Minority voices and the ‘Problem’

This week in ModPo I have been introduced to, moved and disturbed by Langston Hughes’ poem, – Dinner Guest: Me. Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance anti-modernist poet. Dinner Guest: Me is a compelling poem. At one level it looks so simple; at another it is clearly anything but.


 Source of image

Langston Hughes, “Dinner Guest: Me”

I know I am

The Negro Problem

Being wined and dined,

Answering the usual questions

That come to white mind

Which seeks demurely

To Probe in polite way

The why and wherewithal

Of darkness U.S.A.—

Wondering how things got this way

In current democratic night,

Murmuring gently

Over fraises du bois,

“I’m so ashamed of being white.”


The lobster is delicious,

The wine divine,

And center of attention

At the damask table, mine.

To be a Problem on

Park Avenue at eight

Is not so bad.

Solutions to the Problem,

Of course, wait.

This poem was written in the context of a long history of racism in the USA, a system of racial subordination commonly known as Jim Crow and the question posed by African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois – ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’.

In the poem, Langston Hughes, a negro poet is at a ‘high society’ dinner party where all the other guests are white people. He knows that despite the ‘polite talk’ he is perceived as the Negro Problem – not necessarily hated, but a problem with a capital P.

I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be in this position, but the poem does raise the question of whether and how a minority voice can be heard. Langston Hughes was wined and dined at a ‘society’ dinner, but still his voice was not heard.

This situation was even more appalling because the dinner hosts seemed to have the best of intentions ‘in their terms’, but did not seem to recognise that they had all but ‘silenced’ the minority voice.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 18.00.29

Source of image

 The issue of the minority voice is not only a racial issue. It can be seen everywhere and in any situation where alternative perspectives are not welcomed or listened to. This is particularly disheartening when it happens in learning communities and even more disheartening when there appears to be a lack of awareness or concern for those who have been ‘silenced’.

This is a significant problem for open online learning. How do we know whether the voices being heard, i.e. those that are present, are representative of the wider community? How do we know how many people feel their voices have been silenced? Where does the Problem lie?

Trust and security in open networks

The second topic (unit) of the ccourses MOOC (Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed) is Trust and Network Fluency .


Source of image

Each unit in ccourses lasts for two weeks. For me this is good. For those who want to do a lot of reading – and there are plenty of resources listed on the ccourses site – then there is time to do this. For those, who simply want to interact with others, or think about the topic and reflect on it, this is also good. Reflection takes time as we can see from Mariana’s blog post in which she reflects deeply on trust, privacy and interaction in networked environments. It is a great post and has prompted me to respond, but also to add some of my own thoughts.

What happens when trust breaks down in online relationships? At the very worst level your life or career can be destroyed as in the case of Kathy Sierra – but even at the level of just one relationship the damage can be irreparable. (See Kevin Hodgson’s blog post).

Perhaps the answer is not to assume that trust in an online environment is a possibility. In a post a few years ago Stephen Downes wrote of person to person trust

We don’t trust each other (and we shouldn’t). Spam, viruses and phishing are the most manifest cases of this sort of breach of trust. Consequently, we have attempted to create walls around ourselves – spam filters, social network buddy lists, so-not-call registries. We seek control over the flow of information into and out of our systems through technology over which we have less and less control (because of the needs of the other forms of ‘trust’).

He concludes that

….. for the network to work, we must all give up control – but at a measured pace, in step with each other, to avoid one element of the other abusing this greater openness

Give up control. Keep in step with each other. Is that possible?

In our research into emergent learning, trust is one of the factors we consider to be essential for emergent learning in open learning environments. We discuss it in terms of the tension between competitive self-interest and mutual respect, support and growth.

Perhaps it’s competitive self-interest that we must give up, rather than control. Competitive self-interest can lead to voices that are ‘too loud’ in the online environment. Mariana writes about the ‘silencing’ effect that some online personalities can have, either through overt harassment or simply by being over-present and dominating every conversation.

