#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.

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.

Once Upon A Time There Was A…

I think this post treads further along the line of thought opened up by last week’s musings…

As we take the first steps towards formal launch of our new five-year strategy and ten year vision at the university of Salford, I become continually reawakened to the fact that language is important. I’m not just talking (no pun intended) about the spoken, but the whole multivalent lexicon that a person, or a group uses to share ideas. The nuances in this language not only shape action, but can also shape our perceptions and our experiences of the world. Two anecdotes to explain what I mean…

Actor training at Bath Spa University

After leaving freelance work as a performer, my first academic post was as a lecturer at Bath Spa University. During that time I was privileged to work under Gunduz Kalic, training actors on the BA (Hons) Performing Arts programme. Stemming from Kalic’s direction, there was a specific vocabulary of terms, phrases and practices on the programme. One notable example was the way in which an actor would describe what has traditionally been called motivation or objective – essentially a label given to the driving impetus for a character in any given unit of action. Gunduz reframed this motivation as ‘urge’ i.e. ‘I have an urge to….’ Moreover, the way in which this ‘urge’ was described foregrounded action; the actor would use it an order to the self to do something. An urge for a unit of action might be phrased as ‘ make them stop’ or, ‘Get out of here’ or ‘win the competition’. The effect of this linguistic frame upon the work of undergraduate actors was considerable. Far from carrying their character’s motivations in their heads as cranial, conceptual notions, use of ‘urge’ moved this drive into the gut; into the body of the performer, producing an intensely embodied response and a deeper emotional literacy that sat with the whole bodymind, rather than residing from the neck upwards.

Landmarks

Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane is a fantastic book about the connections between language and the land. In the opening pages he demonstrates the power language has to shape how we see the world. He mentions the word smeuse; a word from Sussex dialect describing the little pathlet in a hedgerow formed by the regular passage of a small animal. This word has snuck into my mind – smeused its way in if you like, such that now, whenever I’m on walks like this one, I can’t help but spot smeuses with delightful regularity… Language is the basis of this discovery – words shape intentionality.

So, in the context of a communal endeavour, such as that found at Salford University, developing a shared lexicon, or language; a verbal/ non verbal/ physical/ pictorial/ multi-sensory mode of describing the doing, is critical in shaping the doing itself and fostering collective ideas and collaboration.

I think, at the heart of a successful lexicon, one which inspires cooperation and belief, is the notion of story, or narrative. Call it a shared vision, a common set of values, a brilliant idea, or a framework of concepts – it’s a thing which shapes, and is shaped by, the language surrounding it. Cooperation is based on our ability to effectively tell and believe in stories and align in purpose under a common understanding.

A lot of my thinking here comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,  by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari places the idea of story as fundamental to the way in which language helps share and shape ideas. As one with a background in performance, I’ve seen and felt first hand many times over the force of a good story well told. Neil Gaiman, a master storyteller of our time has also penned a wonderful piece on the powerful nature of stories.

A university (itself a constantly shifting multi-stranded story) has (many) stories. At Salford, we’re just really beginning to work towards writing and telling our next chapter – one which has Industrial Collaboration Zones (ICZs)at its heart. These ICZs are a new, contemporary echo of a longstanding tradition of practice at Salford. As we try to unfold the story of our ICZs and chip the shape of them out of the current landscape, it strikes me that developing an increasingly sensitised, shared, yet agile and flexible language-as-story is absolutely necessary to this process.

Like the ‘urge’ work from my experience at Bath Spa University, this multi-modal language needs the drive of action at its core. Like the smeuses, it inherently begs revelry in applied curiosity. Above all, this story needs to facilitate engagement, offering participants the opportunity to tell and devise their own stories through it. It’s there for the inventing… It’s the irresistible call to adventure offered by; ‘Once upon a time there was a…

See you next week.