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

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Tales from a ‘School Trip’ to Langford

Last week, two of our student fellows, Marnie & Toby, went for a ‘school trip’ to Langford to visit the Clinical Skills Lab with Alison Catterall, and to meet with Chloe Anderson and Lindsey Gould. Chloe and Lindsey have developed the new Accelerated Entry Vet course which uses case-based learning as a primary teaching method, and the Clinical Skills lab is a way for Vet students to learn critical clinical techniques in an authentic, active way. As Marnie and Toby’s projects for the year focus on ‘Authentic, Challenge-Led Learning’ and ‘Active, Collaborative Learning’ respectively this was a great opportunity to talk about the successes and challenges the Vet School has faced. 

Marnie and ‘Toby’ at Langford
(Toby left before they got a picture together!)

Marnie’s Thoughts:

‘Everyone should have a Langford day’, this was a sentiment that was repeated to me by every vet I’ve met: and I couldn’t agree more. As a die-hard city center dweller (stoke bishop who?), the opportunity to visit the countryside campus and look at some of the ways vets were using authentic learning was a breath of fresh air. 

The clinical skills lab itself was a wonderland of models. I had never considered how many different uses there are for an IKEA dog, and honestly, they are underpriced. In a very real sense, this was authentic learning in it’s most literal form. Everything from the lab area, where students are required to follow the same rules they would in a real lab, to the scale models of horses, the skills lab epitomized learning by replicating ‘real-life’ situations.  

One of the components of the clinical skills lab really left me thinking about how stakeholders can be replicated in the classroom. In essence: teatowels. In order to practice sutures, vet students use teatowels, which has been demonstrated to be just as effective as prosthetic limbs. In order to do a good job, students have to match up the lines to ensure that their sutures are neat. Not only did this leave me very impressed with the innovation of Alison and her colleagues, but it also reminded me that in order to allow students to practice,  not every piece of work needs to have a fully realized client. Sometimes they just need a tea towel. 

On the flip side, the work that Lindsey and Chloe are doing represents the ‘fully realized clients’. Students are not only expected to work with a mock case, that has a variety of different stakeholders but also consider the person that comes attached to the animal, with issues that they may experience in a veterinary clinic. This can include customers having a lack of funds, or not wanting to pursue a certain line of treatment. Students are expected to work in groups of ten in facilitated sessions to try and work out how best to tackle a particular case. 

In terms of authentic learning, this hit the nail on the head, it provided an ill-defined problem that required sustained investigation while collaborating with other learners and engaging with multiple sources, with multiple interpretations and different outcomes. However, some of the challenges they were facing with students stemmed from just this. Students want to do well, and Bristol students, who are already academically high-achieving, often do not want to feel like they are jeopardizing their grades by giving an answer they think may be wrong. This to me, presented a very real issue. While students have seemed to be open to authentic learning, authentic assessments are an entirely different ball game. 

Students want to know how to do well and are used to their being a right answer, which leaves educators with a paradox. In the ‘real-world’ more often than not, there is no one right answer, and you are dealing with a multitude of different issues at the same time and doing your best to muddle through. So should educators be preparing students for this world, riddled with uncertainty, (at the possible expense of frustrated students) or should they just be imparting their knowledge? Either way, the work at the vet school is inspired, and I’d like to say a massive thank you to Lindsey, Chloe, and Alison for showing us around and taking the time to tell us about their work. 

Toby’s Thoughts:

In the clinical skills lab, one of the models I found most interesting (ignoring the haptic cow which was both fascinating and highly disturbing) was the plaque removal station. It’s pretty simple – just a bathroom tile with the outline of carnivore teeth on, some red insulating tape ‘gums’ and some plaque in the form of a hard putty. Students remove the plaque with the dental tools, then build it back up again once finished for the next student to use. But Alison made a really good point about it – not only are the students practicing an important clinical skill, they are also learning the layout of the teeth in a carnivore’s mouth.

