Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

June 12, 2018
by Maha Bali

Equity Literacy – Complicating Inclusion & Diversity in Education

Reading Time: 2 minutes

So the awesome Greg Curran of Pushing the Edge podcast interviewed me a few months ago. He asked me specifically to discuss things related to my blogpost, Unpacking Terms around Equity, Power and Privilege.

The interview itself was wonderful, in the sense that Greg’s questions helped me think deeper and I think I emerged from it a more reflective person, and felt really refreshed. I still remember how it felt.

So the podcast is out now and you can listen to it here or here:

It is really interesting that this particular podcast comes out now, because for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading to and listening to stuff that augments some of the ideas in the podcast.

Most prominently in my head right now is the idea of “equity literacy”, as defined by Paul Gorski (I came across it in a book he co-authored, but I’m quoting from this openly available brief article):

[Equity literacy is] the skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to and redress (i.e., correct for) conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers. Equity literacy also describes the skills and dispositions that allow us to create and sustain equitable and just learning environments for all families and students.

He then lists the core principles of equity literacy as:

  1. Recognizing inequity
  2. Responding to inequity
  3. Redressing inequity
  4. Creating and sustaining an equitable learning environment

The book I’ve got introduces this concept in more detail and offers case studies for use in the classroom, where one can practice these principles in a class discussion. I’ll write more about the rest of this model later, because I both want to use it in my class, and also want to critique it…

June 5, 2018
by Maha Bali
1 Comment

Upcoming talk about Remote PhD Supervision

Reading Time: 1

You gotta love your PLN. I was working today on my slides (draft here, comment access) for an upcoming virtual presentation I’m doing for Imperial College, Kings College and UCL remote PhD students this Thursday inshallah… And I had an epiphany, which I tweeted

Within hours, I had received a response from a local American colleague, Kim, from Rissa in New Mexico and Heather in Connecticut, US, Lenandlar in Guyana, and Juandoming in Spain (in Spanish). I decided on a whim to insert those into the presentation as a demo of how PLNs work!

Here is the link to listen to an audio version of the session (to preserve anonymity of participants) which will be Thursday June 7 at noon UK time (1pm Cairo, 11 GMT) [updated link after the fact]

Some Twitter reactions to the talk from folks onsite

From people watching online

June 3, 2018
by Maha Bali

Taking a Course for Faculty Developers…

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve been taking an online course at UMass Amherst for faculty developers for the past 2 weeks. It’s been really useful and I’ve learned a lot from the discussions, the assignments have helped me reflect, and the readings have given structure to much of what is already familiar to me about my work… But has helped organize it better in my head, and helped me see where my center’s work fits with the global (ok, no, US) scene. Which is basically we have the same priorities as most US universities, are newly focusing on the same things, often struggling with the same issues, and just overall similar.

Which seems off.

The course discussions are on Blackboard so I can’t directly reference them (though I will eventually copy/paste my own work so I don’t lose it) but two things made me pause.

For our first assignment, we were supposed to report on a Center for Learning and Teaching and answer a few questions about it. I thought it would be more useful to compare one to my own than to just report on mine, and I chose University of Cape Town’s CILT. I chose it because everyone but three people in the course are based in the US (of the 3, only one isn’t in my own institution!). So I wondered if a South African university which doesn’t have an American flavor would be different. And it was. Apart from discourses of support for good teaching, it had elements of decolonization and social justice explicitly there. It made me wonder if ours was lacking a local flavor altogether and I’m pretty sure it is. I’m not sure what our politically acceptable alternative would be, to what we have, or if we intend to continue to be relatively interchangeable with a mainstream US liberal arts institution. But I do know that if you dig deep into our struggles, you find something different because of context.

For example, one of the things I brought up, and which resonated with others in the forum, is professional development for adjuncts, and how unfair it is to them to ask them to do this without getting compensated for it.

The other thing that made me pause was another participant located outside the US who found a resource about teaching his subject that is centered around non-Western approaches. I thought this was a really good find and I wonder if more such resources/societies exist in other fields.

On another note, I am also a big advocate for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) to be rewarded as research in tenure and promotion. This seems to be one of the areas other CLTs would like to grow in the future but which is tricky.

