water drops attached to blue flower petals refract the image of a red and white pansy blossom behind them

Bonds of Difference: Participation as Inclusion

Reviewed by Marisol Brito and Sean Michael Morris
Peppermint petal puddles” by Steve Wall; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Pedagogical Alterity

This article is part of a series addressing the issue of difference and marginalization in teaching. The goal is to intentionally make space for voices that are often silenced in conversations about education. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

As teachers who consider the whole world a virtual classroom and community, many of us sometimes mistakenly assume that if we create space for representing the “voice” of the marginalized, all will be fine. But as long as the classroom or community is founded on the principles of learning/teaching from one particular context, marginal voices from beyond that context will continue to go unheard, or be heard and misunderstood, or understood but remain stereotyped and marginalized. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that we cannot assume the local is global without contextual considerations.

We [the minorities] and you [the dominant] do not talk the same language. When we talk to you we use your language: the language of your experience and of your theories. We try to use it to communicate our world of experience. But since your language and your theories are inadequate in expressing our experiences, we only succeed in communicating our experience of exclusion. We cannot talk to you in our language because you do not understand it. (p. 575 in Lugones & Spelman, 1983)

What Lugones and Spelman describe above can be illustrated by considering the Arabic word mazloum (مظلوم), which has no direct English translation. It means “the person against whom injustice has been done,” but the connotation is so much deeper than that. It is as strong as the word “oppressed” but actually oppression is a different word in Arabic, idtihad (اضطهاد).

When educators try to make complex experiences “legible” to diverse communities of learners and colleagues, those attempts can be problematic in ways that belie the sincerity and commitment of the educators. In our attempts to be legible, “the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the [simplified, legible] vision [which] represents rationality” that we use may be tantamount to “authoritarian power,” a power that “demolish[es] the old reality if necessary” (Rao, 2010, citing James Scott). Top-down attempts to educate the world, enlighten the ignorant, liberate the deprived — whether or not such terms are used or accepted by educators whose voices are inevitably heard through the mechanisms of power and privilege — can make our “rational Utopia fail horribly” (quoting Venkatesh Rao 2010 as he interprets Scott in this blog post). Any grand vision to develop educational/pedagogical models that fit every society, promote learning and knowledge-making globally, bring educators together that are based on certain local understandings and worldviews can be, in the words of Rao again, “generally dangerous, and a formula for failure, [in] that it does not operate by a thoughtful consideration of local/global tradeoffs, but through the imposition of a singular view as ‘best for all’ in a pseudo-scientific sense.” In fact, even as we critique such grand visions, we become keenly aware that the very basis of our critique may be singular, limiting, and exclusive of other critical perspectives. Thus, we urge that any educational initiatives that strive to engage people and ideas from across borders and contexts incorporate people and perspectives from as many contexts as possible in the very construction, development, and promotion of those initiatives.

Full inclusion may be an impossible goal, not just across sociocultural and geopolitical borders but also within those borders. However, educators can and should strive for genuine attempts toward inclusion by not assuming the local to be universal, by inviting colleagues and other learners to participate on their own terms, and by developing a high sense of tolerance and openness about difference. Howard (2003) describes the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy, because “teachers must be able to construct pedagogical practices that have relevance and meaning to students’ social and cultural realities” (p. 195).

Positive Trends and Prospects for Productive Participation

We must acknowledge that as participants from outside the mainstream, we have observed many positive developments, including in the sphere of MOOCs. For example, Maha recently participated in Dave Cormier’s open course entitled “Rhizomatic learning: the community is the curriculum” (#rhizo14). The course initiator did not prescribe any readings, videos, or other materials, but simply provided some provocative questions to prompt participants’ own reactions via their blogs, Facebook entries, tweets, etc., and that became the content of the course (similar to what are known as connectivist MOOCs or cMOOCs). In a way, all participants provided content and facilitated the course in their own self-appointed or naturally evolving ways — e.g. by using their blogs to summarize what is happening in other people’s blogs, by organizing a research project about the course (this is turning out to be a collaborative autoethnography which in itself is based on the idea of giving each person their individual voice rather than having a researcher talk about or for them). This meant that the community provided the curriculum, chose what we felt was worth discussing, and focused on it. Moreover, interesting collaborations sprung out of this course: people in Canada were sharing Maha’s blog posts with their students; participants’ students who were blogging were receiving comments from other participants from all over the world. Maha’s students in Egypt started to feel like their voice was being heard internationally, that their concerns could be discussed with educators worldwide; students in Canada were seeing content written by people in the global south.

