Carpe Noctem! (Or: Things to do during a blackout) by Carike Claassen

Load shedding. Two words that are currently on South African lips as the local power provider struggles to keep up with the demands of an emerging economy, causing power failures that last for hours at a time.
It was during such scheduled load shedding last weekend that a lightbulb went on for me (only metaphorically, of course).
With no electricity and none of the distractions usually provided by it, I was actually having the most fun I’ve had in a while. I read. A lot. I lit up candles and drank red wine. I spent a whole lot of time outside; puttering around in the garden when it was light and then just appreciating the silence as night began to fall.
It was good. Restorative.
I’m making an early New Year’s resolution to unplug more often. Sure, a lot of that unplugging might not be quite voluntary but I figure carpe noctem – I’ll seize the night while it’s here.

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Ode to Books by Carike Claassen

A week or two ago, I found myself in a place I had nearly forgotten existed: The local library. It was, in a world gone digital, a trip down memory lane.

As a little girl, I used to love weekly trips to the library with my mother. The anticipation of gathering up last week’s books in order to return them, and setting off to the library. Diving into the miraculous, cool quiet of a world of books, eager to see which gem would be discovered that day.

Fast forward a few years (okay, decades) and the love of reading remains. But I have to wonder if we’ve lost some soul to digital books. Please, don’t misunderstand me – I love my Kindle. Surprisingly much, for someone who used to think of herself as somewhat of a purist when it came to books and reading and therefore never expected to like e-books at all.

But to walk through a library, or a bookstore for that matter, and run your fingers along the multicoloured spines reclining on the shelves. To inhale the unique scent of old books and listen to the faint rustling of pages as they are leisurely turned by fellow browsers. And then, the ultimate thrill – the flutter of excitement at recognising a title you love (or know that you possibly could, if only the two of you could spend some time getting to know each other.)

There is a sensuality and warmth to books and libraries that we need to revel in. We’ve seen the value of Slow Living – Slow Food and Slow Cities. Maybe it’s time we indulge in some Slow Reading, too.

On teaching introverts (and introverts teaching) by Carike Claassen

As a young lecturer, I really enjoy experimenting with different teaching styles. I’m constantly trying to improve on the previous semester’s teaching and trying to see if it is possible to accommodate a wide variety of learning styles in my classroom. In particular, though, I wonder a lot about how we treat introverted students in the higher education system. I was reminded of this issue again when I recently read Bruce Macfarlane’s piece on shy students in the Times Higher Education. The emphasis in higher education these days is very much on group work, which can be painful for socially awkward or just plain introverted students. Is there really no place for introverts in the academy?

I relate to this question because, firstly, if we could place introversion/extroversion on a spectrum between the lady with 9 cats who only leaves the house to buy chocolate, and the social butterfly who’s out at a party every night, I’m definitely on the cat lady side of things (except for being a dog-person, not cats). So I have lots of empathy for the quiet student sitting in a corner somewhere while the rest of the class is engaged in some group activity, because frankly, I’d rather be reading, too.

Secondly, I find the emphasis on groupwork baffling since I had thought that universities were supposed to be bastions of critical, independent thought. To my mind, critical, independent thinking is just not something that can happen in a group setup.

Susan Cain shares these concerns in her book, Quiet. She shows that innovative, deep thinking can only come from solitude. It is an idea which is echoed by Malcolm Gladwell, who explains the importance of “focused practice” in his book Outliers. The key difference between people who truly excel at their work and those that are only average, is that the truly excellent spend many hours alone, honing their craft. This is because working alone gives the opportunity to focus on strengthening your specific weak spot, which is just not possible in a group setup where the distractions are too numerous.

Cain also talks about something she calls the “New Groupthink”. Groups tend to be dominated by the most outgoing, charismatic member of the group, and group members soon mimic the opinion of that leader, so if you’re looking for innovative ideas, you’re not going to find them in group work.

Cain’s research corroborates my own teaching experience – I have, in the past, tried to incorporate more group work into my teaching, only to find that:

  • Groups were not coming up with original insights – instead what happened was that the most basic answer to a question/problem was quickly parroted, so that the work could be disposed with in order to get down to the more crucial business of socializing.
  • Free riding continued rampantly, even though mechanisms were built in to try and avoid this.
  • Some students cannot think independently at all anymore – I have had students tell me that they cannot come up with answers to questions unless they have had the opportunity to discuss it in a group. Which is worrying, considering the fact that, no matter how much your future boss will expect you to be able to work with others, you will still be appointed in a position and with job requirements for which you – alone – will be uniquely responsible.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t be encouraged to work together, or that social skills aren’t important, because they are. The key, I think, is to understand that teaching university students requires a more nuanced approach than simply “either traditional lectures” or “total interactive group work.” I am now trying to structure my classes in a way which allows for a better mix of interaction/solitary work:

  • Discussion pieces for classwork are handed out beforehand, so that students who prefer to work alone have the time to quietly read through the work, while those that are more vocal have the opportunity to voice their opinions during discussion time.
  • Students are encouraged to do either/or: A question is set, to which they must provide an answer, and they are given an option: “If you’d like to work with a buddy/buddies, that’s fine. If you want to work alone, that’s fine, too, but at the end of these 10 minutes, you must have answered this question.”
  • Instead of putting students in large groups, pair work is encouraged.

