Essex lecturer scoops UK’s top innovation award

  • Date

    Fri 26 Nov 21

Dr Liam Jarvis wearing a black bow tie, white shirt and black jacket and holding his Times Higher Education award

Essex’s Dr Liam Jarvis walked home with the Most Innovative Teacher award at the 2021 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards last night.

Dr Jarvis, who was one of eight UK lecturers shortlisted for the national award, was recognised for his quick thinking and imaginative response to the COVID-19 2020 lockdown.

Widely recognised as the ‘Oscars of higher education’, the THE Awards attract hundreds of entries from individuals, teams and institutions from across the UK, and for the first time this year, Ireland.

The awards were handed out at the Hilton London Metropole, by broadcaster Emily Maitlis, where nearly 1,000 people gathered to celebrate the success stories from universities during one of the sector’s most turbulent years, 2019-20.

Dr Jarvis, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies and co-director of the Centre for Theatre Research was recognised for transforming his intensive creative theatre workshop into a unique online learning experience in a matter of weeks, ensuring his students didn’t miss the chance of a lifetime to work with actor and director Mella Faye.

By redirecting departmental funding for cancelled conferences and research trips and negotiating a deal with theatre-streaming service LIVR, Dr Jarvis sent 25 virtual reality headsets around the world allowing his students to watch performances, take part in storytelling workshops and pitch their own reinvention of a Greek myth, from wherever they were in the world.

The THE Awards judges said Dr Jarvis “stood out for how he made the rapid pivot from planned face-to-face practice to offer students impactful remote virtual experiences in theatre and drama. This enabled learning communities to be built across the world, inspiring new creations by students which modelled new forms of theatre.”

Dr Jarvis said: "Winning this award has been wonderful and unexpected. My interest in theatre has always been as an inherently collaborative practice, which can be challenging at the best of times! But lockdown restrictions have put the collaborative dimensions of our discipline to the test, imposing new sets of limitations, unforeseen personal barriers and new ethical sensitivities to the ways we might and/or can work together. What I have learnt from our extraordinary Essex drama students, colleagues and invited professional theatre-makers during the pandemic is our phenomenal collective capacity to adapt in surprising ways; to use this unique moment to challenge our habitual ways of working and to retrieve what we value in our practice when the face-to-face encounters on which theatre is predicated can simultaneously pose a public health risk.

"Beyond my own achievements, this award is so important for drama teachers across the UK because of the seismic logistical and pedagogic challenges we have faced in a discipline so heavily impacted by the restrictions of the last 18 months. The visibility that this award offers to our collective efforts - not just mine - is extremely important and I’m proud to dedicate this achievement to those teachers and students negotiating the complex challenges we face."

Dr Jarvis' ingenuity in response to the pandemic is just one example of Dr Jarvis’ innovative methods however: he has also developed digital performance workshops that allow students to explore, with industry professionals, how computing and interactive technologies can inform performance practices; and gives his students £40 out of his own pocket each year giving them just 30 minutes to decide democratically how to spend it.

Also celebrating at the event were Essex's Library and Cultural Services team who were finalists in the Outstanding Library Team category for the second time in three years. 

Speaking at the event, THE editor John Gill said: “The Times Higher Education Awards have been recognising outstanding achievements in UK higher education for the best part of two decades, but never before have they shone a light on the level of effort and creativity that was demanded of universities throughout the 2019-20 academic year."