We need to have more conversations with people who are not us.

Chris Gilliard, #DigPed, August 2016


It’s 5am. It’s dark outside, and cold inside. My daughter’s in the kitchen banging cupboard doors and making coffee. She’s up to watch the Olympics, and she wants company. Blearily we straggle out to join her and slump on the couch under blankets, trying to figure out what’s happening. Skeet shooting, what is that?

Divers fall from the sky in apparently perfect synchronisation. They enter the water like needles. Judges manage to find something wrong. We marvel at the judges.

The television advertising of Australia’s major Olympic sponsors relays us back to ourselves over and over. Look, it’s us, up in the dark, our sleepy faces lit by the television screen, watching what’s happening on the other side of the world.

We show up.


It’s 5am. I’m up early to be part of a time-sychronised workshop for the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I can’t point to Fredericksburg on a map, so I look it up. Wait, it’s that  Fredericksburg.Screenshot 2016-08-12 09.48.23

I grew up near that  Stonehenge so I know what it means to live in a place that has an overbearing past. In thick places, the tourist economy alibis history, sustains its double bluff: that we’re both done with its troubles, and so vigilant about it that we won’t repeat it.

Except until we do, in some form or another.

The workshop participants are collaborative, generous, thoughtful. They make time in their lives for us all to put our thoughts together, to try to understand what we think we know when we know where someone is from, and guess where they were born, and double somersault from there to the impressions we have about places, countries, cultures. They write their hopes for the workshop left-handedly to get a sense of what it feels like to be using techniques and technologies designed for (and by) a dominant culture.

People who are left-handed recognise each other at this moment, like two Australians at a northern hemisphere conference.


In a Google document we crowdsource knowledge of South Africa, Egypt and Australia, where we three facilitators work. The Australian field fills up in a familiar way:

Coral Reef, Great Ocean Road, Rabbit Proof fence,Kangaroos, outback, Vast and funky landscape, PY Media, the Opera House, Sydney Island


Crocodile dundee

But that’s not all. Because someone knows about the Nauru files, and that the Australian government we have just re-elected are destroying a generation of already homeless refugee children, on the grounds that this might save others from drowning at sea. Australians have seemed to go along with this lesser-of-evils calculation. But the details are becoming too much to bear.

This is the report of a witnessed assault by a guard on a 5 year old child because she was running through a tent.

With his left hand he hit her across the back of the head. It was very forceful – he hit her so hard it lifted her off her feet and sent her crashing to the ground.

Our Minister for Immigration responds to the stories contained in the Nauru Files with a lack of compassion so astonishing that our mouths fill with sand:

People have self-immolated to get to Australia.

Clearly never having met a fourth degree burn survivor, that is what he said.


Back in the workshop, we raise questions of power and silencing. We think about whether we need more rules, or fewer rules, for international online learning. We wonder if organically forming communities have an inherent tendency to marginalise the unexpected visitor—and not just in spite of the diligently inclusive language they use to value all their members, but because whenever belonging is made visible in the formation of a community, it is always coded by those who control the invitation to belong.

Derrida’s conditional hospitality is never far away, when we speak about what we can do to make others feel included.

Last week a brief exchange on whether a call for papers on the experiences of women of colour in education meant to say “US education” or was really open to others, sent me back to Barthes’ discussion of exnomination. In his essay on the function of myth in distributing power, Barthes points out that the most powerful in any situation will not need to name themselves, and indeed will seek to demonstrate their power by reserving for themselves the default position. The most powerful are those who can establish their own status as the one that never needs to be qualified.

President. Woman president.

There, you saw it.

Barthes’ focus is the bourgeoisie, the class who do not wish to name themselves. His idea was picked up in 2000 by linguist Robin Lakoff, who expanded it usefully to look at dominant groups in general, and the tactical unnaming of privilege.

If you are a member of the dominant group, your attributes are invisible, as your role in making things the way they are is not noticeable.

