Listen, says the labyrinth

This is a post in which I not only review a book about labyrinths but show you how to draw one…. so I should issue a little warning – it’s completely addictive. Like counting syllables in haiku, once you’ve done one, your fingers will be constantly itching to circle round and round again.

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I’ve just started back working on campus at the University of Kent, this time not as a visiting lecturer but one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows there. Not only does this mean I get to spend time with students on all aspects of their writing, but I can creep out to visit one of my favourite places of all time. Look at this view (yep, that IS Canterbury cathedral) and I think you can guess why…

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The labyrinth on the University of Kent campus was the brainchild of Jan Sellers, so as I sat on one of the few free benches beside the labyrinth on Tuesday, eating my sandwiches and writing in my journal, I was grateful to her vision and determination.

Jan is also one of the two editors of a recent book about how labyrinths can be used as a learning device, Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education, which I reviewed recently for the NAWE magazine, Writing in Education. Here’s the review, the title of this post is a line from one of the poems by Victoria Field featured in the book:

Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education
Edited by Jan Sellers & Bernard Moss
Palgrave Teaching & Learning, ISBN 978-1-137-39383-8

listen, says the labyrinth,
there’s no here nor there
just the path
one way, an oak tree
the other, a eucalyptus

Fittingly a book that takes the labyrinth as its subject, it’s hard to squeeze this in to a pre-determined academic agenda; as suggested in this extract above from the poem ‘Choice’ by Victoria Field. A different ‘Poem from the Labyrinth’ separates each section of this book which explores the theory and practice of labyrinths, looking particularly at how they are being used in universities and higher education spaces throughout Britain.

I have to admit a bias here as I have taught for several years on the campus of the University of Kent, which, thanks to the efforts of co-editor Jan Sellers, has its own Canterbury Labyrinth. Having watched students use it and walking it many times myself, I have both seen and experienced the benefits first hand. What did surprise me, however, is that there are currently 129 labyrinths on college and university campuses, according to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (out of a total of more than 4700 labyrinths in at least 75 countries.)

This book brings together the views of academics, support staff, students and artists from across the world, looking at how the labyrinth can be used to create reflective spaces in Higher Education. One of the few common factors between the essay writers is both their positivity towards using a labyrinth in this field and interestingly, their own ambiguity when they were first introduced to the concept.

‘Facilitating the labyrinth in a commercially driven environment in which clients paid substantial sums of money for sessions, and expected tangible outcomes, carried significant reputational risks for me and the university…’ writes Alex Irving of Liverpool John Moores University, about her work with the business development team at the University’s Innovation Laboratory.

Sonia Overall at Canterbury Christ Church University, writes a diary account of using the labyrinth with creative writing students:

1.30: The Labyrinth. (Light) rain. I offer encouragement: this is a place for emptying the head, focusing ideas. It’s not a race, I say. Think Sebald, I tell them. Think Borges. The students jump, hop, skip and slide to the centre. Some mime a minatour. They clutch damp notebooks. One of them actually writes something down.

Both of the editors have a distinguished academic history, with an emphasis on good teaching practice. Dr Jan Sellers is a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) and was the University of Kent’s first Creative Learning Fellow. Bernard Moss is Emeritus Professor of Social Work Education and Spirituality at Staffordshire University, and a Principal Fellow and National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. They have both also trained labyrinth facilitators, but the strength of this book is in the practical case studies of how labyrinths have actually been used in many different settings.

Reflect: Receive: Return, these three R’s are how I learnt a labyrinth is most usefully tackled. It’s a structure that we see used in this book by Michelle Bigard of Central Michigan University with first-generation and low-income students as part of a Hero’s Journey Labryinth Workshop. Di Williams reports on how the labyrinth has been introduced to the University of Edinburgh by Chaplaincy Support Services, while Dr Jill Raggett and Steve Terry of Writtle College write about how labyrinths used by an artist in residence Jim Buchanan allowed students to work with the concept of space, collaboration, reflection and aesthetic enjoyment. The labyrinths discussed in this book may be elaborate turf structures, or simple finger models, traced on to canvas, or temporary structures made from sand, candles and even chicken feed. They are used by dancers, design students, midwives, health professionals, creative writers, business executives, artists, counsellors, and lawyers.

‘There is no wrong way to walk the labyrinth,’ write the editors, which of course can prove difficult for the ticks and crosses of most academic evaluations. Although the research element is bravely tackled by John W Rhodes, he admits that ‘the “gold standard” of the double blind research design likely will not be met in labyrinth research.’ Interestingly Rhodes concludes by saying that while the actual uses of the labyrinth (as exemplified in the book) must inform future research, in future the roles could be reversed with research informing the practices of using the labyrinth as a tool for engaging with teaching, learning and researching in higher educational establishments.

It’s a statement that sums up the pioneering feel to this book. Like the labyrinth itself it offers reflections rather than direct answers, but there are more than enough practical examples here to offer inspiration for anyone interested in exploring contemplative, creative and aesthetic ways of enhancing learning. And I defy anyone reading not to try at least the pencil labyrinth drawings for themselves.

End of review.

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But HOW could I possibly leave you, my lovely blog readers with that last line of the review, without showing you some of those pencil labyrinth drawings, so here’s my very professional how-to…

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ENJOY!

2 thoughts on “Listen, says the labyrinth

  1. Pingback: Making Patterns in Vietnam – a prose poem and a song | Writer In The Garden

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