My name is Shyam Sharma, and this is my personal blog alongside a professional portfolio. Linked on top and right are portfolio pages, and on right are links to some of my professional networks. Blog posts are below, with the latest entry on top. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments through any of the venues. Thank you.
Another post about #clmooc. Last week, I followed other colleagues’ work with great interest but couldn’t create anything myself. But building on that spirit, I’d like to start this post by sharing my main idea through an illumination.
Images can be relatively universal, but because their imitation or representation of the world or ideas are mediated by selection, perspective, perception, and interpretation, even the seemingly most universal images create room for complex conversations.
For this week’s 5-image story, I describe my intellectual journey with images as rhetorical tools, highlighting the power of images as a medium of expression that have both the potential for communicating ideas effectively across contexts and their potential for reinforcing the illusion of universality, the prevailing geopolitical hegemony in the world that insidiously impoverishes knowledge and knowledge-making — even as scholars are becoming more connected by new technologies and their communities are becoming more diversified and inclusive.
Images Morphing in the Mind
Before I came to the US as a student of writing and rhetoric, when I was a student and then a teacher of English Studies, I used to understand images/imagery in art and literature to mean whatever the books written in Britain and North America said they meant. For instance, while very few people in Nepal would consider a woman’s naked body as “beautiful” (instead of simply obscene), students of literature like me accepted the meaning supplied by authors, critics, and theorists from somewhere else. In our teaching/learning and the conversations among the proud “English folks,” images were interpreted in universal terms, even when we didn’t know much about the objects in our real lives. This could be called the daffodil phenomenon: whether you’ve seen or know anything at all about the daffodil flower, if you’re a student of British literature, you were supposed to “appreciate” the wonders of a poem of this title by William Wordsworth.
I did study postcolonial theory–and did well in the exams summarizing it–but it was only when I came to the US that I first started really thinking about the theory in the context of education, knowledge-making, and knowledge-sharing in the world. For example, I had always wanted to gain weight (my mother constantly used to say “Come on. Eat more. Be fat.”) because being a little chubby meant being “healthy” in Nepal. This desire to look fatter–no, not to “gain weight” or to “be healthy,” because they weren’t a problem in themselves!–forced me to rethink about what I wanted to “look like” when my negative body image suddenly started becoming a positive one.
I knew that images “healthy” people differed across cultures and contexts, but when I first told an American friend that I wanted to be “fat,” I realized that desires and discourses about health are shaped by politics and ideology and that the meanings of body images thus shaped have implications far beyond personal: since the discourses about body images from more dominant societies are often viewed as neutral and apolitical, natural and universal, the social and political consequences of the dynamic cross national, cultural, and other boundaries. When I visit home in Nepal, I won’t be telling my mother that I have fulfilled her wish by being a little fat: I will be telling her that it’s not good to look fat and I don’t want to be–regardless of all the complexities of body mass index, nuances of what science says about weight, and so on.
A few more incidents related to image. When a friend and I went to a water park with short and tight swimming boxers (I still am not sure what they’re called), we drew the attention of hundreds of people (especially younger visitors)–until our wives noticed it and we cut short our fun. The first time my wife and I took our baby boy to the doctor, everyone praised “what a gorgeous little girl she is!” because he was wearing pink-ish outfit sent by grandma from Nepal. And one day, I had to tell a fellow Nepali student to please stop holding my hand while we were walking across campus– because that would seem very odd for straight adult men in this country! None of these “images” were universal, but if the people around us could imagine that they may mean different things for different people, those people wouldn’t be very surprised– and we wouldn’t be in some cases.
I now saw how ironic it was that art and literature is taught/learned around the world as a means for learning “about” different societies, cultures, and contexts–past and present–but the same mediums also serve to reinforce power structure and hegemony in the world when the universal significance of the powerful quickly trumps its localness but the universality of the powerless local is overshadowed by the value of its being different or exotic.
