Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Reproducing Marginality?

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation; in fact I was saying just the opposite, that it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance . It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such, I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose – to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center – but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds. (p. 149-150, emphasis mine)

–  bell hooks cited on the Marginal Syllabus from her book Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990)

I am always struggling with my centredness and my marginality, navigating my intersectionality. It’s not navel-gazing specifically, as much as it is an intentional effort to remain aware of my marginality as a way to, I think, not perpetuate marginalizing others.If that makes sense. It nourishes my capacity to resist, as bell hooks says above.

Last month at Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute UMW, I was in a position of power, where I could make choices of how to include others, especially virtually. This reflection by virtual participant Sherri Spelic tells me my efforts, with the inspiration of seriously reflective, kind and active collaborators (including Sherri herself, and of course Autumm, Kate and Paul) was working towards something. Sherri writes:

Inclusion is a construction project. Inclusion must be engineered. It is unlikely to “happen” on its own. Rather, those who hold the power of invitation must also consciously create the conditions for sincere engagement, where underrepresented voices receive necessary air time, where those contributing the necessary “diversity” are part of the planning process. Otherwise we recreate the very systems of habit we are seeking to avoid: the unintentional silencing of our “included” colleagues.

(emphasis mine)

What Sherri highlights there is that it is insufficient to just open up an invitation. It is insufficient that once invited, we just leave guests to their own devices and assume the “free market of air time” means we are giving up our power as facilitators. If we do so, if we just say “anyone is welcome” and assume everyone feels equally welcome – we aren’t doing our job. It is insufficient to, once we are in a room together, to say, “anyone can speak”, and assume everyone feels equally listened to. I am flawed. I will forget to invite someone. I will occasionally talk too much, ignore someone, feel too tired to listen properly, get angry at someone who speaks slowly or too quietly or too much or too little. But you know what? I surround myself with people who can call me out on this gently and constructively (I’m looking at you, Kate and Paul – but also so many others like Sherri and many more). And I am always trying to remain conscious of how we practice inclusion (something Sherri mentions in her article as well).

It is insufficient to open up an invitation and then proceed to “tell” others what to do. I appreciate and applaud Jesse and Sean for giving me pretty much complete freedom over how to run that second workshop at DPLI. I had the choice of whom to co-facilitate with, and I chose Paul Prinsloo onsite and Kate Bowles virtually (here’s our pre-writeup on it, written across three timezones – US/Egypt/Australia). The three of us pretty much had free reign on what to do with that workshop… and as an experiment, it could have been an epic fail, but instead, it felt like an epic opening of possibilities. We wrote:

…for most of us not in the US (or the UK), this [edtech] vision has often signalled top-down, US-to-world, Anglo-oriented, decontextualized, culturally irrelevant, infrastructure-insensitive, and timezone-ignorant aspirations, even when the invitation for us to join in may be well-intentioned.

We want to rethink this one-way flow of benefits, and argue instead that all learning is enriched when we have the opportunity to hear from voices markedly different from our own. We want to suggest that when US culture and educational systems are the default for MOOCs and similar platforms, international voices are exoticized, marginalized and silenced at once.

Afterwards, Kate wrote (building on what Chris Gilliard had said in the post-workshop hallway conversation):

…if we want Americans to stop thinking of the rest of the world as the exotic, the underserved market, being present is the place to begin. We need to make time to hear from each other in workshops like this, at a scale that we can work with. We need to promote listening well as an activist practice. And as educators we have to lead this process, and centre it in our teaching.

Emphasis mine. Being present is just the beginning. Promoting active listening is essential. And yet still not the end of that story.

Points to Ponder

So I just wanted to say that, while I embrace my marginality as a site of resistance (using bell hooks’ words), as I intentionally place myself in this ocean of others with complex power dynamics, I see (on an almost daily basis) the ways in which marginality can be reproduced by things “we”* do. Here are some ways people in power can reproduce the marginality of others (ways we should all work to avoid):

  • Tokenizing. Bringing in ONE person of color, ONE international person, ONE woman into a sea of white/Western/male others. This is why when Alec Couros asked on Twitter whom on Twitter helps us think critically, my first tweet back was intentionally completely absent of white American men. It came easily, that first tweet. To think of 140 characters’ worth of people of color who inspire me? Easy! How easy is it for you? (I then wrote something like 5 more lists, with some white men on them, because, really, some white men are quite cool people, and it’s not their fault they’re white men and all).
  • Assuming Difference. Assuming Similarity. This may sound confusing but it isn’t. I guess the answer is… don’t assume? Sometimes in our sensitivity, we assume difference in order to be respectful. It can be insulting. Sometimes in our attempt to be inclusive, we assume similarity; it can be stifling. Just like every individual in the majority is different, every individual in each minority is different, and therefore they are differently similar/different to you. Take two Western-educated Egyptians and they will have different situations and life conditions that empower/disempower them. You can’t know a priori what that’s going to be like.
  • Unintentional Forgetting. No. Of course it’s unintentional. But that’s the point, we need to intentionally not forget. Inclusion isn’t a side effect. It needs to be an intentional choice, and with it comes responsibility
  • Not Listening to the Marginal. Bringing in someone marginal, and then not listening to them properly is almost worse than not bringing them at all. We need to be aware that listening to the marginal takes effort. They are already going outside of their own discourse of comfort in order to be understood by the more powerful. Listening to the marginal is hard. The powerful need to make an effort to make room, but also to listen closely.
  • Silencing the Marginal. This is such a big deal. To be aware of how our actions (subtle and overt) could silence a marginal person.

