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3 words: I love you. [part 2]

SINGLE-SEX SCHOOLS and SEX EDUCATION:
Hollway argues, see first part of 3 words: I love you , that gender-differentiated subjectivities are built upon subject positions which are made available for the category ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but they remain unequally available. This strikes me as quite ‘mid-1980s’, and as a particularly ‘British Feminist’ perspective. I want to find out how much things have changed, and how a less UK-centric view and experiences look like in 2010.

In the late 1960s England had about 2,000 single-sex schools, at the end of the 20th century there were still 400 of them. The first single-sex school was founded in 1440, that was famous Eaton. In stark contrast, in today’s Finland there is not one single single-sex school in the entire country. Iceland introduced (!) single-sex kindergarten in the late 1980s, France and Germany think co-education the most successful way towards socialisation based on equality between sexes.

No doubt, understanding differences in sex and gender requires a thorough look into cultural differences. Living in a place, London, where every second person is foreign-born has made me even more of that. Language itself tells us a lot about a population’s notions of sex and gender. In Finnish, for instance, only one first person singular pronoun exists: han [hän, hAn]. It is sex-neutral, gender does not play that large a role in this linguistic sense. Nevertheless, Finland is a pioneer in gender equality – in 1906 its National Assembly was the first in the world that adopted full gender equality. Finnish women were the first who gained the right to vote.

The German language does not have a direct translation for the English term ‘gender’. The concept that denotes the socially constructed and learned traits of what it means to be male or female in contrast to the biologically determined characteristics (i.e. the English term ‘sex’)was only introduced by help of European policies (gender mainstreaming). On an everyday basis, however, the German language is obsessed with gender: every noun requires categorisation: neutral, female and male grammatical genders specify things: a tomato is female, a chair is male, your breakfast remains neutral. Problematic are [new] terms such as ‘Email’ which have been adopted from the English. Some people obsess over the question whether ‘Email’ (all nouns are capitalised in German) is female or neutral.

HOW WE TALK ABOUT LOVE AND SEX:
In 1984, when Hollway constructed her argument, sex education in mixed classes was standard in German secondary schools which even then included lessons on contraception (N.B. home schooling is illegal in Germany, so there was and is no opt-out). This makes me wonder to what extent a discursive analysis that does not take into account any cultural or national differences can be convincing.

CULTURE and LOVE:
I recall a Californian friend of mine, about twice my age, stating a few years back in Berlin that ‘Americans do love their family but they like their friends’. I argued the opposite to be holding true for Germans. I remembered my experience as a holiday language student in the late 1990s in Malta where we had English conversation classes and were asked to debate controversial topics to ensure we would practice our language skills. Hot buttons were abortion, HIV/AIDS and love. One male student in his early 20s from catholic Munich, Bavaria, vehemently refused to state he would ‘love’ his sister – but he confirmed he’d like her, very much so. Love in this cultural context has a distinct sexual undertone, which is why ‘like’ is the preferred and socially accepted norm.

TABOOS, POWER:
A purely linguistic focus seems to miss the subtleties that are embedded in language: social practices, taboos, age-related awkwardness etc. They cannot be captured in the concept of power – which certainly holds true for some cases (parent-child for instance) but not necessarily in all peer-to-peer cases. Hollway did not seem to perceive women and men as genuine peers or agents who hold potential to negotiate the terms of being or becoming peers.

MEN’S VIEWS:
One of the interview excerpts she quotes is quite thought-provoking. Sam is a man who was in hope of living with Jane. He tried to live with three other women before and he does not want to live on his own.

He says that “[t]here’s too many things all wrapped up in coupling […] too many needs it potentially meets, and there are too many things it frustrates. I do want to have a close, a central-person relationship, but in the past, the negative aspect outweighed the positive dramatically. Or my inability to work through them has led me to run.”

“I’m frightened of getting in deep […] a lot of these things aren’t really to do with sexuality. They’re to do with responsibility.”

“When I say to somebody, who I’m making love to – I’m close to, when I say, ‘I love you, I love you’ it’s a word that symbolises letting go. […] What frightens me is that word, it’s an act of commitment. Somebody suddenly, expects something of me. They’ve said something, that’s the first word in a long rotten line towards marriage. That’s when you fall in love, you’re caught up in the institution.”

“And it’s been an act of principle for me, that I can love somebody, and feel loved, without feeling any responsibility. That I can be free to say that I love somebody if I love them. Be free to feel.”

