You may have
noticed some colourful ducks in Levels café earlier in the month. They were
making a guest appearance as part of “Staying Afloat: Anxiety and The Winding
Way to Peace of Mind” on Wednesday 22nd May.
Part of the
University of Edinburgh’s Festival of Creative Learning, this interactive talk
brought together 15 students and staff from all over the university to talk
about anxiety over coffee and cake. It was facilitated by Annie Lee, an
experienced trainer and facilitator who promotes good mental health and
wellbeing. The ducks are her mascot and trademark! Annie, like many others, has
experienced anxiety. She uses her knowledge and experience to encourage us to
look at it from a different point of view. She has worked with lots of
different people in different circumstances, including those experiencing
domestic abuse, asylum seekers and people who are unemployed.
So what learning
did people take from this event?
has its benefits
a challenging question: if it were possible, would we eliminate anxiety from
our lives altogether? Or does it have some positive aspects?
person said, “There are things about anxiety to keep and even treasure.” Some
felt that their anxiety motivated them to work to a high standard. Others
acknowledged that sometimes if it weren’t for anxiety, they would have trouble
getting out of bed in the morning.
comfort from the fact that others had similar experiences, and felt the
benefits of sharing and being open.
are ways of coping
We each put
together a personal toolkit of our current strategies, and new ideas based on
how other people manage their anxiety.
introduced the idea of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with
precious materials, so that the mending is not only visible but beautiful. This can be a metaphor for healing.
can share our learning with others
“ Don’t confine yourself in your own sorrow or
space; be open minded.” “If I have ways
of dealing with it, I can help others find ways as well.”
agreed that they would like more of these spaces and opportunities to share.
“It would be
great to have a series of these workshops or something like a community meet up
at the University.”
that the uni offers this support for STAFF!” ·
wonderful! I would like to do this at least once a month regularly.”
The ice cream wasn’t just for eating. The point was to understand a little more about its chemistry and what it takes to get a nice smooth texture. From fat concentration, to churning time and even thickening agents!
A new touch to this event was a fairly uncommon kitchen tool called a whipping siphon. Think of it as a reusable whipped cream canister that can make much more than whipped cream. It’s perfect for examining the effect of pressure on food. We made a variety of foams, which admittedly sometimes tasted better than they looked!
It would’ve been a sad textures workshop, if we hadn’t touched upon the fun world of gels. We made some gels that were fluid, and others that were bendable (literally!). All peculiar, no doubt. But used with finesse, they can take culinary sensations to a new level! We were impressed by how the same liquid ingredients would give a very different taste sensation, depending purely on texture.
In the spirit of the Festival, the participants got creative. Inspired by their new superpowers, they concocted new recipes. No doubt, you’ll see them at gourmet restaurants soon.
By Robert Pembleton, Enterprise Officer at Edinburgh
My job is endlessly rewarding. I have the privilege of
working with University students who are looking to become entrepreneurs, often
bringing to the table some really exciting, innovative, and delightfully
preposterous ideas. Sometimes, however, they are interested in joining the
entrepreneurial community and becoming a company founder, but they haven’t come
up with an idea yet. For those students, my team has developed a few iterations
of a Find Your Startup Idea workshop, which has been run successfully for a few
years and has generated a bunch of great business ideas based on students’
skillsets, available resources, and – most importantly – passions.
However, it can be difficult to find a time that students
are able to attend and to find a location that suits everyone. So, as an
experiment, I decided to try to bring this workshop online: Find Your Startup
Idea Workshop: Blackboard Collaborate #FCL19. At first it would have to be a
synchronous session, but ultimately the hope is that this can be made interactive
and accessible by any student at any time. Because sometimes you want to try to
come up with a business idea at midnight on a whim, and that should be okay.
What better time to experiment with a new way of educating
students than the Festival of Creative Learning? To inform my methodology I
enrolled in the Institute for Academic Development’s course on Blackboard
Learn, Introduction to Online Learning. My learnings from this can be reflected
in the ultimately delivered workshop: using Blackboard Collaborate over other
tools to deliver a synchronous session, ensuring that students feel as if it
reflects a human interaction via personalising myself as a facilitator, and
ensuring that students had an opportunity to co-create, personally generate,
and provide feedback during and after the event.
