The Changing Campus #1 & #2: some reflections on our recent SHU Space Place / HEC online seminars (session recordings here too)

“In an increasingly home-based, privatised society, universities are among the few surviving institutions that draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity.”

Krishan Kumar (1997) ‘The Need for Place’ in Smith & Webster (eds) The Postmodern University: Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, SRHE/Open University Press: Buckingham, p.34

The covid pandemic has shaken education – like so much else – to the core. For long periods of lockdown and transitional caution, Higher Education has lurched online, the physical focus of ‘the University’ shifting from the communal classrooms and cafes of campus life, to solitary student bedrooms and tutor kitchen tables. In a sense far removed from what Kumar was contemplating, Higher Education has become very privatised.

As we (hopefully) start to emerge from covid and its warping effects on daily life, questions are being asked within – and beyond – the sector, about the future of place within University life. Talk is of an ‘extended campus’ of hybrid spaces and modes of teaching and learning.

We all nod in resignation, that – somehow that we can’t yet fully express – things are unlikely to ever return to how they once were. Sometimes this feels good – that the disrupting break with how things were, opens up new possibilities, perhaps even new freedoms. But at other times the prospect seems bleaker – institutions now used to running on a crisis footing of ‘change everything, daily’, now have much higher expectations of the gymnastic, change-absorbing capabilities of their staff, and of the adaptability of their now-less-fully-occupied buildings.

So how to make sense of this challenge to the timeless physicality of the University and its civic presence? How can a new – distributed – sense of the University’s purpose as device to draw people together and to encourage them to work and grow together be instilled?

In the SHU Space & Place Group (working in collaboration with our university’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster) we’ve recently hosted two online seminars to consider these issues. The recordings are below, and my other recent posts summarise the content. And we are now planning a third event for May 2022.

In The Changing Campus #1 we considered how the experience of being on campus can be researched using visual and narrative methods to understand how users of University space seek to carve out territories, temporary possessions of space that they hope will protect and/or empower them.

After a short introduction from me, surveying the different ways in which University place-makers have envisaged an instructional power to their campus formations, Harriet Shortt (University of the West of England) presented an intriguing account of her use of visual methods to capture how staff and students experience the environment of a new, flagship, university building. In doing so Harriet flagged how user generated photographs reveal the multiplicity of place, and of the micro-contestations and territorial emplacement that acts of inhabitation entail. Meanwhile Amira Samatar (SHU) then gave us a powerful account of black women’s experience and use of campus spaces, and in doing so showed how the trend towards opened-out, free-for-all space can unsettle some precisely at the moment at which the place-makers are proudly declaring greater inclusivity.

In The Changing Campus #2 we looked at how being on campus entails multiple engagements with things – the stuff of the world and its arrangement: intentional or otherwise. In dynamic interaction with others: other people, other objects and their respective resistances and affordances, a person is affected (for good or ill) by the act of being upon campus.

The session was chaired by Becky Shaw, who opened up the event by pointing to the myriad ways in which our (human) lives on campus are enmeshed with inanimate (but nonetheless potent) non-human objects. Hiral Patel (Cardiff University) then took us further into this multiplicity, setting out how her research work seeks to account for how buildings (and the things that comprise and fill them) change over time, and do so via complex – multiple – ontologies, formed amidst any single building’s enmeshment in multiple parallel projects, perspectives and temporalities.

James Corazzo and Layla Gharib (SHU) then took us into their design studio and in the course of exploring the instructiveness of informality, emphasised how that informality is an active socio-material creation, something forged and sustained by hard work with choices of movement, manner and soft furnishings. In choosing to include the viewpoint of a sofa within their presentation James and Layla attracted the scorn of Private Eye which (some how) found their abstract and published it in their magazine’s Pseud’s Corner section. But James and Layla give a wonderful repost to the sneering satirists in their presentation, rightly questioning the ‘don’t they know their place?’ condescension of those who ridicule others as upstart imposters, and denying their right to think and question.

Sofa’s matter! (As do all aspects of the formation and enactment of spaces intended for learning – and we need to understand how each element operates (and its other possibilities and potentialities) in order to create and sustain places that can (in Kumar’s words) “draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity“.

Finally, Justine Pedler, Programme Lead for the Future Spaces Project (Extended Campus) at SHU followed this theme of how the campus can be arranged to enable learning in place – and to do so by acknowledging multiplicity – by titling her presentation as “Variety is the condition of harmony” (Thomas Carlyle). She gave us an insider’s insight into an ongoing project at Sheffield Hallam aimed at understanding how the new campus spaces being created at the University are being perceived and used by a variety of students. She showed how photo elicitation has been used to get a student ‘eye’ on these developments and as an aid to focus group insights.

[NB: As a change to the originally published programme, Professor Carol A. Taylor was unable to join us as a presenter for The Changing Campus #2 – but we hope to welcome Carol to a future session in this strand.]

Picture credits: Author, January 2022; Private Eye, 3-2-22

About lukebennett13
Associate Professor & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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