Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

February 15, 2018
by Maha Bali

Writing to connect: knowing the “other” outside time & space

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Originally published on Digital Writing Month (Which no longer exists). NOV 19, 2014. This post is special for many reasons – but one of them is that it helped me recognize myself as a “writer”, just being invited to write it was a big boost.

I write and blog like crazy now, and people might be surprised to know that as of November 2014, which is #digiwrimo, I will have been blogging for only 10 months. I am amazed to be asked to guest-write a post for this event, given that I did not start seeing myself as a “writer” until around July 2013 when I was nearing the submission of my PhD dissertation and gaining confidence in myself as an academic. I started writing for magazines first, then realized I sometimes wanted to write my thoughts about something that felt a.) urgent and b.) not necessarily relevant to any particular magazine’s focus. So I first started blogging for myself, blogging to think, to give myself space to think aloud without imposing on others by flooding them with emails. But then I started using my blog for MOOCs, and soon, blogging became a way to connect with others. Here are some ways I write with and for others:

Writing across each other’s blogs, I love how in some MOOCs, when people are focused on the same topic, one writes a post connecting ideas from multiple other posts, taking the ideas further, grabbing comments from elsewhere, and making something new, then recycling the ideas again. It’s a kind of “distributed” collaborative writing. But there’s the more traditional kind…

Writing together, like the Bonds of Illusion articles with Shyam Sharma, that started as tweets and blogs and emails, then turned into collaboratively written articles. We developed a very quick intimacy, finishing each other’s sentences while writing (and we’d only just met from across the world). I’ve written things collaboratively with people I know face-to-face, and I don’t think I reached that level of intimacy of thought. And I have found intimacy with larger groups of people, such as #rhizo14 participants…

Writing to develop a research process, some of us who participated in #rhizo14 are working on a collaborative auto-ethnography, writing across our blogs and Facebook and Google Docs to imagine ways forward for our research. The research process itself is growing and evolving as write to think together about how to take it forward, and as we seek to develop rhizomatic ways of writing that can represent multiple voices in non-linear ways. And yet we also want to help each other be “heard” when we write…

Writing for each other, aiming to amplify each other’s voices, listen to unheard stories of teachers, and pass them on, as we have done with [now here ] (initially Shyam’s idea, which we implemented after writing our articles together).

Writing to connect with others beyond ourselves, where we would engage with each other’s students and see the wonder and excitement in their eyes that they were connecting with someone from across the world. By the time this article gets published, we will have played #tvsz version 6.0 which is a hack without zombies, and which will involve my students from Egypt with students from the US as well as participants from all over the world.

All this writing has made me start to feel very close to people, through their writing and mine.

Can we really “know” someone online? Do we know their essence or some distorted representation of themselves that is closer to perfection than is humanly possible? I’ve wondered and asked about how it feels to meet people in person when you’ve known them online closely, and people say it’s usually a positive experience. Bonnie Stewart told me that face-to-face is not as hyperpersonal as online. That made sense: is it possible that online we are even more connected to another person?

Hypothetically, can someone represent themselves online as an anti-racist, because that’s how they see themselves, even though deep down this is not their real self? Sure, they can try. But unless they have superior intelligence (as in CIA) training, they will slip.

Someone recently told me she was surprised that another person (who is close to me online) had different political beliefs from hers; this did not make sense to me based on what I knew of him, so I probed further. She came to this conclusion based on a blog post he’d written. But I knew him so well, I was 99.9% sure she had misunderstood his post, and that I knew what he meant when he’d written it. I asked him, and I was right. It got me thinking… I’d never talked politics with this person — he’s American and I am Egyptian, so why would we? But I knew. And yet, here in Egypt, I don’t actually know for sure about the political beliefs of everyone around me (unless they’re blatant about it on Facebook, which is… Funny?). It may be that people’s political beliefs are very changeable here, or some people are not explicit about them, but my point is: I can “know” some people online, through their writing, better than people I know face-to-face in some ways. I’ve made wrong assumptions, sure, but that happens face-to-face as well.

Is it because online, text forces you to make some parts of your thinking more explicit? Is it the distortion of time/space that occurs online, that allows one to have a continuous conversation over days or weeks, during the wee hours of the morning, while in the car or at work or in bed, when our defenses are down? You can’t have that in real life except with a family member or roommate, and it would seem to be stifling to have it with that many people. But online, it’s not. And there’s the danger Howard Rheingold mentions (in Net Smart) of getting used to relationships we can switch on/off on a whim. But I feel as committed to my online friends as my face-to-face ones.

