I was in Southampton on Thursday and Friday this week. I was presenting at UKAT 2016 on some of the work we’ve been doing at the University of Salford towards enhancing the student experience. It was great (unintended) timing for such a presentation as the results of the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey were published the day before and we’ve bounced up a pleasing 12 places, with improvements noted across all aspects of the survey, which is good news. (Unsurprisingly I nudged mention of this into the talk)
However, useful and vibrant through the conference was, this blog entry focuses on the bits of space and time around the formalised and organised elements of the event.
After the first day of presentations had concluded, I had intended to grab a quick bite to eat somewhere and then hole myself up in my room to do some work for the remainder of the evening. In the end, I went straight back to my room, did only a couple of hours of work and then, on the basis of an email from my PA, headed out.
Now, I could have been studious and carried on working deep into the night – working in HE, recognition of more needing to be done is taken as given. However, I had to admit to myself that after a caffeine-fuelled conference day the grey matter was not perhaps at its sharpest. I also then realised that for the rest of the evening I had no further calls to make, commitments to hold, or dates to keep. It dawned on me (and some of you will find this odd – bear with…) that I had no plan for the remaining hours of Thursday. The possibility of just pootling for the evening poked its head above the green timeblock parapets of the outlook diary.
This is where the email comes in – I’d had a catch up with Emma, my PA, earlier on in the day and my inbox was therefore replete with the flags and reminders (red flag for I have to do it, green flag for Emma has done it and purple flag for I should have definitely done it by now…) There was also a thoughtful email pointing out the location of a Southampton cinema.
(Reader, you can almost hear the synaptic cogs)
So, a short time later, with the directions to the cinema winging their way to my feet via the magic of iphone earphones and the Google map app, I wandered across Southampton to the Harbourside Cinema, diverting myself for food along the way and causing the map’s voice to become irked with the task of re-routing me several times over. The route I eventually took embraced several dark alleys and less populated areas, one major road, a conversation with someone who was also looking for somewhere and was lost (re-enter Google stage right) a fox and the sea (thankfully the edge rather than the middle – I wasn’t that lost). From hotel to cinema was a series of delightfully unexpected and eclectic nocturnal vignettes strung together by the theme of being a little bit misplaced.
However, digressions and distractions having been vaulted, I arrived at the cinema. I haven’t been to the cinema in ages. I dislike the multiplex experience – I feel like I’m sliding towards inadvertent participation in Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World. The Harbourside experience is anything but this; Comfy sofas, subdued lighting and all the feeling of a local arts space, rather than a corporate monolith. And it had a bar serving local food and craft beers. Mine had a slice of orange in it. I may have had two. (Danger is my middle name.)
The film was OK; not great, but certainly not awful, but, with only three people in the auditorium to cap it off, (I felt like the film was being screened for me) the experience as a whole was a deliciously indulgent interlude in the pre-planned. I had been afforded the delight of the unusual; a gem of an evening gifted and crafted by virtue of accepting suggestion.
And there’s my point. Accepting and acting upon the impromptu implied suggestion in the email led to a far richer evening than I had expected. All the best bits were things that I didn’t plan on, but ended up inviting in as a result of an initial internal ‘yes’. Importantly, the evening-as-interlude gave me a liminal space, like that of a ludic act or a game; time aside wherein I could take (or not take) whatever Southampton decided to offer.
It’s fairly obvious that this liminal space; space aside is vital in creativity, in fostering the unexpected and in systematising serendipity. But by and large, it seems to be the exceptional or rarer space, rather than the norm. Does it have to be, in order to retain its certain special nature? Might we mainstream it and flip the model of the everyday on its head? One aspect is clear; to enter/ operate in such space, to turn the key to this particular door, one has to be willing to invite, recognise and act upon suggestion when given. Recognising such gifts as they fly past us is a skill in itself.
I haven’t had gifts arrive by email before…
See you next week.