#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.

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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.

Comfortable?

I learnt something this week. Or, to be more specific, I re-learnt it/ was reminded of it. The relearning and reminding has been very useful.

Let’s start at the beginning, if there is such a thing.

I’m training for my summer season of cross country runs and events. For the last few years I’ve focused on completing at least one Tough Mudder each season. I’ve previously blogged about the experience here. This year will see me complete my 11th, after which I’ll need to find a new challenge (I’m doing two runs back to back this season, because on their own, fun though they are, they’re not really challenging any more – They are a gloriously fun event – there’s a cracking sense of camaraderie and collaboration fostered on the course in order to overcome the obstacles, and I’ll certainly do one a year in the future as a kind of distraction, but stretching? Nope.)

The other reason for looking for new outdoor, kinda lost-in-nature-and-exercise challenges is that I’ve run out of people to persuade to run with me on the Mudders (a couple of poor unsuspecting souls are in the wings, but they’re also doing homework, which is disappointing). Whenever I now try and oh-so-subtly slant the conversation casually towards the possibility of a Mudder run, I’m met with either outright derision, a short two-word answer, or that look; that special mixture of bemusement and detached pity reserved for someone whom one pats gently on the head before sending on their way.

Anyhow, I’m well into the rhythm of training and running and I love it. Weekends and evenings are invariably spent outdoors, padding along alone, or with Willowpants for company. Just this morning I did a beautiful run In the Goyt valley – starting at the sailing club, round Fernilee reservoir, then heading back to Buxton via the East side of Errwood reservoir, over Axe Edge and back through Burbage – so great to run in the early morning before everyone else has worked out that they should be up… After leaving my wife and the doggie at around 5k, I didn’t see another soul – just the birdsong for company, along with, at one point a young bambi deer and a startled and swiftly vanishing hare.

What I’m trying to point out is that, in preparation for said summer season of madness I have adopted a certain rhythm – a sense of being in the groove with my running – steadily increasing distance until, at my own pottering speed, 10-12 miles/ 18K or so is not really much of an issue.

But therein lies the actual issue, do you see? No? Stay with me…

The point of (re)learning was the VC’s fun run 2017, Friday 28th April. Its an annual event and brings out colleagues from across campus to participate in 2 laps of our Peel Park fronted estate – its all for Charity – Kidscan this year – 5K, or thereabouts in service of a great cause and a lot of fun. And its a little bit quietly competitive. Just on the Down Low, y’know. I mean, race times are posted and are guarded ferociously until official release – I tried to find out my time just after the race and was told by a clip board that Things Would Be Posted Online. I backed away….

Last year, given that I was in a Tough Mudder race the next morning,  I ambled round and held conversation throughout with our DVC and a sporty member of the USSU (it was rather one sided- our DVC spoke in monosyllabic responses that sounded suspiciously like wheezes…) However, this year, with the first Mudders of the 2017 season still being a week away at the time of writing, I had no such excuse for an amicable meander round the course. (That and a colleague from my office had said casually she intended to beat me and then point and laugh – red rag to a bull folks).

So I decided to step away from the normal pottering pace I do on my longer runs – the pace that makes it seem like I’m a tourist taking in all the sights – and just see what I could do. I’ll admit now, hopes were not high; for those of you acquainted with me, you’ll know from a sidewards glance at me from a moving train, I’m not one built for speed. However, just to see what might happen, I broke pattern.

First impressions – the run was over quickly and I took longer strides than usual. Based on my longer runs, I was hoping for a time around 25-27 minutes. Although, at the time of writing, times haven’t been posted yet, I think I came in around 20-21 minutes. Not super fast by any means, but pleasing for me. And surprising, and uncomfortable and it felt out of the ordinary rhythm and slightly jarring and a little strange. But good, and quietly satisfying, as though I’ve just discovered something that was there, but just needed to the right nudge and circumstance to come to the fore.

