Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Reading :: Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy

Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy

By Eugene Matusov

For research purposes, I'm not especially interested in pedagogy. But I am interested in dialogism, and Matusov has been considering dialogism from the cultural-historical perspective for a long time—specifically its relationship with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics. So I picked up this book and was not disappointed. Although it is rough around the edges in places (it could have used a bit more editing), the book considers dialogism from a really useful angle. 

The resulting review will be a bit self-serving, focusing more on my concerns than Matusov's. If your concerns are closer to his (that is, if you're focused on pedagogy), I encourage you to pick up the book yourself. It should be well worth it! But given my more selfish aims, I'll mainly focus on the relationship between dialogicality and monologicality, terms that are based in Bakhtin.

Matusov gets at this relationship in Ch.2, where he reviews Socratic dialogic pedagogy. He notes that many commentators have focused on the dialectical aspects of these dialogues, and agrees that "Socratic dialogic pedagogy involves a focus on questioning contradictions" in others' thinking — but this is dialectic in the Socratic sense, not in the Hegelian or Marxist sense, which "involves analysis of mutually constituting oppositions" (p.19). Rather, "Socratic dialogic pedagogy is based on internally persuasive discourse and involves transformation of the student's subjectivity or the student's 'ideological becoming'" (p.19; the internal quotes refer to Bakhtin). He argues that Socrates was pedagogically a "radical constructivist," although epistemologically he was a "radical anti-constructivist" (p.21). Matusov conducts a content analysis of the Meno to demonstrate.

In Ch.4, Matusov turns to Paulo Freire's dialogic pedagogy—a pedagogy with which Matusov was initially infatuated, but later connected with totalitarianism. Matusov really lets Freire have it: He charges that "Freire personally participated in two totalitarian communist regimes in Africa: in Guinea-Bissau and in Sao Tome and Principe in the mid 1970s ... For some strange reason, neither he nor his dialogic critical pedagogy for liberation registered the totalitarian oppression happening in those African countries as recorded by human rights organizations at that time that Freire worked there. ... Freire's own texts about his work ... suggest ... that he and his dialogic critical pedagogy willingly and, arguably, uncritically, participated in the political propaganda campaigns of these totalitarian communist regimes" (p.74). Matusov has the receipts and displays them throughout the chapter.

I've heard that a cynic is a disappointed idealist, and Matusov appears to be a cynic when it comes to Freire: he was initially taken by Freire's dialogic pedagogy, but realized that "Freire did not develop a pedagogical argument for the need of dialogue in education" (p.79). "According to Freire, the regime of dialogue requires love and the equality of free people searching for truth. Truth emerges as a consensus among free participants in a dialogue, 'dialogical people,' that is tested by their actions. Dialogical people cannot impose truth on each other neither by epistemological authority ... nor by force ... but only through critical dialogue tested by the participants' actions" (p.81). So, for Freire, "Dialogue as a meaning making process is also a process of humanizing the world and, thus, themselves" (p.81). 

Matusov takes issue with this characterization: "Like many scholars rooted in Hegel and Marx, Freire seemed to prioritize consensus over disagreement in a dialogue. ... In dialogue, people become complete. It is 'bigger' than its participants are. ... One can speak monologically on behalf of the Dialogue" (p.82). Matusov points to a footnote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.74) in which Freire approvingly quotes Chairman Mao as saying "we must teach the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly"; Matusov comments: "This totalitarian circular reasoning claims a communist monopoly on truth" and adds, "Freire did not recognize this monologic trick but instead enthusiastically but, uncritically, accepted Mao Tse-Tung's propaganda statement" (p.82). 

Matusov later argues that "Freire's version of dialogic pedagogy can be characterized as cultural-dialogical because he believed that knowledge emerged dialogically but exists in culture (e.g., artifacts and historically established consensuses). Thus, Freire's approach can be characterized still as instrumental, Freire's own insistence to the contrary" (p.92). 

This brings us back to Matusov's case against Freire in Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome. Ruthlessly, Matusov argues that the texts that Freire prepared for teachers in these countries were "classical totalitarian texts" (p.98, his emphasis), all bearing "the same birthmarks of totalitarianism," "including cult of personality" (p.98), "authoritarian argumentation," "propaganda of the official Party line," "full loyalty and conformity to the regime," "lack or suppression of critical stand toward the regime" (p.99), "disregard to human suffering from the hands of 'liberators,'" "circular reasoning of self-righteousness," and "totalitarian ideology" (p.100; he supplies examples for all of these claims). Matusov notes that Freire wrote all of these texts from outside the regimes, so they cannot be explained by fear or material gain; "Freire's production of totalitarian texts was obviously intrinsic" (p.100). After examining one text closely, he adds: "Notice please that all statements in Freire's curriculum texts are given in a form of commands" (p.102—so much for internally persuasive dialogue). Matusov closes the chapter with an unequivocal condemnation of "totalitarian socialist regimes" and "a high majority of the radical left [which] has remained silent" rather than criticizing such regimes (p.105). (Matusov is not positioning himself as a member of the right here; he espouses social justice as well as conventional left positions, both here and throughout the book.) Ultimately, he concludes, Freire's liberation pedagogy was "too monologic" both in concept and in practice, prioritizing Freire's idea of social justice over "searching for truth" (p.109).