*You noticed I say “we” a lot here, right? Because in some contexts, I am in power. I am the teacher. Even if there is a class of men, I’m still their teacher and I have some power in that context. In a Virtually Connecting session I am virtual but I often have the power of invitation. I can choose to keep the call open to anyone. Or I can choose to target certain people and not others, to email them private invitations. I can choose to call on someone or not (gently or not). For Digital Pedagogy Lab, I did a lot of that kind of backchanneling, sending personal invitations in order to ensure sufficient diversity of voices. What’s “sufficient” you say? I don’t know, but it was noticeable.

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

In open online spaces, an open door means easy exit just as it means easy entry.

In open online spaces, we are not there on equal footing.

In open online spaces, we are not equally fragile.

It is everyone’s responsibility to listen and care and support marginal voices. Whether or not they wish to speak. Whether or not they wish to be present. Whether or not they like what we do.

It is everyone’s responsibility to recognize their own privilege and to use it with purpose.

Bas keda (Arabic for: “that’s it”)

8 Comments

  1. Dear Maha, this post is so important! You have taken our many thoughts and ideas and teased out where we can and do go wrong even with our best intentions at the fore. These final sentences on “open online spaces” are the very truths we often avoid and struggle to acknowledge once we’re ‘on the air’ or the event is in progress. Particularly when we are the ones in power, we tend to save these reflections for later to “unpack” after, to put it crudely, ‘the damage has been done.’
    I deeply appreciate that you recognize how you navigate these varying and shifting positions of centeredness and marginality – the pathways, hurdles, gateways towards and away from power – it’s all so complex and unceasing. But if we are going to collaborate, work towards common goals, and actually get things done – we have to be all over comprehending these complexities and naming the beasts we face.
    I have more thoughts which may just have to become a blog post. ? Thank you for this booster pack of actionable ideas. The more we delve into these aspects, the excuses we have for not addressing these dynamics become fewer and fewer.
    With so much love and admiration,
    Sherri

  2. Thanks Maha – I’m going to link to this in the presentation about DigiWriMo et al that we’re giving to ALT this week – because DWM was more diverse in its contributors that some other similar events, and that was because you made it an explicit part of the organisation of the programme.

  3. Thank you for this important post. It gives us all a lot to think about.
    Sincerely,
    Kevin

  4. I like the idea of “embrace my marginality as a site of resistance”. For me, and I suspect others, the real challenge is to embrace others’ marginality as a site of their resistance, and being able acknowledge and witness their resistance rather than tolerating their presence. I wonder how often such attempts at resistance are smoothed over and submerged like running a spoon across a bowl of treacle.

    • hey Frances – I definitely feel it’s important to embrace others’ marginality (I actually think I meant that I embrace mine as a way to remain cognizant of others’ marginality, even while recognizing that each of us is marginalized in a different way). For me, it’s essential to go beyond “tolerating presence” as you said. And this is hard, because the more different a person is from each of us, the more different their language, culture, behavior, the more difficult it is to listen with an open heart and understand them on their OWN terms rather than ours… it takes patience and self-questioning and I don’t even think I’m good at it. But I try. I just see people who are most privileged need to try harder. They often read a post like this one and not realize it is about THEM. They think it is about someone ELSE (I’m not talking about you, Frances).

      btw – I don’t understand the spoon/treacle metaphor as I don’t know what treacle is. I looked it up. Is it a very viscous liquid and thus you mean it would face resistance?

      • I absolutely agree about the difficulty of listening to those different from ourselves, and it’s especially difficult to listen actively and intently when they are saying that maybe we ourselves are part of their being silenced or marginalised. For those in a clear position of privilege, I think that there is a responsibility to actively welcome dissent and critique as a positive rather than a negative. Where people are differently privileged or unprivileged, perhaps the challenge is to create a speech context together where dissent is part of a productive exchange, and I think that’s a challenge for many of us. It can be easier to silence, sometimes without knowing we are doing it. As a Scot, I’m a bit of a fan of Rabbi Burns and dear wikipedia provides a translation of the relevant verse 🙂 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_a_Louse
        Can we see the louse on our own bonnet? and how does the louse feel? 🙂
        Lastly, you are correct about treacle being viscous – perhaps you call it molasses. I couldn’t find a youtube video so I shared my own poor attempt 🙂 https://twitter.com/francesbell/status/772415237509279744

  5. Thanks for writing this. And thank you to Kevin Hodgson of the Connected Learning MOOC for bringing it to my attention. He and other organizers of the CLMOOC have made me welcome over the past four years, even though I’m not a classroom teacher, and through that my network constantly expands to include Maha Bali and others.

    There’s much that can be taken from this article. For instance, your emphasis on “those who hold the power of invitation must also consciously create the conditions for sincere engagement” has implications far beyond the traditional classroom, to local and global places where complex social, environmental and other issues are being discussed.

    Too often those who have the power to invite, are not including most of those who might have something to offer to the process of understanding problems and finding solutions.

    In the #clmooc I’ve encouraged the use of maps to show who is participating, and where they are located, as part of a process of understanding who is not participating and how future gatherings might reach them. The conversation is just starting and needs to “invite” people who work with data and mapping and network analysis who might help us better understand who is involved or not, and then go beyond that to further understand “who is engaging, or not.”

    I’ve yet to see any of the “leaders” in Chicago use a GIS map to show participation in their events, or use a network analysis map to show the different roles, talents, areas of influence, etc. of participants as part of an on-going effort of making sure more of who should be invited are actually showing up and participating. I’m not sure if this is happening in other cities either.

    I share my participation in the #clmooc and other on-line communities with people in Chicago, where I live, with the hope that more of them will take a look, join the conversation, and use the ideas.

    Thank you for adding some ideas for all of us to think about.

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