#Take5 #98 Sharing the Third Space Symposium – through blackout poetry

Hanging Off the Edge

Tom Burns, London Metropolitan University
Sandra Sinfield, London Metropolitan University
Sandra Abegglen, University of Calgary
Contact: t.burns@londonmet.ac.uk 

Image: The Poets: Tom, Sandra S and Sandra A (drawn by Jacqui Bartram, #ALDcon23)

Image: The Poets: Tom, Sandra S and Sandra A (drawn by Jacqui Bartram, #ALDcon23)

It’s third space and blackout poetry: Happy Christmas!

In this #Take5 blog post, we are delighted to showcase a Blackout Poem crafted by Tom Burns, with the collaborative support of Sandra Sinfield and Sandra Abegglen, based on a Helen Webster blogpost on conceptualising Learning Development. Our ‘poem’ creation was featured at the Higher Education Third Space Online Symposium on November 8, 2023, organised by the Higher Education Third Space Research Group (Contact: thirdspaceresearch@gmail.com). 

Do get involved in Higher Education Third Space (HETS) Research!

The group’s mission revolves around fostering collaboration, research endeavors, and engagement across Higher Education (HE) for third space professionals such as Learning Developers, Librarians, Education Developers, Technologists – and others – and as conceptualised by Dr. Celia Whitchurch. The focal point of the 2023 symposium was the exploration of challenges and opportunities encountered by third space professionals in the context of the 21st-century university.

Quick update post-symposium: a message from the sponsors

“Thank you for joining our first ever HE Third Space Research Symposium last week. A big thanks to all the presenters for sharing their research and their ideas. Thank you to everyone contributing to the discussion in the chat – we had some great conversations there! We were able to record some talks and we will update you soon how these can be accessed.

A special thank you to Dr Celia Whitchurch who although unwell and unable to deliver her planned keynote still joined us in the audience and commented in the chat. Thank you, Celia! It was wonderful to have you with us.

We hope that you enjoyed this gathering to share the subject we are all interested in. We wanted to share a few updates:

  • We are in the process of setting up a mailing list so that we can stay in touch and continue those discussions. Until the list is live, we will keep the Padlet going – feel free to continue adding to it. You can find it here: Third Space Symposium (padlet.com)
  • If you haven’t already, please give us some feedback on the event, this will help us for any future gatherings. It’s a very short form, and if you’d like to join our mailing list, there’s a space there to leave your email address. Third Space Research Symposium- Post Event Evaluation (office.com)
  • We are investigating opportunities to publish some form of symposium proceedings or a special issue on HE Third Space – watch this space!
  • Finally, we are happy to share that we have rescheduled the talk by Dr Celia Whitchurch to January. More details to follow, but please save the date: Friday 19 January 2024 at 12.00pm (noon) UK time. We will also have time for questions and discussion after the talk.”

Why a blackout poem? Why Rattus Scholasticus?

The genesis of the Blackout Poem stems from the insightful Blog Post authored by Helen Webster, alias Rattusscholasticus, expounding on her ‘third space’ conceptual model for Learning Development (LD). This wonderful post was published on April 5, 2018, and can be accessed at: https://rattusscholasticus.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/my-conceptual-model-for-learning-development/. We wanted to celebrate this post at the first HETS symposium – and we thought that engaging with it in this creative way was a great way of showcasing Helen’s work.

In turn, Helen’s inspiration for her blog post originated from her participation in the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Conference 2018. Particularly noteworthy was a session led by Rosie MacLachlan, who conducted a workshop prompting participants to formulate a conceptual model of LD. Drawing from this experience, Helen employs the metaphor of ‘spaces’ as a lens to situate LD activities and the three essential partners – students, lecturers, and LDers – engaged in the learning process.

By redacting Helen’s blog we wanted to uncover the very essence of what a third space professional is and what they do – with a special focus on Learning Development as a paradigmatic third space profession.

Redact that! New ways of reading

image of an extract of a blackout poem by Tom Burns

image of an extract of a blackout poem by Tom Burns

Blackout Poetry, the artistic technique employed, involves selectively obscuring words within an existing document, traditionally using a black marker pen. Alternatively, various materials such as white correction fluid or paint can be used – or distinct font colours can be utilised in digital formats. The resulting composition often resembles a heavily redacted FBI file, where the remaining words converge to create something novel – a poem with a newfound meaning. 

Within our educational context, we integrate Blackout Poetry as a tool for discourse on learning and teaching – and especially to introduce students to formal academic reading: a practice they typically neither understand or enjoy – at first. See, #Take5 #72 Blog by Aimee Merrydew.

Blacking out or redacting a text is a powerful way to get students reading – either individually or together. It serves as a means to distill intricate theoretical journal articles and kindle inspiration for writing. Typically the challenge of blacking out irrelevant or less interesting words or sentences prompts students to engage actively with a text. It places the student in a much more active and powerful relationship with the text than being asked to summarise, precis or condense it – or, to sit a comprehension exercise. Whilst we may want our students to develop all these techniques and processes – if we introduce them as decontextualised skills rather than develop them as integral parts of the reading process – we alienate students even further from academic reading  (Abegglen et al 2020).

If all the redacted poems are shared, suddenly everyone can see that there was no one right answer to the reading challenge – but many ways of interacting with the text – and multiple possible reading goals. Moreover, given that the redacted text now looks so different – it becomes easier for the student to see how they might themselves ‘use’ the reading in their writing. This is especially powerful if there is a meta-reflection on the activity itself – with the students themselves uncovering the power of active reading.

In this instance, Blackout Poetry becomes a reflective medium and a lens – exploring the different spaces inhabited by LDers, building upon the definition of the third space articulated in Helen’s blog post. We sought to utilise her words to delve deeper into this realm – the space in which LDers operate and the unique space they can cultivate for their students. A space characterised by “boundaries [that] are fuzzy and malleable (hence wavy lines)”, capable of expanding or morphing to cater to the curriculum or learner’s needs (Webster, 2018).

We used our poetry as a provocation at the HETS symposium – and we hope that reading the presented poem will be as enjoyable for you as it was for us to create and present. Perhaps it may even serve as an inspiration for you to craft your own LD (blackout) poem – and to use them when developing the reading practices of your own students.

The Poem

Blackout Poem by Tom Burns – with support by Sandra Sinfield and Sandra Abegglen – for the Third Space Online Symposium on November 08, 2023.


Abegglen, S., Burns, T., Middlebrook, D., & Sinfield, S. (2020). Outsiders looking in? Challenging reading through creative practice. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 17(2), 7. https://doi.org/10.53761/

Webster, H (2018, April 05). My conceptual model for learning development. Rattusscholasticus. https://rattusscholasticus.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/my-conceptual-model-for-learning-development/


Sandra Abegglen, Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield, have worked and taught together at London Metropolitan University (United Kingdom) for many years. Sandra A is now based at the University of Calgary (Canada) where she works on research projects that explore design studio practice and online teaching. Tom B and Sandra S and still work at LondonMet. They teach on the PGcert and MALTHE courses for academic staff with a special focus on praxes that ignite curiosity, harness creativity, and develop power and voice. Together we have co-authored Higher education collaboration: A new ecology of practice (2023), and other publications that support empowering teaching and learning across the disciplines. You can find out more about Sandra A, Tom and Sandra S by following them on LinkedIn: Sandra Abegglen, Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield or X: Sandra Abegglen, Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield – or connect to their project pages TALON and #Take5.


Thanks to Helen Webster for inspiring us with her Blog Post – and definition of Third Space. Visit Helen’s blog rattus scholasticus.

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