Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Reflections after #digped discussion on teaching underground

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

It was kind of serendipitous that I read this slam poem in a novel I was reading immediately before joining the #digped twitter chat yday on the topic of “Critical resistance & underground teaching “. (I won’t summarize the excellent article that was the invite to the chat, you’re better off reading it yourself 🙂 )

The poem in the YA novel (Point of Retreat) I am reading (which an 11-year old character in the novel is performing at a school talent show, ends like this, after having addressed the first half to people who bullied her, she moves onto blaming others who are passive bystanders):

After all, it’s not you it’s happening to
You aren’t the one being bullied
And you aren’t the one being rude
It isn’t your hand that’s throwing the food
But . . . it is your mouth not speaking up
It is your feet not taking a stand
It is your arm not lending a hand
It is your heart
Not giving a damn.
So take up for yourself
Take up for your friends
I challenge you to be someone
Who doesn’t give in.
Don’t give in.
Don’t let them win.”

(Emphasis in original)

And that poem says a lot about my attitude in general towards my principles. In the sense that I feel it is my responsibility to stand with others who have similar beliefs, to speak up with them, and even sometimes for them if needed (patronizing though that might sound). The use of the words in the poem particularly reflect a saying of Prophet Muhammad, where he says roughly, “if you see something wrong, correct it with your own hand, if you cannot, correct it with your tongue, and if you cannot, then correct it in your heart, and that’s the weakest form of faith”. Notice the parallels between this saying and the poem above? And notice also the affordances it considers: we cannot always take matters into our own hands, but often we can speak up or write or advocate. And sometimes we are disempowered and cannot even speak up, but it is important to keep the beliefs in our hearts, not to lose faith, not to stop believing in what we honestly believe is right, even if we are oppressed in our society.

Back the twitter chat, then 🙂 Kris Shaffer had written a great article recently about different levels of resistance one can have within an institution, depending on one’s power position and circumstances.

Some great ideas came out of the twitter chat yday and I want to highlight some of them (thanks to Len for storifying the chat here)

One key that mattered to me and some others is about finding supportive communities of others. Those others may be at our institutions and we might need to look beyond our immediate contacts to find them in different departments and at different levels of seniority. Local allies are important, t also one can find allies in other institutions, like by joining #digped chats, and like why I am joining the #whyopen MOOC now, why I joined #rhizo14 earlier this year and continue to interact with that community, why I enjoyed #clmooc so much. Critical pedagogy almost always focuses on collective action, and I think that’s for many reasons, some of them relating to the need for critical mass for advocacy of alternative ideas to get even heard by those in power, but also on a micro level, we need to know we are not alone in our struggle, and we need to gather energy from others who have similar beliefs. In the twitter chat, people talked about the importance of sharing experience with others, and about how one can try something quietly, before sharing successes/failures/lessons with administration. Someone even brought up the idea of doing this pedagogically – let admin see something and learn from it. My issue with that is that admin have a different lens for looking at things, their criteria for success differ from ours, probably. If your bottom line is money and my bottom line is empowerment or social justice, we are unlikely to agree on what success looks like. There needs to be a bridge there, not just a bridge between critical pedagogues across institutions and contexts. For the latter, it’s one my reasons for co-founding/co-facilitating EdConteXts (check it out – room for educators across contexts to share experiences).

One other point that struck me was the importance of encouraging student resistance, and the importance of modelling it for them ourselves. The tricky part, here, is that it means we need to allow students to resist our own practices, but we also need to help them learn to critique us outside hegemonically preset frames – someone suggested directly bringing in some institutional rules in class and critiquing them, questioning whose interests they serve, what their hidden implications are.

This discussion reminded me of something that was discussed on #digped about a year ago, or a bit less than a year ago, on alternative assessment. The issue of grades as an institutional restriction that we want to resist came up, and that we need to adhere to some semblance of grading, writing outcomes, etc., but then find our free space within our classes to experiment and resist.

That’s definitely what I do, and I have been doing holistic grading and advocating for it for a while now and I love it. But there’s a caution coming up in a few sentences. A recent story is that I was helping a faculty member work out how to use Turnitin.com to calculate some really complex way of grading that had complicated weighting for multiple assessments. She was using a grading system of another prof who had designed the course she was teaching (this is another issue i won’t get into right now). Midway through the conversation I asked her point blank, “Can you tell me honestly that you don’t already know what grade each student would roughly get in your course?” And she laughed and said, “you’re right, I do know…” And I told her that I use holistic grading. We said we’d talk about it again. Also recently, AK was asking a question about how different people deal with late assignments, and for me, ever since I started doing holistic assessment, this became almost a non-issue for me. Part of my holistic grade is that a student “usually submits stuff on time” (or at least has a valid reason that they communicate early enough); some stuff has important deadlines because it’s a prerequisite to another thing, or it needs to get peer feedback, and in that sense, i don’t need to literally mark anyone ‘down’ (but i don’t use “marks” anyway) for submitting late: they’ll just end up struggling to move onto the next phase or have trouble getting peers to respond to them… So they’ll take responsibility for their own lateness and find ways to make things work out, if that makes sense?

