The University Listening Project: A conversation about the film

In filming; Tracey Fearnehough interviewing Olga Bloemen. Photo credit: Tracey Fearnehough and Holger Mohaupt.

In this extra post, Harriet Harris, University Chaplain, and Tracey Fearnehough, film maker for Room 8 Studio and ECA film and TV department, have a conversation about the ‘University Listening Project’ film, which was made as part of What’s the University For? Series

When we set out to make this film, our question was: How do we thrive in a contemporary university, and keep doing what we are doing with grace and pleasure? The film’s intention was to listen to students and staff, and capture their experiences. Now that the film is out there, we talk together about the making of it, and what happens next…

Doodle by Thin|Silence capturing reflections following the Premiere of film at ECA in 2018-19.

 A ‘brave’ film?

H: One of the things I enjoy, but have mixed feelings about it, is that people who see the film, say it is ‘very brave’. Now, I like to be brave, it’s nice to be called brave, but actually, why is this film brave?

T: People in the film do talk about the challenges, but one of the interviewees said: ‘It is great to work in a place that is prepared to talk about the elephant in the room.’ And so, isn’t it brilliant that the University actually wanted this film to be made?

H: And I don’t know of any other university that has done something like this. I have taken the film to other universities and they are amazed. It is a plus for The University of Edinburgh, to turn the lens on ourselves and be so reflective about 21st Century university life.

T: I guess we wanted to capture what can sometimes feel like a mismatch between believing in what you’re doing educationally but being tripped up in the momentum for the job.

H: People feel the change to a consumer culture in the University, and the What’s the University for? Series reflects how difficult we find this change, both conceptually and practically. We started the Series in 2012, when the fees went up for most students at UK universities.

T: Yes, there is new fragmentation and disconnect. As a film maker, I wanted to see if I could make visible the intangible in the room.

H: But, brilliantly, you said ‘we don’t want to make a moan; we want to capture people’s enthusiasm for university education, and why they get up and come in in the morning’. It was never going to a moan film, nor a PR film. We wanted a film that was constructive, and therefore it had to be real, both about the joys and the challenges.

T: But we didn’t make the film as a place for solutions; it was made as a trigger for further dialogue and connection.

The transformative power of connection

T: I loved the idea of breaking down divides between students and staff. As someone who works at the University, I loved talking to students particularly, in a completely neutral, safe setting, about how it feels to be a student here. And equally to speak with other lecturers about how it feels to stand up in front of a class, or not have time to do all the things expected of you.

Interviewing people for the film was like meeting long lost family; a feeling of ‘Oh, you feel the same!’

You think you’re in your own little cave, working away with your students in your bit of the university. It has been amazing to discover that people right across the university in their own corners, feel the same. And also, in meeting one another, we came across an immense wealth of knowledge.

H: I have really enjoyed the transformative effect on everybody who took part. Everybody was energised by it, uplifted, enthused. People looking in from outside thought that we were a group who had theories about the university, but most of the interviewees did not know each other until we met to preview the finished film! You and I were looking for range in the participants. We wanted a diversity of views, a diversity of places across the university, a diversity of roles, and a mix of students and staff, including mature students, and student support staff. So, it wasn’t a group at all, but the connections that were made were really strong and enlivening.

T: Each of the people I interviewed, I have stayed in touch with. Not only that, but we share teaching practices, and have developed four or five trans-University initiatives. Given the chance to collaborate outside your system, magic can happen, but we don’t have this factored in to our allocation models. We want to do more of it, but we need to be given time to do that.

Response to the film by Professor Annie Pirrie, author of Virtue and the Quiet Art of Scholarship.

A sense of belonging

T: I  hope the film enables empathy between students and staff, where they are able to understand each other, rather than people sitting in their own settings saying, ‘I’m just going to do my job and you do yours’ – that’s not going to create a strong set of relationships, or a sense of belonging.

H: And we want a strong sense of belonging at the University. And the question still is: how can we find ways that connect us well? That’s ultimately why we made the film.

T: Yes, that’s it!

**Come and see the film and enhance the art of listening within the University. The next screening of the film The University Listening Project will take place on Thursday 6th February 2020: 5.30-7pm (doors open at 5pm for refreshments), Chaplaincy Centre Auditorium, 1 Bristo Square, EH8 9AL. You can book a ticket through Eventbrite. **

You can also watch the film on the Chaplaincy webpages, though it’s best viewed as a group experience.

Harriet Harris

Harriet Harris is the University Chaplain and Head of the Chaplaincy Service. She is also a teacher and researcher, an Honorary Fellow of the Divinity School, Co–Director of the University’s Global Compassion Initiative, and Associate Fellow of the Clinical Educator Programme.

Tracey Fearnehough

Tracey is a part-time Teaching Fellow in the Film and TV department at Edinburgh College of Art. As a former documentary programmer at the Edinburgh International film festival, she was changed by the work she saw and went back to do a masters at Edinburgh College of art in Film Directing, to make films herself. She cut her teeth making shorts and working on projects for BBC, STV and other independents. She is co-director of Room 8 Studio collective, making work for and with broadcasters, communities, INTO Film, British Film Academy, British Library, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Goethe Institute. She recently produced the BAFTA nominated short documentary ‘Plastic Man.’

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