Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Noticing Absence (also #OER17)

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

These days I am thinking a LOT about noticing absence. This is inspired by 3 things: a quote from a book, my child’s response to another book, and my teaching this semester. It’s making me wonder if this might be relevant to my future teaching and OER17 keynote.. And vconnecting. 

A. The quote

Here goes the quote by Boris Vujicic:

There is a tendency to think a glass can be either half full or half empty. But there is a third option; the glass is always full. It may not be full of a liquid but what is not liquid is [gas]*. We usually measure only what we can see. The truth of the things is often hidden from us, like the invisible [gas] that fills the glass” ~ Boris Vujicic (in his book, Raising the Perfectly Imperfect Child)

Good quote, right? It has lots of resonance with ideas of invisible things that matter. Hidden curriculum. Absence of women and minorities in academia. Absence of certain search results if an institution is blocking access (digital redlining). Absence (or lack) of content in certain languages on the internet. But also, when absence is indeed a thing that is…well…present. Or meaningful. Like silence. Silence in dialogue need not be a negative/bad thing. Nor is it necessarily one thing. Silence can mean agreement (in Egyptian colloquial we say silence is agreeing) or it can mean resistance. Or it can mean reflection. Or it can mean mourning together (moment of silence). Or it can mean a shift from one direction of conversation to another. Think about how in education we “measure” participation by the frequency and quality of someone’s talking/writing and almost never by how wisely they choose to abstain from talking. Think of all those annoying ppl in committee meetings who would make everyone feel better by their silence. Or absence. Will come back to this in the 3rd section

Thinking also of whitespace in visuals. Whitespace is IMPORTANT. The absence of too much stuff on a page makes it better, more beautiful sometimes. And there are ads that even manipulate the whitespace to make it more prominent (will find that link).

Also thinking of babies (held a baby for a while the other day). That age where their teeth are absent is adorable. I also remember the first time a child bit my finger and I realized how precious that absence of teeth was with younger kids.

I’m stretching the analogies here. Fyi, the author had a child born with no limbs, but that child went on to live a very successful and fulfilling life. So I guess he’s talking about how the absence of his kid’s limbs at first made him and his wife feel as if the kid is born “half of a person” but that in some way, a different way than limbs, his life became full and fulfilling. Just not the same way other kids. I assume people who have kids w disabilities have similar philosophies. I don’t have the exact same situation but I have important aspects of my life and loved ones that aren’t “perfect” or “normal” but in many ways I realize that the absence of normalcy is filled by other things. And that, in fact, if I had had normalcy in those aspects, other aspects may be missing. Thinking of the child without limbs, and thinking of someone like Stephen Hawking who pretty much has one of the greatest brains but very limited body function – anyway you get where I am going with this.

B.The Book With No Pictures 

Whitney Kilgore sent me a book by B.J.Novak earlier this year with that title. For my little one who is now 5. I honestly thought Whitney was nuts. But I read it to my girl immediately and I discovered these things 

  1. The book encourages parents to make silly noises while reading the book. Reading that book made me realize I hadn’t been reading other books in a very animated way. I noticed the absence of that in my reading approach to my child. I do much better now.
  2. The book also has large font, colorful in some parts,and LOADS of whitespace, and this somehow got my child interested in reading coz the absence of pictures made her realize that text was supreme. Or something. She learned to read her first word “no” sometime when we first got it. She hasn’t been learning to read very fast in general and seems to get confused between lots of letters, phonemes, and wheb text is close together. Now she is older, we read this book yday and the large font, sparse text, seemed to encourage her to try reading more. Keyword is try. She tries much more in this book than other books. She loves the “Little Miss” books and tries to read (they’re too advanced for her, I think, but I read them to her anyway because I find it silly to read a bedtime book that’s just one-word below a picture of an animal – wanna read stories). Anyway. So that book with no pictures rocks

C. Absence in class

I have had one of my best semesters EVER. In terms of teaching. I need to unpack this because during the semester I had a few sessions with high absence (because of a student strike on campus once and heavy rain on another day). It threw me off a bit because I usually have good attendance and the absent students (even the ones with a couple of absences outside those two days) were usually engaged when in class. But paying attention to absences helped me get to know individual students better and by knowing them, better understand the complex realities in their lives that made it difficult for them to attend every class. It was also important to notice how students who were still learning to write in English struggled to submit blogposts on time, but were able to do late submissions that were halfway decent. Because they needed more time (duh. How unfair is it to assign writing assignments to people knowing they have different capabilities and expect everyone to finish at the same time? I’m the one who talks about inequality in assessment all the time; I should either allow them to submit a different format sometimes like a video, or give different deadlines somehow).