I think there is still plenty of work to be done. Sure, it is difficult to try to cater for different learning styles especially when classes are large. But I fear that educators, myself included, often fall into the trap that so many of us do: Putting people (in this case, students) in neatly labeled boxes and only dealing with them on the basis of what we perceive as “normal”.

Slow by Carike Claassen

Sedgefield is overrun with tortoises. Next to the main road leading in to the verdant little town, approaching the public square where the local market is held, and at random lookout points all over.
No one is calling in pest control, however. The tortoise is Sedgefield’s town mascot and features on signs all over in order to remind residents and visitors to slow down. Sedgefield is Africa’s first official Slow Town, part of the CittaSlow movement which started in Italy and has expanded through the years.
And it is slow, beautifully so. Pop in to the local Italian restaurant to find that the head waiter knows just about everyone in town, and they, in turn, know him. Join the plodding groups of locals as they head to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning to buy their weekly groceries. Sample the incredible locally produced food on offer there – do all these things, and be reminded again of the importance of slowing down.
Slow Food, Slow Towns, Slow Tourism – these are all part of a movement that aims to bring us to a halt every now and then and reflect on the value of our time: Not necessarily to contrast being slow with being fast, but merely to highlight the fact that we should be taking some time to reflect on what we’re doing. The need is evidently great – a statement which is trite, though remains fundamentally true. Look at the abundance of news headlines warning against stress to see the need for a more mindful approach to life (though we hardly need reminding.) In fact, February’s issue of Time features on its cover a peaceful looking woman meditating over the headline: “The mindful revolution: The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.”
Finding that focus is somewhat easier in Sedgefield, the quintessential Slow Town. I find myself wondering; however: how do we slow down the merry-go-round that is everyday life in a Not-So-Slow Town? Is there a pause button on this thing?

Wishing you all plenty of leisurely walks, locally sourced food, light, love and quality time.

What Bodies Are For by Carike Claassen

“Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.”-Mary Schmich

I’ve lost three toenails since December. Friends and colleagues have remarked on noticing various bruises, cuts and scrapes on my arms and legs during these past few months. I’ve felt the vague pain of sore muscles as I sit behind my desk at work. And I’ve never felt better.
These past few months have been somewhat of an epiphany for me. The lost toenails, the bruises and scrapes – these are all tokens of a much more active lifestyle I’ve been promising myself for some time, and have finally followed through on. I’ve been on amazing hikes and beautiful, challenging trail runs. I’ve crawled through mud and under barbed wire to get through an obstacle course. And with every additional bruise and scrape, I’ve been reconnected to my body. I’ve re-learned some long-forgotten wisdom that has to do with what bodies are for, and I am enjoying my abilities more than ever. Let me explain.
I, like most people, am not always 100 per cent satisfied with my body. Based on the usual Western criteria for what a “good body” is supposed to be, I fall short. In December, however, this flawed body went on a hike with a group of friends. It was a six day hike in the beautiful Eastern Cape province that is notoriously difficult. It tested me physically and mentally each and every day – I had to push way past what I thought was possible in order to complete the hike. We walked through treacherous river crossings and on narrow ledges through some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever had the privilege to view in my life. We climbed mountains, each and every single day. As we reached our hut on each night of the hike and gratefully unloaded our backpacks, I could feel the beating that my body had taken during the many kilometres we had to complete each day.
For the first time in a while, I went to bed and fell asleep immediately, exhausted by the challenges I’d had to overcome that day. I developed a new respect for my body and what it is capable of. And that’s when it started to take hold, this idea about what bodies are for.
It seems pretty obvious, really, but I think it’s something we so easily forget in our modern sedentary, technology-driven lives, fuelled by consumerism: Bodies aren’t for looking good on the beach, or in the club. They’re for living in. They’re for allowing you to go off the beaten track on a hike and getting to see a part of your country that few people ever experience. Bodies are for swimming in refreshing mountain waterfalls. Bodies are for dancing. They’re for enjoying food and feeling the rain on your skin.
At the end of the day, I realized this: If you’re blessed enough to be in a body that allows you to see, hear, feel, taste and smell all that life has to offer, then that is more than enough.
I hope you live today fully in your body, at home in your own skin, and confident in the knowledge that you are truly magnificent.

