Letter from Persephone to Amica

The letter below is the second in a series of four letters we have written to our imaginary friends – fictional but inspired by our letter writing research project.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Warwick, 15 April 2021

Dearest Amica,

So lovely to receive your letter – a gleam of light in the darkening day (a very unseasonable sky today). I can’t quite believe that it’s snowing in April! Although, not quite believing in April snow is apparently a clear denial of the data (isn’t there an oft-cited fact that we are more likely to have a white Easter than a white Christmas?) Instinctive feeling that the world is somehow off-kilter but really our expectations are awry. Is there a metaphor there for higher education? Probably – but I’m sure I’m too exhausted to find it  . . . . 

But then again Easter moves doesn’t it. (Never quite understood the mutability of Easter). Anyhow, assumptions or expectations or no: it is snowing and I was glad to see your letter, so there we are. 

Perhaps it is some sort of pathetic fallacy that the weather this Spring seems quite unSpring-like. Lots of sunshine but freezing – somehow pulls all hope out of the air (a different sort of chilling effect – another metaphor?) Thinking back to this time last year, which I remember bathed in glorious sunshine which seemed to promise a summer filled with long hot days. I’m sure this prompted my enthusiasm for lockdown self-sufficiency (a la Good Life). They say that gardening is an investment in the future (‘they’ being Monty Don obvs), and planting seeds seemed somehow to be a sort of unlocking maybe?* We were locked down, but looking forward, and also perhaps somehow a liberation from the day-to-day of work. Working from home, but both the home and the work were different because I had time to faff about with seeds, and watch the tulips come up, and experience place (and ‘at homeness’ differently). But writing that sounds so at odds with the workload, I remember more than frantic panic though, busy-ness seemed less performative somehow – authentic busy-ness if you can have such a thing. And thinking back to all the stuff we produced workwise! Utterly amazing! 

Sadly can’t say the same about my home-grown produce which was lacking to say the least. My optimistic Mediterranean vegetables didn’t stand a chance! Final yield was four substandard aubergines at the end of September rather than the bumper harvest promised by sunny April. Twenty dolls-house sized green peppers sat in a bowl on the kitchen worktop for a bit (seemed a shame to waste them) before finding their way to the green bin. The amount of time and money I spent on finding scarce compost, seeds, and other garden requisites meant that every bloody aubergine cost about £30. Honestly, I could have bought 50 aubergines. I don’t even like aubergines.   

Not sure whether I can ascribe the failure of my gardening experiments to my own lack of expertise/greenfingers, or the hostile climate– or perhaps just misplaced confidence that favourable conditions would remain favourable (. . . that long hot summer never quite materialised did it)? 

Anyway, I’m keeping going with it – I’ve invested in a bit of proper kit (no more refashioned milk cartons, cake boxes, or toilet roll tubes) so at least it looks more professional. Seeds are bog standard/common or garden varieties rather than the niche ones I found in fancy farm shops during lockdown (black tomatoes with a hint of smoky sweetness anyone?). I’ve also thrown in a few mystery leftovers salvaged from last year’s pitiful harvest. I don’t feel the same sense of adventure or exhilaration – seems a bit more workaday – and I’m weirdly less invested in success now that I know the supermarket system won’t collapse and we won’t be forced to live on our wits/aubergines in a desperate apocalyptic battle for resources. They are growing (but not sure I really care . . . .?) Interestingly, the mystery seeds have rapidly grown into mystery plants . . . . and are literally shooting up like beanstalks!!! (Narrator: they were in fact beanstalks.) 

I suppose I should write about work! Do I want to write about work? Do you want to read about work? Have we all had quite enough of work for the time being?  

Answers on a postcard to . . . . 

To be honest, there isn’t much to report – same old same old. Lots of (identikit) initiatives endeavouring to identify what should happen next – post-pandemic, new normal, blah blah blah. To be honest I’m not entirely sure anyone’s heart is still in it. What’s happening at your place? Tell me all your news! Quick, term 3 will be over before we blink!  



