(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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

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How We Look at Education

So… I’ve been reading some vastly different things about education and just wanting to connect all that’s rushing through my head.

I was in a private facebook discussion with a friend who pointed me to uncollege, so I shared it on rhizo14 and Scott Johnson wrote a few very quotable things that I got his permission to blog:

“education has allowed itself to be pushed around like it didn’t matter”

– will probably quote this for the rest of my life!

More from Scott, when I asked to use the quote (and later if I could use the below as well):

Go ahead and use that quote Maha, I could be famous. Almost all the “failure of education” focus on the individual, quote famous people who aren’t us and ignore the fact that education is a social activity that we all share in supporting. If things have gone bad then we all need to be ashamed. We’ve let ourselves down, if that makes sense and we’re so sophisticated we can feel cool about walking away from the mess. I read the article and as a self-employed and self-taught person who struggled with school I still think that as a social value school matters more than the “success” of a few self-centered individuals. School is an imperfect expression of a desire for a better society and giving up is just selfish.

And after bringing up Illich:

As for Illich, I appreciate what he has to say but somewhere recently I picked up the notion that school matters and it involves all of us. It’s a problem to be engaged, not walked away from. Plus, his critique is as much about the society our schools reside–hard to walk away from that. I think Freire tries to address the problems as fixable and necessary. I wonder what teachers think about the ability of ALL their students thriving in the world of un-college?

Wise words, Scott. Will always remember them and re-use them. It made me realize why I want to read Illich but am not in as much of a hurry to do so as I thought I should be.

Separately, a friend pointed me to the book “Finnish Lessons” and I bought the audiobook in my excitement, hoping to get inspired. I just started it, but so far I’m disappointed. I promise to “review” it again on my blog when I’ve finished the whole thing, to be fair.

While a lot of what’s in it sounds great (like emphasizing trust in the teacher, going away from market forces influencing education), I am also sort of stumped each time the author talks about how they measure the success of Finnish education using PISA scores.

Each time he mentions this I grimace. You reform education in considerably radical ways (which I am yet to understand in the book) and then you come and measure it with standardized universal tests? Are you kidding me? I mean, I understand that’s how the world might see it, but I would have hoped the Finnish had other measures of success they preferred? (maybe this is coming later in the book)

The author also goes into lots of detail about why what he’s saying should transfer beyond the Finnish context. In principle, this is good and important, of course, or else why read the book? But he keeps focusing on how similar Finland is to other countries (and, in my opinion, it is not done very well)… rather than how the actual reforms done in Finnish education would transfer to other contexts. It seems to me that the approach itself needs to be considered holistically and then to convince me that it’s transferable, take examples from a couple of different contexts and show how it might transfer. But trying to say that Finland is similar-enough to other countries because its population is similar to that of a state in Australia and its size is similar to Massachussetts… Really? He also does this strange thing where he seems to be talking about the global North needing to reform education but not the global South. Ummm. OK. Maybe the contexts would be too different if you went there? Not sure.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be mean. It’s just the rhetoric of universalism is getting to me. I keep hoping there will be a turn around in the book, that I have misunderstood something major, but nothing yet. Will see how it goes (it’s a little impulsive to start talking about this when I have not finished the book yet, but this thing is actually turning me off the book a little. Note to self, if ever I am writing a book, to be clear early on what kind of book it is and what kind of approach it is taking, no big surprises to the reader near the end because you cannot assume the reader will ever reach the end or read linearly).

So let’s end this on a lighter note. Barney. Yes, Barney. I heard that Dora is better for your kids than Barney (more interactive) but there it is and my daughter loves Barney, so 🙂 Anyway. There is this episode she loves watching called “Play Ball”. Now what’s interesting about it is … Barney has four kids of different “ethnicities” (White, Black, Asian and someone who could be Hispanic or Arab). The episode is about balls being the best toy of all. It’s a nice idea because balls are available and easy and everyone supposedly can play with them (barring huge disabilities, I guess). There is a song where they say things like “balls are for boys, balls are for girls”. Whatever. Anyway. There is a part where the kids “pantomime” playing particular games with balls and the others guess what they are. The three games they pantomime are baseball, basketball and tennis. It’s interesting how US-centric that is, because most other countries don’t play baseball. It all also reminded me of one day when I was watching tennis on TV and my housekeeper came around and said (in Arabic) “are you watching basketball?” and I explained to her that basketball has a basket in it, whereas this one had a racket (Tennis in Arabic is more like “racket ball”). Anyway, just making the point that sports are not universal, either. Here’s the Barney episode 🙂

This also reminded me of the time I tried in my class to do a gender activity where I shared photos of Disney Princesses and asked students to think of the gender stereotypes in their stories. Unfortunately, I had not factored in that my students did not necessarily watch Disney cartoons (especially men), though most of them did know the famous Snow White and Cinderella stories – they just did not recognize the graphic Disney representations of them. Anyway, my point again: you cannot assume universality.

