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Tim Roberts interview: teaching is a magic trick

28 Feb 2020 | Advance HE Directeur général at École De Cirque de Québec (The Quebec City Circus School), Tim Roberts reflects on his career in Circus Arts and the changes he has seen in higher education (HE) since he won his NTF award in 2012

Tim says that being involved in a relatively niche discipline in HE was key in him applying for the NTFS in 2012 and that the recognition the award gave him was a big factor in helping his career develop since.

“It was part of a credibility drive really. Back in 2012, the circus sector wasn’t really recognised in the HE sector, it was always a surprise that there was a degree in Circus Arts, let alone two.

“That was the main reason why I applied for the award, we wanted Circus Arts to sit around the HE table. For the recognition and credibility of Circus Arts, there has to be a level of reflection that anyone with a BA degree would have.

“Universities might think that there is no reflexive learning in Circus Arts but at degree level, basically everything you do is reflexive learning. You’re rehearsing, you’re evaluating. If you’re learning to juggle or a new figure in acrobatics it’s an entire process, daily, of reflexive learning.”

Learning languages

He says the biggest challenge of developing a degree programme for a discipline that had never had one before was being able to communicate to both sides of the divide.

“It’s not just the fact of writing a degree and convincing HE that your subject matter has credibility, it’s actually having to convince an entire community that the HE sector is beneficial for that community as well. You find yourself in the middle, almost like that little spot in an hourglass, with your communities on each side and you have to translate into each direction so everyone understands.

“Coming here from UK HE and being able to wave around the award, I was able to speak a different language to the people that ran the organisation here in Quebec, to defend the fact that I thought that the circus sector benefitted from HE infrastructure.”

He also notes a change in the emphasis of HE in the UK over the years, before and after he moved to Canada.

“When I left the UK four years ago, there was all the talk about reform in HE, the push to STEM subjects and universities closing down their humanities departments and I find that an enormous disadvantage.

“I spent 16 years in the UK and when I started the Times Higher Education supplement was filled with articles about people coming out of university without knowing how to do technical stuff, not knowing how to program computers etc. And then over time, the articles started changing to the fact that people coming out of university spent all their time on computers and didn’t know how to talk on the phone, didn’t know how to contribute to a collective creative process and didn’t know how to defend their ideas.”

“You think, ‘well of course they don’t!’ because ten years ago you were telling them they all needed to learn technical stuff and all these ‘soft’ skills were a waste of time. Now it’s flipped over and they’re saying nobody knows how to talk to each other.”

Defending experts

He thinks that a lack of appreciation for the arts, in HE and in society as a whole, is a big issue.

“You know, just because somebody goes and does arts doesn’t mean they’re going to go and be an actor all the time. It means that they learn to speak in public, they learn to be comfortable in front of others, they learn how to defend an idea, they learn how to find words to express the ideas that they have and everyone in society benefits from that.

“But because there’s this move, in the press, by society and by politicians to think everything you do in school has to be directed to some kind of specific career, you forget that there’s all these capacities that you need to be able to do a job. I think that people have neglected that.

“HE has come under an onslaught, mostly from politicians, and you think of Michael Gove saying, ‘people are tired of experts’. That phrase, for me, took a massive block out of the foundation of HE because everyone that was learning to be expert in something quickly became suspect. And that is quite sad.

“The idea of actually thinking freely about stuff is being lost and I hope there is pockets of resistance to this.

“Before my daughter went to university we were talking and I remember saying to her, ‘you don’t just go to university to get a job’. Even 15 years ago this is what kids were hearing from society: you go to university, you come out and you’ll earn 100 grand a year.

“The kids that believed these myths are finding it a big shock to their system.”

He thinks that the NTFS can play a huge role in challenging this shift in what universities give to society and the value of education.

“If you’re defending teaching excellence, you have to defend experts and you have to defend thought that might not be automatically applicable to something. You also have to defend education as something that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate use, but that is tough because kids are conditioned for that now.