I have no idea how old Sam was when he gave this interview and talked about the power of the meaning of ‘I love you’. Would a man beyond retirement age who had all his life spent with one woman hold a similar view? Is the utterance ‘I love you’ itself related to social markers such as age, gender – or social class? Has ‘I love you’ become so value-laden or invested with connotations that fear is a near ‘natural’ response?

RESPONSIBILITY, COMMITMENT:
Hollway argues that ‘I love you’ (as the signifier ‘letting go’) is “suppressed by its capture in the discourse which positions women as requiring commitment. Which means men need less commitment? The implication strikes me as simplified. Hollway quotes from an anti-sexist men’s magazine (Achilles Heel, 1979):

“For men (heterosexual) sex works out as a trap because it’s the only place where men can really get tenderness and warmth.”

“But they have no skills to evoke these things because there is nothing in the rest of our lives that trains us to do this.”

This would suggest men have been brought up and continue to live lives as islands. Does that ring true? Of course, as I mentioned above, single-sex education may have contributed significantly to some of these notions but on the other hand, men who were brought up by women must have had some exposure to their ‘skills’ in terms of tenderness and warmth (i.e. outside sexual encounter). Supposed, all women are tender and warm, all the time – a stereotype we need to question.

What Hollway seems to ignore altogether is the probability that men (and women) may be able to learn (by reflexivity, be encounter, by formal education) what it means to be tender, committed and warm – without ‘paying the price’ of a sexual relationship when what is desired is actually ‘only’ tenderness and warmth. What she seems to suggest is a biological reductionism somewhere embedded in the discourses that construct gender subjectivities. These subjectivities (or gender identities) seem to be static and fix over the life course – and, they seem to be focused on the heterosexual other. Trapped in the web of power and ‘unspeakable deeper needs’, that is also what Martin suggests:

“People’s needs for others are systematically denied in ordinary relationships. And in a love relationship you make the most fundamental admission about yourself – that you want somebody else. It seems to me that that is the greatest need, and the need which, in relationship to its power, is most strongly hidden and suppressed.”

VULNERABILITY, TRUST, REJECTION:
This is about vulnerability, trust and feeling accepted – or rejected. The strong sense of insecurity Martin conveys makes we think about fear of rejection as a learned response. After all, most people share these feeling and a sense of insecurity when they open up to others and when they commit themselves to others.

Part of this is rooted in a sense of risk – but risk considerations become more dominant when we commit to people who make us feel insecure about being accepted. If we express our love (in an utterances or otherwise) and override the sense that the person may feel under pressure to commit too or that our partner holds high expectations as to what has to follow upon that 3-word utterance, we actually do not trust our own instincts. On the other hand, challenging the idea that there is a universal notion as to what ‘I love you’ implies and entails, is a healthy way to free oneself from the burden of literature, films and lyrics we grew up with, internalise and forget to review.

PUBLIC and PRIVATE:
We may live in relationships that have never heard the ‘I love you’ and still, they are marked by deep commitment and love. On the other hand, there are numerous relationships that have established rituals, that resulted in obligatory phrases for both partners. For instance ending every phone call with ‘luv you, hon’. A routine that may make many Germans cringe, it’s not exactly a socially accepted practice outside the couple’s private space. There are also the film moments which make us cringe: Bette Midler’s CC Bloom in ‘Beaches’ (1988) offers her lover an ‘opt-in’ version similar to Stevie Wonder’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”. Although, Midler’s character adds an interesting question: “or was that part of your routine”? Finally, there is also Patrick Swayze’s ‘ditto’ (German: ‘dito’) in Ghost. Does it make you cringe or smile with pleasure – or does it appear to be so remote and constructed to you, it does not trigger any emotion?

REAL LIFE and LOVE:
There are our friends who offer us a deeply felt ‘I love you’ (German: ‘ich liebe dich’) which we can take, without a hint of doubt, in all its beauty and commitment. There are sexual partners who commit and still don’t have to panic over marriage and the ‘institution marriage’, they offer us the equally deep and committed ‘I like you’. Whatever we say as expression of our love, a lot depends on how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves is not static and fixed, rather, it is fluid dependent on a range of factors. One of these factors is the degree of exposure to different cultures, ideas different to those taken for granted in our environment as well as our ability and willingness to review them. But then, there are also factors such as illness or a plain hangover, which may undermine our sense of self and increase our vulnerability.

