The geography of spheres

Human Geography is the discipline focusing on the relationship between Human Being and the Environment. Theorising about this relationship has developed in waves, in which sometimes the side of the human being was emphasised, or the side of the environment was emphasised. A well known example of the latter was the period in which Environmental Determinism was en vogue. Later we shifted to a period in which the freedom of deliberate human decision making en social constructionism was fashionable.  A next step was the conceptualisation of social constructions of space and place, not as deliberate actions, but rather as unintended consequences of our collective actions as exemplified in discursive structures. These ways of thinking were, of course, closely related to the societal and political situation at those times and in those places where these theories originated. Currently we experience another shift, back to emphasising more the role of the human being, especially also the non-discursive aspects of human experience of space and place. More attention is given to the material circumstances and to the embodiment of our experiences. People interact with their environment not only in a conscious and deliberate way, but also based on embodied feeling and emotions. The interaction with the environment resembles a ‘dance’ with the things and people around us. The situation in which we act, has many different meaningful dimensions, and is, therefore, better grasped by the concept of ‘Sphere’. To understand the diversity on our globe, is to understand the ‘geography of spheres’. However, spheres are of course not closed bubbles but partly overlapping and in direct relation with each other, and therefore there is also a ‘politics of spheres‘. Peter Sloterdijk addresses this when he conceptualises the current world of bubbles as ‘Foam’. In my recently published article in Geographica Helvetica I introduce but also criticise  his rather reactionary view on these bubbly spheres.

Click on the abstract to see full text.

Cross-Border Innovation ‘Places’

Today Dr. Jos van den Broek successfully defended his PhD thesis on Cross Border Innovation Spaces. In his PhD research he focused on the how successful Cross Border Innovation Spaces are very dependent on institutionalisations and institutional entrepreneurs, to sustain them. The dynamics of this institutionalisation needs to be seen as an evolutionary process, which is not necessarily one-directional. This PhD thesis contributes to the better understanding of these processes and of what is really taking place in this respect in cross-border regions.

To speak of cross-border innovation spaces, is, however, to a certain degree already re-producing the border as a barrier, and less as an opportunity for innovative practices, and therefore only partly does justice to the role of the border for regional innovations, as suggested by some of the opponents at this public defence.

Innovative spaces, or, given the main topic of this web-blog, probably it would be better to speak of innovative places, in general seem to thrive in (hyper)diverse milieu’s. The diversity, creates tensions, uncertainties, risks, and challenges but also seems to stimulate, inspire, and create unexpected combinations, and sparks new ideas, and offers possibilities for the impossible. These differences are thus always burdensome, sometimes even obstructive (the border as barrier) and need continuous investments and efforts, but the innovative opportunities these diversities offer are constitutive for any kind of innovation process. So probably it would be useful to re-conceptualise the border not just as barrier but also as opportunity. This would also imply a totally new look at the fuzziness of these places. Fuzziness as a resource and as something to celebrate. Jos van den Broek, with his main focus institutionalisation, speaks e.g. of ‘fuzzy governance spaces’ as a precondition for successful cross-border innovation processes.

The PhD thesis of Jos van den Broek, inspires us to these kinds of thought experiments on ‘cross-border placemaking’. A worthwhile reading…

Collegial Leadership as Placemaking

Universities are organisations which are not easy to run and manage. Most employees are highly educated professionals, and as such often self-confident intellectuals with their own independent visions and ideas and not necessarily diligent and willing employees happy to follow any directives of their superiors. They are not easily managed or steered. Leadership in these kind of settings can not easily be characterised. Of course knowledge in the ‘knowledge industry’ of a university this specialised knowledge is a crucial asset for leadership, but also experience with different kinds of settings and situations in which knowledge is created are of equally great importance. Seniority expressed in this kind of knowledge and experience, often in a very specific specialised field, therefore is an important resource, and often the main criteria for appointing professors. At the same time especially full professors as chair holders are supposed to also have the scope and overview over the broader disciplinary and inter-disciplinary field, as well as the ability to think outside of the box based on experiences with doing ‘science’ in very different organisational situations and settings. These are essential qualification for leadership in knowledge oriented organisations. So even when we would seek to create a flat organisation, we need to accept that we  are dealing with a situation where there is a kind of natural hierarchy with respect to the professional background and experience. On the other hand in this situation also an autocratic authoritarian leadership will always fail. There is no-one able to have the competence to overview it all and know it best. So hierarchy is somehow naturally given within specific professional fields, but respectful collegial team work between peers in different disciplinary fields is needed.

