An Adventurous PhD

It was the phrase “challenging academic journey” that stood out for me in a recent guest post by Donna Franklin for Pat Thomson’s patter blog. The phrase was followed by “difficult PhD journey”, “emotional upheaval” and “doubtful thinking”.

The post went on to provide a clear and helpful outline of the process of mindfulness in helping to deal with the concerns associated with undertaking a PhD. It was encouraging and uplifting in the end as Donna had reflected directly on her own personal experience and the benefits she had found in taking a mindful approach to her studies. Nevertheless, it got me thinking…

Last year, I had the good fortune to read Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World by Simon Beames and Mike Brown. They tease apart the difference between “adventure” and “adventurous” learning practices. The challenge, they say, “should start with the learner, build on their strengths and extend their skills and attributes” (p. 90). Unlike adventure learning, the goal is not to push the student outside their comfort zone, but to encourage them to set their own challenges and explore new terrain. Key to this is provision of a “safe and supportive environment” allowing students to “be actively involved in self-directed experimentation” (p. 92). For me, that safety and support is akin to the equipment and buddy system for hiking and climbing. Your partner helps you check your gear, motivates you and acts as your belayer. You choose the route and you do the climbing, trusting that you’re safely anchored.

Standing at a point halfway up the Krimml waterfalls in a thunderstormWhen I read Donna’s piece, it left me unsettled and wondering where her safety and support came from. I reflected on my own PhD journey – I am conscious of the risk and sense of uncertainty, I discovered a range of peaks ahead when I naively thought I just had one mountain to climb! The mindfulness process she outlines is helpful, but more important for me is the knowledge that my supervisors, colleagues and research team are on standby. They challenge me to think more creatively and independently, to take a different route for the fun of experiencing a new viewpoint and to discover what is authentic for me. As Beames and Brown suggest, any anxiety I feel comes “from the process of adventurous inquiry” (p. 90). As part of the institution’s research community, there are opportunities to share our stories and to discuss our individual adventurous learning experiences. It reminded me again how very fortunate I am to be part of a strong network.

I had the great privilege of being shortlisted for a teaching award in 2016, and I used the mountain-climbing metaphor in the short video created to celebrate the awards. The concept of “teaching as climbing” was inspired in part by a blog post by Ben Orlin reflecting on his development as a teacher, and in part by my colleagues undertaking a charity climbing challenge.

Reflecting on my comments, Beames and Brown remind me that my role as an educator is not just to “throw down a rope”, but to provide a strong foundation, an anchor, as demonstrated so well by my own supervisors (“skillful educators” for sure). Our adventurous journeys should be authentic – have meaning for us, our community and our wider network. We develop our sense of agency and mastery as we overcome the (frequent!) sense of uncertainty and tackle the challenges we set ourselves. At the end of the day, we have campfire tales to tell in good company.

To quote Jamie Davies, winner of The Kendell Award for Teaching in Medicine:

“The most important things [in staff development sessions] come from the conversations between the lecturers who are there to learn. And I think that mirrors what happens with our… learning and teaching-that it’s the whole group working together to take a journey and to learn something.”

Beames, S., & Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning: A pedagogy for a changing world. Oxon, NY: Routledge.

Were they ever alive?

Amenhotep III @ British LibraryIt’s been a hectic time again, but thanks to earlier actions, at least my lists are in order!

I have also been trying to make quiet time within the busy-ness, space for thinking and recharging. One opportunity presented itself at the end of March, when I was down in London for the day for work. In addition to priceless reading time on the train “there and back again”, I noted there was a little space between the end of work and my return train departure. 

I decided to walk from Westminster to King’s Cross, passing all the famous sights along the way and getting grounded before the journey home. As I neared Bloomsbury, I realised I had a half an hour to spare. Hmmmn, what to do?

No question – half an hour sitting in Room 4 (Egyptian sculpture)!

There is something about the immensity of the statues in this gallery that calms me, reminds me of how small I am, how insignificant my lifespan is within the breadth and span of human history. It doesn’t sound like a cheery reflection, but it does put my small worries very much in perspective.