I’m hoping the below image is not copyrighted. I got it from:

Disney Princesses criticism

Disney Princesses gender stereotypes



The Power of Social Media for the Semi-privileged

In my country, I am one of the privileged: i speak English, been educated in Western institutions, have a PhD from the UK, and am faculty in the most elite institution in my country; I am upper middle class, of the majority religion of my country. I have great relationships with my colleagues. I have traveled for tourism and conferences, I have lived in several different countries.

In the world of academia, I am only semi-privileged. I am from Egypt (global South), I am a woman with a family and the responsibilities that entails – including difficulties to travel for conferences. I got my PhD remotely with few visits to Sheffield, so i did not have the chance to network with other academics easily.

But I am privileged in what i consider to be the most important way for someone like me as an early career academic with geographical restrictions: I am on social media.

For the first time in my life, I am attending a conference where I actually know quite a few of the speakers personally – from MOOCs, from Twitter. Some others at least I have heard of. I am talking about #et4online, by the way, the upcoming Sloan-C/MERLOT conference in Dallas which i am attending virtually in April. I used to live in Houston and attended an Educause regional conference there. Did not know a soul. Did not build any significant relationships. This upcoming one, i would have loved to attend in person.

How else does social media help me? I interact on Twitter with big names in my field I would never have imagined I ever could. I am getting over my celebrity thing with most of them as we’re becoming friends. The one I still don’t get is why Henry Giroux follows me on Twitter and Google circles 🙂 Twitter (ok, and some email) helped me get through the lonely last stages of my PhD thesis writing and even the defense.

More importantly, i have formed important relationships with people online, like many in the #rhizo14 group – important intellectually and emotionally. I also met others through different avenues and have collaborated twice already on academic articles with people I never met in person. That’s powerful, man. I know people, and I did not have to leave my toddler to travel to meet them. I can take em with me everywhere (on my iPad and mobile and work and home PCs) and I don’t have to wait for a prescribed time to reach out to them. That is powerful, man. I have friends on enough time zones now I can have a deep intellectual conversation any time. Ok. To be fair, i had that before, but the network has grown exponentially with MOOCs and Twitter.

I want to keep this post short, but will come back to this later. Just one final point: I believe that sometimes my exoticness helps me get noticed, get befriended. People are curious and i understand. But I believe they keep coming back because of something more substantive than that. Almost everyone talking about rhizo14 will mention ppl from Egypt, Brazil and Guyana. But the three of us from those three regions were not just exotics. We were/are part of the center of that particular group of people. And boy, am I glad I have the opportunity to be there and learn and love in this way. Don’t ever take it away from me. Like Clarissa. These are my friends.


On Hegemony, theory, transdisciplinarity and creativity

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


Digital amphibians, technological determinism, and the nuances of social phenomena

I am writing this post to reflect on technological determinism (something in #edcmooc week one we discussed as utopian and dystopian views of technology), and which i was reminded of my Shyam’s post on “digital amphibians” (love the term, did he just invent it?

Let me just first say something we all know, that is so obvious on an abstract level I doubt anyone would disagree: absolutes, black/white thinking, generalizations, one-sided views… None of these work too well to accurately describe complex social phenomena like education. We use models and metaphors to approximate what we see, but these models or frameworks or whatever rarely capture the whole, they only serve to help clarify or shed light from a certain angle. (we do so for the sake of legibility, to communicate, to clarify, but in the end we distort reality and it become unrecognizable to those living it). However good our models are, there are always multiple other angles worth considering.

Now back to Shyam’s “digital amphibians” post. I could not respond to it right away because it was full of so many ideas. I don’t think I can even summarize it here, and I have read it more than once. However, the main points in it that got me thinking (and it is quite possible I did not interpret them the way they were meant, but when does that happen anyway haha) were:

1. The digital amphibian metaphor, which I take to mean people like me who can comfortably navigate both the f2f and the online world; and by having both perspectives, be able to discover new and exciting things not very obvious or even visible to folks on only one side; but also sometimes able to be critical of both sides because they can see the other perspective;

2. Sometimes a digital amphibian can react strongly to something on either side: either with excitement and strong support; or with anger or indignation; he suggests that as “digital amphibians” mature, those reactions may become more tempered, thoughtful, etc.

