Issue #60 - The Spaces in Between

Hooley Doodles

Welcome to The Spaces in Between, a weekly newsletter on culture, language, and technology written by Stephan Caspar. If you’re new here, then welcome, feel free to subscribe.

It’s blowing a hooley out there, I’ve had to put the bins in the garage and we’re strapped in for a windy afternoon.

This week I’ve been filling out immigration paperwork (inside leg measurement, eye color, first school attended - only one of these is made up) and with U10 soccer practice in the rain, and even a drive out of town to get the Covid vaccine (thanks science), alongside the usual teaching, meetings and early morning writing challenge, it’s a wonder I’m still standing.

On the drive up to the medical center, I passed a Volkswagen workshop with a few abandoned, rusting vans and cars in the field outside. The owner kindly let me take a few pics, he reassured me that over the years there had been as many fixed and now with new owners as there were sitting outside.

I’m feeling okay after my vaccination, I got the Pfizer, so I’ll need to find a second shot in about three weeks. I felt a little emotional getting it, thinking about folks at home and people here. I think the nurse noticed, even through my mask he said it was common to have a little emotional wobble, that the tissues on the cart were on hand when needed.

We’re not out of the woods yet, numbers have increased in the county, and school closed for a couple of days as they uncovered a small cluster of cases. So we need to keep wearing masks, keep washing hands and stay socially distancing.


Teaching & Learning

We had a department meeting this week and not for the first time the conversation concerning enrollment numbers and the need to create new courses. I also attended a meeting of the wider faculty which is looking at ways to promote the humanities and capture the impact of the work that we do.

How do you measure success in the humanities?

This is a perennial question, and there are sager minds than mine contemplating it. I don’t think there are easy answers and when I see the work that my colleagues are doing to preserve, promote and talk about their subjects, I can see that we’re all trying our best. We know that critical thinking skills, research-based inquiry, reasoning, logic, and language are absolutely essential. There’s ample evidence that we need more humanities students in tech companies for instance, because of the perceived lack of an ethical, humanist, and sociological approach that seems linked to many bad headlines circling these companies. There are also soft-skills such as learning collaboration, how to work effectively on projects, how to develop reflective practice. As we’ve discussed before, these are all things that seem to be lacking in students who are used to a summative exams-based curriculum that celebrates individual achievement above social constructivist learning experiences.

There’s also a paradox I feel, that we live in an age where some might say emotions are untethered, that social media allows us to express our anger, celebrate the joy, be grumpy publicly or share our happiness through humor, to the detriment of the cool rationalism of academic examination. Students are taught to display detachment, balance their arguments and support their statements with evidence. Absolutely, I think this is right, but I also see them caught in the wilds, in a noman’s land where they are unsure of how to form their own opinions, where they are anxious about expressing themselves or debating difficult subjects.

While students might still find it difficult to put up their hands, there are many engaging ways that they can draw on their own experiences and enter into conversation, especially when they are creating and making.

So, Rationalism and evenness yes, but also let’s hear it for emotion and creativity. To paraphrase Hume, “…reason is not enough, we also need our hearts.” Working with the brilliant writer and philosopher Julian Baggini we interviewed Prof. Simon Blackburn who said. “You can stare at the map for as long as you like but it doesn’t tell you where to go, you need a passion, a desire, and motivation.”

I know that there are students who do display passion and declare their motivation, and I love working with them, and perhaps it is the homogeneity of remote learning that dulls those passions, but we need to find better ways to encourage free thought and provide opportunities for self-expression. Let’s start those engines.

Life Lessons

As news from Atlanta continues and as we learn more about the shootings in Boulder Colorado, we took some time as teachers to talk about ways to support our students. We held an open-office session on Monday and it was a moment to reflect and listen, especially to our AAPI colleagues who shared their thoughts and talked about their own experiences.

This checklist for Trauma-aware Teaching is an excellent resource that may be useful to you and includes additional links to further reading. One of my colleagues also reminded me that even if the words are too difficult, then a shared experience around a photograph, a video, or reading can be beneficial to students. She shared this video of comedian and spoken-word poet Sherry Cola.

Lost and Found

Three Teaching Things is a great newsletter by Gavin Watson that launched just as teachers moved to remote delivery, and drops an interesting article, a resource, and a tool for teaching and learning into your inbox each week. There are some great things here, including additional links to tutorials and extra reading. I want to send you there to take a look, but here are a few examples of what you’ll find.

A great paper on the difference between skills and competencies.

Ways to do formative assessments in virtual classrooms.

and… all the fun you can have with AutoDraw, which we used to great effect in our LangTech class.

It has been truly disappointing to learn about the controversy affecting substack and to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what to do about it. We’re all on platforms all the time with people we disagree with, but it feels like substack is actively tipping the scales, complicating matters with its Pro-writers group. Many of us who use the platform have asked if those substack writers who are openly transphobic are part of this very select group and the replies from those that run this place have only complicated matters. I’ll have to think about where this newsletter ends up being published. You can read a little more here and here if you want to find out more.

Thank you

A box of art things arrived this week from Blick and I can’t wait to get started. I thought I’d try soft pastels, which I’ve seen used to great effect by artists in the online life-drawing classes I subscribe to. I also bought a large block of newsprint to try things on, it is cheap and I can use it to test prints and colors, it won’t take water but it will stand up to the charcoals and the pastels.

A couple of people kindly bought a coffee - I want to thank a mystery person from Southampton (I have my suspicions as to who it was) and to my current colleague Kenya Dworkin who has inspired me since I arrived and who I am desperate to work with on new projects. I was declined a second summer course, a blessing probably, as I’ll have time to engage in the work that we’ve been talking about for some time.

So, I hope you’re well and having a good week. Thank you again for your kind comments as always and don’t hesitate to drop me a line if there’s anything you’d like to include in the next issue.

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You might notice a few typos occasionally, and although I can’t do much about them once the email is sent, I do try to mop them up and update the web version with corrections.