This is a photo of the entrance to my Maths Learning Centre. What do you notice?
There are many many things to notice in that photo, and if you ever want to ask me about any of them, please do. Today, the thing I want to focus your attention on is the empty space right at the front as you walk in. Every so often someone asks me why I leave that space empty and I don’t put an extra table there, and there are a couple of very good reasons why.
First, the space isn’t empty: it has the floor graph in it. The floor graph used to be at the back between the % and the 3 on the wall, but one day I realised that I could have a bit of extra space for it if I put it in the entrance. I also hoped it might send the message to people arriving not only that maths is a thing that happens here, but also that we do things a little differently to your regular university maths classroom. One day I will write about the floor graph to tell you all about how we use it, but there is one purpose I want to tell you today: the floor graph helps us to break students out of staring forlornly at their page or screen. The open space on the floor graph gives a sense of physical freedom, which can translate to a sense of mental freedom.
The openness of the floor graph space was the main reason I moved it to the entrance, actually, because it makes the space easier to enter, for several different kinds of students:
We regularly get tours of new students or prospective students come past the MLC, and with an open space in the entrance, we can bring those tour groups right into the MLC, rather than standing outside and pointing. The experience is so much realer if you can come right in and stand surrounded by the art and whiteboards. They can remember that we asked them to come all the way in. Without the space in the entrance, we’re just pointing from outside and they miss so much.
Students who are familiar with the MLC stand on the floor graph for a moment when they arrive and look around to find a good table, or other students they recognise. The empty space allows them to take a moment to make a choice, and to prepare themselves for working in the space.
Students who are not familiar with the MLC have a place to stand looking lost. (We tutors even call it the “lost soul zone”.) When there was a table in the entrance, people wouldn’t want to be too close to the students already studying there, so newcomers would do their unsure dithering stance outside where we couldn’t see them, and more often than not they would just leave without us ever knowing. The emptiness of the space now means that they can come in without feeling like they’re encroaching on the work of the students and staff already in the room. Just like our regulars, they can prepare themselves for asking for help while actually being in the room. And since they’re in the room, we can see them and go up to them to ask what they are looking for.
Without an empty space in the entrance, we would not be able to welcome as many new students to the MLC as we do. The emptiness is important to provide space for the complex process of deciding whether and how to engage with us. I am so happy I managed to created the space to enter.