Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 29 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Different Perspectives: White vs Blue


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 29 seconds

The whole white/gold vs blue/black dress controversy (which i first heard about during the last #moocmooc hangout has got me thinking about my personal response to the article Jenny and Frances recently published about rhizo14.

I don’t want to take a metaphor too far, but this dress thing seems so appropriate to the topic that I feel compelled to use it. And it’s interesting that Jenny and Frances use the terms light and shadow.

So the dress controversy shows that this same dress is seen by some people as white/gold and by others as blue/black (as a child i always wondered if we saw colors the same way, and i have recently been obsessed with understanding color blindeness). It is not like an optical illusion where changing your focus makes you see the other color. However, apparently some people (like me) see the white as if it is showing in blue light, so you sort of get a hint of the blueness, but still think it’s white. I also discovered yday while showing it to other people on my phone, that angling it away from me at arm’s length distance makes it easier for me to see it as more and more blue, so that it is almost the blue color. But the general thing is that when it is right in front of my eyes, i see it as white. And other people see it as blue. Absolutely.

I’m thinking along similar lines of Jenny & Frances’ paper. They are sharing a perspective of rhizo14 that some of us see as mostly white, but they are telling us that some others see it as blue. A few of us who see white can see hints of blue, but for the most part, see it as white. I tried to think if holding it at a distance and angling it away from me might help me see the blue better. I thought I could do it if I pretended they were talking about another MOOC… I’ll come back to this later.

I want to write out a constructive response to the paper, so I want to start out with my positionality:

1. I am not neutral about rhizo14 – I loved it, it has been my home on the web for over a year, with some of my closest friends and community. I love Dave very much, and I love these people very much

2. I am not neutral about Frances and Jenny. I value my relationship w Frances even though we disagree a lot. I learn a lot from her and from interacting with her. I particularly liked our interaction during fedwiki on Women’s Ways of Knowing, and I hope to try out a constructed knowing approach (albeit on my own rather than collectively for now) to writing this post – i.e. I will try to not be antagonistic. I am not close to Jenny, but her research influenced me before I ever tried a cMOOC, and I still believe in what I had learned from her writing long ago: cMOOCs are not for everyone – openness does not mean everyone can feel comfortable in them. I hope i am not misinterpreting her here.

3. I am not neutral about their research approach. Even though it is qualitative research, and they admit to its subjectivity, it feels to me as a reader to be disembodied and trying to seem objective. It is not my place to tell others how to do their research, and they both have far wider experience doing scholarly research than I do, so who am I to talk? But I can say that it felt disembodied and distanced to me. Simon Ensor writes a really good post critiquing this… And I love his post, but I also understand that when writing for a scholarly journal, you follow the guidelines and approach. I know how difficult it is to get published otherwise. I just experienced trying to fit non-traditional research into a 6,000 word article. It is torture.

What I Love About Their Paper

I use the word love because I mean it, and I am not attempting to give a scholarly view, although the points I am commending all have scholarly merit. I’m just not trying to put myself in the position of a scholarly critic, or I would publish this in a scholarly venue instead of my blog.

1. Seeking out participants who left the MOOC. This is both very thoughtful and must have been very difficult and time-consuming to do. I don’t know how many people have ever done this, but I think it’s a role model to consider on future social research of any kind, and I will take it to heart.

2. Opening up the questions of ethics in a cMOOC and the role of facilitators. It is an important discussion to open up and one worth discussing. I think the seeds in this article will influence many more researchers in future.

3. Clarity in describing rhizo14 course design

4. I know they are careful about their research ethics and have discussed them publicly before. I learn a lot from their writing about this. What I say below which is more critical is not a questioning of their ethics, it is genuine questioning to know, not meant to challenge their ethics, but to probe into their methodology or way the paper was written. I know there are a lot of restrictions on what can get written or published and that this paper is not the sum-total of their research.

How I Felt Reading Their Paper

I read the paper, knowing that Jenny and Frances had a different view of rhizo14 than some of us (us = people who are close to me personally in rhizo14, some of whom are writers in the collaborative autoethnography, some are friends outside it). The fact that Jenny & Frances saw something in rhizo14 that is different from what others of us saw does not mean what they saw is not valid or true, it is someone else’s reality. It is either a reality of someone else that they could see or have insight into, or their own, or a combination. Maybe the lens with which they see rhizo14. I don’t know.

