Issue #69 - The Spaces in Between

Green Sleep

Feeling good this morning, the sun is shining through the blinds, the ground outside is wet from a line of storms that came through during the night. I was woken once or twice by distant thunder, nothing seemed to close. There are twigs and leaves on the ground from the tall trees that surround our house, it looks like they were given a good firm shake.

The hostas at the front of the house are looking resplendent, with rich hues of green and soft velvety touch. I wondered about bringing one indoors, but I’m not sure it would survive, besides, there are about eight of them and they seem to be doing rather well where they are.

This week I’ll tell you how I’m teaching my summer course, talk about a cultural program I’m running with a colleague, and share some final thoughts of the semester that has just closed. I have a few photos and links to some useful bits and pieces.

Here’s some news, I’m going to take a break for June but won’t disappear completely. There’s a bit more info at the end.

Teaching & Learning

My Multicultural Pittsburgh Course started today, it asks students to create a short 360 VR film. I’ve added one below if you’re new to this medium, click and scroll and you’ll see a full panoramic view, captured on an omnidirectional camera. This is one of the films we talk about in the course, produced by the team at Al Jazeera’s Contrast VR.

Earlier in the week I drove into the city and dropped off a few VR kits, including a camera, pole, and headset. I only have a few students, so we’re going to run this much like an independent study course. There is learning content online and we have booked a series of 1:1’s each week. Students can also ping me questions on Slack.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes, whether we can add a few films to our playlist and spark some good conversation about 360˙video and VR.

The second thing I wanted to mention is a cultural program that our department has been asked to work on, for engineering students who would usually travel abroad to work on projects, but are unfortunately unable to due to the pandemic. While we can’t hope to recreate the immersion that many of them would experience by actually being with their hosts, we have planned a series of online activities dedicated to exploring aspects of their culture. This is the second year that we’ve supported the program, last year it took the form of a series of zoom meetings, including shared conversations on music, film, food (we had a cooking demonstration), music, and topics such as education, work habits, tradition, and society.

We have more countries and more students this year, so we’re looking at mixing things up a bit with some prompts for reflection, and some games, and challenges. We began this week with an orientation session, including a scavenger hunt to find cultural artifacts and hear the stories behind particular personal objects.


Managed to get a bike ride in early on Saturday morning. It’s always great cycling on the trails beside the waterfront, we followed the North Shore and cross into Lawrenceville, then back through The Strip District and into the Downtown area. This is the Rachel Carson Bridge named after a marine biologist, and nature writer who was awarded the Presidential Medal by Jimmy Carter. There are three bridges here, all very similar named after people with a strong connection to the area, the other two being Andy Warhol and Roberto Clemente.

Life Lessons

We’ve spent a fruitless few weeks trying to agree on an image for French and Francophone Studies that we can include on our department website. The question is whether there is an image that represents the area, whether that’s even possible? There were a whole bunch of suggestions, we easily rejected Eiffel Towers and other recognizably French landmarks, we looked at globes and found infographics illustrating the Francophone world, but in the end, I’m not sure we succeeded in choosing anything and handed the brief back to our patient marketing officer.

I argued for striking photographs, ones that might work graphically, and carry particular emotional tones - that might speak to some of the topics that we study, for example highlighting the diversity of the Francophone world or confer some of the social justice issues that some of our courses explore. I also think these photographs should contain people, so center humanity in the language. I landed on a series of photos on Unsplash which I’ve put into a collection, you can take a look and let me know what you might choose?

I looked through photos from our student trip to Nantes a few years ago and while none of these were suitable, it was fun to remember some of the sights. Here are a few seconds of video of the big yellow crane that has become a feature of the Ile de Nantes, an area that has been redeveloped as a creative district for the city.

Lost and Found

I have been banging on about H5P in these newsletters and almost anytime I hold a megaphone and still love seeing the different ways educators are using it. H5P enables code-free creation of learning objects that you can embed in canvas, WordPress, or Moodle. Students on the LangTech course created several H5P objects and you can take a look at them here.

Episode 3 of Pandemic Pedagogy should be released by the time this newsletter comes out, featuring one of our graduate students Nuria Ballesteros Soria who joined us for last year’s LangTech course, Nuria is already an award-winning teacher, with a diverse portfolio of interests and a rising star in language teaching.

I’ve started to get to know the University of Oregon’s CASLS team and noticed that they are hosting a Games2Teach workshop via the Center for Open Educational Resources and Languages Learning (COERLL) at the University of Texas in Austin.

Finally, I can’t quite top from last week, this quality of link gold only emerges occasionally; but this is similar and quite fun too, especially if you like to explore the world through sound. Drive & Listen through these cities and play their local stations, it is a fascinating experience, again a sort of immersion.

In Somnis Veritas

Something that I need to work on is my sleep. I have irregular sleep patterns, probably because I need to lose weight and I’m a bit of a snorer, this is unattractive I know. When I stir in the middle of the night, my brain engages immediately and races with thoughts, like Scalextric, jumping into life. I like dreaming but I could do without some of the chaos of the mind that occurs at this time when I’m struggling to get to sleep.

It was great to read that I’m in some fine company, this week, Mason Currey’s wonderful newsletter Subtle Maneuvers talked about artists and writers such as Franz Kafka and Louise Bourgeois, who were able to generate some creative energy from their more restless hours.

There are some days when I just have to find time for a nap, a brief 25 minutes lying down on the sofa when I can close my eyes and drift off. I was always intrigued by the yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur who was able to take 20, 30, or 40 minute sleeps during her races. She called them Stampis after Claudio Stampi, a researcher in polyphasic sleep and chronobiology who trained her and many other round-the-world sailors in the art of napping. Here’s the science bit courtesy of a Ted Talk.

Thank you

I’m going to take a short hiatus and I’ll be back later in the summer. In the meantime, you’ll receive a very short version of the newsletter with some cultural recommendations and links to keep you going.

I’ve really appreciated this past year, in conversation with you, talking through the work and sharing thoughts, worries about political issues, news from this side of America, also providing links to tools, apps, and sites that you might find useful.

I am resolute in my belief that teaching language and culture has never been so important, that the subjects we are exploring bring together so many of the issues of our age, including social justice, equality, collaboration, and a better understanding of who we are and how we live with one another. Our HoD often promotes the breadth of what is taught in our department, much of it in a second language, comparing our students to Ginger Rogers, performing all Fred Astaire’s routines, only backwards!

I hope that you manage a restful few weeks at least before thoughts turn to next semester, as you finish all the articles and blog posts that you said you’d write, and catch up on all that reading. Enjoy a few naps on me why don’t you?

Take care, stay safe. See you later.