Stop. #Hammocktime

I think its fair to say, it’s been a fairly full-on few weeks, both personally and professionally. Whilst the week days are naturally ruled by the green hourly markers of the outlook calendar shuttling me to this place and that place via planes, trains and automobiles (I’ve been trying to carve out some weekly thinking time lately – I’m slowly getting there, although its accurate to say that I’m still not sure I’d be able to keep up without the godsend of 1:15 on the train at the start and end of each day) recently the weekends have also felt like they have been similarly task driven, with a rhythm of cleaning, project work and general life admin and tasks becoming something of a two day mountain to level in order that one might greet the next week in a state of blank slate. Add to this that we’re thinking (only thinking) of moving house, (idly spurred on by the design-space click-bait that is Rightmove – when one has downloaded the app, its hard to escape it…) and all of a sudden all the maintenance and decorating that I should have done has sprung to the fore. Saturdays and Sundays of late have consequently and invariably been spent with some kind of brush/ roller/ screwdriver/ drill in hand as I sort out those niggles that one learns to live with/ ignore/ become oblivious to, but which would immediately catch the eye of the discerning buyer. You know you’re in deep when the staff at B&Q call out to you by name and point you to your own private parking space…

The last task on the glitch list, aside some very minor skirting board work, was the back garden. It’s a beautiful little afternoon sun-trap patio garden with raised beds and quiet trees surrounding. It’s a hushed little haven when all tidy, and we’ve planted a lot in there to delight – fox gloves, bleeding hearts, roses and a curly leafed weeping willow. As I speak there’s a rose arriving beautifully late to the party, lazily debating whether to burst or not…There’s also the soft scent of flowering raspberry and ferns to accompany a sit on the bench in the evening sun, all played against the droning backdrop of a hedge that attracts bumble bees. A garden for all senses…

As I said all of this is possible, of course, when the garden is sorted. However, due to the pace of things of late, the garden has been less than sorted. You know that scene in Predator when the crack team of soldiers realise they’re in a world of hurt and try to hack their way through impenetrable undergrowth and twisting vines? That.

And so this Saturday was spent restoring order. And at the end of it after two trips to the recycling centre, we had a garden again. But even the act of clearing and sweeping, spurred on by the tantalising promise of relaxing amongst tamed nature was somehow reward in and of itself – an intrinsically motivating act, an welcome weekend antidote to the weekday mindset.

IMG_0958

 I think that’s what I’m talking about here; its not necessarily the recognition that relaxation is required, but that (for me at least – others will differ) an act of relaxation comes from simply looking in another direction; deliberately, knowingly and consciously taking ones focus and mind into a different space in order to nurture the soul.

After I’d finished the garden, I set up our hammock and just swung for a while. If the luxury is afforded, I think it’s a crime to be indoors on a weekend with the weather we’ve just had in the UK. This is a rare other space for me – doing absolutely nothing does not come naturally. I’m trying to practice.

With that other mindset in mind, today (Sunday), wrapped safely in the unashamedly smug knowledge that all tasks were complete, I went off on an early morning run up into the peak district – only about 7 miles, but what a treat. I didn’t see another soul and the sun was already warm with no breeze as I hit the top of the Goyt Valley. A privilege to have such a beautiful vista all to myself.

And then friends phoned to see if I wanted to go wild swimming. We found an idyllic spot near Wildboarclough – a pool deep enough to dive into at the bottom of a waterfall – much fun was had.

And now here I am, back in the garden, full of sun and reflecting on a nourishing weekend which I know will stand me in good stead in the next week; I’m certain that looking away from the weekday foci actually increases productivity and focus in the weekday shenanigans.

So on that note, and with the evening sun on my face, I can feel the lilting swing of the hammock calling for more practice.

Stop. #hammocktime

See you next week.