Butter Jade Soup Recipe by Carike Claassen

We all get those very busy weeks, when cooking takes a back burner to everything else. Convenience food becomes the order of the day during times like this – but I always end up craving something fresh and green after a few days of eating this way.
The thing is that preparing wholesome food needn’t take up hours of your day – I was delightfully reminded of this after stumbling upon this recipe for a chilled avocado soup.
The recipe is taken from a book called The Cake the Buddha ate, compiled by the chef and staff at the Buddhist Retreat Centre here in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.
Slow down and taste the freshness – I hope you enjoy it!

Butter Jade soup (Chilled avocado and lime soup – serves 4)
Ingredients:
2 large avocados, peeled and mashed
1 block vegetarian soup stock, dissolved in 1.5 cups of hot water
2 tbsp lime juice
Dash tabasco (optional)
0.5 cup liquid made up of half cream and half water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
2 tbsp sour cream
1 spring onion, finely sliced
Method:
Place the avocado, stock, lime juice and tabasco in a blender
Gradually add the “half-and-half” cream and water, until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate.
Adjust the seasoning and add chopped coriander before serving.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream and spring onions.

Thank you, Madiba by Carike Claassen

I was only six years old when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. I had no conception of politics. I only knew, at that time, the fear that reigned in South Africa. As we approached the transition to a democracy, uncertainty crept in. And even though I had no idea what the fear was about, it is strange how very clearly I recall, nineteen years later, all of a sudden not being allowed to play outside as late as I always had. The kitchen cupboards filled with canned food, the feeling that everything was set to flee at a moment’s notice.

Strange how easily we human beings do that, is it not? How easily we let fear overcome love and trust. How even a six year old with no idea of politics knows somehow that it is time to be afraid now.

I grew up, along with this fledgling democracy. And as I grew, I learned. For the first time, the context within which that fear had taken place became clear – I realized exactly what South Africans had been perpetrating against fellow South Africans for decades. And the more I learned, the more in awe I was of Nelson Mandela.

I was – and always will be – in awe of Madiba because he epitomized mankind’s greatest hope: That love really can conquer all. That the dark shadows of fear can be chased away by the light of love, hope can be sparked and flamed by sacrifice and courage, and ignorance must eventually give way to understanding.

I don’t want to cheapen Madiba’s legacy by pretending that we, as a nation, don’t still have a lot of work to do. Because as far as we have come, a lot remains to be done in order to achieve true freedom for all, prime amongst which is the reduction of poverty and inequality.

I do, however want to take a moment to reflect on an amazing person and his life story, and say, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you, Madiba. Thank you for the integrity, kindness and patience. Thank you for the tremendous personal sacrifice that you made in order to lead South Africa. And most importantly, thank you for that very powerful reminder that “love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

Whatever challenges remain to be overcome in my own life, in South Africa, and by mankind in general – let us walk our long roads with full hearts, as you taught us.

With love.

Stargazing and Why Small is Beautiful by Carike Claassen

I read somewhere once that the world would be a better place if people spent more time looking at the stars. I knew immediately that this was the cure to all of our illnesses. Not necessarily because of the time spent in nature, or the quiet meditation that accompanies a session of star-gazing.

No – the world would be a better place if we spent more time looking at stars, quite simply because that is one of the surest ways to remind yourself of how small you are. When I was younger, this actually used to terrify me – thinking about this huge world out there, an entire universe in which I was just a tiny, insignificant speck, located on another tiny, insignificant speck orbiting a sun in a corner of the universe known as the Milky Way.

I don’t know exactly when or how things started to change, but what terrified me when I was younger is now a source of tremendous comfort. I’ve actually been feeling small a lot recently: staring out of a plane window a few months ago as we descended towards Johannesburg, for instance. For a few minutes, it felt as though I was suspended above a monopoly game spread out below me: Tiny dots and specks gradually revealed themselves to be skyscrapers, bridges and highways. This bustling city that can at times seem so imposing was reduced to a board-game. It was all a question of perspective.

More recently, I visited the Cradle of Humankind here in South Africa and got to experience once again the story of how mankind originated. From the big bang, through all the mass extinctions, through thousands of years up to where we find ourselves right now. Placing myself in that context was another very humbling experience which drove home this important point: I’m one tiny part of a story that has been playing itself out for billions of years. One day, my story will cease. But the bigger picture will continue. And where that once might have been a scary thought, it is wondrous now. All of the little daily dramas I encounter, all of the uncertainties, all of the fears just vanish when I place them into that context. Because that’s when I realize, once again, that this too shall pass. Everything eventually will.

And while my story will invariably end, what an amazing opportunity I have to write it anyway. And write it large! Because, in the bigger picture, I know that there is ultimately nothing to lose.

I think we all know this intellectually, but we experience it so rarely. I myself forget much too easily. I lose the courage that I had in those rare moments of perspective when I was flying high and I could clearly see the world for what it truly was.
That’s why I’m resolving to stare at the stars more often. To read more history. To travel.

To feel small.