3. He makes an interesting point about empathy and sensitivity, which I now realize may need to be central when a digital amphibian wants to communicate with, interact with, people on either side who are not “amphibious” themselves.

4. A very important point I think he makes and that we “amphibians” need to keep in mind is that, while we can see the pedagogical benefits (and more) of online learning/communication, its potential, we should not forget how others who care about the bottom line rather than learning, approach it. That in some ways, our passionate defense of (pedagogically sound) online learning may feed into the greedy aspirations of those who do, in fact, want to make education more efficient by reducing costs of labor. When we digital amphibians know that most quality online learning is people intensive. What makes online learning good, usually, is the people aspect of it, the interaction that occurs. Very labor-intensive, indeed, though much of it might be unpaid labor!

5. I like to think of myself as someone who avoid technological determinism. To use Sean Michael Morris’ term, a “digital agnostic” – I don’t wholeheartedly embrace technology as the solution for everything for everyone; nor do I see it as the destruction of everything for everyone. Even when technological tools help/enable me personally learn or grow or do something different, I cannot assume the same approach would work for others, or even work for me all the time…

I am still thinking about Shyam’s post, but it also made me think about a few other things…

6. In a response to a comment, I think he’s saying that he believes it is natural and acceptable for digital amphibians to not always be diplomatic. I take this to mean that it is sometimes OK to respond to extreme determinism by “partial” responses. By “partial” I mean both “incomplete” and “biased” (i love how Ellsworth 1989 uses the dual meanings of this word). Sometimes, a particular perspective gets so much hyperbole that you feel compelled to critique it, even when it has some merit. The hyperbole alone is problemtic.

some examples of my “partiality” within my dual roles

I recently co-authored an article “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning” and you can tell by the title that it is a biased article (duh). It is not meant to discount the value of synchronicity, especially not f2f synchronicity, but it is meant to tamper the louder discourse that praises synchronicity without critiquing its limitations. I do have lots of issues with synchronous learning, but I managed to participate in 4 twitter chats last week (well, yes, there were power cuts, the kid not sleeping, the husband wanting attention, etc., but i still managed to make some of the time of each of these chats; i got lucky; it’s not always possible).

I recently also published “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? The challenges of web-based intercultural dialogue” – a critique of one of the absolute best synchronous learning experience I have ever facilitated, and while I wholeheartedly believe all I wrote in the critique, I also believe in its power and potential and am trying to convince others to adopt it (yes, to adopt the experience I critique, because knowing what’s wrong with it can help us handle it better to reduce these problems rather than approach the experience with rose-colored glasses)

I mention these two first because they are peer-reviewed pieces that others have commented on and not found “too biased” to be published 🙂 But of course they are partial. They are meant to be.

But maybe one of my most partial pieces is the piece just before this one, posted on my blog a few days ago about meaningful online relationships. It was exactly as Shyam called it: an extreme reaction to something written by others who saw a threat looming large, and although I am normally aware of that threat, I did not realize that my reaction might have also been extreme. Because both articles that irritated me were quite balanced ones, to an extent, while remaining cautious about online learning, and highlighting its limitations. I don’t disagree that it has limitations, but I was responding to a particular point in both articles that irritated me, the point that online learning cannot produce affective, meaningful relationships.

I was there trying to highlight my very personal experience of forming such deep relationships, which I recognize might not work for everyone, but does work for some people.

However, I did not make clear (in my very partial post) a v important point: f2f will always (yes, a generalization worth making) have value; tactile communication (hugs, kisses) cannot be done online (yet!). However, I have had meaningless physical hugs, and deeply meaningful virtual hugs. I have been deeply touched by words I have read (even in books, where I cannot interact with the author) more than physical words/gestures by loved ones in my life.

So two final points to make, quotes that I believe in very much:

The first, by Irvin Yalom (quote not on me at the moment): when we categorize another, we lose the elements of them that are”unknowable”. Most attempts at social research will impose categories for the sake of legibility. For the sake of meaning-making. But we still need to remember there are other dimension to people and social situations beyond those we choose to use at a particular moment in time. (side not: ppl u know online recognize they do not know all of you; but people who know you f2f may not realize they do not know all of you that encompasses the online you; reminds me gain of Bonnie Stewart’s post on cyborgs which I have referred to so many times already).

