Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 42 seconds

Dominant sub-discourses of dissent

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 42 seconds

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…]

10 thoughts on “Dominant sub-discourses of dissent

  1. OMG, Maha, this is not just a blog post– it’s a book on its own! I know that the essay just fires off, in a not-very-organized way, your personal/professional responses and reflections on various events and issues during a certain window of time in the past two days (?). But the post contains one bigtime thought-provoking idea after another throughout it.
    This was particularly thought-provoking to me: “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. … 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.” I agree. There’s no escape from “becoming” part of the “other”–unless we deliberately isolate ourselves from anyone new; but the moment we try to join new groups or even learn new ideas, and even as we remain aware or (self-) critical about the “othering” that happens/continues for someone else, we continue to make our own personal and social selves overlap with those who would otherwise continue to “other” us and whom we would other as well.
    Of course, when ideas and identities overlap between/among mutually othering groups/individuals, yet others remain outside the overlapping circles (and their non-overlapping parts). But reading your thoughts in this regard makes me wonder if we can/should also try to flip the order of othering in terms of power. For instance, if there are those of us at the “center” that are (un)knowingly “othering” others in less connected, less dominant, less privileged parts of the world (in terms of how “we” define these, of course), then we could think about deliberately, purposefully “othering” us–those at the center–by inviting our others to “other” us! For me, the central appeal of rhizo14 is precisely this: I usually want to say things there because I know that in that venue, I can (and I want to say) say something that will “counter” my own dominant/mainstream self, as well as the mainstream/dominant scholars/educators in there. In ordinary f2f/online conversations about education, I quickly lose my confidence if I “challenge” mainstream ideas/assumptions and try to point out that we are being “parochial” about what education, critical thinking, access, etc mean/do. (Well, there are a few other places, including my own blog, where I don’t hesitate to challenge mainstream assumptions). But in rhizo (Fb group, that is), I believe that people (at least some people) will value when I point out complexities of context, perspectives, realities in different parts of the world.
    That said, I am aware that even when I try (“pretend”?) to bring in the perspectives of other places, contexts, people that are not yet heard in venues like this, or at least bring in my non-mainstream experiences, I think I am othering many others outside than including them. There is a lot we can do if we could deliberately invite various others and listen to them, othering ourselves and our mainstream/dominant selves. Huh, I’m not organizing my thoughts at all– but I’m not thinking of this as a book chapter either!

    1. Hey Shyam, thanks – I think I get the general idea of where you’re going with this, though the number of degrees of otherness got a big confusing 😉 But I understand what you are saying because I know you 🙂 I think!
      RE: book chapter, I was just thinking this morning this thought: if I cannot express it in 2,000 words or less, it’s not a blogpost, it should go through peer review!! Haha – this blog post def does not qualify, but there is another thought going through my head that I am just struggling to blog, and then I realized (eureka moment) it deserves to be done as a longer journal article (book chapters can work too but I am too impatient – as you know 🙂 )

  2. Almost finished reading …. and on activist leader pointed out that if you don’t have a back-up position then you stick with being pushy for your cause. Not exactly what he said but the point is if your position is where you “stand” then entertaining lesser positions is just being phony. For instance, if you think the normal LMS has faults based on your evidence then saying you would consider what others say as “legitimate” is only a politeness and not a subject of discussion at all.

    As an example, my younger daughter had problems with a math teacher in grade 11. Her grades dropped and on asking the teacher he said that “girls aren’t good at math.” Since this statement wasn’t something we felt necessary to negotiate or fix with this fool we to do her best and find another teacher the next semester. After years at the college trying to convince teachers to try online teaching to no result I’m convinced it’s a waste of time to think they can be persuaded. This goes against the grain of teaching but some people will avoid change at all costs, some will pretend to change (and be useless) and one in a million will genuinely adopt a new outlook.

    Don’t wait for people to catch up. They never will any more than you will being going back to join them.

    1. Wow, good point, Scott, as always. I am reading and thinking and wondering if thar was all I was saying.
      I might have been saying that sometimes we stop being critical of our evangelist causes or whatever. Believing in sthg passionately should not prevent us from being critical of it.
      What i think happens is that when we get used to sort of “protecting” our dissenting view (understandable in our wider “traditional” community w dominant discourse), i agree with your point about sticking to it.
      When we find a community to support the view, we want to rush to it for comfort. But then we find ourselves surrounded by others saying similar things, it becomes a dominant discourse within that sub-community… And now it is time to question it, or you become like those dominant others u escaped from. If that makes sense?
      So… If e.g. Ur daughter later joined a group who were anti-discrimination/sexism in math, that group might also as part of their discourse, talk about sexist math teachers as inhuman or sthg. It does not address the wider issue nor help solve it to only work within the group you agree with. To influence change, you may need to venture out. I don’t suggest changing our view but being empathetic to others in order to negotiate, dialogue, etc. Having said that, no dialogue is “equal” it is always on some party’s terms and unequal privilege and power. Accusing Palestinians from not negotiating is diff from accusing Israelis for example. But I still think Palestinians would be better off understanding where Israelis are coming from rather than ignoring them completely (no reference to current situation intended asam not following news closely)

  3. Maha, understand taking the positions of others into consideration, including being tolerant of their concerns. I did work with instructors, at the expense of my other duties to help them through their concerns and also did “their” work when deadlines caught up with them. Part of the reason I was able to do this was I existed as an assistant designer floating between departments and allowed to do things “category” employees couldn’t.

