On finding my voice (part 2) #rhizo14 autoethnography

I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room when I read Bali Maha’s reflections on oppression. Little did I know that reading it would enable me to connect the final dots in the big picture of my life, where I came from, who I’d come to be, what choices I’d made which had boiled down to the life I had, the relationships I nurtured, my dreams and desires.

The culture within which I was born is known for its machismo, and even though women in my country have been increasingly more active in society in general, occupying positions of power which in the past would exclusively be the realm of men, it was the cultural background against which women from my generation were raised and imbued with society’s expectations towards the possible social roles we were supposed to perform. I have, however, been lucky to have been born in a family who treasures the autonomy and freedom that can only be attained by getting an education. Being the oldest daughter of an economist dad and a pedagogue mom, it has always been a family value to pursue higher education, especially in a country where good opportunities only seem to come along to the rich elite and a portion of the struggling educated middle class, the latter being our case.

My parents made a point of buying me the best education they could. I went to the best private schools in my city and was even sent in an exchange program to the U.S. in my last year of secondary school, at the age of 16. I’d been an English learner for ten years at the time, and the year I spent with an American family in Aurora, Colorado enabled me to develop a well-above-average fluency in the language. Back in Brazil, my dad pushed me forward in my education, as I was obviously expected to pass my college entrance exam and stay in touch with the English language, which kept me quite busy for a year or so, until I finally began my years as an Anthropology undergrad at the University of Brasília. My dad had, nonetheless, been less than pleased by my academic career choice. Anthropology did not (and does not) rank among the highest paying careers, no matter how intellectually fascinating or personally fulfilling it may be.

That was when teaching chose me. I’d taken a teacher training course at a small English institute in Brasília, and by the end of the six-month training, I received word from my tutor that I was what they called “a natural-born teacher”, offering me a job as a substitute teacher. I was about to turn 21 years old and was more than happy to begin earning my own money, doing something that I really enjoyed: being with people, communicating and connecting, every day.  18 years later, I look back at my path and I feel I’ve been lucky in so many ways. I survived a broken home, with my parents’ divorce at the age of nine. Not that it didn’t take its toll on my future relationships, but I have become a stronger individual as a result of this and so many other hardships I’ve come up against in my life.

There I was, reading Maha’s instigating thoughts and questions on the subject of oppression. Something inside of me began boiling. It began to dawn on me that I, too, had been in so many ways oppressed. Oppressed by expectations, by the threat of failure in not being able to find a worthwhile career that would keep me from sharing the fate of the vast majority of the population of my country, with no opportunity, no future, no dignity. I had been very well educated alright. It had all been funneled down to me, and it had somehow sunk in and taken the shape of an education that worked at its ultimate purpose: getting me into a federal university, a luxury (still to this day) to a select few, to an intellectual elite, to the middle-class kids who were (and still are) pushed to make a career choice many a times too soon, one that they’d very likely not practice in their professional future, one that they’d probably just drop midway through college (those who were brave enough to stand up to the status quo, that is).

What emerged from within my deepest inner space was a realization that I had spent most of my life oppressed by other people’s curricula and agendas. I’d been oppressed to conform and fit in the mold that was made for kids with my cultural background and my social class. I had turned into a teacher in my own right, but how much of my teaching persona had also become a replication of what I had experienced as a learner during my school years? I had been questioning beliefs that I thought were so solid, principles so sound. I had been experimenting with my intellectual abilities via my own devices, and it had all been happening in connection with others. I had been allowed to revisit and revive that exhilarating feeling I had experienced when I first began teaching, a feeling that it was all worth it and that so much meaningful learning happens in becoming part of a network, a community, in connecting with others (and with otherness) regardless of your social class, your cultural background, your formal education.

Never before had I seen so great a part of the big picture of my life, of what it was, has been, and of what I truly want it to be from now on. I really might have been working my way around oppression, tolerating it, accepting it as the only viable pathway. It is as if I have been through the kind of consciousness shift that only a powerful education, aiming at freeing the individual and allowing him to (re)create his own reality, ultimately impacting the society in which he is inserted, making it fairer, more humane, is ever capable of fostering. I might have gained greater critical consciousness, in that I have found new perspectives, explored new perspectives, and all in my own terms, working with my own cosmology/context/history.

