Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education



This is gonna be a post of jumbled up thoughts but hopefully writing it out will help me get somewhere with this…

It kind of started with a Skype call I had with the wonderful Jonathan Worth – famous photographer whose life mission, it now seems, has shifted from photographing people to present their stories to the world… and into empowering people to present their own stories to the world…

In our (too brief) conversation today three things struck me:
First, that his philosophy of empowering individuals and esp marginalized ones to represent themselves on their own terms and tell their own stories aligned very strongly with my own research orientation towards participatory autoethnographic research… and I verbalized this… that even when a group is not by nature disempowered, having someone external to them doing research about them is in itself disempowering… in a sense… and also, just before talking to Jonathan, I was looking at my student’s “unofficial/alternative CV” assignment (yes, you could argue I stole the assignment from #DigiWriMo, except of course it’s open and actually I co-wrote the prompt with Sarah and Kevin so…). Anyway, looking at my students’ “alternative CVs” was a huge eye-opener for me. Letting students present themselves to me on their own terms rather than via a set of structured questions like “what’s your major” or even a fun question like “what’s your favorite game?” is nothing next to this. This. This was amazing. I learned that one student of mine traveled all over the world and once missed a flight with only $50 in his pocket… I learned that another student of mine doesn’t like her name and prefers a different but similar name (I will make a point to call her that)… I learned about my students talents and amazingly, that many of my students valued family so much… I don’t remember being so vocal about valuing family at that age… but I digress…

Second, as we talked, we discussed the idea of using media to affect others (as journalists tend to in a sensationalist manner; but as individual citizens can do in this digital/post-digital world – what’s post-digital? I need to look it up as I’ve come across it a couple of times now… will we need to do a post-Digital Writing Month next year? A #PoDigiWriMo haha) – anyway… so Affect. And then the current work Jonathan is doing with #SelflessDMD (check out the website) is to combine Affect with Effect… to use photography, in that case, to affect people, to move them, but to move them to action, to make an effect. A really powerful aspect of what Jonathan is doing is that he takes what seems to be a socially inclusive act (selfies that most people take all the time) and shows us how it can actually be exclusive (for people with DMD who can’t hold a camera, for example… and that’s not the worst of it). I had been toying with the idea of remixing the idea Jonathan had done (sort of making a campaign in this simple but potentially impactful way) with my students. I’ll explain what I mean in a second. I showed them Jonathan’s pitch for #SelflessDMD at DML commons, and the next class they asked to take a selfless selfie and to tweet it out (I posted a bit more on my class website). My idea was to find a cause the students care about themselves, and help them think of ways to remix Jonathan’s approach in my course to build awareness for a cause they care about. The course is entitled Creativity and Creative Problem Solving… you see… and I just had an idea just this minute as I wrote this. The course is ALSO one of the “Cairo in the Curriculum” courses this semester… which means students need to do something beyond just doing creative “stuff” – we have redesigned the course (with a grant my co-teacher and I received) so that students do their projects with authentic Cairo-based audiences. We had them visit and NGO, and for my co-teacher’s module (the first half of the semester) they learned about creative problem-solving strategies and design thinking, and applied some of what they learned in trying to create product to help the NGO they worked with. I can’t reveal too much on my blog about exactly how that went, but we are still learning how to make the most of our partnership with the NGO and even though the plan was to continue working with the NGO for the second half of the semester (my module, which is Designing Educational Games), I may be more flexible about ways of going about this… the idea that came to me just this minute is that one of the most pressing issues happening in Egypt (not Cairo specifically but actually Egypt in general) these days is the tourism thing. What with recent events and all, tourism in Egypt, already suffering, may drop even further. I wonder if this is something my students would like to work on, and I’m wondering what kind of campaign they can make, how to have people in Egypt who are involved in the tourism industry tell their stories and affect people… how I might use my social networks to make a difference in this way… but this is just me flying away with an idea rather than pushing it to my students, so it might not attract them or excite them as much as it excites me… I don’t know. And while I agree with my co-teacher that going out of our comfort zone is a good thing to learn… and that sometimes we have to push ourselves through painful learning experiences… there is something there that I feel I need to keep…

