Fifteen to One | Gabriel Cavalli

Gabriel Cavalli, Director of the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE), talks about his first impressions of our University and his passion for teaching and learning in our latest 15 to 1.

Gabriel Cavalli looking straight down the camera, wearing a purple striped shirt, a dark blazer and black glasses

Can you describe your role in 100 words?   

As LITE Director, I am the academic and strategic lead for LITE, the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence. LITE champions Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), also known as Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER). Essentially, research or scholarly activity aimed to improve the quality, impact and outcomes of student education at Leeds, often conducted by experts of subjects other than education. The latter makes it very interesting. Most of us have had to reconvert from our subjects of origin into a hybrid, for example an expert of higher education in chemistry. 

What really impresses you about Leeds? 

What doesn’t! That would be shorter to answer. I am mightily impressed by Leeds, from before I applied, before I started my job and in the few days I have been here. LITE is unique in the sector in terms of how it operates. Support for LITE from the top of the University but also the wider community is borderline overwhelming (I came here for SEC, the Student Education Conference in January, before I started my job properly, and the love for LITE was staggering).  

I am impressed by the facilities, from the gorgeous campus to the buildings, to the sustainability resourcing, to the student union facilities and services at the heart of campus... The list goes on.  

I have just discovered the two art galleries on campus, and I am overjoyed.  

But if I must choose one, the quality, enthusiasm and friendliness of the wider community and my own LITE team. It’s easy to take these things for granted if you have been in the same institution for long. I have moved around. This is the fifth UK university I have been involved with, plus one Spanish, one Uruguayan and one Chinese university, in addition to being a visitor and a collaborator in countless others. So, trust me, Leeds is impressive!     

What question have you most frequently been asked in your career?   

“Why are you so loud?” Answer: a combination of being South American, a teacher, neurodivergent*, and having treaded the boards - my brain locks into a space and is programmed to fill it with my voice to ensure people can hear me.  

Sadly, wearing headphones on Teams meetings is a problem, because I lose return on my own voice, which my brain reads as “speak up!”. Apologies in advance. 

“Why are you so passionate?” Answer: a combination of being South American and neurodivergent. I care about (certain) things. Profoundly and unreservedly. Sorry, not sorry.   

*In my case High Sensory Processing Sensitivity (HSPS), a very recent discovery for me, which has explained a lot. 

What are you most looking forward to working on in the next 12 months?   

Working with everyone who has an interest and a stake in SoTL or DBER at Leeds, regardless of whether they are a LITE fellow or not! And ensuring LITE remains a prime contributor to delivering positive impact in student education at Leeds, working with the wider community.  

Another unique aspect of Leeds is the value of “evidence-based” actions placed in its strategy. This is particularly relevant in student education. We have great experts and expertise in student education at Leeds. Championing SoTL and DBER also means championing our SoTL and DBER heroes and expertise to ensure their outstanding projects feed into improving the student learning experience. Both our Leeds students and our great educators deserve this type of impact. And finally, ensuring we have student voice in SoTL and in LITE. I would love to expand and enhance our offering for students to participate in SoTL and DBER. It is your/their student learning experience we’re talking about here. You/they have to be centre stage!  

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?   

So many people to mention. Carl Wieman should be named here, because he’s an outstanding DBER scholar and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, and he shows that the separation between research and (student) education is an artificial construct. In fact, he became an educator scholar because he wanted to improve research outcomes.  

I have been profoundly inspired by my students, past and present. It may sound clichéd, but working with students is a joy (most of the time!). I am inspired by my collaborators and colleagues and, since we’re talking about SoTL/DBER, I need to mention my close scholarly team at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL): Agne Kocnevaite (Agne is also my PhD student), Colleen Cotter and Janet De Wilde, who have supported and nurtured our joint research in inclusive education in rethinking expertise itself as a form of exclusion, and using language and linguistic approaches to unpack the barriers that it poses to learners. I wouldn’t be here without them; they have shaped who I am. No one is an island. All our achievements are collective, and if someone tells you otherwise, don’t trust them.  

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours?   

Becoming Director of LITE. Honestly. Okay, that might be too soon to be an “achievement” as I have just started, but I feel very privileged to have been chosen to lead such a space.  

