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Saturday, 27 March 2021

Redefining Our Place: Thoughts from the Tasmanian Humanities’ Teachers Conference, 2021

Readers are privileged this week to engage with Lyndon Riggall’s snapshot of key content explored during a recent conference where literacy, literature and storytelling were key themes. I am particularly taken with the notion of the JEDI code - read on to discover more.

Last week I had the pleasure of joining statewide members of the Tasmanian Geography Teachers’ Association, the Tasmanian History Teachers’ Association, and the Tasmanian Association for the Teaching of English at their Humanities Teachers’ Conference held at St. Patrick’s College. This year’s conference was notable in two distinct respects: firstly, that it brought together an impressive array of teachers as well as University of Tasmania academics, and secondly that the tone of the conference was so positive. In the wake of the year that was, it felt like a rallying after battle, and the excitement and renewed positivity for the future was immensely uplifting.


Jonathan Wallis. (2021, March 24). Humanities Teachers' Conference. YouTube. https://youtu.be/yL0hUm9BT8Q 


The plenary address for the conference was delivered by UTas Professor of Human Geography and planning Jason Byrne, whose practical, inspiring proposed pathway for urban planning in Tasmania was beautifully stated, and reminded all of us that the gift of communication is an essential tool that can be used to make the world a better place. Professor Byrne adheres to what he describes as a “JEDI code,” focusing on Justice, Empathy, Diversity and Inclusion. As someone passionate about literature, it struck me that these four realms might also be valuable markers for considering how we write, publish, and stock the shelves of our libraries, classrooms and homes.


The sessions following Professor Byrne’s opening address centred around the power of innovative, personal storytelling, developing perspective, and the links between the cultures of the past and our lives in the present day. In one session I joined Dr Robert Clarke, Dr Naomi Milthorpe and Dr Robbie Moore in a discussion of the novel in the modern classroom, beginning with consideration of the books that had turned us into readers, and reflecting on the challenges and opportunities of teaching novels in the modern day. Certainly there were a number of concerns that will not be surprising to readers of this blog: changing attention spans, a lack of focus or enthusiasm, and diminished reading resilience. That said, it appeared evident—to me at least—that the value of the novel as something worthy of educational investment had only become more profoundly felt in the face of these challenges. It is, perhaps, harder than ever to “sell” reading as a pastime in the modern age, but our frontline soldiers in the war against illiteracy are as passionate as they have always been, and our little victories have only become more significant and worthy of celebration.


There was a lot of talk throughout the conference about the place of the Humanities in the modern day; the brutal changes to costs at university of various Humanities-related degrees, and the glamorous, almost science-fictional desirability of STEM that seems so constantly enticing and well-marketed. Still, there is no need for an interdisciplinary war or for resentment. Our world needs all of these knowledge bases—urgently—and it needs communication just as much. Humanities graduates are increasingly employable and indeed employed at similar rates to their STEM counterparts; praised for their JEDI skills and the kinds of proficiencies that make them adaptable to different roles across a lifetime of learning and work. We are allies in all of this, and it seems to me that the heart of our contribution is story: the story of our own past that we must learn from it, the story of who we are now that we must take notice of, and the story of who we hope to become.


As we emerged into the light of a Saturday afternoon I felt hopeful, and ready to take on the next chapter.  “Our place” is in good hands.


Lyndon Riggall is a writer and teacher from Launceston. He can be found on his personal blog at http://www.lyndonriggall.com and on Twitter @lyndonriggall.


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