Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

A feminist view on Learned tech helplessness


I read a really great post “Over Easy” by Alan Levine  today in which he says “educators can have a built in “Learned Technological Helplessness””

I agree. I see it all the time. I also agree with a lot of other stuff in his post, that people want things to appear easy (e.g. blog aggregator) and sometimes allow what seems complicated to stop them from taking first steps. I tried said blog aggregation following Alan’s instructions – it was not only easy (just lots of steps and i decided to enter feeds manually) but it made life easier later coz i did not have to follow each student’s blog via wordpress. I could just refer ppl to one website.

It might be an instance of what Mike Caulfield calls “hard to learn, easy to use”.

Ok ok but as ppl who are tech savvy (and i blame myself too) how much of other people’s learned tech helplessness is a result of our patronizing attitudes? Neither Alan nor Mike are among ppl i count in this category

I am projecting from my own experience as a young computer science major. I had played computers with my dad since i was a kid (Atari) and older. Took GCSE Computer Studies rather than French (hmmm i think i regret that) and went on to major in computer science in college (not coz i liked it, process of elimination).

I was top of my class and yet men and boys made me constantly feel inferior to them coz i didn’t enjoy programming or hardware like they did. It got to the point i would just “let them do it” coz they enjoyed it more than i did.

Even after i graduated w highest honors my dad (was a physician) always thought he knew more about computers than i did. Really? My husband and his friends (most medical doctors) – same thing.

It reminded me of Audrey Watters’ post, Men Teach Me Technology. Her post is much more serious and about harassment but also the small micro aggressions women endure everyday.

At some point i became sadistic at work (i distanced myself away from ed tech for a while) – i would let the men struggle with a tech issue for a while before giving them the simple solution i could see. C’mon they deserved it!

But seriously – i know i enable this attitude of men. Shame on me. As soon as i heard about #fedwiki i looked around for who else was there and i didn’t tell Kate or Audrey I would use them for tech support, I told Alan and Tim Owens. Ok, to be fair, i have tried the awesome tech support of those guys and don’t see these particular women as tech support of any kind (but our univ’s CIO is a woman and academic computing dept is full of women leaders (all of them?).

But the real issue is i played the helpless card which is silly. I actually went in and played around and gave Mike feedback which I think is gonna help others. Who says i need tech support? (well ok maybe from Mike but he’s like the teacher! Lol)

Anyway back to my own practice. How much of my own practice is patronizing to others? To my students? To faculty i support? My mom?

Still asking


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  2. @Bali_Maha I am finding the opposite in my Connected courses, women, especially white women, out engaging men and women of color #ccourses

  3. @Bali_Maha But I do give females in my class one rule, “No apologizing.” Which is followed by someone saying sorry for saying sorry.

  4. @jgmac1106 lol yeah that’s v funny, ppl saying sorry for saying sorry

  5. @Bali_Maha No, and it seems the more social media driven my classes become the more vocal women become.

  6. @Bali_Maha I teach at a school for many first generation, huge tech gaps based on race and poverty. All students low but some much lower

  7. @jgmac1106 but still, not to white men. My point still kinda stands. Or aren’t there many white men?

  8. @jgmac1106 ah, that was gonna be my next question 😉 u answered it

  9. @Bali_Maha Teacher ed for me, and women outnumber men in college in US now, so that is reflected. But race not as much an influence on men

  10. @Bali_Maha Basically all men, regardless of race do not engage as much in my #ccourses. For women I saw race matter in terms of engagement

  11. Maha,
    Since I’ve “met” you through the #fedwiki, I’ve subscribed to your blog, and I have to tell you, I’m in the same boat. It’s the end of the academic quarter here, so I haven’t had a chance to say “Yes, Maha, me too!” or “Wow, what you said!” or “She’s so smart, and I’m going work with her. Woohoo!”

    Even this post isn’t as thoughtful as I’d like to be–my list of things to do today is massive. I’m a relative newbie to the edtech field, but I know what you are talking about both with your profession and personal life (I’ll blog about that later). In the last year and a half, I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool (that sometimes feels like an ocean), and I’m constantly learning what I don’t know. The #fedwiki just seems like another place to expose myself as a starstruck newbie.

    FWIW, I was planning on contacting you if I needed support because you seem like a woman I can trust. I’m also comfortable contacting the guys running this show as well, but I wanted to respond to this post bc I should have told you this sooner. Damn you, to do list.

