Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

January 13, 2018
by Maha Bali

Two Hits, One Day: Against Empathy & Intercultural framing

Reading Time: 7 minutes

For some reason, I ended up reading two articles today that argue against two things I hold dear: empathy and Intercultural learning. Strangely, it’s only 8.30am and I’m partway through both of them (even reading a poem by McLuhan in between and a blogpost by Mike Caulfield … I’m a non-linear reader of even short articles, apparently) and I’m agreeing with them, though not particularly seeing the extremity of their points, if that makes sense?

Against Empathy – Paul Bloom

It’s important to note the article I’m reading is not the entirety of his work; he has a book, too. But I don’t know if I’m gonna invest in the book. I already have ideas of “beyond empathy” that are about participation – i.e. not letting our empathy guide us to support others but letting those others participate fully in decisions about how we should help them. I also recently wrote about the dangers of the Charitable Gaze.

Anyway, so Paul Bloom is focusing mainly on emotional not cognitive empathy, and he argues that

compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

He also mentions the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (I don’t think I’d heard of him – probably because although empathy interests me v much, I never had time to research it properly) who provides different levels of empathy . He argues, and I think he’s right (Bloom, not Baron-Cohen) that being too empathetic can be an extreme in the way selfishness is an extreme. I know this because I fall sometimes towards that extreme and it’s disturbing to continually absor other people’s emotions or distress. I think, for the most part, it doesn’t paralyze me or make me a less helpful person (will give examples in a minute) but it drives me nuts to empathize with two perspectives at once who are at odds with each other. It’s difficult rationally but it’s really devastating emotionally, Bloom says “experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout”. I think that’s where I was at during DigPed in Fredericksburg and it was difficult for me emotionally. It’s also what makes me tolerate people treating me certain ways because I “understand what they’re going through” and somewhat silly sounding statements like that. Bloom says

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety.

 Two quick examples of where extreme empathy is clearly bad, and that are NOT me. When my dad passed away, one of my cousins cried and wailed so badly everyone was patting her and taking care of her. She’s more than 10 years my senior. I was pregnant when my dad passed and I was completely calm and did not cry until 2 days later alone with my husband in our bedroom. The problem with my cousin’s empathy (she wasn’t even close to my dad, she’s my cousin from my mom’s side who grew up in another place and lives far away) is that her empathy was harmful for the people closer to the situation. When people should have been focused on ME, she took all the attention. And while I seem to just naturally be calm and dry-eyed during extreme situations, I cry easily at movies and such. 

A similar (kinda funny story) happened at home yesterday. My husband turned off the lights by mistake while I was handling a sharp object and I hurt myself. When I yelled for him to turn the lights on and showed a drop of blood, we heard our kid crying really badly so we rushed to her, worried she had hurt herself, too. Turns out she was crying because I was hurt. I had to explain to her that this wasn’t a helpful way to respond to other people’s pain (if my injury had been more serious, she would have just delayed my treatment of it, to bad results for me).

Anyway. Back to Bloom. He also makes a point that I agree with and have mentioned before, that empathy is biased. We empathize more with people who look like us (or are closer to us in some cultural sense or other), and those who look attractive. He also emphasizes that empathy for individuals we know or who are in front of us may eclipse larger issues happening far away…and he’s right. I’m not sure, really, what can or should be done about this, because it seems to me natural (if not socially just) but also problematic to go with the rationality he is bringing because what if we support those far away but they don’t support those close to enough, reciprocally, when the time comes? I don’t know, really. 

Anyway. The article gets better (in term of breadth of other sources it mentions) and while I will quote this next section, I find myself wondering how much of our emotional empathy is within our control (I feel like I can control my empathetic pain in order to support others and assume my cousin did not do that when my dad died – but was it a matter of choice?) and how emotional detachment may distort our priorities. But here’s the quote 

Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

Bloom cites another author called Jamison (I think she used to act like a patient for medical student exams) who writes that “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” wow. Interesting. I didn’t see that one coming.

Next up in the article is an interesting twist. A psychologist called Hare who has a standard test for psychopathic tendencies (which is probably the extreme opposite of empathetic). Reading on, it becomes interesting to note that actually psychopaths are often good at cognitive empathy, reading others’ minds, but lack emotional empathy. Then again, psychopaths tend to lack emotions of all kinds, so not empathy only. In the end, Bloom concludes and uses other research to show empathy or lack thereof isn’t a predictor of whether someone would be a criminal psychopath or an aggressive person. Another example following all this is studies of people on the autism spectrum: their (seeming) lack of empathy does not (usually) result in them being criminal or aggressive people. (I found this a weird example, kind of offensive to people on the autism spectrum, but maybe he just means to isolate lack of empathy from other human characteristics). 

Near the end of the article, the author calls studies on empathy weak because they depend on self-report. While I understand individuals have distorted views of themselves and their motives (and can lie), there really is no reason to believe any external measure is more accurate! But maybe he’s a postpositivist and I can’t argue with him if that’s his standpoint. 

His overall moral conclusion (sounds good, if a little didactic) is this:

Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.

And he contrasts anger with empathy, and the importance of channeling it sometimes, that anger isn’t always a bad thing (he gives the example of Martin Luther King Jr) but too much of it, irrationally used, is dangerous. And he argues empathy is similar.