And there’s the lesson I took from the VC’s fun run; Disrupt the normal patterns, shake things up, do/see/experience difference/ play different rhythms and above all, don’t get comfortable – it’s the death of the touching the next horizon.

At the start of the run, if you’d asked me, I would have told you my normal pace – my confines, my little habitual box. Now I know I can go faster (over short distances, let’s not get carried away).

So now I’m going to do some shorter faster runs, as well as increase speed on the longer runs, because all of a sudden, I Can. I might just catch up with the front pack next year.

See you next week.

Reflections

I’ve been on a break, hence the lack of entry last week. The last break was at Christmas, which, for various reasons, including a spectacular bout of well-timed illness – I think my body must save itself for those special occasions- was not really a break at all. So this break was much needed and much wanted. I used the Easter weekend as the filling to the annual leave sandwich, supplemented as it was by the bread of additional days off either side.

And I switched off everything. Ev. Ery. Thing. Fantastic. And then we (the good lady wife and myself plus Willowpants the Brave) pootled and pottered. The significant absence of an hour-by-hour schedule was, in itself, a luxury verging on the hedonistic. My mind, like my body went into multi-directional amble and explore mode…

And much to the delight of both body and mind, I’ve spent a good part of the last twelve days outdoors. I’ve jogged, walked and run around the hills near home, I’ve run along the cliff tops on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, gone coasteering, (jumping off high things into the sea on a rocky shore line, for those of you requiring clarification) surfed in a beautifully lit evening ocean, fallen asleep by a fire on the beach, and even topped off the break with walks with friends yesterday and today in Lancashire. This has all been interspersed with more than my fair share of good food; culinary adventures and taste explorations accompanied by excellent company, cracking conversations which routinely put worlds at rest whilst emptying a bottle (or two) of red and white. At some points I wasn’t sure whether the walks and outdoor activities were just brief interludes between creative cooking/ eating, or simply that the day time outdoorsy stuff was personal (and, I feel, somewhat ironclad) self-justification paid in advance for the rich calorie-laden gastronomy which accompanied most evenings.

And across all of this, there has been a joyful sense of waking up; of, for me, an essential reaffirmation of personal connection to the outdoors and to nature and its cycles, but also through the break I’ve had time to see the world wake up from a winter slumber. I love this time of year – I find it genuinely exciting to see and feel the change as things cross over into a summer being, immersing myself in the change as it occurs. Sensory vignettes are a big part of this reflection; today, the warmth of sun on my face and the sound of birdsong on an afternoon bimble; earlier in the week sitting quiet on my surfboard in the sea and hearing the sound of evening waves hit the underside of the board; being half asleep by the fire and smelling outdoors and wood smoke all at once; running across the cliff tops from Aberdaron back to our rented cottage on the cliff tops at Hells Mouth beach, (10.5 miles y’know…); taking in the chilled evening scent of a summer not yet quite arrived in a spectacular dusky light which painted the yellow of gorse as almost luminescent; and many more besides.

There’s also been time in between these activities and moments, and indeed within them, to reflect and just listen; to take time, to ‘check in’, assess and consider all things in general – personal direction, milestones, plans, schemes, adventures past and present. Through all of this I find I am simply excited by the journey; both the personal and the seasonal. As ever the sense of possibility hangs in the air as being present. It’s not that I’m always looking forward (although I frequently do). It’s simply an enjoyment of the moment in the moment of mentally meandering through future possibilities, whilst immersed in an environment, which in itself is moving into its next growth.

In that last respect, I think there’s a lot of similarities with life at Salford, albeit in a very different context. The difference between Salford and this break is the sense of time aside – it’s a different kind of liminal bubble to the day job, but one which is just as absorbing.

Speaking of Salford, the train tickets have been purchased, the shirts ironed, the batteries charged (literally and figuratively) and the alarm set. After the break, I’m looking forward to jumping back in with gusto.

See you next week.

