Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Sharing/Ownership ≠ Empowerment

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This is a quick post because I gotta go. But it is an important post. 

I notice a lot of discourse that privileges sharing or ownership or even participation as if any or all of these are automatically empowering. They aren’t. Like, not at all.

For example:

  1. Giving students a domain of their own, freedom to do whatever they wish with it, control who sees what… That isn’t automatically empowering. It privileges the tech savvy (Kate Bowles made this point once, I believe) and the person who risks little by sharing of themselves. It privileges particular forms of expression that are more potentially fraught for women and minorities. It may be less fraught than social media owned by corporations and definitely has benefits beyond university-surveiled LMS. But it still carries risks and privileges some over others 
  2. Ownership doesn’t make someone capable of handling something. If we give students ownership over their learning path (something I believe we should do) we need to recognize that different learners are differently equipped for this responsibility. And while some have the social/cultural capital to embrace this autonomy, others may feel lost (e.g. first generation college students in US; or people coming from very authoritative education systems in Egypt). What it means is that “letting go” isn’t power-free. It means learners may be influenced by external power forces outside the educational situation. Influence by more dominant peers. By parents. By their own expectations of what they think they should want rather than what they do want. Agency without consciousness-raising and support may result in nothing at all and be disempowering altogether. 
  3. Sharing. People are always talking about importance of nurturing and encouraging student voice,  for students to share their stories. Well guess what? In a context of being a minority, someone may not find it empowering to share a story and make themselves vulnerable. Why would they,  when risk to themselves is higher than risk to e.g. teachers or other students of more dominant backgrounds? I talked during an OpenEd16 session about possibility of using semi-fictional narrative to reduce burden of vulnerability on individuals 
  4. Sharing as broadcasting is one thing that perpetuates the status quo and reproduces dominant culture and voice.
  5. Sharing as working together, as participation, does not necessarily solve all problems. Power dynamics occur between learners. We know this. It’s obvious. Personality alone is a factor, but add to that how macro power dynamics play out in the micropower dynamics of a classroom or small group and you have a situation of again…reproduction of inequality 
  6. We cannot assume agency. And we cannot assume lack of it. We cannot assume minorities will manage without support, nor can we assume they are incapable. We also cannot assume the dominant members of a group (in all the intersectionality of each person) will recognize the complexity of making participation as equitable as possible. 
  7. Consciousness-raising is for both the empowered and the disempowered 
  8. Intersectionality can make someone use the area where they are subaltern (e.g. gender) to fight back and try to make room for their voices (yay empowerment?) while inadvertently silencing others who are minorities in different ways (e.g. male of color).

This is all pretty self-evident imho. But our discourses often don’t reflect the complexity of this and we cheer and celebrate when we use terms like ownership, sharing, participation, agency. No. Adding one student to a committee with 5 faculty and 2 administrators isn’t empowering. Creating a committee of 6 students isn’t empowering. Emancipation is much harder work and it’s a long process that will always need to be reevaluated 

2 Comments

  1. Excellent post! One way that we attempt to empower students is to first use a disruptive pedagogy – that takes them away from the traditionally privileged forms and processes – it is a small attempt at ‘de-schooling’ (Illich) – before moving on to empowering practice…

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