Planning the event seemed straightforward at first. This is
a workshop that we have been delivering consistently, successfully, for a
couple years; the content had been developed, tested, and re-built. Plus,
Blackboard Collaborate is a flexible tool that allows for activities which
mirror lots of the interactive, physical activities which have made this workshop
effective. However, transferring these activities into Blackboard Learn and
Collaborate came with some speed bumps, meaning that the project took more time
than I had allotted for it and some of the grand ideas I started off with had
to be shelved. Of course, when I run this session online again, all of these
challenges will be translated to learnings. If I run it consistently, it will
become just as second nature as running the physical workshops.
As part of the Festival of Creative Learning, we enjoyed the
huge advantage of opening up this workshop to an audience which we don’t
normally reach, including a number of sign-ups from outside the country. When
delivering the session, I didn’t realise that one of the participants was
getting a distance learning MSc and attending our session from the Caribbean.
Other attendees mentioned that they don’t normally have the time to attend our
in person workshops, and having it online allowed them new access. It was
amazing to see learners actively collaborate on innovative business ideas, in
real time, with no barriers between them.
My intention to deliver this workshop alone without any support, as proof that it could be done with limited resources was… ambitious. I realised shortly before the session that my usage of breakout rooms, and keeping track of ideas generated while also facilitating wouldn’t be possible. Luckily two of our student ambassadors (Alison Wood and Victoria Pi) stepped in and helped me manage those breakout rooms, troubleshoot IT problems, keep track of ideas, and generally keep morale up. They were essential to making it work this first time, and as Victoria said “That went better than I thought it would!” I’ll call that a success.
I think next time I could possibly do it myself or with one
other person, and scale up the event to more learners. I’m hoping to have the
chance to give this a go in the next academic year, as it was great to be able
to reach out to our distance learners and others that don’t normally attend our
in-person events. Many thanks to the Festival of Creative Learning for the
opportunity! If you want to chat best practice about delivering this type of
workshop or about how Edinburgh Innovations supports the University’s student
entrepreneurs, feel free to hit me up at Robert.Pembleton@ei.ed.ac.uk
Maybe you cringed a little at the title. Maybe you thought, ‘Oh boy, there’s no good way to follow that.’ Perhaps you finished it off yourself somehow. My thought was something along the lines of ‘Sure buddy, you just sometimes say racist things,’ which illustrates part of the difficulty in talking about our biases, especially unconscious biases, which were the subject of this FCL workshop. It began with an introduction to the basics of unconscious bias from Dr. Véronique Desnain, followed by a discussion on sex and gender bias led by Ellen Davis-Walker and a segment on racial bias by Dr. Issa Robson. The session closed with a practical activity exploring just how equal society is.
I’ve thought for a long time that the way the human mind works is fascinating. It gives us an insight into how we think and, the more we learn about it, the more we have to challenge our assumptions about the way we think. As a basic example, take an expression like ‘I felt it in my heart’. This refers to a real feeling that can accompany many different emotions: joy, anxiety, grief, anger. You feel a tightness in your chest as though something was actually squeezing your heart, but all those sensations are happening in your brain. You perceive them elsewhere because that’s how humans work, but our senses aren’t perfect and they don’t tell us the whole story.
When it comes to thought, especially unconscious thought, things gets even harder, since we generally just think, much like we just walk or breathe. A lot of the work is done without much conscious thought based on our past experience and a little instinct. So while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings making rational choices, a more accurate image might be well-intentioned, slightly smarter-than-average chimpanzees.
What I didn’t appreciate until I did some more reading was the immense gulf between the amount of information that comes into our brains compared to the amount we can actually think about at once. Pinning down a bit rate for the brain is tricky, since it isn’t a computer and doesn’t follow the same rules, but some research has put the amount of information coming in through our eyes at a little under 20 Mbit/s (around the speed of a good ethernet connection)1.
Trying to come up with a comparable bit rate for conscious thought is even harder, but estimates float in a range between 20 and 120 bit/s, depending on the tasks involved and how measurements are done2,3. The exact number isn’t very important, but the fact that these numbers are almost a million times less than what the eyes send to the brain is powerful evidence that there is a lot going on inside our heads we are not consciously aware of!
