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Inner Voice, Criticality, and Empathy

 Published on February 26, 2015 /  Written by /  “First amongst equals” by Guy Mayer; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  5

I am deeply disturbed by dominant discourses in society that silence the voices of others, particularly women and ethnic minorities. I am frustrated by people who put others down, particularly online. And I am always surprised by teachers and academics who talk of empowering and encouraging their students while they constantly put others in academia down, by belittling their research, providing harsh and hurtful feedback, stifling dissent, and harming them in countless micro-aggressive ways.

How do we (women, young academics, minorities) protect ourselves from this micro-aggression? One solution can be found in self-reflection, by listening to our inner voices and not allowing others to put us down or question our self-worth. But this worries me, too.

Over-listening to our inner voice might blind us to diverse perspectives that may otherwise benefit us. We risk becoming egocentric or sociocentric because, as Barry Dyck says, when we think alone, we are not really alone: our thoughts are really the product of social interaction and thinking. This is a point Deleuze and Guattari emphasize in saying “we are multiple.” We may even reinforce social expectations rather than breaking free from them. Listening to our inner voice can be an act of reinforcing our own biases based on social discourse that has become internalized, rather than an act of critical consciousness. In short: over-listening to our own voice may blind us to the many diverse perspectives available.

So I’d suggest that we might lose our criticality if we overemphasize “inner voice” in ways that are not dialogical or open to others’ ideas and thoughts. It is difficult to do this when faced with criticism. I face this resistance in my personal and professional life all the time: how do I maintain my own self-esteem (which is admittedly quite difficult to shake, but still shakeable by micro-aggressions) while trying to listen constructively to the perspectives of others. But it is difficult to listen empathetically and openly to antagonistic criticism. I’ve been thinking recently that while I struggle with how to handle micro-aggressions against myself, I may myself be guilty of similar behaviors, often unintentionally.

I think when we stop thinking of criticism as antagonistic, and begin practicing empathetic and constructive views of criticality, we become less aggressive when we tap on someone else’s inner voice. So I have been thinking of examples from the practice of sharing criticism in productive ways (e.g. Women’s Ways of Knowing; Nussbaum’s notion of Narrative Imagination), and considering: how do we both encourage inner voice, and open it up to different perspectives? Furthermore, what is our role and responsibility as teachers to not kill our students’ inner voices, and yet encourage them to open up to the world, and toward transformational learning?

In Peer Review

In our quest to be critical and objective, how often do we recognize that our feedback might harm or silence others? Traditional peer review in academia can be harsh, as opposed to Hybrid Pedagogy’s constructive peer review process. When we give feedback in loving, caring, gentle ways, with the intention of supporting others to develop their work and make it better (as I hope most of us do with our students), doesn’t everyone win? Of course, it is more difficult to be on the receiving end of feedback that is clearly not given in a supportive way; you want to be able to take from it what will help you grow, but not the aspects that will feed into unhealthy self-doubt. But at least we have the power to be the change we wish to see in academia. I conduct peer reviews for journals with a very different ethos from Hybrid Pedagogy, yet I strive to keep my reviews constructive and supportive.

In Research

On the one hand, it can be disempowering and almost an act of violence when some educational researchers conduct research that reduces learning and student engagement to numbers and generalizations divorced from context. On the other end of the spectrum (and there are many approaches in between), one can conduct research like autoethnography, interpreting and analyzing one’s own lived experience, and this can serve as a counterpoint and an act of resistance. It is beautiful and valuable in its subjectivity. Still further is to do something like collaborative autoethnography, a participatory approach to researching lived experience from participants’ perspectives, done collectively. This kind of research privileges the voices of the participants and empowers them to research themselves rather than have others research and write about them. It also has the collaborative element which provides a supportive way of incorporating the worldviews of others to help us understand our own selves more critically, and perceive our experiences in the light of how others see theirs. It supports inner voice by challenging it, and in doing so, I believe, such an exercise has potential to raise critical consciousness.

This research approach is not perfect. There are still power dynamics amongst group members (issues of gender, race, etc., as well as seniority and research experience, let alone differences in personality, popularity, and influence over the group) and it involves the risk of developing groupthink (as if there is an “inner voice” for the group as a whole that misses some important perspectives outside its vision). This research remains partial, but it goes beyond inner voice without destroying or violating inner voice, and goes a long way beyond some of the other extremely impersonal and disempowering forms of research that exist.

Carolyn Ellis, a proponent of autoethnography as a research approach, suggests that teaching itself involves ethnography, as “we learn how to open ourselves to ourselves and to each other, we find it easier to drop some of our resistance to different ideas”, which she considers a step towards “ethnographic consciousness in the classroom that is personal, intimate, and empathic” (in Ellis and Bochner, p. 761). I do know that my own interpretive and (auto)ethnographic research has made me a more open teacher/facilitator.

