Letter from Bernadine to Toni

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

Dear Toni,

It was lovely to hear from you and to know that there haven’t been too many repercussions from your restructure. The new boss sounds like she might have a few promising ideas after all?? 

I’ve just had an email from a colleague that has left me floundering and I’m sure I remember you talking about something similar so I thought I would get in touch. Rather than pinging it across in an email or calling you, I wondered if the act of writing it to you then waiting for a response (no pressure!) would help me formulate my ideas.  

Anyway, this colleague is a non-native speaker of English and a brilliantly committed teacher with a lot of experience teaching both here in the UK but back in her home country too. I’d noticed when I did her teaching observation a couple of years ago that there was a small group of students in her class who were behaving oddly. They were whispering and passing notes around to each other, one was just staring at his phone constantly and one girl was even swinging on her chair back and forth. I don’t think XXX noticed this as this group were right the back of an exceptionally large and very full lecture-type space. Quite unimaginable in these covid-times… will we ever be in a huddle again??? Anyway, I digress… So, I was troubled by the disrespect these students were showing towards XXX. I could feel the tension at the back of the room as other students stiffened and tried to ignore the disruption. I was annoyed on behalf of XXXX because of this disruption but also for me, at their arrogance even when a stranger member of staff was in the room, they were oblivious. I thought long and hard about how to broach the subject in our debrief following on from the teaching observation, and I know this is something we’ve spoken about a lot in the past: our feelings of responsibility towards our colleagues in this role. I may even have spoken of this before because although I was shocked by this behavior, it was only the first of many similar displays I’ve borne witness to in the last couple of years. In fact, this treatment of a lecturer who is a non-native speaker of English by a group of young (white) Scottish students shames me deeply still. What is wrong with our society if this is seen as acceptable? Or, taking the question differently and moving away from my initial teacher-y response into more of an academic developer response: what can we do in the university sector to support our colleagues, non-native speakers of English, who are facing daily acts of racial and/or micro-aggressions in their classrooms?  

This colleague has now encountered some blatant racism in an essay she was marking and is not sure what do to about it so has come to me for guidance. As is so often the case with these kinds of dilemmas, I feel torn as an academic developer. Part of me wants to scream and rage at the madness of it all and yet I know I need to maintain my professional mask so she trusts me to respond in a way that enables her to vent and I will absorb. I also need to offer advice that will protect her legally, institutionally when all that I really want to say would only provoke an act of violence. Oh dear. Help? 

Your old friend and colleague, 


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.

Responding to lessons in partnership

rosie-kerr-vppwHIitOoE-unsplash (1)

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

In her chapter Sitting on rocks, human knots and other lessons I learned in partnership, Anna Bruder leads us, invitingly, into her story of partnership. Authorship and Agency are probably the key characters in this story which has, I’m pleased to tell you, a happy ending. Let’s delve into why these are powerful ways to explore partnership.


The story Bruder told of her early experiences as a teacher sounded familiar – you can tell that she cares for her students and has always wanted to involve them in the learning process. However, she describes her frustration with the fleeting nature of those high moments, the buzz of the class that remained a ‘transient glimmer of clarity. A flash in the pan.’ Bruder’s desire to extend this feeling and take it beyond the classroom ensured she was ready for a new way of engaging with her students. This desire is arguably universal, if only we could sustain the learning, make the learning transferable. Yes! I thought reading her story. I want some of this too.


It is interesting to note that at the beginning of this chapter, the words ‘control’ and ‘performance’ appear several times in relation to teaching, suggesting that teaching was indeed initially for Bruder something with which she was trying out new personas to maintain her own authority. I’m sure this is again something that resonates with many of us. Indeed, I often find myself saying in my PG Cert class with new lecturers that they should ‘let go of content to focus on learning’. We explore questions of knowledge and ownership as well as the idea of the teacher as ‘gatekeeper’. However, as the chapter progresses, these words fade, control is in fact ‘ceded’ to be replaced with risk taking and trust. Tracing this evolution in the chapter made me wonder if in fact I do this enough in my own teaching. I think I would like to revisit this notion of ‘control’ with my own learners and will definitely borrow the silent ‘conversation’ to draw out explicitly power and resistance in my own context.

The human knot

The desire articulated above prompted Bruder to begin a partnership and she was encouraged to change the culture of her classroom by creating, quite literally, a human knot in the classroom with her students. Her knowing tone anticipates my initial baulking. Really? A human knot with your students?? I try – and fail – to imagine this working in my Scottish context. And yet Bruder’s powerful assertion that this physical human knot ‘works because it makes learning an embodied practice’ makes me want to silence my inner cynical (fearful?) voice and try it with my learners. Perhaps part of its appeal for me now lies in the impossibility of creating a human knot. As we sit in our own homes connecting through digital spaces, the very notion of connecting physically with the bodies of others in a classroom space feels profoundly shocking. Instead this learning can only be imaginary and anticipatory.