How do you cope with the person who is not overtly harassing, not a troll, but whose voice is too loud in the online environment, given that people’s perceptions of what constitute a loud voice differ? This is something I used to discuss with teaching colleagues in the past when we were just beginning to run online courses. i.e. how present should we be as online tutors and what should we do about the over-present dominating student. Gilly Salmon describes this type of student/online learner as ‘The Stag’ and suggests giving them a job to do, which keeps them busy enough to prevent them from ‘spamming’ their fellow students. But not all dominant voices online are students. What of those everyday users of the internet who are trolls or who are simply always ‘in your face’; then the only alternative response is to walk away, as Kathy Sierra has done, or ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ i.e. to disconnect.

But where does this leave the development of skills of systemic dialogue that Mariana talks about?

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of systemic dialogue.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers.

Trust should not have to mean always agreeing with each other and establishing cozy echo chambers. In fact quite the opposite. The people I trust the most both on and offline are those I can speak my mind to and who will engage with me in what I perceive to be meaningful dialogue. They do not have to agree with me, but neither do they attack me. There is as I mentioned above, mutual respect, support and growth.

I have a lot of sympathy with Dave Snowden’s comment that he made in a talk to the Change11 MOOC and which I recorded on my blog at the time

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.

So trust in the online environment is a complex issue. It should not be taken lightly.

A difficult task – explaining why I teach

Why I teach

I agree with Gardner Campbell – trying to explain why I teach feels like an impossible task. Not only is there the underlying assumption that we all know what we mean by ‘teaching’, but my many years of teaching experience seems to make the task harder. There are so many ways in which the question could be answered.

Also, like Gardner Campbell, I can remember clearly the exact point at which I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I was at University in my first year studying physiology. Those were the days of chalk and talk. Hundreds of students in lectures looked at the back of the lecturer as he wrote in chalk on a blackboard and we frantically tried to copy everything down. But for physiology we also had a seminar group and we were tasked with giving an individual presentation (no such thing as group work in those days) on a topic of our choice to the rest of the seminar group. We were not given any advice on how to do a presentation. My topic was ‘pain’, i.e. the physical process of experiencing pain. I not only loved researching and preparing this short presentation, but I loved giving it too, and it was a revelation to me that the rest of the group listened, seemed to find it interesting and know what I was talking about. That was the start.

Since then I have taught across all the age sectors, and also been a teacher trainer in Higher Education. My ideas about how to give presentations, how to teach and more importantly how I learn, have of course significantly changed over the years, as you would expect. As others have noted, teaching is about learning.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this task, or even whether to approach it at all. I ended up quickly ‘brainstorming’ the ideas that matter to me, just jotting down words as I reflected over my past experience. I then had to think about how to present these. I wanted to avoid a list (difficult as I am naturally a list person!) which would suggest some sort of hierarchy, but equally I didn’t want a map.

I have been thinking about Mondrian since I went to see an exhibition of his work at the Tate in Liverpool last month.

The exhibition was wonderful and whilst I was already familiar with Mondrian’s work, I had not thought before about the possible significance of the horizontal and vertical lines in his later work for my thinking about teaching and learning. For Mondrian these horizontal and vertical lines related to the elements of masculine and feminine in the world around him. He was looking for balance, equilibrium and harmony, but not symmetry. He was also concerned with space and in particular ‘empty’ space and the duality of opposing elements. For me all these ideas relate to breadth and depth in teaching and learning and the work of the right and left brain (see Iain McGilchrists work on the divided brain). They also make me think about open spaces and multiple paths for learning.

So Mondrian’s painting – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937-42 – seemed like an appropriate fit for some of my thoughts about why I teach.

This question has been posed in Unit 1 of the Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed open course. There have been lots of interesting responses to the question. See the Googledoc created by Helen Keegan.

Why create your own space, domain, host? 

The pre-course orientation week for a new open course – Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed, has started this week with the questions:

Why open learning? Why create your own space, domain, host? Why use your own tools? Why be a node on the web? Why is this important? What does connected learning mean?

One of the attractions of this course for me, apart from all the well recognised names that are running it, is the question ‘Why create your own space, domain, host?

I have been aware of the Reclaim Your Domain  discussions for quite a while, and have had a ‘should I/shouldn’t I?’ discussion with myself for about the same amount of time, always coming down on the ‘I shouldn’t’ side.