I have experienced an existential breakthrough. I have been deeply changed by the connections and exchanges that took place during rhizo14, and not only with others, but also via others and back to my own self, allowing otherness to reverberate within my ‘uniquely furnished room’ and checking to see what possible chords would spring up. I owe it to this network/community/connections/people. I deconstructed my oppressions, and never before have I been able to see inside myself with such clarity. Not that it has given me any promises of certainty – much to the contrary. I had never cherished the unknown. I had always been afraid of not knowing the answers when the time came for me to show that I did. Never before had it been so pleasurable to learn, and to stretch my intellectual (and even artistic?) legs.

I have finally owned my education. I have made it mine via the connections with other individuals who care about owning their education as much as myself, or even more. I have learned the meaning of agency. I have had an insight into what Paulo Freire advocates in Education and Change. That education is not a mere adaptation of the individual to society. That we must transform our reality to transcend. That domestication is the opposite of education, and that education is more authentic to the extent it entices our curiosity to learn, to create and recreate reality. The learners must be themselves.

My pedagogue mom’s words on what she believes to be the core of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy:

“O homem deve ser o sujeito de sua própria educação. Não pode ser objeto dela. Por isso, ninguém educa ninguém. O homem se educa em comunhão.”

“The individual must be the agent of his own education. He cannot be its object. That is why no one educates anyone. The individual learns/self-educates in communion.”


    1. I had a dream the other day where I was wandering the greenery of Brasília with a camera in my hand. I came across this beautiful vision of a group of people who looked like they were having a pic-nic or something. They were laughing and talking amidst this abundance of dandelion seeds. I mean, it was a lot of seeds, and they even made the air look milky white. I took a picture of that beautiful scenery. I remember the good feeling inside the moment I did.
      The seeds have been spread and are still spreading.
      Thank you, Dave.

    2. I was about to post a comment: I would love to see that photo – could you post it on facebook or twitter? 🙂 Or are the people identifiable? haha
      Then I realized it was all in a DREAM!
      Can you please send us a photo of your dream? :)))) how funny is that!!!

  1. So beautiful, Clarissa, as much of your writing usually is. Made me think of so many things. I had not thought deeply enough about the transformative potential (or at least, not in those terms) of our rhizo14 learning experience, amazing though it was/is. But now that you have articulated it as such, i realize that it was/is!
    I love the quote by your mom!

    1. Thank you, Maha, for your kind words. My mom is something else… I shall be coming back to her wisdom many other times here… Now, I should be the one thanking you, this time not for the inspiration you gave me with your writing, but for being restless and curious, like me. 😉

  2. OK, now I REALLY wish I had put other things aside and jumped into #rhizo14. Damn. Oh, well. I guess the party never ends, it just moves into another room. Maybe our paths will cross in the hallway. Until then, cheers!

  3. Clarissa, that is a very beautiful post – I get a real sense of your excitement in your transformed view of the world. Sometimes when I get downhearted by the difficulties of far-reaching transformation, I try to think what I can do. One of the really challenging things is to think of how we ourselves can (unintentionally) oppress others and ourselves, and also liberate ourselves and others. This relational view helps me to explain when I encounter misunderstanding or obstacles. Instead of being negative as it might seem, it can be empowering and help me to be kind to myself. Of course, the relational view works better when everyone joins in.

    1. Frances, thank you for this lovely comment.
      Oppression presupposes a power structure. Can the power play be done away with in relations? Might misunderstandings be seen as mess that we can`t seem to be able to control? I am reminded of another post I wrote on planned obsolescence… some reflections on power relations there. If you have a minute to spare, I invite you to read it so that we can engage in some cool discussion. 😉

  4. Thanks Clarissa – could you post a link to that post please? I am thinking that the ‘powerless’ position that we might experience as victims might be transformed by (simultaneously) as our response as victims and agents of change (in ourselves and others).

