Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Dominant sub-discourses of dissent


OddOneOut by Cliff Robin CC-BY-NC-SA via flickr

OddOneOut by Cliff Robin CC-BY-NC-SA via flickr

This is going to be a bit of a strange post. I’ve been thinking all day of what the title should be. I ended up calling it “dominant sub-discourses of dissent” hoping that this represents what I am trying to convey. I am trying to talk about discourses of dissent that become popular within a sub-group of people who, in their most traditional contexts, present a “dissenting” view, but they get together, and by “dissenting” together, form a new “dominant” sub-discourse. If that makes sense? there might be a better word for this already out there. It’s just not in my mind right now and I needed to write this post.


So… for example, yesterday I tweeted about my dissatisfcation with LMSs, wondering if it’s social media or cMOOCs that have created this dissatisfaction. People in my regular context are big on LMSs. They refer to how tech-savvy faculty are by how extensively they use Blackboard. I tell them, “but the most tech-savvy people are using social media, not Blackboard” and they say, “yes, but the majority of non-tech-laggards are on Bb and it’s a good measure”. Fair enough. I do have one colleague who is also dissatisfied with LMSs. Then I read Sean Michael Morris write about everything that’s wrong with LMSs, watched Jim Groom’s keynote for Sloan-C, and realized I am not alone. I tweeted about it y/day and sure enough, several people agree about hating LMSs. There were, of course, people at the Sloan-C conference who were not anti-LMS. I think (but cannot speak for others) that those of us who are anti-LMS were thinking, “aww, poor them, they can’t see what’s wrong with LMSs”. We sort of comfort ourselves that there are some others like us out there who agree with us, and because we’re used to being dissenting, we’re used to getting the backlash from most others on the other side. I don’t know that we necessarily always stop and think, really, that maybe some of the backlash is legitimate? Or we do, but we think our argument must be stronger than theirs?

So for example when I was (serendipitously) working with Jim Groom ahead of his workshop at Sloan-C, I asked him on my newly created blog (this link is to my “moved” blog to my own domain now) why he was assuming people would necessarily “buy into” the discourse of “reclaiming one’s domain”. It’s sort of this new thing and loads of the cutting edge ed tech people are all for it. I think we need to do more work to “engage” with people more traditional than ourselves who are dissenting against our own dissent.

Like Jim himself was recently citing Audrey Watters talking about his reclaim domain movement and I commented that:

“Hey Jim, you know of course that I am one of those cyborgs who has decided to reclaim my domain.., there is still a small catch, though. There are some “dependences” we continue to risk (cannot claim as our own): dependence on the hosting provider (if shared hosting, not local) and dependence on social media like twitter and fb to disseminate… Am I missing something?
But oh, man, I cannot believe how I have turned against the LMS the past few years. Glad I am not the only one!”

To which Jim responded:

You are absolutely right, I would also add to that you only lease your domain, can’t really ever own it. So I agree there are real limits to ownership here, but at the same time the fact you can start imagining the implications for framing your own learning network in a space you have far more control over is powerful. And that’s what keeps me fired up!

The next stag of those dependences, though, the Reclaim Your Domain piece of this wherein we start to enable folks to backup and manage their activity on social media sites like FB, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. That’s what Kin Lane and Audrey Watters have been working on to great effect recently. I think there is a serious there there right now, and the answers to those issues are really starting to be addressed now.”

And those are important steps to be taken.

Now, within a community like #rhizo14, I feel we are a group of people with quite “alternative” views as to what learning is and how education should be. It kind of helps to have a community of people with some similar views so you can hash out ideas with them. People who, when you talk, don’t hear “mere noise” and can actually converse with you on these ideas. Some have told us we’re too like-minded and not welcoming to dissenting views within our facebook group particularly. I’ll admit there has always been some amount of group think in this group, but group think can be the result of multiple things:

1. We already think alike, that’s why we signed up this course. Of course not every person thinks exactly the same, but there are enough overlaps to sometimes create some group think

2. We influence each other’s thinking. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily, because being influenced by another person’s thinking can be considered learning. But it needs to be done reflexively, critically, and considering issues of power. Something should not be taken as more or less valuable because a particular person said it, or the way it’s said, etc.  I won’t go into detail so as not to point fingers at anyone, but… well let’s move to the next point

3. It’s possible that those who dissent from our dissent (which may result in a third view or even multiple other views, not a return to “tradition” or anything) have decided not to stay with us, either on facebook or at all. And that’s a loss to the diversity of the group, to its inclusiveness, to its sense of what “community” is, and it’s something worth thinking about. But it does contribute to more “group think”. Some people might stay but feel unable to voice their dissent because it seems unpopular. Some people struggle on regardless, others do not.