Given this situation in universities and other organisation in higher education, one often prefers a collegial model of management and leadership. ‘The academic environment seems to be particularly suited to collaborative leadership. The presence of numerous semi-autonomous academic, administrative, and staff structures characterised by relatively highly educated individuals makes the academic particularly susceptible to silo thinking and a lack of a level of communication and interaction across areas necessary for optimal success’ (Mooney, Burns & Chadwick, 2012, p. 144). But what does this entail?

What is collegial leadership?

Bush (2003, p. 65-67) report that collegial models have the following major features (adapted from

  1. They are strongly normative in orientation. This is not so much leadership because of formal procedures and division of authorities, and much more based on the normative visions, convictions and strategies, and therefore much more ‘content’ and less process and structure based (Webb & Vulliamy, 1996, p. 443). Usually, taking in the competences and experiences of the leader into account, this also implies that the leader takes the initiative and comes with elaborate proposals. Here hierarchy thus pays a role.
  2. Collegial models seem to be particularly appropriate for organisations such as universities that have significant numbers of professional staff. Scientists have an authority of expertise that contrasts with the positional authority associated with formal models. Scientists require a measure of autonomy in the lacture hall and in their research but also need to collaborate to ensure a coherent approach to teaching, learning and researching (Brundrett, 1998, p. 307). Collegial models assume that professionals also have a right to share in the wider decision-making process. Shared decisions are likely to be better informed and are also much more likely to be implemented effectively.
  3. Collegial models assume a common set of values held by members of the organisation. These common values guide the managerial activities of the organisation and are thought to lead to shared educational and research objectives. The common values of professionals form part of the justification for the optimistic assumption that it is always possible to reach agreement about goals and policies. Brundrett (1998, p. 308) goes further in referring to the importance of ‘shared vision’ as a basis for collegial decision-making.
  4. The size of decision-making groups is an important element in collegial management. They have to be sufficiently small to enable everyone to be heard. This may mean that collegiality works better in elementary schools, or in sub-units, than at the institutional level in secondary schools. Meetings of the whole staff may operate collegially in small departments but may be suitable only for information exchange in larger institutions. The collegial model deals with this problem of scale by building-in the assumption that scientists have formal representation within the various decision-making bodies. The democratic element of formal representation rests on the allegiance owed by participants to their constituencies (Bush, 2003, p. 67).
  5. Collegial models assume that decisions are reached by consensus. The belief that there are common values and shared objectives leads to the view that it is both desirable and possible to resolve problems by agreement. The decision-making process may be elongated by the search for compromise but this is regarded as an acceptable price to pay to maintain the aura of shared values and beliefs. The case for consensual decision-making rests in part on the ethical dimension of collegiality. Imposing decisions on staff is considered morally repugnant, and inconsistent with the notion of consent.

One can also have a look at this brief video by Dan Wood on different collegial leadership styles (click on image):

Essential to this collegial idea is that leadership should not just be seem as a vertical relationship, but also as a horizontal leadership relation between equals. In practice this implies that there is a hierarchy in decision making based on differing level of qualifications and competences, but that this vertical leadership is based on persuasion creating sufficient support. At the same time the horizontal leadership is based on respectful acceptance of the specific competences of one’s peers. With respect to decision making this requires a consensus model in which final decisions need to be taken by unanimity, or to put it in other terms, that each of the members of the decision making body have a right to veto the decision. In a working consensus model this will probably be a very rare case. In case of a consensus decision, in a collegial system this decision is also presented as a joint decision, and the decision making body would also be jointly responsible for the implementation of the decision. If no consensus can be reached usually the next higher level of authority would come to a final verdict.

These collegial ideas are, in my personal view, very essential for the kind of Place a university is and for the kind of Culture which characterises our Department as an intellectual breeding ground for great scientific ideas for the future.

Further reading:

Baldridge, J. V. (1971). Power and conflict in the university. Wiley, New York.

Brundrett, M. (1998). What lies behind collegiality, legitimation or control? Educational Management and Administration. 26(3), 305-316.

Burns, D.J.  &  Mooney, D. (2018) Transcollegial leadership: a new paradigm for leadership. International Journal of Educational Management. 32(1), pp. 57-70.

Bush, T. (2003) Theories of Educational Leadership and Management. Sage, London.

Enderud, H. (1980) Administrative leadership in organised anarchies, International Journal of Institu-tional Management in Higher Education. 4(3), 235-53.

Jarvis, A. (2012) The Necessity for Collegiality: Power, Authority and Influence in the
Middle. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. Vol. 40(4), pp.

Miller, T.W. & Miller, J.M. (2001) Educational leadership in the new millennium: a vision for 2020. International Journal of Leadership in Education. 4(2), 181 – 189.

Mooney, D.K., Burns, D.J. &Chadwick, S. (2012) Collegial leadership: deepening collaborative processes to advance mission and outcomes. A Collection of Papers on Self-Study and Institutional Improvement Higher Learning Commission, Chicago. 143-147.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1991). The Principalship: a reflective practice perspective. Allyn and Bacon, Needham Heights.