Another positive development is the development of MOOCs and open online resources in different languages, including the new non-profit Arab MOOC Edraak, the for-profit Rwaq and the Arab Khan Academy called Tahrir Academy), which offer The Arab world two important opportunities: the Arab voice in Arabic to an Arab audience — this meets the needs of people who cannot communicate in English; and Arab voices in English (through Edraak) to an international audience, giving the Arab world perspective on a global front. (Still not perfect, but a step forward, as Maha wrote here).

Collaborative creative projects such as those led by Hybrid Pedagogy and MOOC MOOC such as the #readmake collaborative online novel, and the re-writing of the manual of higher education (as part of MOOC MOOC during FutureEd) are also good examples. Anyone in the world who can use a Google Doc can participate, and in whatever format or language (e.g. Maha wrote some Arabic text in #readmake). One of the good critical insights that came out of developing a manual for higher ed is that local approaches to higher education differ, and that one way to make the manual contextual is for different institutions to develop their own, using a similar process. So, even though international voices can be represented in the joint manual, there is an understanding that local needs may require local manuals.

Such collaborative online experiences, and connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) have that potential of including and spreading the power of participants’ voices. One of the end results of rhizo14 was that participants from Egypt, Brazil, and Guyana had the opportunity to influence the direction of the course, as well as participants from the more dominant parts of the world. But it is not just in the spaces created by MOOCs and its many offshoots that promising developments are happening in cross-border education and scholarly conversations. Shyam has been following communities of teachers and scholars in other venues like ResearchGate and LinkedIn, collaborative blogs and other social media. Some of the threads of conversation span the globe, draw the best insights from teachers working in vastly different material and sociocultural conditions, and are fine-grained with regard to the issue of teaching and learning in and across contexts.

Educators need to remember that the attempts to work, learn, and teach across vastly different contexts around the world are no small feats, and therefore, the challenges remain sticky and they deserve continued attention and dedicated attempts to address them. For example, even in the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC, people who are not fluent in English, or not fluent/comfortable in using social media, would not able to fully participate and make their voices heard. In any online experience, people with poor or non-existent infrastructure are still excluded. In any situation where people supposedly are given “equal voice,” vocal or eloquent or influential minority voices can have the power to silence others. People are different on many levels, and those differences should not be generalized, idealized, or viewed in monolithic ways.

Educators can delight in the fact that there are promising developments from the perspective of sensible pedagogy and effective teaching and learning. At the same time, they should also realize that there are still tremendous needs for further thinking in the particular case of engaging learners and educators from different national, cultural, and geo-political backgrounds.

Cultivating Awareness, Empathy, and Openness

To echo an old saying, drastic changes demand drastic adaptations. As educators, we are able to share our ideas literally across the world, with thousands of learners and colleagues, and with a great deal of added affordances that emerging technologies provide to educators and learners. However, the same developments have also exponentially increased the need to be aware and tolerant about differences, to be willing to accept failure and even misunderstanding, to cultivate empathy in the face of complexity and confusion. The same developments that have opened up unprecedented opportunities for cross-border education and scholarly discourse have also served to expose, quite frankly, embarrassing realities about the status of cross-border education. Most strikingly, the advent of MOOCs revealed that otherwise serious and sensitive educators from dominant societies and academies log on to supposedly “open” spaces online, set up curricular and pedagogical mechanisms on their own terms, then all but forget the vastly different contexts of the majority of participants whom they claim they are benefiting. But on the heels of such exposures of parochialism, insensitivity, and lack of awareness have come a number of new developments, as we discussed above.