The second is the notion of thinking of social research as a “crystal” (Richardson 1997 considers this a transgressive, post-modern view of social research validity), whereby the same object looks different from different angles, you look at it from one angle and you shed light on one view of it, but there are multiple other views, and social research attempts to show several of these views. And the crystal as a metaphor is slightly problematic in itself because crystallization implies a rigiidty which social phenomena, inherently dynamic, do not have. However, in thinking about it further, when we write about our research, we sort of attempt to take a snapshot and fix it in time, for that moment. And so, every time I write, when anyone writes, even if it is writing that takes many years like a doctoral dissertation, we are only capturing moment in time of our perspective/interpretation of a social phenomenon. It is not the end-all of our thoughts, nor the full picture of the social phenomenon even at that moment in time, but it is something that we can share.

I would rather share my incomplete thoughts and have them challenged and broken apart, than to keep them to myself and never take them further.


Gender Issues in Teaching Physics?

I recently signed up for the MOOC for physics educators that Dave Cormier is collaborating on with Piotr Mitros on EdX.

One of the first things we were invited to do is share our goals for participating, and mine are multiple, including wanting to be part of the non-physicists helping out in the design of online material for teaching physics, but also wanting to be part of this xMOOC/cMOOC experiment, and honestly, just wanting to be part of anything that Dave Cormier and other rhizo14ers are doing.

BUT I have an axe to grind with physics education. Should i or shouldn’t I share it? I have recently gotten used to blogging what is on my mind, so I will share it!

I think there might be gender issues in teaching physics. I do not mean this in a gender discriminating way: I think girls and boys have equal ability and potential in learning and grasping concepts of anything, including maths, physics, computer science, engineering (i am a computer scientist myself, originally).

My parents were both good at maths and physics, and always had faith in my abilities in them, so it was not them. I have had great physics teachers and got A’s in all my physics courses in college, love all my physics teachers (all male, though) so it was not the teachers who made me feel like i don’t know physics.

But I am not confident that I really understand physics well. If you know me, I am a pretty confident person and high achiever, so I still don’t know why this is the case. Like I said, the grades show otherwise, and there is no direct link with family or teachers: I had good role models who believed in my abilities.

But something is wrong. So what is it?

It could be a number of things. I read once (i will try to find the reference) that much maths and physics use examples that appeal more to male students than female students, e.g. Relating to cars,sports, etc. I am a girl who actually loves sports (even more than my husband) and cars (though maybe in a different way than most men) so I don’t know that this is necessarily the issue. I love maths, so i don’t know why i have problems with physics. Still, even for girls who like cars and sports, society seems to encourage this love more for guys than girls (e.g. I know more boys who start learning to drive before the legal age).

It could be an overuse of teaching approaches that emphasize spatial intelligence? I was once observing a college physics class where the teacher wanted students to show their understanding of a certain formula (can’t remember what,now) and he asked them to estimate a certain number of meters. I understand the formula well and the concept. But I know in that situation I could not estimate a number ofmeters. And neither could the girl in his class. When she gave a wrong answer everyone (mostly boys planning on studying engineering) laughed. I thought in hindsight that if he had asked me to estimate the number of tiles i might have been able to, even though i understood that physics concept really well! But number of meters? I didn’t have that ingrained in me.

There was also the electronics college professor who for some weird reason picked on some girls. There was a particular girl he kept making fun of whenever she asked questions. She was not stupid, she just asked her questions in a girly voice and in a hesitant manner, but they were good, valid, questions. I wonder how she felt about the course and the teacher and her ability in physics. I wonder how many boys sat there who did not understand a thing but just never asked out loud.

It can also be a societal perception: I am a computer scientist. Until the day he died, my father (who was a medical doctor) believed he knew how to fix problems with his computer better than me (he could not, of course). Males all around me at work and in my personal life make these assumptions all the time and even when proven wrong repeatedly continue to make them. It is usually easier to let them: let them fix my computer problem while I watch and be grateful. Occasionally, if they struggle I will make some suggestions, usually ones that save time for everyone. Not always 🙂

To be totally honest, I was never starry-eyed and in love with computers and technology the way many guys are. It’s just not my thing. But I do love what technology can do for me, and I will figure out whatever i need to figure out to make it work for me – like to help me communicate with people all over the world in a MOOC!