* apologies for obviousness of metaphor (epistolary equivalent of overused stock image of sprutting seedling) 

Co-responding to change

If you would like to respond to any of the letters as a way of reflecting on your practice, simply pen a reply to one or more of the letters – keep it private to use for your own reflections . . . or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) and we will post it on the blog (anonymously if you would prefer)!

This link will take you back to the main blog post where you can access the three other letters.

We may be in the gutter . . .


Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. This post considers the Introduction to Section Two: Intersections: Annotations on the Spaces in Between by Nancy Chick.

Telling the story

Introductions tend to be pretty formulaic – some grand editorial overviewing plus nutshell synopses of each chapter, finished with a “ta da” of significances and maybe a bouquet of applause. But here Nancy Chick – my long time hero* – reinvents the introduction, twice.

* We share an origin story, forged by literature, outlaws from Social Science research paradigms.

She offers a literary reading of the section through the lens of a favourite book, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). This offers a double-duty authenticity which reflects her own identity as an author, an academic and practitioner, and which remains true the meaning and essence of the texts introduced.

And there is a cartoon which places these ideas within a visual and spatial relationship: the spaces in between.

It’s this idea of the space in between that I want to explore. For me ideas are born in the spaces in between Chick’s quotes:

‘in that in between space you can access both worlds’


‘telling the story vs being part of the story’

‘us and them’

‘our identities are never singular’

‘personal stories are important’

But they are also built in and by the spaces between texts – and those texts are only related through my experience and reading of them. So, when Chick (which is weird to write because honestly I’m thinking ‘when Nancy’) writes she thinks of ‘all the inks’ in her annotated copy of Anzaldúa’s text I immediately think of the four colours of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (1962). Lessing’s protagonist, Anna Wulf, in fear of the chaos and formlessness, the messiness of life, the prospect of breakdown “Everything’s cracking up” separates her life into four distinct volumes: the notebooks. Black is historic; red is political; yellow is fictional; and blue is personal. In the personal volume she pledges to write honestly, and in so doing put aside ‘the instinctive feeling of shame and modesty’ which make it so hard to inscribe the body. Anna’s commitment to the unspoken taken-for-granted realities of everyday life brings readers the first tampon in English literature: “I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool.” This is why I remember Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook so vividly although I read it just once over 20 years ago as an undergraduate.

So, the in between space is intertextual as well as intersectional.

I remember being a student, viscerally. I remember exactly how my (long gone) copy of The Golden Notebook looked, even how it smelled. I remember the colour of my vintage satin bedspread (still here) on my bed as I read it. I remember being a student. But that was over 20 years ago. I know what it was to be a first in family student of English Literature, discovering feminist fiction at a Russell Group University in the East Midlands during the early 90s. I’m an expert in my own experience. My identity, my readings of the world, like my reading of the text, is grounded in this history.

My own experience tells me nothing of what it is like to be a student in 2020. And especially not what it is like to be a student in 2020 during a global pandemic. The only way to discover ‘the complex and multiple lives students inhabit outside the university’ (Peseta) is to work with students to discover the space in between, and those ‘personal stories are important’.

Being part of the story

So, the other introduction is a cartoon.

Comics are constructed through animated panels separated by empty spaces the ‘gutters’.* Scott McCloud suggests that it is the gutters – the spaces between which enable the reader to observe the parts but ‘see the whole’. In a medium which doesn’t allow for real time action, the gutter simulates time and motion, leaving it for us to decide what happens between scenes. The gutters become invisible messengers, which are purposefully left empty by the author to be filled by the reader. David Low styles these non-spaces as a source of ‘continual, active communication between author and reader’, that is a process of ‘gutterance’ (2012, p. 372). Narrative, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and gaps beg to be filled. And so, the gutters constantly challenge readers to co-author the narrative with their own inferences (Low, 2012 p.376). But, although the reader draws their own conclusions, they are not left to chance, the author influences the conclusions that can be drawn.

In the in between space you don’t just access both worlds – you create the world.

Lars Wallner (2018) explored how readers fill those spaces, how worlds are created. He found that meaning making in the gutters was not a function of cognitive structure but rather a product of social action. We make worlds together. In partnership.