Sticking with the example of sight for now, information from our eyes is handled by specialised parts of the brain which interpret it before it gets to our conscious mind. In doing so, it filters the light that comes through the eye: yellows and greens are seen as relatively more intense than reds and blues. If you think about this in evolutionary terms it makes sense: we evolved under the light of a yellow star, so our eyes are most sensitive in the yellow parts of the spectrum. Consider the lemon, one of the most obvious examples of a yellow object. In reality, lemons reflect more red light than yellow, but because our eyes don’t see red as well they appear yellow to us (unless something like tritanopia interferes)4 .
In the same way that our brains take shortcuts to process the information coming from our senses, they use mental shortcuts called heuristics to simplify decision-making. Unfortunately these come from the chimp parts of the brain, so they’ve evolved to avoid predators and find food, not to be rational or moral. Stereotypes are a kind of heuristic: they are a way to save on mental effort by categorising the world, whether fairly or unfairly.
To make matters worse, even when a particular heuristic is demonstrably false (“that chimp with different coloured hair didn’t try and kill me and take my banana!”), the chimp brain is more likely to make an exception and keep the incorrect rule than to revise or discard the rule itself (“that particular chimp with different coloured hair is OK, the rest are murderous banana thieves”)5
By understanding that this is part of what it is to be human and being aware of when the chimp brain is doing our thinking for us, we can counteract these unconscious biases to a certain degree, or at least make plans to reduce their effects.
What We Can Do About It
An important point made during the session was that it is difficult to have useful discussions about unconscious biases. When it comes to biases about race, sex, gender or any other sensitive issue, many of us have come to view words like racist or sexist (or irrational, or biased) as insults rather than as descriptions of behaviour. In doing so, we condemn ourselves to feeling upset about being described that way rather than actually thinking about our actions and addressing our behaviour – perhaps becoming a little more rational and a little less biased in the process.
A vital thing to remember is that biases aren’t always expressed in obvious ways. Sometimes, especially when we’re dealing with unconscious bias, it comes out as much smaller things that wear down the people affected by it over time. For example, “Where are you from?” is an entirely reasonable thing to ask a person, but if they don’t fit your chimp brain’s stereotype of chimps from the particular place they mention, following up with, “Where are you really from?” implies that (a) they don’t belong and (b) they aren’t being honest with you. It isn’t a racist tirade, but if different people ask that question regularly it’s easy to see how it could get real old, real fast.
As an exercise in empathy, consider a question you don’t like being asked. Maybe it’s, “Have you done your homework?” or, “When are you getting married?” or “When are you having another baby?”. Now imagine that someone different asks you it, twice a day, every day. After a while, your inner chimp will want to throw bananas at someone (I think I might make it a week… maybe).
Also mentioned was how useful the internet is for anyone who wants to learn about these issues. Asking someone who knows more about it than you is all well and good if they’re happy to do it, but chances are you can just google it instead and save them the trouble. You get to pick how long or complicated an explanation you want and they don’t get wrung out repeating the same explanations to everyone with the same questions as you.
The final presentation of the day was a more personal one, with Dr. Robson recounting her experience of racial bias at university and in the veterinary profession. It wasn’t easy listening. When it doesn’t impact us personally, it can easy to forget that racism still exists and still makes people’s lives miserable.
More importantly, returning to the previous point, from the outside it can look like an isolated incident, while to those impacted the effect is sustained and profoundly awful. Dr. Robson detailed numerous occasions where other people would try to convince her that a particular incident was “just a joke” or that the prepetrator was “really a nice person”: effectively telling her what her own experiences were (and directly contradicting her own memory).
There is a name for this kind of behaviour: gaslighting, and it’s a form of psychological abuse. Again, empathy is key. If someone comes to us and is clearly upset about something, casually waving away their concerns and trying to tell them what their feelings ought to be is not a good response. We owe each other far better than that.
To finish off the day, we took part in a group exercise to try and make us think about the realities of people with very different lives from us. We were each given a piece of paper with a short description of a person: age, sex, gender expression, education, wealth, circumstances – all sorts of things. We then stood in a row and were asked a series of questions. For each “yes” answer we took a step forwards, for each “no” a step back. After a few dozen questions it became obvious that there were two clusters of people: one stuck against the back wall and another group spread across the front of the room.
