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

Humans of Bristol University: Hussain Abass

Photo sadly not in Bristol

Hussain Abass is a third-year aerospace engineering student and president of the Islamic Society (or ISoc). We met in the bustling SU Living Room for a poignant discussion on his experience of Bristol University, and how engagement in student society supported him taking risks.

So, what has your experience of Bristol been like so far?

It’s been very up and down. At first, when I came here I struggled, I was living up in Stoke Bishop and feeling really isolated. Then in second year I became involved with ISoc and the BME Network and I started to engage in student life. That was the turning point for me. I guess I started to see Bristol as this amazing community of young people where I could really feel at home. This is my third year here and Bristol is starting to turn into more of a home. It’s going to be hard to leave when I graduate!

How did you get involved in ISoc and has it changed your experience of Bristol?

I don’t know really, last year especially they needed help so I started getting involved in that, and then suddenly it was like ‘here’s a chance to lead’ and I said ‘Alright fine!’. I did the election and won the vote and said sure, why not. For me, it’s weird because you would think that if you join a religious society and especially if you’re leading it, that you end up surrounding yourself with people who are the same as you. Actually, I found that this year is the year where I’ve made connections with people from all backgrounds, all identities, all nationalities. Because now I’m involved. I’m meeting people from other groups, other societies and people in the SU. So I’m meeting people completely different from me. I mean, yeah, I don’t know how many new Muslim friends I’ve made this year and it’s so counterintuitive! But it’s been an amazing experience because like you just end up broadening your understanding of where people come from, why they have these things that they do, why they have the backgrounds that they do and that sort of thing. It’s definitely made university a lot richer for me. Originally I really wanted to go to Imperial to study, but now I realise I never would have had the opportunity to meet the people I’ve met and be involved in the things I’m involved in now. Bristol is cool!

So what does being in ISoc actually involve?

So we’re involved in pretty much all aspects of what it means to be a Muslim student at Bristol. Whether that’s from our faith background or whether that’s from on the ground realities of what it’s like to be a Muslim in Bristol. We’re involved in organising group prayer sessions, educational activities to do with faith in the contemporary world and generally trying to make the experience of Muslim students here in Bristol more enjoyable. Working closely with the Students’ Union, working closely with university outreach and diversity teams. We’ve been done a lot of charity work during Charity Week and you always see ISoc making bags of money every year!

Also focusing on the representation of Muslim students we’ve been obviously we’ve just come out of Islamophobia Awareness Month and we’ve worked closely with top academics in the field, for me personally it’s been an amazing experience actually working with people who are the top brains on issues like Muslim identity in this country. But also it was about celebrating our culture and it’s been a very enjoyable experience.

Very impressed you manage to do all that and an aerospace degree!

I think what I’ve learned is that actually the more you get involved at uni, the more your studies benefit. You find a lot more value and confidence in your being here. You meet people who help you. One thing I’ve found is that when people realise that you’re actually engaged in something which is beneficial for the wider community of students here, then they are more willing to help you out with your work and anything you’re struggling with in life.

So you mentioned that when you first arrived you felt quite isolated. As you became more involved in university life, have you felt more supported to take risks?

Definitely, I think that becoming more confident in your identity means that you are more willing to take risks. Naturally, when you have a clear support network there are so many facets of your life to fall back on in case something doesn’t go well. I think that’s influenced the way that I have approached my being visible at university. In my first year, you know people would know I’m Muslim but I tried to do that thing where I’d make it very clear that “I’m Muslim but…” I actually came to realise that first of all no one cares. Do you know what I mean? It’s that cliche that you once you realise how little people actually think about you, you stop caring about what they think. It’s okay to be more forthcoming in your identity.

I think that’s influenced the way that we’ve approached Islamophobia Awareness month this year. So actually, we’ve been a lot more politically engaged and we’ve spoken about the effects of government policy in this country. Racist policy like Prevent which is the government’s strategy to counter extremism and how that has affected students of colour, but especially Muslim students. We’ve had discussions about how hate speech can masquerade as free speech. The argument of free speech is often used to hide the fact that what people are saying is rooted in racism. So yeah, definitely being more secure has definitely influenced my willingness to take risks.

That’s a really interesting answer, I think it’s a common student experience that they feel like they need to edit themselves in some way to make themselves more palatable to their peers.

Although I have to say, one thing I learned is that the student movement has always been a space where minorities have felt welcome, and it’s always been a very important tool through which minority groups have felt empowered. That’s something which we don’t get in all spaces.

So it is a testament to the students of Bristol, especially people who are more active in university life, especially some of the more political groups in the university. One thing that I came to realise is that there’s nothing to be shy or embarrassed about in my identity. When people understand, first of all, what a beautiful faith Islam is, and also the commonalities that Islam has with other religions and other faiths. There is so much beauty in all religions and once you realise that people, especially young people, don’t necessarily chime into racist Islamaphobic narratives, then you’re more likely to feel welcome. That’s pretty nice.

So, I think my last question is what do you feel like the biggest risk you’ve taken is? And why did you choose to take it?

Within the engineering department, I’m involved with a lot of super-curricular activities, so actually working on actual engineering projects. In my first year of university, I didn’t do well in my studies and part of that was because I felt quite disengaged with university as a whole. So I sort of took it upon myself, I was like right, I need to fix it up. So I started getting involved in a lot more engineering projects, which if I tell you about a lot of people would be like, how the hell did you manage to source that for yourself? So after my first year, I had an opportunity to work on aerodynamic analysis for this British Touring Car Championship racing team. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a World Record holding jet suits manufacturer, designing a wing for them. I’ve had a lot of opportunities because I’ve managed to step out of my comfort zone. After my first year I kind of felt like a rubbish student, I thought I’m just gonna be a really rubbish engineer. So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and went to work on these crazy projects, which have put me in contact with some amazing people and taught me some amazing skills.

ISoc itself is something that has taught me a crazy amount of skills and really helped push me out of my comfort zone. So for instance, engaging with the SU has always been something I found difficult. I felt a little bit nervous at first because I always saw it as there’s an in-crowd and there’s us on the outside. But now I’ve realised the value of engaging and showing people your worth and people really pick up on that. I have a lot of skills that I didn’t know I had. If six months ago you told me to do public speaking in front of an audience of 300 students in a debate in the Students Union, I would have thought it would be crazy to be involved in that. But now that’s the kind of stuff I’m engaged with.

Thank you to Hussain for coming to speak to me (on a very miserable day). You can find out more about the Islamic Society here.

Humans of Bristol University, News, Student Voice

John Gilbert

In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.

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Taken on the 25th May 2019 at Boston Tea Party on Whiteladies Road

Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.

So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?

I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.

I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?

 So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.

The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.

Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?

I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.

See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?

I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.

 I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.

 The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.

Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?

I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.

I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.

 Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.

So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?

At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.

I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.

 You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.

We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.

It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.

 Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.

Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?

 You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.

What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?

 I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.

The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.

In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.

Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?

 I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.

I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?

 Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!

This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.

 I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.

Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.

I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!

 I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.

So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?

 I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.

What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?

 Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.

Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?

Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.

I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.

I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.

I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.


This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.