Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Power of Social Media for the Semi-privileged


In my country, I am one of the privileged: i speak English, been educated in Western institutions, have a PhD from the UK, and am faculty in the most elite institution in my country; I am upper middle class, of the majority religion of my country. I have great relationships with my colleagues. I have traveled for tourism and conferences, I have lived in several different countries.

In the world of academia, I am only semi-privileged. I am from Egypt (global South), I am a woman with a family and the responsibilities that entails – including difficulties to travel for conferences. I got my PhD remotely with few visits to Sheffield, so i did not have the chance to network with other academics easily.

But I am privileged in what i consider to be the most important way for someone like me as an early career academic with geographical restrictions: I am on social media.

For the first time in my life, I am attending a conference where I actually know quite a few of the speakers personally – from MOOCs, from Twitter. Some others at least I have heard of. I am talking about #et4online, by the way, the upcoming Sloan-C/MERLOT conference in Dallas which i am attending virtually in April. I used to live in Houston and attended an Educause regional conference there. Did not know a soul. Did not build any significant relationships. This upcoming one, i would have loved to attend in person.

How else does social media help me? I interact on Twitter with big names in my field I would never have imagined I ever could. I am getting over my celebrity thing with most of them as we’re becoming friends. The one I still don’t get is why Henry Giroux follows me on Twitter and Google circles ๐Ÿ™‚ Twitter (ok, and some email) helped me get through the lonely last stages of my PhD thesis writing and even the defense.

More importantly, i have formed important relationships with people online, like many in the #rhizo14 group – important intellectually and emotionally. I also met others through different avenues and have collaborated twice already on academic articles with people I never met in person. That’s powerful, man. I know people, and I did not have to leave my toddler to travel to meet them. I can take em with me everywhere (on my iPad and mobile and work and home PCs) and I don’t have to wait for a prescribed time to reach out to them. That is powerful, man. I have friends on enough time zones now I can have a deep intellectual conversation any time. Ok. To be fair, i had that before, but the network has grown exponentially with MOOCs and Twitter.

I want to keep this post short, but will come back to this later. Just one final point: I believe that sometimes my exoticness helps me get noticed, get befriended. People are curious and i understand. But I believe they keep coming back because of something more substantive than that. Almost everyone talking about rhizo14 will mention ppl from Egypt, Brazil and Guyana. But the three of us from those three regions were not just exotics. We were/are part of the center of that particular group of people. And boy, am I glad I have the opportunity to be there and learn and love in this way. Don’t ever take it away from me. Like Clarissa. These are my friends.


  1. so much yes to this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    especially to your last paragraph – it makes me think of the reading i was doing last night on Spivak, and her discussion of the way she fully inhabited neither the centre nor the margin of “the teaching machine” of supposedly post-colonial academia. i think the actual centrality of people from diverse, global South and non-Anglo countries IN #rhizo14 has been worthy of mention precisely FOR your centrality – not as exotics but as central voices and leaders. given the fact that til now, a very legit critique of cMOOCs has tended to be their Anglo-centricity, from where i sit, this is a shift and a welcome one BECAUSE i think global power relations matter to how the “margins” of networked knowledge get cast and understood. at the same time, i’m excited to have met you all because you’re you, and both those things are true and i’m not sure there’s full reconciliation in subject positions there for any of us.

    but here we are, thinking about it. i am glad about that, glad to have people to do that with.

    • Hey Bonnie, yes, I know what you mean. I still think any educational experience that is in English is likely to continue to be Anglo-centric and elitist, but it’s a start (you will like the upcoming Hybrid Ped articles I co-authored. Out soon!) – so an important point is this: even though Obama is pres of the US, racism continues to exist in the US and beyond. In a similar vein, even tho there were a few central non-Anglos in rhizo14, it was still Anglocentric. It just so happens that someone like me sort of compensates by being a big loud and noisy (possibly too rude for some ppl, by being too blunt sometimes?)

      Anyway ๐Ÿ™‚ But I still remember the day i first interacted with both you and Dave on Twitter about 3weeks before rhizo14 started. I already had a beginning of a relationship with you both (separately) before the course. I think there is that dispositional aspect (rhizomatically, i am referring to our conversation on Keith’s post) – your openness to connect with me, my umm audacity to start a personal conversation on Twitter with folks like you whom I considered celebrities of a kind. I think it related a bit to the tones if your blogs as well: open, friendly, not intimidating. We would not have that without social media because scholarly publication is so much less friendly. But that’s changing, too ๐Ÿ™‚
      More later! Thanks!

  2. I never thought of you as exotic actually. Your English is so good that I had no idea (at first) that you weren’t a native English speaker.

    I can’t say I read “typical Egyptian” things in your posts. Your posts are truly and inspiring.
    BTW I write “typical Egyptian” in quotes because I couldn’t say what that would mean. I have been in Egypt twice, but only as a tourist.
    I must say it’s special to me that you’re a woman in Egypt, because what struck me in my short visits to Egypt ( Hurgada & Sharm el Sheik ) was the lack of women in the streets.

    I agree that most MOOCs are anglo-centric. I’m convinced that that will change in due time. More groups from other backgrounds will start their own online education.