I’m overall enjoying the course and the discussions… Feeling weird being a student in a closed space after working openly online for so long. I mean, I work in Slack teams but those are people I have relationships with that aren’t bound by a few weeks. I follow them on Twitter. In this Course, I have no relationship with other participants beyond the course and I’m already sad about that. But again, many may not even be active on Twitter and I would have missed meeting them altogether if I hadn’t joined this closed course. So it’s a trade-off. And besides, some stuff I write in the assignments is probably best not said publicly anyway.

So it is not my favorite thing, not my favorite way to learn, but it’s working for me for now, and it’s always useful to keep trying new (or in this case for me, old) ways of learning so we can better support our students and our faculty (as facdev).

It reminds me of Lee skallerup Bessette and I once talking about doing facdev, the MOOC 🙂 This one is that kind of meta….

I’ll stop for now coz I need to sleep.

May 30, 2018
by Maha Bali

Problematic Depictions of Racism in American Children’s Movies

Reading Time: 5 minutes

So, I’m not American, so I may be off-track here, but I feel like some recent children’s movies that are meant to tackle racism indirectly (but really quite directly, imho) are doing so with only partial success. The two I wanna talk about are Zootopia (called Zootropolis in some places) and Zombies (Disney movie).

Let me start with Zombies because I just saw it recently. The backstory is that Zombies used to eat brains, but they’ve been neutralized by some technology and been living in separate areas that have poor facilities and wear government issue clothes and are homeschooled… And they know that normal people dislike them, except that the hero (Zed?) believes that people who don’t like zombies just haven’t met him yet… While normal people live in colorful sunny places. And anyone who is “different” in any way has been snubbed (so for example the heroine of the movie has freakish white hair and has to cover it up with a blonde wig so no one knows).

So the movie starts at the beginning of a school year when, for some reason, for the first time, zombies are allowed to attend normal school.

I don’t wanna talk about the entire movie here… But there are lots of elements of race relations in it and about acceptance and tolerance and appreciating the “other” and cultural clashes that get resolved. But my main concerns with the movie is

  1. We are supposed to see the normal people who treat zombies well as “good”. It ranks of white allies wanting gratitude of some sort for doing this… I don’t know how to describe it, but it reminds me in general of people who consciously want to not be racist… Sort of patting themselves on the back for how open-minded they are
  2. I strongly dislike the history of zombies in this film. I compare the history of African Americans who came to the US as slaves. They did nothing wrong and did not deserve that treatment… And when they were freed they continued to be treated poorly on so many levels. This is not the case for Zombies here. Zombies used to be brain-eaters and thus a threat to humanity. So… What? Are they representing something like terrorists and their living conditions as Guantanamo Bay? But that’s also really weird. My concern here is that the backstory is that zombies used to be dangerous to so historically normal people are justified in their fear of them and in their attempts to control them. In reality, the only group of people I can think of who are historically dangerous to others are white Western colonizers (for my part of the world) and possibly different kinds of colonizers for other parts (e.g. Within Asia). No one has yet done anything to control them and no one has explicitly expressed fear of their neocolonial descendants… Oh because they’re still in power.
  3. There is an element of surveillance and such. Zombies have a wristband that controls their amount of zombieness or something. And playing with it is dangerous. This whole part really had me confused. So are we supposed to believe it’s ok that governments exert control over some populations because they’re dangerous but not others? And as long as they’re under control we should treat them with civility?
  4. A lot of what Zed tries to achieve in the film is normalizing zombies into normal people’s lives and activities. Football team. Once he becomes hero of the football team, he gets more privileges for all zombies like cafeteria and music lessons and such. It’s problematic because it’s about always aspiring to what the powerful dominant majority have rather than resisting it and rather than influencing them with one’s own culture. For example, I think it’s meaningful that some music genres like rap, hip hop and R&B are predominantly African American. This movie didn’t really value zombie culture much…
  5. In the end, the heroine takes off her wig to reveal her “freakish” white hair. Which isn’t really freakish if you ask me. It’s somewhere between platinum blonde and elderly person white hair. It’s not that scary. Actually not at all scary. But it also is like… The only normal person in the cast who is friendly to zombies from the beginning is herself “different” in some ways from the majority and already feels “othered” inside herself. While I think that being oppressed in one way can really make it easier to empathize with other forms of oppression… I don’t know what kind of message they’re trying to go for here. That only people who are (less visibly) marginal can empathize with those who are more marginal? I have strong beliefs about visible and invisible marginality. Those who have a choice to share or hide their marginality are in a different spot than those who have no control. And when you’re hiding your marginality you are internalizing it and not being treated by others that way so it’s different than if you chose to show it, and different still from if you had no choice but to show it.