I’d say this guy’s argument is rationally quite solid, but I have 3 questions 

  1. Is he dismissing emotionality in general and advancing rationality, and is he suggesting that kindness and compassion can stem from a cognitive and emotionally distanced space? If so, it feels very white Western male centric and does not resonate with me (as much as I myself tend to be stoic when I’m in the midst of personally distressing situations like a loved ones death or pain) 
  2. Is he assuming empathetic response, particularly the emotional kind, can be controlled? And what kind of relationship does he suggest exists between cognitive and emotional empathy? Don’t they feed off one another sometimes?
  3. Can I use it in my class? if so, there are articles responding to him and I should have also articles about empathy separate from it so we can see multiple perspectives and students have time for introspection. I’d say Lina Mounzer’s article shows extreme empathy without discussing empathy per se. Students found it much more powerful than BBC Syrian Refugees game (though perhaps we should explore the site furher), for example, but did either of those spur anyone to action? Did we change our attitudes? 

I’m gonna go back to previous blogposts of mine about empathy and decide what to do. Such as this class activity idea building on narrative games and inspired by an Audrey Watters article and a TEE Talk… and this on empathetic distance and empathy as luxury this one on empathic feeling, thinking and praxis and there’s even more than I remember. I would not want students to read my own so it doesn’t seem like I’m biasing them, so maybe they can read the original sources I’m referring to. I’ll see how much of this will be possible this semester. And it kind of does relate to the second part of this blogpost… 

Intercultural vs Postcultural

Simon Ensor sent this article, in response to yday’s blogpost inviting people to #FlipIntercultural

I agree with some of the premises of the article. I don’t know if it means I have a Postcultural view of intercultural or if I’m doing it all wrong (I know I tend to have a postmodern take on many things without necessarily seeing that there is something wrong with the thing itself). 

I tweeted in response, and I’m just copying the text I wrote there into this blogpost (haven’t finished the article yet):

Article has a v specific context (people in Nordic countries of other ethnic origins)… I do agree that “which differences are the most important in a communication process remain an open empirical question.” and is itself contextual. But intercultural learning in a context of all same nationality is diff from international.

Strangely, I introduce students to Intersectionality and hybridity before we ever mention intercultural learning and never saw a disconnect. I think Intersectionality and hybridity define culture in more fuzzy ways, but it’s still culture. E.g. culture incorporates gender.

So while each person may have their own personality (not covered by any larger cultural grouping), being an “engineer” or “female” or “black” or “Muslim” all work together to form a culture where we share parts w some others and some not, to an extent.

And like… Muslim women of Arab origin will have some stuff in common that differentiates them from Muslim men of Arab origin, and Christian women of Arab origin, and Muslim Women of non-Arab origin. But which dimension is most prominent in a specific context differs.

End tweets.

Now looking back to the article…

I agree to this:

I do not claim that culture/ethnicity is never the main reason for misunderstandings in politics, love or inefficient communication, but I do argue that 1) culture/ethnicity is to be seen as interwoven with other social categories, 2) culture/ethnicity is to be seen in relation to a specific context, and 3) which differences are the most important in a communication process remain an open empirical question.

I just never thought that recognizing hybridity and intersectionality was different from intercultural – I thought it was just a different way of conceptualizing culture….

Now the article highlights two dominant approaches to intercultural communication: functionalistic and constructivist. This is new to me. I have a chapter on intercultural learning in my PhD and never came across this framing, but probably because I was focused on intercultural learning rather than communication? 

I’ll have to come back to this in a separate blogpost because I don’t have time to finish reading now!

January 11, 2018
by Maha Bali

Invitation to #FlipIntercultural: Flipping the Script on Intercultural Learning #Unicollaboration 

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was invited to give a keynote at the upcoming Uni-Collaboration conference in Krakow, Poland. Although Sarah Guth (who invited me) was extremely thoughtful in inviting me waaaaay ahead of time (like 18 months’ notice!) I am unfortunately unable to go, and will be giving it virtually, April 26 inshallah – stay tuned. On the plus side, it’s a conference about teleconferencing for learning, so the folks there will totally get this format! Among them, wonderful people like Teresa Mackinnon and Francesca Helm whom I’d met in-person here in Cairo via consulting work we were doing for

I’ve had a LOT of time to think about what I might talk about for this conference… Trying to choose between focusing on my own experience with Soliya, my students’ experiences with Soliya last semester, or my very own intercultural learning experiences via Virtually Connecting and such.

In the end, something suddenly clicked for me today. I’d pick a theme. One that’s been circling through my head for a LONG time, and get examples from ALL of these. Better yet, I would invite others to offer examples, which I would quote them for. And during the conference I would ask people to share examples using the mic onsite, or virtually via Twitter or similar.

So the theme is: flipping the script on intercultural learning.

I’ll probably open with one of the most shocking things that happened to me that flipped the script this year. One that doesn’t, at first glance, refer to intercultural learning, but which really does. I’ll go back to it later after I finish everything else. I’ll recount particular conceptions I had originally about intercultural dialogue, and how they were changed in the past couple of years. I’ll ask the audience what they think of each thing before I talk about it.