    I personally am not a big fan of English (the spelling is awfully difficult), but it’s the ‘lingua franca’ of this age like Latin was ages ago.
    BTW I’m from Limburg, a region that stretches from the east parts from Belgium, through the south part of Netherlands and east part of Germany.

    • Hi Ron, thanks for responding and for your words.
      Hurghada and Sharm are quite different from the regular cities (i am one of the few Egyptians who has never been to Sharm, but i went to Hurghada and didn’t notice lack of women, but now that you mention it realize it is probably true! Will unpack that!) – in the big cities you’ll see women all over the place.
      I’ve been to both Belgium (not just Brussels to but also Leuvent in Flemish or Louvain in French – is that your area?) and Germany (Munich). The first time I learned that Flemish and Dutch are v similar was like in 2000. You’re Dutch, right? Your English also usually seems native to me and I only realized you were Dutch when you mentioned it once midway through. Then again, I assume it is easier for Anglosaxon native speakers to learn English? Been on KLM and through Schiphol often enough to notice their English accents differ from most other countries (near native again). Or it might just be a good edu system, not sure! How do you normally feel in cMOOCs?
      Beyond the language tge edu context is usually Anglo. It is not so strange to me because I still work at an American university and have studies in US/UK institutions all my life. But if i start talking about public Egyptian universities, it is a whole parallel universe! I myself forget sometimes, getting sucked into my own discourse, you know, that is affirmed by the MOOCs. I forget about life outside my own bubble… Hmm…

  3. ha. good point. sorry…was speaking geographically without thinking through the obvious fact of the, erm, meaning of the word. i meant that the centre of community was not located entirely or even primarily in dominantly Anglophone countries…but given the privileging of English still, yes, entirely Anglocentric. which i probably only missed/conflated because of the way English privileges ME. so yeh, point taken.

    the dispositional piece and the tone/friendliness/openness piece: I’d love to explore the dispositions of #rhizo14 folks on that front and our literacies for reading social cues…

    • Hey Bonnie, I didn’t just mean geographically (and I did not mean to make you feel bad.). I also meant that still the majority of participants were Anglo. Still, the majority of the folks who had lots of experience with cMOOCs were Anglo. Still, the bulk of power lay on the Anglo side. But YES it was quite incredible that despite that, some of the non-Anglos were quite central to the experience (on fb at least; not sure elsewhere). But beyond that, how do you achieve the same in other cMOOCs? I actually don’t think yo can plan it. It suddenly occurred to me that in real life (e.g. In conferences, the fact that I cover my hair gets me some “exotic” attention, too, and ppl try to talk to me, come to my talk, etc., but they don’t necessarily want to keep knowing me -not in a bad way, just in a we-met-at-a-conferejce-and-so-what way- ; rhizo14 is very different in that respect, in that the relationships sustain beyond; same for social media in general sometimes)

  4. Maha, I really have to think through the ideas about privileged Anglocentricism in your post. On first consideration, I think you are correct, but I just haven’t thought carefully about it. But I will. Of course, it raises questions about power and how English is the first among languages. Does that corrupt our conversation? I don’t know.

    Still, I’m wondering if technology privileges all of us. Although I speak English, few people at my school speak about rhizomatic education, or know what it is, or even care. The technology allows me to connect to people around the world who do care. That is such a blessing.

    • Hey Keith, as I emphasize near the end of the post (and as I have said many times before and in many places), I cannot live without you guys at rhizo14… I am both blessed and privileged. i agree that our online closeness means we have our own shared rhizo language that others in our f2f contexts may not share, and it is both a beautiful thing (to have this online community for those ideas and be able to communicate with them relatively easily) and an issue (we are different people because of it, working within more traditional systems, having difficulty communicating these experiences that others have not shared and probably cannot understand without close observation, if not experiencing themselves – or can they?)

      I do think, though, that the Anglocentrism is not just the language, but also the context. It just so happens that my university is an American liberal arts institution (where I did my undergrad and where I am now working) and that I did grad studies in the UK, and have lived in US/UK so I understand most of the contextual issues related to education that are discussed. Many of them apply to me. But most do not apply to the public schools and universities here in Egypt that have bigger issues. (Side note: others are Anglo in rhizo14 but wanted to discuss issues that others did not and so they did not get a chance; there are all sorts of privilege and power going around). I go back to your “BYOC” (bring your own context) idea. I love that. I do it with my students all the time, and just yesterday uncovered some of the difficulties they have in applying what we learn in class to their own teaching (each semester, the reasons are different because the students are different, and i modify my courses accordingly).
      Anyway, would love to continue the conversation. I know you and Clarissa and many others are interested in power and so am I.

  5. Lovely post Maha. I have been disengaged for a few days – work and issues of the mind (taking a slight slight break). Was great to read this and now feeling refreshed.

  6. Maha this brings me to discussions with one of my best friends from Cameroon. He has been opening my mind to a completely unimaginable life experience for me.
    The contrast between our upbringings is extreme. I will never forget moving from discussion of football to birthplace. On Googling images of his village witch-doctors in scary masks appeared among the straw huts. These people are still part of his reality, his narrative space.

    We agree we must work together critically to redesign our world views and the place of technology to amplify certain aspirations for stomping over the rich diversity within our eco-systems. As a descendant of missionaries I feel this deeply.

  7. After thought, reading Scollon and Scollon enabled me to give meaning to my own activist research stance.

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