Bruder ends her story with an invitation to respond to questions, all of which have helped shape my response to this chapter. I would like to end my own post with a question to you.

  • In our current COVID-19 world, what do you miss most about embodied practices of learning?



From Love Acts to Language – where can we get back our desire for learning (and teaching)?

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.

Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

Metaphors abound in this article, which I read with growing intrigue given my own interest in creative methodologies as a way of enabling academic colleagues, particularly those new to teaching, to explore their academic practice. There is a plurality in this article – of methods, of theories, of voices – and yet by the end I felt that although I had a strong sense of how participants had responded to the Teaching Scholars programme, I had more questions than answers about how ‘love acts’ can actually help academics combat the neoliberal agenda of our universities:

  1. There is an intention of juxtaposing languages but it is all in English – where are the other languages?
  2. The metaphors and language used to describe teaching feels similar too – the words are all cosy and comfortable words we use often in learning and teaching. They are Words We Like: nurturing, weaving, gardening… 

How can we push our metaphors further and expand them to take in other – more friction-filled – words? Words that encapsulate the tensions between teaching and research for example, a sword-bearing snail that has lost its shell? Or a blind mole lost in the tunnels of module evaluation forms and programme review?

 As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us in her wonderful TED talk:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

Can we talk about love without also talking about desire? Desire to learn? Desire to teach? It is hard to feel desire in the neoliberal university.

In this short response to the article, I cannot hope to answer any of those questions but I would like to explore further how we – as academic developers – can expand the language we use to talk about learning and teaching to move away from the idea that being an academic in a western university in 2020 can be a smooth and caring journey. The ongoing industrial action in the UK tells us that academics are angry, exhausted, cynical. 

We know that teaching is indeed an act of caring but one that requires energy and courage. An intimate act, where you are often exposed and vulnerable, it is also a process that can be frustrating and disempowering, particularly in a new context and in a language that is not your own.

This is therefore a plea to invite other languages into the conversation – share your metaphors of teaching in Arabic, in Japanese, in Swedish and in Maori. And let us also articulate the pain and frustration of teaching as well as the joy and the love. Perhaps through these linguistic encounters, we can locate the spark of desire for learning?


Adichie, C. N. (2009) The danger of a single story . TED Talk:  

A communion with learning: inside the lacunae

Inside the Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh @Helen McCrorie, 2016

We know that learning happens informally and formally, and in all sorts of learning spaces but how often do we pause and consider the serendipitous nature of learning in all its forms? In this blog post Catriona Cunningham reflects on possibilities that open when creative and academic practices intertwine.

August 2016: Helen McCrorie stood on the threshold of her exhibition – opening the wooden door to allow us to enter into the dark and intimate interior of the former meeting house. A symbolic choice of location. We made our way along empty pews before nestling in the corner, right in front of three large screens which flickered between moving images. I could see the outlines of other heads around me but my eye was drawn to the murky glass skylight panel above my head, which cast a sombre light on the room; it felt like we were being watched from above. We were also participating in our own ritual. Our communion.  With one another? With nature? With ourselves?

The images on the screen went round in a loop with no obvious demarcation between beginning and end – the ceremony is not the climax here. It is the process that counts. So, we watched the men as they prepared for their own commune. We observed one man’s everyday ritual banal and familiar as he ate breakfast and started to prepare for his initiation into the priesthood. We watched others, a collective of men, who banged and moulded the raw material of wood from their surrounding landscape to create the flambeaux that they would then carry through their local Scottish village in Hogmanay celebrations.

McCrorie’s commentary on these male rituals is far from neutral: the camera lingers on the physical surroundings of each context – the mysticism of the lay priest undermined by the sight of him sitting on the sofa eating his toast and marmalade or by the laddish enthusiasm with which the other priest embrace and slap him heartily following on from the ceremony. There are other juxtapositions: the solemnity of the male procession through the village gently parodied by the close-up of a can of irn bru or by the way in which one of the young man struggles under the weight of the flambeau. Male power and strength, both physical and societal, are thereby questioned and critiqued, albeit without malice. The voiceover commenting on the film is anonymous and androgynous. Ambiguity reigns.

This theme of watching, observing and noticing matters for the purpose of McCrorie’s probing bird’s eye view on our society’s male rituals. But the act of observing her observations inspired me to notice more closely and carefully what I learned. My role in learning and teaching positions much of my reading and observing in the domain of scholarly thinking, of pedagogical research as a way of informing my own academic practice and my work with colleagues as they cross over their own learning and teaching practice into professional recognition. McCrorie’s film made me remember how powerful art and literature can also be in shaping the way we think about learning and teaching.

