#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.

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.

Possibility and space

I had a blog entry in mind for this week, but that idea has been shimmied carefully into my back pocket. It’ll probably make an appearance next week (ooh the suspense…) as I can see, in my mind, how it might link to this week’s thoughts. Bear in mind, oh loyal reader (both of you – hello Mum) my mind does not travel in straight lines, so the link, at present so clear to me, might be tangential at best and akin to obtuse logic at worst. However, if you’re still with me a week from now (I promise you the benefits do occasionally outweigh the disadvantages) and are wondering about the link between this entry and the one intended, I think its all down to the notion of possibility.

I like the concept of possibility – it has so many facets and inherent tensions – what will be, what might be and what could be. In the world of my naturally optimistic mind, possibility also carries with it a tentative sense of hope, but also for me, a sense (demand) of personal agency in ensuring that which is hoped for becomes…. Becomes… well, just becomes, really. Which also points to the other aspect of possibility which I find hugely attractive – it’s forward looking; for better or for worse, its all about the future. Today actions are simply writing the basis for tomorrow’s adventure. As an educationalist, I find the possibility of possibility possibly the most exciting thing there is about my work – helping people build future selves – what a phenomenal, awe inspiring and terrifying responsibility and gift…

I suspect more thoughts on the characteristics of possibility as a concept will emerge over the next few entries…

So what happened this week, and what might I be writing about next week which carry the idea of possibility? Well, you’ll have to wait till next week for next week’s topic (such is life, folks – this isn’t a Netflix box set binge session y’know) but this week it was all about space. Two spaces, actually; encountered across campus from each other within in minutes of each other.

The first space was our new multi-faith centre. I was privileged to be invited to formally open the building. It’s a huge achievement and a clear example of what happens when staff and students from across the university collaborate and work together to produce something really quite special.

 

The centre brings together a team of Chaplains from various faiths represented on campus and co-locates them all together under one roof – sector leading – I’ve already been told that we’re the envy of immediate neighbours, and colleagues from further afield are coming to see the model we’ve (co)created. The building is also much more than just a place for religious observance – it has meeting facilities and spaces for quiet contemplation. Walking round during the opening I was struck by how calm the place was and what significant opportunity it gave for dialogue, discussion and debate – a collegiate meeting place for ideas – isn’t that what a university should be fostering? More than this, its also open to the wider Salford community – tea and coffee is on hand at any time. It’s a forward thinking example of a porous campus offering, building bridges (not walls) between the different and diverse constituencies which help make our university the vibrant, internationalised and yet locally embedded, home that it is.

The second space (chronologically speaking) was the Allerton Beehive. Funky just ain’t the word, and ‘Beehive’ somehow grabs the essence of the space. It’s a new learning environment for all students situated near the café in Allerton. Again, this is a really forward thinking space. It offers the possibility of collaboration and messiness. It has several rooms, quiet little areas, comfy seating and group work spaces which can be booked out by students. With networked rooms, shift-able furniture and walls that double up as floor to ceiling doodle/ note pads (the invite to scribble on the walls is explicit) it’s a beautiful example of a disruptive, creative learning environment which fosters active and collaborative learning – and the development of a skillset absolutely aligned to real world work and our ICZs. The students have loved it – the graffiti on the walls already echo out a very positive reception.

And now you’re thinking, but… possibility…. Spaces… c’mon – tie it together… (alright, alright…)

The exciting thing about the development of these spaces is not the actual facilities themselves, but the actions, thinking, behaviours, conversations and meetings that they enable – for me it’s the sense of the possibility which sits in the spaces, which wasn’t there before, but now is… These spaces are catalysts for positive developments. Exactly what developments, I don’t know and moreover, couldn’t possibly predict, but I know that these spaces will foster things that I can’t even imagine. In that way they will become more than the sum of their parts – the possibility for positive growth and development, be in it in the collaborative shenanigans of the beehive, or in the meeting of ideas in the multi-faith centre, is huge and will help shape numerous futures and that’s why I’m drawn by the spaces – to me they are possibilities rendered as present – how exciting. I’m looking forward to the adventures they create…

See you next week.

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.

Not a meeting…

I had a great meeting at work recently. Actually, ‘meeting’ is the wrong title for such a, erm… meeting. However, ‘session’ sounds a bit too much like we were making free-form jazz and ‘brainstorm’ describes a wholly unproductive use of time in which several people chase ideas along a single thread, where one person could probably do nearly as much.

It was a… gathering (nevermind) of several people, without formal agenda, but with a clear idea of the territory we would be exploring, but without a predetermined idea of outcome, ok?

I was excited about this, because the frame of the… assembly (Nope. Again; sorry) as well as the topic of discussion, offered the possibility for invention. In reflecting on it, I’m reminded of a simulation exercise I did as part of the Leadership Foundation’s SLP3 programme.

The simulation was fun. The SLP3 cohort – a group of about 20 or so colleagues from across UK HEIs – were split into two fictitious institutional management teams, with each team being given a dedicated room. One team was the management team of a small specialist HEI with a distinct heritage and character, which, whilst being of some prestige, did not, unfortunately make ends meet. This small specialist had consequently entered into a partnership with the local large HEI – represented by the other institutional management team, comprising the remainder of the SLP3 cohort. Fed by ‘real time’ facilitator interruptions and ‘new information’ the task for both teams was to balance the competing demands of the changing situation and arrive at a favourable outcome for all. The simulation lasted about 5 hours. It passed in seconds…

Of course what the exercise was actually designed to experientially examine was working team dynamics. A facilitator was assigned to each room and at the end of the exercise, each team had a detailed plenary and discussion about the behaviours and points that had arisen.

Very useful and insightful… more in a minute, as what I’d like to say needs to come at the end.

Jump back across to the real world …

Myself and three colleagues were having a… get-together (awful descriptor – too redolent of a 1970’s cheese and wine do) to do some creative thinking around aspects of the organisational development aligned to the Education and Student Experience Strategy. It had been a while coming because, learning from the previous experience of myself and one other colleague in the room, we put aside three hours for this meeting (the last one had been a four hour + creative blitz) and finding a slot where all four of us had three consecutive hours available all at the same time had been a feat of outlook acrobatics…

So, the…summit (help me) happened and predictably (or surprisingly depending on your stance) 3 hours again disappeared in seconds, confirming that time has nothing to do with the man made construct of the clock, but is an Individual Thing dependent upon ones attitude to the activity being undertaken. During this time, as was the case in the SLP simulation, the bubble occurred – that absorbing liminal space often found at the bottom of a book, or in the pursuit of crafting something, or practicing something.

My PhD focused on the nature of this absorption, itself an essential component of flow. I’ve discovered through the doctoral study and in further reflections, big and small, that absorption is essentially a kind of conversation between the self and other; instances wherein one loses oneself in the doing and the other kind of takes over a little. In these periods of time, the creative direction of travel seems to almost take on a life of its own and drift somewhat out of ones control.

Interestingly in the context of the creative… session (maybe it is session…) I first mentioned and the SLP3 simulation exercise the absorptive other is both the ideas being generated, and the other people in the room. In contrast to the lone venture of the solitary sculptor (for instance) this flow was communal; ideas were bounced back and forth, interrogated and re-interrogated, understandings were hashed and rehashed and it was the interplay of individual contributions which produced outcomes constituting more than the sum of the parts. This idea of flow as a group endeavour has been explored in Group Genius by Keith Sawyer – great read for anyone interested in this…

So, in thinking about both the idea of the conversation with other, as a part of (productive) absorption and thinking about the two instances of group work – what are the principles, or operating guidelines for this liminal space? What did we do both times? What behaviours were consistent across both iterations? (be prepared for a starter for ten list folks– its not exhaustive…)

  •  We didn’t meet in a ‘normal’ setting – this was a different space for all of us, therefore tacit normative behaviours and assumptions were easier to ignore if one so desired.
  •  We spent some time ‘checking in’ – in both groups the start of the meeting had spacetime for us to leave whatever was not needed at the door.
  •  We trusted, and therefore could say whatever.
  •  There was no hierarchy in the room – everyone’s opinion and thought was valid – people were playing themselves, not their day job.
  •  We drew things and kept things visible–someone took up the reins of scribe early on in each meeting and recorded everything – flipcharts and whiteboards rein supreme – analogue rules.
  •  We kept ideas bubbling between us, not settling or bouncing into groupthink and positive reinforcement of each others ideas, but maintaining a state of what Ronald Heifetz has called ‘cooking the conflict’.
  •  We had plenty of snacks (maltesers, cakes and coffee were a recurrent theme – I know healthier options are available, but; maltesers. Maltesers, people.)