    1. Frances, you got me thinking about the state of naive consciousness, in that people may take the role of ‘victims’, incorporating the oppresssing/derrogatory speech of the oppressor. These ‘victims’ cannot ‘see’ beyond their own resignation (and so they may attribute their inferiority to God, for example, very common line you hear “God wanted it to be this way.”) You definitely have a strong point when you mention ‘our response’ either as ‘victims’ or ‘agents of change’. Awesome ideas in your comment. Thank you for sharing them here! Here’s the link to the post on obsolescence. I look forward to connecting with you again on this and many other subjects. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the link Clarissa – that was a lovely post on ceding power. I wanted to post a comment there but found myself unable to do so as it would have seemed negative in the sea of positive comments. Reading your posts and Keith’s http://idst-2215.blogspot.com.br/2014/02/coda-and-rhizo14.html about power, I wonder if there are people in rhizo14 who haven’t found it as joyful as others, and if so where are their voices? Even writing that I feel uncomfortable. There was an incident early on in rhizo14 that has troubled me ever since that I wrote about here http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/dimensions-of-power-knowledge-and-rhizomatic-thinking/ I leave rhizo14 wondering about what is NOT said more than I did in January.

    1. Frances, I read that post where you talk about the incident. I even wrote a post myself in which I mention uour post and link to it. I have recently seen a response to our autoethnography where Heli Nurmi shares her feelings of exclusion, and it appears she had a slightly diffetent experience herself. Hey, don’t be discouraged to “taint the sea of positive commentary”! By all means, I long for the dialog, always. 🙂

    2. Just commented on this point in Clarissa’s previous post! Yes – definitely think there are a variety of experiences of rhizo out there – it’s just we just don’t hear about them: these are likely the people who drop out, or perhaps don’t actively participate. Like any type of self report / evaluation activity, it tends to be skewed towards the positive. Would definitely be interesting to hear about these experiences.

      Exclusion is definitely a feature – of any environment, I think. Not often – probably never – intentional, more indirect. As Heli mentioned in her autoethnography, a result of not language barriers, or not belonging to the dominant culture. I even did feel a tinge of (indirect) exclusion from the FB group – only because I wasn’t there regularly and the closeness of the community after a while felt like a barrier. It’s all very subjective though…

    3. hey Tanya, I hear you. I also know sometimes we can look at our own actions and realize we excluded people without meaning to (for example, in my attempt to NOT exclude people who did not want to talk about theory, I felt like I had silenced those who DID want to talk about theory – just because the latter are more privileged does not mean they cannot do what they want and I spoke to some of them on the side about that).

      But about subjectiveness: all human experience is subjective, isn’t it? We cannot assume to understand another person’s experience better than they understand it, even if we believe their own understanding of it may be distorted for various reasons. And that’s why I am happy with the collaborative autoethnography approach – people can tell their own stories on their own terms; same with their blogs. How we end up piecing it all together is problematic because I don’t want as a researcher to “violate the integrity” of someone else’s story and at the same time I’m trying to make the story “legible” to reader. In all cases, I am also thinking of keeping the raw data in the document forever (if possible) to link to from whatever article we write out of it. Will need to discuss with contributors when the time comes

    4. Frances, now that I can type this in an actual computer (and not my phone), let me share with you the link to the post I wrote mentioning the incident and linked to your post. If I`m not mistaken, someone had suggested that people read D&G and it somehow offended someone else… Anyway, loving this discussion with you. Let me know what you think of it all? cheers!