So, back to the cartoon introduction to section 2. There is a gutter. A big one, which runs down the middle and splits ‘you can access both worlds’ down the middle.

I prefer to read this ‘You can both’ ‘Access worlds’. The author has nudged us to find our meaning, to make the transition, and to transform multiple images of partnership, multiple ideas, quotes and experiences into a unified idea.

*Thanks to Greg McInerny (@GregMcI) for introducing me to gutter in comic books, and for our inspirational discussion about the gutters in teaching and learning.

Thanks also to Gwen van der Velden (@Gwenvdv) who’s tweet on the Dutch game ‘stoeprandan’ (or kerby to Brits) also made me think of the value of gutters in a different way.

Love acts: swipe left

In January we embarked on a new collaborative writing project. The brief: To compile a collection of individual responses to one stimulus piece with a view to starting a great conversation! We wrote independently without discussing our thoughts and are publishing them here as a series of posts.

The stimulus piece is: “Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program” Higher Education Research & Development, 39:1, 81-98, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1666803.

There is something of the dating profile about title like ‘Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development programme’ in that it elevates the mundane to the exceptional. Even the photos are good. Given that the abstract read like a compilation tape of every idea that I’ve flirted with (metaphor analysis, reflective practice, phenomenology, rhizomes, identity work, lived experiences, emotion, voice, textuality, reciprocity and kindness (if I’m honest, not that into kindness, but I’m not going to admit to that) all pressed into service against ‘the man’): I swiped right.

But, as we all know, dating profiles frequently engage in a little gentle kittenfishing. (Or as Calamity Jane might put it not exactly lying but careless with the truth).

There is impossibility in the very premise of this paper. An academic development programme established to support academic colleagues gain promotion is surely deeply rooted in structures of performativity which are infused with neoliberalism and enact managerialism (Friberg, 2015 in Roxå & Mårtensson 2017). This is perhaps especially the case in what Macfarlane and Gourley term “the ‘hidden curriculum’ of emotional performativity” (p.455, 2009). By demanding emotional truth we really just hollow both out.

“Witnessing, as an act of love, involves the deliberate attendance to people, seeing and taking notice of that which they believe is meaningful.” (Laura, 2016, p. 219 in Love acts, p.83)

What we notice is never neutral. What people want us to notice is never neutral. We can see traces of this in the feedback cited in the article, which resonates most powerfully with the language and constructions of educational development.     

 “I have developed a passion for learning design . . .” (Love acts)

This feigning of passion is not even weary pastiche. Everyone is just too exhausted to celebrate anything, we’re just going through the motions, the reflective equivalent of garage flowers. In the Northern town where I grew up in the 80s, the Saturday before Valentines’ day some girls would buy massive cards with cardboard envelopes from the indoor market and carry them around town for the whole day. These cards weren’t inspired by any secret infatuation. They were simple, proud statements of belonging – ‘look I have a boyfriend’, because that’s what mattered, we all believed that carried meaning.    

Making such blatant claims to ‘passion’ is banal. It erases what it seeks to announce.

So can we empower participants in educational development programmes to perform sufficiency (for Fellowship, for promotion, for qualifications) within our structures of control, and yet retain spaces for truths which hold meaning only to them? What would that look like?

Elizabeth Smart’s novel of prose poetry By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept (1945) tells the subjective truth of her affair with poet George Barker, capturing “the power of emotion to transform one’s perspective on the world” (Ingrid Norton). On the Arizona border Smart and Barker are arrested for committing adultery. Her extorted ‘confession’ at once responds to and resists the interrogating officer. She answers the logical, rational progression of the interrogation with verse from the Song of Solomon, and so refuses to bear witness to her own legal or moral transgression. 

But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.

What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.)

How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.)

Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes.)

In the same bed? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also; our bed is green.)

Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.)

When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)

Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.)