Can we really “love” someone online?

I’ve often felt I do.

If I am really close/connected to someone, I can gauge their mood sometimes.

I’ve seen someone on a hangout and within minutes sensed how they were feeling.

I’ve had almost-traumatic life experiences where I dreamt nightmares (my usual reaction), and in my dream, an online friend was going through something too, and we supported each other. The next day, I thanked her for being there for me in my dream, and it turns out she had just had an emotional day as well.

But it took for one close online friend to be diagnosed with cancer for me to realize how much I loved her. People in my face-to-face all know about her because I think about and talk about her so often. And because she blogs about her cancer, I know more about her experience with it, almost live through it with her, more than I would a face-to-face person who wasn’t a close family member or my closest best friend. Her writing may be therapeutic for her. But it’s also been transformative for me.

This intimacy or closeness online, this knowing and loving, is all contingent upon the amount of mutual sharing and the extent to which people make themselves vulnerable. Every close relationship I’ve built with someone online has had strong elements of private conversation, via direct message, email, hangout, etc, beyond the public. Is it possible that we sometimes trust people online faster because we think we have less to lose? Is this naive, dangerous, or beautiful?

Just like visual-impairment promotes well-honed hearing skills because of lack of visual cues (and you’d think given the prevalence of phone communication, the rest of us would have developed some of this), I think that good online communicators can become extra-sensitive to another person’s text without needing the additional visual cues, or become sensitive to the way they respond on online video (which is still not the same as meeting someone in 3D). They become better able to express themselves creatively with the resources available to them, and understand others in online mode, in order to satisfy their hunger to connect.

So now I write to connect, to others, outside the boundaries of time and space. And I know them. And I have come to love them. This hasn’t been a critical post, because this month we’re celebrating writing, and I owe it to writing to let it know how much it has transformed my life!

February 15, 2018
by Maha Bali

Speaking with the “Other” & role playing microaggression

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Today in my digital literacies and intercultural learning class, we did the following exercise:

Watched then discussed this video

Watched then discussed this funnier video (although the videos are similar, I showed them both because I wanted to start class on time, but wanted all students to get an opportunity to discuss the topic. In an ideal situation, one or the other would suffice).

I then asked them to Google the term microaggression and think of whether it’s ever happened to them or they’ve seen it, and we talked about the importance of context and understanding the relationship between people before deciding if something was microaggression or offensive or not. I often like to demonstrate an idea to students in a way that’s distant from them, but then to ask them to connect it to their personal experience.

We then broke up into groups of 3-4 to work on role playing examples of microaggression. Each group could come up with whatever they wanted and it was GREAT. They managed to insert gender issues (both against women and against men), religion issues in Egypt (both against Christians in Egypt and headsarved women, and the ways in which Americans speak about Arabs/Muslims). They covered lots of diversity and complexity in 5 minute sketches and I hope we’ll keep remembering these sketches throughout the semester.

I loved that some of them spoke directly of experiences that happened to them, while others spoke of things they’d seen happen to others. And in the meantime, got to know each other better, I hope. And we all had a good laugh, too!

We talked briefly along the way about how tone matters, and how certain things wouldn’t seem offensive to others in a different tone or context. And how online this is more complicated because text hides tone or can relay misunderstandings of tone…. We also talked about how sometimes we are forgiving because we know the person doesn’t mean it, but that microaggressions happen unintentionally yet harm those on the receiving end of them (because they’re usually already marginal in some way). One example a student gave me did not feel like microaggression to me. It made me angry. A professor made a sexist comment (and not even of a STEM discipline where this issue is common) telling girls this career is not for you. I’m still mulling over how to act on the knowledge that a professor at my institution would do such a thing. That to me is not microaggression. That’s flat out gender discrimination and worse.

What do you think of this exercise? How could we make it better?

Note : thanks to Bonni Stachowiak and Kate Bowles for their introducing me to the first and second video, respectively.

