As classes are now in full swing, my future posts will necessarily focus on what I’m doing inside from here on in, but as a final good bye to summer I will spend a bit more time exploring the outdoor spaces here at UBC.
Following on from last week’s post which focused on using spaces to motivate and inspire students, this week I will look at how outdoor spaces on campus can also be designed to promote student and staff well being, remind readers on how spaces can be used as ‘tangible texts’ to support learning outcomes and discuss the ethics of knowing and learning about our campus spaces.
Recognizing that nature and/or spaces that facilitate calmness are important to students and staff
There is an increasing awareness on the importance of student and staff well-being at universities. This is a great development given increases in mental health conditions in society more generally and among university staff and students specifically. Of course there are essential services that must be our priority in terms of well-being— resources must be spent on ensuring student and staff health services are properly resourced and that faculty receive support in helping students with both acute and chronic well-being issues. One’s physical environment, however, can also affect one’s mental health and general well being.
View of my office from the forested area behind it and the internal courtyard of the Buchanan courtyard.
Now here I could just be a total braggart and plaster this blog with the amazing natural spaces which are within and arms reach of me at UBC—I won’t mention the beach here (oops). I work on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world in terms of the nature that surrounds me (the first picture above being taken just outside my office window). Not every office can look out into a beautiful northern forest, where an eagle may land on a branch in front of you and engage you in a staring contest (this really did happen to me one day!). But all campuses could do more to consider the importance of nature or the built environment on the culture and well being of its student/staff body. This might be especially difficult for city centre campuses with little room to grow or dedicate space to ‘nature’—however the second picture above of the courtyard in our Buchanan complex is an example of a small design feature that incorporates both nature and the built environment in order to transform a fairly bland and industrial place into a beautiful and potentially calming space for students and staff to socialize or study.
As one of my colleagues once said (looking at the day to day schedule of our incoming students)—‘We need to make sure that they have time to just sit under a tree and think’. Whilst this is perhaps a romantic notion of student life, there was a serious point being made. We must all recognize that students need time (and space) to to reflect on, internalize and thus learn at a deeper level the materials which are presented to them. The addition of outdoor study and reflection spaces need not be big or costly. Again, UBC campus has done well (I think!) to provide spaces for rest and contemplation which are both essential to learning and well being. Below are examples of just two of these spaces—the giant bean bag chairs outside of our main library and two-person swings which have recently popped up around campus.
Recognizing the history of place and space as both an intellectual and ethical endeavor
Picture of one sign that forms part of the ‘Native Hosts’ series by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds
My last picture relates to one of the most important issues related to UBC’s learning spaces. UBC’s main campus is built on ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people (for more information see http://aboriginal.ubc.ca/community-youth/musqueam-and-ubc/). This sign, and others like it, are but one reminder of the history of our places of learning. What needs to be said about this important fact can not be said in a short blog piece—I would do a great disservice to try and summarize the history of this First Nation, Canada’s colonial history, contemporary injustices, and ongoing attempts to resolve these in the political, legal and cultural spheres.
What I do want to use this blog piece to do is to remind staff and students of the importance of engaging with the history of spaces in which we have the privilege to spend our days. The justification for this is twofold. First, exploring the history of our buildings and campuses provide another set of tangible texts and easily accessible case studies through which we can make our often abstract lessons ‘come alive’. Whether your campus is has been built on a site with a rich and contested social history, next to or on key industrial sites, or at the epicenter of a relatively new urban environment, the birth and growth of your own institutions can themselves be treated as unique and fascinating ‘texts’ that can be linked to your class’s learning outcomes. For example, the above signs became a subject of inquiry for UBC art history students, resulting in an excellent paper written and published by an undergraduate on their history and significance.
The second justification for this is of course an ethical one. Many campuses (particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand) have been built on Aboriginal lands. In other places, campuses might exist on land that certain groups consider to be unjustly ‘occupied’, and still others will see university campuses as sites of elitism, symbolic of wider societal stratification. Being aware of these histories, being honest about the ways in which are campuses may historically or presently exclude some groups in our societies (and indeed trying to rectify this) is an ethical imperative both in terms of being a ‘good’ in and of itself, but also in terms of being able to seek truth, knowledge in the widest sense of those words. Universities must be more inclusive if they are to survive and be relevant in the future. Confronting the histories and ongoing structural inequalities that exist in our spaces of learning is first step in this process.
 Many blogs aimed at university faculty discuss issues of well being and it increasingly being covered in the popular press. See for example the ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’ http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university. There is a growing body of literature exploring these issues in the student body as well. I have found the following quite interesting Lu, SH et. al. (2014) ‘An internet survey of emotional health, treatment seeking and barriers to accessing mental health treatment among Chinese- speaking international students in Australia’ Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(1): 96-108. El Ansari, W and Stock C (2010) ‘Is the Health and Wellbeing of University Students Associated with their Academic Performance?’ International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7: 509-527.
 Halls, Catherine (2010) ‘Today your host is speaking out: Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Native Hosts.’ UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Issue 1.