See you next week.

It’s All About Timing…

I’ve had a good week. Unusually, it’s been a very ‘me’ centred week, where I’ve focused on, or participated in, a number of activities and actions which have been specifically intended to develop me in some way. I’m separating this from the the ongoing process of self development arising as a natural consequence of the day to day activity. There has been more deliberate practice than in a usual week and at the end of the week, whist sometimes revisiting familiar territory, this focus has opened up new possibilities and threads of exploration. I’m now looking forward to trying new ideas out and itching to experiment and put things into practice…

There have been three things in particular that made it a good week. On their own, each of them were positive occurrences, however, placed together, they became more than just the sum total of their parts.

360 degrees

At the University of Salford, members of the university management team have just undertaken a 360 feedback process. This week I received my feedback from that process. It was a fascinating insight into how others perceive me set against my own perceptions of my work and the means by which I try to undertake my role. The detail gave some really useful points for my consideration – thoughts towards improvement and also (pleasingly) numerous suggestions for areas in which I can place more personal faith and capitalise upon my practice to take these perceived strengths further. It’s great to have all the analysis in one document. This precious document is now mine, for dissemination and further action as I wish or see fit. As a first step I’ve given it to my PA to read in full. I’ve written down my thoughts on what I’d like to work on – I’m going to need Emma’s help in making it carry positive echoes in a structural and organisational sphere that goes beyond just my own actions.

Strategic Leadership Programme

As part of my ongoing professional development at Salford I’ve enrolled on the Leadership Foundation’s Strategic Leadership Programme. This week saw me spend two days on the first of two short residentials between now and September. The days were packed, fast paced and lively. Approximately 20 of us are on the programme – it was great to meet likeminded individuals, all of whom brought projects from their home institutions to form the personalised content of the course as it progresses. Action Learning Sets have been initiated and were interspersed with wider group discussions and exercises over the two days. There was a huge amount of stimulus, constructive challenge and collegiate support through the sesions. No doubt as I reflect further on the learning I’ll be revisiting it in these posts.

Group Genius

Finally, I’ve been nodded towards Group Genius by Keith Sawyer. The book draws on a number of familiar (to me) frameworks to explore the notion of genius as residing in a group dynamic, or collective process. Inspiration and understanding is taken from improvisation theatre and jazz ensembles alongside a group orientated take on Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow. (I wrote about this a couple of posts back) It’s a great read. I thoroughly recommended it to anyone interested in fostering creative team dynamics. Whilst some of the content is very familiar on a personal level, the book comes at just the right time for me to channel it into several threads of work at Salford. Timely just ain’t the word…

It all ties together…

So, aside from a chance to reflect upon my professional practice in the context of Higher Education, this week has seen a meeting of things which all came together at the right time. One has sparked actions and been given language by the other, which has been consolidated and expanded upon by the third (its not quite as linear as that, but you get the picture…)

Above all, the connections and spaces between the topics above are just as interesting as the topics themselves. I can see the relationships between the various things above have begun to frame a possible articulation of thoughts, directions and ideas which have been swimming around in my mind for a while. This is something that is very valuable to me in my position, as the learning of the last week has begun to point towards a language I might use in communication of ideas. It’s simply serendipitous and wonderful timing that these unrelated influences have arrived with me in the same week. It feels like a birthday has arrived early.

I think I’m also consciously looking out for connections and inviting myself to seek out relationships between the apparently unconnected. It’s when I start putting this with that because of an intuitive sense that the two unrelated fragments might work together that unpredicted sparks begin to appear – some useful, others not so. However, this week, the resulting spark from connecting the previously unrelated has been the beginnings of a useful lexicon – a real step forward. Watch this space….

See you next week.