A Coherent Campus

Research is whatever you need. It’s as likely to be about remembering something you do know as about something you don’t know

J. BURROWS - A Choreographers Handbook

I set the children the task of seeing, feeling and thinking about what interested them, explaining that this thing called research was a large part of University life.

Research has a value, thinking and wondering can be a job but more importantly it can be a way of better knowing yourself and the world around you.

The key to research we decided was being curious  and having “a big packed lunch,wet weather clothes and good intestines"; these comments were prompted by looking at images of famous geographer/explorer types in the Daysh foyer.

What interests you, what do you want to know more about?

Our exploration of Newcastle University began with a consideration of people and  spaces…the gardens, the students who were graduating that day, the totteringly high heels and the “graduated hats” .

“ Why do they wear those capes and graduated hats?”  Surely a great research question in itself but we took the time to applaud and shout well done and in doing so surprised a few folk. I was struck by how elements of this celebratory ritual of academic achievement have become so uniform, so over organised and somehow so insular. One graduate commented “those children are freaky”. This bothers me because I hate to think that University life, education at a higher level means you become cut off, distanced and separate from others. My hope is that education broadens horizons, and is a means by which we see connection and possibility. Graduation ceremonies are a fabulous opportunity for a looking out ritual. We passed on and through the proud families looking a little conspicuous in our school uniforms and regulation high viz vests pausing at the “head space”.

I like to offer open  invitations to explore space, to be in space ,to absorb the rhythms of  a place and so I simply asked  the children-

What is this space for?

This is what the researchers of year 4 proposed;

  • This is a space for chilling
  • It is for a bit of peace and relaxing
  • It is a place for dancing and climbing and exercising
  • It is a place for feeling like you’re the boss

This last statement is of particular interest as the children proceeded to stand on the podium areas and made spontaneous declarations;

“ Just do it”

"I love these heads”

“Everyone you need to do more dancing, what do you need to be graduated for”

“ When are we going to start?”

“ Listen to me…I am the boss"

" Everyone should have a chance to go to university"

" Learning should be free, it's bad that people can't go if they can't pay as they might get stuck"

Something about the space called to them, emboldened and enabled them to speak their truth. Without any direction and through their direct experience and exploration the children gave this place meaning, they invested it with their curiosity  and response ability, making it a dialogical domain. As researchers they engaged fully with the primary source material and in doing so came to understand the potential of this  space and importantly enriched and extended its possibilities. All without any interpretation or explanation of the artist's intent…they found their own coherence.

I myself only noticed the word “Forum" etched into the stone seating after the children had declared their thoughts. Their physical relationship with the space enabled me to see more, to see and feel the connection to this place and to consider the notion of the forum, of speaking out, of making your voice heard. I love this ability children have, their intimate relationship to knowledge via direct experience. They played with this public space until they found a relationship to it and it to them. 

Here is one of the head sculptures

Here is one of the head sculptures

Here is an image of a climbing frame, the kind the children see and use in their local park

Here is an image of a climbing frame, the kind the children see and use in their local park

Their spontaneity and impulse raised a lot of questions for me about space , the politics of space and how we unwittingly make spaces and places hierarchical and exclusive. We are all in danger of getting "stuck" constipated by privilege/assumption. Having different ages on campus is a way of ensuring we keep well oiled and can let go!!

Take a climbing frame and a sculpture. One is given the name “art” and the other “play”. Interestingly on viewing a university funded film about the sculptures I discovered that they are part of something called  the Coherent Campus. This is described as an approach which seeks to make the campus “welcoming, accessible and sociable” 

But perhaps the welcome is only there if you behave according to the assumed rules and don’t seek to see art as intrinsically playful which is a shame. I have a long standing relationship with these sculptures  via The seat of reason

It is fascinating how the mix of the unexpected behaviours from different ages in this space elicit so many responses and how play, which is the bedrock of research is not always welcome or easily accommodated. Another discovery was that this piece of public art is called "Generations"....it seems that certain generations are more prone to playfulness than others.

 The geography of play and the geography of generations is something my residency continues to dabble and dally with along with the concept of "Going to the top" . This is a  metaphor which pervades my Leverhulme and the children showed a geographer's flair for ascending a headland and sitting on top of it, Brandon taking the time to point out that the sculpture he was sat upon " got no brains but it's at university" . Brandon unwittingly or rather intuitively commenting on how academia is often perceived as being the realm of the head. The word head pervades education ,head girl/boy, head teacher , heads of departments and faculties… so how delightful to sit your rump on a head, playfully, delightfully and in a delicious defiance of convention! Often our creative impulses lead us to make statements and to invite new ways of thinking. Apart from laughing a lot at their energy and utter delight in playing with these structures Year 4 have provided me with much to think about…they are keeping me very busy ! And that is only a teeny part of what this group of young researchers have brought to my thinking body

 Play invites a disposition that enables research to be energetic, in the moment and where the most important discoveries are those which you make yourself. It is the possibility of a playful approach to research that tempts me into academia, the potential of  dwelling in a shifting and ambiguous realm,  inviting  a visceral way of knowing . As a life long practitioner of improvisation the role of intuition in learning and understanding  is a natural research area...and one thing I am discovering about geography is that it pretty much embraces everything .

The children from Marine Park make me excited about research,about turning things upside down….guts, instincts (bums sat on heads) speak to me of the possibility for a fairer more inclusive  society where all kinds of knowing might be valued and appreciated.....and all kinds of hierarchies and assumed power can be questioned and where appropriate, sat upon in order to get a better , wider view. 

"Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other." Celia Payne

The generations have much to teach us about how to keep our learning institutions alive, relevant, inclusive and coherent.

And the children do have something in common with a playful member of staff at Newcastle University, Matt Jenkins....but that is for my next Leverhulme tale.