The three C’s: co-production, collaboration and crowd-sourcing

We (University of Salford) hosted the University Alliance Summit late last week. The Summit is a really useful event which brings together all of the universities in this mission group for a ‘state of the nation’ annual pow-wow on what’s hot and what’s not in the world of HE. It was also held on election day, giving the event a certain up-to-the-minute sense of currency in each of its sessions. This accident of timing also ensured a prompt finish as everyone then raced home to vote… (the date clash with voting day was an accident – we started our preparations for the summit before government announced the snap election; it’s slightly worrying on a number of levels when planning for a UA summit is something which has a longer lead-in time than a general election…)

Predictably, most sessions broached the wider view of the HE landscape, within and out-with the sector itself. We looked at the economics of it all and the various political roads that we might be skipping down post election. (Sitting now in the somewhat dazed state of post-election ‘erm… so… right, yeah, so what does it mean… oh, right….with them. Them? What, really… really?’ its still not a whole lot clearer – quite a lot of what was in purdah before the shenanigans of the 8th has remained in purdah because of, well, because of the shenanigans of the 8th.

What is clear is that there is complexity, change, ambiguity and volatility like never before – I’ve previously noted some of the ingredients in passing here. Each of these characteristics taken individually might cause some upset and some ripples on the pond, however, arriving and cumulatively accelerating together, each factor further enthused by the waves of the others, and one sees tsunamis of varying natures lining up (oh that they were that orderly….)

So, much of the discussion, debate and creative thinking of the Summit (and a fair bit of late night debate over red or white) focused upon the best way to meet and thrive in such an environment…

The answer (or some of it) of course, lies in genuine collaborative activity. It’s a difficult, but not impossible line to tread; on one level, egged on by TEF, REF, the CMA and notion of the student as consumer (I’ve published a little thought piece on this particular consumerism in a special TEF edition of Compass) we are all competitors, working to ensure we position ourselves effectively to stand out in an increasingly fragmented, but paradoxically crowded higher education landscape in which differentiation is not just desirable, but essential.

However, we’re also a fantastically collegiate sector – a real strength – ready to share and adopt good practice, adapting it to our own particular context. Thus far collaboration seems to largely focus around joint/ shared bidding on research projects/ grants, or engagement together in sector wide fixed term projects on shared issues such as retention, or widening participation. But I think there’s further future potential to be tapped into through collaboration. Whilst the joint/ shared working on projects and bids will (and absolutely should) undoubtedly continue, I think our collaborative activity could/ should/ might step up another gear and take a steer from the success of a crowd-sourcing model for collaboration. This is the modus operandi of the hive mind, the viral social media-influenced accumulation of knowledge, ideas and direction, in which the social constructivism as seen in our active and collaborative learning models, becomes social connectivism played out across the sector.

One such example of this crowd-sourced innovation is the Teaching Excellence Alliance (TEA). This is a new, inter-institutional flexible programme of work developed by colleagues in University Alliance institutions and the UA itself. The TEA draws upon, and informs a particular brand and understanding of excellence as aligned to our real-world, outward-facing, industry-and-community connected pedagogy, practiced across the University Alliance. You can read a recent blog I’ve written for Wonkhe on the TEA. This exciting work is in its inaugural year – the first event of many is a September Sandpit – a pedagogical symposium with a difference – its going to be a live teaching and learning hack-athon focusing on one of the UN global challenges – participants from across teaching teams and courses drawn from UA institutions will draw on the collective expertise to collaboratively design a programme of study which seeks to contribute to work which addresses the global challenge at hand. Its crowd-sourced expertise from Alliance colleagues, invested in two intensive days of co-production and co-creation and all pointed at real world issues. Adventures aplenty wait in the wings. Watch this space…

See you next week.

Ongoing Ambiguity

It feels like an increasingly well-worn (and possibly down right weary) statement: we’re living in times of change and instability. On almost every front – no, scrub that – on every front that I can bring immediately to mind, significant change is the norm. More than this, the rate and pace of change is accelerating. Swiftly shapeshifting and complex fluidity of position is now seen as the paradoxical constant of our times; we see it everywhere – from the unprecedented and unpredictable  #cofefe and random bursts of spectacularly illiterate and emotive semi-incoherence sputtered out in 140 characters by the Tangerine Womble in his  unhinged and fluid position as POTUS, to, in almost another context entirely, the prolific acceleration of the Internet of Things, with all the ethical complexities, dangers and possibilities that are needing to be debated and considered as this new world permeates our lives, decisions and daily routines. 