February 12, 2018
by Maha Bali

Unofficial Teaching Philosophy

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I need to write my teaching philosophy for an official document for work, and I’m having difficulty getting it written down. For several reasons

  1. My teaching philosophy is a living thing. It evolves with my thinking and my practice. I believe something in theory, I try it, I revise my beliefs. Or… Something happens, it makes me think, I try to reconcile it with previous beliefs and experiences, and a new thing comes of it
  2. As someone with a PhD in education and who works in faculty development I know entirely too many buzz words and deeper theoretical educational terms that I could use. On one hand, I believe very strongly in certain things that I feel someone who isn’t a social scientist or has studied education would understand clearly. Like that I’m against a deficit model of education with respect to how we view students and teachers, while also believing in nurturing agency while recognizing and resisting structural inequalities. It’s a complicated thing. I mean this will be really straightforward for some people but entirely gibberish to others. And my audience for this teaching philosophy is both. I can’t appear too superficial for the educators and social scientists, nor should I use too much jargon that would put off the others. Imagine an audience of academics who teach education, sociology, chemistry, engineering and management. Yep. That.
  3. Lots of my teaching philosophy would appear whacko to some (most?) people. They call me “organic”, I could call myself “emergent”. A colleague of mine observed me teach last semester and saw how emergent. She saw how I responded to students’ interests and needs, how I took on new ideas I got from various places and modified my class… How I just generally don’t center content or learning outcomes but the learning process. This was always how I taught, but I learned it’s called “curriculum as process” and when it has a social justice angle, it’s called “curriculum as praxis”
  4. Lots of my digital and open work will be incomprehensible to some (most?) people. This one I’m sure will resonate with many many people who read my blog. Many of us doing open educational practices are on what could be considered cutting edge or margins, depending how positively viewed it is in our context. Both, I guess. I mean, cutting edge IS margins. Just a privileged margin. Lots of what’s innovative about my teaching (my institution is interested in innovative) will be difficult to explain briefly. Like… Twitter Scavenger Hunt last week… Made complete sense to my PLN on Twitter and many joined in. Was confusing for students at first, but eventually many enjoyed it.
  5. I do share dimensions of my teaching philosophy ALL THE TIME. On this blog. On my syllabus. On first day of class. I draw on work of people I respect, including contemporaries and historical figures.
  6. I’m in a bit of a funk because of lots of stress from personal stuff and work stuff all happening at the same time with all the “surprise” deadlines. It’s a lot. It’s REALLY A LOT.

SO… With that all said, let’s give this unofficial Teaching Philosophy a go? It’s unofficial because I don’t know that I can write this stuff in it. But maybe I can find a way? Cite other people or past writing by me?

I love my students. I don’t think I can write this in those words… But the truth of it is that I start every class loving my students. I love them as a group and individually and unconditionally. This changes over the semester and of course I’ll become fonder of particular people, we’re all human. I’d never pretend not to care about my students because I do. But I do know some people make fun of those of us who speak of love in this context, and I think it’s either that we understand love differently (i.e. They have much stricter views of love than I do – and keep in mind there’s no difference in Arabic between the words love and like), or we understand the context differently (of whether caring is encouraged or accepted, of class sizes and how they affect our capacities to build relationships). Most of my teaching has been of undergraduate students or in-service teachers or faculty. I generally just love being around undergrads. It’s possibly nostalgia to my college years. I don’t know. And I love being among teachers and faculty because we have something in common – we chose (well hopefully iy was a choice) to dedicate our lives to helping others learn.

So loving students. I’m sure I’ll find something official by Nell Noddings or bell hooks on this, and something less official by Amy Collier or Gardner Campbell or Sean Morris or Jesse Stommel on this.

But more importantly, I think, is that loving students to me is an entry point into striving towards equity and inclusion in my teaching. To recognize each student as an individual with their own needs and interests, and to try to cultivate these and allow them space to shine in the course… While also building a safe, supportive learning community where differences among us are respected and appreciated.

Emergent, process-oriented curriculum. Before my semester starts, and really, every minute of my life, I add to a Google doc with ideas for my class. If I read an article or find a tweet or get an idea, I put notes and links for how I might use it in class. I think of my class as a combination of play-doh and Legos. All the ideas in my Google document are Lego bricks, but there’s no ideal sequence of how they go together. But I have 100 Lego blocks to fit into 40 spaces… And which ones go where and when depends on how the course goes. I may start the semester with 100 to choose from, and then new things pile up and I find myself with 150 blocks. In any case, I have like a library of ideas to pick from each week and occasionally in the moment, even. But my classes are also like play-doh in the sense that in-class discussions are central and those might go in whatever direction students take them. What interests me very much is the ways I have in the past brought the ideas of shy students into class by referring to their blogposts – ideas they posted publicly but may never bring out in a spontaneous discussion.

Let me try to freewrite a bit more here…

I believe in content-independent teaching where I can have a list of suggested texts ahead of time but let students find or choose their own at various times in the semester.