While drafting this blogpost, my notes, which had about 10 examples in them on a Google doc, somehow got lost in the ether. So I had to stop and rewrite them before inspiration evaporated. Hope I’ll get more examples overnight as I sleep on it. And maybe I’ll think of a good children’s book to insert into the keynote as well! Seems to be one of my favorite things to do lately…

But in the meantime, why don’t YOU help me out? What kind of assumptions did you have before, about intercultural learning, have recently been challenged or changed? I’ll take as many as you are willing to give me and try to incorporate them all into my keynote… Quoting or citing you by name or Twitter handle, whichever you prefer.

So please leave a comment or Tweet back to me with hashtag #FlipIntercultural

Note that my intention is to livestream and record the session inshallah and do vconnecting afterwards. Will post details on my blog just before

January 10, 2018
by Maha Bali

My Final (Teaching) Reflection for Fall 2017 Part 1/3

Reading Time: 8 minutes

This reflection has been on my mind for a while, and I thought I would write it here and do it this way. 


The course is Core 2096, “Digital literacies with an intercultural context” and falls under our core curriculum Global World studies options. My class had students from different majors, fron sophomore to senior level. The public messy syllabus with many comments from my PLN is here. The course website (with aggregated student blogs and some details of major assignments is here). 

I’m co-authoring a chapter on Global Citizenship Education with my colleague and friend who observed my class all semester (for both our professional development and to prep for potential co-teaching) + 3 of my students from the semester inshallah. 

I’m considering doing it as a collaborative autoethnography. And I thought one way to start it off would be to do a final course reflection in a similar vein to what students did. Students wrote an overall reflection on the course, plus sections on three questions for three topics. The topics were digital literacies, global citizenship, and Intercultural learning. The questions were

  1. What are the most important aspects of this?
  2. Which course activities or assessments helped you learn this best?
  3. How could it be done better in future, or which assessments/activities would you change?

    I figured it might be cool if my observer friend and myself wrote our own reflection as a contribution to the autoethnography and then we get common themes across the 5 authors then supplement by adding our comments on each others’ + getting comments from other students’ reflections on their blogs.

    Overall course reflection 

    This course was extremely satisfying for me. First time I design and teach (mostly alone) an undergraduate course at AUC from scratch. First time I teach a non-freshman and non-grad student group. First time I teach about digital literacies, intercultural learning and global citizenship, even though I’ve written about them all and facilitated workshops and such on them. First time someone observes me all semester, and first time I ask my colleagues to do a Mid-semester assessment via SGID. First time I try a slightly radical holistic grading approach that involves students a bit more in understanding how grades work and what they mean and such (this was very tricky and needs tweaking). I also generally took lots of feedback from students throughout the semester and tweaked the course based on it, which worked mostly well, but probably frustrated some students – I did feel it was important in a course on citizenship that students have a voice, and I saw how some students felt they could tell me about things that bothered them and it got more intense near end of semester. First time I teach with a Soliya component (mixed results – more on that soon). First time I try to involve Wikipedia (the workshop was maybe 80% fail, and because of that it halted the project I had planned based on it, but some students still learned something useful and I’ve learned something to help me go forward). First time I ask students to do podcasts. Even though I didn’t give too much support and guidance, those mostly came out GREAT imho, and I tried flexible deadlines on this one, which I thought worked well for everyone. I’ll get into details of specific assignments as I go into each of the main course topics… But without looking at my stated learning outcomes, I know that I hoped students would get a little of each of the following to varying degrees (depending on their own interests and needs and starting points) 

    1. Digital literacies – gain some new digital skills, improve confidence with digital tools, old and new, and be critical users of the digital (know what to use when, when not to use something, and how to use something for a higher purpose such as activism). I feel this mostly happened but I did not do enough on privacy/security issues and failed to ever enact my idea of an activity around terms and conditions 
    2. Intercultural learning – explore their own identities, recognize their own hybridity and that of others, understand their own biases and be able to explore deep or controversial issues with people different from themselves in a constructive manner…and learn more about themselves and others in the process, gaining empathy along the way. Soliya helped with this, but also some course activities. I failed to prepare students for the tougher questions like how to respond when someone singles them out to speak on behalf of terrorists who work in the name of Islam. I didn’t always (often didn’t?) capitalize enough on the diversities in the classroom for fear of singling people out for scrutiny. I should probably give students opportunities to interact with others across the world beyond Soliya – I plan to this semester inshallah and most won’t be American (a specific request by this semester’s students).
    3. Global citizenship – explore their place in the world, as privileged Egyptians with a role to play locally and internationally, develop a sense of responsibility and a social justice orientation. This one sort of crept up on me (this as a learning goal) while I was participating in a taskforce on developing peace and civic education values module at AUC, which we later renamed Egyptian global citizenship. It was Jason Dorio’s visit to my class and how much it sparked students’ interest that made me try to circle back to it. I still don’t think we did enough of this, and I think students were right to suggest at end of semester that they should have done a community project where they actually made a difference in a real way beyond the classroom. I also felt I should have been better prepared for dealing with issues that might be triggered points for some students. It worked out alright in the end, but could have gone the other way.

    [side note: because this group were interested in education, I did a spontaneous trial of my curriculum theory workshop with them that worked really well, and we had multiple discussions on education. This was not in the original course design anywhere]

    Digital literacies 

    I’m gonna just do questions 2&3, since I’ve already written an article and given a podcast interview on the topic! 