The fact that educators can now reach out to thousands also means that they need to slow down, to invite participants from different contexts for genuine participation, to listen and learn from others, to enrich their own understanding. It is also equally necessary to not simply criticize, find faults, and pass judgments when new opportunities bring about new challenges and blind spots. Criticism seems necessary, but that shouldn’t be an end; it should be a means. What are the ways in which we can make critique more useful and productive? Thus, we urge that educators across borders offer different perspectives as a necessary, constructive addition and enrichment for the ongoing conversations about cross-border education — and often the lack thereof.

We thought about offering to write in response to the current call for proposals because we were both drawn to the quotation from Paulo Freire in the call: “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” We certainly don’t see the many well-intentioned and intellectually inspired colleagues from Europe, North America, and elsewhere as “oppressors” of any kind. We are in fact sympathetic to even those who buy into and promote MOOCs as a means to “save” the world out there from its own ignorance and backwardness; for instance, when we come across courses whose design and execution signals no consideration for how participants from vastly different contexts around the world may partake of the course/community, we simply view that as an opportunity for pointing out the weakness in the pedagogy and curriculum. We write with the understanding that there is a positive need for constructive dialogues in the world of cross-border higher education more than ever before.

There is no guarantee that goodwill of educators in one place will translate into goodwill across contexts, or that goodwill when implemented will result in universal social good. And we are not suggesting we give up on offering education across borders. We are suggesting that such an education cannot be assumed to represent or meet the needs of diverse others unless it involves those diverse others on deeper levels. Even if those diverse others are still a privileged subset of what and whom they represent (as academics often are), we cannot assume that we know. We should always assume there is more to know, and that others might know it better.

As Sidorkin states in Toward a Pedagogy of Relation, “polyphonic truth is a much more workable concept than any other form of knowledge. Relations thus are not describable by one person. Instead, a group of people can describe relations, and then one person can describe their description.” We want to go further than having one person offer their description to the world, like an anthropologist, and instead give each person the space and voice to describe without an intermediary, as in autoethnography (and #rhizo14 participants are currently doing a collaborative autoethnography).

Working with and through each other should not be seen as a liability, a hassle. It is a process that can transform us. We remember Bakhtin here: “I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another… I cannot manage without another, I cannot become myself without another” (1981,p. 287, quoted here). Indeed, we wrote this document through an exploration of our similarities and our differences, through learning about ourselves as we reveal ourselves to each other and to the potential reader. Our experience tells us that we approach all knowledge in this way, recognizing that our own knowledge is always necessarily “partial,” as Ellsworth (1989) suggests: partial as in biased, partial as in incomplete.

As we share these ideas, we are developing a network of scholars around the world who are interested in sharing their ideas about emerging academic technologies and pedagogies. Shyam suggested the idea of the network of scholars while we were exchanging emails that eventually led to this article. Through the network, which is taking shape as colleagues from around the world are joining us, we envision tapping into the experiences and expertise of scholars from different contexts in order to create a shared platform for growing new ideas, forging new relations, and cultivating awareness and empathy. We intend to make knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing in and across many and different contexts a truly open enterprise, open in its many senses, such as ongoing, allowing access, exposed to the outside, making the inside exposed, unfolding, and accepting of anyone. We hope you will join the network.

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3 Responses

  1. Your discussion here reminds me of how important it is to have people at the boundaries, which are too often overlooked in discussions of any system, including cMOOCs. It’s at the boundaries that we begin to connect one conversation to another, one group to another, one person to another. The boundaries are where all the excitement occurs. It’s where we make all our compromises. It’s where we reconcile. I like borders. Thanks for connecting.

  2. Pingback : Writing to Connect: Knowing the "Other" Outside Time & Space -

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