So back to physics… A small part of me took this MOOC and wants to see physics again from the perspective of high school science teachers. How do they think about reaching their students? Do they think about how to make physics understandable to those who don’t necessarily love it, the non-nerds?

Will I understand something about physics better as I work with physics teachers? I did when I worked with folks at college before. But they tended to assume I remembered the physics I had during my freshman and sophomore years. I don’t. I have moved on and studied education and don’t remember much!

I know my case is not a fluke, I know many girls who struggle with physics, so I am hoping to look at that again through this MOOC.

Let’s see how it goes, then! A rig-a-jig-jig and away we go…


Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness

I have been thinking for a while now about the different approaches one can take to break the cycle of oppression, once one becomes conscious/aware of it and of the power relations/dynamics taking place.

I may be missing something, but I think there are three main options (an artificial, arbitrary grouping that i am open to revising based on people’s comments):

1. Live with it, tolerate or work around it. This is accepting the status quo, and making changes in oneself that allows one to continue accepting oppression. Many do this as they see no other viable way to go

2. Fight against it. At a minimum, express resistance, or escape completely, but on a bigger level, mobilize others, work collectively to advocate and fight against something. I am thinking of advocacy against gender oppression and how this can change unjust laws, but doing so does not necessarily change patriarchal culture on the family unit level, and even within the workplace subtle forms of gender discrimination occurs despite laws

3. Fight for it. I find this to be maybe the hardest but possibly the best way to go. I just don’t know how it would work. Examples of this is fighting for your country’s freedom from an oppressive state. You don’t want to accept it because it is clearly unjust; you don’t want to escape it because you want to effect change; and fighting against it would risk destroying the country you so love (Egypt a great example of this). Another example is the family unit: a woman can accept abuse, can escape abuse, can keep fighting the abuse, but ultimately what she wishes she could do (assuming there was ever a justification for this) is to find a way to fight for the unit, to find a way to alleviate the oppression in peace and continue in harmony.

We love happy endings and so we wish for the latter option. Does it really work? Did Mandela even really succeed? Ultimately, there are essential elements that needs to be in place for us to consider the third option:

A. Viewing our oppressors as human,
B. As humans, we believe we can communicate with them. I intentionally do not say “reason with them” because as Ellsworth suggests, the voice of the oppressed cannot always speak rationally to describe their experience and I believe in this so much.
C. Hope. We must have hope that things can change. Hope that there remains an element of goodness in the “other” who is human but oppressing us.

I loved the entire poem by Maya Angelou that Shyam shared with me y/day and that I embedded in my previous post on liberating the oppressor.

Here, I quote just a small part of it (“Still I Rise“):

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

And from this part, though the entire poem is a challenge to the oppressor, this one touches me so much because of the “kill me with your hatefulness” and made me think that the most important thing is not to lose whatever love we have inside us.

I know, Jesus said “love thy enemy”. It is not so explicit as this in Islam, but I already told a story of Muhammad’s forgiveness of his oppressors/persecutors in the previous post.

I am just thinking out loud now about similarities and differences in Islam and Christianity on the issues of social justice, based on my limited knowledge of both (though obviously i am more informed about Islam, i have unorthodox interpretations so please do not generalize what i say as mainstream Islamic interpretation):

Christianity has “turn the other cheek” and “whoever has not sinned…” – those two are important in some situations, but I think were not meant to be used in all situations. I could be wrong,but would Jesus ask a woman to “turn the other cheek” if her husband abused her child? I think not.

In Islam there is a saying by Muhammad, also reflected in the Quran, that means loosely: whoever sees a “wrong”/injustice/unacceptable behavior (connotation unclear to me but i think all these could fit) they should try to change it with their hands, if not able, then with their tongue (i.e. voice), and if not, then with their heart, and that’s the least one can do.

I always liked this but it is dangerous, as it may result in people interfering in what is not their business based on a righteousness that may be misplaced.

There is something about discourse about injustice that tends to assume justice is a clear and obvious and universal thing. It is not. The Palestinian Israeli issue is a clear example in my case of the lack of clarity in where justice truly lies.


Liberating the oppressors and all such difficulties

Freire claims that “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” As with much critical pedagogy scholarship: easier said than done! I love the critical pedagogy literature. I love the way it opens my mind and helps me rethink things and consider action. It has not, however, so far, helped guide me in that action far enough. Liberate one’s oppressors? How the heck does one do that? Mandela style?