    The GOOD:Activities that we did that went WELL

    1. Exploring digital literacies activity. This was a long assignment to make up for a class that was canceled due ot unexpected national holiday. I loved this activity because it used two OERs demonstrating the potential of OERs, and involved students doing many useful things including exploring their own digital literacies, and checking out two modules from All Aboard of interest to them to develop a dimension of digital literacy they wanted to work on. It also involved them doing parts of an OERu course, which included reading an article differentiating between digital literacies and skills, by me, and contributing to annotation of it (it was already quite full of annotations so it demonstrated power of and some students mentioned liking that). The OERu course also had other activities. I loved this assignment and would do it again. It needs time, so I’ll make sure students have 10 days or so to do it, as it’s really 3 parts. I like the self-paced aspects and the choices they have to self-reflect and do what they’re interested in for some parts 
    2. Mike Caulfield’s book – Web Literacy for Student Fact-checkers. I divided students into groups (of non-friends) to prepare different chapters of the book and present to class, with an activity. This went mostly well, most groups did well and had interesting activities. The podium internet was problematic that day but we worked around it, which in itself was digital literacy. 
    3. Digital narrative games project is among my favorites (second time I do it – did it first in my games class last year). These older students did much more thoughtful games and my biggest regret is that I didn’t have an avenue for them to playtest them more extensively with others. Next semester I hope to give more weight to this project, involve others (namely Mia Zamora and Alan Levine’s students) and use past students games as examples beyond existing examples there.
    4. Podcasting project. This was a very strange instance where I gave students quite a lot of freedom and limited guidelines but I really liked the results (and strangely I didn’t check on process, which is unlike me – but I did want to keep the freedom element). Students could work on groups of 2-3 or alone. They had a choice of many topics. They had a flexible deadline. They didn’t want to do drafts so they mostly submitted a good one to begin with. The changes I would make might be to assign it earlier in the semester and also make sure someone listened to it beyond our class.
    5. Mark Warschauer’s article on Dissecting the Digital Divide was a good choice for this class because students had particular interest in education AND in Egyptian issues. They found the article useful (I love that it’s critical) but outdated. For the future, I will search for newer stuff. Egyptian or nearby. It may end up being some of my own writing on the matter. I think I would keep Warschauer though. Perhaps invite a local speaker on the subject. 
    6. Sherri Turkle. We had a great discussion around a Sherri Turkle talk (TED Talk?) and students got really engaged and were very interested in talking about impact of technology on the younger generation. My biggest regret is that I didn’t contrast her work with that of Sonja Livingstone’s which I find more constructive and just generally more applicable. 
    7. Social media activism was covered by two different groups of students. One group talked participatory culture and one social media and Egyptian revolution. One of those presentations was excellent, the other less so. Maybe I should do these presentations earlier in the semester to give myself time to recap the topics in more detail if needed rather than have them just covered once by a group of students (I should discuss the entire process of these presentations which I developed during second half of semester and tweaked along the way – but it doesn’t fall under a particular category here. I’ll see…)
    8. Blogging and use of Slack. Indirectly kind of learning these two 🙂 Should have done more effort in terms of students reading each others’ blogs, giving feedback on good blogging and such…and reminding them to cite CC images. .. But overall they seemed to get used to blogging quickly and some said they enjoyed the less formal writing. They took somw time to warm up to Slack but i think knowing they could get a quick response from me on a private message and that we could share docs quickly on it during class time helped. It’s about using the right tool for the right thing, you know? 

    The BAD

    I would have to say the failure was the Wikipedia idea. The workshop didn’t go great. My bad for not asking for an English-speaking workshop facilitator and not clarifying that AUC students caliber required a more advanced, hands-on and interactive type of workshop. I also had the misconception that my students might like editing in Arabic. They didn’t. So finding articles for them to improve upon in English would have required more forethought. In future, If I do this again, I’ll give the workshop myself and possibly ask a Wikimedian friend (or more) from Europe to answer the students questions. The only reason I’m taking the European friends is that

    A. I have them via my PLN and they have experience with this


    B. I can answer the Egyptian oriented questions (learned enough from the volunteer who gave us the workshop and have many resources from online network and her). My reflection at the time ended up here on my blog.


    We talked about issues like catfishing (used some of Alan Levine’s tweets on it) and all kinds of issues related to security and safety online in a class session (using some parts of a vconnecting with Miranda Dean at DigPed last year). Two student presentations focused on these topics and they did REALLY WELL engaging their classmates. I do wish I had incorporated the resources better. I used some of the videos for different things, but next semester inshallah I’ll do a better job of it. Perhaps different groups working on different provocations for the same class session. 

    I also think, given my own interest in these things, I should have talked more about inequalities in access to technology and such for women and people in the global South, and also to talk about things like bias in Google algorithms, ethical issues in how Facebook and other social media exploit us (platform capitalism). I’m working on writing up some of this for an open access book chapter with Cheryl Brown – and adding those things to what Cheryl has written, I have quite a few more references and resources and ideas for activities to do! Goes to show you how writing book chapters can help you become a better teacher – both the one with Cheryl and the one I’m writing this blogpost for…

    Oh. And we didn’t tweet. I missed tweeting with my class. If we’re working with Alan and Mia next semester, we probably gotta tweet. And annotate a bit more (though we did a semi-spontaneous Copenhagen letter annotation and others joined in).

