(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


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.


Body of Knowledge, or Embodied Knowledge? On theory, reading, privilege and #rhizo14

I am compelled to write this post quickly before I pick up my daughter from daycare. I need to write this post.

First off – I think #rhizo14 has been an amazing experience so far. A wonderful group of people who are kind and supportive and generous towards each other… some of whom have known each other for years (since CCK08 or some such experience) and yet welcomed me right in. Some of whom I knew briefly via #edcmooc or on Twitter or just a few weeks ago on Dave’s blog. They are now important parts of my life and my learning.

Second – the main reason for this post relates to a discussion on facebook related to Deleuze & Guttari and whether we should be reading them. Personally, I am happy for people who want to read them to go ahead and read them. I am happy for them to encourage others to read them (such as Cath’s eloquently worded blogpost here) but I think it is more important for people to not make others feel excluded for NOT wanting to read that complex literature (as Jaap does here).

As I told Cath on facebook, her blogpost is very kindly written. It does not look down upon the person who finds D&G difficult or irrelevant. However, there seems to be a group of people on #rhizo14 who are interested in learning the theory (note that D&G’s writing on rhizomatic thinking inspired Dave’s work on rhizomatic learning, but they are not the same thing)… but feel everyone else should be reading it, too. This is problematic for many reasons.

Mainly: this is a MOOC about rhizomatic learning. I know little of what this means, but I am pretty sure it means each of us can have his/her own learning goal and choose his/her own independent learning path towards reaching that goal. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have just finished my PhD from a prestigious UK university; I know how to read scholarship. I just don’t want to spend my time reading D&G right now. I’d do it if it engaged me, but other people’s blogs are engaging me much more and I’m learning much more (relevant to my learning goals about this course) from the experience of rhizomatic learning itself. We can learn from theory. But we can learn from the embodiment of that theory by experiencing what it is. As I understand it, Dave’s rhizomatic learning describes a process of learning that already occurs in real life outside formal education, and that occurs increasingly in an age of abundance (of knowledge, information, connectivity). Others may have experienced this in cMOOCs before and be ready to move onto theory. Others may prefer to read the theory before experiencing it, or do both together. For my own purposes, I prefer to experience it for now (in the limited time I have between juggling a new job, a toddler, and other scholarly publications and work that I need to read more urgently).

I did try to read D&G today on the way home on the bus (I know, not ideal for concentration). I got a few useful ideas, but nothing revolutionary, but I am sure it is there somewhere if I look long and hard enough.

I think, though, that I will be rebellious a little longer and say that I think too much emphasis on theory is problematic on more levels:

1. It privileges those of us who are academics, social science or humanities academics. Because, believe me, when I started my PhD I could not read a single paper written about philosophy (my PhD was about critical thinking) – and it took me a while to get where I am today and I STILL find D&G hard… so am sure those of us who are not academics must be having a harder time with it? Not all of us have the social capital needed to read this easily. It may be hard for all, but not equally hard for all.

2. It privileges those who are native speakers. I am fluent but not a native speaker. Reading translated stuff (esp. continental philosophical postmodern stuff) is very difficult for me. IT is not always worth the effort. It might or might not be. My strategy is to read secondary sources, see if I find anything interesting, then decide what original writing to read. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that strategy. Discourse and jargon are useful to those who understand it and are immersed in it. It is exclusive to others outside the “discipline”. If it’s an important educational concept, we should be able to communicate it clearly to non-academics e.g. school teachers or univ professors who teach e.g. engineering or management. How else would it be “useful” to those people?

3. It privileges a certain body of knowledge rather than the embodiment of that knowledge. Books are static. Rhizomatic learning must be dynamic, right? This course is rhizomatic learning in action. One way of understanding it is being in it and doing it. Another way is reading about it. Connectivism sounded weird to me until I experienced it a little in #edcmooc and now in #rhizo14… but rhizomatic learning (as I understood in an earlier article be Dave) resonated with me more… enough to make me take this course. I have written previously about how teachers may be looking at the question of “why students don’t read” from the wrong angle.

We are not all the same in this course or in any course. I love the supportiveness of the community. I did not have this for my PhD and maybe I would have read more or wider or deeper for my PhD if I had had a supportive community of people to discuss it with. But I also think it is totally acceptable and respectable to want to pursue this differently. I would love it if folks who wanted to read the theory were willing to simplify or summarize some of the ideas in their own blogs (thanks to all who posted dictionaries, resources, etc.). This all reminds me of an earlier post by Scott Johnson on Noise – when it is a new idea or concept we are totally unfamiliar with, it sounds like noise. Without a supportive community, we are unlikely to pursue it. (sorry no time to look for the link now)


Enforcing Independence

The second week of #rhizo14 has the catchy and paradoxical (?) heading “enforcing independence”. I have been mulling over different aspects of this all day and here are some prelim thoughts (unsure if Dave has written this week’s opening post, but am holding back on reading it until I have published this post):

1. Is it problematic to enforce independence too early on children, e.g. By weaning them too early or sending them to daycare too early? Is it sometimes necessary and good for the child? How do we as parents know if we are doing this at the right time?

2. Is “independence” something that occurs within a person? A sense of self-sufficiency, or is it something that external others can encourage, empower, or even enforce? Does finding oneself in a situation where one needs to fend for oneself bring about independence, or does it merely bring it to the surface, when it was always already lurking underneath? We as a species are not born independent… We depend on our parents for many things until we can do them ourselves. We are social beings who depend on others to meet some of our most basic needs like food, though earlier people did not.