Closer to home in the UKHE sector, change and fluidity seems just as seismic; the new Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 has lines within it which promise a reshaping of the UK landscape; similarly each of the party manifestos take an approach to the HE sector which have far reaching consequences of varying natures (this entry was written on the morning train at stupid-o-clock on election day 2017). Add to this the hugely negative impact of Brexit, the insistence of the current government to keep international students within immigration number targets and then, just for giggles and the sheer delirious fun of it, add a decline in UK university applicant population through to 2022, alongside an increasing marketisation of UKHE and one is inevitably faced with a destabilising, complex conundrum of competing factors impacting upon the wellbeing of our sector.

(As an aside, I’m reminded of a one-liner from Dean Martin during one of the infamous Rat Pack Summit sessions in the early 1960’s, when the braggadocio and male drinking schtick; a dizzying tower of swooning and crooning, triumphantly placed amidst tuxedos and chevvy tailfins, was at the nexus of pop culture for old and young alike – something about holding onto the floor the next time it came round to stop himself falling off it….)

Given the landscape painted above, one might expect a pervasive feeling of doom, gloom and something approaching helplessness as we sit in the passenger seat reluctantly witnessing the speedometer spin clockwise as the proverbial cliff edge draws nearer. However, from both an institutional standpoint at the University of Salford, and (given this blog is a personal and tangential reflection on the day-to-day) as an individual, I genuinely don’t feel gloomy at all. If anything, I see huge potential and possibility here.

On an institutional level our Industry Collaboration Zones are an ideally placed answer to this continued ambiguity and shifting uncertainty. Facing off to the industries and communities with which the university partners, they are, by their nature, reflexive centres of disruptive innovation – their very constitution relies on change being not only necessary, but desirable. More than this, they position us perfectly in the region to capitalise on devolution and to answer the call from the government for universities to be the growth anchors for the industrial strategy. Is it comfortable and easy? No, definitely not – nothing worth doing is, and a desire for comfort and a slow moving stability speaks to a vision of a sector which I’m not sure really exists anymore – however much one might long for a stasis of position. One necessarily needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how to do this and, moreover, do it well? How to avoid slipping into a reactive mode of being/doing, as we have to necessarily adapt and flex with this uncertainty – an uncertainty certainly due to be faced by our students as they step into this fast-paced graduate landscape of change and probably adopt portfolio, or patchwork career patterns (I’m resisting calling them career paths – I don’t think they have the luxury of being that linear…)

I think, on organisational and personal levels, its about fostering a real world resilience based on a position which is actually a meeting place for seeming contradictions – and more than this – necessarily and joyfully celebrating and inviting in this seeming contradiction – I say ‘seeming’ because I don’t actually see it as contradictory in practice.

One (an institution or a person, or an operating structure or #pickyourentityofchoice) must have certainty of purpose; a sense of grounded Heideggerian being-in-the-world, whilst having the agility and tenacity to embrace change (internal and external) as a creative working dynamic, bending with the wind so to speak. I’m again reminded of the absorption I find in surfing – it’s a similar position of tension – one has the certainty of needing to ride the wave, but where one goes on the wave and what happens in the 150 yards between the wave and the shoreline is, for me, an ambiguous mixture of response and desire – a fluctuating conversation between me, my board and the water. I can’t be fixed there – that would destroy the ride. Similarly, to give oneself over completely is an exercise in futility – at that point one becomes a passive passenger – no fun at all.

So I think resilience and a means of meeting this world and its challenges comes, in part, from resolutely adopting an uncomfortable, shifting celebration of necessary, responsible, accountable agility and a certain amount of ambiguity, perhaps drawing a soft parallel to Emilyn Claid’s idea of ambiguity seen in Yes, No, Maybe. More than a threshold resilience – a coping and surviving- I think dogged consistency in this modus operandi offers the possibility of thriving. And for those of you who are up for more – here’s a really interesting little article on excelling in this vein, taken from a psychological standpoint.

See you next week.

Unity

I’ve been struggling to write this post; well practiced diversionary tactics, sidelining my attention into other avenues, have come into play. But like all shying away from something that must be done, needs to be said, or should be appropriately faced, the shying away in itself eventually becomes an irritant, a reminder that I’m not doing myself any favours.

