Maps, possibilities

In last week’s post whilst talking (writing) about the development of new learning and community spaces at the University of Salford, I teased out the notion of possibility inherent in these spaces and promised (to those few noble souls who have the tenacity and perseverance to follow this blog in a manner that is habitual, rather than accidental) that I would, in some way, pick up further thoughts around possibility in a future post. Well, as they say, the future is here. So yeah; possibility.

I used a phrase in last week’s post to which, unfortunately and regrettably, I can’t lay claim. ‘Possibility rendered as present’ was a phrase I came across whilst undertaking my PhD. It was coined by Dorinda Hulton ( a lovely person who supervised my doctorate for a while) in writing about aspects of the practices of Joseph Chaikin. I think it’s a wonderfully succinct capturing of (some of) the tensions inherent in the idea of possibility. And that got me thinking about maps.

I love maps. There’s a framed OS map of the immediate Shire in our hall, customised with our postcode at the centre. I particularly love those associated with walking, or the great outdoors. They are a signal of promise to me – the call of a day, or days, spent outdoors navigating and exploring and (more often than not) getting lost, is irresistibly whispered by a map. Before a walk with the dog occurs (Willow-Pants the Brave – see photos below) part of the beautiful experience is the pre-actualised imaginative act of the day ahead – pulled forward with the aid of a map. Those early morning moments spent with quiet coffee, projecting oneself mentally into the spaces and views that lie unfolded in 1:25000 detail on the kitchen table; tracing lines of what the day might hold along the routes, gradient makers and compass bearings… possibility.

Having now lived in Buxton for five or so years and visited and walked around the area for much longer than that, I also now have many intersecting mental maps of the Peak District; places like the Goyt Valley, Shuttlingsloe Tor, Wildboarclough, Kinder Scout, Shining Tor, the Dragon’s Back, Errwood and Fernilee are all markers, synaptically etched with an array of traces and pictures linking them all together. The personal paths between these points are well-worn friends – each retracing lets the groove on the record sink deeper, cumulative action causing the route to become more ingrained. At the same time the memory is refreshed and the new and undiscovered is, without fail, stumbled across each time the path is encountered, such that many of my favourite paths are now profoundly peaceful multi-layered memories sitting across all seasons. I’ve encountered them in wind, hail, rail, snow and shine and I know them in the dark with my eyes closed.

Despite this certainty which comes from just knowing where one is, I mentioned getting lost back there – that’s important. Whilst I freely acknowledge that, amongst our friends, my capacity to point out useful shortcuts, or alternative routes, is a trait which has often added several miles and a good couple of hours to that which has been planned, I think its all relative. There’s lost, lost and then Lost. I’ve been in all three states; lost (a little off-track) lost (knew roughly where I was, but stayed out unexpectedly overnight) and Lost (didn’t know where I was for two days – this last Lost happened in Malaysia during a travelling spell some years ago. I maintain that, as I know which country and region I was in, it still wasn’t really, really Lost. I’ll admit the opinion of others on this viewpoint has differed). My point here is that I do think getting slightly lost (find your own level of tolerance, folks) is genuinely a Very Good Thing. The unexpected is always, always found, personal resourcefulness inevitably comes to the fore in some form or other and the experience usually results in a learning curve of sorts.

And so how does one reconcile the love of maps with a desire and recognition that the uncertain and unpredictable adds something? How does one draw together that which is documented as definite, objective landscape, with the desire for the unexpected?

Answer; possibility – Its all in there, colliding within that one gorgeous word.

I love maps precisely because, for me, they do not paint a picture of certainty; a tracked out, manageable route from A to B. Instead, maps are indications of a terrain to be explored. They are not an artefact on which to cling – they’re something to use as a starting point – a springboard into what might be. And the possibility held within them, sitting quietly as they lie patiently on the table before being folded and taken on a walk, is only really realised as being present when one uses them to become drawn into encountering the unexpected, or getting a little bit lost.

And, (pointing this whole entry towards life at the University of Salford for a moment – stay with me folks) if one were to transpose the idea of a map as configured here onto the idea of a module outline, I think I’d say the same thing. In a changing regulatory environment, the necessity of CMA compliance and a rise in a marketised consumerism which has underneath it the certainty that comes with transaction, I think the worst disservice we could do to our students is to give them a map indicating a reductive fully prescribed route of learning certainty from A to B. Clarity of direction; of course, but certainty? Absolutely not. As guides on the journey, treading alongside our students on transformative learning paths that contain something much deeper than a reductive transactionalism, I would hope that the map points out familiar markers. But I also hope for vast blank areas in the map – swathes of the unknown, or unpredictable, or unforeseen, just beckoning to be filled in; possibility rendered as present and unmapped arenas of safe-danger within an outline of a landscape which are there to help our students get just a little bit lost.

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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