“The problem is writing articles instead of making sure the articles actually change the world.” —Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis”
I’ve been writing all my life, as my mom often reminds me, but I didn’t start thinking of myself as a writer until I started writing publicly towards the end of my PhD. Writing publicly, whether on my blog, over here, or in other journals and magazines, has transformed my identity and my practice in unprecedented ways. And yet, I ask myself, what the value of all this is.
I started writing as therapy for myself, (an outlet for the writing muscles I had honed by writing regularly in order to finish a dissertation while raising a toddler); a selfish endeavor. But then people started to respond to my writing, and I started to hope that my writing would become praxis: an ongoing process of reflection influencing action (my own, and others’) which I then reflect upon, and so on. Is it too naive or idealistic to want all my writing to advocate for social justice in some way, to have an impact in the world beyond words on a screen?
I find myself in this strange situation where my social media participation (my tweeting, blogging, cMOOCing and virtually connecting) has helped me become a relatively well-connected open scholar with an international network of peers with whom I learn constantly. And yet, locally, where it should matter most, I have had no deep influence on education in Egypt such that I still struggle with how my own child will be educated in this country that I love.
What do you do when you know you live in a country that has deep and complicated educational problems, problems you would someday like to contribute to solving, but you know that your ideals may be too radical to directly change the system from a policy level, on a large scale. What do you do, when you cannot sit quietly, and yet you are a mother in a largely patriarchal society that limits your mobility to make a difference when your child is so young? When writing is one of a few outlets you have? Is this writing therapy? Praxis? A way out of oppression? A numbing force against your oppression? All of the above?
There is a saying by prophet Muhammad about responding to injustice we encounter or when we see something we believe is “wrong”. Roughly translated:
“When one of you sees a wrong, you should correct it with your hand, but if you cannot, then with your tongue, but if you cannot, then with your heart, and that’s the weakest form of faith.”
Modern interpretations use “tongue” interchangeably with “words”, so this encompasses speech and writing — any form of “voice” or “expression”. I interpret this to mean that if we can’t go out and make a difference in the world by physically going and correcting all the wrongs we see, when we can’t directly control them, then we should at least speak out against them, advocate for justice, strive to influence, and so on.
Teaching is another form of voice. I hate that saying, “those who can do, those who can’t teach” because it ignores the long-term impact of teaching. When we do something we influence the moment we are in; when we teach, we influence a future, and when we write, we have potential to influence a broader group of people we may never ever meet, people who may read what we have written as interpreted by someone else, or read our own work long after we are gone, if we are lucky enough. Being an academic mom in a patriarchal society such as mine means I am limited in how much physical presence I can have locally, regionally, and internationally. But It does not limit my capacity to think and write whenever I have free time, so that’s what I do. I write to give voice to my thoughts, but I also write to speak out against injustices against myself and others.
But still, writing or teaching for social justice is not praxis; advocacy alone is not praxis enough for me. One of my most popular articles was about critical citizenship and the role of higher ed in promoting it in Egypt. And yet I am surrounded on a daily basis by uncritical citizens of all ages who cannot have empathetic conversations across political and ideological differences. It makes me feel frustrated and helpless.
Our own teaching is action by simply what we do in the classroom with our students; this is part of our “real” world (as Valerie Robin suggests). For teaching to be praxis, we need to constantly reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it and what kinds of effects we are having on the world by the ways we teach and what we do. Writing helps. But is that enough?
Reflecting on this piece of writing as I type these words is a kind of praxis because it makes me question every piece of writing I do and every act of teaching — to challenge myself to think of its usefulness in the world beyond the cathartic or therapeutic value it creates for me, both personal and selfish. I think of this piece I wrote about my experience of having a face-veiled student in my class — what started as sharing a personal experience but ended up making readers question their own prejudices and ended up making me question my own beyond that particular instance. I think of many of my research projects and movements I take part in initiating. They sometimes start out as selfish endeavors but often end up as ones meant to make an impact in the world, however small.
I realized something about myself while writing this. When I first graduated from college (and even as an undergrad) I was an activist. Just not a reflective activist. Sure, one of the NGOs I volunteered heavily with had a mailing list and we had a lot of discussions beyond the actual on-the-ground work we do, so it was not unreflective action, but the action was not as reflective as it should have been, for me. Maybe I was younger, and now I am just more mature. Maybe my current life circumstances (especially parenting) give me more space to write and much less space to act, so I am justifying this for my own self.
Or maybe my writing is praxis of a different kind. Maybe, as an Egyptian academic in the small-ish circle of critical digital pedagogues, I am influencing a much wider circle than I could have beforehand. Maybe my combination of privilege and oppression is a blessing, making me an “elite of marginals”. Maybe contributing a postcolonial perspective in global discourse is praxis (e.g. consider tackling MOOCs from a postcolonial perspective). It seems rather counterintuitive, but for me, global and regional recognition bring me local recognition that opens up doors for me to have an impact here. But is it enough?
I hope to be taking my writing and teaching more towards praxis in the future, influencing my daughter’s schooling whenever I can; taking my students towards working with authentic communities so that what we create in class can benefit those beyond the class, and taking the learning I gain from my digital and social media interactions back into my local context.
Because here it is: Writing publicly enables connections. Connections between people, between ideas, between action and reflection. And all of these have potential for praxis.
If our teaching, our research, our writing seeks to understand the world as it is, this is not bad, but it is not praxis. But if our writing works on the world by striving to challenge it, to change it, to influence it, our writing can be praxis. And writing about teaching helps push the boundaries of what teaching can be and do beyond the limits of immediate influence and power.
There are no guarantees. When we connect, there is only potential for serendipity, as Alan Levine recently said in a hangout. Jeff Merrell recently wrote that “the important stuff is what happens in emergent, organic form.” We just need to be more intentional about it, opening up and creating opportunities and space for more emergence. We need to embrace what comes, make the most of the hand we are dealt.
Is it enough? It will never be enough because there will always be more to do. It will never be enough because we will never, as individuals, be able solve every problem we care about. But as we connect, we widen the range and depth of our capacity to individually and collectively make a difference. And it still would not be enough, because the more you learn and know, the more you realize you don’t know.
Writing has been central to my survival — and to my praxis — and I love opportunities to encourage others to write and find ways to make writing (particularly writing in public) useful for them. Like encouraging teachers to blog their reflections (this one is about teaching Islamic history in the wake of Isis!) and anyone to blog to support their lifelong learning. I believe everyone has great ideas inside them and that writing has potential to make a difference to many of our lives, even as we take (measured) risks and make ourselves vulnerable. But also, having voice is not enough unless someone listens. Which is why I am delighted to help facilitate Digital Writing Month this year, which can hopefully provide a supportive community for exploring different ways of using the affordances of the digital to express ourselves.
Let’s continue having conversations not only about how we write, but why we write, and how to make our writing more meaningful in the world. You are welcome to join Kevin Hodgson, Sarah Honeychurch and me this November as we co-facilitate Digital Writing Month. Subscribe for updates and add your name to the roster.