    In a highly political organization this kind of job allows a lot of rule interpretation and person to person assistance without trading obligations. It also means that when I was thrown like garbage out the door last May (after 5 years work) there was no severance, no union assistance and I didn’t even get a note confirming I’d worked there. The people I helped still work there and have reverted to refusing online duty and are now trying to blame my wife (who still builds online materials there) for their lack of online skills.

    At some point, people who can’t do something need to be taken at their word and dumped. It’s only fair to them to recognize their deficiencies and relieve them of their worries:-) Having been on the outside all my life I know what intolerance looks like. It looks like me without a job and my wife being demoted and belittled every day. “Fair” doesn’t always appear when it should.

  4. Maha

    I don’t remember asking if exclusion was part of the curriculum, my memory was that I asked if exclusion WAS the curriculum.

    I remember the LMS debates, I was a dissenter.

    I now consider that I am not a dissenter I am an assenter.

    I think that there is a really big issue about research, science, and the dominance of cartels which reward selected individual ‘researchers’. I believe that there is a vital role for critical pedagogy to enable those who see fit to air their voices in the way that they feel fit and to get others to respect their voices or their silence.

    I have been reflecting on autoethnography and diversity of voice here:

    I don’t think we think alike, I feel that we like that we think differently.

    The importance of connection is in the silence.

    1. Simon, I just read your beautiful blogpost… At once lyrical and critical and deep. I love the end of that: “Patterns in the sky made visible may be beautiful, may make me dream that I know, but I question the authority of the astronomer who pronounces that mine is a lesser star in the universe. I may question his choice of ‘telescope’, I may question his obsession with stars when what binds us is darkness.”
      (I can’t comment on ur blog directly coz am on iPad and google dislikes us wordpress folks from iPad)

      Apologies for misquoting u in the blogpost – in the final written interview I copy/paste ur exact words and Sarah transcribed Dave’s words, so it should be more accurate.

      I don’t understand the ‘importance of connection is in the silence”?

  5. Thanks for posting the link to this on the #rhizo14 FB group @Maha.
    I read your post when it was first published but didn’t reply at the time. I have a great deal of sympathy with the idea that dissenting minorities in one setting can benefit from supporting each other by networking. Some years ago (in 2008 I think) I came across the term ‘homophily, – roughly it means similarity breeds attraction. It seems to me that this is a basic human yearning – to be around people who are like us in some way – interests, previous experiences, or as you describe passionate beliefs about education. You identify groupthink as a possible risk – I agree with that but think it’s much more complex that you or I could explain here. There is a spectrum of organising and infrastructure from the private backchannel of 2 people offering each other support, commiserations, information, whatever and a public space like a blog network or Twitter. Along the spectrum there are countless other spaces and interactions such as the #rhizo14 FB group, mumsnet forums, Ravelry forums.

    I looked up this blog post from 2011 and it was interesting to see that both Twitter and I have slightly shifted since then. If I was re-writing it I would also think about # tags and be more critical of the make up of my Twitter stream. Despite my reflections, I still have a tendency to follow people who say what I like to hear and avoid those whose views might distress me. I followed Richard Dawkins last week – and only lasted 2 hours.

    I would like to link the discussion in the comments on that post about practice ‘as negotiated’ to some ideas around ‘Reclaim your domain’. As well as the obvious benefits of having more control over your own presence, there is the matter of building web literacies So when we visit/ inhabit spaces and engage in interactions along the spectrum from private, interpersonal to public discourse, how can we work out what we should say where? And what are the expectations of a space? You identified different groups in rhizo14 and Dave portrayed them as overlapping. When these overlapping groups interact across multiple platforms the groupings break down and I wonder how useful they are. It’s a very human and understandable short-cut to imagine a group to which we belong. If we are struggling to make ourselves heard or understand a complex phenomenon, we will reach out to friends and supporters as they might reach out to us – I love it when I am part of that. But does that need to happen within an identified (sub-) community? Wouldn’t it be more effective in the back-channel? Or as open supportive comments that don’t ‘brand’ themselves.

    My tentative view is that the presence of the concept of ‘community is the curriculum’ on #rhizo14 gave community undue early prominence on what was a six week course.

    I wasn’t absolutely sure what you meant here – I got a bit confused between community and sub-community.
    “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.”
    What I am wondering is what are the benefits of identifying sub-communities compared with the benefits of being somewhere where you can disagree respectfully and listen to the views of others.

    I have no solid conclusions – I just want to engage with people in a way that does not shut off the opportunity for any of us to change our minds, even slightly.

  6. The idea of back-channels appeals to my sense that we don’t always need agreement to keep moving. Dissent adds tension and possibly energy that can be easily lost in the urge to consensus–though it can also stall or stop things in their tracks.

    I’ve worked with groups where if we had only allowed dissenters a meaningful place in policy we might have been able to keep their energy alive as contributors. As someone who often does a poor job of considering what I’m saying my general experience has been isolation. I’m also willing to pay the price of isolation often rather than silence myself or squirm over foolish things I might say.

    To me, a back-channel allows a more raggedy group to evolve into a more interesting being, but it still creates the annoyance of constant negotiation which can be draining. Or maybe an unproductive “position” in the group as shit-disturber without necessarily a pay back for diversity they add.

    How diverse can a group be before it breaks? In terms of the footprint for the group, if most activity exists outside the chaos boundary, is it actually a group?

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