So that’s Zombies. I saw Zootropolis/Zootopia about a year ago or so… My concern with that one is… There are three “classes” of animals in the movie. Predators who have been tamed not to hunt prey (so tigers, lions, etc), prey (like rabbits, deer) and for some reason the fox gets singled out as that character who is constantly deceiving you.

The problem here is weird because the dominant animals in some sort of power are the predators who have been artificially neutralized in some way… This neutralization reeks of the kind of discourses of civilizing barbarians that colonizers used. But it’s weird coz these animals in the movie are in power. So it’s confusing.

There’s also the element of the fox. Where stereotypes against him seem to be justified most of the time, even if the bunny character (who, despite her small size, rose in ranks to be a police officer, first bunny ever to do so against all odds and bigger animals) seems to have faith in him. He eventually comes through. But that’s not my point here. The point is that we see repeatedly how he deserves the stereotype, even tho he is occasionally capable of honesty and loyalty. So I honestly don’t know what that’s about. Is it like the concept of the Hacker who then stops doing illegal stuff to help the government or good guys?

There’s also the part of the movie where we discover the evil prey (sheep) trying to convert predators back into predatory behavior in order to, I am guessing, jail them again or something?


Look, I know these are not meant to be exact depictions and analogies of race. They are teaching kids about discrimination. But even as inaccurate as they are at doing SO, I think both films do harm by suggesting that discimination against the “other” is actually usually historically justifiable, but “they have now changed and don’t deserve to be discriminated against”. Because most current-day racism and other forms of discrimination has no such history. Black people never started any aggression against white people. It’s the opposite. Homosexuals, transgender people never harmed anyone. The case of Muslims is more complicated, but a key element of discrimination against Muslims in the West stems from a combination of generalizing fear based on actions of a minority, and also taking that action out of its historical and global view context, while completely ignoring other forms of violence perpetuated the other way around.

In all cases, those movies tend to justify fear of the “other” and stereotyping them as if it has a justified historical basis but that those “others” have evolved. And that is almost never the case in real life.

May 29, 2018
by Maha Bali

Breaking Promises

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I had everything set. Toys and colors and sticker book in my bag. Check. Change of clothes and underwear. Check. Alarm on my phone to make sure I pick my kid up on time. Check.

Except I forgot one thing. I told my kid I was picking her up but I didn’t tell her bus supervisor or any adult in school that I was picking her up. I thought I was gonna get there before they started boarding the bus so I didn’t think. I was wrong.

I got to my kid’s school to pick her and up and they told me she left by bus. I open my phone to call the bus matron and it turns out she tried calling me several times. My kid told her I was picking her up but she osn’t allowed to leave her at school unless I inform the school that I’m picking her up.

It worked out alright in terms of someone being home (at my mom’s home – I called and made sure my mom and the nanny were home). But the guilt is still killing me. I called my kid to apologize and she was, understandably, really upset.

She’s actually obsessed with me picking her up from school. Like, really obsessed with this. So it is considered a treat for her when I pick her up and today I was giving a workshop at a building in the street next to her school, so I was planning to pick her up during the break time and keep her there, playing quietly, until I finished.

You know what’s worse about this? That she doesn’t blame me. She blames the bus matron for not believing her. So even though I am so guilty here, when she saw me she hugged me coz she missed me and wasn’t angry with me for my mistake. Maybe she’s too young to realize it’s my fault even though I told her it was.

Not that I could feel worse about this, but my mom told me she cried when she got home.

It is one of those mistakes where 10 minutes would have made a difference. Seriously unlucky. But also lack of concentration on my part to just make sure I told someone at school…

You live you learn, I guess.

