(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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

On Hegemony, theory, transdisciplinarity and creativity

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This is going to be a heck of a messy meta-blogpost! it might only make sense to someone who knows me really closely, and maybe even not, but I need to blog to organize my own thoughts.

I have not blogged in what seems like ages (but is really only a few days) mostly because of other writing commitments. It seems funny to me, because I was originally worried my blogging would detract from my academic or semi-academic writing, but now I am actually a bit upset that my academic writing is taking me away from blogging! Go figure!

I am going to mention snippets of thoughts from different avenues and try to bring them all together somehow. Though they don’t need to come together, really, one’s life is multifaceted and we read and think about different things all the time. We just don’t usually write about them all in one place.

I am really happy we’ve been discussing different ways of presenting the collaborative autoethnography and I am happy we seem to be working like a rhizomatic book (I have updated ideas on the google doc and linked to storifies, blogposts, etc.). These conversations are creative and inspiring in a week that has been dubbed the creativity week.

One of the interesting articles shared on rhizo14 (thanks Vanessa) this week was one by Richard Hall,On the University as Anxiety Machine, where he says a lot of interesting things, but I particularly liked this quote

“Future perfect trumps our present tense. Our present made tense.”

This quote struck me because it applies so much to my current institutional context (that I interpret in my context to refer to how we, in trying to think futuristically, we squeeze our present to the point of breaking from stress, when we should recognize that the future is even more uncertain than we imagine and we should be actually investing in our present) (it also has interesting implications for parenting but that is a trickier matter)

Another great quote from that article is one taken from Vygotsky (it ever ceases to amaze me how much deeper someone like Vygotsky is than what we initially learn about him, important as social constructivism is):

” ‘Education should be structured so that it is not the student that is educated, but that the student educates himself’ or, in other words, ‘…the real secret of education lies in not teaching’ ” (Vygotsky, 1926).

I love that quote. I might share it in class. It seems like a new concept, all this invisible and transparent teaching, all this lifelong learning talk.. But Vygotsky had said it all along. It makes sense that it flows almost obviously from social constructivism but is not always considered that way.

Which reminds me of another great article shared on rhizo14, this one called, Opening the Theory Box (thanks Frances) which does a very interesting job of unpacking educational theory into three levels and their corresponding rhetorics (I am sure the author did not mean to make a rigid delineation or suggest there were only three, but it is a helpful distinction for the sake of the article). What an interesting view of theory. There is the most universal approach to theory, which is often considered by practicing educators as “other”, and there is personal theorizing that comes from practitioner’s reflections that may or may not be based on any theory (and often never on one particular one but a combination of what works in context) and there is a middle level . Now I see two interesting things here: the middle level seems most commonly used but also most problematic because it is neither as rigorous as universal theory, nor as practice-based as personal theory. The other interesting thing is that the article does not (as far as I noticed) ever make a case for the possibilities of personal theories coming together in nuanced ways to create middle theories, although I think this is what happens. I think the process of arriving at theory is extremely important, not just the way it ends up being used. Something like peer instruction is a technique Eric Mazur tried in his class. He must have been influenced by Vygotsky or some such larger theory, and he was influenced by it because it must have somehow made sense to his practice. He adapted it to a technique that worked for his discipline, his context, his students, then when it worked, he disseminated, and others tried it, and it worked for them, etc. That kind of effect for theory, this process, is not obvious in the paper but an important aspect, I think, of theory. There is also a trick here about theory that is not immediately useful but might have future potential benefit… How to integrate that into practitioners’ lives?

Which brings me to the next point… Hegemony of theory. This topic came up in a couple of distinct ways this week, most recently during the discussion on facebook about the above article. There has been some talk in different places about what happened early on in rhizo14 where those who did not want to do theory during the course managed to have their voices heard and inadvertently silenced others who wanted to discuss theory. I have often felt guilty for my part in all of that (though I was not the only one) and I went back to read my blog post at the time – and I now see it was much more balanced than I remembered it. I seem to have been clear in my intention to not exclude those who wanted not to read theory for rhizo14, and say clearly they are welcome to it, but the rest of us are also welcome to learn in a different way. The kinds of comments I got clearly show that others felt the same way. Others elsewhere wrote similar feelings. I am not completely guiltless still, but I feel less guilty. In hindsight, i was only the second week of rhizo14, I knew few people on the course, I was a new blogger, a new cMOOCer… i had no particular power to begin with. The power in that case came from the seeming resonance my article found with some people. Enough people, anyway. I still saw theory around on rhizo14 a bit later, so I am not sure it was a complete silencing (plus I had private conversations with some people to try to bring them back in).