The reason for the struggle is the necessary topic. Most weeks when I write, I feel as though I have a freedom of choice about the topic of the week – I can direct reflections or tangential musings towards this subject, or that occurrence. This week, its a different kind of choice I’ve made here – The subject matter is something that needs to be acknowledged and unpacked in this entry, the only choice is how.

This week a suicide bomber took lives and caused injury and destruction to people attending a pop concert at a stadium in Manchester – a senseless, futile, unforgivably wasteful act.

There – that’s it. That’s as much word count that the act and the person is going to get from me – I’m not going to add to the cacophony of voices that are replaying the details and the numbers and the speculations and the drama of what occurred. I see no need to further sensationalise here the event a la a style of reportage that seems increasingly seek to manipulate feeling, rather than report.

I’m going to focus on one aspect of the what next; the reaction at our University.

Ever since I came to Salford for my interview some 3 and a bit years ago now, I’ve been aware of something special at play here. Its very hard to put into words, but I felt it very tangibly during that first visit. One sees symptoms of it all over the place; in the hello’s I give and receive as I cross campus; in the ways and words our students use to reflect on their learning and their experiences here as transformative; in the willingness of colleagues from across the university to engage in the topic of the day, or a working group, or whatever.

Its a groundedness, a sense of shared endeavour, a willingness to get involved, and a cast iron, but often quiet, pride in what we do and how we do it. A key part of this is the acknowledgement that our students and our staff come from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds spanning a plethora of socio-economic and cultural contexts, so part of the unique warmth and passion that I see, and am humbled to be part of at Salford, comes from this beautiful mix of opinions, backgrounds, and ideas. And here’s the thing that sits under it all – there is, and has always been, an incredible sense of shared identity – at Salford, we have a good idea about who we are, we understand ourselves and our institutional strengths (and weaknesses) – and though this understanding, there is a unshakeable core (again, quiet most of the time) of unity – unity in diversity.

This week, in the wake of such pointless destruction, I have seen that quiet sense of a community belonging to itself – our resolve has been tested. In response to this test the sense of unity in diversity, without hesitation, has sprung to the fore and become a loud and proud voice in speech and action.

I have seen it in the pop-up stands for staff and students giving out tea and coffee and providing the space for a chat and reflection, I have seen it in the way our Students’ Union has worked tirelessly in partnership with our support services to ensure our students feel supported, I have seen it in the one minute of silence that we as a community observed this week, joining countless others up and down the country – at a quiet time of term on campus this brought out hundreds of staff and students together – I have seen it in the meetings of our faith groups and the societies that share our multi-faith centre – the faith leaders within our campus chaplaincy actively coming together to express visible unity in one shared voice and one shared message; that we will not be divided. I have also seen this unity in simple every day moments; walking through one of our restaurants at lunchtime, and listening to the melting pot of languages at play, seeing students from all over the world dotted around the seating and happily sharing space, lunch and conversation. A united, inclusive diversity that is core to us doing what we do – what is a university if not a meeting place for ideas?

And this sense of unity, normally there just as a part of a comforting background sense of how things are, now remains a strongly voiced insistence that will carry on in the coming weeks and months.

I’m immensely proud to be part of such a sense of shared togetherness. And, going forward across the coming days, this is where I will put my energies; this is where I choose to focus.

See you next week.

#Weare50: Place, space and belonging

The more observant amongst you may have twigged, by dint of the occasional message or several, that we (the University of Salford) are fifty this year. To mark the occasion, there is a whole host of activities and celebratory shenanigans, stretching throughout the year. These range from, stories, to days in the life entries from staff, students and alumni, to gala events, to showcases, to University Day, to creative events, to some fantastic networking meetings across the globe, which have brought together students, staff, alumni and our other partners. Granted, some of these things are part of our ‘normal’ calendar, which have been given an additional celebratory lift, but there’s also many events which are here once and gone forever, arriving and departing the way that birthdays tend to.