As a way of visualising and exploring how society treats people differently it was a simple but powerful approach. Seeing the other people in the room either disappear in front or behind you was quite a chilling illustration of how unfair our “equal” society can be, as well as being an effective way to “walk” a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The Bottom Line
Having these conversations – any of them – isn’t easy: they require us to put our chimp brains on hold and instead try to pick through what can be complex issues that we might not fully understand. That said, if we want a society of rational people free from bias (conscious or unconscious), we must have the courage to communicate about subjects that make us uncomfortable, the empathy to appreciate experiences different from our own and the kindness to support each other as we try to do what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be.
References, Notes and Information for the Curious
1. Koch, K., McLean, J., Segev, R., Freed, M. A., Berry, M. J., Balasubramanian, V., & Sterling, P. (2006) How Much the Eye Tells the Brain. Current Biology, 16 (14), 1428-1434. A fascinating paper on the subject of retina bit rate in gerbils (extrapolated to humans).
6. Project Implicit: a project at Harvard University that attempts to quantify unconscious bias. You can take a test yourself if you’d like!
7. The Kirwan Institute publishes annual reviews on the research on unconscious bias. The 2013 and 2014 reviews are good general introductions to the subject, while later years focus more on different aspects of the subject.
The idea for this event conceived on a blustery
Scottish evening under the dim lights in the DHT underground cafe. The idea was
simple: to have a space for peer leaders and tutors to connect over the
material they share. With the innovation and drive of former PALs leader and
current tutor Larissa Nenning, a dream was able to become reality.
What followed was a whirlwind of brainstorming,
coffee runs, avocado toast, and marketing. An event like this was a first for
all of us involved, and we were determined to make it a success. Within the
University, students have access to a plethora of materials, between lectures,
tutorials, and peer learning sessions. Every student learns differently,
however, and we really wanted to look at alternative teaching techniques that
are frequently used across SPS tutorials and PALs sessions, and offer a space
to discuss best practices.
In terms of marketing, Chrystal Macmillan
building became our saviour. Posters and flyers about our event were placed all
across the building, including in the PhD room. Once we had opened the event
sign-ups to the public, we were thrilled to see that our advertising had worked
– we had a mix of tutors, lecturers, and PALs leaders all signed up.
The day before the event was spent preparing
custom-made booklets for participants and arranging goodybags, which included
pens and further creative facilitation resources. These included a sample lesson plan template,
information on PALS schemes in SPS, the official PALS Leader toolkit,
and the SALTO Youth Holistic Learning Toolkit. At 9 PM
we left CMB with high hopes for the following day!
Day of the Event
The day began the same way any successful event
does – with copious amounts of coffee and a fair scramble to get materials in
order. With the room set up, and ten minutes left until participants arrived,
we took a moment to reflect on our plan for the day. With the outline up on the
board, and catering waiting outside, we were feeling good about the next two
The session began with reflections on the different types of learners that exist within the University. We ran an activity where groups worked to brainstorm the different enablers and barriers to learning at University. It was a great space for people across the University to discuss some common challenges that face students, how it impacts their learning abilities, and how we can help turn barriers into enablers.
and Recipes for Successful Facilitation
The next activity was centered around what goes into creative facilitation. We had participants shout out key features and methods which we put into a framework of ingredients and steps to a recipe. With just a hint of patience and a dash of optimism participants were able to share methods that incorporated these creative ideas into the facilitation process.
The last event we ran was on practical
application of facilitation techniques in session planning. First, we had
participants brainstorm common problems that they face in their sessions – for
example, students being rowdy or underprepared. They then had to create a
lesson plan that actively took these problems into account.
Groups then shared their plans and got feedback from everyone in the room. It was really interesting to see how different people came up with a variety of different, and creative, ways of both presenting material and engaging students. For example, one group had the problem that sessions had low attendance, and the students that did attend were shy. The group had the idea to have each student create a diagram where they would write down what they know about a topic, and then pass to the next student. Each student would add to the paper, and the last student to add would present the final result to the group. This alleviates the stress of speaking as students can get their ideas out on paper, while still being able to work as a group and see what the other students think.