May 27, 2018
by Maha Bali

Reflecting on 2nd Semester of Teaching Digital Literacies Course

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I originally named this post “what I wanna do differently next semester” but that would imply this was not a good semester… And that’s just not the case. I am writing this after submitting my grades and getting the inevitable emails. My favorite is the student who wasn’t disappointed with his grade (slightly less than he expected) and said it didn’t matter, he enjoyed the course and would take another course with me if he could. And that he’d like to pass by me sometimes. Love. Love. But also there were the ones who felt they were unfairly treated and I explained. Actually, there were a few of these that I preempted. Ones who I wanted to know that I appreciated them but their performance just wasn’t an A.

The thing is. I think I’m getting somewhere good with the holistic self-grading thing. I’ve broken it down so students rate themselves on particular things that matter in the course before they give themselves a grade. More than half the students gave themselves the grade I gave them. Of the remaining few who got a different grade, most of them gave themselves the grade I thought I would give them… But some of them did slightly better and some slightly worse. Ok a couple of them way worse. They need to work on their self-assessment skills. Which in itself is a skill I should work on more.

So here are some things I wanna change

  1. Be more explicit about how to do well in the course. I usually am, but some people add the course after drop and add, so I need to repeat it not just at mid and end of semester. And while I always ask students to think for themselves about this, I can still give vague guidelines
  2. This semester and last semester I encouraged students who have special circumstances/needs to let me know so I can take it into consideration. Many do, some don’t. Usually I’ll excuse absences and allow late assignments. But I realized a couple of things which I’ll mention in my next two points
  3. Some really serious students ask if they can make up missed classes. I realized the exercise of thinking of how someone can make up a missed class is useful for me. And it makes those students catch up better (my class isn’t sequential but they’ll have had similar experiences). Next semester, though, instead of just asking them to submit a blogpost reflecting on the topic we talked about in class, I might ask those who missed class to discuss it. Some will, some won’t. But something.
  4. This semester I pro-actively allowed students to make up for poor participation or missed engagemooc assignments by doing some ds106 and netnarr assignments. I don’t know that I wanna make it a habit for students to skip stuff, but I also made this a one-time deal. They could use this “make up for missed work” thing only once in the semester and for particular things or just to boost their grade if they’ve been slacking earlier. Just thinking of how to revise it and to clarify which kind of assignments it makes up for and which not.
  5. I always struggle with keeping up w posting grades. I read student blogposts on time and I post notes for myself on them and refer to them in class… But grading on Bb is exhausting for me. Especially with the problem w my hands (arthritis) making it really difficult to navigate the columns. But perhaps if I had a system of simple grading following Peter Elbow where I grade on 3 levels: done well (2), done but needs improvement (1), not done (0) then I can work directly with those who need improvement. I am wondering also if students should be giving each other feedback on their assignments and by doing so, get better at assessing their own work. I could, at the beginning of the semester, ask them to assess blogposts of other students and say which ones they liked best and which ones need improvement and why…
  6. Lateness. Part of me wants to allow lateness to class because circumstances like traffic happen. I’m clear w students that some assignments cannot be late for reasons, but most other assignments it does not matter. I take into consideration people who consistently submit on time, but allowing lateness a lot is my way of accommodating people with mental illness, health conditions and family/personal issues (I had about a quarter of my class in that situation this semester, that I know of). But I also feel like students need to learn to be punctual and know when it’s essential to be punctual. I flipped this semester when several students came late to their OWN group presentations!!! I do not care if students are late to my class, but not to other people’s presentations and definitely not to their OWN!
  7. Students have asked to do more group work and presentations. I’m gonna try to do some more low-stake group presentations in future and use these as sessions where being on time is more essential.
  8. I have failed (as I often do) to teach students proper citation of images and how to get CC images. I need to push this more next semester. The citing of other stuff (written text) works ok. Because I’m not the first person to suggest it. But the images. Man. (Pauline Ridley provided this awesome resource on image citation she made/uses which also cites Alan Levine who is awesome on this topic, and offers multiple resources so I’m likely to use it)
  9. I’m thinking of assigning students more articles I’ve written myself. As a way to make sure they have an easy-to-read intro on a topic. I used to hesitate to do this, but then it’s like flipping the classroom with an article instead of a video! Why not, right? Especially that I don’t lecture at all in class.
  10. Soliya continues to be a confusing experience. Some students love it (but they’re a minority) and many truly hate it. And quite a few have technical problems. I want to find a way to turn even the bad experiences into good ones, or at least into useful reflections. I still believe in its value and in intercultural learning in general but haven’t found my equilibrium yet. And every class and student will be different. The long (8 week) Soliya felt like too long for my students last semester. The compact (4 weeks) this semester seemed too short (if someone missed out a couple times, they missed a lot).
  11. I hesitate about whether to use Twitter each semester. I’ve finally decided to use it anyway at least once. Some will love it, some will hate it, but it’s worth the exposure of how to use it academically, even if they never use it again
  12. I always use lots of tech in my class and let em know it is because it’s a digital literacies class. In future, I should factor in time to reflect on why we use each tool for what purpose and such. I do know that Slack grows on students eventually…