Anyway, so here is the caution: what if a lot of the stuff we consider progressive or critical or experimental (and experiments can fail) fall into the wrong hands, whatever judgment call ‘wrong’ here implies. This is what scares administrators,right? What if someone uses holistic grading as an excuse for favoritism, being biased in their grading?

And my response to this question is: why are we assuming that current traditional approaches are not biased! Just because you attach a number to it and make it into a calculation, does not make it more objective. I will talk more directly about what I mean by traditional assessments. One bias of traditional assessment is forcing all students to do the same assessment with the same restrictions of time, modality, etc., and this automatically privileges some students over others. Even deadlines privilege some students over others who e.g. Have heavier loads of have families. Pre-defining what success means in a course, with unified learning outcomes across the board (as we are required to do in most universities) is not fair to anyone, really. And all this calculating of grades makes students focus too much on the grades and the counting, and forget what is really important, the learning. And we need to model that focus for them by ourselves being focused onthe learning and not the scoring. Holistic is also about focusing on students as whole people, not just students, and some people talked about how one would treat students socially (something v important to me).

I better wrap this up, I leave you with some of my fave tweets from the chat yday (a few r missing becoz i was using hootsuite app for first time and it failed to favorite/retweet some stuff so it’s harder to find everything)

And finally, something i’d like to explore further, suggested by Chris Friend, publications on teaching that fails (or at least i hope that’s what it is):

5 Comments

  1. It seems that a person has to be in a “safe” position within the hierarchy to practice resistance. Doesn’t this simply perpetuate bad practice by creating temporary and unpredictable occurrences of respite from policy that remains intact? This sounds like playing, not practice.

    • Hey Scott, that issue of safety came up. In reality, i think a lot of people who are not very safe (e.g. Adjuncts) do practice resistance, but of course they put a lot at stake. I practiced resistance, directly to the face of our univ president and provost at a time just before i applied for my current faculty position. I guess there was some level of safety (at a lower level down the hierarchy) that allowed me to do it, so i guess safety is relative? Like no one is completely safe or unsafe? But sure, tenured people are safer than the rest of us.
      So but your point is, I think, that keeping policy intact while occasionally playing outside it is not enough, right? But what about when you can’t change policy or advocate openly against it? Kris Shaffer’s article provides diff levels of resistance.
      But yeah, not every rebellion is an act of resistance, as Henry Giroux has pointed out

  2. I worked at an exceptionally bad institution but my “resistance” was really a rather mild challenge to the college president at an open staff meeting. I was fired the next day without notice or written explanation. My union abandoned me, my supervisor used things I’d told her in confidence against me and the young person who I was mentoring ratted me out like the weasel he turned out to be. No one openly defended me, though people did quietly sympathize with my obvious lack of knowledge of how the world works.

    Obviously not all institutions are this whacky but, it surprised me how abandoned I felt by people who had been my colleagues moments before. As cool as education is in my mind it seems at the core that strategic compromise is the only way to survive. That’s what I learned in school.

    • Aww, Scott, I can’t (but can, I guess!) believe that happened! Wonder what it was u did that made the pres feel compelled to fire you? Or was it someone lower down who made that decision, in fear of the president?

  3. This is the Wild West here Maha. Everyone fears the president, including the board of directors and of course the staff and faculty. The first thing he did on being appointed president was to fire the staff and faculty union reps and tell all the instructors they would be replaced by online contract people who he would hire as he fired them.

    The person who actually fired me had just taken over as coordinator of our office. I trusted her because she had created and helped run a thing called the HOPE Certificate for teaching hope strategies to people like me who were suffering from depression as a recovering heart patient. I volunteered months to help them develop the program for online delivery and trusted her with comments. Stupid idea.

    I was actually the VP of the staff union when I was let go and the person I was mentoring was he president. Again, foolish trust.

    What I said to the president was to point out the policy he was defending (placed on us by the provincial government) was in direct conflict with our previous mandate. I just if there was no way to re-negotiate a deal that served our students better.

    It wasn’t even a challenge but that doesn’t matter. And anyway, my job was casual and coming to the end of term in 5 weeks. I guess given how rough this place is being dumped early was the best option.

    There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty in education and I guarantee there a lots of tyrants heading institutions who take advantage of this. Where I worked is a small community college whose enrollment and course quality is collapsing and no one seems to care, or dare care. And to be fair, I was never suited to working in education anyway.

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