NEGOTIATION and COMMUNICATION:
The extent, to which we buy into certain discourses, valid at a certain point in time and in a certain spatial context, is vital to the sense of rejection or acceptance we may experience. What it means to be a woman or a man (I do not discuss queer, gay and lesbian at this point because the paper that triggered my post was based on heterosexual relationships, but of course, I don’t mean to exclude these identities and perspectives) is not only determined by dominant discourses around us – say, men and women’s magazines such as Playboy or Cosmopolitan: it’s all about looks, sex and reinforcing stereotypes – but it is also about how we establish trust and communication with the other person. The way we negotiate meaning within a relationship is what creates the meaning of ‘I love you’ in our relationships. If we forget (or fear) to talk about our genuine needs, we may never get beyond mediated clichés.

FEAR, PAIN and MEDIA:
What actually prevents us from expressing our ideas about tenderness, warmth, commitment and all the fears and pain that seem to come along with it, is a whole different story. I wonder to what extent our activities on Twitter and Facebook, Flickr or Youtube help us to develop those skills. Do they offer us space to think about love and relationships?

Prior to these sites it used to be books, films and music that made us think or that shaped our wants and being wanted. Also, they shaped our silence and the way we found things to be ‘unspeakable’ – think about watching a steamy scene on TV – with your parents. In those decades between Hollway’s research and today’s social networking sites, what does not seem to have changed, though, is the many subtle shades those 3 words ‘I love you’ can acquire. I would love to your views on that.

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flickr’s seductive power

I have recently become a ‘flickr pro’ member and started using groups more meaningfully. It is a social networking site that taps into my unconscious, I feel. Frequently I am surprised to see my own connotations that spring up when presented with a new image uploaded by one of my contacts.

I love the daily flickr newsletter and those previews, the mix of them, 5 in a line maximum per contact, every day a visual treat. They trigger unknown associations in me. I click on the one that makes me most curious when I don’t have much time to explore all of them.

You never know, sometimes it’s light and shadows, details in the background, personal tags that add another layer of meaning, a comment by another viewer that is moving. It’s so intense the dynamic, like being pulled into a narrative that resembles a film. A few images tell a story but the story differs from what the person saw who took the shot which also differs from the real story. Interpretation of the interpretation.

Today, TooSix uploaded a simple neonsign saying Kreuzberg – the part in Berlin where I spent nearly 7 years – it made me do what expected least: a German poem-style memory unfolded, I typed without really thinking. I hadn’t been aware this was still living inside me. So fresh. Nothing’s ever lost. Nice. Grateful for the inspiration, thanks TooSix.

Gute alte Zeiten. Sehnsucht. Ratten. Strassenkehrer. Doner Kebap. Best in town. Politische Debatten nach 2 morgens. Ach.
Ein Neon Schild. Nicht mehr. Nicht weniger.

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challenges, passion – and Higher Education

Alone in walled cyberspace: I was working on a collaborative project today and made some interesting observations. The university forum was quiet, as so often now. We are six groups of 10 students each, each group works with an allocated associated lecturer. They could potentially get discussions going but debate has decreased to a degree where 3-5 students per week at best contribute, it’s rather monologues than debates. The current project is a group presentation based on notions of definition of professionalism, excellence, best practices and related illustrating material in educational contexts. It’s fairly straightforward and I have already selected my case studies, summarised the key points which I think justify calling them excellent and posted that. So I can concentrate on a paper due next week for the course on accessibility.

Wiki and Moodle: We use a Wiki within the Moodle environment. Even though Moodle is open source, the technology is rather hindering than facilitating efficient and enjoyable communication and collaboration. The course is 100% online, i.e. no printed material, no audio or video conferences. A huge minus, it means you don’t talk to any student or lecturer over the course of five months, you won’t see them if they opt for those object-centred avatars, the least personal thing anyone could possibly come up with.

Online collaboration: Based on these premises, the collaboration is mediocre, we try, of course, to hit the deadline, and produce something that will pass. But we depend on each other (which would be a lot more fascinating to study…) and what happened over the past few days was quite amusing. People were reminded to show up in the forum and collaborate on the project as this is a must-do activity – one of the many that are not mentioned in the course description when students sign up for splashing out a four-digit amount on this course just to end up being frustrated but end up not daring to express it.