    I need to stop now to sleep…be back soon…inshallah, to talk about the other aspects of the course. 

    December 30, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    The Charitable Gaze

    Reading Time: 4 minutes

    I gave a workshop on critical pedagogy earlier this week… And you know it was a good workshop when the dialogue results in some consciousness-raising for the facilitator (in this case, me).

    A participant made me think of the kind of power and potential harm exerted by the “charitable gaze”. She never used that term, but she was talking about people who visit orphanages in Egypt with gifts or to play with the kids. And how their visits did damage in multiple ways

    1. It reinforced in the mind of orphans that they were “different”
    2. It often carried what resembles (in my interpretation) colonial or patriarchal benevolence – assumptions about what the children lack or need… Which may be incorrectly placed, or when correctly placed, given from a position of superiority. It made me think of the great concept in Islam of giving charity while letting the recipient have the upper hand (literally and metaphorically to preserve their pride)
    3. It included forced hospitality. She told me that children in orphanages should have a say in who gets to visit them and when, and how they would receive them. Instead, orphanages often receive these visits and the administration are consulted, while children are merely informed and prepared to look a certain way and expected to interact. This would not normally happen to autonomous people, although, granted, kids aren’t usually consulted about their parents having dinner parties or such, nor do they constantly have control over who visits when. But occasionally they do, right, have a say in playdates for example. Orphans have no say.
    4. The look of pity in these charitable visitors’ eyes in itself influences how Orphans see themselves.

    I’ve layered my interpretation on what she said, but those are essentially her ideas. I told her that her description made me feel it was akin to the gaze we give animals in a zoo. It was deeply offensive to do so to fellow human beings.

    She mentioned how it would preserve their pride more if people sent them gifts without coming personally to deliver them. At first, that seemed odd. But I thought about pride again. Think about this. What feels better to your pride, getting a tip in your hand or a salary in a bank account? (privileged person speaking here)

    Strangely, this whole notion of “gaze” (probably coz already tied in with postcolonial, racial and feminist discourses) led me to reflect on a few things related to my students’ intercultural learning experiences this semester. To be a Muslim and to be asked to respond about terrorism or sexism/patriarchy in your country… It is exoticizing and it pushes young people into a corner. You know why this is a big deal? Because there is so much that is dysfunctional about Western esp American society, race and gender and more…. And yet they manage to export a much more positive view on themselves, that Egyptian students do not immediately think of those things. Instead, they’re stuck trying to defend the negative stereotypes, which is all their (in this case) American counterparts “know” about them. And it’s a gaze that backs them into a corner. I felt it strongly on Twitter recently and I’m older and hopefully wiser than my students, and it’s an awful feeling.

    This feeling of someone who knows nothing about you but one of your labels (orphan, Muslim) and uses it to corner you, stripping away all the other dimensions of your personality and identity.

    And the one remedy I can think of for this is to replace these one-off or occasional interactions with the “other” with sustained, long-term, mutually agreed upon (formally or not) relationships that people can opt in or out of without blame. When you get to know someone, the whole person, over time, perhaps over mutual interests, it then becomes an entirely different conversation. In fact, you probably don’t have the same conversation. Cases in point? A friend who never discussed Islamic fundamentalism with me, but spoke (of his own accord) in defense of the majority of non-violent Muslims… Because he knows ME, and he knows I’m not an exception to a rule. Other examples? People who, without asking me, understand gender issues I face, and others who dig deep sometimes to try and understand better. But after they’ve gained my trust as friends.

    One of the things people miss sometimes on a space like Twitter is that it takes time to build a relationship of trust so you can actually have meaningful dialog around controversial topics and not offend or cause damage.

    The charitable gaze holds similar issues. It’s fleeting, pitying, not truly understanding all the dimensions, and thus potentially damaging and offensive under a mask of benevolence.

    AND suddenly I think of all foreign aid that comes our way. And unlike charity, which can really be altruistic, if misguided, foreign aid has political agendas, and economic interests to uphold. And I wish there were ways to halt the dependence on foreign aid that sets our agenda for us, decides for us what we need from their own worldview and offer help in ways that are bound to benefit them back (take military aid, buy our weapons ; take education aid, buy our hardware and training expertise – but never enough that you can scale it and never need aid again!)

    I’ll stop here before I go on more tangents. But yeah. Charitable gaze. Google doesn’t know it, but it’s a thing, I tell you.

    December 24, 2017
    by Maha Bali
    1 Comment

    To Love But to Hate AI…

    Reading Time: 4 minutes

    I recently published an article on Prof Hacker highlighting some of my pedagogical objections to AI, adaptive learning and learning analytics. All of them potentially using machine learning or some form of AI, but not necessarily. 

    I’ve got two things on my mind right now, following up on this. 

    First, I found a lot of really good writing/research around those topics AFTER I published the article. I’ll share that later.