    • Hey Alysson, thanks for your lovely comment, and I am excited to be working with you, too! I haven’t had a chance to look up people (being lazy coz i already know most #fedwikihappeners) but I forked ur bio and hope to get to know you better through this. I can sort of see why Mike kept it small… But i feel we are all special in this 🙂 see you around

  12. I worry a lot about this. It’s very clear that whatever we’re doing is driving away women from tech.

    I have a daughter who is a genius with tech. She’ll get a tool and a problem and come up with ways to fit the two things together that I never imagined.

    But she sees herself not as a programmer, but as a vlogger, or a Tumblr kid. Something cultural. In her head, she’s part of a community more than being a technologist.

    But maybe that’s because our view of technology is too narrow. I read this by Ward, and it blew my mind a bit:

    Curious what you think.

    Incidentally, if you fork that to your site, you’ll be the first person in fedwikihappening to fork content……

    • Omigosh i love that link! I forked it and added my comment. How would original author know their content has been forked? I want to have a conversation WITH him not just add my notes like a Diigo page to an unknown author. Does that make sense?
      My response is here :

      Now my other question is: how did you send me the link thru my own fedwiki to begin with?

      Love the story about your daughter. It kinda shows that it’s a social labelling issue, that it feels unfeminine to be a female ed techie.

      Are you going to et4online next year? I am on a panel on edtech women that Michelle organized 🙂 hoping many men will be there!

  13. I’ve started Audrey’s blog and finished yours but can’t completely finish because this needs a huge amount of thought. That said Maha I do not perceive you as patronizing at all. You ask honest questions and do not shy from open reflection. You take risks that a patronizing person would never dare to take from their position of hiding behind the separation they cultivate of being special and broadcast as smug superiority.

    My psychologist says it all comes from fear (my own mess anyway) and I sure run from that concept. It confuses my tough “survive anything” self-image but it also releases me to really see what I’m dealing with inside and how I distort what comes at me.

    Sorry if this isn’t clear yet… I do have a question though. My problems with my former chief oncologist appear to be gender based. Won’t explain except to say I may have bullied her entirely by accident and it no longer matters that I didn’t mean it or that someone else started it–it needs fixing so the drama can end. Are there any essays on gender coming between people you can recommend?

    In 1974 my wife Leslie worked as an electronics buyer for Singer Business Machines in San Leandro California that was bought later by Texas Instruments. This “early on” the whole tech field was wide open and seemed way less gender specific. Same around 1985 in the tech courses I took on the west coast in Canada. Since then us men seem to have devolved or become scared of something we don’t know how to react to. Have you read the book “Dreaming in Code” by Scott Rosenberg?

  14. Thanks Maha, I’ll have a look at them. More I think about this the more it seems like a complicated control issue. Illness makes a person feel vulnerable and maybe without intending it doctors take on the role of responsibility that sometimes displays as permission to insist patients be dependent. This is a distortion of trust into a type of surrender leading to “learned helplessness” for the patient. Illness takes enough from us. A doctor’s bland reassurances and pouting antics buy no property on my block.

  15. As an unscientific observation I think tech pushes people away by viewing complexity and systems in a linear rather than holistic way. Problems are isolated from the swirl of activity they reside in and tinkered with outside their native relationships. The oddest thing I find in the literature on mastering something is the lack of reference to problem solving. It all seems to be a rush to solution–any one will do–so we pick around for the “right solution” instead of “why might this not be the right solution?” which seems unproductive but forces us unto a wider view of the whole thing.
    The last technician to do an Eco-cardiogram on me was struggling to “see through” all the scar tissue around my heart. While she was scanning I watched her other hand dancing with the imaged surfaces like I’ve seen carpenters and mechanics enter into the space of their work–the place where the solution lived. Maybe he locations of tech abilities and creativity reside in distinct places of the brain that only some people can couple to work together?
    Most accessible books on Complexity Theory are by Donella H. Meadows “Thinking in Systems”; Joanna Macy “Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory – The Dharma of Natural Systems” (best read on the beach in California); Melanie Mitchell “Complexity A guided Tour.” It could be that this has nothing to do with gender but where would we be had these women had been denied access to the field?

  16. Pingback: She… and My Path in Technology

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