I’m sure more will come to me over time

I tweeted this earlier and it already has 100 likes!

May 24, 2018
by Maha Bali
1 Comment

@VConnecting as Making Our Own Table vs Making a Seat at the Table

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” – Shirley Chisholm

I came across this quote on Jess Knott’s Instagram and had an immediate light bulb moment.

This is exactly what Virtually Connecting was for me. But also what it can do for people who cannot do that for themselves.

Because as much as I love love love that quote, it’s incomplete. And I’ll explain why.

In real life… When you’re in a place and you want to sit at a table… It’s not easy to invite yourself even if there are seats available with nobody’s name on them, right? I’m thinking kids in school and lunchtime and how difficult it is to invite yourself to a table if you don’t know anyone there. Or if you are explicitly unwelcome there. But if someone calls out to you to join, you will probably go.

Also, there are situations where the table is full and there’s no space for one more, even if you had the guts to try to squeeze yourself in. And if that’s the case, it takes even more guts to go find another chair and bring it forward. In my experience, if you know you’re welcome at a table but there’s no space, it’s easy for some people (like me) to go grab a chair. A more welcoming move would be if someone (usually a man) gives up their own seat to make room for you, then they go get another chair. But there are some people who would not at all go and get themselves seats. Whether it’s shyness or pride or something else. And if you sit at the table and people ignore you and don’t pause in conversation to acknowledge you, it doesn’t feel great.

So taking this metaphor somewhere, I would say that allies should be in the business of giving up their seats at tables. Such as men who refuse to be on an all-male panel and suggest women who could take their place. The table is already set and it is too late to change the table, but they can still switch seats.

The other issue I take with that quote is the folding chair. It implies inequality. That you accept to take an inferior seat at a table you weren’t invited to, rather than no seat at all.

And I think Virtually Connecting might be that inferior seat but it might have evolved into something more.

When Virtually Connecting first started as et4buddy, the dynamic was very particular. I had lots of friends at the conference, Rebecca had few. The desire to make the virtual connection was kinda egalitarian. I wanted to talk to my friends, they wanted to talk to me, Rebecca wanted to meet new people and this made her conference experience more enjoyable. As if I was there introducing her to new people all the time. Rebecca calls herself an extroverted but shy person. She loves being around people but would not have felt comfortable walking up to folks who didn’t know her and chatting with them. I’m guessing more so if they’re high profile. I have the situation of being friends with many high profile people in my field but not being able to travel.

I guess… This reminds me of something Kate Bowles said about hospitality and vconnecting.

In one sense, vconnecting is getting a folding chair, an inferior option, to join a table.

In another sense, with vconnecting, I (or nowadays with a big team, WE) own the table and we are extending invitations to onsite folks to chat with virtual folks. So it would be considered an inferior chair at the conference, but if you look at the world in a more hybrid way, vconnecting is its own corner of a conference with its own rules that eschew academic traditions. Keynote speakers and early career scholars and students can all be invited to be onsite guests. Onsite buddies can be high or low profile people. Virtual buddies and guests can be anyone. Who gets to invite and facilitate these conversations? Virtually Connecting volunteers, many of whom are marginal in some way (international, grad student, low travel budget, alt-ac, contingent…. You name it) but a few of whom are high profile and established (although often this is their online presence/reputation more than their actual position they get paid for…which doesn’t afford them much travel… Think Bonnie Stewart, Alan Levine, and me).

So back to this metaphor. Beyond vconnecting creating this new table at conferences, even though we have seats open for virtual participants to join in… We often need to explicitly invite them in if they’re new. Not only won’t they grab a folding chair, they don’t realize that vacant seats are welcoming them. Or they think they can only watch from afar rather than actually join a hangout and converse.