    Second, just because I object to the use of AI and such in those contexts doesn’t mean I reject them in ALL contexts. For example, Andy Nobes recently published an article reflecting on and quoting some Francophone Sub-Saharan African articles that take a decolonizing perspective on Open Access. The articles are brilliant, and written in French. Andy doesn’t read French, but he says Google Translate did a GREAT job. That’s brilliant AI (and brilliant Andy, thank you!). Apparently, Google Translate also does well on Spanish and German. Let me now tell you, Google Translate does much much worse for Arabic. On the very positive side, this allows us for the most part to read content in another language, previously inaccessible (or at least, less conveniently accessible) to us. The Twitter app also has a simple translate option that uses Bing. So now I’m going to be more intentionally reading material online that comes in unfamiliar languages. Another positive AI-type thing is YouTube’s automatic closed captioning which works brilliantly for native English accents. Not so for less familiar English accents that aren’t American or British, apparently. So the downside of all the positive is this: which languages and accents become more accessible because of this AI, and which do not? And what does this mean for a decolonizing agenda (yes, I looped this back to Andy’s article rounding up those awesome articles)? This means that languages with common Latin/Anglo-Saxon roots (arguably easier to translate to each other, but also arguably belonging to the economically and culturally dominant of the world) become accessible to each other and to people who speak/read them…while languages that are less so…remain less accessible. I mean, obviously, Arabic is among the languages that gets a lot of work done (lots of speakers of it in the world and online), but it’s also more work to make it work well. I have been thinking recently that lots of the work related to developing literacy, for example, in English, does not apply easily to Arabic because of the diglossia and that problematic discord between written and spoken language making it more complex to teach reading and writing the language to its own native speakers. And back to YouTube, of course it’s natural that native accents are easier to do auto closed captioning for. There’s a larger dataset of them, and a relatively stable set of sounds to look for – versus non-native accents which are probably too diverse to include fully. Having said that, I don’t know how they train their algorithms and if there might be a way to help the algorithm by specifically training it for Nigerian-English accents (arguably native, just not white native) or for Arabic-English accents (not native, but for non-fluent speakers, carries some particular quirks like pronouncing this as zis and such – keeping in mind that also other non-native accents would make that zis sound, like French). So I don’t know where I’m at with that. But thinking about how decisions are made when designing these solutions and what kind of information becomes more accessible to whom…

    The other thing is a TV show on Nickelodeon called “I Am Frankie”. It’s not the first show about human-like robots ever. We’ve had those for years. I remember one I used to watch growing up, and I know there are soooo many I don’t even need to remind you of them 🙂 I would argue, though, that more of what’s in it now is on the cusp of being imaginable. Natural language processing exists and works well in many contexts. We know much more about human brains and machine learning. So Frankie isn’t like a totally unimaginable sci fi thing. Just look at the robot Saudi Arabia just gave citizenship to!

    But this one is about a teen Android and a variety of villains in the episodes trying to get their hands on her or reveal her secret (she poses as a high school student). I’ll leave lots of this aside and say I am most uncomfortable with the emotional part of it. I just read Audrey’s piece about the new behaviorism in edtech that uses social-emotional-learning and that whole approach has been making me uncomfortable. What I’m most uncomfortable about in this Frankie thing is that she has emotions or something. She develops feelings for this guy. His sister is her best friend abs knows she is a robot. Her sister sees nothing wrong with encouraging this relationship even though she knows Frankie is a robot. When the guy she likes finds out, he’s angry for a while and then he’s SORRY?!??? He’s sorry he got mad at her for hiding that she was a robot?!? What are they trying to encourage here? The viewer is almost brainwashed into loving Frankie (who is of course a human being acting) and dismissing all the villains trying to get their hands on her in order to weaponize her for evil purposes. I mean, REALLY? We’re going down that route of maybe it’s ok for a human and robot to fall in love (OK I know it’s not the first time ever this concept gets put in front of us, not by a long shot, but it matters to me more now because this human-like robot is much closer to being a reality than it used to be).

    I need to stop now

    Here are some of those AI resources I was talking about:

    From a conference (organized by Berkmann Klein center?) – Charting a Roadmap to Ensure AI Benefits All

    Gdoc copy (because Medium is blocked here. Thanks Laura G

    Elana Zeide peer-reviewed article

    AI and disability

    Why women desperately need to design AI

    More soon

    December 23, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    A Teacher’s Right to Know, A Student’s Right to Silence 

    Reading Time: 3 minutes

    I just submtted my grades today. A relief once that’s done, isn’t it? Well, not always, but usually. 

    One of the things I always tell my students early on is this: if you have any special circumstances that make it difficult for you to attend class or to submit work on time, try to tell me as early as possible. Before or immediately after if possible. Some students do this; others really don’t. 

    Over the years, I’ve had some students who let me know everything so I could help them as much as I could – with incompletes, accepting late assignments, stuff like that. I’ve had this semester the type of students who emailed or sent Slack messages when they would be stuck in traffic, those who let me know they’d miss class for a doctor’s appointment or an athletics event, those who let me know about illness or passing of relatives. When I find a student missing lots of classes or assignments (I have a loose attendance policy in the sense that I don’t take attendance but I know my students so I notice their absence and when they miss lots of in-class work there isn’t really a way to make up for it – how do you replicate some class discussions and activities that happened in that particular class?) – anyway when I notice a student missing a couple things, I email them and ask them to see me. I do that several times if they don’t respond and continue to disappear; but after a while, if they don’t explain themselves and don’t submit stuff, I stop with the emails, but tell them when they do show up. I think I almost don’t give up on them up until classes end. 