Images and Visual Literacy in a Globalized World
Since I started teaching writing–which involves reading and critical thinking, research and writing to present arguments and perspectives, using media to communicate, etc–I’ve always used images to create opportunities for students to discuss “global issues” from around the world. I’ve used them to help students explore complex issues of context, presentation, perception/interpretation, perspectives, and often political issues. But I also hesitate to introduce to complex or outside-the-box ideas into the classroom. Should I talk about the “gaze” created by the increasing dominance or adoption of certain cultural perspectives toward different people, objects, places, and realities? Should I alert students how “global” issues are highly filtered by the media, politics, national interests, and other stakes of their local societies? Should I bring up that we are limited by the selection, presentation, and circulation of certain images and not others–all of which are shaped by power and politics–and should I tell them that their perception and interpretation are limited by their own local lenses that they’ve learned to consider universal especially when it comes to images? I don’t want to overwhelm or discourage students, and even when I bring in these complexities, students often lose interest in them.
Images have the potential to communicate slightly to highly universal messages across contexts. For instance, the picture of a sad or happy, injured or healthy child can tell the story more effectively than words. But sad or injured children from certain backgrounds tend to be selected and presented as such and not from others, and that typically reinforces already prevalent understanding of that group. The effective communication then quickly translates into effective misrepresentation and stereotyping. For instance, when I think about Nepal, I think about people in a politically broken society struggling and succeeding in a variety of areas such as education, technology, media/journalism, and business; I think about Mahabir Pun, the US-educated Nepali entrepreneur who is working to provide free wifi to people across the country by using methods that even the “advanced” societies could be using but won’t because they don’t believe that “the means of information should be a basic right” in a democracy. But when I Google the term “Nepal,” results range from mountains, monkeys, poor people, and hungry-looking children. Even in the age of the internet, certain images do not circulate or do not circulate as well as others. Images are shaped by discourses: they are picked up and presented in certain lights, perceived and interpreted in certain ways, and circulated at certain speed and scope by what people think about them, or how they understand the underlying issues.
Of course, images can also convey general and relatively universal ideas. But when that potential is taken for granted, it is harder to see the complexity and political shaping of the meanings of images. I believe that this is why the scholarship on media and multimodality doesn’t focus much on their political shaping of the meaning. I have come across some scholarship about the cultural influence on how people interpret images in the field of marketing, sociology, and even cognitive and behavioral science; but other than some work in related fields like education (also see this), I haven’t seen this issue foregrounded in my discipline.
Consequently, I have realized that in spite of the challenges–in spite of the potential of being a killjoy on the subject–I find it necessary to foreground both potentials of images, the ability to convey meanings universally and that of turning the local into global. Especially in a world where “globalization” is understood by too many people as the spreading of dominant cultures at the cost of cultural, epistemological, political, and ideological diversity, I find it very important that I learn and teach inclusiveness and diversity by exploring the ability of images to convey ideas, as well as foregrounding the risk of the same images further spreading or reinforcing monolithic local-as-universal worldviews.
As a practical illustration of the idea, and as where I am in my personal journey of thinking about images and their potential for universality versus political contingency, let me conclude with an interesting exercise that I give to students in most of my classes. I ask students to go to Google search and enter what they believe is an absolutely universal concept/entity (such as “beauty”), then click on “image” search. Then I ask students to describe what they see. They start answering: young, women, fair skin, skinny, make up, scantily dressed, and so on. Then I ask students if they think those images represent beauty universally. Their opinions vary. So, I ask them to add the name of a place or country/culture to the word “beauty.” This brings up significantly varying results, with some students producing shocking outcomes. For instance, one student who had entered “beauty” and “Taiwan” came up with a lot of pictures of snakes (I think that there is a certain type of snake that is considered beautiful in Taiwan). Adding “men” creates a whole new conversation. [Here's a project named Image Atlas, which indexes image search from different parts of the world. I just found this and think there are huge scholarly implications of this project.]