For all of us who work as educators, and especially those of us who work in edtech, the American college system has fully achieved this status. It is the default that doesn’t have to name itself. I have sat in LMS demonstrations watching a video of everyday US college life as the roadmap for vendor planning for us. And no one raised an eyebrow, because we’re used to this across every surface of soft cultural power, where the US dominates to the point that we forget we’re not thinking our own thoughts.

Hi Professor Bowles,

I hope your summer is going well! 

I wanted to reach out to invite you to participate in our ‘Professor Pulse’ study. This project aims to collect data and insights into professors’ sentiments on current issues and topics in higher education – everything from tenure, to student apathy, to school administration.

Hi Lauren. It’s winter here. Our professorial system is entirely different to yours. You don’t mean me, you really don’t.

But if Nauru teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t change global power by wrestling a bit of it for ourselves, and then punching down.


Here’s the hopeful part. International online networks are becoming a new kind of everyday, and they sensitise us all to the defaults we each use, and impose on others. This morning’s workshop was followed by a conversation about identity and difference in digital pedagogy with educators Sherri Spelic, Annemarie Perez, Miriam Neptune and Chris Gilliard. I asked Chris what he expects US educators to learn from the presence of others in their workshops, their conversations, their sense of the scope of “education” when they say it.

Chris’ answer went to the heart of how we achieve change by showing up. So if we want Americans to stop thinking of the rest of the world as the exotic, the underserved market, being present is the place to begin. We need to make time to hear from each other in workshops like this, at a scale that we can work with. We need to promote listening well as an activist practice. And as educators we have to lead this process, and centre it in our teaching.

We need have more conversations with people who are not us.

Warmest thanks to all the workshop participants, co-facilitators Paul Prinsloo and Maha Bali, and Chris Gilliard, activist educator.

17 Responses

  • Beautiful reflection as always Kate…but to me all the more beautiful because I was there with you in it and before and after it… This post helps me wrap my head around what happened yday (for me). It also gives me so much hope despite all the ugliness in the world. You are “not me” and u make my world bigger and better while also more intimate and warm. Thank u and Paul and everyone who was there this week and particularly yday

  • Thank you, Kate, for pulling so many strands of our multilayered and complex conversations together into a recognizable bundle. I started my morning by vacuuming the apartment, partly to leave just a little more space between me and my multiple responses to our encounters in both sessions. Therefore, It’s so helpful after that to land here, indeed to have a place to land with at least some of my responses.
    On the one hand I am brimming with questions. You know, those future oriented, action-plan tending kinds of questions. But I want to resist those right now. Instead I want to wrestle with meaning and its connection to reality.
    THIS: “whenever belonging is made visible in the formation of a community, it is always coded by those who control the invitation to belong.”
    While this is a comment that could become a blog post of its own, and likely will ;-), that sentence and the flood of experiences that it evokes in me compel me nearly to tears. And it reminds me that in asking about what an institution *is* I am thinking precisely about the power of controlling the invitations. The who, how and why of controlling the invitation.
    Thank you for helping me to see parts of my own thinking and offer them a bit more light. Of course, there’s more (always more), but this is fine for a first landing.

    • Kate Bowles

      Sherri, the detail I love here is the vacuuming. Your work is so powerful in this conversation, and I so appreciate what you have since written about the nature and future of institutions.

      I think you’re right, that after a conversation with people who are not us, we urgently need to honour that by making space for time with just us, our own selves. This is very hard when there is such pressure to make every moment productive, and when we don’t recognise this reflective space as essential to productivity.

      To me, this is a critical weakness in institutions: their need to run on a business model. The conversation across business and institutional boundaries is the most likely to generate the solutions we need.

  • 1.
    I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read this post, and felt a familiar impulse to respond. And stopped. There is nothing to add because there is so much here just to read, sit with. Or it should be the equivalent of “nice post.”

    It has sat open in a browser tab for days. It is easier to just press command W.

    But that has not happened. And here I start writing a comment in the format of the author’s writing, hoping she sees it as a form of appreciation. A comment that will sprawl, and possibly break the blog when I click a button.