Another thing I want to talk to students about is social absence. This is a term I use for online learning to counter the “social presence” narrative. Sometimes u have to be absent. Online, people can’t know for sure if you’re there but silent or completely absent. And so if you’re in a social situation where others are expecting you to interact but you need to be away, the “social absence” thing is to let them know to expect you to be away for a certain time (like automatic email responders, but for social media or LMSs – only not automatic coz those suck).

Which brings me to vconnecting. We have a pretty active Slack community for planning events. And it helps if we know who is and isn’t available to help out at certain events, when they’re able to work on preparations like inviting guests and writing the blogpost and creating the hangouts…when they’re available to run hangouts, etc. Onsite, it really matters who is present and who is absent and some absences are tangible. Like I am so glad we got Alec Couros and George Siemens and Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles and Tressie McMillan-Cottom on VC this year. Their absence from VC was palpable for me. I am also glad we had sessions with students, grads onsite, undergraduate online (well Andrew, but it’s a start). I am glad we notice if our guests are too monolithic (all male or all white for example) or if we are missing certain important voices (and w sometimes do missed conversations for that). 

I am also keenly aware of who is absent on Mastodon vs Twitter vs Facebook and just how the extra character limit of Mastodon allows me to tag more people into a conversation and still have a bit left over to actually write stuff!

So yeah. Absence. We should start noticing it more 🙂 Not that you didn’t already know that 

[added later, after my post on algorithms – if data analytics on an LMS doesn’t account for circumstances in students lives, then, based on my experience this semester, it can’t really tell me why some students aren’t doing well. At all. It can’t possibly account for such complexity without human intervention). 

____

*I used [gas] instead if the author’s original “oxygen” coz the scientific inaccuracy was distracting me

5 Comments

  1. I do enjoy your open wandering (which does not always mean lost) thinking in your blog. I wish more people did this.

    It’s your idea that matters, but I might unpack the word “absence” – as that implies something is missing. For the glass of water, nothing is missing, it is the space filled with invisible gas, it absolutely has presence. But we do not detect it with our minds (our bodies do, aka respiration), so it’s more a matter of what we can detect. And we do not really sense when air is present (we certainly do when it is not), so it’s more a matter of what we can use to detect air. We never see it. We accept by an understanding of chemistry and physics that it’s there.

    You could also consider that there are sounds present around us that we do not hear (beyond the sensory range of our ears), and wavelengths of light we do not see with our eyes. There is much presence outside our sensory range.

    The use of white space in design is more properly known as negative space (think of the optical illusion of the image of a vase that changes to two faces). The advertisement I always think of was for the Volkswagen Beetle in the 19069s- it was a tiny image on a huge sea of white. Some frame it as a matter of balance, or giving a place for the eyes to rest. It could be in music too where there is a pause (also called a rest). Is that absence? In design I don’t think of it as something missing.

    But it is a useful metaphor to think about ways we can act to not always be the dominant figure.

    Yet I do not see someone who considerately gives others room to talk or think as an absence, if it is deliberate. But then it is an act, not something missing. It’s like when you start to write a comment or an angry email or a tweet, and you catch yourself, and just delete it, realizing it is better to say nothing.

    You seem to know my stories, but here is one of my favorites about social media absence, back around 2009 or so. I went out of the country with someone who requested to not be public about the trip. Plus it was a place without much connectivity. Unplugged.

    What I did not count on was that my friends in Phoenix were worried because I went silent on twitter, my blog, flickr. They were ready to drive up to my house (2 hours away) thinking I might have fallen unconscious or worse. They did not but, but it struck me that we can forget by not saying anything, we can be communicating something.

    I like the concept of thinking about the ways we communicate maybe silently, or in unseen ways, but I don’t like the word absent (maybe I don;t like negative words). And people can be absent, or forgetful, or neglectful. That seems quite different from being deliberate about choosing not to be vocal.

    But I agree the things we count as participation do not take in count the possibility and potential of ______ (other word for absence).

    Curious to see all your oer17 pieces come together… all the way in April to wait?

    • Hey Alan – good point about the glass metaphor being more about “not counting invisible things” rather than strictly absence. I guess I am talking then of “absence of what we count/measure” and what is invisible to us is actually a thing in its own right (like whitespace as absence of text, or silence as absence if talking – dunno what a good word would be instead of absence).

      And re online – it’s so confusing when we’re silent coz there are no cues and u can’t tell whether someone is deliberate or neglectful or absent or whatever. But I also hear you on sometimes deliberately NOT communicating publicly about something. But that’s why privately is great 😉
      I don’t know how all my OER17 pieces will come together yet! I may completely change my mind a day before because of some event!

  2. Oops, while walking the dog, everything you wrote about missing voices is definitely absence!

    • It’s entirely possible that not every analogy i make has the same strength but it’s still sometimes useful to put all those things in one blogpost, logical or illogical 😉

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