Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 37 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The trouble with agency


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 37 seconds

[i fully intend to write a post about my journey towards reclaiming my domain, but this one is more urgent; this “fully intend to write” thing reminds me of Keith has done before]

I recently commented on Clarissa’s blog about how her recent post made me realize why I have been spending the last few months of my life reading more blogposts than academic articles. There is of course, the shorter length and easier reading, but more than that, it can be more value per time spent than an academic article. Clarissa’s latest post did a great job of summarizing to me a range of literature she had read, and tying it all with a range of grey literature and ideas we had been discussing in #rhizo14 in various places. Several people do a great job of writing valuable posts like those, including Keith Hamon, Shyam Sharma, Frances Bell, Jenny Mackness, Bonnie Stewart, Sarah Honeychurch, and others..(I don’t mean to exclude, just the first ones that came to mind because I remembered particular posts). Blogs can sound more or less formal/academic, and mine leans more towards less formal. Kind of got allergic after I finished my PhD (realized it now reading a peer-reviewed article that’s about to be published but which I had written way back in July before finishing my thesis – reading how formally it had been written; it was the PhD writing getting in the way of my naturally less formal writing style).

Anyway: I have discovered I find difficulty talking informally about things I had discussed in my PhD research, such as approaches to evaluating quality of qualitative research (and I want to write a blogpost about that, too). This might mean I was either too “socialized” into writing it formally that I have trouble writing it less formally… Or that I actually don’t have a strong enough grasp of it to discuss it clearly informally. Of course, it could actually mean that I see the topic as too complex to discuss in a few lines on a facebook post or within a 1-2,000 word blog post. Or that it needs days of reflection that the artificial “urgency” of my blogging cannot stand. I’m not sure what it is…

But there is one thing discussions with Frances on her blog and a comment by Keith on Clarissa’s blog have prompted me to write about: the trouble with agency.

One of the criticisms of some views of power such as Michael Apple’s earlier work and Bourdieu’s theory of cultural/social reproduction is that they are overly deterministic and do not sufficiently account for agency (e.g. Henry Giroux writes extensively about resistance in education, e.g. Here). At the same time, Elizabeth Ellsworth’s famous 1989 article which has influenced me so much until now, focuses on how Freire’s critical pedagogy, with its abstract (ish) emphasis on empowerment and building learner agency can often ignore the subtleties of the complex power dynamics in any given learning environment/situation. That for example, a person can be both a majority in society at one time (e.g. Male) but a minority in another (e.g. Black); a teacher can be a minority in one way (e.g. Female) but have power in class because of her role as teacher.

Now… The title of my post, “the trouble with agency” stems from these premises:

1. While agency can and does occur in any social situation, I do not believe educational experiences should be built around expectations of agency unless we are talking about learners who are very mature adults, like educators, and even then, agency is complex and complicates power dynamics – you set some sort of rule, you’re oppressing someone in some way; you set no rules, you open the space for someone to oppress another in another way; you critique someone from being exclusionary and not inclusive, you end up being the oppressor; it’s complicated and dynamic. As Ellsworth points out, “giving” someone voice does not automatically empower them. It can,in fact, make them more vulnerable. Equal time in a rational dialogue (rationality being an implicit expectation that the dominant inadvertently impose on the marginalized) does not truly give the marginalized the space they may need to express themselves in ways that will be understood by the dominant (and don’t get me started on the problems of structured debate as a pedagogy). Rationality, language and so much more serve to perpetuate privilege in complex but often hidden and subtle ways, unintended but very real to the marginalized. This recent article on Hybrid Pedagogy by an African American professor teaching predominantly White privileged students is a good example as well.
Agency will occur at most ages and experiences, but this is not something the teacher should necessarily expect. There should be something designed within the learning experience to attempt to (as you cannot eliminate) level the playing field. Examples at my institution include lack of access to good internship experiences by socially unconnected students: if a discipline requires students to take an internship as part of the program, there should be mechanisms in place to empower students to find such quality internships without nepotism; things like job search strategies, interviewing skills, etc., and these should be clearly available to all. Not by making them there and expecting students to figure out they exist, but by some more active mechanism that is still not spoon-feeding but supporting the less privileged so as to break the cycle of social reproduction.

2. Agency can end up promoting chaotic, uncritical or futile resistance. Freire accounts for this in Education for Critical Consciousness when he talks about how the oppressed may initially, as they become aware of their own oppression, create chaos in their anger, which is uncritical, and does not advance their cause. Giroux also talks about some forms of resistance being legitimate whereas others are uncritical rebellions, and that educators need to recognize both and not dismiss all student resistance as laziness, but also not applaud all resistance simply because it is resistance. I also think the political situation in Egypt has elements of both kinds. When I was reading Freire’s book (which, strangely, I read before Pedagogy of the Oppressed) I was watching he movie Martin Luther, and thought it embodied some of the same ideas: the beginning of liberation from oppression can be unhelpful, ineffective, problematic. I don’t yet know how one can help someone become more conscious of their own oppression and encourage them to take critical action without passing through a phase where they might rebel uncritically and cause more damage (I imagine here the woman who realizes she’s been oppressed by her husband and decides to kill him!). Another example occurred at my institution when students one year were so angry over increases in tuition fees that they took over the gates of the campus and refused faculty, other students, and even the top administrators entry to campus. I was on leave that year and so I will refrain from judging what kind of resistance that was, given that each side tells me a very different story!

3. On the Sugata Mitra thing and kids. His ideas assume a lot of agency on the parts of the kids. I think I can imagine completely how much many kids can learn when left completely on their own (though it must vary from child to child, and not just based on personality but also based on social and cultural capital at home that better enables them to learn better when faced with an open-ended situation with potential for learning). I just think there is more to learn than information – kids need to learn judgment and critical thinking, and I don’t think the internet will give them that. Nor do I think, as I wrote to Keith on Clarissa’s post, that parents will be completely comfortable with their pre-adolescent kids having open access to the internet where they might come across x-rated content and predators/pedophiles before they have enough judgment to deal with these potential dangers. (i need to go watch the Q&A with Mitra, maybe he discussed these things; the connection was so bad when I tried to logon myself go ask the questions – the connection from HIS side was bad, and I think he was in England and the facilitator was in Australia and her connection seemed not too good either… Wonder how well the infrastructure works in India where he did his experiments? Is it as choppy as it can get in Egypt in rural areas?)

So ummm I don’t know if I have written clearly enough, and it’s almost 1am now, so maybe I am not thinking clearly enough… Maybe if I want to write about something like this I need hours and days of reflection and a peer reviewer or two 🙂 But I still wanted to get it off my chest.

So there you go… The trouble with agency. But if I were to recommend two of the best articles (in case no one has time for books) about different perspectives on power, they’d be Ellsworth (1989) and Burbules (1986).


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