#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.

Advertisements

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.