From the margins

marginality … is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance “

–  bell hooks cited on the Marginal Syllabus from her book Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990) as cited in Maha Bali’s Reproducing Marginality

There have been a few things in my Twitter feed lately that have been on my mind. One of them is Maha Bali’s post Reproducing Marginality? Reading it, so many feelings, thoughts and insecurities started bouncing around again. Many of the same feelings are often triggered by Lee Skallerup’s blog.

I’ve lived in the margins of academia for ever since short, ill-fated attempt at university right out of high school 20 years ago. Since then, my relationship with academics and learning have been defined by “fitting it around” everything else my life. (I’ll write more about some of my early experiences as a distance learner in another post.)

try harderPerhaps as a direct result, sometimes when I think about my “academic identity” it often becomes a list of nots: I’m not a member of an academic faculty (I work as an administrator). I’m not well connected, rooted or engaged in any academic community. My proposals for presentations and papers are usually not accepted when peer review is involved. Some of the feedback I have received has not been kind. I have not completed a degree on a traditional university campus. I have been told that “there may not be a place for me at (a particular post-secondary institution)”.

Normally, I just accept that there are simply a set of rules for participating in academic circles that I do not fully understand and go back to doing the things that I think matter in the margins. But other days, I get frustrated. I read writing about the desire to open up, change, use new approaches and democratize learning and knowledge creation. Written almost exclusively by folks who work within traditional institutions, after having succeeded as traditional students.

How many researchers engaged in open and distance learning research have completed the majority of their studies online or at a distance?

This question, pulled me back two other recent Tweets that have been bouncing around in my brain. The first from Alec Couros was also cited by Maha. The second was from George Siemens.





If I am being completely honest,  most of the folks who “make me think deeply, differently & critically” about education & beyond on Twitter are neither in my professional network nor educators. They are instead the members of a more personal network. (To name a few: @redtaperesidue, @tonyaGJPrince, @fortyninestrong, @DMcglusky, @jaklumen, @VennieKocsis, @katy1400, @shinybluedress)

When I think of my (very small) personal network, especially in light of George Siemens’ tweet, I am thankful to be part of thoroughly accepting networks.  It is a place where people expose their struggles and get support: abuse, mental health issues, gender biases,  issues related to race and adults returning to school.  The good, bad and sometimes REALLY ugly. Yes, I’ve had to block a couple of folks, but the good far outweighs the bad.  I grabbed just a few from today’s feed…

Example1 example2

















I think again about my identity (academic and otherwise), about the “am”s and “have done”s: I have completed an undergraduate degree via self-paced, continuous entry courses. I am a single mom with 5 kids who has overcome more than a few obstacles to complete a graduate degree. I have managed a geographically dispersed instructional design and quality team. I have applied data-supported strategies and learning theory to radically improve training performance (and the future job prospects for 1000s of often marginalized people). I have published several non-peer review articles that have been well cited. I have navigated the worlds of child protective services, police investigations and three levels of court systems. I have (mostly) kept us all safe. I have been pushed to the point of doubting my own sanity. And I have survived. I have thought and re-thought what skills and abilities are really important. I have (somehow & so far) raised five really great people that are willing to take risks, ask questions and stand up for themselves and others. I have engaged in a supportive network of caring people.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about access and barriers to education. I have developed a unique different perspective.

Online & distance education remain the margins of mainstream education. For me, this marginal space has been one of  “radical possibility” and “resistance.” It has allowed me to approach my education differently. It enabled success that would have otherwise been impossible. It changed the trajectory of my family and kept us in a house and (mostly) out of poverty.

That’s the thing about being in the margins. You get -no wait- sometimes you have to break the rules. You often have nothing to lose. You find new ways to do what is “impossible.” You become “resilient” and “resourceful” when faced with an “opportunity” (all qualities I have no desire to further develop, thank you).

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

-Maha Bali

I’d like to see my realities in the margins reflected in any educational, educational technology, and especially open education research. What do we know about the the needs or experiences of single parent-students?  Students in remote communities? How many distance and online graduate students go on to conduct research? What structural barriers are in their way?

But I have also deliberately kept my worlds separate. Partly out of fear: Who would hire or take a chance on a single mom with five young kids? Partly out of survival: I needed to have a small piece of my life that I could control and within which in I could be “OK.” Over seven years later, I’m just starting to talk about it.

I’m not alone. In my experience, the margins are busy places. There are so many students (and researchers and academics I’m sure) with no voice. Or who have been silenced. If we want to give them voice, we need to create safe spaces. And choice. Sharing needs to be a choice, not an expectation.When they do share, we need to listen. Even when they share uncomfortable truths. And then we need to use those uncomfortable truths to challenge our processes, assumptions and beliefs.

No, simply opening the door is not enough. We need to be willing to be changed by the experiences shared by those in the margins.

4 thoughts to “From the margins”

  1. Powerful powerful post Tanya. Thanks for writing so openly and sharing all of that. I cannot imagine the struggle you have been through as a single mom of 5 (!) – wow. Ur my hero. I did all my graduate studies remotely/online and only had one child at the end of my PhD and I struggle(d). I became an open access advocate because political struggles in Egypt reduced my access to physical libraries and I needed to find stuff online – legally or not (often not). I became a really good communicator online because it was my only access to learning at some point. I hear you.

    Looking forward to reading more from you and listening to your experiences and what you bring.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. I’ll write in another post about the ways I overcame library access issues (due to distance) pre-online content. How quickly I have forgotten 🙂

  2. Hello, I’ve been following the same threads as you, thinking about who influences me “deeply, differently & critically”, and noticing that in general my version of Twitter is kinder than George’s. Maha shared this beautiful post with me and really I’m just here to thank you for writing it. I agree that the key is the academy’s willingness to tolerate input from margins, providing nothing significant is changed.

    One of the places we have room to move is course design. Too often, marginality is built when we design courses for an imagined mainstream student and then version them for add-on cohorts like distance students (often by putting them online). This is something we can straightforwardly reverse, by designing first and best for students who are furthest away from the advantages of campus-based learning, and then putting the results before everyone.

    But mostly I think we need to listen far better. The margins of the academy are really, really wide.

    1. I couldn’t agree more about course design.Course design became a critical factor in deciding what courses I took during my undergraduate degree. When I did not have easy access to a library (due to distance) I selected courses whose major assignment was either an exam (that I could have easily invigilated) or assignments consisting of primary research. Later when invigilation caused obstacles but more resources were available online, I adjusted my course selection strategy accordingly.

      For me, it has to go beyond replicating “traditional” courses online, to developing flexible learning opportunities that allow students to take creative approaches to overcome the obstacles they face (whatever they might be).

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