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

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possibly my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.

More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.

No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:

Seek:
You will find your way,
It is
In the
Same place
As
Your love.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. 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.

Photos taken 2 minutes walk from my house. I have intentionally chosen provocative photos to make a point, but I love where I live, it is amazing, and whilst it has its challenges it also has so many great things about it

So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?

* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #8: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Take a break

Many, many years ago I gave a three hour lecture on concrete with out taking a break. In the three hours I barely paused for breath, let alone stopping to enable students to collect their thoughts and order them (or go to the loo). This was back in 2003 and I had recently become a Research Assistant. A combination of my own exhaustion, friendly feedback from a member of staff and a few reasonable student comments helped me realise that maybe three hours without a break was a little unreasonable.

So I started subdividing my sessions, first into 50 minute chunks but now into (roughly) 20 minute chunks. I generally deliver my units in two hour sessions and so I now divide this into 4 20 minute chunks. In the gaps sometimes I give students exercises and things to do or dwell on, but sometimes I just suggest they stretch their legs, get some fresh air, take a moment to catch up. I often answer questions in these breaks and I try and move around the teaching space making myself available. Sometimes these will be questions on the subject at hand, sometimes they will be about something tangential (grand designs seems to come up lot) and sometimes it will be advice about other parts of life (jobs, other units, projects they are working on, societies they are involved in).

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #7: Aydin Nassehi

This teaching story is submitted by Aydin Nahessi, a Reader in Manufacturing Systems and Head of Mechanical Engineering.

Using name labels to make the interactions more personal

In a medium sized class (around 40 students) dealing with a relatively technical subject, I wanted to create more interactivity. I observed that asking questions from “the student with the red top” or “the student with the blue jacket” was very impersonal and strengthened the feeling that I was “picking” on students. Last year, I asked them write what they would like to be called on a piece of paper and put it in front of them. I then used these names to ask them questions or create dialogue between them (e.g. Ed what do you think about Joshua’s point?). In addition to creating lively discussions, this had the side effect that by the end of the teaching block, I had learned the names of the majority of the class.

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #6: Ksenia Shalonova

My unusual classroom observation

This teaching story was submitted by Ksenia Shalonova , a Teaching Fellow in Engineering Mathematics.

When I was pursuing a teaching career, it was common to be observed by your manager. They normally come with a long list of things that you did right and wrong, the boxes that you ticked and did not tick … One of my managers was quite exceptional – may be because he was a rugby player in the past? He mentioned only two things to me that I still remember and sometimes struggle to fulfil.

(1) When you ask students a question, do not be tempted to answer the question yourself even if they struggle. Always give them a chance to reflect and to make mistakes that is important in the learning process. (2) If you want to engage your students in using a certain software product (such as Excel or Matlab), use this software yourself during your lectures.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #3: Lucy Berthoud

The following teaching story was submitted byu Lucy Berthoud, a Professor of Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace Engineering.

Encouraging students to engage with feedback

The students submit their coursework via Turnitin and Blackboard and get marked the same way. We spend hours marking student coursework and it is a bit dispiriting sometimes to discover that they have not bothered looking at the feedback. This particularly seems to happen if they are satisfied with the mark and it could be because there is a fair bit of negotiating the Turnitin interface to go through to access the comments. To combat this, I started releasing the feedback first and the mark on SAFE (SLSP) much later. Now, to discover their mark they have to go through all the negotiating of Turnitin and so they might as well look at the feedback at the same time. This seems to have encouraged the students to engage with their feedback.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #4: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

A Friendly Welcome

As a lecturer I am always trying to think of different ways of crossing the divide between teacher and student. Some students are confident and will approach me with ease, but for many others they find it difficult to make the initial approach and admit that they didn’t understand what I said.

One of the ways I have tried to overcome this over the years is to think about the welcome at the beginning of my lecture series. Often I am nervous when I start teaching a new cohort and I always have to battle technology before I start a lecture but recently I have ensured that for the first lecture of the term I am set up with plenty of the time and I greet each and every student into my teaching space. I typically just try and smile and say welcome. It’s not a big act but hopefully it makes it ever so slightly easier for students to later come and ask a question.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #2: Ann Pullen

The following teaching story was submitted by Ann Pullen, Faculty Education Director in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Programme Director for the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences.

I’ve just been chairing the two day symposium on “Hot Topics in Transplantation” by the students on the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences at NHS Blood and Transplant – Filton.

This is the authentic assessment on the Clinical Transfusion and Transplantation unit (weighted 30% on this 20 credit point unit, PANMM0019).

The students choose a topic to review that has appeared in the news in the last year.  They research their topic, critically evaluate the literature, prepare an abstract suitable for a scientific meeting, a poster and give a 15 minute oral presentation, with 5 minutes for questions and discussion.

Many of the talks were very impressive, triggering questions from the students, UoB and NHSBT staff, and thought provoking discussions amongst the students.

Talks included Uterus Transplantation (very topical for International Women’s Day), Breathing New Life into Bioengineered Lung Transplants, Reperfusion of Kidneys for Transplant and Faecal Microbiota Transplant.

Students from around the world (Chile, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) presented alongside UK students, including those part-time students working for NHSBT or in NHS hospitals.

It was really great to see the students working together and supporting one another to refine their slides and practice their oral presentations, and then engaging in lively discussion following the talks.

Unit Director :Tom Bullock  (NHSBT)
Guidance on poster preparation: Gary Mallinson  (NHSBT)
Essential admin support : Laura Chapman  (Postgraduate Student Administration Assistant,  UoB)

Previous contributions by:
Unit Director (retired):  Nicky Anderson  (NHSBT)
Programme Director (retired):Tricia Denning-Kendall  (UoB)

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #1: Rulers for All

Our first teaching story was written by Dr James Norman, BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering.

For many years I worked as a practicing engineer. One of the tools I could not do without as an engineer is a scale rule (a ruler with 4 different scales on). I can stick it on a drawing and know roughly how big something should be and I can draw a quick sketch to scale. However I never bought a scale rule and neither did the company I worked for, we were always given them by other companies, keen to have their logo and product on our desk each and every day. Even though I stopped practicing a few years back I still keep my scale rule close at hand (helpfully it doubled as cutlery the other day when my friend bought a pasta salad and forgot to pick up a spoon).

A couple of years ago we decided to give all our students scale rules. As future engineers we wanted them to start acting like engineers and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that, we wanted them to feel part of a community of practice, and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that we wanted them to take their rulers out with them when they graduate, to sit on their desk as a friendly reminder of all that they have brought with them from their time at Bristol university. And hopefully some of them will hand in drawings to scale as well.