In Ch.5, Matusov returns to more pleasant topics, specifically Bakhtin on polysemy, dialogue, and monologue. He argues that there are three "vistas" on dialogue and monologue in Bakhtin: oppositional, complementary, and excesses. 

  • Oppositional relations between the two are best known to educators, but focusing just on oppositional relations inevitably leads to monologue! (p.112)
  • Complementary relations lead us to the concept of "voice," which Matusov argues is an alternative to Western "identity." "Any voice is characterized by a certain degree and quality of dialogicality and monologicality reflecting both centrifugal and centripetal forces of human consciousness and human community" (p.112).
  • Excesses in both monologism and dialogism are "associated with stable breakdowns in a community that are often politically grounded in social classes" (p.112).
Examining a classroom incident, Matusov argues that "meaning is never generated but emerges on boundaries" (p.120). Furthermore, "In excessive dialogism, a unified, solidified, respected, pacified world is impossible because there is no a [sic] community that backs up the individual" (p.133). Matusov notes that one of Bakhtin's examples of excessive monologism is schooling (p.139), and he adds that "excessive monologism accepts only one consciousness — the consciousness of an authority or a tradition" (p.140). In dialogism, "truth is not the product of this dialogic process, but it is the process itself" (p.141). 

Skipping way ahead, in Ch.12, Matusov considers dialogue and activity—specifically activity as articulated in activity theory. He argues that "there seems to be some kind of tension between the notions of learning and dialogue, on the one hand, and the notion of activity, on the other." He argues that "activity is responsible for the monologicity aspect of discourse" because "joint collective activity is about accomplishing something" and 

the subject of such an activity is a unified, shared, common understanding — one consciousness, as Bakhtin would say. A joint activity becomes problematic when shared understanding is not achieved, partially achieved, or achieved about wrong things. Although heteroglossia can be viewed as a productive force in the activity at its initial and intermediary stages, at the final phase, it has to be eliminated. From this point of view, activity is essentially anti-dialogue (anti-heteroglossic). However, as Bakhtin showed, this unifying, centripetal force is an important aspect of any discourse defining one's voice, the recognized unity of consciousness. The problem starts when the other complementary and necessary aspect of discourse—namely dialogicity—is either ignored or attempted to actively exclude from the analysis (and design) or eliminate from the discourse, when a voice becomes the voice. In the latter case, there becomes a tendency to establish a regime of excessive monologism. (p.383)

Matusov outlines three principles of the activity approach:

  1. Activity is defined by mediation;
  2. Human social and psychological phenomena is [sic] shaped by the humans' participation in the activities, practices, and institutions; and 
  3. Activities transform and develop through dialectical contradictions. (p.383)
Getting personal, Matusov discusses studying psychology in the 1970s and 1980s from Davydov and colleagues and being attracted by the activity approach (p.384). But this attraction was disrupted as he read Bakhtin and realized that "Bakhtin saw Hegelian dialectics as some kind of deception" (p.385). Recalling a seminar that he arranged as a young scholar, Matusov quotes Soviet philosopher Anatoly Arsen'ev as saying that "Bakhtin realized on the ethical grounds that Hegel and the activity approach in its logical conclusion lead [sic] to totalitarianism and genocide of any dissent" (p.385). Matusov was shocked, but "Later, I realized that the activity approach focuses on the monologicality aspect of discourse and indeed if it is pushed too far leads to excessive monologism as it happened with Marxism" (p.385). Yet

Monologicity has to be appreciated and recognized as an important and necessary aspect of discourse. For example, although Bakhtin criticized dialectics in many of his writings, he also acknowledged that dialectics can produce "a higher level dialogue," "dialectics was born of dialogue so as to return again to dialogue at a much higher level (a dialogue of personalities) (Bakhtin et al., 1986, p.162). Activity approach has to be complemented by focus on dialogicity (Engestrom et al., 1999). (p.385)

He argues:

The activity approach has rarely considered these types of byproduct-oriented activity processes. I propose, at risk of being severely criticized by my colleagues, that activity approach mostly focus [sic] on re-productive activities, in which the issue of "how" (to achieve something known) is more important to participants than "why" and "what" (they try to do what they do). In contrast, creatively productive activities develop a new product. (p.386)

Later, he states: "Dialogic opposition involves an irresolvable confrontation of person-ideas" (p.403)—and it is this irresolvability that distinguishes it from dialectic (my observation, not Matusov's). He concludes the chapter by approving of Engestrom's (1999) "call for focusing Activity Theory on dialogic aspects of activity" and arguing for viewing teaching as a special activity (p.414).

