Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Semi-fictional Autoethnography on Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

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So the VC co-directors have a piece coming out soon about Intentionally Equitable Hospitality in hybrid spaces… and when VC participated in Mozilla Open Leaders, notions of hospitality were among what they explored.

In this semi-fictional Autoethnography, I draw upon composite characters of VC people (least ethically challenging approach to do this) and composite of real events to recreate a particular VC hangout with several dimensions of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality. This will sound like the least autobiographical of my posts, I think, and more like sociological analysis but told as a story. I think sometimes you start writing the autoethnographic thing and you don’t have one particular goal but you let it evolve and you make the connections as you go. As I did with one of mine. But this one is more specific. There are other posts and published articles that give the detailed background of how we investigated how well we do equity, inclusion, dismantling privilege. This one shares a particular example of a particular session trying to apply it in practice.

Here we go.

It’s 9.20 at night and my daughter still hasn’t slept. We have a VC hangout about to start and I’m the virtual buddy. I’m supposed to start the hangout at 9.30, email participants the link, and get them ready before the hangout goes live at 10pm my time.The session is scheduled at this time because it was the best time that fit both the onsite guests’ and the virtual buddies’ schedules.

But my daughter is still awake and she has school tomorrow. She should have been asleep by now.

[Added later. Rebecca suggested I add some emotion around this. So this is what I would write:

I Used to get really anxious about my daughter not sleeping when I had a synchronous meeting, frustrated she wouldn’t sleep well, frustrated I couldn’tget on with my work which I almost always schedule after her bed time so as not to take away from time she deserves. But the backup buddy system relaxes me. Someone else can take responsibility. Everyone understands. Also, my kid is older now, and one night of bad sleep is not a problem. If it is an informal session like VC and she joins, it is not the end of the world].

I get onto Slack and ask my backup virtual buddy to handle the email and starting the hangout and say I’ll be there soon (incidentally my backup buddy was supposed to be at this event in person, but could not make it due to a family emergency). Earlier in the day, I had checked Twitter to see if anyone wanted to join today’s session. We noticed a while ago that people who know VC will easily say quickly that they want to join, but some people who are new or shy or minorities will just like or retweet and not explicitly say they want to join. Earlier today there were two such people, and I gently nudged them by responding to their retweet “would you like to join our hangout and talk to the speakers?”. And when they said yes, I asked for their email via Twitter DM and added them to our list if signups. I also forwarded them the email that explains how to prepare (technically) for the hangout.

Today, the session has 3 onsite guests and 2 VC onsite buddies/volunteers. We had put out a call for anyone who wants to join VC sessions on Twitter and a mailing list. As usual happens, the people who responded were either white men, people familiar with VC or high profile people. We had decided a while ago that we can keep inviting high profile people to VC sessions because virtual guests want to meet them (think of graduate students who get to chat with people whose work they’ve been following for years) but we also want to avoid sessions with too many white men and just general lack of diversity. So we had also done a couple of personal invitations to people we found on the program who seemed to be doing critical work on edtech, and one participant from Venezuela agreed to join. Our onsite buddy also found a well-known Namibian scholar whose work several of us respect, but who usually can’t join VC sessions Virtually due to a choppy internet connection. So he invited him to join onsite, since this conference had good wifi. So our guests were a high profile English man, a lesser known Venezuelan graduate student, and an established but not high profile Namibian scholar.

My virtual backup buddy starts the session and thankfully my kid is asleep by 9.40 so I put on my headscarf on top of my PJs and ask my husband if he’s staying up to watch TV or if I can sit in the living room. He says he’s staying up, so I go sit outside where it will be quieter. I see a couple of virtual participants are already online, and my virtual co-buddy Jack from Canada is trying to help one of them troubleshoot a tech problem. So I start chatting with the other person, a newbie who seems nervous, and explain the process. She asks, “so what is the topic?” And I say, “no topic, we’re just chatting with them about the conference and we’ll see how the conversation flows”. She seems unconvinced . I ask her if she has been following the conference hashtag on Twitter and she says yes, so I suggest she could ask the onsite participants about something related to that, if she wants.

Our onsite buddies join the hangout. They are Myriam from US and Sam, a German living in Spain. The conference is in France. While they wait for onsite guests to join them, Jack and I notice a few virtual participants who signed up but couldn’t make it. One of them is an unaffiliated scholar I know, who cannot travel much, so I DM her and for some reason she hadn’t received the email link, so I give it to her. I am glad she joins because have missed her. The other missing person is an Australian VC volunteer so I message her on VC Slack, and she says she is on her way. Jack notices a new request on Twitter to join and he sends the link to the person via DM. We later discover that this person (Anna) has a disability that prevents her from attending conferences and she heard of VC and wanted to try it. I make a note to get in touch later and see if she wants to join our team. Most of our most active buddies are those who can’t travel to conferences for pressing reasons: graduate students, adjunct or independent scholars who have financial constraints, global South scholars, people with young kids or ageing parents. People with problems getting visas. People with health constraints.

It is nearly time to go live, and I see four onsite guests. One of the onsite guests brought someone else along. That’s usually cool as long as everyone gets a chance to speak. When this happens, onsite buddies step back a bit. We get ready to go live and get consent from everyone about livestreaming and recording on YouTube. Jack presses the “broadcast” button.