So… Still working on that.

Also, some people want to grab a seat. But they keep slipping out. Such as if they have internet/electricity issues or demands on their time from family for example. All the disadvantages of synchronous video.

So vconnecting remains a very particular table that breaks down barriers in some way, but some barriers remain.

So I think vconnecting was originally Rebecca and I creating a folding chair that we started carrying to different places… Then we started to expand the team and Autumm joined us to help us expand this so that it became our own table with our rules and our volunteers facilitating access to our own folding table…

So this is my quote about vconnecting:

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding table and seats, make your own rules, make them more welcoming to people who can’t always join the original table, make it so awesome that people wanna be on your table and no longer see it as inferior” – Maha Bali

This breaks down though. I often get invited to things I can’t attend. Some people are really cool and understanding and they know they’ll need to pay more to help me reach their table. E. G. DigPedLab last year made it affordable for me to bring my family and for a dinner invitation, Jesse made the first half of dinner alcohol-free. One conference organizer invited me to be on the organizing committee and offered to pay my trip and accommodation not just waive registration because he knew otherwise it would be almost impossible for me to go. Some conferences invite me to keynote and when I can’t make it, welcome my offer to keynote virtually. And some of them (like OEPS and Unicollaboration) do a great job of being hospitable to my keynote and it’s a great experience for all of us.

Then there are the stupid ones. Who invite me to go to somewhere like the US like 2 months in advance (how can someone who has a kid, lives halfway across the world and a limited travel budget manage that in this kind of time frame?). Then when I offer to participate virtually…. They NEVER GET BACK TO ME. I am still mad about this. Do people think that inviting someone from a developing country is a favor? Did they tick their diversity boxes by throwing me a folding chair and hoping I’ll catch it and get there? What kind of invitation is that?

If you really value someone, you make an effort to include them. You don’t just send an invitation then promptly forget about them.

So here’s a big thank you to everyone who has ever helped include me or others at events that build social capital… Who helped modify a format so that others could be there. That’s a lot of vconnecting buddies but also conference organizers and onsite guests who valued the virtual presence and invited and embraced and advocated and cheered us on.

Featured image: a photo I took of a table at my house with an ancient Egyptian pencil case full of a smorgasbord of different types of my kid’s color pens and pencils.

Post publication – George Station posted on Facebook a warning that we need to make sure when we’re invited to the table that we’re not on the menu. Discussion ensues on Facebook as to whether this quote is from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or Elizabeth Warren said it or… something earlier… It’s a good point, in any case, because it could totally be the case!

And then just now I saw this poem by Najwa Zebian which I think is also soooo appropriate for the above (even if her context is different)

May 19, 2018
by Maha Bali

Too Radical for Trust? Too Peripheral for Power?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Remember that you are a work in progress. You are not perfect. You are not expected to be. Do not allow the fear of falling to stop you from jumping. Do not allow the fear of responsibility to stop you from committing. Do not allow the fear of exposure to stop you from shining.

– Najwa Zebian in Mind Platters (emphasis mine)

I’m at a crossroads. And as often happens to me, when I’m at a time in my life where I need to reflect deeply and make decisions… I see signs in different places. I have Najwa Zebian’s book, Mind Platters, but I haven’t finished it (possibly a good Ramadan read besides Quran). But I actually saw that quote on her Instagram account. I actually got (back) on Instagram FOR her, to follow her there. (I still don’t “get” Instagram fully. I keep wanting to ask “how do you retweet something but I know it’s the wrong question to ask).

But anyway. Back to this quote. What does it say to me, I’m wondering. I’m particularly struck by the parts I put in bold. Do not let the fear of falling stop you from jumping.

I’m at a crossroads where I need to decide where to go next and I have realized that I was thinking about my future in terms of what others would lay out for me, rather than what I could potentially lay out for myself. Thinking now this…

That what I wanted was not so much a promotion as much as recognition. And I realized that while I am *appreciated*, very much, I do not feel sufficiently recognized internally as I am externally… And that should be ok. I think many of us who are radical and peripheral suffer from this. Being visionary and having valuable ideas and thoughts and practices is rarely something institutions of higher ed can value in the moment, but possibly in hindsight. Also, that thinking takes loads of persistence AND SPINE to stay the course and use our energy and our everything if needed to actually cause change on the ground rather than in the cloud.