“It’s like saying, to go from London to Bristol there’s only one route and you go straight on. But in doing that you miss all the side roads where you might find interesting stuff and the real solution to your problem. There’s nothing on the edge of the motorway except petrol stations and everyone stops there. Where are you going to find new ideas?

“That’s what I think the role of the NTFS should be: to say ‘people have to trust experts again’ and ‘people have to not be suspicious of people that learn’, because if you’re not careful you end up like the United States, where all intelligence and intellect has automatically become suspicious and is accused of being elitist.”

His move to Canada was born out of a determination to spread the arts, and Circus Arts specifically, across the globe and particularly into the USA.

“I’m now over in French-speaking Canada, in Quebec, where there is still, compared to the English-speaking side, an appreciation of the arts in society. However, we still have an ‘American-style’ funding model, whereby the first thought of anyone coming up with anything is ‘how do I make money out of it?’ rather than ‘how am I going to express myself?’.

“If I didn’t have the UK HE experience, or the weight of the NTF award, it wouldn’t have happened. You can wave the award around and people go ‘ooohhhhh’ and it gives credibility, not just to me, but to the Circus Arts sector.

“HE in the UK is highly respected and if you say you have an award for making a contribution to the sector in the UK for the work that you do, then even if they don’t know what the NTF award is, they recognise the weight of the award.

“This is where the next big fight is, because we want to start creating for creation’s sake. Ultimately, before I kick the bucket, I’d like to be involved in the first Circus Arts degree programme in the United States and I think having the NTF award puts me in a good place to be able to do that.”

Motivation to be curious

He says that winning his NTF was a really exciting moment for him as it gave him the opportunity to talk to people from other disciplines and learn from them.

“I was kind of unbearable for two or three days. When it came to my turn doing tea rounds I’d say ‘hey, you do know I won an award?’ and my colleagues just said ‘shut up!’. But yeah I was really excited about it.

“All of a sudden having peers in different subject areas was really exciting, going to the different conferences and being able to talk to people who weren’t circus people was really interesting. For me to then go back to the circus world and bring in different things was great.”

He thinks teaching excellence is being able to motivate people to discover information themselves rather than spoon-feeding them.

“It’s kind of like a magic trick, you want to find ways to lead them to find the information themselves, and then they’ll ask you questions and you might be able to help them refine it or get more details on it. But people are only going to learn if they’re motivated, and motivation comes from putting people in situations where they can discover and be curious.

"Teaching excellence is how you almost render yourself invisible and get the students to discover the information you have hidden for them, in a way.

“The teacher becomes a facilitator rather than a pitcher that pours all the knowledge into their brains. Every time you have a new set of students you have to figure out a new magic trick."

Advice for applicants

“My advice for applicants putting in their claims for the award is: be honest about yourself. Even though it’s natural to try and big yourself up a bit, let the quality of what you’ve done shine through on its own. Honesty and authenticity will shine through.

“The big ‘thing’ for me was: you’ve created a degree programme from scratch for a discipline that never had one before and a lot of people think shouldn’t even have one. But you could say that for 20 pages and get nowhere, the hard part was unpicking that one thing and explaining all the different aspects and challenges to creating a programme for a discipline that never had one before.

“If you win, talk to everybody about your award, be involved in the conferences, get involved in working groups and share things with the community. That’s what opens up the doors and that’s what I found really interesting about it, actually spending time with other people in the community.

“You’re only going to get out what you put in. Don’t just put the award on your shelf, use it.”

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Applications for a National Teaching Fellowship 2020 close on Wednesday 18 March 2020. Institutions can nominate up to three individuals for the award. Find out more.

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Tim Roberts is Directeur général at École De Cirque de Québec (The Quebec City Circus School). He previously worked in the UK for the National Centre for Circus Arts in London where he developed the UK's only progressive HE programme for Circus Arts including a Foundation Degree, a BA(Hons) Degree and a Postgraduate Certificate in Circus Arts.

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