These simultaneous films going round in loop highlighted to me the rituals of what we do in academic development and how little we question the process of how we recognise good practice in learning in teaching. Are we also trapped in the lacunae where we collaborate to ensure that the process remains the same? In his most recent novel, David Mitchell illustrates the danger of conserving the status quo in a most chilling way. Madeleine Mien’s novel gives us terrifying perspectives of the danger of sacrificing the collective for the individual and for trying to make education fit the purposes of a political agenda. McCrorie, Mitchell and Mien have all influenced the way I think about my own work in the last month alone. The theme of laddism; the danger of the collective; the purpose of society and its rituals. These issues all matter in higher education but it is through creative media that I understand why. My learning cannot be contained to the rules of the academic world. Can yours?

McCrorie, H. The Clock in Commune, video installation at The Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh Art Festival, August 2016

Mitchell, D. Slade House. London: Sceptre Books. 2015.

Thien, M. (2016) Do not say we have nothing. London: Granta.



Guiding stars of wonder and light

Image by Susanne Nilsson

These Queens of the North come bearing gifts from afar. From all over Scotland in fact. Vicky Gunn and Pauline Hanesworth have each inspired me in different ways with their commitment and integrity in their approach to teaching and learning in higher education.

With their newly published report (co-written with Jane Morrison) on equality and diversity across Scotland, they give us a resource that highlights the importance of a holistic approach. The three gifts they offer here? Engagement, commitment and – above all – hope.

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

We bring you the gift of unflattening – a shape-shifting provocation

graphic novel

In Lacunae, we want to explore how things appear differently when we look at them in different ways, offering us new perspectives on familiar concepts in our everyday lives.

Unflattening is a doctoral thesis by Nick Sousanis and its format, that of a graphic novel, challenges the traditional form in order to examine the relationship between the word and image.

The invitation to look at the intricacies of an argument through the black and white etchings of a petal are appealing yet because of the representation we are actually forced to reflect differently. This shape-shifting piece of work resonates with what we want to do in academic development. Make us ask questions about our beliefs in the Academy, what constitutes scholarship and what shape it should take in our discipline? And when we talk about our learning and teaching, what form(s) can we use to represent our evidence.

In this blog post Cory Doctorow discusses the doctoral dissertation in graphic novel form: http://mostlysignssomeportents.tumblr.com/post/130485371991/doctoral-dissertation-in-graphic-novel-form 

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

Looking to the future – what will the new year bring?

Image by Nasir Nasrallah, 2006

Amidst the complex, ongoing and often troublesome debate around graduate attributes, is interdisciplinarity the much-needed elixir? The latest research commissioned by the HEA in interdisciplinary learning and teaching is summarised in the report here and offers pedagogies of hope for the future.  For me, this is a timely resource in our advent calendar. At the end of one year, we can reflect back on our learning and teaching – high points, low points and moments to blot our forever more… and then look to what we might do differently in the New Year. This resource offers practical ways to add depth and flavour to what we do, and perhaps some chance encounters with colleagues from different disciplines along the way. Happy New Year!

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

What does quality taste like in your institution?

quality streetOne of the big questions facing many higher education institutions in the UK just now is how they deliver transnational education (TNE) through their satellite campuses. This area is fascinating for me, partly because I believe internationalising higher education and the benefits of encountering other cultures, languages and beliefs immeasurable and also because of the implications of TNE for the transferability or rather the translatability for how and what we teach in our Western universities. In fact, TNE makes us look at what we call excellence in higher education in the UK today. As we probe and reflect, it becomes clear that the definition of quality does not look or taste the same across the board. Interesting. The British Council’s Going Global Conference in June 2015 addressed some of these questions in their session on TNE. In the session below the meaning of quality in TNE is explored in depth:

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

Internationalisation in higher education – the view from elsewhere

Image Tup Wanders 2005

Wonderfully, this summary from Canada  is written in French and yet you don’t need to speak French to get the gist of it. The statistics about internationalisation in HE in Canada actually look very similar to those in the UK. This little report, therefore, makes two important points to consider in terms of our learning and teaching. Firstly, that when we are confronted by words that we don’t always understand, let’s focus on similarities rather than differences. This helps us bridge linguistic and cultural barriers and invites conversation and comparison from a starting point of mutual appreciation. Secondly – and even more importantly in the context of increasing internationalisation of HE – a reminder that there is so much to learn from how others see us. We need to talk globally rather than dwell on our internal perspective. We need to live in translation. We need to learn and teach in translation.


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

The danger of a single story

Image by Moyan Brenn, 2011

A Nigerian author who gives us a fictional account of the experience of being an African international student in a Western in the powerful novel, Americanah (2014), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains how she found her voice and emphasises the danger of thinking there is only one voice, one narrative. She advocates the need for plurality – recognition that not everybody shares the same story. Stronger than any faith for me, this belief expresses the danger of dominant narratives in our public spaces that shape our learning and teaching. This clip reinforces for me the notion that the stories we tell ourselves, whether about our teaching, our students, our colleagues, our research can be even more meaningful if they are shaped by and for other, different, narratives. It is perhaps the richness of a dialogue over a monologue, an intercultural world rather than a monocultural one. The Christmas story is one single story in our history and culture. Think how many other stories exist living and breathing in our classrooms.

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