Competition…

In the hazy crazy adrenalin-fuelled ride of a world that is the Higher Education landscape of late, competition, or at the very least a sense of the competitive, has become the norm. We are internally competing as a sector on multiple fronts; there is a sense of the various mission groups of the sector (University Alliance, Russell Group, Million Plus and Guild HE) all jostling for position in a never-ending sprint – like that bit on the track just after the runners break their lane allocation- then there is the competition of the league tables, each year causing people like myself to try unsuccessfully to fathom the mystical alchemic nuances of the algorithms by which success or failure is mathematically bestowed upon a given institution – this shape-shifting hydra morphs unpredictably (some say whimsically) from season to season, dreamed up by a poor solitary soul locked in a darkened room with only maffs for company (or, alternatively it is arrived at by placing the various commonly used institutional performance indicators on a dartboard at the other end of a football pitch and, after a pint or two and a good go on a swiftly moving playground seesaw, letting the arrows decide the weightings). And then there are the Times Higher Education Awards; twice-yearly back-slapping riots (read networking events) of epic proportions at which various institutional triumphs are (rightly) celebrated and the number one risk is injury on the competitive dance floor – flailing limbs (my own included) desperate to recover remnants of a rose-tinted youth are flung precariously in all directions with no hint of a care for anything approaching conformity to rhythm, the beat of the song being played, or even a whiff of personal coordination which could be construed as vaguely ‘together’. And then alongside this bruising competition there is TEF, and REF and the NSS and DLHE and the brand new Global Teaching Excellence Award from the HEA and more 3-4 letter acronyms with more algorithms and panels sitting behind them and faster and quicker, slicker, leaner, meaner, morer…

And second place, as they say, doth butter no parsnips…. (actually, they don’t really say that…)

And yet…

And yet, all of the above; all of the planning and graft and competition and sense of phenomenal work across the institution at all levels to make positive changes to our everyday practices and lives and the direction of travel which, put together will end up actually making things better, (we’re seeing it happen as I write) – all of this work will end up eventually being reflected in the performance indicators, which will then end up being reflected in the competition results (whatever they might be…). And yet…. And yet, all of this competition, once a year, for a brief incendiary moment, pales into insignificance behind perhaps the greatest competition of them all. For the briefest of time periods, all of the above is eclipsed by a competition so savage, so brutal and so without the thinnest hint of humanity or forgiveness, it could have been born of Mordor itself. I am, of course, referring to the pinnacle of athletic prowess that is…

Salford University Sports Day 2017.

DDkK8s5XYAI8MGY

Admirably organised by @DSASevents, and fronted on this occasion by, amongst others, @rimmsie and raising a load of cash for our chosen charity of the year (@MindinSalford) it was a competition of epic proportions. The social media banter before hand contained more braggadocio and put-downs than a full performance from Sinatra and the Rat Pack and more swagger than a John Wayne box set.

The team from The Old Fire Station, including our DVC and Dean of Students, put together letters from each participant name to arrive at a well thought-out and catchy team name; WRENCH. (Surprisingly, no-one from marketing was present at this time.) T-shirts were duly printed with a wrench emblazoned on the chest, (geddit?) but this slightly-less-than-self-explanatory motif was subsequently interpreted by many onlookers to actually be a spanner, resulting in an unforeseen dip in the reputational stock of said band of crack athletes: pictorial semantics’ll getcha…

Stock clip-art interpretations aside, the event included trials to worry even the most versatile of heptathletes: basketball hoops, tug of war, space hopper relay and the ubiquitous egg and spoon race all tested previously untouched limits.

And we came third. Which is not bad. (it’s not entirely good, but y’know…) WRENCH came right behind the Students’ Union (who, understandably and rightly, have already started to gloat), who came right behind the winners; a disciplined team of academics from within Environmental Life Sciences (we are considering an appeal on the basis that they may have used performance enhancing cultures developed in the bio-med labs…)

Sadly (or fortuitously, depending on ones perspective) I actually had to live the event vicariously through the medium of twitter – I was just down the road presenting at a conference on retention. I was talking to colleagues from across the sector about some of the ways we’ve been enhancing retention at UoS along the idea of building an authentic, meaningful university community and a sense of pride and belonging in place and space.

I think I should have just asked the delegates to come and join in the egg and spoon and to soak up some of what I saw impressions of on twitter – I think that was a much more meaningful expression of belonging in action…

See you next week.

Advertisements

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.