(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


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Writing ourselves into history; righting history (inspired by @Mark_Mcguire & #write4pro)

I started my day by this incredible tweet by my twitter-buddy Mark McGuire. I loved it so much I kept going back to it several times during the day just to get inspired again:

I could say so much about this, but the tweet itself says so much on its own.

The morning at work was a blur, just lots of meetings, nothing particularly significant. But the end of my day was a wonderful experiment #write4pro led by my other good online buddy Shyam Sharma – it started with him inviting me to Skype with his students, but as everyone knows, synchronous does not work well for me – so I suggested we have a twitter chat instead*. He agreed. The idea grew from just having me as a guest speaker, to inviting a bunch of others to the discussion – including several of our good twitter buddies and online friends interested in education. I also invited my students and a new f2f contact who is interested in open access issues as well. It was great having this discussion during Open Education week (#nwoer) as well.

Interestingly, there were a few questions students asked during the twitter chat about whether social media skills were helpful or important in our profession, and when several of us talked about networking, students wanted to know more.

This twitter chat was a perfect example of networking across the globe: Shyam (Nepalese in NY) and I (Egyptian in Egypt) developing the idea; his undergrad students in NY, my diploma students in Egypt, and other professionals from Guyana, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal – almost spanning every time zone inhabited by man/woman :o)

End result: wonderful, chaotic twitter chat that hopefully benefited the students on both sides and anyone else participating. Lots of quotable stuff in this twitter chat (I’ll post the storify when Shyam does it – here it is, and a more comprehensive one by Mark), but here are some of the gems for me (couldn’t get them all, but searching for them to include them helped me follow more of the chat that I had been missing!):

Someone asked if there was such a thing as overdoing social media… to which I replied:

So many other good things to say but I’m too exhausted right now to make the search. Will be posting the storify when it’s up (it’s up – here it is! fast work Shyam). So many people commented on how useful the chat was, how diverse it was, and some even talked about it as if it was an ongoing thing we could do again :o)) That was just so cool!

But meanwhile: Twitter chats are not for everyone, though. Obviously, there is the language barrier. The technical barrier – some ppl were tweeting for the FIRST time – not necessarily the mildest introduction to twitter. There must also be some cognitive exhaustion threshold after which people would go crazy!!! (come to think of it, very rhizomatic – how come we never had twitter chats in rhizo14?) Some people I am sure could not follow the conversation. In fact, even someone I consider a big tweeter like Mark (quoted earlier) often admits to struggling to keep up with twitter chats. I personally always have personal issues distracting me from twitter chats*. And of course – whether the topic being discussed can really have global significance? For academics, often there are common threads across the globe worth discussing and taking forward. This chat was completely diverse (undergrads, teachers, academics) but still managed to make some sense… somehow.

I have seen twitter chats with people more experienced who did useful things like retweet questions, retweet good stuff, etc., but this was a really really good chat for a group of people who mostly were not veteran tweeters or at least not veteran twitter chatters (neither Shyam nor I had ever “led” one before, though we had participated – and Shyam did a great job of letting his students lead it which I thought went really really well).

OK – not the most reflective post but just wanted to get some of these ideas down ;o) More later

*I am so glad we did it this way because I would have been a horrible guest speaker (electricity cut 10 mins into chat, so had to switch to a 3G device; family needed attention several times and I ended up tweeting with my child on my lap).


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The Vulnerability of Social Media Participation

This is just a quick weekend post to reflect on the vulnerability we open ourselves to when we blog or tweet or participate in any online community.

I only started blogging over a month ago – Dec 18, 2013! 30 posts already, so almost daily (sometimes twice a day… I know, it is too much)

Someone (apologies if misrepresent those thoughts) was commenting on facebook that not everyone has the same confidence about writing, doubting the value of what they have to say, or whether others will find it useful. For me, personally, i think we make ourselves vulnerable to participate in social media, whether by blogging, tweeting, or participating in any discussion. Unlike Jenny who talks about deliberating before writing, i am happy to share my half-formed thoughts… On the condition that they are accepted as such, not treated as complete. (I compare those with peer-reviewed work and articles that get published after editing in magazines – that work gets raised to a higher quality by peers and editors BUT social media writing can potentially get so much more feedback that benefits everyone’s learning in the process).

Having said that, it means that sometimes what I blog about is not necessarily up to some people’s standards. Maybe i will write something with good intentions that would offend someone or have unintended consequences. Before the internet, this happened a lot behind the author’s back, right? It still can, of course, but now there are opportunities for engagement..

Which adds another element to the mix: will they like me? My colleagues at work got overwhelmed with my reflective/provocative emails, so i started blogging. But my colleagues at work still talk to me and show their respect for my ideas in person. Online, it is a big risk: will anyone really benefit from this? Will theylike me? Do we want to see how often our blog has been viewed, tweeted, discussed? Do we want to read about it in someone else’s work?

Why do we write? Sometimes, like Frances commented, i write for myself, because it helps me organize my thoughts. I share it to get feedback from others and interact and further develop my ideas. Yesterday,i wrote to express thoughts and feelings i felt others must be having as well, and in a way that blog post made me realize i was not alone and i am glad i put myself out there. On the other hand, i worried that by arguing for inclusion, i might have alienated someone else on the other side of the spectrum. I hope i have not. I was just arguing that we are each free to pursue this course however we like for whatever goals we have.

Now if only I could take that sentiment and use it in all facets of my professional and personal life…


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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)


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Teaching as Giving, Writing as Giving

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!