Although it hasn’t always been made explicit, I’ve noticed the idea of place, of us belonging somewhere in the world running through all of our celebrations. As someone who has now been at Salford for three years, (actually three years last week, dontchaknow) I was struck from my first day, and continue to be struck, at how grounded and rooted in a keen sense of its immediate environment Salford is, whilst at the same time, readily acknowledging, capitalising and drawing upon a myriad of global connections. It’s a porous place, not a house on the hill, or an ivory tower of old – it’s a place in conversation with itself and its immediate community and context. And what is a university if not its people? Sure, this sense of place, space and belonging is partly contained within the buildings, but even these are changing – the campus landscape has shifted beyond previous recognition even in the short time I’ve been here – no, its much more a felt sense; perhaps something which can’t adequately be captured in words, but is a shared sense, resting in the hive-mind of our staff and students, a resonance that some how one keys into and recognises as a place where one belongs.

One beautiful, and unexpected, instance of this came recently when I was fortunate enough to attend a book launch in our theatre space in our New Adelphi building. The book is called The City Of: A Salford Collection. It’s a retrospective on 50 years of life in Salford City; a collection of poetry and photographs and personal accounts and stories from Salford residents, staff and students. There’s even a brand new poem in there from our Chancellor Jackie Kay  (I’m looking forward to sharing Graduation with Jackie later in the year).

The book launch started with a presentation of a devised piece of theatre from our undergraduate performing arts students – about 50 of them (coincidence?) by my reckoning. This performance dramatised the developments of the last 50 years, picking out landmark events and translating them through a local echo. There was movement and music and dance and words all coming together in beautifully colourful ensemble action. What was striking however, was the cultural resonances the performers managed to hit. On a couple of moments all the elements of performance and the subject matter met perfectly with my own recollections of the times being dramatised and I was left thinking; how can minds and hearts and bodies who were not even born in the years they were conveying, capture something beyond their years so accurately; resonances of place and space lifting all to become more than the sum of their parts, like they were carrying powerful echoes of something they could only be aware of second hand. Fantastic to see…

And then it continued inside the theatre. And the book was duly launched in a crowd of people including staff and students and members of our local community. And then came the surprising bit: I was presented with the first copy of the first imprint of a brand new text. Wow. As an academic I count books amongst my most treasured of possessions. Folks, this one is sitting right up there at the top of the pile; a wholly unexpected and generous gift.

And, as I’m writing this now, leafing through the pages of the book, and thinking of the community inside the theatre, and thinking of our students’ performance and thinking of that tangible sense of reflection coupled with an idea of arriving that inevitably accompanies a landmark birthday year, there’s the clear chords of a shared endeavour and a understanding of place; a sense of grounded belonging ringing out loud and clear. And above everything, a real sense of pride in what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and where we’re going to go. Affirmation and excitement, certainty and uncertainty all in one go. Not bad at all.

#WeAre50.

#Watchthisspace.

See you next week.

Voices

This week’s blog is a little unusual. Normally, I take the time afforded by weekly musings to explore an idea, or talk around a topic, or simply reflect on various happenings that have struck me during the week.

However, this is not a normal entry. This entry is a simple, blunt, and, in comparison to my normal 800-1000 word average, short entry. It is, in fact, a call to action. It’s also aimed primarily at our students.

At the University of Salford we have (thankfully) an amazingly communicative dialogic relationship with our students and our Students’ Union. Over the time that I’ve been at Salford, we’ve fostered a rich and many-layered multi-channel dialogue into which students, staff and the Students’ Union have invested hundreds of hours of time and oodles of energy, and I’m sure we’ll all continue to do so. Because, as the advert goes, we’re worth it. And the results of such a collective dialogue and voice are also worth time invested many times over because of the things that happen as a result of that dialogue. For instance, whether one believes that the actual questions of the annual National Student Survey really measure exactly the right and meaningful things in exactly the right and meaningful way, the NSS continues to be a phenomenal tool in opening, focusing and extending the dialogue between our University and our students. This year we had the highest response rate we’ve ever had – just shy of 80% – brilliant news for us all which means extremely robust data for us all come August. Each year final year  students spend an average of 5-10 minutes filling this survey in and then, with the Students’ Union we collectively use that gathered voice as part of institutional data and information which steers and guides us in enacting positive developments. Anyway, put simply, voiced opinion properly directed has the power to be difference-making. Granted, developments inevitably take time, but the student voice is a powerful tool in helping us prioritise actions (you see where this is going, don’t you…)

And so, to all you fantastic students who help us help you, who complete module evaluations, and experience surveys and engage in forums and work with our Students’ Union (and to those of you in direct contact with our students, please do pass this on) use your voice. Don’t let things happen to you. Make things happen through you. To do this, to change outcome, to shape the world you live in…

(Wait for it)

Vote.