What i mean is this: even though Jenny and Frances tell a story that recognizes that my (positive) experience of rhizo14 exists, they chose to emphasize the story that is less heard. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing, really. It does not erase my reality, which they recognize as being the majority, and if we ever get this collaborative autoethnography published and recognized as scholarly, that reality will have its place in scholarship. What they chose to emphasize is a different perspective that I believe probably EXISTS and thus deserves to be expressed. Just because I don’t see it clearly does not erase its reality or importance.

I don’t think there is any educational experience where every single person likes it or feels the same way about it. No surprises there. I also know in social phenomena that it happens quite often that we do things that hurt people but remain unaware, or when confronted with what we have done, we are baffled and it is difficult to understand. I bet feminism does that to many men; I bet White people feel baffled when confronted with subtle ways they are racist or colonial in their behavior.

There is a cyclical thing going on here as I read their paper and try to think about it metacognitively. Let me see if I can explain it clearly.

A. I hear language in their article that explains how people were really upset with the course, including the word “disturbing”, but I do not find anything in their article to explain what it is, exactly, that happened to make some people feel this way. While I know it is a minority, I still think the minority’s view matters. I am often a minority in some spaces and I wouldn’t want others to dismiss my view simply because I am not the majority. So let me admit: I am not denying that some people might have found rhizo14 disturbing. I am just asking for clarity because in their paper they do not explain what led to this feeling and their conclusion. It might be that they were told some things in confidence and cannot relay it publicly. Or it might be that they got anonymous survey responses and could not follow up with interviews.

B. As one who considers myself of the group of rhizo14ers that enjoyed the course, reading their paper made me feel incredibly guilty. I cannot speak for others, but I think many of us were shaken in the sense of “what did we do?”. There is a sense we got from the article that we all did something wrong and simply decided to ignore it, rather than we might have been unaware of it. It made us feel defensive. That is not to say that Jenny and Frances intended to attack us. I am simply describing how it made me respond. I did not participate in the early facebook discussions on their article because I felt it would drain my energy when I needed to focus on other important writing deadlines.

C. Facilitator ethics. I am unclear as to why the facilitator’s ethics are being tested in the particular case of rhizo14. I am left wondering, what it is, exactly, that Dave did or did not do that was unethical. But I found myself agreeing with the general idea of the need to discuss ethics in a cMOOC. If i distance myself from rhizo14 and Dave in particular (whom i consider a very caring and ethical person) i can get their point. Just not how it applies to Dave.

D. I am concerned about people who found rhizo14 disturbing, but also concerned that some may feel as if they are being accused of hurting others when they were either not intending to, or unaware of it, and had no chance to rectify it. I am sure I am one of those people who hurts others unintentionally. A lot. I know I personally did a lot of backchanneling at various times during the MOOC when I felt I could help with something either related to me or to others. I also got a lot of backchannel support when I needed it. Sometimes backchanneling was successful in the sense that someone remained in rhizo14 or stayed in touch with me afterwards on friendly terms; sometimes we agreed to disagree, but I think or hope I at least showed that I care about them as individuals. But I am sure that, as in many MOOCs, some people feel ignored. Even really popular people sometimes do something like write a blogpost they hope others will read and no one reads or responds and they feel slighted. Sometimes someone wants to participate in something another group is doing and they don’t feel welcomed in. It can’t be a nice feeling, but I don’t imagine it is disturbing, exactly.

But let me backtrack for a second, ok? There is something wrong with this picture. Imagine someone saying this:
“I am hurt that you are accusing me of hurting someone when I did nothing wrong”

Now think of a South African White person saying this with regards to a microaggression they did against a person of color.


So my question to Jenny and Frances is this: I am clueless as to what I did wrong or should have done differently. Is there something I should have done differently that would have resulted in no one getting hurt?

I can only think of 3 things I did that could count towards this:
A. The theory/practice debate – my intention was to avoid excluding people. I know from my experience in later MOOCs that it is important for ppl to feel it is ok to continue in a MOOC without reading things we find too complex. But I do realize some people left after this debate. I also know some people would have left if we hadn’t had it. It was calling out some people on their privilege, and as a minority in some ways (but not others) I felt compelled to do it

B. I openly express affection for some people and not others. Hey, you can’t love every single person you meet. At least I don’t publicly express dislike for anyone.

C. I’m loud.

Let me know if I missed something.


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