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.

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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.

Expansions and contractions in Ramallah

So I’ve been in Ramallah this week. It’s been brilliant, hectic fun in which rehearsed flexibility has been key. I’ve been here with the British Council, on the first visit of a programme which seeks to develop and embed entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial thinking into the practice of Palestinian universities, such that the graduates of these universities could then operate with entre/ intrapreneurial mindsets and capabilities. It’s a really interesting programme and has stemmed from my visit to Bethlehem and Ramallah in May last year – I blogged about it here.

What was an initial visit to present a paper I co-authored with Helen Marshall, our Vice Chancellor has, by means of a couple of workshops and many conversations with the British Council, turned into a genuinely exciting programme of work, in which projects aligned to the endeavour of developing entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial teaching and learning are being shaped by an inter-institutional team from the UK. This last point in itself is exciting – its great to be collaborating with colleagues from other universities – its particularly rewarding since we’re all from the same mission group (University Alliance); the development of resilient graduates through distinctive real world learning is, I think, part of the special character of our mission group – its certainly there in bundles at Salford.

Anyhow, on this visit we’ve been working with colleagues from seven Palestinian universities to kick off their projects and position our full programme as a large piece of action-research in itself – watch this space for further details on that front…

However, whilst the formal content of the three full days we’ve been here has been fun at full tilt in itself, I actually want to pull out a brief moment outside those workshoppy spaces and places; it came after the first day of workshops, on the evening of our second day here…

It’s the first time I’ve worked with Dr Joan Lockyer from Coventry University, and Dr Gillian Jack (or amusingly, and pleasingly briefly, Dr Jack Gillian, as the first version of her airline ticket read – cue 15 minutes of being exceptionally nice to lovely BA staff at stupid o clock in the morning) from the University of South Wales. We’ve all reflected on how well and how quickly we have meshed as a team – in early instances of team teaching I have found it a rarity to be comfortable enough with material and unfamiliar colleagues to be able to happily ditch well-laid plans and the rosy cosy comfort blanket of rehearsed text, and play, improvise and shift things around as the need arises. However, we’ve done just this, and the outcome has been all the more robust for doing so.

Anyway, at the end of the first day of workshops, there was a palpable and shared sense of ‘that went pretty well – we’re onto something here – I think its going to be a good outcome’ between us. A slightly tentative breath out, but not all the way, not just yet. Given that we’d been indoors all day, and were riding on the kind of high one has when walking into sunshine after a concentrated indoor task, we decided to take a walk up the road from the hotel and into the winding Ramallah streets and the Souk.

It was an ambling walk during a hazy dusk, wandering where the pathways took us, round countless street vendors selling corn, and spices and sandals and strawberries – mountains of strawberries, and sneakers and hot tea and coffee and strange vegetables stacked house high on carts and boxes and all of this visual and olfactory feast was cloaked in a cacophony of car horns, and shouted wares and unfamiliar music and chatter and in the background, the droning song-speak of mosques as the call to prayer floated out chants and guiding hands called a hundred thousand times over; incantations which grounded the whole scene in a tradition which blended with the thump from stereo speakers in the street.

Here’s a little video which captures some of it…

https://www.flickr.com/photos/samgrogan/shares/9u457P

You can see a full slide show of the trundle here.

Afterwards, we had dinner in our hotel and then put the world to rights over a glass of wine (that last bit implies the singular, rather than the plural – I’d be sandpapering actual truths into a more respectable form if I let that stand; there was wine and it was definitely in more than one glass.)

The conversation between Gill, Joan and myself was broad, deep and thoroughly enjoyable, seamlessly flowing (like said beverages) across subjects as diverse as Kantian thinking, hermeneutics, phenomenology, to politics, to genetics and inter generational genetic memory, to solipsism, deterministic thinking, to embodied knowing and consciousness, to play theory and social constructivism, to soft networks and organisational structures. Sadly, we didn’t manage to get to the X-factor, but there’s a limit, y’know? We did, over several scribbled napkins, also capture the essence of an idea about a potential shared venture of a book – even managing to arrive, after some time, at a working structure and tasks forward.

It was very good wine.

My reflection on all of this – the intense day, the seemingly aimless wandering (which was just as much about being mentally led by the sights and sounds of the souk, as the physical activity of the pootle) and the highly enjoyable and, as it turns out, productive conversation over dinner, is that, I don’t think the remarkable dinner conversation could have happened with out the contraction of the day, and then the release of the walk – both episodes contributed to the final chapter of the day and were foundational in its architecture. Again, similarly to my post last week, it’s partially about a subjective experience of time – contractions and expansions giving rise to different body-mind states, each of which offers opportunity. Another reminder to myself to recognise, search out and nurture the gifts which are always, always there.

Finally, this blog entry actually has multiple purposes – firstly, it’s a piece of personal reflective writing on experience which is to be shared with our Palestinian colleagues – to those readers – I hope its useful. And secondly, this is my documentation of my day for the 365 days of experience being captured at the University of Salford as part of the story of our 50th year. It’s not been a bad day at all…

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.