3. This all reminds me of the whole idea of “empowerment” and “liberation” – why do we as teachers talk about empowering our students as if power is something we have to give? As if we have control and influence over our students’ power, and as if power in the classroom translates in some linear fashion to power outside it? (I cheat – these are not my own original ideas and questions, but ones i have read somewhere in the critical pedagogy literature and probably by Ellsworth and interpretations of Foucault, but the advantage of blogging is that i don’t have to find the citation for each idea right now)

4. Independence also has a political, postcolonial connotation. Here in Egypt, I also feel that after January 2011 we found ourselves in what seemed to have been an enforced independence – but that’s not working out too well…

5. Independence has connotations of being part of natural growth and progress, being a good thing to which to strive, but does it always have good consequences? Is it not possible that independence will bring on disaster if the person is not equipped to handle it? But how will the person learn to handle it if they are never given the responsibility (Egypt again: how will we learn to be a democracy if we don’t get a chance to live a democracy and act it out, learn from our mistakes)

6. In learning and teaching – do we sometimes try to force our students to become independent and how uncomfortable does it make them feel? Does it always work well? Who decides whether it has worked well?

7. It also occurred to me that i am assuming Dave plans to step back and let us all be “independent” for the rest of the course. I assume this is something that started happening after the live session, the unhangout, as folks started to discuss topics they wanted to pursue for the rest of the #rhizo14 weeks?

8. I prefer the goal of “interdependence” than “independence” – i understand this via a reading by Pedler early on when i was doing my MEd, about a learning community being a group of individuals taking diverse pathways to diverse goals, but supporting each other throughout. Interdependence. And that cannot be forced in any way that i can imagine, but can be encouraged and nurtured. I really appreciate all the ways individuals in #rhizo14 have supported each other (and me) and found ways of connecting everyone’s ideas together so that those of us who missed some parts could catch up on them and see what had previously been hidden from our view. I also appreciate the new tech tools i am learning about and how technology helps this process of interdependence and facilitates it… Easier to be pursuing different goals if we’re not stuck in a classroom fixed by time and space. And also easier to support each other in sporadic ways that suit our own schedules.

What do others think?

This post sort of looks as messed up as my brain right now, firing connections right and left so that there is no linear flow of ideas… I am increasingly seeing rhizomes as neurons that connect in strange ways… So there are the internal rhizomes of each of our brains and the external rhizomes of our social interactions. I actually think that Martin’s twitter tag explorer looks rhizomatic, doesn’t it?

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The role of power, social justice and empathy in our perception of cheating vs learning

I’m here trying to tie some of the ideas of #rhizo14 into a physical event I will be part of in a few hours. I’ll be discussing with a group of other academics my previously published article on critical citizenship – which centers around the role of higher ed in promoting social justice orientation and empathy in students, thar focusing on critical thinking is not enough for citizenship.

In #rhizo14, there have been some mentions of power in the discussion of cheating (Dave on jenny’s blog; Terry on my blog) and if i may summarize the ideas crudely as i understood them:
1. If what constitutes cheating is based on rules, those rules are an imposition of power by some group of people, and by setting those rules, they privilege certain individuals over others (i might have added sthg here, not sure)
2. If cheating is dishonesty, then it might involve ways of gaining unfair advantage/power to compete with others (example of taking steroids in sports was a good one mentioned)

Where do social justice and empathy come in?

I am reflecting on academia. And instances where teachers have broken their very own rules because they were empathetic (or not). E.g. One student told the teacher after the exam time ended that he had not noticed the last page of the exam. She gave him an extra 10 minutes or so. I was her TA and i was like, “that’s not fair to other students who had less time” and “but he had more time than everyone else on all the other questions”. In hindsight, she used her judgment and was empathetic, i think, in her decision-making in ways i was maybe too young to understand?

Another instance which shows the opposite. There were a group of students about to graduate who all failed the final exam of a required course. The (quite young) teacher was rigid – each time someone spoke to him on their behalf to give them a second chance so they could graduate (this is everyone from students to the dept chair to the dean), he refused to budge. Eventually, he did budge: he let them re-take the exam. Was that really the fair thing to do? Probably not. But it was an empathetic thing to do. Were there other options? Probably

Reflecting on my own teaching… I try to be flexible enough to meet my students’ needs and interests. But some ways of creating a community-centered (vs. Student-centered) classroom or course, are not necessarily socially just. For example, a full group discussion disadvantages shy or reflective people. A community-created rubric is really one where the voices of the loudest (or quick thinking, or brave) students end up being what gets written. There are lots of micro-contestations of power in a community-centered course. Social justice and power remain issues.
For example… Breaking rules. I often teach my students about copyright law (often via guest speaker as a way to maintain my integrity – see next), then discuss with them the ways in which copyright laws are unjust and disadvantage us in the poorer countries. Where would we be in our already low-quality education without illegally photocopied texts and pirated software? We tall about legal alternatives like creative commons and cheaper versions of some things (e.g. Free word editors). What some Westerners don’t get, though, is the ENORMOUS difference between a free and a $1 download. It is huge, because many ppl here do not have credit cards, some may not have bank accounts. So cheating is their only way.

So is it then justifiable to break a rule or law? Who decides that it is?

If i publish my article in a non-open access journal, do i really not have the right to email copies of it to others (some journals have allowances for manuscripts or drafts before peer review, or embargoes after which you can post). But my point is: how justifiable (or just “just” as in socially just) are those rules? And what does it mean when we break them? Are we truly hurting or harming others?

This post has rambled a bit but in a weird way connects different aspects of my life as i reflect on a course i am about to teach, an open access/education event we are organizing, and the critical citizenship event tomorrow… And cheating as a topic in rhizomatic learning…

Will unfortunately miss the live event that is at dawn my time! (Sync events are sooo biased – an upcoming article i am working on)