Ongoing Ambiguity

It feels like an increasingly well-worn (and possibly down right weary) statement: we’re living in times of change and instability. On almost every front – no, scrub that – on every front that I can bring immediately to mind, significant change is the norm. More than this, the rate and pace of change is accelerating. Swiftly shapeshifting and complex fluidity of position is now seen as the paradoxical constant of our times; we see it everywhere – from the unprecedented and unpredictable  #cofefe and random bursts of spectacularly illiterate and emotive semi-incoherence sputtered out in 140 characters by the Tangerine Womble in his  unhinged and fluid position as POTUS, to, in almost another context entirely, the prolific acceleration of the Internet of Things, with all the ethical complexities, dangers and possibilities that are needing to be debated and considered as this new world permeates our lives, decisions and daily routines. 

Closer to home in the UKHE sector, change and fluidity seems just as seismic; the new Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 has lines within it which promise a reshaping of the UK landscape; similarly each of the party manifestos take an approach to the HE sector which have far reaching consequences of varying natures (this entry was written on the morning train at stupid-o-clock on election day 2017). Add to this the hugely negative impact of Brexit, the insistence of the current government to keep international students within immigration number targets and then, just for giggles and the sheer delirious fun of it, add a decline in UK university applicant population through to 2022, alongside an increasing marketisation of UKHE and one is inevitably faced with a destabilising, complex conundrum of competing factors impacting upon the wellbeing of our sector.

(As an aside, I’m reminded of a one-liner from Dean Martin during one of the infamous Rat Pack Summit sessions in the early 1960’s, when the braggadocio and male drinking schtick; a dizzying tower of swooning and crooning, triumphantly placed amidst tuxedos and chevvy tailfins, was at the nexus of pop culture for old and young alike – something about holding onto the floor the next time it came round to stop himself falling off it….)

Given the landscape painted above, one might expect a pervasive feeling of doom, gloom and something approaching helplessness as we sit in the passenger seat reluctantly witnessing the speedometer spin clockwise as the proverbial cliff edge draws nearer. However, from both an institutional standpoint at the University of Salford, and (given this blog is a personal and tangential reflection on the day-to-day) as an individual, I genuinely don’t feel gloomy at all. If anything, I see huge potential and possibility here.

On an institutional level our Industry Collaboration Zones are an ideally placed answer to this continued ambiguity and shifting uncertainty. Facing off to the industries and communities with which the university partners, they are, by their nature, reflexive centres of disruptive innovation – their very constitution relies on change being not only necessary, but desirable. More than this, they position us perfectly in the region to capitalise on devolution and to answer the call from the government for universities to be the growth anchors for the industrial strategy. Is it comfortable and easy? No, definitely not – nothing worth doing is, and a desire for comfort and a slow moving stability speaks to a vision of a sector which I’m not sure really exists anymore – however much one might long for a stasis of position. One necessarily needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how to do this and, moreover, do it well? How to avoid slipping into a reactive mode of being/doing, as we have to necessarily adapt and flex with this uncertainty – an uncertainty certainly due to be faced by our students as they step into this fast-paced graduate landscape of change and probably adopt portfolio, or patchwork career patterns (I’m resisting calling them career paths – I don’t think they have the luxury of being that linear…)

I think, on organisational and personal levels, its about fostering a real world resilience based on a position which is actually a meeting place for seeming contradictions – and more than this – necessarily and joyfully celebrating and inviting in this seeming contradiction – I say ‘seeming’ because I don’t actually see it as contradictory in practice.

One (an institution or a person, or an operating structure or #pickyourentityofchoice) must have certainty of purpose; a sense of grounded Heideggerian being-in-the-world, whilst having the agility and tenacity to embrace change (internal and external) as a creative working dynamic, bending with the wind so to speak. I’m again reminded of the absorption I find in surfing – it’s a similar position of tension – one has the certainty of needing to ride the wave, but where one goes on the wave and what happens in the 150 yards between the wave and the shoreline is, for me, an ambiguous mixture of response and desire – a fluctuating conversation between me, my board and the water. I can’t be fixed there – that would destroy the ride. Similarly, to give oneself over completely is an exercise in futility – at that point one becomes a passive passenger – no fun at all.

So I think resilience and a means of meeting this world and its challenges comes, in part, from resolutely adopting an uncomfortable, shifting celebration of necessary, responsible, accountable agility and a certain amount of ambiguity, perhaps drawing a soft parallel to Emilyn Claid’s idea of ambiguity seen in Yes, No, Maybe. More than a threshold resilience – a coping and surviving- I think dogged consistency in this modus operandi offers the possibility of thriving. And for those of you who are up for more – here’s a really interesting little article on excelling in this vein, taken from a psychological standpoint.