Share it…

Rather than become marooned in The Old Firestation, I, like the other members of the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Team (VCET to the initiated– at Salford we have an almost logophillic interest in acronyms) try to get around campus as much as possible. I’m fairly successful in this respect; looking at last week’s diary most of it was spent out and about – walking to meetings, or taking a peek at the various parts of our estate, or just sat in one of our cafés holding one of my weekly café conversations (these are often the most fun/ beautiful/ joyful episodes in the week as I don’t know who is going to meet me and what they’re going to talk with me about – its ranged from ideas for new projects, or student support systems to the problems with this process or that policy – it’s always a very rewarding perspective that’s gained and shared)

Anyway, on my travels across campus, and indeed digitally through the social media sphere, (@samgrogan btw) there is rarely a day that passes in which I am not genuinely impressed/ wowed/ humbled to be working in such an amazing place. Most days I encounter phenomenal stories – little snapshots of the indelible and valuable traces life with our university leaves on those who encounter it, and there is such positivity in these stories. It might be in world leading industry partnerships making a real difference to students’ learning (Barclays/ Siemens, anyone…?) Or it might be in the transformative life experience at Salford which has fundamentally altered the future of Josie Fletcher – check out her story here. Or it might be in our award winning research, for one instance amongst many, how about this Times Higher award winning research? The point I am trying to make (and hopefully succeeding in making) is that we do amazing stuff. Even just in this last week, we’ve had an event at the House of Lords focusing on how our ICZs meet the government’s Industrial Strategy– after this I then whizzed up to Salford on an early train the following morning (I went to bed at a sensible time and chose not to following the erstwhile adventures of a number of my colleagues – you’ll be pleased to know I gave them an early morning phone call just to make sure they were alright – its only decent…) – I was attending a meeting of international partners (industrial and educational) at our Media City campus. These partners are all working together with us on a Joint Masters in Electronic Engineering JMEE – this is a three year internationally funded project. The meeting was hosted by our very own Prof. Haifa Takruri-Rizk, who has, herself recently been recognized as being an inspiration for female engineers. On top of that this week the University of Salford has also been recognised as being in the top 200 young Universities in the world. We even won Varsity this year…. The list just goes on…

With this multi-stranded brilliance in mind, and recognising that its not just a couple of isolated incidents – not the odd positive occurrence found down the back of the sofa whilst searching for the TV remote – recognising that this excellence is, in fact all over the place, I am continually unseated and surprised at just how quiet we are about it –  how wonderfully muted. The pride in the doing is there, but to shout that pride out, to champion from the rooftops is a skill that seems sometimes to come to us a little like the art of consistently good car maintenance comes to me; I know I can do it, I know I should do it and I know my world will be better if I did do it, but sometimes I just don’t. (Not many people are on first name terms with the RAC – every cloud…).

The thing is (there is always a thing, isn’t there) I think we should be shouting out about what we do as institution at every opportunity – The common reaction of visitors I greet at Salford is ‘wow’, followed by variants on; ‘I didn’t know it was this good’. I don’t want a suprise anymore, I’d like a queue at the door thankyouverymuch. And the consistent reaction of visitors and all the achievements and stories I’ve noted above, plus the many many more that I’ve missed (yes you, I’m talking about you) tells me we’re on solid ground when we voice the pride that I see in action and the going above and beyond the call of duty I see happening every day. So here’s a call to arms for all of us – tell the stories, share the hidden gems and don’t pass off achievements as ‘just something we do’. Its worth far more than that…

See you next week.

Bit by Bit…

In my head I sometimes fancifully imagine what ‘having arrived’ will look/ feel like. What I mean by this is having a sense of the final impact of success. The sense, although not attached to any particular circumstance or picture, is, I suppose, quite filmic – one could place any number of descriptive metaphors against the feeling; the idea of a finishing line being crossed, a pinnacle being reached, a door finally swinging open… And beyond this threshold? An idea of arrival, of finality, of a job being completed – a sense of there being no track left upon which to run further; a sense of having arrived.