    I am so right handed.

    Having lived 6 months in Fredericksburg, I have a sense of the place, though still as a visitor. So I do not. I lived in the basement of Jim Groom’s house, which is on a street named for a hill where one of the major civil war battles took place. Up that hill, a few blocks left, I walked Sunken Road, where the Confederacy has placed numerous troops and artillery behind a stone wall, still standing, who easily decimated Union soldiers advancing from the open fields below.

    You can walk Sunken Road from the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where 15.000 Union soldiers are buried right to the University of Mary Washington campus.

    In school you learn a dates and facts about the Civil War. Union and Confederacy Battles. Lincoln. Davis. Stonewall Jackson. Robert E. Lee. Shiloh. Antietam. Vicksburg. Gettysburg.

    I did not learn that there was even a skirmish way out west here in Arizona, at Picacho Pass. It lasted for an hour.

    The home in Baltimore where I grew up was on land that was part of a plantation that most likely owned slaves. This invisible history lies where I rode my bicycle and played baseball. A wooded lot one block away from my home was rumored to be the place where a few slaves were buried who fought for the Union. It held some amount of haunted fear, I never was brave enough to go look.

    On a last visit to my old neighborhood, I noted a newer house was on that corner. Hmmm.

    In that neighborhood I learned to throw a baseball, a football, right handed.

    The opening of the #DigPed session Kate describes here began with an icebreaker activity.

    My inner critic kicks in. I’ve experienced a lifetime full of ice breakers, written on all the sticky notes, built things with popsicle sticks, found what color my parachute was. I decided to observe.

    I should kick my inner critic. That left-handed activity was brilliant. I’m in awe. I’m looking at my right hand. It’s so familiar.

    Many anonymous parakeets (the names Google gives authors in an open Google Doc) dove into writing associations with Australia, South Africa, and Egypt. I seemed to recall the instruction was to write out first though associations.

    Australia is easy for me since I have visited several times, in 2000 for two months, and have had Aussies visit me, once here in my little home town. Places and animals are easy, but one thing I always dug about Australians are their ability to creatively come up with nicknames for everything and everybody.

    And beets. Beets on hamburgers. I had to add that. And that statue and story of Dog on Tuckerbox I remember from a road trip from Albury to Sydney.

    This was stuff from the right-handed side of my brain, if there is such a thing.

    I thought it a bit odd people were putting down Nauru Files, which I know of mostly because Kate has been bringing it to our attention in twitter. Are people writing it because she is there? The stories of abuse seems so horrific, so outlandish, so unlike anything I would ever associate with Australia (despite knowing some of the history of treatment of the original Australians and having seen protests in Canberra), but perhaps that’s the point. The right hand not knowing the left hand? And were it not for Kate’s tweets, I probably would have no clue. There’s more to Australia than my visitor experiences.

    And the instructions in the docs do say “issues” too.

    My associations for Egypt are fewer (movies and books), and sadly for South Africa even fewer.

    My right hand just sits there.

    I have to go look up Derrida’s conditional hospitality. That will take many more readings. It seems to be a paradox in almost any community. No matter how open, welcoming, hospitable you think you are, unless you discard every shred of what we are familiar with in being part of a group, it’s going to be inhospitable to people.

    All the door knobs for groups have hand handles on the right.

    And so typically we pick up our right hands and try to write own the things we do to be hospitable. The fixes.

    But that’s the trap of a paradox. And maybe the thing to walk away with, is recognizing this, and looking a bit differently at our right hands.

    I regret missing this second half and Chris’s comment, resonating much from this post. It’s big and deep and utterly profound, and something many of us will nod along with.

    But it’s even bigger.

    We make steps to in education to have more conversations with “not us.” Yet we have a lot of affinities as educators.

    Not us are children in detention centers. Not us are guards in detention centers. Not us are people we glance out in our every day interactions, and many many many more we never see.

    It’s very very big.