In most of my undergraduate writing courses, I require or encourage students to research and write about “global issues,” but I am fascinated by they (and often I) define what global issues are. I am intrigued by how we tend to select images of poverty and misery, corruption and conflict, and other ways of putting people and societies on the scale of progress with most others out there being behind–not realizing how we use indexes and discourses that put us ahead and them behind. Sometimes, I succeed in conveying to students that sympathy, empathy, and a willingness to understand can easily reinforce rather than help solve problems in the world. Sometimes, I am afraid that I simply sound like a cynical and pessimistic killjoy.
So, especially after I joined a network of educators from around the world recently, when it comes to images, I increasingly realize (often after being naive) that they don’t come from, travel through, or arrive at any context- and discourse-free spaces–and I try to teach what I’ve learned to my students. I tell my students that we create images, select them, share them, pick them, re-present them, contextualize them, and interpret them. We use our varying experiences, knowledge, perceptions, biases, and so on to make sense of images that may be universal in themselves but are rarely just that in the real world of teaching, learning, and knowledge-making/sharing. As an educator, I find this reminder–however obvious it might seem–extremely useful for myself and for my students.
When I come across colleagues or friends/family getting excited about a new technology or functionality added to an existing one, I want to register extremely ambivalent responses–which I normally don’t.
On the one hand, as someone whose ability to keep in touch with friends and family and also to pursue professional success depend heavily on emerging information and communication technologies, I want to join them in the excitement.
But on the other hand, I am also keenly aware of how the same technologies are helping to reinforce inequalities and divides, how they are causing people to leave behind and disregard diverse forms of knowledge practices and social/cultural engagements, and most significantly, how they are allowing people to mask or gloss over deeply disturbing resurgence of colonial worldviews and hegemony. I want to reflect on the last phenomenon in this post. Continue reading
A quick, fun post.
Since I read about a dozen books when writing a seminar paper in a popular culture course during graduate school (around 2009)—-including Dan Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital and others that categorized and generalized younger generations—-I had been itching, fretting, impatiently waiting to learn what would come after generation “Y.” I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about different possibilities.
Finally, there it is: it is called the Generation Z (the now young people born around 1995). We’ve started seeing a plethora of articles (books are coming) about this group of humans, most of the writers first generalizing up to their necks and then more or less quickly cautioning readers against generalization, most of them painting the new generation as distinct, some going uber optimistic, and others essentially focusing on how to monetize our understanding of the new human species.
Exactly what I was waiting for. Continue reading
Disruption, reinvention, and even hacking have become very common themes in the discourse of higher education lately. As I sit down to write this post on the theme of hacking (for the fourth week of #clmooc, a connected learning community/course), I am thinking about how buzzwords tend to carry truckloads of irony and how often those who jump on the bandwagons of buzzwords with the most excitement don’t realize (or care about) the complexity of their words’ meanings, origins, uses, and effects. As a teacher, I am fascinated by the educational potential of irony and paradox in buzzwords, grand narratives, and over-sized belief systems. So, I often ask students to unpack the irony/paradox of overly popular words and their collocations. The intersection of the word “hack” and “education” seems so rich that I want to write an essay on it myself.
Assignment X: “Pick a word or phrase that has become unusually popular in the field of education (or another broad subject/context of your interest), study its meanings, origins, uses, etc, and write an essay in between 1000 and 2000 words.” Continue reading
As I sit down to share some thoughts in the third, gaming-focused week of conversation in the connected learning course, #clmooc, I want to once again start with the friendly Philosoraptor for making my first point. Imagine that you jumped off a spacecraft using a parachute, aiming to return “down” to earth, but then you start wondering if you are falling “toward” or away from or tangentially in relation to the earth. That’s how I often feel about the increasingly hi-tech modes of living and learning.
When I first learned about massive open online courses, the truly massive xMOOC types, I thought, OMG, now I too can finally educate the world from the convenience of my laptop and the high speed internet that I have. In fact, I had just bought a new MacBook Air at the time. And, being a writing teacher, I wanted to teach writing, because, you know, everyone in the world needs to “write better.” Perfect.
What I needed in order to get started was a course banner, especially an image that would represent the kind of writing that I teach, “academic” writing.