For me, that’s a lot of what active learning is. It’s just about doing something with what you’re learning. I’m not suggesting Philosophy students learn about Aristotle by scraping plaque off of a paper on virtue ethics (although I guarantee you they would remember it). But the general idea can be applied across the university. The use of the dental tool is the ‘doing’ part, and the dental layout is the (in this case quite literally) underlying concept that they need to learn. 

Problem-based learning, a method of teaching that Lindsey and Chloe have introduced to the accelerated entry vet course, is one way to do this. The doing, in this case, is the working through of the case: researching the background, reading through the amazing materials provided on OneNote and working as a team to find potential solutions. This means the key knowledge the students need is learned in context, in an active way, alongside skills like communication and problem-solving. 

One thing that was clear from the visit to Langford was the Vet School’s willingness to identify weaknesses in teaching and change. Students were going into practice without the skills and confidence they needed so they developed the fantastic clinical skills lab. They needed to produce more complete vets with a broad skill set to excel after university, so they’ve introduced problem-based learning and a framework that looks at all of the aspects that make a Vet. In other subjects, it might not be as obvious whether students are graduating prepared for success or not. But it’s definitely a question worth considering – is Bristol producing complete students that can leave university confident that they will be able to handle what comes their way, or just walking textbooks with plenty of knowledge but no idea how to apply it?



Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

Amy Palmer, Toby Roberts and Marnie Woodmeade all visited James Norman’s ‘The Office’ project and have shared their experiences below.

Amy’s reflection:

I’d been looking forward to visiting James’ ‘Just Timber’ office since before the concept had even come to fruition. Last year, while catching up over coffee, James told me about his plan to turn on one his classrooms into an office, and I was instantly excited. The project was a combination of all my favourite pedagogies: active learning, blended learning, challenge-led learning, authentic learning, group work… all coming together to form the ‘Just Timber’ office in 1.32 Queens Building.

‘Just Timber’ is a fictional engineering company James has created. His students (employees) were all set timber engineering design projects at the beginning of the unit and are working together to create real designs with real equations in an almost real-world environment. If you want to read more about the project so far, I highly recommend reading ‘The Office’ blog series .

A date was set in the diary to visit, and I invited two of our Student Fellows to come along and join me. And so, last Thursday, we went along and waited for James to show up fifteen minutes late to our visit after almost forgetting we were coming – helping further imitate the real-world, authentic environment (just kidding) and heighten our anticipation further.

And, when we arrived, we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by an offer of tea or coffee (served in a ‘Just Timber’ mug, of course) and then proceeded to look around the office and take it all in.

The first thing I was struck by was the buzz in the room. Not a noisy, can’t-do-any-work’ buzz, but the natural up-and-down of a genuine office environment, with students in their groups switching between their sketching, calculations and discussions with each other over how best to proceed in their projects. Barely a glance was thrown in our direction when we bumbled into the room, the students so engaged in their projects that they weren’t looking for distraction.

We had a quick look around the office, admiring the various projects pinned on the wall, and browsing the elegant engineering magazines by the break-out space. We then proceeded to interrupt students by asking them questions about how they were finding the unit and how it compared to others they were taking.

As you can imagine, they loved it. Of course, they are students, and so the conversations were not void of the odd grumble (nothing you wouldn’t expect from a unit being run for the first time), but the overwhelming response was that they looked forward to Thursdays – regardless of the fact they were spending eight hours in the office – and that the learning they were doing there was both enjoyable, challenging and reflective of an authentic engineering office environment. Some of the students even ended the day with a traditional post-work trip to the pub, further preparing them for life out working in the ‘real world’.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Office blog series, you’ll know that students prepare for their day’s work by watching videos James has created on their VLE, and then come to work to study their projects. This means that time in class/ office is dedicated purely to student-centred work with no didactic teaching. Students highlighted that their favourite aspects of the unit were the group work element, the room layout (large groupings of desks together), the project-centred work and the fact that they had a day dedicated to the unit. Student wouldn’t want all of their modules to run as full-day units, however, but would have found a unit like this in their previous years of study valuable and enjoyable and a great chance to get to know others in their cohort.

James’ Just Timber office is a product of a great idea, hard work and dedication to a new way of learning, and there are many lessons we can take away from designing a unit in this way. Please get in touch with BILT if you’d like to learn more about setting up a project similar to this in your unit.   

