Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

On Openness, Reciprocity and Power

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

A conversation on the difference between sharing and giving among kids gave me an aha moment related to open education.

Bear with me.

I usually think of sharing and giving as being the same thing. Ish. I usually think of both being a form of giving. But my spouse recently made the distinction (a correct one, I think) that giving means bringing something to gift to others…whereas sharing means reciprocity…you bring something of yours to give some to others, but others also bring some of theirs to give you, whether immediate or over time. Sharing is a reciprocal term.

Whenever we talk about openness, we use the term sharing. But by “share” we really mean give or gift without expecting reciprocity. But maybe some of us do expect reciprocity, from at least some others in our network, if not all of them. This is why I think conversations about “lurking” or “legitimate silent participation” or whatever term people use are tricky. There are, I think, a spectrum of attitudes towards this behavior (or lack of observable reciprocal sharing) and I don’t think we talk about “power” enough when we discuss it.

When we say lurkers or silent observers are welcome, we might mean…

  1. Recognizing that this is a legitimate way to learn, and that f2f many people learn without interacting in obvious ways. That someone may do this indefinitely
  2. Recognizing that it is not always easy to jump in and participate *at first* but after people observe silently for a while, they may eventually decide to jump in to the spaces they find most appropriate or attractive
  3. Recognizing that some people may lack confidence in what they may have to contribute and so simply don’t contribute

However, the reciprocity angle has often bothered me.

  1. Why is it OK for some people to always be giving and other to always be taking and giving nothing in return?
  2. What does this say about our labor? Think about the person who blogs openly and another who gets inspired by those ideas without directly engaging with them…then goes and applies for a grant or publishes an academic piece based on them…without acknowledging the original..
  3. When we create something open, do we do it as a gift or do we expect something in return? Thinking of all authors of e.g. books…they expect that a few people will also write books for them to read and may cite them… and a small number of people will review books ..but for the most part, readers do nothing to give back to the author except i guess royalties from buying the book. With open access, you don’t get that part but perhaps the satisfaction that more people can potentially access your work
  4. The questions of power – who has the luxury and privilege to be open? Privilege of time and position such that openness does not threaten one’s livelihood or life balance… or any number of other things

When we talk of reciprocity, I think we need to talk of reciprocity among equals.

For example…when students from different socioeconomic classes eat together, it really would be unfair for the poor kid to share what they have with the rich kid, but seems fair that the rich kid should give. However, this behavior exacerbates the power differences between them and sometimes you want to give the poor the opportunity to share something back, even if it is not equivalent. But to be an active partner.

And then there is just the privilege of time and priority.

One piece of feedback we got on Equity Unbound (we got this several times) is that the facilitators are not engaging enough, responding enough, to open participants. This is a dangerous expectation. Equity Unbound was never a MOOC. It was 3 of us openly sharing a curriculum we had developed to use in our courses in our institutions…making it open for others to see what we were doing when, and welcoming them to interact with our students if they could/wanted… not an invitation to become our students. We could have put more effort in community building with open participants and we could have had different results…but we had such limited bandwidth and we had to prioritize what we needed to do for our own students and our own wellbeing during stressful times.

In terms of reciprocity here… the act of GIVING the curriculum openly should not, in my humble opinion, be met with additional demands on our time as givers to GIVE more to participants. Participants can take it or leave it. Or they can take it and give back by participating with our students or contributing additional material. But taking and demanding is a really strange response that assumes infinite energy on the part of the original giver.

It’s also a bit like vconnecting. We do what we can with time and effort of volunteers. If people want more they can volunteer to do it…join us and do more… but definitely don’t demand more of volunteers than they are willing to give. Take it or leave it…or take it and give back…but definitely don’t take and demand more.

I thought I was onto something here but I lost my line of thought haha

17 thoughts on “On Openness, Reciprocity and Power

  1. A helpful distinction here between giving and sharing. Unpaid labour is one of the most difficult parts of the open practice discussion to undertake and here I feel that you have helped to begin that conversation with our community. There is a form of unspoken expectation that sometimes comes with gift giving, the one who receives a gift may feel obliged to reciprocate or feel guilty for failing to do so. Perhaps there is a way to give that makes explicit that there are no expectations attached? I would like to unpack this further.

