Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

On Agency – and Empathy and Inclusivity

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

I had a thought this morning, and saw this line from an article that completely helped untangle a puzzle in my mind:

On agency vs inclusivity: “teaching a man to fish is supposed to feed him for a lifetime. Scratch the surface, and we can see that portrays his poverty as caused by lack of knowledge, rather than, say, the fact that there are no fish in the ocean.” (Serene Khader – full citation at bottom)

My thought is not a new one. It’s an old one manifest. I always had concerns about discourses around learner agency. On the one hand, I worry that some discourses about social justice and empowerment/liberation aren’t considering the agency of those whom we are hoping to “help”/support. On the other hand, overemphasizing agency is kind of like supporting narratives of grit and growth mindset without recognizing structural inequalities that limit how much certain groups can do.

I was thinking that literature on the capabilities approach (Amartya Sen but also Nussbaum’s combined capability and Melanie Walker’s critical capability) would be good entry points to unpacking this a bit. And I’m on my way to reading some of the latest on that. I was also thinking that literature critiquing meritocracy would also be relevant here. And then I came across the quote above from Serene Khader (who has a book I just bought called Decolonizing Universalism) which is perfect for what triggered today’s thought.

Today’s thought was coming from these two tweets I posted yesterday:

The first tweet shows my happiness with learner agency: a learner taking responsibility for not doing his best in the course, but appreciating what he learned and not caring about the grade.

The second tweet is about my happiness that no one got an F despite having a few difficult cases this semester and having to put in a lot of effort.

So what gives? On the one hand, agency means students accepting responsibility for not doing well. On the other hand, not failing is my responsibility as the teacher.

But the quote from Khader here explains it perfectly.

I have a number of students in class, most of whom are privileged and have no major issues. They have oceans that have fish, and I want to nurture their agency to find fish and catch them and trust in their ability to figure out what to do with the fish later. But I also had a small number of students who didn’t have access to an ocean that had fish in it, or didn’t have fishing rods. For those students, it would not have been “fair” to treat them equally. It would not have been equitable. This empathy needs to be translated into inclusive practices beyond the course that already had loads of flexibility and choice in its design (which, again, worked for the majority of students).

I originally kept adding flexible design elements into my course to reduce the need to deal with special cases. E.g. many assignments give choices over output as written, oral or visual; same with texts, choices between articles and sometimes between article vs podcast vs video. Choice over topics for projects. And like I said, this worked for most people. Just that some needed something more. And I could pull my hands up and say, “it’s not my responsibility, I gave them many options” or I could face the reality that while they may not deserve an A, they can meet the major learning outcomes in other ways, and pass.

And so I think what I’m saying is that I start out with promoting agency – in an inclusive manner that creates room for people to thrive within their diversity/difference, but I also try to keep a lookout for those who need additional support in order to have an equitable opportunity to get through this, even if they won’t exactly thrive. For now. So there are no fish in their ocean. I direct them to a different ocean temporarily, but long term, they need to find some other way to feed themselves. I wonder if in future I can work on the latter? Depends how complicated and advanced each case is. I learn every semester.

Khader, S. J. (2019, September 13). Why Are Poor Women Poor? International New York Times. Retrieved from

My thought is not a new one.

24 thoughts on “On Agency – and Empathy and Inclusivity

  1. Yes please do. I am writing about professional development in higher education in open spaces and what the pd literature is saying is problematic for underprivileged/underrepresented minority groups. I still need to get my construct-usage right before i run into trouble

  2. I tend to view “agency-inclusivity” from an actor-network theory lens. It’s understanding the relationships between the potentiality of the (causal/effective/affective) individual/surrounding networks. How does the individual influence the network and vice versa?

  3. Spot on. We have made a lot of assumptions of what people can do or benefit from and those assumptions need to be tested. I am beginning to question thru the lens of ‘culture’ but it’s a work in progress as my understanding of the social things like culture is very poor still

  4. Actually your blog and this thread has given me a lot of ideas how to strengthen and expand my discussion and general argument. Incidentally what we are doing here now is one of the arguments i made in paper for why agency is critical but recognise its challenges which may deter

  5. I think your clarity on the issue is very lucid indeed. I need to read more myself. Suffice to say when the word agency comes to mind the name Maha comes to mind. I became aware of this construct following your chat and writing over the years. I owe you:)

  6. A lot of this is why we have Neutral Zones and Assignment Banks in pathways learning. I remember there was some arguing that we weren’t “doing scaffolding right” or that it “wasn’t fair to just give them a way to do the assignment when I was able to think of it on my own” and all of that from the more connectivist leaning students in the course. Of course, some of that was our fault because we originally had the goal of moving all learners into a connectivist-type of agency. But we quickly saw this was not working for all learners, and that even just having the instructivist pathway was not enough to help all of those that struggled with connectivism. I’m not sure we designed those spaces the best way they could have, but so often you are dealing with a system that shouldn’t be forcing students with no ocean to learn to fish in the first place. When you can’t change the system right away to realize that, you have to provide the other ways for some learners. The ocean metaphor would probably help learners understand their own needs, as well as explain to other students why the options they personally don’t like have to exist in the first place.

    I captured some of the issues in this blog post back in the day:

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