I think what’s affecting me most is that, within my own place, where I’ve been radical for years, proving myself in retrospect for years, delivering a lot (though imperfectly on everything), what I am missing most is trust. I feel that I’ve been too radical to trust, too dissenting for mainstream. I don’t ever wish to be mainstream. But I do feel like by now I should have earned trust. I have a track record that should mean something. Even with my imperfections.

There are several things I never want to give up that I see (some) people in administrative positions give up. I hope I never give up my ideals even if I know they aren’t in line with power. I hope I never stop thinking of people who work with me as individuals and whole people, that I never think of them as positions on an organizational chart. I hope I never have to stop myself from critiquing something that is clearly unjust or wrong. And I truly hope I never have to work with people I don’t love, doing work I don’t love.

So I’m thinking this. If there is no opportunity for me to get everything I want… What are my priorities? Can I jump as high as I want in an area that’s wide open with no prospects? Because the other alternative is to bang my head against the wall, and that’s just… No fun at all. For anyone.

There are many different kinds of power and I’m not getting deep and philosophical about it, but just simply stating that there’s power that comes because someone gave you a position that comes with power. And there’s power that comes from within and shines despite your position and you can’t lose that, because it comes from inside you. Anyone can take away your position, but no one can take away the power that comes from inside you.

We don’t need someone else to give us power to make a difference. We just need to trust in our own power. We do not need someone else to trust our vision if we are resourceful enough to trust our own vision and see it through. I’d rather have vision than position, especially if the position would suppress my vision.

May 19, 2018
by Maha Bali

Google’s Quickdraw – More Cultural Dominance in Machine Learning (a kind of AI)

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Hospital. Ambulance. Camouflage. Angel. Baseball bat. Nail. What kind of images come to mind when you see these words? How would you doodle them if you only had 20 seconds?

Google’s Quickdraw is an online web-based game that you can have fun with while you teach Google’s doodle recognition AI (yes, you’re helping train Google’s AI for no pay, but you already do that each time you use Google, so what’s new?)

Also not new? The way this neural network reproduces dominant culture. It does not harm anyone in the sense mentioned by Safiya Noble (stereotyping objectification of women of color) or Cathy O’Neill (increasing discrimination against African Americans in courts)… But it’s an almost transparent look at how the neural network learns from data sets and is therefore fascinating to watch… A bit like my undergraduate thesis, but more obvious to non-techie people because it’s visual.

Here is how it works. The game asks you to doodle a word it shows you in 20 seconds. Like pictionary. The Google AI is supposedly blind to that, and tries to guess what you’re drawing as you draw it, and if it guesses correctly, you move on to the next word. If not, you get the full 20 secs to keep trying. After 6 of these, you get to see your results. If you got it wrong, you can see what Google’s AI thought your drawing looks like. And what others had drawn that it considered correct.

Here are the main issues I have with this game (they’re not really issues I guess, except maybe the first two)