“Academics” has to do with wisely thinking through existing knowledge and generating new ideas, so I thought the best image to represent it would be, oh, yes, the “owl”!
However, before I settled on the owl and slapped a big wise owl image at the top of the screen, I wanted to take a quick moment to ensure that most (if not all) students/ participants from around the world would get my point when they see my course banner.
Five minutes of Googling led to another five, then an hour, and finally after three full hours of reading what I found about the owl as a symbol, I was discouraged. I lost my confidence in the power of my laptop, as well as my years of experience teaching while tethered to one particular context at a time. I sat there, face-in-palms, somewhat glad that I didn’t use a local metaphor to claim to convey a particular meaning universally. I was glad I knew how to Google.
...written for #MakeCycle 1, which is part of #clmooc, a connected learning course run by the National Writing Project ...
I grew up in a community where everyone built their own houses and live in one now where no one does. We just pay others for our residences, often until we die.
Luckily, though, I can make my own abode(s) in the digital world, as I am doing this week. I’m moving a blog from a free WordPress site (that had reached about 5000 views) to my own domain and site (where I only used to host a more static, hand-coded website that took forever to make any updates). It feels like I can now “work from home” in the digital world. I’m glad it’s easier to build our digital abodes today.
The idea of constructing, designing, and thinking analytically and rhetorically about one’s digital spaces goes deep into my teaching and scholarship as well. In one way or another, I help all my students to showcase their knowledge and skills, to connect to relevant communities beyond the class, and to contribute to the world of ideas–by making and maintaining their own personal and professional digital spaces.
While reading this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I thought about a similar number of things about MOOCs that many people in the media and the mainstream MOOCosphere seem either unable or unwilling to learn:
1. There is no such thing as MOOC, only many types of MOOCs, with many kinds of them making the original acronym sound very funny.
2. If “nearly half of registrants never engage with any of the content,” then it’s time to stop touting the “total number” of people who click on the “sign up” button.
3. If people signing up for multiple courses are most active, but even those lose interest after taking the sixth course, then there is probably something about online and massive courses that has failed to bring about magic solutions to the “crisis” in education.
4. Because the word “student” (especially in phrases like “students with a PhD”) sounds like saying “butterflies crawling on the ground,” it should be retired from being the default term in the world of online learning/teaching.
5. If MOOCs attract students who already have college degrees, are 24 or 40 years old, then we should probably tell Coursera and EdEx to “open your mouths, hahaha.” General education for the general mass may need to be “disrupted” in a different way. Leave it to those who’ve been working on it for centuries, Johnny! The harder you sell the snake oil of xMOOCs for general education, the more harm you might do to others’ children.
6. If one-third of MOOC (xMOOCs, that is) participants are from North-America, if “Africans enroll at twice the rate in social science courses than other courses,” if “South Asians are most likely to take engineering and computer science courses,” and if just over 10% of Chinese and Japanese participants even view courses in the humanities, then maybe there is something really important about CONTEXT, including language, culture, and local education system and practices that needs researchers’ attention.
7. That said, at some point, people must realize that some issues don’t lend themselves very well to “research” questions–especially to wrongheaded questions like these: “What are the motivations and goals of registrants? What kinds of content engage students the most?” What the hell will you do even if you find out all the motivations–because you’re still talking about “content” and not education?
8. Overall, if the majority of xMOOC participants are male, from a limited number of and privileged places, with high level of prior education, etc, then the computer scientists who seem to never look at education as a social cause should be told to shut the * up and start reading some literature on education as such.
Would love to hear what you think about the one-track-minded discourse that still dominates the MOOCosphere.
*video added later (couldn’t help it)
Technology doesn’t make people stupid. What makes them lose their senses is the itch to become the kind of “techno-magicians” who apparently don’t even Google a little about language acquisition before making big claims about how children learn language, who won’t involve those who practice and study teaching while coming up with grand ideas about “disruptive” change for entire systems of education, and who evidently don’t find it necessary to learn a little from research/scholarship on translation before making big claims or assumptions about the development of “Universal Translator.” Continue reading