Of course, that’s;

  1. All in my head (which is, from experience, not always a good thing)
  2. Decidedly Hollywood-esque, simple and overly convenient in its linear narrative construction
  3. Not in any way representative of what actually happens

Real life just isn’t that definite or that straightforward is it? It’s far more complex. In my experience, the sense of arrival, or success, is momentary and fleeting if that; it passes by in the blink of an eye, if indeed it is there at all.

In my spare time (hahaha) a guilty pleasure (one of many folks, one of many) is video games. As anyone of a similar disposition will know, the success of completing a level, or a section, or even the entire game, is always a bit ho-hum. The real joy is to be found in the problem solving wrestle of ones personal navigation of the game and the means by which incremental success is achieved and cemented as a stepping stone to the next challenge. Several years after first picking up the game, I’m still finding new things to do in the vast and beautifully layered landscape that is Skyrim – all of these rely on me ensuring my avatar continually acquires increasingly advanced skills and abilities.

Relatedly (it will become clear in a minute or two – stay with me folks) I went for a run this weekend – not an isolated incident you’ll be pleased to know – you can put the blankets away – I tend to run 3-4 times a week. As the clocks have now hit summer settings and the evenings begin to stretch, it’s that time of year when I look forward to a season of Tough Mudder runs and various other outdoor adventures which involve a certain level of stamina. (It’s all part of a longer journey which will hopefully see me complete an Iron Man Challenge in a year/ couple of years). My general routine is to (very) slowly increase the mileage and the incline/ terrain difficulty through Spring so that by the time I hit Mudder season (this year its in about a month or so – I’ll being doing two consecutive runs on the 5th and 6th of May) I’m comfortably running 12 or so miles across country. This weekend I did about 9 miles in the Goyt Valley with my canine partner in crime Willowpants the Brave (see photos of said doggie in this blog entry) Next week it’ll be 10 miles and so on… Incremental gain, bit by bit. There’s always a brief moment of reflection after a run; what worked, what didn’t, and then this learning is put to use the next time my feet hit the hills. This week I learned that a small glass of water and a banana an hour before running is fine. A small glass of water and a banana 15 minutes before running leads to an uncomfortable first couple of miles and an interesting body breath relationship on the incline….

More gains – this time at work. The nattily and succinctly titled annual Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey came out recently and I’m delighted that, thanks to the collective efforts of staff across the university, we’ve gone up 19 places, to now sit smack bang in the middle of the league table. And what is this down to? Alongside some of the bigger changes we’ve been making (for example, changes to our physical campus) it’s achieved through the collective power of incremental gain. Matthew Syed references this in his reflections in his book Black Box Thinking on the performance of the GB cycling team  at the latest Olympics (amongst other reference points). Phenomenal success was achieved through a consistent, persistent pursuit of improvement through collective incremental gains. So it is at Salford; whilst there are always the slower moving big-ticket items, success is achieved through a myriad of tiny, increasingly rigorously focused steps, reflections and improvements, each one of which by itself would amount to very little. But when experienced collectively by our students, a tangibly more positive difference is felt in the overall encounter – one aspect that tells us we are succeeding.

So, to return to the notion of success/ arrival opened up at the start of this entry, and with my PVC Student Experience hat firmly set on head, does this make me feel as though we’ve succeeded? Is there that sense of finishing line being crossed? Of course not. Success is not about having arrived (does one ever?). It’s about intelligent increments, moving forward step by step (this doesn’t mean slowly by the way) and, in a complex, shifting and dynamic environment, being in a good position to grasp the next rung of the ladder. In this vein, a convenient point/door/finishing post (as much as I sometimes wish for one…) is just not good enough. I think we’re/ I’m actually in pursuit of a temporal, attitudinal, habitually practiced stance. On a personal level, its simply intelligently pushing/ demanding myself to up the ante. On an institutional level, its an expectation of a systematically embedded high performance culture.

We’re/ I’m getting there. Bit by bit.

See you next week.