Once we go live, we go through a round of introductions and we start asking onsite folks to share about the conference. It is interesting and all, but the white guy is taking up a lot of air time. I notice Myriam is encouraging this. I also noticed Sam trying to interrupt, but he is new so doesn’t now how to do this assertively but politely. I speak up from the virtual side and ask specifically to hear from the other two guests.

[Added later: the white guy hogging the conversation is a trigger for me as a postcolonial feminist. it reminds me of all those meetings where have silenced me. I did not co-found VC to listen to this guy’s monologue. VC is for the virtual participants and their voices. Vc Is about conversation not content. i am frustrated With onsite buddies for not handling this sooner and decide to discuss with the team later.]

I notice the Venezuelan grad student speaks good English but sometimes struggles to find the right word…and I see Sam at some point saying something to her in Spanish and she nods enthusiastically. They just agreed that whenever she is stuck for a word, she will say it in Spanish and he will translate. This seems to help her talk a bit more.

Myriam notices that virtual participants have not spoken much and pauses to say “we would love to hear from virtual participants – do you have any comments or questions?”. One of them unmutes his mic and starts speaking, while others type some thoughts and reactions. One of the participants has not fixed the mic problem, so she asks a question, and Jack speaks it out loud for her so onsite folks can hear it. The conversation goes on a bit, and I tweet something out that was just said, and I see someone on Twitter asking a question , so I relay it to the onsite guests and they respond.

[Added later. I realized that in this story i did not include anything about my emotional connection to onsite guests. This was a cornerstone of early VC when we were smaller. So I am adding a little one now:

Suddenly, a face pops into the screen asking “do you have time for one more?” and I almost want to cry when I realize who it is. It’s Sandy. We had met online through a cMOOC, and two years ago at a conference in nearby Beirut. We hadn’t seen each other since, but were in touch via Twitter DM. Sandy is a quiet, shy person, so I know she Isn’t always comfortable with VC, she told me so, and that’s why it is so special that she decided to pop in. Part of our hospitality Is not to pressure people Who don’t like VC to join. We exchange virtual kisses and conversation continues. ]

Around the half hour mark, the onsite buddies check in with onsite guests to see if they need to leave or can stay longer. They all say they have to leave, so we thank them and Jack says he can stay online for 10 more minutes if virtual folks want to hang around. One of them leaves but the rest stay. One of them starts speaking, saying she was too shy to participate while the high profile onsite speakers were there, and we have a good conversation for a few more minutes. When Jake has to go, he tells us all he will stop the broadcast and leave, but we are welcome to keep chatting after he is gone. I linger and the newbie, Anna, and I chat a bit. I ask her about how her first experience of VC was and whether she would like to be more involved. She tells me a bit more about herself and says she’ll think about it. We discover our kids are around the same age and decide to introduce them via hangouts sometime soon! And we both sign off.

After I leave the session, I go into VC Slack, the channel where we are discussing that session and notice that others were telling Sam it was great that he stepped in to help with the Spanish. We reiterate that in future we should announce VC sessions with an added note about which languages are spoken among VC volunteers in the session, to help encourage people whose English is not strong to still join in. We also chat briefly about the white man who dominated the conversation and how we can avoid that in future. Perhaps by asking him to speak last so that we ensure others have had time to speak at least before he even begins? Or perhaps also the onsite buddies could have been more assertive. But we are all still learning. I discover on Twitter that someone had mistakenly sent a link for people to join the hangout. We usually keep these links private as trolls can use them. We only share links to watch sessions publicly. I quickly DM the person who did this and explain to them why we don’t normally do that, and especially this particular session where one participant had privately expressed a concern about trolls to me.After he apologizes for posting the link publicly, I thank him and tell him I have made the same mistake before.

I send out a tweet thanking all the participants in the hangout whose Twitter handles I have and share a link to the recording. I see the onsite buddies tweeted a photo of the onsite guests and I ask their permission to use the photo of them in VC material. And I get up and go to sleep.

_________,______,_______

This story draws together several different practices that demonstrate Intentionally Equitable Hospitality as described by Bali, Caines, Hogue, DeWaard and Friedrich (in press).

  1. Setting up session time to meet both onsite and virtual schedules. not privileging one over the other.
  2. Trying to ensure there are diverse guests of different status and including those from marginal groups, extending personal invitations to do so
  3. Personal invitations to those who expressed interest on Twitter
  4. Helping onboard virtual folks before we go live
  5. Checking in with folks who signed up but didn’t come
  6. Asking for consent before going live
  7. Space for everyone to introduce themselves at the beginning. In many online webinars, only guest speakers do this and there are many virtuals. We keep smaller numbers (hangouts limits it to 10 spaces) which affords more space to everyone to speak.
  8. Assertively stepping in to ensure no one person dominates the conversation, and that virtual participants are heard. Even if their mic is not functioning.
  9. Helping translate Spanish when possible. Obviously this won’t always be possible.
  10. Checking Twitter for questions and bringing them into the session – people watching but not in the live session are important, too
  11. Anyone can pop in, like Sandy. but also not inviting sandy in the first place was a kind of respect for her general dislike of appearing in front of cameras
  12. Checking in with onsite people about their time availability
  13. Continuing beyond onsite time- the conversation among virtuals is valuable, too.
  14. Continuing informally after broadcast is over. The unrecorded conversation is valuable, in different ways
  15. Asking permission to use photos
  16. Tweeting out thanks with link allows people who didn’t join live to watch later

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