    5. Great discussion (nice of Clarissa to advertise on twitter so others can be “included”). Tanya, yes, any expression of such a complex phenomenon will be partial – both biased and incomplete (i love this use of the term partial by Ellsworth 1989 and use it a lot).
      I think Clarissa is an interesing example of someone who joined late and was included BUT other ppl signed up late on p2pu and did not get included. All kinds of ppl i know f2f joined the fb group but none r really “in it”. So yeah… But maybe some of those people do not mean to get deeply involved and inclusion is not going to make them happy. I would be interested to see how newcomers like Mark McGuire who was on twitter with some of us but never formally on rhizo14 – how he fits in on facebook now that he has joined.
      Re the D&G thing, this is a long story that is not clear any more because some of the stuff that offended was on fb and some on blogs, and most of the offense was not intended (misunderstanding) and was later removed so that someone reading my blogpost about (body of knowledge or embodied knowledge) about it now would not understand what the heck happened. Buuuut i daresay that event ended up creating problems and some ppl disappeared or faded. So…

  6. One thing that occurs to me is that if ‘the community is the curriculum’ then inclusivity becomes a community not just an individual responsibility. Obviously people are free to come and go as they please but if the community, even unknowingly, edges out talk it doesn’t like then that curriculum is hidden.

  7. Maha – yes I was wondering about this autoethnography – and how it might be presented. Whatever is written or created about rhizo14 – or any complex,multidimensional experience like this – will only ever be a partial representation of the experience – we currently lack the tools – and even the mental capacity to understand and ‘see’ the full experience. I feel this even when trying to put together a storify of a tweet chat – the chat is not linear and ordered, it is messy and multidirectional – but we can only get a clear sense of it if we present it as a linear narrative, because we don’t quite have the capacity to grasp nonlinear, multidimentional conversations.

    The other thing I was thinking as I went through the ethnography contributions is that if you’ve got inclusion, exclusion necessarily also exists…..in the form of people you ‘don’t invite…

    1. Tanya, awesome thoughts here. I was left wondering after I read your words “we don’t quite have the capacity to grasp nonlinear, multidimentional conversations”. How do we make sense of the chaos, of the deluge of information? Is this capacity of grasping nonlinearity and multidimensionality a new literacy? (Rhizomatic literacy?) Are we cognitively unable to grasp complexity? Is complexity ‘ungraspable’?

  8. Hello Everyone, how do we avoid exclusion or maybe how do we encourage a sense of belonging? I notice that people sometimes leave conversations that have inadvertently hurt them and with the trust gone, no “fixing” can be done. The voice to speak of what hurts is difficult to acquire because the listener needs to be prepared to be just as vulnerable.

    Thanks for the great conversation here.

    Anaïs Nin on Real Love, Illustrated by Debbie Millman
    by Maria Popova
    “Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”

    1. @scottx5 – how do we avoid exclusion? that’s a massive question? when we can ‘find something in common’ the whole online communication becomes much easier, as we focus our dialogue around that which we have in common. However that can just lead to the ‘Balkanisation of the Internet’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splinternet A community that recognises its diversity is very unlikely to have grand aspirations for a sort of belonging that requires love for each other. On a project I worked on in 2003-2005, some of us looked at the UNESCO Principles of Tolerance as a starting point (on the basis that multi-cultural work had been invested in them) but became aware that even these principles were a step too far for some of our project partners.
      I just picked out this quote from the excellent site at http://www.unesco.org/webworld/peace_library/UNESCO/HRIGHTS/124-129.HTM

      ” Education for tolerance should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others, and should help young people to develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.”

      I wonder if the amenability of a community to independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning would be a good benchmark of its robustness and openness.

    2. Good point about commonalities Frances. Just being agreeable or sharing common interests doesn’t renew us or allow any growth. I know a person that I’m in constant conflict with myself over our acquaintance. First, she’s someone who helped me recover myself from bad illness and by weird coincidence became my boss and then fired me from a job I really needed.

      I would never choose a situation like this and the “compromise” of not being in control of my ability to DECIDE drives me nuts. It’s an acceptance that’s imperfect and maybe an admission that things not entirely in my control. It might be that what we have to do to be 100% intact as humans is too rigid? Forgiveness is like that, allowing someone in when you really feel like punching them in the nose. Or worse, judging yourself as “weak” for letting the hurt go (it doesn’t really work that way though).

      I’ll check the UNESCO site Frances, thanks.

