The tutors who dare to be different
As the abundance of nominations for this year’s University of Sussex Education Awards revealed, there are many great examples of courageous, inspiring and innovative teaching across campus
Kelly Coate, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students, said: “We were thrilled to hear about the wonderful, often exciting ways in which our staff are engaging with our students.
“It was a tough challenge to select the winners in the award categories - Spirit of Sussex, Transformative Technology, Better World, Learning Together, and Teaching to Disrupt – but some really do go the extra mile.”
Here the three winners of the Teaching to Disrupt award, which recognises those who “dare to be different”, describe their pioneering and creative approaches.
“It’s useful if I can hear the laughter”
A lecture delivered by a zombie, a “bit of a geezer” hippo glove puppet, and a thrilling love story are some of the devices that Andy Field has used to enthuse his students about statistics.
Andy, Professor of Quantitative Methods in the School of Psychology, began teaching at Sussex nearly 20 years ago and soon realised how he could jazz-up his seminars and lectures while delivering the essential content.
“I had a bit of a shaky start,” he admits. “I like maths, but I’m aware it’s a bit dry for most people. As it wasn’t that long since I’d been an undergraduate, I wondered what would have engaged me.”
The answer, to his mind, was to go “a bit off-piste” and incorporate typical elements of a student lifestyle (“dating, drinking, rock ‘n’ roll”) into his statistical examples.
Although he was uncomfortable with standing up and talking in front of a crowd, this method turned out to be the perfect cover for his introversion. “The wackier the examples became, the wackier I felt the demonstrations needed to be.”
He introduced the glove puppet “Professor Hippo” to explain “bootstrapping” (the random resampling of numbers), with the hippo diving into a box to take out ping-pong balls. The puppet proved so popular that Andy was requested to bring him back on other occasions. He has even been known to deliver a couple of verbally colourful songs “…which reflect badly on him, not on me,” Andy points out. “He’s a bit of a geezer.”
Andy also gives lectures dressed as Father Christmas, with a narrative around saving Christmas, and becomes a zombie for a Halloween lecture that uses stats to decide whether zombies are scarier than werewolves.
It’s little wonder his students have described his lectures as “courageous”, “innovative”, and “never a dull moment”.
“Psychology students are often scared of statistics so the role of the lecture, as I see it, is to make them feel happy and confident so that they can engage with the subsequent learning activities, and to get across three or four key concepts,” says Andy.
“A lecture isn’t a good medium for the nuts and bolts of statistical methods. It’s about enthusing people. I always listen back to the lectures and make notes of things to change for next time. It’s very useful if I can hear the laughter.”
Andy, whose professional excellence was recognised with a National Teaching Fellowship in 2010, has taken a similarly engaging approach when writing text books.
In his ever-popular Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics, a winner of the British Psychological Book Award, he turns to his love of rock music, and his pets, to navigate mathematical concepts.
Although some of the lifestyle references means it has been “effectively banned” in some American universities and other parts of the world, Andy defends the book’s edginess.
“The reason why it is successful is because it’s not traditional. I’ve updated some of the references to keep it contemporary, and I’m mindful about issues that are now sensitive, but it can’t please everyone.”
As an alternative, Andy has also now written a fictional love story with statistics embedded into it. An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma, is the tale of Alice, a brilliant geneticist who has gone missing, while her emotional and unmathematical boyfriend Zach must decode and understand statistics in order to find her.
“I’ve realised that narratives work really well when explaining statistics,” says Andy. “It’s all about how to engage students – and not lose them.”
“I could see similarities between how law works and how artists work”
Lucy Finchett-Maddock’s students are as likely to pick up a paintbrush as to read a text on statutes.
As a Senior Lecturer in Law and Art, her work focuses on the interrelationship between the two disciplines – both can be created, and changed, and both have a profound influence on people’s lives.
But it is the practical element of her seminars and workshops that her students find really engaging.
Sometimes she gets them to print out a piece of legislation and then cut it up and reform the words to have different meanings.
“They can see what words do and how new meanings can be created,” she says. “It’s about showing that laws are created, and that they don’t remain static.”
Or she might ask students to draw a picture of an aspect of the law.
