Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Bristol Wasn’t B(u)ilt in a Day: On Learning and Building

“I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach.  And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.” – Dr. James Norman, ‘This is why I teach’.

I read Dr. James Norman’s ode to concrete, wood, love and teaching just after I had finished four whole years studying for my degree (eek!). Since handing in my final assignments last week, I have felt that the dust hasn’t yet settled and the cement hasn’t properly set. After reading his piece, I started to think about what exactly I had made out of the last few years of being here. What materials do we use to build our education?

James got me thinking about the idea of building more generally, and how integral it has been in defining and shaping my time at university. Of course, I am not just referring to the physical structure of buildings. Just as this year’s BILT theme of ‘Spaces’ has taught me, structures often carry much more weight than their physical manifestation. Buildings and spaces are mere vessels in which relationships can be cemented, interests can be mixed together and built upon. The bricks of my university are made out of more than clay, but they are rather made of people, places, things, hobbies, highs, lows, experiences, curiosity, and determination. While many of us dwell in the same buildings throughout our years at university, the experience we actively build there is completely unique to each individual.

I write this blog in limbo, as my time at Bristol is not yet fully built. I have finished all my assignments, but I can’t yet call myself a graduate until I receive the results that will confirm the outcome of my degree. It’s easy to let my mind slip into this blank space of anticipation, as if my entire university career will be defined by a number out of 100. But James’ piece has shifted my perspective. A single brick cannot construct an entire building, just as your final grades cannot possibly account for the complexity of each university life. They are one part of a larger totality. Just as my History teacher told me at school before we were to take our final exams: ‘you have your education now, and no one can take that away from you – the exams are just the finer detail.’

My time at Bristol can only been seen as a complete structure when, as James puts it, ‘we combine our values.’ It is only in such a matrix that we get a more trusting and fulfilling illustration of our university life, one that is entirely tailored to you. In our true university building, each brick is held together by the essence of your character. I am not just my grade, I am also my love of journalism, music, theatre, learning, people. I am my time living in Stoke Bishop (for better or for worse), Redland, Hotwells, and Montréal. This emphasis is what I have particularly enjoyed about studying Liberal Arts; the degree structure hangs off you and you get to decide how your learning goes, how you construct your own path in pedagogy.

I loved James’ description of driving wood apart. He said it was like a ‘release of stresses locked in by years of growing.’ Here, the force of the axe is not a means of total destruction, but productive reinvention; the axe sublimates the release of stress into reconstruction and reconstitution, channelling years of growth into driving energy. A student is like wood in this way. I can only really grow if I am willing to embrace change, allowing myself space to release and reshape, adapt and reconstitute in the swiftly changing times of university life. From taking up new hobbies and subjects every year, to moving away to Canada for my year abroad, I now feel like a completely different person to when I was in first year. I share in James’ enthusiasm for wood; I admire its ability to change and be changed.

This is also where I find James’ mutual love of wood and concrete tricky to reconcile. At first, I don’t see such a willingness to change in concrete, particularly when I look up at the neogothic tower of Wills Memorial building, made of mainly reinforced concrete. When such a building holds the weight of the past and prestige on its back, how can a building, and the people within it, look on to the future? Sometimes, university buildings can make people stubborn, helping only to hinder the progress of ideas and keeping the practice of pedagogy stuck in a different time and place, an outdated epoch when university was made for a very specific, limited and privileged demographic. For me, concrete feels like essay upon essay upon essay upon essay. Concrete feels like an entire reading list built from the minds of only white men. Concrete feels like being stuck in your ways.

When I get really frustrated at the rigidity of such tradition which pervades many red brick universities, I sometimes cannot help but hear the words of Virginia Woolf:

Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!

Hear me right, I am not endorsing arson. I think concrete can bring solidarity, continuity and a sense of stable educational identity; it is an integral aspect to building a university community and History. What I am proposing is that we should seek to rebuild the ivory tower of the UK university system by integrating wood within the backdrop of concrete. Let us throw it into the mix, injecting its potential for conversion, fire and change. This would bring a lightness to the hefty prestige and traditions of our education, made of a willingness to radically innovative and to keep moving forward in these rapidly changing times.

I send my sincerest apologies to the discipline of civil engineering for pounding these materials into metaphors.

Phoebe Graham