I believe in opening up my classroom in different ways so that students can look out and others can look in. Examples are when I taught educational game design, I had students blog their ideas for feedback and when their games were created, display and playtest their prototype games on campus for others outside class to try.

I believe in sustainable assessments that have value beyond the class, sometimes in obvious ways (past student games are used for future students to play and some I use as ice-breakers for workshops etc), sometimes in less obvious ways.

I believe in the importance of constant reflection on one’s own teaching… Whether by reflecting aloud with a mentor or colleague, or writing here on my blog, or doing full-fledged research and calling it Classroom Action Research or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

I believe in the need for the teacher to be a lifelong learner. I learn from my students but also from my child and everything around me and it all influences my teaching.

I’m always interested in reading and listening about how others teach, trying new things and iterating. I almost never do the exact same thing twice. I’ll tweak it here and there. Student reflections really influence me and some semesters I don’t use Twitter at all because some issues occurred the semester before and I take time to process them and come up with alternatives. I think I managed a good alternative this time around.

I believe in making as much of my work open as possible, for others to benefit, including narrating my processes not just sharing my products. I also benefit very much from other people doing the same, and use open resources in my own teaching where possible.

I believe in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Although my students and I usually share a similar Anglo-Arab culture to an extent, I think they need to often be reminded of the Arab dimension not just the American in their education. This means encouraging them to find and read/watch sources by Arab, African and minority scholars as well as Western ones. I think this matters because they need to be able to see themselves as possible creators of knowledge not merely consumers of it, and role models help. And context matters.

I wish I could do more community-based learning. One of the reasons I don’t is that I have reservations on superficial implementation of it and I’m concerned about messing it up for students or the community. Based on some experience. On the other hand, I believe it’s very important and was an essential dimension of the building of my own self-efficacy as a critical citizen (community service and other extracurricular activities). So I need to figure out the balance between developing students as reflective and thoughtful citizens (which I believe I have been able to do) and as active (also still reflective) citizens. Paulo Freire warns us re activism without reflection and verbalism without action. We need both for praxis. I’ve undergone activism alone and it wasn’t enough. Academics are probably accused of being more towards verbalism. I need to see how to nurture reflective activism in my students. However if I had to choose, I’d continue with reflection because students will take action in the areas they are passionate about – it’s the reflection that’s missing from their lives and harder to get outside the classroom.

I need to stop here but I am not fully done. I need to mention how my own teaching philosophy influences which workshops I give and how I give them, but that I also feel strongly that each person is entitled to their own teaching philosophy and they should do what feels right for them in their classes. I encourage other faculty to try new things, but also to try what makes sense for their overall approach…. And to assess impact and reevaluate and adapt and tweak and try again. One faculty member stopped me in the middle of a workshop and noted how our workshops weren’t really about the tool or strategy we were giving the workshop about, but about mindset. I hope some of my workshops help faculty ask themselves questions about their own teaching, promote reflection on teaching, and that this would eventually positively influence their practice.

I believe in the importance of hybrid teaching. Hybrid in any way that makes sense. Digital and in-person as the two main ones. I believe both have something to offer and learners need to develop literacies in both (digital literacies but also interpersonal and communication skills in a room) and my courses develop both.

Ok… Really need to stop.

February 2, 2018
by Maha Bali

Join me in Reviving Twitter Scavenger Hunt for Intercultural Learning Class

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve been doing Twitter Scavenger Hunts on and off for several years now in my educational game design module. Now that I’m teaching a course on digital identities and literacies and intercultural learning, I’m modifying it quite a bit. So I’m just going to lay out some of the ideas I’ve got here and see if they develop over the next few days (feedback welcome).