Anywaaay one of the problems of the hegemony of theory is that it can take us deeply into something and blinds us to other things, other possibilities that may be more immediately meaningful or useful. I am fascinated by the blurring of lines across disciplines and more. Jim so kindly and generously archived this talk on Transdisciplinarity that was happening on Second Life for me to look at,because I had been talking a lot about intimate online relationships, even asynchronous ones. The idea of transdisciplinarity ties nicely with the idea that creativity (like critical thinking, which has been my field of research for 7 years) is best taught not alone, but infused with other subjects, and in an interdisciplinary manner. This Chronicle article gives a good example:

In his best-selling book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson documents how frequently pathbreaking innovations derive from inventors’ ability to notice previously unrecognized connections between related fields. For example, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press stemmed from his intricate understanding of the screw press in wine-making and his equally intricate understanding of metal-typeface design. Only by noticing the previously unforeseen synergies of those two fields did he hit upon the printing press. Imagine if Gutenberg, instead of developing mastery in two crucial fields, had studied only the screw press and “the biographies of famous inventors.”

In an article I wrote just before I graduated, i talked about “globalization of science“but what I really meant was maybe this notion of transdisciplinarity, because I was saying that with so much knowledge everywhere, it is so difficult for one person to be an expert in many different fields. Rather, it is good to be an expert in a couple of fields, and then to be able to work with a global network of others who are experts in different fields, in order to produce something revolutionary. I gave at the time the example of my graduation project which involved Population-oriented simulated annealing with neural networks to predict changes in stock market prices. That’s biology, metallurgy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science and economics/finance – all of these fields working together.

I am also happy we have been discussing the important notion that creativity is not just the purview of the arts, as (this article on discusses).

And this all makes me think about my own teaching… Let me try to tie all this in:

1. The importance of discussing explicitly with student-teachers this notion of theory/practice, and what it means to use educational theory, and what it might be like to feel a disconnect; what it might be like to develop their own personal theories and make them explicit, and to develop their own learning philosophy as well (another article i read y/day)

2. I’ll use the Vygotsky quote to help my student-teachers think of their own learning but also to open up ideas for their teaching

3. I hope the transdisciplinarity topic (which I still want to delve into) might benefit both my graduate and undergrad students – to stop thinking in silos and go beyond to unleash creativity and revolutionary ideas.

Ok…. Enough for now 🙂 Salam

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

6 thoughts on “On Hegemony, theory, transdisciplinarity and creativity

  1. Hi Maha, good post. I just put: “Toward Reflective Conversations” into Diigo. Your new teachers might be interested in it for reflecting on their own experiences. Think I’ll do it myself for my Rhizo experience.

    Crossing disciplines is an interesting subject and an obvious necessary skill. What I find difficult is the urge to understand each other by unity of voice or common language when the actual vitality of crossing is in our differences.

    Have you read “Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity” by Basrab Nicolescu? He mentions specialization as a fragmentation of our world understanding–like silos separating us from each other. But do we need to all be the same? How do we legitimately claim ourselves to be unique and still mix?

    • Hi Scott… You’ll like my new co-authored article about to be published … About difference 🙂
      I’ll look up the transdisciplinarity reference you mention: thanks! I still want to write a post about that, and how it is more than just interdisciplinarity. But I need to do some further reading as well, so what you’ve offered will help a lot! Thanks!

  2. Looking forward to the article. Just reading about public relations in Western culture and the the naturalization of the idea that we are all the same–sounds nice anyway. But we aren’t, and equality or unity not only doesn’t exist but it’s used to limit our imaginations in a quest for harmony. Instead of being “nice” maybe we should be mature and curious and accept difference as valuable?

    “The Wayfinders – Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” by anthropologist Wade Davis is good too. Davis writes about the extinction of cultures and how that impoverishes all of us.

  3. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational W24 – after the dancing – a little bit of theory!!
    Here’s a blogpost from Maha Bali a #rhizo14 classmate from Egypt. She is wrestling with the role of theory in shaping our thinking about teaching and learning… as are you!! Do read her blog and see how it helps your thinking!!

  4. Loved this Maha and re-blogged to my #becomingeducational students. It’s lovely to feel that I am class mates with people like you – and Scott – and so many wonderful others! Best, Sandra

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