Because here is the thing… I always try in my courses to have students work on something they care about. Why? Why? Because I may be here to teach them about designing educational games in creative ways… and I don’t think they’ll put in all the effort in the world to do one for a cause they don’t care much about. If I want them to get creative to their maximum potential, it needs to be something they care about and want to work on. Today, one of the students asked me how they were going to get graded on their alternative CVs. I said, “you did it, right?” and they said “yes” and I said “well, you get the grade”. And one of them asked, “so why did I put so much effort into it?” and I asked, “did you enjoy it?” and they said “yes”. I said “that’s what matters”. I know I know, someone will tell me well then in future they won’t put much effort. And that would be a fair point to make. Except that I hope to make every assignment interesting enough and personal enough that they’ll enjoy doing them enough to spend time making them good. Of course some people will put more effort than others. And it will show. And it will be a better learning experience for those who put more effort into it. Some people may think that those who put in a lot of graphics put more effort than those who wrote fully text-based ones. And they would be wrong. Some of the text-based ones reveal so much depth and reflection that they must have been hard to write.

And so back to the representation thing… students recognized in our discussion that they could not truly understand or know the NGO’s needs by just visiting once… we thought of ways of opening sustained channels of communication… and the students (very cleverly) recognized that my co-teacher, by bringing in an external person to do a mid-semester assessment (SGID) with them had done the same thing – let some external expert come into her class and give her feedback… and yet she was more open to it because she asked for it… but it’s hard. And even though we can never represent others the way they would represent themselves, it’s still something that has value… but that value can be disempowering when not done right… I don’t know how to explain it but I’m working on it. But having said this… I wonder what I need to focus on with my students going forward… given they are freshmen and not sociologists/anthropologists learning to do ethnographic research and all the complexities and ethics of that…

And finally… the third thing I learned…talking to Jonathan Worth… is that even though I’m difficult to keep up with coz I type and talk fast and jump around topics, he is also really difficult to keep up with because he speaks with so much depth and sensitivity that he packs so much into one or two sentences that keep me thinking. All. Day. Long.

So… wow… I’ve got a lot to think about and I need to send this post to my co-teacher 🙂


  1. You’re too kind Maha – our chat got me buzzing too and super excited about seeing the project adapted and evolved – can’t wait , thank you so much for making this happen.

  2. The hashtag is #BrainBlownOpenByJonathan 😉

    I think you are spot on with an initial assignment / activity that allows for this kind of self-expression. When I’ve taught ds106, we would do a repeat one we call “keychain stories” where we ask students to do a self video where thy tell a story about something on or represented by something on their keychain (it could also be jewelry, the idea is something a person carries with them always).

    Its partly about getting them to talk to the camera, to deal with an audience they do not see, but also, to share something. And they do not have to put their face on, it can be their hands, or a stuffed animal. No specifications beyond a story.

    The accidental benefit was getting a chance to see where in their homes or offices students chose to this- we get a glimpse into their surroundings — this was an online course so getting to see and hear students was helpful for breaking down the idea that its more correspondence course.

    On the grading of these kind of assignments (which is most of ds106) I have an approach that works for me– I am not grading them on the artistic merit of what they produced, or whether they met some checklist of outcomes. I grade them on how well they can describe (in writing on their blog), what they did, how they did, and why. And I give them latitude do take my assignment in a different direction if they can justify it in their writing.

    I am happy to hear you are trying to do work getting your students working with NGOs (this year – this has been the focus of a design course (in the Netherlands) I have been part of for 4 years- the students are in an engineering school, but learning principles of project and media design, plus collaboration, but working with NGOs mostly elsewhere in the world. The students words this year when they showed their project videos clearly showed how these projects went beyond a class assignment, they got involved and interested in what the NGOs are doing.

    It seems to me the ideas of asking your students to look at how their people and country and city are represented in the world is exciting. Young people are working enough to sort out who they are, but to frame that to for them to explore what their culture and identity means in the world outside where they live has all the ingredients to be of interest.

    Of course that’s my opinion, I am not Egyptian! But I would love to learn more about Egypt from the way people who live there can express it, not from news.

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