The session ended with some general discussion
in the group on what their plans had entailed, and also some enlightening
conversation on feedback methods. One participant recommended centering the
session around a common question that would be raised at the beginning of the
session, and then answering the question at the end. Another shared that she
asked her tutorials a different feedback question each week, which we thought
was a brilliant way of getting comprehensive feedback without overwhelming
In the spirit of this conversation, we
then had to ask participants for feedback specifically on our session. We
included feedback sheets in the goodie bags that we handed out at the beginning
of the session.
In general people thoroughly enjoyed the
opportunity to discuss different creative learning techniques and flesh out
common problems with the other participants. Many also responded that they now
knew more about PALs schemes within the School of Social and Political Science,
and it was lovely to hear that the collaboration was appreciated.
Future and Beyond
One of the largest parts of feedback we received was on the section of our questionnaire that asked recipients if they wanted to have more events like this in the future. The answer was a resounding yes! In the future we would love to run repeat or follow-up events centered around charing facilitation techniques at the University. We are working with PhD Training to see if facilitation can be required (and paid!) training. Additionally, we would like to continue to harmonize the different teaching resources across SPS, including fostering further open communication and sharing between PALs leaders and University staff.
There is so much talent at this
University, and there is so much that we can learn from each other, and that is
why we think this event was not only a success, but also a sign of a bright
future for University teaching techniques.
In this week’s post Access Officer Louise shares her experience of hosting a creative writing workshop…
As part of the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning, I helped run a creative writing workshop that invited students to learn about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and to write poems and short stories using archival records as their inspiration.
I was fortunate enough to be joined on the day by Ellen and Natalie from the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing and publishing society PublishED. Ellen and Natalie were a tremendous help and took over when it came to the creative aspect of the day by producing a series of tasks designed to get everyone in the creative mindset. We started the day by asking groups to list words that they associate with asylums and had an open discussion about what they perceived to be the treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era.
I then provided some context and discussed what we can learn about the conditions and treatment of patients within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital from the collection held within our archive.
We looked at a variety of records including photographs of the building interiors/exteriors, patient photographs, letters and clinical records as well as extracts from the patient magazine the Morningside Mirror.
To kick start the creativity Ellen and Natalie led two short exercises designed to get everyone writing (including myself and our recent intern Emma). The first of these was to write a bad poem in one minute using nouns picked out from the following picture showing a hallway within Craig House:
A number of people were brave enough to share with the rest of the group what they had written (and it was at that point that I realised that only I had written a truly bad poem).
As well as sharing out loud with the group some people were also kind enough to leave their writing behind and I have included some extracts below:
Others shoot and hit, yet I am always falling short, not cut out for any sport which follows precise lines. I take comfort in the ice the brilliance of crystals perched against one another, stacked close, like cell mates joined in the suspended flow.
Stand still. Please allow me to capture you, Let me take those harrowed eyes, that sour frown, Move not, lest you blur in time and in mind, Suppress those shivers; please dull down your twitch, Talk not, the shutter retains no sound
My friends, The time has come. The days are short and the odds are long but let me be clear: there will be no miracles here. We have long been told that change is coming, long held out for change that is coming, long put faith in change forthcoming. Change will come when we create it. A system built to subdue and divide us cannot stand if we do.They want to keep us hidden because we do not conform to their definition of “normal”. Because we do not conform to what is acceptable. Who are they? The rich? The educated? The powerful? Why should they be the gatekeepers of society, of what is normal, of what is allowed.
The feedback from the event was very positive and as it was my first writing event I asked people to comment on what worked and what didn’t work so that we can put on a similar and even better event in the future!
By Aura Kostiainen, a visiting PhD candidate from the University of Helsinki
What happens when a lawyer or a social scientist goes to the archives? A growing number of legal scholars and social scientists, or socio-legal researchers, are becoming enthusiastic about archival research. There are, however, some challenges and pitfalls while doing it, which sparked Andy Aydın-Aitchison, Laura Wise (University of Edinburgh) and their colleagues in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research to organise a two-day event around the theme. The symposium and workshop faced these challenges bravely, with deep thought and with just the right amount of humour and empathy. As I too often feel a bit of an outsider, being so cross-disciplinary, I eagerly signed up.