Votevotevotevotehashtagvote

Get out and vote on 8th June. If you haven’t registered to vote and you’re eligible, you need to register by 11:59 pm 22nd May.

Do it. Do it right now. Stop reading my waffle, stop whatever else you’re doing, open up your browser and go here:

https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

You can also find out more for registering for postal voting here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/voter-registration-forms-paper-versions

Its takes less time and less energy than the National Student Survey.

So do it. Whatever your political persuasion, do it. Use your voice. The same voice that has helped us all make strides in developing an excellent student experience here at Salford can make waves on a larger scale. But only if you direct your voice and put marks where they matter.

*Postscript: I’ve never revisited or edited a blog post after writing it- they just kinda stay put. However, I saw this picture on bookyface and thought that, in the circumstances it provided a good prod…


So do it now – c’mon – time’s a wastin’.

Tick tock, folks… tick tock….

(Go on then)

See you next week.

Above and Beyond…

I made it to two, but I couldn’t quite manage the logistics of all three. At their core, each of them was, in their own quite different ways, a powerful statement of what actually gets me out of bed and moving in the right direction each morning. I experienced them as snapshots of our University, particularly poignant in our 50th year (more next week on this folks); snapshots which, both individually due to their differences, and collectively due to their temporal proximity combined with that unmistakable Salford essence of playful, grounded, feet-on-the-floor fun, really captured a big chunk of what it feels like at Salford for me right now. It’s unbelievable fun, hard work, rewarding, meaningful, progressive, difference-making and being part of something much, much bigger and more profound that that which I would be capable of conjuring solo.

The first one was a delightful invite to the University Student Union Annual Teaching Awards – an annual celebration of the very best. I was privileged to give opening remarks and then sit back and listen to the student-driven nominations for all shades of innovation, excellence and care which have supported student learning and success in the most life changing and profound of ways. The sheer volume of teaching and professional services staff nominated for these awards (more than ever before this year) pays tribute to the phenomenal experience clearly appreciated and recognised by our students. The award winners themselves were characteristically humble in receiving their tokens and certificates of recognition from a range of beaming student representatives. Re-reading the accompanying booklet listing the nominations and the student testimonials to their tutors, the most repeated sentiment was that of ‘above and beyond’.

The next one was the one I was forced to live vicariously; the 2017 Salford Student Success Awards. These awards were presented to students in recognition of achievements gained through a wide range of co and extra curricular activities. Excellence was acknowledged and celebrated in activities ranging from volunteering to enterprise. Importantly these activities are one strand of activity which connects our students and our University with our community. At same time students broaden their experience and their skill base to develop those all important additional strands to their graduating CV.

The final one was Student Union led again; it was their Annual Awards, which recognise the contribution to student life made by the numerous clubs and societies. Always a lively event full of good cheer, more social media than one can tweet a stick at and a plentiful smidgen of glamour, this year, as part of our marking our 50th celebrations, there were a number of previous Student Union presidents in attendance. It’s a great tribute to an endearing community and alumni network that includes thousands of students worldwide. Again, the spirited ownership of UoS displayed by our students and alumni as they celebrate achievements and practices which sit outside core curriculum indicated a palpable sense of belonging.

And that’s what I think I’m taking from this week across these events; a real sense of a celebratory community, recognising sometimes extra-ordinary achievements and triumph over adversity that asks for a commitment which is, by its very nature, ‘above and beyond’. However, in the giving of above and beyond, and judging by the sheer amount of pride, smiles and happy tears this week, all who engage in that manner certainly get it given right back with interest added. What a fantastic place.

See you next week.