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.

Elections and co-production

This past week has seen the University of Salford Students’ Union run the voting process for their annual elections. Kicking off with gusto in January, the election process has slowly built up to this week, with the week itself ending at 5pm on a Friday with the live streamed and twitter saturated announcement of the winning candidates – four sabbatical officers and a union president. Check out their blog on the results here.

Its been an exciting campaign which, pleasingly, has had a record number of candidates step up to the plate – we even had a candidate put forward from across the seas – hailing from a programme of study in Malaysia. It’s great to see this level of engagement, which has also been mirrored in a record voter turn out, beating the record of last year, which was a significant jump in engagement from the year before – a positive engagement trend emerges, something that, as PVC Student Experience, I’m delighted to see. The USSU team have surpassed themselves and earned rest and wine (those would be my choices) in equal measure this weekend…

And so we now have a new sabbatical team waiting in the wings to step into office in the summer. I’m looking forward to working with them.

I think we (both the colleagues at the Union and those at the University) have moved our relationship forward leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. Whilst there’s always more to do, the dynamic between the two entities gives me cause for excitement because I see it becoming at once more focused and yet messier – essentially, I see it moving more and more into co-productive space. It’s a space/ way of working that really chimes well with the development of our Industrial Collaboration Zones. These zones, like the relationship with the USSU, work best when all parties involved in an idea or project bring their relevant expertise and perspectives to the table in order to build and develop something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The process is always messier and inevitably takes more conversations, more iteration and more to-ing and fro-ing, but what comes out at the end of things is a product or position which is co-owned by all involved. And it works – it really works – one only has to look at our recent library development, (I blogged about it here) to see the value of co-creative thinking and practice.

There’s also something about pro-active personal responsibility within the act of co-creation – again I’m delighted to be working with the USSU as we further develop this expectation of our students and constituents, so that even before they arrive at the front door, there is a clear, shared understanding of what it means to be learner at UoS – what students can expect from the university and the USSU, and what the University and the USSU expects from them. Co-creators or co-producers in any project are jointly responsible for the outcome – there is no room for the passive participant or the passenger here – all co-creators who are recipients and owners of the outcome have to be able to proudly say – ‘I did some of that, and its bigger and better than had I tried on my own’. In a learning sphere (I mean learning in the widest sense here) this means the student taking up the position not of a spectator but of the Boalian ‘spect-actor’ – a proactive agent, actively required to play with the other agents in the production and play with the script to change it, to alter and improve the outcome; to shape the narrative or journey as it unfolds for the better, with ripples of impact spreading beyond the framework of the performance event itself – this engagement fosters a far more exciting, rewarding (and sometimes unpredictable) learning journey in which knowledge is not a commodity – something one comes to university to get or receive, but rather it becomes an experience – something one has, something living and breathing…

So that’s why I’m excited so see a great election come to fittingly fizzing fruition on Friday, (the end of that thought was irrationally pleasing) with increased engagement and passion demonstrated throughout the campaign and the voting period. And now we’re already heading headlong into the next academic cycle with the USSU and the new team (actually, the new president is a sabbatical officer from the year before this one). With the ICZs firmly at the forefront of thinking, we’ll be working together with our students to be the ‘hearts and lungs’ of an excellent, holistic student learning experience – without either organ, things just wouldn’t work, and each organ is dependent on the other to function properly. The possibilities within this genuine co-creation of coproduction are truly exciting as the USSU brings perspectives, positions and and expertise to the table we, as a University, simply can’t grasp by ourselves (and visa versa) – it’s a symbiotic partnership and I can’t wait to push it further.

See you next week.