Power and Panopticon: The forums could be linked together rather than running individual walled gardens where a group of no more than ten students watched by their lecturer makes for a spirit of a Foucauldian panopticon because lecturers neither engage in debates (other than ‘oh, that’s a good point’) nor do they share conference announcements, their own publications or anything that I think would be normal to do in an online course at post-graduate level. I found myself posting conference announcement until I noticed that all lecturers and course authors attend plenty of conferences but remain utterly shy when it comes to sharing. No papers, no ideas beyond the course content, no events. Make your own way if you want to be one of us.

Sharing practices 1.0: Now, people emailed the lecturer asking to get their email address distributed. The Open University does not support student contact lists we were told, which means you have to email the lecturer and ask them explicitly to email that to other students. Once they have done that students get an email with one email address of a fellow student addressed to an undisclosed recipient list. Now to me that is so web 1.0 and so control-freakish that I couldn’t help but post my email address straight into the course Wiki – which is, you guessed it, behind walls, password-secured, of course.

Dependent learners: I found the Wiki work so far not exactly inspiring, you get an impression there are students who throw into it whatever they can think of – or the opposite, nothing at all. We are asked to collaborate with regard to cleaning up etc but it feels a bit like reinventing the wheel – there are publicly accessible wikis in the net, so why not having a look and getting inspired? Oh, self-directed learning, critical and independent thinking and questioning minds, are we ready for them or shall we rather re-produce the well-tried docile bodies and minds that come in so handy in consumerist societies that just suffered a major blow to the unquestioning buy-now, let the next-generation-pay attitude? It’s so convenient to not being questioned, and to not engage with some of those tireless students who are such a nuisance…

The administrator-lecturer:The whole course would greatly benefit from more critical thinking, concerted action and a much less administrative attitude of lecturers who see their role obviously in copy and pasting individual snippets of the course guide following the pattern ‘activity 2.4 – please discuss…’. It’s all asynchronous and students tend to ramble away, everyone under considerable time pressure due to all those exercises that focus on rhetoric rather than substance. So far I have been missing theoretical frameworks that required a bit of work and dare I say it? Thinking, just thinking through ideas, not one single concept that was hard to grasp.

Inter-disciplinarity? No thanks: Boring, over-priced and somewhat hysteric with all its pieces of 300 or 500 words of reflective practice. This course does not allow us to reflect on the institutional agenda, the politics of academia or the self-centred assessment obsession we are presented with. Nor do lecturer or authors make any references to auto-ethnography, auto-biography or reflexivity. I was told, it’s another discipline and hence we won’t discuss it, so no chance to get the course anywhere near inter-disciplinary approaches or harness the power of collective student knowledge in academic crowd-sourcing style.

Off the record – student feedback: In 1:1 conversations behind other walled gardens I get to hear that this course is a ‘raw deal’, that the references we are presented with are predominantly freely accessible government reports, papers produced by academics who don’t work with the Open University or other material that has been licensed under a Creative Commons License and was intended for non-profit purposes – but who dares to cry wolf when they have spent a considerable amount of money on degree courses they try to do to get on with careers that are not exactly exciting? Clearly, it takes another kind of student to get a bit of protest than the ones the Open University usually attracts and manages well to keep as far apart as possible – networking outcomes are incredibly poor at the Open University, any conference or workshop will provide a better opportunity. In this way, though, any student rebels remain under control, I haven’t seen anything remotely resembling what I witnessed on a regular basis in Berlin’s universities – where students do have to pay at worst a minor fraction of what we are being charged here – but still seem to have fierce critical thinking for breakfast and never get tired pointing out what’s wrong with ‘the system’.

Not understanding social media practices: Technology, after all, is not a panacea. To me it seems, some academics discovered social media as cash-generating holy grail, so they came up with online courses that require students to do a lot of administrative work that course teams used to do in the past. Lecturers have started blogging, some of them explored the liberating effects of reflecting over compromising personal material they declare they don’t want to share in the student forums but you will find them on Google within a minute. Others don’t trust any applications which are freeware or shareware or anything that requires interaction between peers, no matter where you are in the hierarchies in real life. I feel like attempting to educate educators who lack experience in social media and think that a bit of blogging in pseudo-anonymous style and a few friends on facebook are all that’s to be known about social media. Elearning itself is so overrated and yet so misunderstood and under-harnessed in this course that I wonder what comes next. The exciting aspects of studies based on books and papers? The unquestioned technological determinism that has been creeping into the study material compiled by people who barely know anything about building networks and resolving conflicts or getting into such in social networks is shocking. What qualifies these people to teach us in this top-down manner (in particular as they request us to provide evidence even in cases when we argue we haven’t made any personal or professional progress)? Why should I be content with this after experiencing experts in the field sharing on Twitter and in blogs in a constant stream of enthusiasm? Why should I trust experts in online edcuation when they do not even have a sound online identity (or none at all)?

