Meddling in the middle

So, I’ve been writing a conference paper on how the skillset and attitudes associated with intrapreneurialism (like entrepreneurialism, but in the context of a large company structure) are systematically fostered as part of a higher education learning experience. (This is why this post is a couple of days late – the date of a deadline divided by the number of fingers I have to type with, and then multiplied by my ability to multitask through one screen = lateness – there’s a workable formula there somewhere…)

Anyway, in writing this paper, I re read some of Erica McWilliam’s work. I actually stumbled on her words in another article on this site – a great treasure trove of thinking on the practice and study of creativity in higher education teaching and learning.

In having my mind wander in the direction of this blog, I was (re)struck by McWilliams’ description of the tutor working in heutagogical connectivist practices as the ‘meddler in the middle’. Stepping beyond the social connectivism of the ‘guide on the side’, I love the idea of the tutor engaging with their students’ learning as ‘meddling in the middle’ of things.

Here’s why.

I think meddling is a deliberate act of subversive, disruptive intervention and, at its best, generosity, sacrifice, perseverance and invention.

As those who are close to me know, I like cooking. I also like meddling; I think the two go hand in hand quite well – playing the deliberate imp to the imposed regulations of the cookbook is a delight. Meddling acknowledges the recipe, it just might not follow it. Why not chuck this in, or that in, or why not add wine to the mix appearing in the pan (actually, that happens quite a bit.)

And it’s really rewarding. When I take a recipe and then meddle with it, or twist it, to then serve it up to guests and receive compliments on the taste its a little nudge to go a little further next time. Of course, there have been the losses and the mistakes (chocolate chilli pear crumble, was, at a conceptual level, an exceptional idea. Sadly, on reflection, this verve did not translate into an experience I would wish upon those I hold in high regard. Or indeed, in any regard at all.) But these momentary set backs are more than an adequate price to pay for the general direction of travel, which is a personal sense of success and reward at having meddled, invented and come out with something good.

The meddler charmingly dismantles the pre-ordained system, the foregone conclusions and the comforting blanket of certainty, but, deliciously, does this with a playful purpose that unseats. At its best, meddling also creates an outcome which no one on their own could have created. The solitary endeavour towards excellence pales into insignificance besides the creativity which comes from meddling. Life (learning) is simply too perfect, too uniform, too predictable without a little meddling.

Crucially, I think, is the intention behind the meddle. I think if one is to have positive intentions, then, as Mcwilliam indicates, the middle is the place to be – far more risky, far more at stake, but in this position, the meddler has to follow mouth with money, so to speak.

Being in the middle whilst meddling also infers a co-ownership of the item, or task, or path, or route – the thing being meddled with – between the all of the meddlers. If meddling from the outside is politics, (ooohhh) meddling from the inside is a concerted, generous activism – there’s personal stakes and a vulnerability at play there – the potential of a price being paid which is intrinsically and inextricably linked to the outcome of the meddling for all involved.

Meddling can also be profoundly uncomfortable at times, especially when working with students in the realm of a shared endeavour towards an outcome which (hopefully) gains clarity through the doing. The possibility for failure is always present, but the reward for co-produced success is a profound sense of achievement, learning and growth.

So in the interests of continuing to help create and steer the development of the learning journey for our students at the University of Salford and in the interests of creating a profound transformative journey which is, at times unpredictable, disruptive, playful, uncertain and generously spirited, I shall actively meddle from the middle. I’ll leave you with a short clip of with a commentary on two of the most gifted meddlers of all time. I think this video says more about the learned skill craft of productive disruptive ‘meddling from the middle’ than I ever could.

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...

2 thoughts on “Meddling in the middle”

  1. Hi Sam I really like the way you have played with Erica’s idea.. like you I meddle. Would you be interested using this post as the basis for an article on ‘Learning Designs for Meddlers’ for the October issue of Creative Academic Magazine.. which we are forming around the idea of design and how creativity features in it.. Please let me know if you are interested cheers norman


    1. Hi Norman,

      Thank you so much for the comment. I’d be delighted to expand on this theme for an article. Thank you for the invite.

      It would be great to have a conversation on this to take a steer from you. I’m a little busy next week as I’m away at a conference with the British Council, but perhaps we could talk the week after at a convenient time and we can take it from there…

      Could you let me know the best way to contact you to set this up?


      Hope to hear from you soon.

      All best,



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