In Writing

One recent online experience that challenged my views of constructing knowledge and collaborative writing was the #fedwikihappening organized by Mike Caulfield, where a small group of us worked together to experiment with the Smallest Federated Wiki (SFW). The beauty of SFW is that it allows for a variety of forms of collaboration. One can write on one’s own, another person may choose to edit or add to a piece (via “forking”), and the original author may choose whether to incorporate those edits or not. It allows participants to consider the edits of others, take them or leave them, but at least be aware of them, and of different ways of writing.

Occasionally, editing someone else’s work (or having my own work edited) seemed like an act of violence or de-personalization. In other instances, it felt evolutionary, taking a piece of writing to the next level. Collaborative writing, in general, is an activity that builds on our inner voice while opening us up to alternative voices. But what is special about SFW is that, unlike traditional wikis and google docs, there is no rush towards consensus; our inner voice can last a little longer, if we choose. This concept is not without its shortcomings, but it is a new approach to looking at knowledge we construct together.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Bakhtin (although it was discovered indirectly – 1981,p. 287, quoted here):

“I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another.”


This article (though not formally peer reviewed) itself is not of my thoughts alone. It is influenced by my life experiences and conversations with colleagues and friends in my online and face-to-face life. It has been influenced by direct feedback from Sean Michael Morris and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno. It is indirectly influenced by conversations with Rusul AlRubail, Frances Bell, Alyson Indrunas, Kate Bowles, Audrey Watters, and Mike Caulfield. It is influenced by my collaborative auto-ethnography research, particularly with my friends who were participants in #rhizo14, and it is influenced of course by my reading of Freire, Palmer, Sidorkin, bell hooks, Nussbaum, Belenkey et al, and (the very little I have read by) Deleuze and Guattari. And probably many more unacknowledged influences.

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5 Responses
  1. You touch on so many wonderful issues here, Maha, but I was most impressed with the sense of struggle and difficulty with maintaining integrity and ethics in a complex world. This has become for me one of the great lessons of the online learning spaces, especially cMOOCs, that open spaces for such different people with different agenda. I am having to learn all over again how to make those micro-decisions about integrity and ethics in a landscape that shifts constantly, rearranging my context even as I’m making up my mind. How do I create and share my value without also diminishing the value of others? Complex ethics for a complex world. It can almost make you wish for simple answers.

    1. Thanks, Keith – ur right about complex ethics for a complex world. And also, for me, writing this article made me think of all the ways I was possibly hurting others in ways I suggest we should change… I need to begin with myself, but i need those other gentle voices tapping constructively on my inner voice to help me get there. Thanks for always being a wonderful moral sounding board for me.

  2. I loved reading this article (even though our ideas differ at points) because it made me feel calm. I wonder if that is because your article captures that slight but significant shift in thinking that can be our reward for critical reflection. I love those moments. An article we wrote a year ago might be different if we wrote it today.
    I am really looking forward to reading the collaborative autoethnography. As I have said on several occasions, I think that research approaches and studies can be complementary offering different lenses to view a situation. I am hoping that I influenced you in the federated wiki section rather than in the first paragraph 🙂
    Something I thought about when reading your article was the dance we do in switching between the personal, the close group and the wider public. I think about that a lot in federated wiki and I am really curious to see how neighbourhoods work out, with trade offs between working intensely in a neighbourhood but risking missing out on a bigger picture with more public connections.
    My view of hurt and misunderstanding online is that it is almost inevitable and rarely deliberate. What’s more we may often be completely unaware that we have caused hurt to other people. The challenge is to create spaces and ways of communicating (with repair strategies) where we can share that we feel damaged and have a possibility of resolution and change. And what is more we also need to be able to listen when someone shares that they feel damaged by something we have said or done. I had the experience this week of discovering that my response to a post had been damaging to someone. The person revealed this in a setting with which they were comfortable. We conversed and I realised that my wish to protect privacy and my ignorance of the context of the original post had led to a damaging misinterpretation of the original post. We proceeded on a basis that each of had good intentions and (I think and hope) we reached a satisfactory conclusion.

    1. Thanks for responding Frances. This post was written around 2 months ago, and edited around 10 days ago, but it strangely fits perfectly with recent events you mention that happened like this week. My interaction with many people both online and f2f has revealed what you suggest: we often don’t intend to hurt/damage others, and yet we do. I think when we’ve had opportunities to discuss privately in gentle ways, we reach a better place. We still get hurt and sometimes we hurt others still. I’m trying to navigate my way around it, still. Which is why sometimes I prefer to ask questions privately not publicly 🙂

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