There were three overlapping and intertwined themes which formed a red thread through the two-day event. The first theme dealt with research ethics when doing archival research, the other the research process itself, and the third with hands-on practices while doing it – all entwined with the interdisciplinary challenges the researcher faces when combining archival research with the social scientific or legal approach –in ethical, theoretical and practical terms.
Ethics in archival research
The first keynote speaker, Jelena Subotic (Georgia State University), gave an excellent presentation on the ethical challenges a political scientist faces while doing archival research. These challenges stem from the different traditions of historical and social scientific research. What in political science seems like the only right thing to do, stands out as outrageous when taking into consideration the historical context of the research subjects.
As an example, Prof. Subotic told stories of concentration camp victims and perpetrators. In social sciences, the sources are usually anonymised, but from the point-of-view of holocaust victims, that would be to reduce them to numbers once again and thus do them a great injustice. Dr. Jackie Gulland (University of Edinburgh) had faced similar problems while trying to decide whether to anonymise the names behind appeal cases related to social security benefits. What the historical tradition teaches us is that there is no one-solution-fits-all fix to the ethical dilemmas, but they are always dependent on the context.
Another ethical question has to do with the archives themselves. Archives are places of power: someone has collected them and decided what is important enough to be taken in, and what is to be left out. Furthermore, the documents themselves are often produced by formal procedures entangled with asymmetrical power dynamics. The producers of the documents are people of power documenting beneficiaries, offenders and victims. Thus, an archive is by no means an innocent collection. One must be very careful in order to avoid doing more harm to the subjects, their families or their descendants than has already been done – even if the subjects themselves were already deceased.
The research process – dealings with the past
Some of the speakers, including Andy Aydın-Aitchison and Thijs Bouwknegt (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, NIOD), reflected on the similarities and differences of the research and legal process, upon the traces of which the research is built. It is important to notice that the legal process has its own logic and goals, and those are not necessarily the same as the researcher’s. Like history research, trials are also dealings with the past. It is an often-quoted statement among historians that it is not the researcher’s task to judge, but to understand, while the question of the (accusatory) criminal legal process is binary: is the accused proven guilty or not. Elma Demir (Goldsmiths University) also pointed out an important thing: it may be the case that the people involved in trials do not feel that justice is served at all! The understanding of justice may not be the same among legal professionals and lay people; the words and thoughts of the people involved might not fit into legal categories; or the trials might end up renewing the narratives that started the violence. What is the ethical task of the historian, when justice is not being served by the trial process?
At the same time, the goal of the historical research differs also from that of the social sciences: historiography appreciates the unique and strives to look at the past in its own terms, while social sciences often aim at finding generalisations and solutions to today’s challenges or at least questions that are relevant today. They also often have a different approach to the relationship between theory and empiria: historiography is prone to be data-driven and inductive, while social scientists approach the data from the perspective of pre-formed theoretical approaches and concepts. These differences may often cause misunderstandings and even rivalry or bad blood between the proponents of the different traditions. While social scientists may see historians as non-scientific or non-reflexive, historians, on the other hand, might deem social scientists as simplifying, reductive and disrespectful towards the nuances of the historical situation. In the undersigned the attempt to fit these two traditions has sometimes led to insecurity – sometimes even despair – both before the vastness of the theoretical literature and the archival material at hand.
Hands-on problems: lost in the archives?
In my opinion, there is some truth to the claim of the non-reflexivity of the historiography tradition. The Finnish political history professor Kimmo Rentola has compared historical research to building a house: after the project is finished, the scaffolding (aka the methods and theoretical building blocks) are taken away. This does not help a novice history researcher or a scholar coming from another field to understand what they should actually do while building their research design and starting their work in the archives.
A good amount of time at the Traces of Law event was spent discussing the challenges posed by the archives themselves, especially those dealing with international criminal tribunals. Iva Vukušič (Utrecht University) captured the dilemma aptly: ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia) archives: Treasure chest and/or bottomless pit?
While state representatives have an obligation to publish some of their material, international bodies, such as crime tribunals, do not necessarily have similar obligations. This makes the researcher’s work difficult. What to do if all the material is censored? On the other hand, one may be at risk of drowning in the material if the corpus is very vast. How to tackle these questions?