  2. I am not sure “dangerous” is the right word, Maha, but I get what you are saying about time and energy spent. It’s a finite amount of both that we as teachers have. As an open participant — OK, wrong word, I now realize .. maybe it is open wanderer into your hashtag and space — I enjoyed being part of the activities, and thought there was a different kind of invitation. I don’t feel let-down by the interaction with the three facilitators — all of whom I admire — but my feedback was the thought that the learning might have been richer with more interaction between those in the open and those in the classroom. As I mentioned in my feedback, this is not a new problem and not one I expected you to solve. Small steps I appreciated all of the conversations.
    Your friend,

    1. Hey Kevin my friend. The comments here were not directed at your feedback. Your feedback was a contribution as to how it could have been better – we explicitly asked for this and we also felt the lack of interaction because we didn’t build it in well enough for various reasons. It was directed at a different comment about lack of engagement of the facilitators with open participants. This is an entirely different point than yours. Yours is about interaction between institutional students and others online…something we intended but did not design well

  3. Thanks, Maha and commenters.This conversation totally strikes a chord with me as my research is giving me real cause to pause and to really think about sharing. Yes, I’m still plugging away on that particular odyssey.

    Firstly, it is striking that the open community equates sharing with gift-giving and reciprocity. However, consulting the anthropological record, it appears that sharing might not in the first instance be corespondent with reciprocity, which is associated with Marcel Maus’ theory of gift-giving. Sharing, it turns out, is not adequately explained in this theory, nor is it properly accounted for by theories relating to market exchange. Sharing is after all an economic mode of transfer. It provides access to what others value, and more often than not it is prompted by a silent demand (lurkers, perhaps?), that is, bodily/embodied presence on the part of the would-be recipient and knowing what is needed on the part of the would-be provider. Sharing is a complex social phenomenon, one that is that is not currently explained adequately by either gift-giving or market exchange theories. Oh, yes, and why is it that the open community doesn’t talk about their practice in relation to producing value and to the market? It might help shed light on a pile of issues relating to labour, paid or otherwise.

    Yes, the relationship between openness, sharing and value/labour definitely needs unpacking. It’s top of my list any way. Might take me a while though – how long did it take Marx and Maus? LOL.

    1. Lol. Thanks for bringing this angle in, Helen. Perhaps, though, understanding openness and the academic labor behind it is not an economic issue, but a social/psychological one? But important to look at both

  4. The take & demand more phenomena baffles & disappoints me. Sometimes it feels like it’s never good enough, but the gratitude & reciprocity of some reenergizes me & helps me move past the disappointment I feel when I’m hit with unrealistic demands. I think a lot about resilience.

    1. You have made me realize how one of the biggest advantages of going open is that you also open yourself up to beautiful reactions even as you open yourself up to harsh ones. In our daily work, we sometimes end up with just the harsh ones.

  5. I think you are totally onto something, and I see it with volunteering all the time. You volunteer for something, and the demands just keep getting greater – it becomes not what you volunteered for. It is a sense of giving and demanding. You give which then causes someone/something to start demanding, which in turn can cause resentment and volunteer burnout…
    In the digital world of sharing what is interesting is that it is that it doesn’t need to be proportional, but something helps. Like, I blog a lot (or I used to, but I need to get back into it). However, I don’t expect a comment on every post. But if I never got a comment on any post, I might be inclined to stop blogging. I stop giving because I don’t feel like the giving is making a difference. If I feel like it makes a difference, then I keep doing it.
    Interesting reflection and my turn to lose my train of thought … LOL …

  6. Yes good point! I think it’s important too to remember that the positives might be invisible to us, but they’re real and important. Your post is a good reminder to all of us who are focused on making knowledge available to others that support and encouragement goes a long way.

  7. I have a confession to make.

    I didn’t spend the requisite time to read this blog post or the ensuing comments.

    But here I am. Worse/better for wear.

    Because…(I came back and added two dots)

    I have this dumb (it doesn’t speak clearly yet to me) idea that we have lost track of who WE is.

    There is this idea (not fact) of I and U.

    And then “reality” or “fantasy” of IOU.

    That at a higher level seems absurd.


    What is the point of our game?

    There are those who speak and those who listen, stay silent, contemplate, ignore and those who rot.. long forgotten.

    Who defines who is more valuable … to whom?

    There comes questions:

    Are we playing a market/game to “win”?

    Am I being true to my soul?

    How can a soul be sole?

    Past generations weren’t faced with such global existential questions.

    All was local and/or ignorance/fantasy.

    Thinking global by thinking and acting locally and therefore interdependently, I feel and that is after a bottle of red wine is the only way forward.

    I have litlle idea if this ramble leads anywhere in particular.

    But maybe that is rather the point, period, full-stop.

  8. Such an important piece by @Bali_Maha in her model the relationship, knowledge, and labor a transaction amongst two. But what of the space? Can we gift to there in thanks to those who shared before us?

    Is the real brokering of knowledge even between……

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