The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university. At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’. I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students. Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new ‘space’ (a university setting).
On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks. OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).
I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us. It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives. The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.
So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning. Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.
Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors
There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research. These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic. Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task. I also find that students often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.
‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters
‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)
For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do. A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters based on the basic principles of Confucius. The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge. A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator. A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).
If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week, taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.
Using spaces to inspire students on the importance of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study
Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well. The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring. Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.
Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’
I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes. These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence, ‘just peace’ vs stability). In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.
The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning. Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.
….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……
 My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction