our words make worlds

¿Para qué Sirve? What’s the ‘Service’ in a ‘Service Module’ For?

By Elisa Sampson Vera Tudela

I took the College call to design ‘Service Modules’ as an invitation to imagine a module that would, through the lens of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, consciously and intentionally seek to understand and to enact social justice inside and outside the classroom. Because teaching, learning and assessing doesn’t mean working from or in an empty space. With Catherine Boyle as an ally and interlocutor, we saw the potential for what we do in SPLAS to be a fulcrum for learning in the communities around us: for the classroom not to be ‘place’ but a living system for learning.

One of the key things we decided to do was to have broader conversations about the assumptions that mean teaching and learning as usual, research as usual, business as usual; and to challenge students as well as ourselves to really question how such assumptions impact us all. It had become too easy to teach the way we had been taught, and we wanted to learn another way. The response of the students who accepted our invitation to take part in a series of online workshops to help us design the module surprised me. The wild thinking we invited through wild prompts was received with humour and with energy. Radical proposals and different opinions and dreams voiced by students spoke of an ambitious willingness to disrupt and to be disrupted, all the while circling back to more measured and pragmatic assessments of what could be achieved by the module we are designing and what it would mean to a student taking it. Participants could see themselves clearly as the products of an educational system (and could recognise the place of their degrees in that system) but they also quickly perceived that the wild questions we posed them ran counter to that system. Their responses showed us how change is simultaneously liberating and threatening.

The circumstances under which we met could not have been bleaker. I had imagined the intimacy of one of the small, anodyne meeting rooms in VWB, brought alive with Catherine’s special collection of meeting-mugs, the requisite biscuits, the buzz and warmth of people gathering. Instead, the pixelated images of our students and ourselves, the inevitable glitches, the strange protocols of speech and ‘chat’, of raising a yellow hand and muting or unmuting yourself. But then also, in these four weeks, movingly, the glimpses of multiple spaces and their textures – desks, lamps, shelves, pictures, fabrics, cushions, the sounds of other people’s homes and streets and gardens: perhaps being forced online was not going to be as bad as we feared. As we checked in with each other each week it seemed that the world conspired to distract us from our ‘work’. As we asked questions about the experiences of learning, the conversations circled naturally to the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the policies of the UK government and others – to the outside world that was barred to all of us in some measure during ‘lockdown’. It was clear that the world disturbed and distracted us in a determinedly constructive way – I came away convinced that this module, when it ran, would mean a return to something different, not to something the same. The world now is completely perplexing. In the workshops I began to understand that getting a measure of that complexity meant spending time not knowing and asking questions in order to be able to imagine change. And in the discussions, it became clear that bold and audacious change could come from focusing on small but powerful modifications. In the workshops we had expert knowledge of how the system worked from two perspectives; we could see the impact even small change could make because of this knowledge.

Throughout the workshops we were conscious of the missing voices – the spaces of partners in the community and the wider world we imagined working with in the module. The absence made us keenly aware of how the skills we wanted to practice and to learn, the cultural and linguistic literacy we seek to enact in the module, was intimately connected with communication and with space. As we talked about how we might take our work and shape it into activities that would benefit our partners and ourselves, Ricoeur’s ideas of hospitality were resonant. Students imagined the place of our partners in relation to us, articulated the complexities of belonging and distancing, of adoption and rejection, in conversations that begin, already, to provide us with itineraries for activities to practice in the module. One of our online whiteboards was quickly populated with suggestions for very concrete activities with community partners.

The volume of information and suggestions we gathered was huge. Some which felt like guiding principles included: the huge value of embodied learning - learning through the body brought happiness and satisfaction, as did working as part of a team. Another was research (a word students agreed on after a conversation about what ‘organising ideas, finding resources, making mistakes’ was). Challenge and difficulty were cited as sources of satisfaction in the learning process as much as creativity and pleasure. And crucially I think, there was a recognition that learning was interminable, unfinishable work that needed to be acknowledge as such.

We asked students what elements of their experience in SPLAS had brought them joy. The immediate answer of a community of shared passions and interest was heartening, but the students went further – their UG community, at its best, was a ‘thinking’ community that shared and welcomed but that also allowed the self to design, learn and investigate its own environment.

Student collaboration in these workshops was a crucial step in the design of this module which, at its simplest, is intended as a place and a moment in which we can bring constituencies together. Tensions in the university system, in the city we live in, in the broader world are all too evident. Our sense was that the service module could move across some of those barriers by involving people who might have been systemically wary or ignorant of each other, allowing them to name common stakes.

Our conversations in the workshops were intensely pragmatic – geared towards solving very specific problems we had encountered. We were also deeply reflective and theoretical, articulating what Catherine called our ‘meta language’. The way we directed our theorizing towards our pragmatic observations allowed us to see the Department and King’s in a way we hadn’t before and so be able to operate within it, or change it, in more effective ways. I am reminded of how bell hooks describes liberatory theory in this counterpointing of the personal and the political that our conversations always took. hooks says she came to theory because she was hurting – that indeed the pain was so intense she could not go on living. We find ourselves in extreme situations today and our needs and our students’ needs are as intense. This module won’t make the hurt go away, but, following hooks, we can be bold and think about it as a location for healing by asking it to help us grasp what is happening around and within us.


hooks, bell. Teaching to transgress. Routledge, 2014.

Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, Routledge, 2006.

Senge, Peter M., et al. Schools that learn (updated and revised): A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. Currency, 2012.

Wheatley, Margaret. "Turning to One Another." www.restorativeschoolstoolkit.org