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On Both Sides: Networked Learning in a World of Walls

Writing this post on March 21 is bittersweet for me. Last year, on March 21, I walked into Digital Pedagogy Lab Cairo with an armful of flowers. March 21 is Mother’s Day in Egypt, and I was so happy to be hosting Digital Pedagogy Lab in Cairo, and I wanted to give out flowers to all the women present. But Mother’s Day is not one of my favorite days. While we should celebrate mothers daily, having a particular day for it makes me think of childless women and motherless children and the pain this might cause them. But I do like flowers, and I love giving them away, so that was my excuse. ~ Maha Bali

This story is important to me, because it addresses one of the fundamental principles of a pedagogy of hospitality: that however a gesture is conceived and offered, there are those who must receive it differently. The challenge is humility, the moral underpinning of our expertise. We can’t know the stranger who will enter the space of our gestures and our intentions; we are obliged instead to try to know ourselves, and to own our ideas and purposes, our sense of integrity, our sensitivity to rebuke. But above all we need to make room in our practice to be changed by the guest who appears—to receive with as much openness as we are capable the gift of their reaction to us, however unwelcome. ~ Kate Bowles

For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. ~ Lina Mounzer

Last year, during the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at UMW, we collaborated on a workshop with Paul Prinsloo of the University of South Africa, on Inclusive Global Networked Learning. More about the workshop, and a recording of it, available here. The workshop was the culmination of a process through which we three came to know one another better, using the usual digital tools to manage the usual timezone and life challenges. Like many international collaborators, we braided together our overlapping thoughts on both our work and our lives using the internet as a shared workbench where we assembled things, and talked about our worlds. We each came and went from this shared space, not only in our different working timezones but in all the ups and downs of our daily shifts from home to work and back to home again. Day after day the sun rose and set again on our conversation as it wound its way around the world between us.

At some point while we were still planning, Paul left his home and travelled from South Africa to Fredericksburg to attend DPLI; Maha and Kate remained in Egypt and Australia respectively. The daily rhythm of our conversations shifted as Paul moved across the world. It occurred to us that we could bring this experience into the workshop itself, to make clear how familiar this kind of border-crossing is to us, as we each seek out virtual or onsite access to workshops, conferences, symposia, even MOOCs from our position outside the US and its narrow timezones. We also learned that we each had personal histories of migration and citizenship hidden under the identity shaped by where we each work. As we tried to design a workshop for our friends and colleagues that could be useful in their context, and inclusive of onsite and virtual participants, we struggled to voice our own peculiar outside-inside position: always welcomed in our global networks, even while the realities of time zone, language and network infrastructure so often put up barriers to our participation.

There is no global ‘we’ in higher education, with the world’s education systems differing so sharply in their institutions, formations and assumptions, let alone at the level of culture, learner background, language, digital experience, network access. There is no gesture that can be made at one point in the network with confidence of being received as intended at any other point. What are the practical implications of this for those of us committed to global digital pedagogy? How can a critical digital pedagogy for a troubled world differ from its colonial predecessors, of which each of us is differently a product?

But even for those learners/educators outside the US who do have both the internet and the English to participate, there are power dynamics that need to be made explicit. Whenever you connect online, you connect on someone’s terms, and in digital pedagogy these are often the terms designed by educators who enjoy the network infrastructure and cultural capital associated with US institutions. And while overcoming technical access barriers to the internet is critical for learners around the world, access on US terms or to spaces and platforms controlled by US assumptions can often introduce new cultural barriers for learners outside the US. Being more sensitive about these issues also allows us to recognize the fact that we often disregard issues of access and the different cultural and class barriers and the (in)visible fault-lines of race, gender and class in the US. (Bali, Bowles and Prinsloo, 2016, emphasis added).

Six months later, these considerations have sharp political urgency. We are once more working together, and we are both planning to travel to Fredericksburg to lead the Networks track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2017 Institute. But this year’s Institute has been disrupted by travel restrictions imposed by the new US administration, and by the activism of colleagues we respect who have called for a boycott of US travel in solidarity with those whom the US is choosing to keep out. Our decision to show up in person and lead a track together was taken in the context of the organisers’ decision to offer a separate event in Canada. We chose instead to try to make it to Virginia, even though entering the US will be difficult—and perhaps impossible—for Maha in very obvious ways.

As we make our plans, and think about why we each continue to work on questions of empathy and justice in pedagogy, we cherish this quote by translator and writer Lina Mounzer (from an article shared, incidentally, by Paul Prinsloo):

The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory, and memory lives on.

We are not refugees; we belong to a global profession that demands and depends on the privilege of international travel. In our work we challenge the logic of this travel assumption, and the baggage that comes with it. But on this occasion, we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

Register for Kate and Maha's Track at DPL Fredericksburg