Before we hyped elearning: Non-online courses at the Open University were provided as heavy packs of audio, video and paper material (one of them delivered numerous interviews with Stuart Hall -perhaps I need to let the Open University know that these courses were the ones which educated me towards the demanding student I am nowadays, that was at half the fee I pay now and just 4 years ago). Now, this is gone, though. Whenever my internet connection is down, I am lost. The entire material is provided as html sites, lots of links, so please check them and if you intend to highlight or work with the material offline, happy copy and pasting. Whenever the student server is down, the same applies.

Harnessing the limitations: Over the past 11 weeks or so I have been through a number of angry moments, and I wasn’t shy in expressing my frustration. The aspect that infuriates me most is the lack of challenging course work, the total obsession with assessment and the massive lack of flexibility. This is new, in previous courses (under-graduate and post-graduate) the Open University provided enough room for personal planning around other commitments – after all that’s why busy people study there. Now it’s every week another 3-5 activities we’ve got to do. Plus essays and projects. Write 500 words on this or that, post it on your blog (and mess up your online identity) and debate in the forum – where noone will respond to what you say – beyond oh yes, good point – because people are busy ticking all the boxes of this ‘new’ micro-management teaching style. Flow, the kind of immersed happiness that comes with getting deeply into studies, does not kick in. I assume, that is what I miss most and that’s why I am angry. I feel betrayed for the best that learning has to offer.

Flows of learning: In all my disappointment (there are more aspects that make you laugh out loud in disbelief, check my Twitter channel) I noticed I have been fuelled with – supposedly – negative energy and a lack of inspiring and driven debate that poured right into my spinning activities. We spinners in London’s Soho Gym Camden are blessed with a remarkable individual. I have come from weak to outstanding (I get to hear) over the past 10 months and keep having amusing conversations about personal development and informal learning – unexpected, unplanned, all down to someone who is outstanding in his teaching, motivational and observational skills. Our instructor will not break a spinner, but he will yell at us in complete passion ‘fly! fly!’ and we will. He will observe your progress and won’t push you beyond your personal maximum limit but he will get you very close. That’s a rare skill, too many lecturers either don’t challenge you or too much or only in all the wrong aspects.

Informal learning: I have learned an enormous amount from these spinning classes that have made me see skills I possess but never thought I would have. I have became a lot braver, trusting, confident in the unknown – I have started exploring the mental space that is between getting on that bike and the 5th minute after getting the body into a different mode. I develop ideas in a non-intellectual way when I work through the 70th minute on a Sunday morning, the body in ecstatic sweatiness, the mind sharp and ready to tackle whatever may come. I have learned to be in a state of very happy meditation, a state of deep fulfilment, generated by nothing but physical work and focus, focus, focus. Don’t let go! The mantra that wipes out any doubt in the manipulating power an instructor can have over you. Don’t let go! – the same few words Rose got to hear from Jack on the Titanic. You know how far she got after he drowned in the icy sea…(that’s another story though).

Transferable social skills: I have learned to trust an instructor who’s got the power to make or break (and I wasn’t aware of this before) by manipulating us. I have also learned that a good and passionate teacher is not shy of sharing what they do learn from us learners. And they do. In fact they may even discover things in learner they envy as they haven’t had that experience yet. It’s been a rewarding and fantastic journey that has got me to look at learning and teaching even more from a sharing and equality angle. I am less than ever before willing to buy into the assessment-driven micro-management teaching I experience in my university.

Producing docile minds versus the greed for a challenge: Studies that lack enthusiasm and the kind of inspired atmosphere that leaves people happily exhausted are something we all should learn to criticise a lot harsher. Too many have been educated to be docile, to not question the power and hierarchy, the funding politics and institutional agendas embedded in learning practices that protesting for harder student work and more challenges do not seem to come naturally to many students – and I mean qualitative harder studies, not just a mind-numbing quantity of easily assessable tasks. I find this sad, even more so ever since I have been joining these spinning classes which are always fully booked and transform people over an hour into happily exhausted perma-grinners, excited in the experience and keen on coming back and progressing. Fly, fly!

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