    3. Hey afrances and Scott, this is a really amazing thread! I studied intercultural learning a bit in my research on critical thinking and concluded several things: critical thinking is needed to help a person interact interculturally in a mature way (there are several models intercultural maturity and sensitivity put there) AND paradoxically, intercultural interaction itself helpd develop a person’s critical thinking, HOWEVER, critical thinkng as understood in the traditional North American sense implies a strong preference for “skepticism”, when the ability to get to know someone from another culture requires a different knd of openness that enables one to first try to understand things from that person’s world view empathetically, what Martha Nussbaum calls “narrative imagination'”, Edward Said calls “philological hermeneutics” and the book Women’s Ways of Knowing calls “connected knowing” (am working on this part a lot, and threw all three references out there in case anyone knew any of them).
      Of course, empathy towards someone you barely know is hard. How could u really understand the subtleties behind the text? It depends on writijg and reading skill, right?

    4. Scott, I’m also wondering about that… The moment you make a choice, it means other choices were left unmade. Vulnerability is definitely something to think about more deeply… Thanks for this.

  9. @Scott – I developed a little mantra here on #rhizo14 “Listen: be kind and tough and ready to admit when I have made a mistake”. Online communication with people who are different from us is hard work, I think, if we are to achieve genuine dialogue where each of us enters with the possibility of changing what we think (even a little).
    @Maha I love Belenky’s women’s Ways of Knowing and thought about it a lot when I was reading what DL & G had to say about ‘different knowledges’. The cultural heritage of the early Internet was that of the vast majority of its users and creators – white middle class males: its freedom was their freedom. Traces of this can still be seen when women like Mary Beard (an academic in the UK) are vilified online for being a woman with grey hair who dares to speak in public http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/26/mary-beard-question-time-internet-trolls
    In countries where Internet penetration is very high, women’s Internet usage approaches men’s. However that doesn’t mean their voices are heard to the same extent in public discourse. I would love to think that education could help to change that.

    1. Francis and Maha, interesting things here that I need to think about. I should check “Women’s Way of Knowing.” In spite of having worked in the (former) male world of construction trades I’ve found I trust women more. My first heart failure was caught by my female cardiologist. Second time I’d been going to emergency for 5 weeks seeing 5 different male doctors and one male surgical specialist. Without checking my records (or noticing the huge scar on my chest) they diagnosed gall bladder problems and put me in the hospital just long enough to develop a case of c-difficile. When I finally got in to see my regular doctor she listened to my heart and had me on an ambulance in about an hour.

      Since then I’ve heard a lot of excuses for the other doctors but I know the “type” and guarantee they’ve learned nothing from this and people like that I now avoid. Not so much that they made a mistake but because their egos block their ability to “hear” the patient. So as a cultural bias I’ll say young male rural doctors are off the list for empathy disorders.

      The idea of “narrative imagination” sounds interesting too. I grew up in a middle class home but we were surrounded by different cultures and learned to accept people as different. It was fine that they were different and didn’t really need to by “accommodated” or understood in any way different than being themselves. And I’m not perfect, where I live now is a very conservative place and most the people I encounter aren’t “different”, they’re just red-necks and seem incomplete–as if they were working from a manual on human behaviour that was missing a lot of pages.

      Wonder if there’s a universal understanding that some people have and others don’t. I seem to have an ear for pretense and the in-genuine but also know that people present ideal models of themselves at first contact–except in cMOOCs–and I need to be patient and not underestimate.

      A while back I read some material on the purpose of the imagination, especially in children’s early development and that started me thinks about falsehoods. Not in identifying deliberate lies but more an approach to being able to tell what is and what isn’t. Harming, or underestimating people is an untruth. All the women in my family are way smarter than the world allows them to be and that’s a wasteful falsehood.

    2. Frances, thank you for sharing the story of Mary Beard. I was not familiar with it. Listen, let me ask you a candid question? How would you suggest I go about the reading of DL&G? I’ve tried wrapping by brain around A Thousand Plateaus a couple of times but to no avail. Would you say it’s the kind of text that might be tackled by some previous readings, and if so, which ones would you suggest? I’m fascinated by how so many ideas/concepts spun from those guys’ work.