    But, as a 9 year-old girl once schooled me, as, moving fluidly backwards, she tried to teach me, a clumsy adult, to ice skate, “baby steps,” she said, “just keep putting one foot in front. Keep moving.”

    I have a left hand to learn about.

    • Beautiful, Alan. The left-hand activity I learned from Rusul AlRubail (via Twitter) about a year ago. Glad the metaphor resonated.

      Folks can always watch the second half of the workshop w Chris G and Annemarie and Miriam and Sherri (it’s linked up top next to his quote). I know u know that but in case others don’t

      • How does the left hand activity work? Would love to try it out.

        • Kate Bowles

          Maha’s original suggestion was for participants to write their own name left-handedly. As we planned and reflected we decided to ask for a more considered statement written in the left hand–the point of the exercise being that there would be people in the workshop for whom this would be, unusually, a natural advantage.

          We were interested in the statement of hope for the workshop especially as many people have the same slight wariness of “icebreaker” as Alan, and so it seemed important to do something that would on its own merits offer some reflective time to participants, while at the same time exploring what it feels like when technology makes you feel uncomfortable, out of sorts, and distractedly aware of the tools. A pencil in the wrong hand will do this.

    • Alan, you’ve really made me think (as a right handed person) about my own left hand, the unexamined sense I have of an identity that isn’t the dominant one that fits smoothly in the world. And thank you so much for the stories of where you have lived. As a migrant to where I now live I’m constantly peering at plaques in public places, trying to figure out where I am, recognising that so much of this recent story is a matted layer over the thousands of years of living here before that. Yesterday I read about a shipwreck, all hands but two lost. All place is haunted like this.

      Then this:

      “No matter how open, welcoming, hospitable you think you are, unless you discard every shred of what we are familiar with in being part of a group, it’s going to be inhospitable to people.”

      Derrida seems to acknowledge that the ideal of the unconditional, including in hospitality, is there for gravitational pull: it’s what calls us to the wildest idea, the moon shot in thinkability, the impossible. But as an activist he was also very clear that things had to get done, in this ordinary world where we can’t just keep throwing our expectations of each other in a basket and starting afresh. There’s a reason that memory is the anchor to identity.

      So I think the aim isn’t to get beyond conditionality, any more than it is for us to get beyond gravity, but to think through the way conditionality shapes our responses to each other when we least expect it.

      When I read this extraordinary response, it occurred to me that this comment is exactly what makes blogging such a profound opportunity for thinkers to make each other work harder. This is so far beyond, say, “citation” that they’re barely on the same graph.

      Thank you, I am really honoured.

      • Thank you Kate for a wonderful reflection on our conversation last week. And thanks to Alan for adding another rich layer of reflection with your comments here. Such generous glimpses and such beautiful writing.

        When I think of this impossibility – the earnest striving to reach beyond difference (knowing one can never escape one’s own conditionality) – I am always left with a sense of profound ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the stark apprehension of the limits of our humanity. On the other hand, there is the beautiful hope we can do better by paying closer attention. For me, it is that striving (while growing ever more aware of so many blind spots) that makes the most difference. It is like a prayer or a kind of faith.

        • Kate Bowles

          Mia, I am so moved by this idea of hope as prayer because I am entirely without religious faith, but like you I believe that the practice of noticing, of paying closer attention, is becoming critical. Thank you for leaving this comment, it resonates strongly for me.

  • And thanks back, Kate. Sometimes we apologize for making a long comment, more or less a blog post in your space, but I think it is an interesting and different approach to blogging by writing in other spaces.

    I remember way back in the early blog days, Matthew Kirschbaum (spelling? from University of Maryland) wrote about someone named “Lachance” who blogged without a blog- all of his writing was in the comments of other blogs.

    And I hope you understand that my attempt to write in your style was totally an homage. The rhythm of those numbered segments, and finding the thread to weave them, was a means for me to organize my writing differently.

    Okay, I’m going back to my own blog house.

    I’ll be back.

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