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‘O Captain! My Captain!’

5 October 2017

Today [5 October], it's World Teacher day! In the film Dead Poets Society, students leap onto their desks to salute the English teacher that inspired them. Here at Bristol, we celebrate our lecturers who are changing lives in our Best of Bristol lecture series, and Tom Corfield (MEng 2009) speaks to Nonesuch about why he set it up seven years ago.

When I was at studying Engineering at Bristol I started sneaking into my friends’ lectures to see what they were like. My first ‘other’ lecture outside my subject was about the history of art, which I knew nothing about. It was exciting because (weirdly) it was all relevant to the world around me. The lecturer encouraged us to get out and see art and architecture in the real world rather than just sitting in a lecture theatre looking at slides.

Sneaking into lectures

I started out with history of art and then branched out into theology, politics and medicine. My friends started out thinking I was a bit nutty for wanting to do ‘non-compulsory’ learning, but when they heard about all the other subjects they were always intrigued, particularly when there were broader insights that turned out to be relevant to their own subject. Invariably each lecture led me to think about new ideas, read an unexpected book or, at the very least, have a good conversation later in the pub with my friends.

The lecturers didn’t notice in large lectures, but one time a friend invited me to something that turned out to be a seminar. There were only about eight other people in the room and I was the only male participant in what turned out to be a seminar on gender politics! Wrong as that may be on so many levels… the lecturer welcomed me in and even humoured my (probably) daft questions at the end.

Turning an idea into reality

It struck me that everyone should get the chance to do this – to hear the most inspirational teaching from across the University, regardless of the subject you happened to study. In every subject there was a lecturer who in 30 minutes could inspire you to be interested in something for life. They were all amazing! That’s where the idea for the Best of Bristol lectures started – as a student-voted showcase of the most inspirational teaching the University has to offer.

But then there was the question – how? An idea was one thing… doing it was quite another. But I was determined, and passionate to build it. I had an amazing teacher when I was in primary school. Every week we had a lesson that was just called ‘technology’ and he encouraged a room full of eight-year-olds to explore a cupboard full of old tools, bits of wood and broken things and try to make stuff out of it. He was the one who inspired me to become ‘an inventor’.

I went on to study a new course called Engineering Design at Bristol because of that teacher. I had gained a lot of the skill and know-how needed to get the show running; I learnt to build websites so that I could set up a digital campaign to show support for the idea. In the end over 1,000 students signed a petition to get the Best of Bristol lectures started and more than 1,500 voted on which lecturers should take part. The best thing in the first year was that an amazing group of students volunteered to help make it all happen. From organisation to branding, marketing, websites and film making, nothing would have happened without this awesome team of legends.

Broadening horizons

All the Best of Bristol lectures were great. What the best lecturers had in common was that they took the opportunity to talk about their own research, something that was maybe controversial or new, but in a way that everyone could engage with. They were all different and all unashamedly themselves. Often the lecturers with the most interesting dress sense ended up being the most intriguing speakers – such as English historian Ronald Hutton, who was wonderful.

For me being a student is about broadening your horizons and being inspired to learn about new things. Having a great teacher has always been the thing that’s made me fall in love with a subject and want to understand it more. The best thing after the first year of the lectures was that there was a second year and a third year and more! Successive teams of brilliant students have made the Best of Bristol Lectures their own and it’s been really exciting to see.

Never stop learning

After graduating, I got an award from the social enterprise start-up funders UnLtd to grow the Best of Bristol idea to universities across the UK. This got me into EdTech (education technology) start-ups, where I brought together my love of learning with my ‘inventor’ skills. I’m now Head of Product at Social Finance Digital Labs, where we develop ‘Tech for Good’ – apps that empower people to tackle complex social problems like homelessness. Bristol gave me so much, not to mention great friends and a drive to never stop learning.

Further information

For more alumni thank yous visit our Letter to my favourite lecturer feature or Your favourite lecturer from Bristol feature.

Do you have a favourite lecturer? Let us know, we'd love to hear from you.