Posts By / Matthew Bennett

Learning from someone who is learning themselves

It’s early the day after Easter Monday and I am sitting in the office looking out at the view as the haze clears and another fresh spring day dawns.  Yes all very poetic!  I have in fact spent much of the weekend looking at the view while spending the mornings working hard on a conference paper for later this week – I am a keynote speaker at a primatology conference this week.  I also have a big project meeting attached to the conference since I am now one year into my current NERC project and it’s about time that we started to have something to show for it!  I have been running this really cool computer code in MATLAB to generate some new data which was written by some colleagues in Liverpool.  It takes an individual footprint – in this case some from Namibia – and translates, transforms and superimposes it on others to create a mean footprint.  So for example if you have a trail of ten prints then instead of trying to interpret all ten individually you can focus on the mean.  It is a great way forward since intra-trail variability is a key problem in making inferences from ancient footprint trails.  Took me a while to master MATLAB – well master is a bit of an overstatement, at least get it to work! But once I got it working I could set the code running to process data in batches, time consuming but the results are great.  This whole process has set me thinking about the fact that doing research is really about life long learning – learning new stuff whether it be concepts, software or skills – and that is what is fantastic about being an academic and makes the profession one that I feel privileged to be part.  Sharing this with students and giving them the skills and enthusiasms for a life time of learning is also one which is cool.  A week Wednesday is the BU Education Enhancement Conference; I am down to talk about research informed education something which I feel very strongly about.  I have to write the talk yet, but for me the key is the fundamental idea of ‘learning from someone who is learning themselves’.  I really like this concept and when people ask what research has to do with a good student experience I think the answer is summed up by this phrase and in the simple idea of passing on ones own wonder at new knowledge and learning!

A champion for research?

When I applied for my new job as PVC (Research, Enterprise, Internationalisation) I set out my stall around the need for there to be a strong Academic Champion for Research within BU.  Someone who would fight the corner of ordinary academics engaged in research and enterprise.  As an active researcher I understand many of the challenges and barriers that exist within the system, but to stay an effective champion I need to stay in touch with the rank and file.  I need to know what concerns you, what the obstacles and challenges are.  I have spent a lot of time in the first few months listening to individuals around BU, visiting our Research Centres and talking to anybody who wants to talk about research.  This is an enlightening process not least because of the wonderful work which is taking place and the committed, energetic staff around the organisation that make it such a great place to work; a place that I am fiercely proud off.  There is nothing better than hearing about someone’s research first hand and it makes this job worth doing.  So please keep letting me have your news, ideas and information on the challenges you face to getting things done.  I want to know what concerns you, what needs to be fixed, how we can improve our collective research performance as I begin to think about a new research and enterprise strategy for BU over the next few months.  Just stop me on campus, drop me an e-mail, add a comment to this post, or book an appointment to talk research!

Tea in the Namibian Desert

Matthew Bennett

PS I thought this post needed a picture since I like pictures; so here is one from December of tea in the Namibian Desert!

Writing & Time

One of the recurrent issues for researchers is time, as for most things in life.  I am in the process of visiting all the BU Research Centres and at various points in all of these conversations time for research and the balanced workload emerges as an issue.  There are no easy solutions to balancing ones work load; and there is a mix of both personal and corporate responsibility.  As a busy academic, with lots of external commitments, a big job and two young boys, time is for me the one thing that I don’t have and is something most of us have in common to varying degrees.  Research is often the first thing to be sacrificed as the time pressure builds or it is pushed into stolen moments between other things.

Twenty years ago as a young lecturer I used to prioritise my research over everything else and my teaching was done in the time that was left, but in those days there were few external commitments and time had that elastic property which it seems to have lost with age.  These days such flexibility does not exist, but my research is still to the fore dominating the spaces between other commitments.  Like today for example on the walk into work I was puzzling how to portray some data; I spent a few minutes while making a cup of tea between meetings outlining the structure of my next paper in my head; a structure which I finally sketched out before introducing tonight’s Professorial Inaugural lecture.  With luck I may find the time next week to start work on fleshing out this paper which I am quite excited about on the quiet.  Snatched moments are not ideal but are better than nothing; the key for me is to make the most of them.

The hardest part of getting a new paper started is setting out the first scrappy draft on paper, or just the first few pages.  Once I have this I am able to continue to work on it in stolen moments but that first bit with the cursor constantly blinking at you is hard and I need to find some proper time to marshal my thoughts and launch myself at it.  Writing is one of those hard things which you quickly get out of the habit of and getting back to paper writing after a break can be challenging.  Yes we write e-mails and texts all the time, but real prose is a struggle for most of us, certainly for me.

Last year a very eminent academic gave me a piece of advice which I now try to follow.  It is a simple task around a writing discipline which has helped me a lot.  Their advice was to write something ‘proper’ every morning as the first thing you do each day; just for twenty minutes or so rather than reach instantly for your inbox or that pile of marking.  According to their advice it leads to a more productive day in which you are more likely to write good stuff in those stolen moments.  Well I am a bit sceptical about advice like this I started the practice last year in desperation and found that it really does help.  In fact I try to spend twenty minutes writing something both morning and night now; the evening is more about trying to get ideas and issues out of my head but I do feel more productive when I start the day with some proper prose.  It can be anything and in my case is often written long hand in my ‘ideas book’; this blog post for example, a few paragraphs of a strategy paper, or better still some of my research notes.  It works really well when I am in the field or analysing data and makes a big difference to translating that fieldwork or analysis into published output.  Sitting in my tent or a seedy hotel somewhere in the world I try to write down my reflection on the day’s fieldwork and sketch out and articulate my emerging ideas.  A bit like the Victorian scientist or explorer writing out their notes or diary in laborious copper plate!  My notes are far from copper plate but the idea works.  I suppose the key point is that writing regularly really helps me keep productive and makes the most of those stolen moments for research helping me to stay positive about my research progress even when there is in reality very little due to other work commitments.  There are many such techniques and I would be interested in hearing from you on this subject, but the key thing is to find the time for research.  The appraisal round commences next term and it is your chance to be pro-active in challenging your mangers for the time to push forward your research agenda not just in stolen moments but in meaningful blocks of time; I wish you luck in this challenge and you have my support!  There are no magic solutions to the issue of time, but if you know of any I would love to hear about them!

Matthew Bennett

PVC (Research, Enterprise & Internationalisation)

Associate Professors @ BU

Back in 2008 BU introduced the designation of Associate Professor and there are currently fifteen Associate Professors across the organisation.  During the last couple of months I have met with them all to discuss ways in which the institution can better support their Professorial journey.  I thought it might be worth sharing a few of the highlights of these conversations.  Probably the most positive element was the fact that most Associate Professors were very appreciative of the designation and the door and opportunities it had opened.  For most there was clear added value in the scheme and it was generally believed to be a good thing and a key part of their own development journey.  In this respect I also draw attention to at least three successful promotions from Associate Professor to Professor in the last two years.  In terms of future development support we have agreed to put in place a package of measures to help Associate Professors navigate their own Professorial journeys.  These measures include a programme of personal mentoring and coaching, irregular cohort meetings, action learning and support in balancing their work loads more effectively.  We are also committed to developing BU’s Professoriate more generally and strengthening its voice within the organisation.  I met recently to discuss this with the Professoriate as a whole and hope to continue these conversations in the coming months.


Matthew Bennett

Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research, Enterprise & Internationalisation)