A clear research question is always a good start. Also, it is important to familiarise oneself with previous literature and have at least some insight into the “pit” one is getting oneself into. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition allows some freedom in the formulation of the research design, and the questions may also change during the research process. At the same time, historical research might make good use of the practical research manuals of the social sciences in terms of approaching, sorting, analysing and labelling data and keeping a research diary as the ethnographers do. A neglected approach to obtaining documents for study within the social sciences is using Freedom of Information legislation, as discussed by Elizabeth Barkas (University of Glasgow). Though the ‘archive’ yielded through such an approach can be undermined by redactions, gaps, and the time-consuming nature of obtaining such releases, FOI raises the possibility of conducting research on subjects of contemporary interest.
Traces of Law left behind a group of inspired scholars who, I am sure, will continue to collaborate on these questions and develop something fruitful in the future. There is so much to learn from lawyers, social scientists, and historians alike.
Aura Kostiainen is a visiting PhD candidate from the University of Helsinki. She will spend Spring 2019 in Edinburgh. She gave a presentation at Traces of Law on her PhD project on the ideological and conceptual foundations for the Finnish crime policy and criminal law laid by the Finnish Criminal Law Committee in the 1970s.
The second event I attended during the Festival of Creative Learning was pitched as an exploration of the issues around catastrophic climate change through role-playing.
Perhaps you are wondering what that long, ominous-looking word (pronounced ch-too-loo-seen) in the title means. So was I! I’d heard of the Cthulhu Mythos before – a collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Though dated now, they’re known for starting a genre known as cosmic horror. In these stories the sense of horror comes not from a monster or violence, but from humanity’s utter insignificance in a vast universe governed by forces beyond our ken.
This seemed like a promising starting point for an exploration of catastrophic climate change. The climate systems of Earth are immense by human standards after all. Even our meteorological models, while impressive, rely on supercomputers to predict the weather, pushing them well beyond human comprehension.
The term Chthulhucene is a more recent invention from sociologist Donna Haraway (the extra ‘h’ at the start is intentional, to distinguish the concept from Lovecraft’s work) as a change in perspective from the so-called anthropocene in which we live today1.
Why anthropocene, or any other -cene?
Where the anthropocene is concerned with humanity’s impact on the environment (which is already pretty terrifying – humanity is in the process of causing a sixth mass extinction), the chthulhucene is a vision of the future in which humans come to see themselves as a part of something much larger and more complex than themselves alone.
Chthulucene Dark is a role-playing game (RPG) where a group of players take on the role of characters in a science fiction setting out to explore these themes. It’s a relatively straightforward system as RPGs go: you play a character with a profession and some kind of sci-fi augmentation – I played an archaeologist with a bionic eye that spent most of the session seeing much more than he wanted to.
I’ve previously played a variety of tabletop RPGs2. The main difference between those and Chthulhucene Dark is they had a lot more rules for a lot more things. I like the complexity, but that kind of detail would only bog down a short game, and the idea is to spur thought and discussion about the themes, not to mess with lots of rules!
When you try to do something in this game, you roll a 6-sided die (d6) to see how well you do, if it’s related to your profession or you’ve got some help, you roll 2 dice and take the better result.
It gets a little trickier when you use your augmentation. If you can think of a way to use it to help you accomplish your goal you can roll an 8-sided die (d8) as well and, as before, take the best result. BUT! If your d8 rolls higher than your other dice, your augmentation pushes you beyond what the human mind was meant to cope with and you gain 1 Strain.
Strain is the system’s way to gauge insanity (a recurring theme in cosmic horror), it starts at 1 and goes up to 8. If you reach 8, your character goes mad and is removed from play. You also have a chance of gaining Strain if you roll a 6 or higher on any roll, as you find out too much about the disturbing truth. In these cases you roll a d8. If the result is higher than your current Strain, you gain 1 Strain.
This means that while you’re likely to pick up some Strain in the course of play, it’s quite hard to go right over the edge unless you get overenthusiastic with your augmentation. Despite my best efforts my character didn’t get above 4 Strain, and he was one of the more unhinged of the group.
I think the system works really well for something in the cosmic horror and investigation genres. The rules are simple enough that you can pick them up very quickly and as your characters uncover secrets they gradually become more erratic as a natural result, a neat agreement between story and the rules.