  1. Students create Twitter accounts ahead of class (we discuss anonymity, which name and photo to use, separate accounts for class vs personal ahead of time). Students who have strong problems with Twitter can work in a pair with another person
  2. We agree ahead of time on course hashtag and account and we create them together. They know to use hashtag for each tweet from now on (and some will forget)
  3. On the morning of Feb 8 at 10am students start using Twitter by first using the course hashtag to find and follow one another and the course account @DigiGuardiansEg
  4. Students tweet out their altcvs (instructions here) and invite others to create “altjobs” or “altcareers” for them. I invite the world to participate and they also do this for 2 others in the class as either comments on their blogs or tweets
  5. Students look up two hashtags we plan to engage with later in the semester: #netnarr #engageMOOC and #marginalsyllabus and they retweet something they like or they respond to something. Possibly ask them to use quote tweet to add course hashtag so others can see what they’ve retweeted
  6. Students look at Chris Gilliard’s tweet about unbelievably invasive things platforms have done, and they retweet to class 2 of the stories shared which resonate with them…and they write up their own response to Chris G (adding hashtag #engageMOOC) based on something they know has happened or happened to someone they know or themselves. If uncomfortable sharing out on Twitter, they can share privately on Slack or ClassPulse
  7. Students tweet out a “guess what this is?” photo that they take from their phone – taking a photo from a weird angle for others to guess it. I invite the world to engage, and also ask them to engage with one another
  8. Students will have read ahead of time either Bonnie Stewart blogpost on digital identity or watched Chimamanda video on danger of single story. They tweet out a favorite quote from these and tag the author and #engageMOOC
  9. Tweet out quotes from my poem I’m Not Angry at You – parts they like or dislike or have questions about, etc.
  10. Check out the daily creates of NetNarrand tweet out ones they’d be interested in doing. If it’s quick enough, they can do it in class. If not, they can do it later.
  11. At end of class, they post a brief reflection on Slack or ClassPulse (I’ll decide ahead of time) on what they found most useful/interesting about Twitter Scavenger hunt and what they disliked which could be improved. I would usually ask them to blog this, but they have other assignments, so…
  12. (added later) I may ask them to react to this tweet by me

If you’re awake at 10am Cairo time (8am UK, midnight Pacific time, and sometime reasonable in the early evening across Australia) you’re welcome to join us (students LOVE it) or invite your students to participate. If you let me know ahead of time, I’ll follow you from the course account.

Also you can participate asynchronously by posting your own unique photos for my students to guess about…

February 2, 2018
by Maha Bali

There’s Something about Undergrads

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“You’re so chill” said a student at the end of a conversation she struck up with me yesterday. And I was thinking, “I love undergrads, and isn’t it really cool to grow older and have these young people think well of me?”

It was my first day of class yesterday. The class went well, but about half the students didn’t show up (the room for the class is in a weird location so even those who showed up came a bit later than usual) and class was ending. After the last student filed out, another student was walking in asking if she was in the right room for the next class. Of course I don’t know who’s using the room after me for which course, but I confirmed the room number. I also asked her to pass me some M&Ms a student had left on a desk farther away from me (I used snacks as part of an activity in class earlier). She asked me if I was the professor, and when I said yes, she asked me what I teach. I told her, then asked why she was asking. And she said the “chill” line. We talked a little more. I’m not exactly sure what she saw in the span of 5 minutes, or if she’d looked through the window earlier or what… But it felt good to hear it.

When I first started teaching undergrads, they were mainly freshmen, and I was always interested in a particular look in their eyes you don’t see with graduate students. Freshmen have this look of wonder in their eyes that lights up when they learn something new. It’s really beautiful. Now I’m teaching older students, and they’re really in this phase of becoming adults, and you can see the way their thinking is maturing, and you can have a really serious adult conversation with them and learn something valuable. They have a different perspective because of their age and experience and I think a more open mind than they will as they get older, and this openness they bring, coupled with who they are and what they’ve already experienced makes class really enriching for all of us. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to be in their company for a few hours a week and listen to their thoughts.

I think if all teachers took time to listen to their students’ thoughts (ones not directly related to content but their thoughts in general beyond that) they’d enjoy it and know their students better and be able to help them learn better.

January 31, 2018
by Maha Bali

Talking Intercultural

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Today, I co-facilitated a session with Mia Zamora and Alan Levine for the folks at Coventry University (Daniel Villar-Onrubia is my main contact there who asked me to do several virtual sessions with them ahead of a daylong engagement in April inshallah – where Mia, Alan and others will join us inshallah).

Today’s session was entitled “Goals, Practices and Challenges of Intercultural Learning: a discussion across 4 countries” and the blurb was as follows:

The session will uncover our own experiences of intercultural learning – what our goals have been, how they played out in practice, and the kinds of challenges we continue to face, with a special emphasis on the complex dimensions of cultural shame and shaming in both the US and Egyptian contexts. We’ll ask the audience to contribute some of the biggest challenges they face and we’ll discuss our various practices.

Mia, Alan and I backchanneled to prepare some ice breakers and then we started sharing particular stories and experiences, and the participants in the room shared some as well.