So it was good to discuss this further in the Twitter stream alongside the Google Hangout, last night. Here is the Google Hangout recording

and for the Twitter stream use the hash tag #ccourses. From the discussion it was clear that the support will be there if I decide to go down this route – which is great – but I have yet to be 100% convinced that it is worth the time and effort.

Although I am often technologically challenged, I am not completely clueless. I do have experience of creating a website, which I did a few years ago to accompany a 6 month stay on the island of Florianopolis in southern Brazil. I used 1&1 internet to host that website and Dreamweaver for writing the website. I took the website down a couple of years ago, as I didn’t want to continue paying for it, but the associated blog (hosted on Blogger), which I embedded into the website still exists – Retorno a Florianopolis

I have also recently created a GoDaddy account to host some development work we are doing in relation to our research into Emergent Learning and drawing footprints of emergence.  That GoDaddy site is not ready yet to be ‘open’.

From this limited experience I know that hosting your own website is a lot of work for someone like me (work that doesn’t fire up my interest) and so I was interested to read Rebecca Hogue’s post about her experience and the difficulties she encountered.

I have also listened, this morning, to Audrey Watters’ great keynote to the ALT Conference  where she made a very strong case for not allowing technology to become a monster, i.e. we should fully engage with the technologies we use and take responsibility, rather than allow technologies to take control of us. She has also written very persuasively about this in her blog post Reclaim your domain

But, for now, I remain unconvinced about the value of moving this blog (which I started in 2008) into a different space. What would I gain? It currently does everything I need it to do. I know it like the back of my hand – so I don’t have to think about the technology and can focus on the content. The blog itself is free, but I pay an annual fee to be able to embed videos and to stop adverts appearing on this blog.

On the other hand, I know how annoyed I was recently when Flickr (where I host my photos) decided to change the way it displays photos without so much as a ‘by your leave’ or giving Flickr users any choice, but I didn’t end up moving my photos. I remember that at the time, Alan Levine, who is one of the Connected Courses convenors, was not very sympathetic, thinking that if I took more control and got my own domain I wouldn’t get into this situation.

So, I’m still undecided about whether to move this blog and not ready to jump just yet. I think I would like to be clearer about what I stand to lose. I think I know what I stand to gain, but of course I appreciate that I can’t know what I don’t know, so I’m keeping an open mind and hoping to gain greater insight in this course.

Anticipating new open courses and conferences

Next week sees the official end of the summer break for many people, particularly those working in education. The days are getting shorter, the nights are drawing in, but the autumn fruits are still ripening (here in the UK).

In my career in education, these coming months up until the December break have always been very busy. The renewed energy and enthusiasm that emanates from people as they start again after the summer break is almost palpable and, I find, motivating.

There seem, at this time, to be many open courses on offer and conferences of interest. It’s impossible to follow them all, but those that I will be keeping an eye on are:

ALTC website

ALTC 2015: 1st to 3rd September. Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave #altc

I cannot attend this in person, but there are a number of live streamed presentations which I am hoping to listen to. ALTC is usually a stimulating conference.

Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed. Sept 2nd to Dec 14th 

This has caught my attention because of the number of well-known names involved in the course design.

Modern and Contemporary American Poetry Coursera MOOC. Sept 6th to Nov 15th.

I completed this course last year, but there is plenty more to learn and it was so good last year that I am looking forward to joining it again. I know very little about poetry, but this does not seem to be a barrier to enjoyment. Last year I didn’t join the discussion forums. They are somewhat overwhelming and move too fast for me. I might give them a try this year, but I think I am once again more likely to watch the videos and do the close readings. Also, having already completed the course once, I will be selective, this year, about the parts of the course that I follow.

Networked Scholars Oct 20th – Nov 16th.

An open, free course being offered by George Veletsianos. I think/hope this course will be relevant to my own research. If it is then I hope to be fully engaged.

8th Eden Research Workshop. Challenges for Research into Open and Distance Learning; Doing Things Better – Doing Better Thing

I would like to go to this conference. I particularly like the look of the programme structure which seems to focus on discussion rather than presentations.

I think this is the limit of what I could possibly hope to keep up with. Usually I only manage to focus on one course at a time.

It’ll be interesting to see whether I manage all this in the coming months, on top of other commitments, and if not, then which topics/courses will claim most of my time!