Singh, P., Manser, P. & Mestry, R. (2007) Importance of emotional intelligence in conceptualizing collegial leadership in education. South African Journal of Education. 27(3), pp. 541-563.

Wang, V.C.X. & Berger, J. (2010) Critical analysis of leadership needed in higher education. International Forum of teaching and Studies. 6(2), 3-12.

Webb, R. & Vulliamy, G. (1996) A deluge of directives: conflict between collegiality and managerialism in the post-ERA primary school. British Educational Research Journal. 22(4), 441-458.

A Cathedral of books, a Dream for those who seek knowledge

Recently I read a comment on this place in an article about Overtourism in ‘Der Spiegel’ (August 21, 2018):

It doesn’t take long before the woman at the hotel reception pulls out a city map of Porto. Look, she says, there’s the Old Town and the Douro, there’s the harbour and here, by the way, the pride evident in her voice, is the world’s most beautiful bookshop: Livraria Lello.

It sounds fantastic and the place looks even more amazing in the photos. It’s located in a two-story, neo-Gothic building with lots of dark wood, an abundance of old books, ornamentation and stained glass, and a curved staircase right in the middle. It was opened in 1906, a cathedral of books, a dream for voracious bookworms from all over the world. When traveling, we often look more for the beauty of the past than that of the present. We may even buy a book for vacation reading, to while away evenings on the Atlantic coast. It has been said that J.K. Rowling often visited the Livraria when she lived in Porto at the beginning of the 1990s, a time when she taught English and began dreaming up the Harry Potter series.

Porto is not a big city — with just over 200,000 inhabitants, the Old Town is easily manageable. The first thing you notice when approaching the Livraria Lello is the long line in front of it. Young Japanese travelers, Scandinavian backpackers, families from France, couples from China, Americans and Germans.

A dream turning into a nightmare?

An imposing bouncer stands at the door of the bookshop. To get in, you must first purchase a five-euro ticket bearing the visage of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most famous poet, in the shop next door. There, too, visitors must wait in line, with crowd-control barriers set up just like at the airport check-in desk. Those waiting in line are guided past shelves full of souvenirs, postcards and keychains. The standard tourist bric-à-brac.

The bookstore is every bit is as beautiful as the one in the photos, even if it’s not much of a bookstore these days. No one browses through the merchandise here. They all seem to be taking pictures with their smartphones — photos that look exactly like the more than 7,000 images already posted on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, where Livraria is listed as one of the city’s top sightseeing attractions.

Just like the rest of the country, Livraria Lello stood on the verge of bankruptcy four years ago as a result of the financial crisis. But even then, the bookshop had no lack of visitors. The problem was that people were buying fewer and fewer books. Someone suggested the store ought to start charging an admission fee of five euros. It may have sounded crazy at the time, but 4,000 people now visit Livraria each day while during the summer, the number of daily visitors swells to 5,000. The store had 1.2 million visitors in 2017 and revenues of over 7 million euros.

If the thought of buying a book does cross a visitor’s mind, and there are many tomes to be found here — from translations of classics of Portuguese literature to, of course, the Harry Potter series — the ticket serves as a credit toward that purchase. It is rumoured that Livraria Lello served as the inspiration for Flourish & Blotts, the bookstore where Harry Potter buys his magic books. But Livraria ultimately feels more like a museum or a theatre backdrop than a real place.

For residents of Porto, however, the bookstore has a different story to tell. It is one of economic upswing in a country that was in the throes of crisis not all that long ago. Indeed, Portugal owes its recovery in part to double-digit growth in tourism, including in the areas in the once impoverished north around Porto. Ryanair and EasyJet have been flying to the city for years, and it has long been regarded as the new in-spot for city-escape tourism. Last year, around 2.5 million foreign tourists visited the region, and half of them visited Livraria Lello. Porto still hasn’t become as overrun as places like Barcelona or Amsterdam, cities where locals have begun defending themselves against the hordes of tourists who seem to be taking over. But a divide has developed in Porto — between the tourist city and the city for locals. One can’t help but wonder when a local last visited Livraria Lello. Do Porto residents also have to stand in line and pay five euros?

This short abstract from this article shows the dilemma. As bibliophilic scientist, a place like this would indeed be a dream, a place to identify with. But pilgrimming to that place, to celebrate, honour, experience and breath the place, could turn out to destruct the place. On the other hand not going there might imply final bankruptcy of the place. It is easy to condemn what is taking place, but more challenging to find nuanced solutions. A very topical issue also addressed in our Master Specialisation on ‘Cultural Geography and Tourism’.