As I sat with Amenhotep III, I heard a girl ask her companion (mum, aunt, granny, sister, carer…) a key question:

“Were they ever alive?”(indicating big statues with a sweep of her very small hand).

“Yes,” came the answer, “there were once people alive who built these statues to represent their kings and important people.”

After listening to a brief overview of Egyptian history, the girl thought for a moment, and then rephrased her question, as it was clear her companion hadn’t understood the first time.

“No,” said in a tone of infinite patience, “were these [pointing at individual statues] ever alive?”

“No,” came the reply, “these are just statues.”

I looked at Amenhotep, who in turn stared down the gallery, ignoring those who had come to capture his image. Now I was raised with Ray Harryhausen movies, where statues were very likely to come to life. Perhaps this girl had also seen Night at the Museum, and could readily believe that the statues shook loose when the doors close in the evening.

I feel there is something beyond the influence of mainstream media on imaginitive folks like this girl and I. After all, these statues were created to inspire awe & worship. Like Ozymandias, they may be crumbly around the edges, their earthly rulers long gone.  They have been taken from their homeland to cold halls, but they still call their worshippers to gaze at them with cameras and phones.

I longed to ask the girl what she thought. Like me, did she think they had their own kind of life, locked in stone memory? I was too polite, or more likely, too shy to ask, and they moved away.

When my half hour was up, I walked the short distance to the train station. On my journey home, I thought more about her question and the answers. The first answer was good, it gave her all the core historical facts. The second answer left no room for discussion, no space for imagination, possibility, philosophy.

I must, I thought, make sure I leave that space in my teaching. 

Gift of time in the workplace

scrabble board with words relating to connections, e.g. ideas, people

I have been fortunate to be on a work secondment for one day a week to the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). The secondment started back in October 2014 and it has been a valuable protected time in my diary to focus on sustainable education in the veterinary medical curriculum.

Today is my last day.

As a secondee, I have had the benefit of working with a great group of people with connections to the wider University which are essential for any project to succeed. I also had space away from my desk – in fact in a different campus – ensuring the time was protected.

The value of this time cannot be underestimated. It not only creates space within which to explore a research area or idea in more depth, but also empowers staff to take action in implementing new approaches to teaching and student support.

The Institute’s secondment process contains within it all elements of a socially sustainable (Hammond & Churchman, 2008) community of practice – an interconnected, equitable, diverse and democratic group to support and encourage staff creativity.

This process has enabled me to lay the groundwork in evidencing sustainable education within veterinary medicine (more on that in future posts!). It has also given me confidence to speak about this to others, to share with colleagues and students.

I have a list of projects which would not exist without this thinking time and inspiring connections. Colleagues and I have undertaken projects to enhance learning and teaching at the University. Beyond that, the process improves our wellbeing by demonstrating that the institution values our creative input and seeks to include us in future planning.

Now I step back and release that gift of time for another colleague; looking forward to adding another new inspiring connection!


Hammond, C., & Churchman, D. (2008). Sustaining academic life: A case for applying principles of social sustainability to the academic profession. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9(3), 235-245.

Setting seed

Allotment plan on graph paper
Plotting the plot

Spent last Sunday plotting the allotment (excuse the pun!) – what we had last year, what is staying in place (fruit bushes and trees), and what we have planned for the new year.

It’s good fun – the allotment itself is tucked under its cardboard duvet and we’re envisioning the future.

In work, something similar is happening. A couple of years ago, two colleagues and I started the process of setting up a shared veg garden for staff and students. Now, the Easter Bush Veg Garden is looking tidy, all the plots are assigned, and we’re dreaming of well-tended plots where at the moment we have weeds and muck (of the mud rather than manure variety!).

Thanks to the FCFCG newsletter, I heard about the Here We Grow funding available from Dobbies for project gardens like this. Boy, would that help with the paths and communal herb garden! Keep your fingers crossed for us 🙂