    But there are some I just can’t help. And it always feels bad. It always feels as if I should have tried harder. But this semester , I know I tried. I know most of my class understood the value of talking to me.

    When a student comes at the end of the semester and tells me they’ve been having a rough semester and special circumstances (but they tell me this near very end of semester) but they don’t really tell me details or how I can help.

    I’m thinking at this point that there’s a conflict between a student’s right to their privacy and my right as a teacher to know what’s going on. I mean, can/should the teacher be expected to help if they don’t know? Even if a teacher knows, is their judgment necessarily objective? I’ve heard, for example, of teachers who won’t make accommodations for students who have learning difficulties like ADHD or dyslexia. I also know the passing of relatives is different for each person. One person’s grandparent or uncle might affect them as deeply as a parent, even though rationally we don’t expect it to. 

    I don’t think it’s fair to treat students as if they’re the same. They aren’t. 

    I tried some new kinds of freedoms this semester. For example, I gave students a particular assignment with a “choose your own deadline” and several of them gave themselves earlier deadlines and met them. I asked groups of students to present certain topics of their choice using two readings I assigned and adding one of their own choice (the idea of group presentations was one suggested by the students themselves). 

    I did, for the first time, holistic grading. I discussed with students what it might mean to qualitatively assign an A or B or such. I focused on giving feedback on what they did well and what they could have done better – rather than giving a number (I did occasionally give numbers but it did not work great for me because I don’t like giving numbers and they end up being misunderstood – e.g. a 7/10 looks like a C, when I was thinking more like “good but missing a few elements”.) 

    Anyway. I’m curious what others think about right to know and right to privacy and all that… 

    December 16, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    Tweeting Against Prejudice

    Reading Time: 2 minutes

    I’ve been through a strange week where a few people on Twitter started kind of attacking me or putting me on the spot to defend Islam and Muslims in ways that I felt, after engaging with them a little, were antagonistic and not genuinely trying to listen or understand. Many of my friends considered it trolling. I have a little more tolerance for this kind of thing.

    One of them wanted me to retract my thoughts on Muslims feeling safe in today’s America… Based on the fact that some terrorists continue to exert violence in the name of Islam. For me, this kind of point is obvious. Either you are a person who is willing to entertain the idea that most Muslims are moderate and don’t have violent/terrorist tendencies (just like most people of any religion) and that those terrorists are interpreting Islam in their own ways, or you are not. If you believe that, you don’t need me to convince you. If you don’t believe it, there isn’t much I can say to convince you otherwise, because as one religion scholar once said, any person can take any religious text and interpret it for their purposes. Quran, Bible, other texts have all kinds of things in them. If you want to support the hypothesis that Islam is a violent religion you will find it. If you want to support that Islam is a peaceful religion you will find it. Only a contextual interpretation of the entire text will show the relativism and when Islam considers violence justified (mostly in defense when peaceful means aren’t available and you cannot immigrate to avoid oppression, for example) and then a rational and empathetic extrapolation onto present-day circumstances (also completely open to interpretation based on your worldview) can help. And man, those things ain’t tweetable. Although I keep thinking there are many Quranic verses that are short and eloquent, responding with those would be reductionist and would open the door for another person to respond with an equally brief verse which says something to support their perspective. And that’s not the point. 

    Another person wanted to discuss gender in Islam. I explained to her that yes governments and individuals in Muslim-majority countries tend to have gender oppression and patriarchy but that it was a matter of patriarchal men interpreting Islam, rather than something inherent in Islam. And she kept going back to it being a fault in Islam. If someone repeatedly doesn’t have a willingness to entertain the concept of a religion being separate from the implementation of religion by fallible human beings, I have no idea how to respond. Again there are verses. But that’s beside the point. 

    I may yet decide to make a collection of tweetable verses anyway! 

    December 13, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    Hidden Curriculum of a Cartoon

    Reading Time: 3 minutes

    This is a good school-related story gone bad. I was at first elated when my kid told me about a cartoon her teacher showed in religion class, where the story behind a Quranic verse they’re learning is told. The Quranic chapter is called “The Elephant” and tells the story of how the Kaaba was almost destroyed by Abraha and his army riding elephants (no idea why they owned elephants!) but was saved by special birds God sent to kill them (violent stuff). Prophet Muhammad was born that year, and at the time, years were called after significant events, so it was “the year of the elephant”.

    So I decided to add the video to my playlist since she liked it and to try to find more.

    The part that annoyed the heck out of me when I watched is that when the cartoon depicts Abraha and his people, there is an abundance of crosses. As in, symbols of Christianity. 

    First of all, I never knew this guy was Christian. But at the time, Mecca was overwhelmingly pagan, and people used the Kaaba to pray to statues and not God. If Abraha was Christian, it would make total sense as a monotheist that he would find this something attackable. I’m not endorsing lack of religious freedom, but thinking historically, it was a normal thing for monotheists to try to spread their religion in these ways. Though of course we don’t know about intentions. But superficially, it wouldn’t have seemed like a bad thing. In Islamic tradition, the person who actually explained to Muhammad that he was a prophet was a Christian, Waraqa Ibn Noufal.