  1. The name Quick Draw. I originally didn’t think much of it, remembering a cartoon I once saw of a Western (mouse? Horse?) character called Quickdraw McGraw. But as soon as I mentioned this to hubby he asked me, “You know what it means, right?” and I suddenly realized it meant someone (cowboy I guess) who draws his gun quickly. Ugh. In a time of gun violence in the US causing so much tragic death in schools, and the ugly history of the West and what they did to native Americans.. They couldn’t find a more neutral name?
  2. Linguistic incompetence. I was pleasantly surprised to find the game available in many languages including French and Arabic. Not so pleasantly realizing you have to read the word Arabic in Latin alphabet to open the Arabic version and at way bottom of the screen not top. Not the coolest, and an easy fix imho. But that’s not a showstopper. However, the weird thing is that the Arabic version, even if you get one right (as in, Google’s AI recognized it as similar to what it learned) , when you click later to see details, tells you Google’s AI didn’t understand your drawing.
  3. Baseball. I cannot believe the French and Arabic versions ask for baseball as one of the key terms. Do they not know that very few people in the Arab world (much of the world?) play baseball? Rolling eyes
  4. Church and ambulance. A key aspect of what identifies a church or ambulance is a cross sign. You know in Israel they use a David’s star and in Muslim countries we use a red crescent, right? But the majority of data this neural network is seeing comes from Christian-culture countries. I’m gonna keep playing and see if the Arabic version expects a crescent. It should…. If it learns each language on its own… Or if it starts to connect across cultures. I think it connects across cultures because…
  5. Angel. I consistently got this one right. Even in the Arabic version (even though it says I’m wrong in the image I inserted earlier, because see #2). The reeally weird thing is that in Muslim culture (which is dominant among Arabic speakers), angels don’t look like this at all. I don’t know what they look like because we’re not supposed to depict them. So this is either a sign that the AI learns across languages… Or that Arabs doodle angels that look like Westerner angels because they don’t have their own imagery for angels. Interesting?
  6. Camouflage. This one was damn annoying. First of all, because connotation of camouflage for me is just how butterflies or chameleons blend with their background so their predators or enemies can’t see them. Apparently, the connotation for Americans is army uniforms intended for the same purpose. And to get it right, for the AI to understand me, I have to think like an American. Grr. Also, when I mentioned the term camouflage to an American yday she started saying it had an uncomfortable negative connotation for her and so obviously I understood she made an immediate connection to military. Not at all what came to my mind. A reminder that fluency in a language and familiarity with a culture are never identical to living that culture and being native to the language.
  7. Nail. I don’t know why they chose that word because it has multiple meanings. Nail as in fingernail or toenail, but also as in nail/hammer. Apparently most people thought fingernail coz the AI couldn’t at all understand the other kind of nail. I think eventually it will get smarter but that requires users to not learn to follow the AI, you know? For example, if people keep doing both types of nail, the AI should eventually learn both are OK, in the same way it understood a face view and a side view of a kangaroo (this is really cool btw).
  8. Envelope in Arabic. This one was just weird. The word it used to say envelope in Arabic made no sense to me. And I am familiar with 3 different dialects of Arabic. I don’t understand where the word they used come from. I’ve already forgotten it, actually!
  9. Stop sign. Oh no. The Arabic stop sign expects u to write Stop in English not Arabic. It clearly isn’t differentiating between languages. It’s possible it’s not programmed to find that difference. I wonder if it might learn that on its own or if it has no idea what language input the user sees… Depends what variables it’s allowed to consider while it learns (and that’s how machine learning differs from human learning).

So that’s my reaction to it.

It is a fun game though. I let my kid play as a fun way to practice reading and drawing and we discuss the cultural connotations, too. It’s fun for me to see how other people draw things…

And I discovered this game by a fun coincidence that my students discovered it while doing some ds106 assignments for extra credit! Lucky me 😉

May 12, 2018
by Maha Bali

Quick Cynefin Example

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I need a quick Cynefin example to use in a session with educators who are not necessarily academics so I need simple language to demonstrate complex ideas 🙂

Here is the example. It may be off base, so please tell me if so. It relates to a student who is struggling with reading

  1. If the student reads well up close but badly from afar, this is a SIMPLE problem with an OBVIOUS solution. Get theirceyes checked and get them glasses. Or move them to sit forward in class closer to the board.
  2. If the student reads equally badly up close and afar, and also has spelling issues, consider Dyslexia, which is less well-known in Egypt and not usually an opthalmologist’s domain, but an expert can analyze, figure out if iti s dyslexia and what degree it is, and ther are ways to gelp the person become a better reader with time, usually. This waa a complicated  problem that needed expert opinion and analysis, but once the expert works on it, they can figure out a solution with time.
  3. If the student learned to read and passed tests one year then the next year were unable to read, this seems like an unknown problem with unclear solutions. It could be any number of social, cultural, psychlogical or physical things, and will require probing. It is a complex problem requiring us to try different things to understand and solve it, and an expert cannot work alone on it because it needs to involve other people (stakeholders) to solve it
  4. If an entir class of students suddenly cannot read and they have an exam tomorrow this is a chaotic situatuon (in this case probably sci fi hehe) and you would not know where to start but you try all kinds of things coz there is no time to probe first…

I am less confident about the 4th one. Do these sound reasonable or am I conflating things? 

Thanks in advance for feedback. I am not using any of the examples usually used with Cynefin coz they didn’t feel right. But I will look them over now.


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