Of course, to be fair, the critical pedagogy literature cannot and should not be prescriptive. After all, each oppressive relationship or situation is contextual, local. What works to alleviate or liberate in one instance does not work for the other… Does it?

I am trying here to think of various forms of power that can involve oppression (reminded by an old paper by Burbules: A Theory of Power in Education – which i won’t re-read right now!) – these vary from the political (oppressive state) to the postcolonial (oppressive global forces), to the very personal (patriarchal oppression or abuse). There are many more of course. And then there are those tricky benevolent-looking oppressions: the educational (teacher oppression in the classroom, administrators oppressing teachers), oppressive parenting style (and don’t get me started on this one).

Sometimes I look at this goal of liberating the oppressors and think: but that is the only way! Other times I think about it and it seems like an impossibility. Today, my thoughts are that if one is unwilling to put in the effort to liberate one’s oppressor, the only option is escape: escape as in immigrate and leave your country if the state is oppressive; escape as in divorce from an abusive husband; escape as in drop out of the educational system that is oppressing you, resign from the job where you are oppressed.

But though escape might provide immediate relief, it may not truly solve the problem long-term or even short-term, and it may create new previously unfamiliar problems and oppressions. You leave one oppressive state/country and you end up in another as a refugee or immigrant who is not a first-class citizen; it may not be a generally oppressive state/country but you are oppressed within it anyway. You may leave an abusive marriage, but you are stuck with the possible stigma of being a divorcee or single mom or whatever, and the threats of what an abusive husband might do to you in revenge. Dropping out of education or resigning from an oppressive job have consequences too: you are jeopardizing your future earnings and potential. None of these consequences are small or insignificant. Escape is still a risk to be weighed.

I write this and it feels, it sounds, it seems hopeless, but I know deep down it is not.

I so strongly believe in the power of empathy. I just struggle to implement it in real life. I fear that when the oppressed are empathetic to the oppressor, they may “excuse” the oppressor’s behavior, let it go unchallenged, because they “understand” where the oppressor is “coming from”. Oh, employers can’t raise salaries or give promotions because there is a budget crisis. Oh, a husband is abusing his wife because he has a drinking problem, it is out of his control. Oh, the state is mistreating its people because of poverty and it has many mouths to feed.

Umm, that kind of empathy is not going to help. And I think that maybe the reason it does not help is that it does not get to the roots of the motivations behind the oppressor’s behavior, maybe? So for example, why does the husband have a drinking problem and why does it lead to abuse? Is this cycle breakable, and is it breakable within the oppressed person’s control? Or does it need external intervention?

Also: why does my employer keep having budgetary issues, and what can be done to prevent them or circumvent them in the first place, so that we can work together not to have to freeze salary increases, for example.

Also: what can my role be in building a state/country that manages its resource better?

I say this, and it is hard. It is so hard. I have been saying this in different places the past couple of days: criticism is easy. Risky maybe, but easy. It’s just words. Reconstruction is hard. And it occurs to me now that it is not, cannot be an individual endeavor.

And that is maybe why critical pedagogy emphasizes collective action. It’s not just a gimmick. There is no magical solution to ending oppression, if there is any at all. But the only way to really work on liberating ourselves is to work together. Find others who share our values and beliefs, possibly not all of them, but at least most of the important ones. And do something together to work towards liberating ourselves. And in the process, not even intentionally, we might succeed in liberating our oppressors? How? The two projects I am working on now (one a co-authored article, the other still a bit vaguer in my mind) are meant to give public voice to the ideas, thoughts, experiences of the oppressed. It is a step. Having something out in public might raise awareness of the oppressors in ways that may put them on the path to liberation. I have no illusions that oppressors will read/interpret what is being said empathetically, if they would even begin to understand them. But at least we can try shouting out.

Liberating the oppressors seems necessary, because, supposedly we are actually planning to live with them later on. Prophet Muhammad was persecuted for a long time by the non-believers before he entered Mekkah victorious. The day he entered, he told those who had persecuted him and his followers that they were “free to go“. He forgave them in an instant what harm and injustice he had suffered, not only for himself but all who had followed him. That is exactly the act of liberating the oppressor. He had to get victory first, though 😉

I will stop here while I am on a high note 😉 Before it all goes downhill again

Added an hour or so later: I response to this post, an online friend sent me this Video: Maya Angelou reciting “and still i rise” – sooo inspiring

(Will embed it properly later when i am on a PC)