by Giorgi Tavadze
I am a philosopher and perhaps supposed to be mainly engaged in theorizing, but I have always wanted to transcend disciplinary boundaries. In 2013, I defended my PhD on philosophical geography and became interested in empirical research on places and spaces. Between 2012 and 2015, I visited Khevsureti, a mountainous region in Georgia, several times and observed the interactions of natives with sacred places. Back then, I could hardly imagine that after several years, I would continue this project within a higher education setting. But before describing it in more detail, let’s discuss the concepts of places and spaces.
A place is not merely a physical setting. It is not just a bounded space with trees or buildings, or four walls with furniture inside. Places are centers of meaning: we value places because they awaken memories in us, make us feel safe and protected, or tell us something about the past. Place and space are never separate: places contain spaces (a university, as a place, contains spaces in which humans move), and spaces contain places (urban space contains universities, factories, shopping malls, etc.). Places and spaces mutually define and hold each other (Malpas, 2018).
Furthermore, a place is not static. Not only does the physical context of places change (buildings are constructed, reconstructed, or destroyed, furniture in rooms is moved, etc.), but also the visitors change. Individuals continuously move between known and unknown places, gather for different purposes, and disperse again. Some places have more people, while others have fewer. A place has its own pulse, which sometimes accelerates and sometimes decreases. In short, a place is a process; it is an event (Casey, 2009).
The totality of places in which we dwell, move between, and interact with others constitutes our place-world (Casey, 2009). Our place-world greatly influences the process of shaping and developing our identity. Some processes strengthen our place-world (e.g., caring for places, participating in events at a place, places offering diverse opportunities for development), while others undermine it (war, conflicts, discrimination, destruction, or transformation of places, etc.).
A place is also where unexpected encounters and the discovery of the other happen. When we demonstrate openness, we are exposed to new acquaintances, ideas, and objects, which can lead us to perceive the world differently. Through contact with the other, we rediscover ourselves.
“Places and spaces in and outside of the university” is a project carried out by the Varlam Cherkezishvili Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies at the East European University. Its aim is to develop a sense of place and care for places, promote a deeper realization of the role of places in the university community, and create places/spaces within the university that offer individuals diverse opportunities for self-realization. In other words, the project aims to create a placeful university (Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2016). The underlying belief of the project is that, within higher education, deepening interpersonal relationships and creating an atmosphere that fosters personal growth, mutual sharing of experience, and the cultivation of shared values are equally important as the transfer of certified knowledge and measurable learning outcomes.
At this stage of the project, action research focuses on the following topics:
- Diversifying lace-worlds of international & Georgian students at East European University;
- Development of intercultural dialogue between international and Georgian students;
- Realization of the principles of ontological education through place-creation, place-discovery, and place-caring.
The idea of ontological education contrasts with the dominant principle of measurement in contemporary higher education (Gibbs, 2020). The principle of measurement attempts to quantitatively capture and express learning outcomes, often ignoring unmeasurable outcomes as insignificant. The concept of ontological education also opposes the absolutisation of the economic conception of higher education, which views education solely as a product in the labor market. In this view, students are considered customers, and teaching processes are seen as “services” aimed at developing “skills” to ensure students’ future employment and “success.” This threatens to reduce the university to a mere conveyor for processing human resources.
Ontological education does not deny the importance of the economic dimension but places primary focus on the personal growth of students (Dall’Alba & Barnacle, 2007). This requires academics to have a different relationship with students. In the process of ontological education, students, together with the lecturer, become co-creators of knowledge. The lecturer makes discoveries with students, is introduced to new ideas, receives stimuli for further research and observation, and formulates new questions, among other things. Despite the lecturer retaining a leading position, they consider students as equals and strive to provide them with opportunities to express their views, propose new ideas, and attempt to realize them.
Within the framework of the project, I organize weekly informal meetings with students in my room. Attendance is free, and any student, whether international or Georgian, can participate. On the room’s whiteboard, sticky notes display the names of project members in both English and their respective native languages. The whiteboard serves as our canvas for recording the names of places, dishes, customs, and various other topics that we discuss during our meetings.
The meeting format is informal: typically, we enjoy tea, cookies, and other sweets. I asked students to bring their tea cups and leave them in the room, specifically in the lower compartment of my bookshelf. By doing this and by displaying their names on the board, my intention was to foster a sense of place for them. I aimed to create an environment where my room feels like their room, a cozy and comfortable space where they can relax and feel at ease.
We discuss various topics, including places they’ve visited in Georgia and their preferences or dislikes, their neighborhoods, their living arrangements (apartments, dormitories), the places they dine or relax, and more. Additionally, we delve into topics like sports, politics, and cuisine. Initially, I led the meetings, but I noticed that I was speaking more than others, so I decided to take a step back. Since then, we’ve adopted a rotating host role, allowing anyone interested to take on the role of host and select the topic they’d like to discuss. For example, during one meeting, we discussed movies, and in the next, we delved into English literature, with the host reading Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Participants in the project have the option to choose their level of involvement. In the “free mode,” they can simply attend meetings, host events, and engage in discussions without any writing requirements. Alternatively, at the “active engagement” level, participants are encouraged to write autoethnographic diaries. These diaries focus on describing their experiences, with a particular emphasis on places and spaces. The diary is divided into Georgian and international parts, each covering a minimum of one week in their respective countries. The goal is to compare these diaries, illustrating the diverse experiences of students in their home and host countries. Each diary includes an introduction where the student narrates about themselves in the context of places and spaces. Students can choose to remain anonymous.