    But the BIG PROBLEM I have with it is that Egypt is living at a time when we really need to build a constructive, harmonious society. Showing a video like this subtly hints to kids that people who wear a cross are “bad” and that’s just the worst message you can give and the image may stay deep in their subconscious. So now I’m gonna have to watch it with her again and explain that in fact most people who wear crosses are good, they are our friends, they believe in God, too. And she doesn’t yet understand much about religion. 

    I often find myself explaining to her some religious concepts by discussing cartoons with superheroes and supervillains. There’s a particular one she watches these days called Miraculous Ladybug and Cat Noir, and the supervillain Hawk Moth really helped me explain the concept of the devil that gets to people to make them temporarily do bad things.

    And yes, in case you’re wondering. All this child-level religious explanation makes religious things sound ridiculous. I’m not sure if there are ways to express to my child where I’m at with religion or to explain religion at her level in ways that don’t make me feel comfortable. I might be going through a phase. Or it may be that everyone who is a person of faith, who has to explain religion to their kids finds it difficult. I don’t know. Or I may be going about it all wrong. Or I may be unconventional in my own thinking but don’t know how to do that with a kid. I don’t know.

    But I sure as heck don’t want my kid to watch that video uncritically again. And I’ll make sure to watch it and discuss it. I know she may have missed the crosses and I may bring them to her attention now. But to me it’s better to make the hidden curriculum explicit so we can critique it, than to bury our heads in the sand!

    December 11, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    Navigating Emotional Triggers in the Classroom 

    Reading Time: 1

    This is was my first semester teaching a course with a citizenship component, and several times (not many, but not zero), we touched on topics that triggered someone emotionally. Now I only know this because one student mentioned it later on a blog comment. Based on that, I decided to anticipate emotional responses, and to discuss with students who may be affected ahead of time; yet still, in another instance,  a student almost cried in class.

    I’m equipped to deal with emotions privately. I wasn’t equipped to deal with it in a class. And i should have been.

    How do we create spaces, or co-construct safe spaces w our learners so we all feel safe expressing emotion?

    Should we offer trigger warnings? Or tell students they can give signals when when they’re triggered and choose to leave the room or remain silent instead of speaking? 

    How have others dealt with this? 

    December 10, 2017
    by Maha Bali

    Reminders About Rankings n Quality 

    Reading Time: 3 minutes

    There is no reason for me to explain why I hate University rankings. Or is there? Today, I attended a talk by Professor Kevin Kinser from Penn State on campus at AUC.

    He talked about several really important things and gave subtle critiques of rankings. So I just wanna summarize and reflect here.

    1. I learned the term non-endemic education, when an institution offers education outside of its native environment. Like branch canpuses. Like Western universities in Arab countries. Ish. Like AUC. Though I would say AUC is a cultural hybrid and evolves in response to local and global needs (because who said Egyptians only look locally for future growth?). I did like his critical angle on dangers of non-endemic education and potential colonialism (which I mention with detailed examples in my dissertation; i just didn’t know the term non-endemic, just used postcolonial lens). He also mentioned logistical and cultural issues related to nationality and culture of teachers in these institutions. It’s hard being an American at AUC. It’s hard being an Egyptian at AUC. It’s relatively easier being an AUCian at AUC tbh
    2. He talked about quality as an internal vs external thing. Does a University decide its own internal purpose and judge itself on achieving it, or do external bodies have a say? External bodies may be stakeholders like parents and students, but also accreditors and governments. Of course, both, all. My questions; Internally, who gets to decide? Admin, faculty, students? In what ways? Who gets heard? If all the ppl in upper admin faculty positions are of a certain background (e.g. male, scientist, Egyptian or American or whatever) do they represent the institution?
    3. He asked important questions such as how much power should external QA have and who determines standards. 
    4. He reminded of tension between QA as consistency, an inherently conservative process that may stifle innovation. Whereas futuristic thinking is important 
    5. He mentioned a QA HE organization called INQAAHE which I need to check out
    6. He mentioned different University rankings and their criteria, which as we all know focus heavily on research and reputation. The one thing that is truly common amongst them is that they don’t, for the most part, focus on learning or teaching  

    He raised many critical questions in very subtle and calm ways. I hope I can speak that way one day 😉

    For me, two key things stood out. These aren’t news to anyone. But they were solidified today:

    1. If you focus on rankings you will allow some external body to look at proxies of your quality, and you will ultimately sacrifice quality of teaching by the ways you prioritize research 
    2. If you focus on reputation, you may end up spending more time doing what is visible globally rather than what is impactful locally. And though both matter, we need to keep asking ourselves what our deeper purpose is

    I know this isn’t straightforward. Parents and students and faculty look at rankings. Low ranking may discourage good faculty from joining an institution. Same for students. But then, you don’t wanna get the students only to give them poor quality education while their faculty are busy scrambling to do research. 

    I am very strongly pro a system of research-focused faculty who teach graduate/senior courses beside teaching-focused faculty who are required to do minimal research. I don’t understand why successful faculty need to be Jacks of all trades. And no one wins.

    I know the problem of two tracks will create newer hierarchies of prestige. But our institution ALREADY has multiple parallel systems. People with (mostly) masters degrees as non-tenure track in some departments. People with industry experience as professors of Practice. Postdocs. So I don’t see why not add one more of these categories, if done transparently and by the faculty member’s choice, and ensuring equitabl compensation in all ways.

    But that’s just me.


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