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.

Riding the disruption

So, I went to China earlier this week. Out on Saturday, back on Wednesday. I went out with a couple of colleagues to assess, and subsequently (hopefully) recommend formal university approval of a potential partnership with Zhejiang Fashion Institute of Technology (ZFIT) in Ningbo on the Eastern Coast.

The whole visit went very well. Although I’ve encountered a fair bit of Asia, and spent a lot of time in the South East, this was my first visit to China. As with all first visits to such places, encountering the cultural and geographical differences are a joyous aspect for me of what was an all-too-brief immersion into an other; from the different taste of the air as one steps off the plane, to the etiquette of the formal business card greeting, to the ubiquity of delicious green tea accompanying every meeting, to the unfamiliar shapes of the architecture, both in the smallest of details and the wider sense of a cityscape. And the food…Oh the food! As an ardent foodie I have come away with many new ideas echoing in my taste buds. Suffice to say we were hosted to with an inch of our lives….

My cultural rendering of the familiar as welcomingly different was offset by what I perceived to be an increasing sense of global connectivity. Backed by a clear directive from the government, Ningbo’s agenda is to build – there’s a palpable sense of opportunity fuelled by an appetite for growth delivered with a speed unthinkable in the UK. The hotel we stayed in was an impressive building, clearly there to provide a sense of familiarity blended with regional character to the international business traveller. Breakfast catered to the traditions of all continents… (I still went for the red bean porridge and noodles*) Similarly, our brief tour of the Ningbo waterfront city centre saw East and West meet, with the traditional buildings and cultural reverence for the historical teachings and the evolutionary story of China sitting alongside the new churches – modern glass and steel arcades fronted by Hugo Boss, Salvatore Ferragamo, Prada et al.

Here’s a link to a slide show of the whole experience…

Aside from the business of business (I’ll tie all this together at the end, promise) the other aspect of the visit was entirely unforeseen. When we left Manchester the airport was shrouded in fog, which delayed our departure, resulting in a change of connecting flights through to Ningbo. For a while we were headed for Shanghai, but it ended up being Beijing. However, these shenanigans resulted in my luggage deciding to have a trip of its own, which meant that, due to its wish for independence and its desire to take in a number of sights and experiences sans yours truly, we were only actually reunited in Beijing on the homeward flight.

This meant, pretty much as soon as we checked in, and in the slight wobbly corporeal mismatch between internal time zone and external reality, I needed to visit the shops in Ningbo in order to replace the essentials and find another shirt. I had a speech to give the next day to a large gathering and needed to find a look other than that of 27-hours-awake-in-flight-chic. So my graceful and understanding hosts took us all off to a local supermarket. This again was one of those instances where the familiar is rendered strange, but there’s fun to be found when one can ride the disruption. (You try miming ‘hair styling wax’ without shampoo being the inevitable result…) However, we managed to find a shirt (slightly over-cosy denim is, apparently, the look for 2017) and pair this with a brand new University of Salford tie (resplendent with new coat of arms, mind). I think I’m the first to wear the tie at an official event. And possibly the first and last to carry it off with a fetching light weave denim. I give thanks right here and now to various deities for the small mercy of my coat.

But it was fun – genuine exploratory fun – riding the disruption, I had a little taste of the unexpected and saw a tiny slice of everyday Ningbo that I wouldn’t have otherwise strayed into. What a beautiful gift.

And there’s the tie together. I find that meeting of opposites fascinating – it’s an often unpredictable collision: the plan and the unforeseen in the luggage adventure, the Eastern traditions and Western practices in Ningbo as a whole. I think that’s what our (hopefully soon to be formally approved) partnership offers; focused as it is on fashion, it’s a meeting place for western pedagogies associated with disruptive experiential creative practices ,set alongside a Chinese educational system which brings a personal discipline and set of traditional values into this shared learning sphere. It’s an interesting and carefully tuned endeavour – one I’m really looking forward to seeing grow and develop and one that will undoubtedly produce further possibilities.

Not a bad start to the year at Salford. I hope the rest of our 50th birthday year will be just as much fun….

See you next week.

 

 

*And possibly a croissant

Sunshine, a playful attitude and some imagination

I’ve been thinking about attitudes this week and how they colour ones approach to, and receipt of, well… everything. The thing that nudged me in this direction was an evening walk in beautifully golden sun in the fields and woods near my house. The sunlight was just fantastic and literally coloured everything.