Marnie’s reflection:

I had an extremely positive outlook on the Office before I even entered the building; the concept reflected the challenge-led work that I only ever dreamed about during my undergrad. My positivity was only enhanced by the almost immediate offer of cake and tea (an important part of daily office life).  

However, two pieces of feedback from students struck me as unexpected. The first was that students said they genuinely enjoyed being in the Office. Not merely that it was a great educational experience, but they actually looked forward to coming in each day. Having an open-plan office where interaction is encouraged clearly enabled students to really enjoy their time there. 

The other piece of feedback was perhaps more sobering. One student pointed out that although they enjoyed the way the office replicates an engineering company, a ‘real boss’ is unlikely to give mass amounts of work on the same day that five of your other supervisors have given you a deadline. In order for more projects like the Office to succeed, students felt that communication between units is key. This not only has the benefit of reducing their stress but treating students as valued workers positively impacts their outlook on university.  

Toby’s reflection:

One of the things that really struck me about the atmosphere in the Just Timber office (other than the delicious smell of cake courtesy of James’ wife and son) was how much it reminded me of a classroom. Not a school classroom – there wasn’t any paper being thrown around and James hadn’t sent me out to think about how my behaviour affects the rest of the class – but a calmer and more focused 6th Form classroom. And to me that’s a real positive. All of the ‘employees’ were clearly getting work done and you could tell there was a strong sense of purpose. But at the same time, they were relaxed and there was friendliness between them, and the noise of conversation was a world away from the awkward silence of lectures or the hyperactive buzz of a library in exam time. 

However, I wasn’t there to drink in the atmosphere and reminisce about college. The students seemed more than happy to talk to us about the unit, and I think that was in part due to how much they enjoyed it. It was clear that the effort James had put into it had had an effect on them and their attitudes, but it had paid off in producing a rewarding learning experience. 

One area that students weren’t unanimous on was the intense one-day-a-week schedule. Some felt more productive, others exhausted (there was a suggestion that maybe in the future it could not be the day after sports night). However, one interesting element to me was the effect on wellbeing. With so many units and assignments to contend with at once it’s very easy to get overwhelmed as a student. Containing the work within a single 9-5 day helps to compartmentalise and means there’s one less thing to worry about for the rest of the week. Instead, something to look forward to every Thursday.

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Toby Roberts

Hi, I’m Toby Roberts, and I’ll be working as a BILT Student Fellow alongside my final year as a Biology undergrad in Bristol. The project I’ll be working on is Active, Collaborative Learning.

I’m quite new to Bristol, having arrived last year after transferring from Exeter’s Penryn Campus. Although it was heartbreaking to leave Cornwall behind, I wasn’t happy with my course and the way I was being taught, so I headed for the big city. This meant that I came to Bristol with huge expectations, both for the university and for myself.

After a year, I was feeling a lot more like a biologist, but  was still trying to figure out what ‘University’ really is and what it is for. Spurred on by a successful decision to move away from Exeter and find a course that suited me better, I was in the mindset of  ‘if I’m not happy with the way things are, it’s not enough just to moan, I need to do something about it’. That was when I saw the advert for the BILT Student Hackathon.

Although what I really needed after exams was a few weeks of solid sleep, I threw myself into it and was really glad I did. It was crazy to see inside of the lumbering, bureaucratic machine that the University can seem like to a student, and some things I saw and heard did reinforce that view. But, at the same time I met students and staff (including the lovely BILT team) that made me believe that people really are working to make fantastic things happen and fighting the students’ corner. It was great to feel like a part of that.

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the work we’d put in over the four weeks of the Hackathon, so am incredibly excited to get to continue working with BILT as a Student Fellow. Finding ways to make teaching and learning more active and collaborative is something I’m hugely passionate about. Shaking up the way we learn is scary, and that goes for me as a student too. But, there’s a massive amount of creativity in the university and the city and if there’s a way to unlock that and connect people together I’m going to do my best to make that happen.

I’ll keep you posted with everything we get up to and achieve over the course of the year!

Toby Roberts