“It doesn’t matter what it looks like. They don’t have to be good at art. It’s more about giving them the freedom to create a representation of something.”
Lucy is currently developing an 'Art/Law Network' (in collaboration with Sussex's Art and Law Research Cluster), where artists, activists, lawyers, practitioners and other such agitators can share their work and ideas, create art projects on law; law projects on art; collaborate on methodological and pedagogical approaches to law, through art; art, through law “and anything else in between”.
The interest was borne from her own passion for the creative arts. Alongside her roles in academia, she is a painter (“I’d always wanted to paint, but didn’t really start until 2013”), a flautist and singer.
Her original discipline was Sociology. It was through postgraduate study in human rights, development and critical legal theory she understands how law, protest and art are interlinked – creating new insights into the laws concerned with property ownership.
The research resulted in her monograph, Protest, Property and The Commons: Performances of Law and Resistance, which considers how protest movements use state law and create new, informal, legalities in order to forge a practice of resistance, with a specific focus on social centres (squatted community centres) in the UK.
“I could see similarities between how law works and how artists work,” she says. “It’s theoretical as well as practical. I wanted to bring that into my teaching and thinking,
“For me it’s a critical device and a way of opening up what would be quite a dry subject. It gives the students context, because law affects everything. There’s a law related to everything. I wanted students to understand that, and to question what laws do, what they are, and how they could be.”
The approach has proved inspirational, both for her students and colleagues in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology, who have described her workshops as “creative and transformative”.
She adds: “Some of the students say they wish they had done this earlier in their degree. They are often really proud of what they have created.”
“There’s no point to knowledge if it just stays in your head”
Gurminder K. Bhambra tells her students at the outset that her course will be difficult, and that they may not immediately understand the texts that she is giving them to read.
As Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies, Gurminder teaches a module that involves questioning the traditional narratives about European and colonial history – the ones that will be more familiar to her students.
“The idea is to take some of the themes of the social sciences and look at them through a post-colonial lens,” she says. “So when we talk about ‘the state’, we also talk about dispossession and the way that dispossession is central to the emergence of the settler colonial state. When we talk about capitalism, it isn’t just about the industrial revolution, it’s about the appropriation of resources from elsewhere that enabled that revolution to happen.”
During her weekly three-hour workshops for the module, Gurminder’s students first discuss the texts in small groups, then come together to ask questions, and then listen to her lecture to prepare them for the next week’s readings by social theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Jodi Byrd.
“I find something new in the readings every time I re-read them,” she says. “And often the students see things that I haven’t. The conversations are always different.
“I also give them questions to think about as they approach the readings. A lot of that scaffolding makes them feel more confident about coming in the next week and saying, ‘I read it, I really didn’t understand it.’ I’ll say, ‘Tell me something that you didn’t understand,’ and I’ll unpack it and we’ll have a conversation about it.”
Despite their level of difficulty, her workshops always have high attendance and positive feedback, with students commenting on her “unparalleled critical mind” and describing her as “a true academic activist”.
“This year’s class was very international and from diverse, disciplinary backgrounds and so the students were able to bring different experiences to bear on the topics,” she says. “A couple of the students commented that they were really pleased to have the space to express themselves and to ask questions as much as they could in this module.”
Gurminder, who did her undergraduate degree in History at Sussex and returned for her doctorate in Social and Political Thought because of the University’s “interdisciplinarity, its openness and its critical edge”, was drawn to this area of research because of her own family’s experience as British citizens moving through empire.
Despite every member of her family holding a British passport, they were always seen as “migrants”. It’s a topic she also covers in her TEDx talk, shockingly revealing the “go home” taunts she has received in the wake of the Brexit vote.
She says: “There’s no point to knowledge if it just stays in your head or in a book. In part, for me, that is one of the things I love about teaching. You have a roomful of people who are committed to wanting to understand the world in which we live.”
She adds: “It’s been so nice to come back to Sussex and find students as open, engaging and committed as they were when I studied here. If I can give them resources that they currently don’t have to make a different sense of the world for themselves, then I hope that they will go out and do bigger and better things as a consequence. They can ask questions, and hopefully come up with different answers, because we absolutely need different answers.”