“… the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.”
– Jacques Derrida
“This (Edinburgh) is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
– Alexander McCall Smith
In their 2013 paper, ‘Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students’, Bayne et all consider ‘how online distance students enact the space of ‘the university’ (p569). The paper explores the ‘topological multiplicities’ (p.571) which constitute what it is to ‘be at’ Edinburgh University on a course such as this:
‘…institutional formation and personal identity, location and diaspora, mobility and stasis are continually and creatively re-thought, re-formed and re-shaped’. (p.571)
University is, the paper argues ‘recast as a complex enactment’ (p.571). As online distance learners, our social spaces are ‘fluid’ (Mol and Law 1994) and Law and Mol’s concept of ‘fire’ (2001) serves to denote the ‘complex intersections of presence and absence’ which comprise our experience, our spaces and our learning. So far so postmodern: online distance learning offers alterity to and the logos, the fixed and the physical. Academically and intellectually, this definition of our experience appeals: as with the metaphor of the rhizome, the rejection of sedentarist assumptions about what is normal – stability, meaning and place – for a definition of space as a ‘dynamic entity’ (p.572) reflects the role we have as creators of our own definitions of what our class is, what our university is and what our learning is.
However, Bayne et al state that, although distance students relish ‘their immersion in the networked, fluid and fire spaces of the online mode’ (p.573), they counter-balance this multiplicity with the construction of ‘their own version of the ‘certainties’ of bounded campus space.’ (p.573).
‘Not me!’ I thought.
And then, reading on, I rethought.
Bayne et al identify and define three key themes which characterise distance students’ conceptualisation and experience of ‘Edinburgh University’; of the ways ‘in which ‘university’ space is enacted’ (p.575). All had resonance for me:
1. Homing and the sentimental campus
I studied in Edinburgh from ’92 – ’96. I was determined to make a success of my time there having transferred from Oxford (where I was reading PPE) to read English which which was my passion. You can only imagine how delighted my parents were, especially as I was the first in my family to make it to university. Anyway…my love of literature was quickly augmented by my love of the city. I continued to live in Edinburgh after I graduated and, since then, have left and returned on a number of occasions. Starting this course feels like another return; I am once again experiencing a sense of connection with the city, ‘a conceptual homeward return’ (p.577).
2. The metaphysics of presence or ‘campus envy’.
Edinburgh University is, for me, ‘a kind of touchstone – a logos’. It is a point (albeit imagined) of fixity, of presence in our online experience of ‘the fire’: the ‘lambent interdependency of the ‘here’ and ‘not here” (p.582). Bayne et al record students’ ‘sense of the possibility of campus presence’ (p.583). I have enacted the same need for physical connectedness – registering for and receiving a student card which I am unlikely to use and making arrangements to attend – in person – the anniversary celebration at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 26th November.
3. The imagined campus
My Edinburgh University campus is multiple and varied, I ‘operate within a material space of ‘churn and flow’. This week, my class has been a restaurant table in a Best Western in Wilmslow, an office in Stockport and my spare room at home in Cumbria. Next week, it will be a hotel in Cornwall. Paradoxically, the complex ‘entanglements’ which ‘enact (this) institutional space’ (p.583) serve to provide me with a sense of constancy wherever I happen to be. Edinburgh University comes with me.
My experience being ‘at Edinburgh’ is one in which I feel both here and there; I feel connected and disconnected, absent and present and ‘somewhere in between’:
‘To be ‘at’ Edinburgh…is to be oriented in multiple ways to the institution, to be simultaneously inside and outside, in flux and in stasis, in presence and in absence’ (p.581)
I do, however, feel that I am in exactly the right place and space for me.