Once Upon A Time There Was A…

I think this post treads further along the line of thought opened up by last week’s musings…

As we take the first steps towards formal launch of our new five-year strategy and ten year vision at the university of Salford, I become continually reawakened to the fact that language is important. I’m not just talking (no pun intended) about the spoken, but the whole multivalent lexicon that a person, or a group uses to share ideas. The nuances in this language not only shape action, but can also shape our perceptions and our experiences of the world. Two anecdotes to explain what I mean…

Actor training at Bath Spa University

After leaving freelance work as a performer, my first academic post was as a lecturer at Bath Spa University. During that time I was privileged to work under Gunduz Kalic, training actors on the BA (Hons) Performing Arts programme. Stemming from Kalic’s direction, there was a specific vocabulary of terms, phrases and practices on the programme. One notable example was the way in which an actor would describe what has traditionally been called motivation or objective – essentially a label given to the driving impetus for a character in any given unit of action. Gunduz reframed this motivation as ‘urge’ i.e. ‘I have an urge to….’ Moreover, the way in which this ‘urge’ was described foregrounded action; the actor would use it an order to the self to do something. An urge for a unit of action might be phrased as ‘ make them stop’ or, ‘Get out of here’ or ‘win the competition’. The effect of this linguistic frame upon the work of undergraduate actors was considerable. Far from carrying their character’s motivations in their heads as cranial, conceptual notions, use of ‘urge’ moved this drive into the gut; into the body of the performer, producing an intensely embodied response and a deeper emotional literacy that sat with the whole bodymind, rather than residing from the neck upwards.


Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane is a fantastic book about the connections between language and the land. In the opening pages he demonstrates the power language has to shape how we see the world. He mentions the word smeuse; a word from Sussex dialect describing the little pathlet in a hedgerow formed by the regular passage of a small animal. This word has snuck into my mind – smeused its way in if you like, such that now, whenever I’m on walks like this one, I can’t help but spot smeuses with delightful regularity… Language is the basis of this discovery – words shape intentionality.

So, in the context of a communal endeavour, such as that found at Salford University, developing a shared lexicon, or language; a verbal/ non verbal/ physical/ pictorial/ multi-sensory mode of describing the doing, is critical in shaping the doing itself and fostering collective ideas and collaboration.

I think, at the heart of a successful lexicon, one which inspires cooperation and belief, is the notion of story, or narrative. Call it a shared vision, a common set of values, a brilliant idea, or a framework of concepts – it’s a thing which shapes, and is shaped by, the language surrounding it. Cooperation is based on our ability to effectively tell and believe in stories and align in purpose under a common understanding.

A lot of my thinking here comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,  by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari places the idea of story as fundamental to the way in which language helps share and shape ideas. As one with a background in performance, I’ve seen and felt first hand many times over the force of a good story well told. Neil Gaiman, a master storyteller of our time has also penned a wonderful piece on the powerful nature of stories.

A university (itself a constantly shifting multi-stranded story) has (many) stories. At Salford, we’re just really beginning to work towards writing and telling our next chapter – one which has Industrial Collaboration Zones (ICZs)at its heart. These ICZs are a new, contemporary echo of a longstanding tradition of practice at Salford. As we try to unfold the story of our ICZs and chip the shape of them out of the current landscape, it strikes me that developing an increasingly sensitised, shared, yet agile and flexible language-as-story is absolutely necessary to this process.

Like the ‘urge’ work from my experience at Bath Spa University, this multi-modal language needs the drive of action at its core. Like the smeuses, it inherently begs revelry in applied curiosity. Above all, this story needs to facilitate engagement, offering participants the opportunity to tell and devise their own stories through it. It’s there for the inventing… It’s the irresistible call to adventure offered by; ‘Once upon a time there was a…

See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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