In terms of stuff accomplished: founding the Queen Mary University of London Centre for Academic Inclusion in Science and Engineering (CAISE) on the back of my research with Agne Kocnevaite, Colleen Cotter and Janet De Wilde. It placed inclusive education at the centre of STEM education at QMUL, in ways which are not often recognised as central to STEM subjects. And it also gave a space for more than 45 staff who had been doing great work in this area totally independently and relatively unmapped. It is now a platform for growth and development, and I am mostly proud of the team that leads it, Henri Huijberts, Marie-Luce Bourguet and Folashade Akinmolayan-Taiwo, with ten incredible school leads. (Again, it’s all team effort!)  

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?   

It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon... with hurdles, and detours, and breaks, and re-starts. In fact, it’s more like a triathlon (or multiathlon), as identities shift. And there’s great scenery, which you will miss if you’re obsessed with the finishing line. And there are others running with you. Choose your tribe well. You are going to need them. Be kind, with yourself as much as others. Be patient. Be bold. And, sometimes, be a coward if you have to. Be sensible. Be curious. Be a team player.   

What is your vision for the future here at Leeds? 

I see SoTL/DBER as an opportunity to bridge the artificial separation between research and student education that is still “a thing” in the sector worldwide. Sadly. This separation hurts both research (and researchers) and student education (and students). I think LITE has a role to play, together with the wider community at Leeds and the University leadership, for Leeds to be a beacon of a highly impactful and inclusive, truly integrated community of scholars, (this includes students), in all aspects of university activity. I think the vision needs to go beyond the immediate role we all play at the University.  

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career?   

That’s tricky for me to answer because I never thought I would do an MRes or a PhD for the sake of the degree or the title. When I thought about a career it was never on the basis of the roles. For me, doing an MRes and a PhD was a natural progression to be involved in scholarly activity and also be part of a community of scholars. That was my interest. And that’s invariably HE, so I stayed. But the aspect that draws me in more widely is learning. Education, or student education, for me, is secondary in importance to learning. I remember being in high school in some class that I can’t remember now, completely in awe of being with others, learning together. At that point I wanted to become a teacher to maintain a loop to that feeling of being in awe of learning. Later, I realised there were other ways of learning. Research or scholarly enquiry, SoTL, DBER, are all forms of learning. That’s why I believe so strongly that the separation between research and (student) education is a historical construct of how the sector was shaped, that needs dismantling.     

What are your campus highlights?   

Visiting for the SEC in January. Without a doubt. The buzz, the excitement, the love for LITE and student education oozing from the Leeds community. I wasn’t expecting it on that scale. It is without a doubt the largest intra-institutional student conference in HE in the UK; certainly that I know of. Second, I’d say finding two art galleries on campus. I could not be happier. It is very rare to have one art gallery in a university in the UK, let alone two. Third, the rabbits on campus.  

The place is a gorgeous bizarre (in a nice way) mixture of Brutalist and Victorian architecture and a very green campus. I hope everyone is extremely proud of being at Leeds, I certainly am!   

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?   

The art galleries. I was passing by when I discovered them today. And I’d love to visit every single School in the university, but that will take me a while. I hope I get invited soon.   

What do you do to relax away from university life?  

 I like films and theatre. I like walking. I think that’s a bit clichéd, but it’s true.  

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?   

I like travelling in different places. So, it’s difficult to have a favourite, as I don’t return often to many places, I’m mostly trying to go somewhere new. Certainly, the most breathtaking places I have been to are in the UK or Ireland. I am very happy to be in Yorkshire. I have been to the Dales, and look forward to returning, but have never been to the Moors, so I can’t wait for good weather.  

Maybe the place I have been many times and would love to visit again is Rome in autumn/winter. It’s a lovely city. It’s so walkable. The food is outstanding. It’s warm in winter. Yes, that’s the one favourite I have. But I always enjoy visiting new places.  

What’s your random claim to fame?   

1 My father’s name was Roberto. Not “that” Roberto Cavalli. Anyone who can see my sense of fashion would know immediately. I’m “just Cavalli”. See what I did there? 

2 When I was a teenager (in Uruguay) I once went to the theatre and there were post-show interviews outside to promote the show. I appeared several times on national TV saying “Excellent show. A true spectacle”.  

The next thing I know we had a basketball test in PE at school. The test was to score twice (each time at opposite hoops) running while dribbling from one end of the court to the other and back again. Of all school subjects, PE was my worst nightmare. At the beginning of the test, most boys were practising on the sides, not paying attention to what happened on court. For whatever reason I was the last one to be called, by which time the whole class had completed their tests and they were all watching me from the side seats. I was alone on this full-size basketball court stared at by a teacher and 60 teenagers. It was a disaster! To a man, all my classmates clapped and shouted: “Excellent show. A true spectacle”. It may sound horrible, but it makes me laugh now.   

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