Behold thou art fair my beloved, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes. (51-52)

To the officer these logically dislocated responses are unintelligible and combative. But the reader, immersed in Smart’s metaphorical landscape, sees ‘her refusal to temper the heroic terms of her love into “a reductively literal view of the world” (McGill 80 in Bloom 2015, p.51). As Bloom has suggested: “In her lexicon, the subjective truth of erotic love is more legitimate than the institutional discourses that police sexual expression.” (Bloom 2015, p.51)

The title of By Grand Central Station alludes to Psalm 137 (“By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept …”) echoes the central question how can we find our own truth, tell our own stories in world which oppresses us: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” How do we liberate and legitimate the subjective truths of practice which exist outside the institutional discourses within which we operate? This is the challenge of educational development. 

(As a child I misheard the lyrics to Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon – which I thought was ‘How shall we sing the love song in a strange land”. I might stick with that for now.)

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song

Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Requiring of us a song

Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat…

The Big Bang (Learning) Theory: “You’re not sanding Penny”

To the uninitiated theories of learning can seem at best opaque and at worst pointless– but getting to grips with behaviourism can uncover some taken-for-granted assumptions which underpin many traditional educational practices. Moving things along from a salivating dog, or a radar pecking pigeon this clip sees Sheldon training Penny to be a more acceptable human being. Leonard’s plea ‘you’re not sanding Penny’ could be the call to action (learning) that you are looking for.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

A love that dare not speak its name?

Lecture at LTH LundThe long-maligned lectures holds sway (if not student attention) in most higher education institutions, and gives many HE professionals their job title.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen bravely pledges her troth to this time-tested practice, so unjustly spurned by modish educators.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen misguidedly chains herself to this archaic practice, so wisely rejected by enlightened educators.

Pieces in defence of the lecture appear regularly – and are met by a celebratory “hooray” from its avid and loyal admirers, and by dismay and bewilderment from its detractors.

Whichever tribe you belong to every vindication or condemnation offers valuable opportunity to revisit dearly held assumptions about the way we teach and the way in which students learn. Engaging in debate about divisive practices like the lecture can reinvigorate our engagement with the big questions: what can a University education do, how should it do it, and how do we as educators and students as learners best achieve our goals?

So, maybe not lecture me, really, but disagree with me, absolutely.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

The F word

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014“Feminist pedagogy is not a toolbox, a collection of strategies, a list of practices, or a specific classroom arrangement. It is an overarching philosophy—a theory of teaching and learning that integrates feminist values with related theories and research on teaching and learning.”

And so begins one of the most valuable teaching resources I have seen this year, a Guide to Feminist Pedagogy from Vanderbilt University. Beautifully designed around Shulman’s concept of signature pedagogy, this exquisite exposition of the ‘habits of hand, heart and head’ offers a liberating and exhilarating approach to teaching and learning.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.


Creativity is a hard concept to define. Steve Wheeler pretty much nails it with this slide, part of his keynote at the Digital Pedagogies conference held in Doncaster on 3 July. By the power of Twitter (and @christinehough): “This”.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Textbook Cinderellas

CinderellaI love fairy stories.

I love English Literature.

I love teaching.



Once upon a time, now sadly a long time ago, when the ink on my doctoral dissertation was only just dry, I taught my first seminar group. Almost overcome with terror, I found solace in one magical text, Doing English by Robert Eaglestone.

Doing English enabled me to reconcile my experience of English Literature at school with the uncanny experiences of studying English Literature at University – and particularly, it showed me how I could make sense of the English Literature which was unfolding to my undergraduate seminar group as they grappled with the compulsory Critical Theory module under my inexpert tutelage.

Many years later, in a different life as a consultant at Academic Practice at the Higher Education Academy I was lucky enough to work with over 60 National Teaching Fellows on texts which captured their practice. Amongst their number was Robert Eaglestone, who wrote about writing the very text book that had saved me so many years ago.

The resulting piece, Textbook Cinderellas: how metacognition takes a worn format to the ball, argues that textbooks can and should be pedagogically innovative. But what I love most of all, is that it remixes the theories and sensibilities of English Studies with the scholarship of teaching and learning – to create something I find utterly enchanting.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.