can come from that. Given that so much of teaching is done by hourly paid tutors or people on scholarships like me, there should be provisions made for it really. 

 Do you think that other PhD students who teach are in a similar situation to you in regards to wellbeing? 

I know that others have definitely come across problems of really wanting to support their students when they came to them with more emotional issues, as have I, but we don’t always know how to do that. Obviously, we do have the recourse to say you should see your personal tutor or your senior tutor about this, but sometimes students then say ‘I don’t really know my personal tutor’ or ‘I want to talk to you about this’. And while I’m really happy to do that, I want to make sure I’m in the best position to give them guidance and I think my fellow PhD students probably feel the same in many cases. 

Of course. Finally, what do you think is the highlight of teaching during your PhD, and doing a teaching scholarship? 

I really, really enjoy teaching. I just I love working with my students. I care a lot about what they get from their degrees. And when I occasionally hear from someone that they’ve really enjoyed the course or that it’s been really interesting to them that that’s hugely rewarding. And I really like hearing their ideas. And I just love teaching seminars. I like facilitating discussion and it’s great to give students a prompt and see them take that and go to interesting places. It’s just a wonderful thing to do. 

Thank you to Billie for having this chat with me. It was great to discuss the benefits of extended research and see her passion for teaching. It was reassuring that her department has been so supportive, but there is certainly space to reflect on how the university could better support postgraduate teachers. What struck me the most was how we often focus on students struggling with wellbeing and access to support and can forget that teachers, who are sometimes students themselves too, struggle with their own wellbeing and their responsibility to help their students.  

Emily Kinder – Student Fellow 

Humans of Bristol University, News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.


From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol: Elsie Aluko

Spotlight on ‘Supporting Risk’

Elsie Aluko is a second year Physics student, and founder of the AfroLit society. We meet to grab a coffee at the Hawthorn’s Café and are lucky enough to find one of the coveted window seats. We get the opportunity to reflect on the pitfalls of the ‘university bubble’, and discuss the risks and rewards of starting a new society.

So how has your experience been of Bristol so far? You’re allowed to say bad things but no swearing…

I wouldn’t dream of it! I think’s it been an interesting ride, initially I found it quite difficult, settling in to the city, and feeling like I belonged at the university took a while. I don’t know if I’m even really there yet. It’s a very different experience to my time at school, I think the university is quite disjointed to the city, initially that made me feel quite confused. Now I feel like I’m at home here, I’ve made friends, I’ve made connections with people that get me and I feel settled in my department at university. I feel like I have a community here and I love it. Sorry I’m not sure that was very cohesive!

No that was a lovely answer! You said the university feels quite disjointed from the city, why did you feel that way initially? Do you still feel that way now?

I definitely do still feel that way. I think it’s symptomatic of the city as a whole, I think Clifton, Redland, the city centre, I think the parts of the city that the university buildings are in are disjointed from the city. It’s really easy to feel like the triangle, Clifton and Eat-a-Pita, are the only things that exist in Bristol. No shade I promise! But there’s so much more to the city, there’s so much history, there’s so much culture and there’s so much going on. It’s so easy to get stuck in the uni bubble, and although it’s not a campus uni, it feels like a campus. You have to actively break out of that bubble or you’re going to spend your whole time here not knowing even ten percent of the story. So I didn’t feel like I had a place within that uni bubble initially, finding that there were other spaces outside of that bubble really helped.

How did you find those other spaces?

I think to some extent I just stumbled upon things. I think every now and then they’ll be opportunities that crop up in university that kind of draw you out and bring you to see that there are other things. Yeah, I think also through the community I also had at my place of worship. That made me feel I had a connection to the city, because it was a community completely outside of the university.

So this year you started AfroLit society, what does that stand for and why did you decide to start it?

