(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Teaching as Giving, Writing as Giving

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This post is inspired by a facebook discussion about my previous post “We are Nerds“. Friend of mine pointed out that the passion with which academics want to teach their students is not restricted to academics, but anyone in any field who has a passion for “giving”. Others also pointed out that although my post was directed towards academics (as these are the people I work with, day in and day out) many of the ideas relate further to informal educational contexts such as training, and even to just people management in general. I can relate to that, because before I started working in education, my passion in my previous corporate context was in the “giving” that I could do via training and support.

This thinking triggered quite a few connections in my head, and I’ll share them one by one.

First, it reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Gibran, a section from his “The Prophet” which is entitled “On Giving“. I have used this sub-poem in “critical friendship groups” as a focus of reflection with my student-teachers. I found this one resonated so much more with me and them than the other sub-poem in the same book entitled “On Teaching“. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from “On Giving“:

“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

And isn’t it true that teaching is a giving of oneself?”

“There are those who give little of the much which they have–and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth”.

And I think for some of us, giving is just a way of living, it is not something we do for the joy or the pain, it is something we cannot help but do…

“It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;”

And

“They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.”

This one, resonating with what I said earlier about giving as a way of life, also resonates with me about writing my thoughts and sharing them. This, too, is a kind of “compelled” giving. I am compelled to share my thoughts and ideas…

“See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”

And this last one, reminds me of the humility of giving. Every time I write something that someone appreciates, I wonder if I am deserving of that appreciation. If I truly did have something new, useful, helpful to say? Who am I to impart wisdom onto others? Why are all these people listening to me? I feel that way in my teaching as well. I am humbled by the knowledge my students can bring into the class and the beauty they can make of a learning encounter. The more I know about my field, the more I realize I don’t know, the less significant what I do know becomes. But what little of it I have, I want to share. It is a very strange thin line between confidence and humility and I’m still navigating my way through it.

(You can read the entire Gibran poem online – just follow the links earlier and look to the sidebar for more parts)

The second thing this discussion reminded me of is one of the most influential books I have ever read by Stephen Covey. Nope, not the 7 Habits, but “First Things First”. I think this is one of the 7 habits, but there is an entire book on the subject and I am forever indebted to the friend who introduced me to it (thanks Yasser). I just recently recommended it to a colleague at work, because the book helps you reflect on what your mission in life is. It helped me leave a well-paying corporate career and start in a career in education. It helped me decide to take two years off of my career to take care of my baby without feeling like I was losing my “balance”, because each stage of life has its own equilibrium, depending on your priorities.

The thrust of the book centers around the concept that we all want four main things from life: to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy. The first is obvious, and involves healthy eating, sleeping, exercise, etc. (not that I know too many people who can do that very well, myself included). The second is about our relationships. The third is about our continual need to learn. But the last one, the “leave a legacy” one is the most inspiring. Because this is, to me, the one that centers your decisions about how to meet your mission in life. That mission might be to raise good children, and they will be your legacy.

My ideas around leaving a legacy were originally related to influencing an improvement in education in Egypt. They still are. But along the way, I have realized that I can make small gains in influencing education through my teaching of teachers, my consulting with faculty, as well as working with those in informal educational settings to help them in various ways related to my areas of expertise. But I have also realized that writing is another way to widen this “circle of influence” (which I believe is a term Covey uses) even though very little might lie within our “circle of control” (I have currently no control over the education system in Egypt, for example). Writing also enables one to potentially reach a wider audience than initially intended. Some of my writing that was intended for an Egyptian audience (e.g. the critical citizenship work) found resonance with people in Lebanon and the US (that I know of). You cannot predict how far something like this might go (side note: this is also scary if you ever change your mind about something and have no idea who is living with your older ideas… Think Edward Said, who I believe updated his ideas from Orientalism in his later book Culture and Imperialism but still you find more reference to his earlier work in scholarship).

Which reminds me of another interesting point someone recently brought up. They were talking about how you teach someone and the effect of it may or may not appear years from now. You are lucky if you ever hear back from your past students and know you have made a difference in their lives, you are luckier if they realize it while you are still teaching them (it helps if you teach the same cohort more than one course!), but the majority of your influence is often outside your notice.

So that’s why I think giving, for a teacher, has to be its own reward, though you may get some small external reward from your students every day (and I hope we all do).
Just as writing, I think, in some ways, is its own reward. But boy, does it feel wonderful to get positive (or even critical) feedback/support on one’s writing and know that it is beginning to influence some person, in some way, out there.

Happy giving!

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

3 thoughts on “Teaching as Giving, Writing as Giving

  1. love it! keep giving! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Nagia! I hope you get a chance to realize YOUR dreams of giving

  3. Pingback: Why #rhizo14? | Reflecting Allowed

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