The story was set in the far future, long after humans have abandoned Earth after climate catastrophe made it uninhabitable. You might think they’d have learned from this, but no: humanity has spent thousands of years trapped in a cycle of finding new worlds and migrating to them once the current one becomes uninhabitable. This is a bit of a departure from common sci-fi themes, but I thought it worked really well as a vehicle to consider the topic of climate change, which involves the same themes around unsustainability. It’s one thing to use up a planet, but due to the ambiguous amount of time that had passed between leaving Earth and the current date I was a bit concerned that we were in danger of using up an entire galaxy!
Our characters were part of a team sent to explore humanity’s next prospective home, which was kind of a big deal as it was the most Earth-like planet we’d ever found in our recorded history. During our research though, we discovered a mysterious black substance that frustrated all our attempts to learn about it: it jammed our drills, it poisoned people and animals it came in contact with and the most we managed to learn about it was that it was organic (that is, carbon-based) and reacted in very strange ways to certain high-frequency vibrations.
After some exploration, some new players joined who were part of an earlier expedition who had gone native and learned to avoid the mystery substance wherever possible. Not only that, we discovered the fish on the planet had evolved a degree of resistance to its poisonous effects. Towards the end of the session we were conducting an underwater drilling mission to try and get to the bottom of what this stuff was and where it came from.
I don’t want to spoil the big reveal at the end of the story, as finding that out is part of the fun in any investigation or cosmic horror story, but when it came it hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks. It would have been really interesting to continue past that point, and have our characters (who were already at each other’s throats) grapple with the revelation.
I think that is definitely a big strength of the ‘role-playing as discussion’ format: it let’s you try on different views by playing a character who you might completely disagree with and seeing how they interact with other characters. From my own experience I know that if you have a single thoughtful player in a group otherwise unconcerned with an issue, it will almost always stimulate a discussion, because groups often end up doing things by consensus. The inclusion of the mystery element worked very well too, as a way to encourage us to learn more about the situation we found ourselves in.
Well what can I say, it was a success! This year we had an amazing 60 students on day one which followed through the week to 34 applications to represent The University in the iGEM competition over the summer! The highest we have had. Every year we aim to engage the students not only in science but the impact of this on the world and the impact that as a team they could have. As always the students were enthusiastic and engaged making holding the event enjoyable and a resounding success. We have come away from this week of solving the world’s problems with science with exciting and interesting new ideas that can go forward to form the basis of this year’s project. Although we are unable to have every student on the team, feedback through the week showed that the students enjoyed the experience and the interaction with science in a fun, informative and relaxed environment. Thank you to all the students that participated. Without their enthusiasm and engagement the Sandpit would not have been the fun and exciting experience it was.
of Brain Awareness Week 2019, Edinburgh Medical School held an interactive
performance of simulated brain surgery, featuring state-of-the-art
The event required organisation from many parties to make the event a success. This included liaising with local schools to widen participation in S4-S6 pupils and communicating with various groups in order to set up several stalls.
The event comprised of an unbelievable variety of stalls, taking the attendees on a journey through the brain’s anatomy, recent research in the area, as well as the possible ways of integrating art and music with medicine. These stalls ranged from ArtBeat (who teach anatomy using art) displaying and making clay hearts, to the SurgicalSoc stall where one could get the feel of what level of manual skills are required in laparoscopy. One attendee found the NeuroSoc stall especially engaging, where a couple of model skulls with craniotomies made it easier to visualise how a surgeon can gain access to the brain without injuring its delicate structure.
The simulated brain surgery crowned the evening. With its captivating plot and professionals from the field explaining each movement, it kept participants focused throughout the whole performance. The audience interaction via Kahoot was especially successful. One participant said that ‘by challenging myself to answer the questions I not only had fun, but I could also really feel that I was a part of the event’.
inspiring to listen to the story of a survivor of brain injury and his heroic
efforts to return to normal functioning, thereby emphasising both the
importance of human willpower and the difference a good neurosurgeon can make
to a person’s life.
event, I spoke to one of the attendees who described the Neurotheatre event as
surpassing her boldest expectations and said she would definitely come again!