So AfroLit is the African Literature society, the idea is that it’s a place that you can learn about, engage with and talk about literature produced by people of African descent. It’s essentially a book club. But I also want it to be a portal through which people can find opportunities, events and things to do with arts and culture produced by black people in this city. I started it because I always loved reading, but I’d not always read books by African authors, I’d just not done it. It’s not really something that is encouraged in school when you do English literature, the books I was presented with were all very specific white European authors, I wanted to widen my scope. Literary palate is the word I’m trying to avoid, it’s low-key pretentious! But yeah, that’s what I want to say. I think it’s important because I’d like to consider myself well-read but if you don’t read widely then you can’t be well-read.

This is particularly close to my heart because I’m Nigerian, so reading books by people that I can relate to more directly helps a lot with learning about myself. Literature is a great way to learn about yourself, to learn about others. That’s also kind of the point, you don’t have to be Nigerian to read Nigerian literature, you don’t have to be from the places that these authors are from or have been through the same experiences to appreciate it. In the same way that I didn’t live in Victorian Britain, but I can still read Dickens and appreciate it, because it speaks to something deeper than who we are on the surface, I think it’s about who we are as people. I wanted it to be just a chance for people to learn more about something I’m passionate about.

Do you feel like starting up a literature society was a risk?

Yeah, definitely! I do. I first had the idea for it in 2017 when I read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‎ and I wanted to start this, but I was way too scared to do it. I didn’t think I was up for it. I didn’t know if anyone else would want to have me, or if anyone would care or anyone would want to be involved. I don’t like doing things that fail. I’m ‘allergic’ to failure, unfortunately for me, even though I do fail a lot. It’s really funny, I was at an assessment centre for a TeachFirst internship and two people I met there asked if I was involved in any societies. I told them I about the societies I was already involved in, but I had an idea for a society and they told me that I had to go for it. I just felt like these two people who don’t go to my uni, who don’t know anything about me are telling me to go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing is that it fails and that’s okay. So, I’m glad, because I was so close to not doing it.

Do you feel like the university encourages or supports you to take those kinds of risks?

I think to an extent yes, the whole point of university is learning and discovery, of yourself, of your subject, of politics, of arts. I feel like it does foster an environment where you are allowed to and encouraged to try new things. So far, I do feel like I’ve had a lot of support. I guess it depends on what kind of risks you’re taking, in AfroLit people have supported me way more than I thought they would, people have shown way more interest than I thought they would. I wouldn’t be here without the support of people. I think people appreciate it when you take risks at university and they want things to work for you, especially if they care. So yeah, I think you are supported in taking risks here.

That’s actually really encouraging to here, it’s interesting talking to people, when it comes to academia some of the students I’ve spoken to felt really nervous about taking risks. They feel such intense pressure to do well. So, taking any sort of risk becomes a big dangerous deal, but it’s nice to know that there are areas where students feel really supported. What are your aspirations this year for yourself and the society?

I want to be able to balance it alongside my degree, I don’t want to let it overrun my studies. For the society my only aspiration is that people who are involved in it enjoy it and feel like it’s worthwhile. Because I started it for myself because I wanted to join a society like this, but it’s not about me. I want to create a space where people can come and learn, no judgement, you don’t have to know anything. I don’t know that much, so you can know literally nothing, you don’t even have to have read a book in the last three years but I want the people that come to our events to feel like their opinions are still valued and feel like they’ve learnt something or enjoyed something. In that sense that’s my only real aspiration for the society. But I’d love to be able to pass it on, that I’ve created something that can be sustainable.

Marnie Woodmeade, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Dave Jarman

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’

Dave Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.

So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?

We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.

That’s great because I think the University community could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.

Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia. Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.

So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.

There’s a piece here about how we create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something until a few years down the line.  When I worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.

I don’t quite remember to point in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the skin of my teeth. I could have done better.  But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in. All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience here in whatever capacity that may be.

Yeah. It’s probably unwise to focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic results.

And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.

I believe there could be something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not catastrophic reactions to academic failure.

Personally, I think being human and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of being a good educator.

…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.

I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.

How can we help students admit that not everything can be known with certainty?

I do better by offering students multiple ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how the student’s go about it.

Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?

We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.

I have personally not taken too well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a number of students?

The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.

What about you? How do you tolerate your failures?

My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.

I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019.