First off, I want to say I loved the emergent nature of the session. Although we had a rough plan in mind, we didn’t stick to it and went with the flow, which was great. Mia also did this incredibly beautiful thing, which was follow up on something I said, followed by something Marina in the room said, and she sort of spontaneously came up with a theoretical framework about intercultural interaction: trust, hiddenness and discomfort. I’m gonna use this in my first day of class tomorrow :)) inshallah

I also want to say that I found it really interesting how issues of identity, colonialism, religion and difference all came up during the session in a beautiful way and that so many topics were opened that we can and should continue to discuss more deeply… Near the end, Marina and Luca both expressed an interest in continuing the conversation because folks felt so many interesting topics were opened up and then they had to leave… But with online, there is really no reason for a conversation to stop because of time/space limitations. That’s what asynchronous is for 🙂 It does not work for everyone, but it will, I hope, work for a few people. And I think Alan, Mia and I will discuss various options with Daniel and Marina going forward. There are possibilities of google docs, cross-blogging, Slack team, Twitter or whatever platform seems to work best for the folks at Coventry. It can be the start of a really useful learning community there and crossing over with others.

The other two things I wanted to say are kinda meta and relate to the format of the session…

First thing – I really think Autumm Caines’ concept of Interpersonal Multitudes Barrier is accurate. Too many people in a room, and you can’t truly have a dialogic situation. I also think Virtually Connecting gets something right.. in that there are multiple virtual people and the onsite people are huddled around the device connecting them, seeing the text chat. We had one participant who joined virtually and we had a much more intimate conversation with her on the backchannel than we could have with folks in the room, who, while sitting beside each other, weren’t looking at each other, but rather at the screen. Having a good hybrid experience really benefits a lot from seating arrangements onsite that don’t dampen the onsite experience while also allowing for onsite folks to look at virtual folks. I mean, simply the setup that meant that people looking at the screen were giving us their profile took away from the experience. These things happen and we don’t always know ahead of time what kind of room we’ll get… so I’m not blaming anyone, but just reflecting aloud. If that’s allowed 🙂 Bonnie Stewart told me several times that vconnecting with a room with many people doesn’t work well. I’ve tried it several times now… and yeah, if you’re lecturing or doing a keynote it’s fine (and I don’t even like keynoting that way but I understand the necessity), but not so much if you’re looking for an interactive experience.

The other thing is something several of us thought might be good – have most of us (not necessarily all) virtual. I realize this is not gonna be comfortable for all people and means more people will have tech issues getting on… so maybe those who are comfortable could. It does allow for this backchanneling and it really helps with these sessions.

Another thing that’s a frequent issue with this kind of setup is the importance of audio… the importance of the virtual folks being able to hear the onsite folks. The opposite is usually simple(ish), a speaker. But for virtual folks to hear onsite folks you need a wireless mic or ipad or something going around and you need a way to ensure people don’t have to come up to front of the room each time they wanna talk. It is an additional barrier that may make some people more uncomfortable. Synchronous online sessions don’t come naturally to many people and I used to be one of those people even after I’d done them a lot… I’m not fully comfortable with them and all that can go wrong with one that it’s no longer stressful for me… but I know it’s not like that for everyone, and any additional complications just make them harder for those people.

Last thing is that it makes a huge difference if folks know each other ahead of time or not. I knew Luca from the room and automatically kept talking to him. I was aware of where he was even though he was far away from the camera. Everyone else was too far away and because I mostly don’t know them, I could not make deep connections with each one… but I did get to hear a little bit about most people in the room with he intro activity, so I’m glad we had some idea about who was there, or one aspect of who they were 🙂

Thinking about what we might do as a follow-up beyond today’s session, here are some ideas and I’ll see what others think of as well:

  1. Create a Slack team if this is something Coventry folks would be interested in
  2. Possibly invite them to submit something to my #FlipIntercultural and use those as starting points for conversations? This idea came to me for two reasons. First, because I structured this session slightly as a warmup to my UniCollaboration keynote, which that blogpost is also about; and partly because we focused on these challenges of shaming and such, some of the stories shared during the session by others also brought up these interesting unexpected reactions to various things… and it was really useful. I learned a lot. I hope everyone in the session learned too.
  3. I invited them to join #EngageMOOC which starts inshallah in a couple weeks. Engagement in a Time of Polarization which I plan to have my students participate in, inshallah
  4. Mia, Alan and I are joining our 3 classes in Norway, US and Egypt to work together on Digital Narrative Games (I focus on those that promote empathy so there is a strong intercultural competence/maturity dimension in mine – here is my “old” assignment for this… it will be slightly different this semester with Alan and Mia’s students).

I’ll send this blogpost to Alan, Mia, Daniel, Marina and Luca and see what ideas they’ve got…

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.


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