  10. You asked me to talk about legibility, but I think I will start with sharing a video on Trust by Ze Frank and Cirque de Soleil: http://youtu.be/cWypWe9UAhQ

    I think that this video takes legibility in a different direction. I love what Frank says in the end of this YouTube that fits so much like the performers in the video, so much with what we all reached for inchoate and sort of lost in #rhizo14, “Who do you trust and how do you grow it?”

    More in a bit. Your post feels like a backpack full of favorites and fineries, some to eat and some to linger with, some to use as tools for the world’s work and some to wonder at. More in a bit.

  11. Clarissa, vulnerability is probably not something I should prescribe to women:-) It’s something that’s played on women in a lot of (well all) cultures and not a choice. The concept of grace in allowing us to let go of our assumptions might be more useful. Like the saying at the top of Jaaps blog about striving not to be the knower and stand back from intruding yourself.

    And then there are times…When my wife and I complained about the school cutting a program for exceptional children our younger daughter benefited from we were told to be grateful she was so gifted. I think they expected us to feel guilty except we didn’t and pointed out that they also were cutting programs to struggling students who happened to be getting peer tutoring from the exceptional ones. It seemed like the whole decision was to celebrate a kind of mythical sameness that cheated everyone in the name of equality.

    Maybe graceful fits the strong person you are better?

    1. Scott, upon re-reading your comments on the thread, a connection jumped out of the screen for me. Might vulnerability be more like a heightened awareness of one’s ego and how it can get in the way of true/deep connection, be it online or off?
      Maha, awesome thoughts on intercultural learning and how it fosters critical thinking. The concept of ‘cultural shock’ or ‘friction’ definitely points to the direction of an ego-softening process for me. Now, that concept of legibility…wow. Thank you for sharing that amazing blogpost. I am looking forward to listening to Terry’s further thoughts and meanders on this.
      Terry, absolutely astonishing video… exquisite food for the mind and soul.

    2. Clarissa, Awareness of how we protect ourselves is really important. Not all situations require a full suit of armor (sounds like amour?). It isn’t useful to close people out, even sometimes if they are “dangerous,” the injury to one’s pride is more valuable than safety. Safety can be a barrier and the unfamiliarity of other cultures can sneak around that barrier. Alternately, we do need boundaries and things we won’t accept–like oppression of ourselves or others.

      When I was younger things were clearer. Contradictions were not allowed because they spoiled my carefully constructed world and seemed like giving into a life of silly carelessness. A friend wrote poem for a sculpture he did called “The Iceman is Cooler then He Wants to Be.” Don’t remember the poem itself but we did have a mutual friend who was torn to pieces by his own identity and couldn’t allow himself permission to let go.

  12. Wow, what a great post and what a wonderful conversation.

    I’m not a woman, but I’ve got the feeling that many women can connect to your post very much.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    ¡Machismo, no más!

  13. WOW. I go away for a couple of days and come back to incredible threads of insight, stories, links & zeega! Thanks so much for an amazing conversation. Look forward to spending some time here, poring over these comments.

  14. Clarissa what a deeply moving and substantial piece. You have given words to a feeling that I have only peripherally examined. I am in awe of your bravery and words. I will continue to reflect on and mull over as I would a significant book or piece of art. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Thanks, Clarissa. This is a beautiful post. It captures for me the visceral impact of an online community that fosters real growth in people. I think that all those detractors of online learning need to attend a #rhizo14 to see what education can be. It can’t be said any better than this.

    1. Keith, thank you for being in the audience. Learning is, for me, a very upclose and personal affair… and, yes, this has definitely been a deeply-felt experience. In fact, so much so, that I felt the need to share my life story with the people (you being one of them) who have contributed to making this experience of mine into something so valuable, something which ignites and fuels the process of self-transformation.

  16. Good day! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post
    reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.

    I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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