 

This led me, in my tangential manner (you should all be used to this – this is post 10) to think about how an attitude of playfulness is necessary. This, my lovely readers, is where I went…

Eva Karczag described the way she approaches the act of dancing; ‘playing lightly, with complete absorption, utter conviction and intense pleasure, I enter and inhabit emergent worlds of the imagination and abandon myself to the physical delight of moving’ (Karczag, cited in Claid 2006: 209). Interestingly Karczag also notes the involvement of the imagination in her reflections upon her experience.

Karczag describes ‘emergent worlds’ and a ‘physical delight’; a wonderful description of dance as an imaginative and creative ludic activity, which brings together the possible and the actual into one sphere of being: a merging of the psychic and the objective domains. However, what’s striking about Karczag’s description of what she does, is the implied attitude of the performer during these periods of time. There seems to be a deliberate attitude adopted by the performer in their work, which invites in play. When action is imbued and therefore transformed by this attitude, it becomes played – the attitude of approach is playful and colours everything, like the sunshine from my evening walk. So it seems that the creativity and activated imagination of the individual engaged in play is an essential part of that which makes the activity itself (whatever it is) playful.

Playfulness appears to be a ‘mode of doing’ which must be entered into willingly by the player – it’s a common complaint of artists across disciplines that creativity cannot be demanded, or produced ‘on tap’ – it’s a voluntary state of being into which one enters voluntarily. There’s an element of freedom from the norm in this luxurious space which allows us to move away from the everyday and step into what I’ve touched upon in previous entries here as a liminal space. Conversely, to be creative to order feels a lot like working. I think working play is wholly different from the creative play of a player playing, because working play then becomes work. I always think of this when I accidentally see professional football on the TV (It’s always by accident as I’m channel hopping on the way to somewhere else – I’m not a fan…). Professional football is, to me, just watching people do work. I see teams playing tactically, players playing for the match win bonus, for the accolade, material and otherwise, and I see a game plan unfold driven by league tables and match results. Essentially, I see the deployment of considerable skill and energy in pursuit of extrinsic goals. Very rarely (fingers on one hand time) have I seen the players and the manager forget all the extrinsic motivations and become so absorbed, so engulfed, so drawn in to the game that it ceases to be work. On the rare occasions when this workfulness disappears, the players have room to play, and from a genuine position of loving the act of doing and being absorbed in this, enter a state of playfulness. At the other end of the sporting skills spectrum, I’ve had the fortune to watch several of my friend’s young children play in their Saturday league football matches. These matches, largely bereft of skill, finesse, tactical playing, or more often than not, anything resembling concerted team coordination, are riveting. Every player is totally wrapped in the action, playing with all their might, heart on sleeve. Totally absorbed, totally playful.

In a different but related vein, and thinking about my own discipline background, theatre creates the beautifully paradoxical situation at the heart of systematic playfulness. This is the situation whereby the performer is asked to enter willingly into the game of performance at the same time every night. Whether the player enters playfully into the game or not is part of the perceived difference between a performance that flows and one that does not – work and play again…We’ve all seen electrifying performances and also ones that are just…. flat. The creativity of the performer will engage when they allow themselves to be taken and actually be played themselves by the game, playing it as if for the very first time, in order to uncover, in Viola Spolin’s words ‘personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing of creative vision’ (Spolin 1983: 4). Similarly to Spolin, another performer, Kirstie Simson, in reflecting upon her attitude in performance, explains aspects of playfulness:

‘It’s about honesty. The work is in opening to what is genuine. I try to create an open space that lets people in. The big challenge is in letting myself be who I am. It is very scary to go out there,physically go out there, letting go of everything that fixes. So that is my work, to create an atmosphere of open-ness, so the audience and I can trust the moment of play that is happening.’

D.W. Winnicott (1971) describes this creative playful state of being as a ‘colouring of the whole attitude’ towards actuality. So it seems that the attitude of playfulness and the act of creation is an imaginative sublimation of reality. We are able to see and experience our environment, whatever that might be – an idea, a landscape, a sculpture, a football game, a theatre piece – as new, recreating it as fit for the playing. The activity of make-believe involves a psychic re-appropriation of one’s surroundings in order to create a state of being that is intrinsically motivated – is driven by worth in and of itself. So, using an example of make-believe, or theatre, the player stands on the upturned bucket as a runaway marooned on an island. This ludic act is fun, through and through.

It’s this playfulness, this intrinsic sense of fun that we need find within our endeavours at Salford as we co-create the implementation of our new strategy and build the exciting strategic priority of our Industrial Collaboration Zones. As has been said before, the differentiation is in the how, as much as the what…

A little longer blog than usual, but that’s what a good dose of sunshine does.

See you next week.