Speaking of which: Just yesterday, in Dave Cormier’s crowdsourced interview on google hangout (with Sarah Honeychurch and myself while others watched and tweeted) – he responded to Simon Ensor’s tweet about exclusion being part of the curriculum… and he said (to paraphrase) that every “we” creates a “them” that is not “us”. So true. Unavoidable. But what can be done by the designer of a learning environment to reduce the sense of exclusion? Dave talked about there being several different and overlapping rhizo14s. It seems the facebook group was one version of the course, there was another version that was artistically inclined with poetry and visuals (which some of us never engaged with), and there was a group who worked more via google+ and twitter. There is a group who are kind of hyper and loving of rhizo14 (the people), and a group who are more critical of it (and a few in between, of course). It’s almost (almost) like two completely different stories of rhizo14 and it’s a testament, I think, to the difficulties of doing research about human experience, and about relativism, if I ever saw it.

Now something from my f2f context. Today I attended an interesting event about alternatives to university education in Egypt. This was an energizing experience, of being amongst people who all thought about alternative education, dissenters. I am used to being the odd one out at work, the one with the radical views. I was inspired because many of the people present were quite young people who were passionate about changing education in Egypt, enthusiastic and action-oriented. The catch? Some of what was said was not that radical. I was asked to be a “respondent” to a panel. Had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I had 7 minutes after the panel had finished (each panelist had 15 mins each) to “respond”, so I thought my role was to critique the talks that preceded mine. My main critiques were two (well three):

1. Much of what was said seemed to imply a superior role to theory over practice. That yes, we needed to get to the practice, which was absent from much of our education in Egypt, but we’d start with the theory. When actually, there is no need to stick to that order. (responses by participants was that they did not mean to present it as such; that even the theory would be done via active learning, etc., but I distinctly remember them saying they’d spend the first half of the educational experience on theory before moving onto practice; I may have misunderstood other parts, but this one was clear to me)

2. They seemed to continue to believe in a particular body of knowledge that was most valuable, without questioning what decisions about value of content mean for privilege, power, indoctrination, etc. There was little questioning of how liberal arts education might privilege certain views of learning, certain canons of knowledge, without questioning why we should prioritize one body over another in our own context. There was too much talk about content and too little talk about process. It was there in the back of their minds, I know, but not explicit in their educational designs. For example, a group working on making sustainability work more interdisciplinary divided their workshops into content-based ones – discussing like 8 or 9 different topics, when they could have focused on the process of working interdisciplinarily in depth, and used one or two topics to explore the process itself, and then allow participants to choose the topic they’d like to experiment with more in their own context… which brings me to #3

3. (very important one) – There was too little (if any) clarity on giving students/learners control over their own learning processes. It’s possible that because the people presenting today were so young themselves, they saw themselves as taking on student views. I did not start to realize that I could no longer do that until very recently when I realized, man I’ve gotten old, and these students are no longer just like me. Besides, no other person is like the next person, so even if you’re a student you don’t know what the needs and desires and limitation and aspirations of the next person are. And there needs to be space for this in any alternative view of education, in my opinion.

But see, again, all I say above? It’s a dissenting discourse that is dominant in a sub-community of people, e.g. like the folks on Hybrid Pedagogy. Like for example the recent article critiquing best practices – everything in it (and much of what’s in the journal as a whole) resonates with me big time. But there is a reason why other people continue to use best practices, for example.

All I’m saying is… dissenting discourse can find a sub-community of people, and then it becomes a dominant discourse within that sub-community, and from there, it changes our view to those outside that community. Both those whom we perceive as traditionalist and resisting our calls for change; and those who try to critique where we’re coming from. I’m not actually saying that anyone I’ve talked about above is directly closing themselves off to critique. I’m just referring to a general feeling I’m getting as I find myself engaged more and more with people who think more like me (while the majority of people do not) – it shifts my view of the world.

Tomorrow, AUC’s Open Access event starts. Here’s another one of those dissenting views that I found so much support for in my online communities, that I was able to bring to my classes to encourage that mindset in my students – and yet here is an event we’re doing on campus. I wonder how many people who are against open access will attend… or if we’ll be preaching to the choir.

A choir needs each member to complete the beautiful music it makes. There is value in a choir. I assume the preaching part comes from a church metaphor, so let’s say the assumption that the choir is “converted” but that does not mean they can’t benefit from some more preaching. They’ll probably still learn something new here and there. They probably need to “unite” or “join forces” against the big bad world out there 😉 Or at least the “traditional, stuck in the mud” or whatever 🙂

If someone knows a better word for this than “dominant sub-discourses of dissent” please tell me!

[The other day I could not remember the word “multi-tasking” and someone reminded me on twitter 😉 Things can slip the mind…]


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