Periodically, I arrange city tours that I refer to as “spatial interventions.” During these tours, we explore places that were previously unfamiliar to the students. For instance, I organized the same trip twice for different groups. Throughout these excursions, we discovered painted entrances in Old Tbilisi, explored typical Tbilisi-style house yards, often referred to as “Italian yards,” and admired buildings with distinct architectural styles. Furthermore, we have had the opportunity to dine at a Georgian restaurant, where students had the chance to savor traditional Georgian dishes that were previously unknown to them.
Occasionally, we organize “spatial interventions” beyond the city limits. In late April, we embarked on a memorable journey to Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the ancient capital of the East Georgian Kingdom of Kartli. Once again, we dined at a local restaurant, savoring the flavors of traditional Georgian cuisine. During our visit, we even took the opportunity to record a short video inviting our fellow students from the university to join us on these enriching experiences.
Students are encouraged to share their impressions after “spatial interventions” and participate in photostory projects. For these projects, they take 10-15 photos on selected topics, provide commentary, and create a short narrative capturing their experiences. The topics include “My university,” “My neighborhood,” “Food, food, food!,” “European Tbilisi,” “Celebration vibes,” among others. We plan to print these photostories and host an exhibition at the university library.
When we have gathered a sufficient amount of material, we also plan to publish these diaries (with introductions, impressions, and photostories) in Georgian and English within an edited volume. In doing so, we aim to show to the reader the emplaced selves of international students, their movement through different places and spaces, their experience, and involvement with them.
Not only do I accompany students, but I also find myself intersecting with them in what can be considered “their” spaces. Recently, they kindly invited me to attend an event dedicated to the birthday of the renowned king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (1630-1680). On the same day, I had the opportunity to visit their dormitory, where I tasted Bhujia in the afternoon and Chicken Biryani in the evening (though, to be frank, both dishes were a bit too spicy for my taste!).
I was filled with excitement as I sat in a spacious dining hall at a table with some members of the ‘places and spaces’ group. All around us, there was a noticeable buzz and hum, a characteristic feature of this place every evening. Many students looked at us with curious faces, perhaps wondering about the purpose of my visit and the fact that I was acquainted with other students beyond our table. This was the spatial intervention indeed!
As mentioned earlier, the project also aims to foster intercultural communication. We have organized intercultural events covering various topics such as architecture, literature, cuisine, and more, which draw a larger audience of both international and Georgian students. In addition to these activities, we established a dedicated shelf at the university library. This shelf houses English-language books about Georgia. Digital spaces have also been created: the group “Discover Georgia!” houses materials about Georgian culture (architecture, cuisine, dance, history, literature, music, painting, philosophy, religion, sport, tourism, wine) available to all international students.
We also maintain a WhatsApp group called “Placeful University,” where we freely exchange our ideas, thoughts, emotions, and sometimes engage in playful activities. For instance, any group member can initiate the “Where am I?” game by sharing an image of their current location and inviting others to guess it. Another game that I proposed to the group members is the “What’s in front of me now?” game: we take photos of our surroundings and share them, sparking discussions about the place, situation, or mood. Additionally, we have themed games where a member might share a funny photo and describe the place and situation, prompting others to join in and contribute to the fun.
As for our future plans, we are determined to continue with the project, explore new places and spaces, seek out the strange and unusual, and share our impressions with one another. Our goal is to enrich the ongoing adventure called “life.” Ontological education should remain an open-ended project. I hold a strong belief that the university should function as a platform where students and lecturers collaborate to create meaningful spaces and, in the process, rediscover each other beyond the confines of the lecture room.
“Places and spaces in and outside of the university” is an interdisciplinary project that owes its existence to the intellectual contributions of various scholars. Below is a list of authors whose ideas and concepts form the foundational framework of this project:
- Philosophical analysis of places and spaces (Martin Heidegger, Edward Casey, Jeff Malpas)
- Humanistic geography (Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph, David Seamon)
- Phenomenology of the alien (Bernhard Waldenfels)
- Explorations of walking, seeing, and experimental pedagogy (Jan Masschelein)
- Studies on places and spaces within higher education (Rikke Toft Nørgård, Søren Smedegaard Ernst Bengtsen: placeful university, Paul Gibbs: ontological education and existential trust, Nicholas Staendert: encounter, in-betweenness)
These scholars have provided valuable insights and perspectives that have greatly influenced and shaped our project’s conceptual foundation.
Casey, E. S. (2009). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena. In: E. S. Casey, Getting Back into Place. Toward A Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Second edition (pp. 317-348). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Dall’Alba, G. & Barnacle, R. (2007). An ontological turn for higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 32:6, pp. 679-691.
Gibbs, P. (2020). “The Marketingisation of Higher Education”, in: Sharon Rider, Michael A. Peters, Mats Hyvönen, Tina Besley (eds.), World Class Universities. A Contested Concept, Springer, pp. 221-232.
Malpas, J. (2018). Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, second edition, London and New York: Routledge.
Nørgård, R.T. and Bengtsen, S.S.E. (2016). Academic citizenship beyond the campus: A call for the placeful university. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1), pp. 4–16.