There is more, much more, to this 428-page book. But I'll leave it there. Overall, I found this book to be very helpful, especially as I consider the relationship between dialectics and dialogics in activity theory. If you're interested in that—or if you're interested in the actual subject of the book, dialogical pedagogy (!)— check it out.

Reading :: Global Social Media Design

Global Social Media Design
By Huatong Sun

This isn't the first time I have read this book—I blurbed it!—but I picked it up a second time recently as I was working through a problem in my current manuscript, and was struck again by how insightful and timely it is. Here, Sun extends the CLUE framework from her first book into the CLUE2 framework, focusing on culturally localized user experience and empowerment. How can we better understand designed interfaces as they are deployed, received, and used across cultures? 

Specifically, she examines the design of social media across different cultures (including the US, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea), combining macro-level literature review and historical analysis of interfaces with micro-level case studies of users. To interpret these case studies, she draws on practice theory, dialogism, and postcolonial and decolonialist theory as they have been deployed in rhetoric, professional communication, CSCW, HCI, anthropology, and many other fields and disciplines. 

Along the way, Sun provides a wide-ranging review of applicable thought and lots of measured discussion of her own theoretical and methodological journey. For instance, in Ch.2, she notes that cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) seems instrumental because it lacks a political edge (p.50) and broadens her scope to practice theory and dialogism. In Ch.3, she focuses on difference in cross-cultural design, specifically "the differences that emerge from various categorical classifications such as ethnicity, race, age, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and ability" manifesting as "ways of life" (pp.56-57). She asks four questions: 

First, how does difference come into being? Second, what is the nature of difference ontologically? Third, how should we treat the difference methodologically and practically? Fourth, as designers, how can we turn differences into design resources? And how should we design with, across, and for cultural differences? (pp.57-58)

She methodically works through these questions, drawing on a broad set of literature to provide a coherent framework that underpins the case chapters.

The case chapters start with Ch.4, examining Facebook Japan—a story of initial traction followed by Facebook slumping against localized competitors such as LINE. As she notes, "the Facebook Japan case is one of the many examples that static meanings out of context are often transferred through cross-cultural design, neglecting local cultural preferences and use habits" (p.97). Specifically, FB Japan promoted "a hegemonic Eurocentric worldview (i.e., a Western model of networked sociality) and such a static meaning is complicated by the ideology of postcolonial conditions" (p.97). For instance, FB Japan followed American ideas of networked sociality by insisting on "a real name" (p.90), while "Japanese users like to keep a high level of anonymity for their profiles" in keeping with the Japanese values of "group consensus and harmony—affiliation" (p.91). To examine this conflict, Sun discusses affordances—not as static properties, but as "dialogic discursive relations" (p.103).

This framing brings us to the second case in Ch.5: Weibo of China. Weibo is a microblogging platform that was once described as the "Twitter of China" (p.137). But in its uptakes—that is, in taking up the genre of microblogging and accumulating localized practices—Weibo applied hybridization and reinvention strategies "to make contingent alliances and highlight the connections necessary to acquire agency for culturally sustaining designs" (p.137). As Sun argues, hybridization ("the cultural logic of globalization (Kraidy, 2005)" p.138) connects "concrete local experiences" with "general and abstract global processes," p.138). "It is through hybridization that heterogeneous elements and processes are linked from structures of hierarchy and networks," she adds, likening it to splicing (p.138). Reinvention involves "copycats" duplicating features (for instance, after Yik Yak became popular with US high school students, Jodel was released and became popular in some European markets; p.141). But reinvention involves uptake: "An uptake is formed through a process of hybridization as a form of localized reinvention" (p.142). In Weibo's case, 

local variations—uptakes—form an open, globally networked assemblage with dialogic relations flowing through the elements: Local uptakes share similar technological affordances and generic features; the technological affordances evolve all the time to account for the ongoing structuration; and a successful use for a particular task in one locale—the successful response to one situation—is expected to be reproduced in another locale (e.g., embedding rich-media content in the timeline of a microblogging service). Furthermore, an assemblage does not necessarily have a hierarchical structure or a center as a system, owing to the complex interactions between entities and their constant movement and flows in the contemporary condition. Therefore, a globally diffusing technology such as Twitter could be regarded as both the core technology, for those inspired by it, and an uptake, for those it was inspired by, in a global context. (p.143)

 In Ch.6, Sun examines a "war of social messaging platforms," including WeChat (China), LINE (Japan), and KakaoTalk (South Korea)—all messaging systems that resided on her friend's phone (p.147). She adds WhatsApp (USA) and applies "a relational view of design to explore how the material and the discursive are fused to articulate for culturally sustaining value propositions and global modalities" (p.148). To examine these, she oscillates between macro-level data such as number of users over time (p.150) and micro-level case studies of specific users in Japan, South Korea, China, the United States, and Germany (p.157). Using genre, she analyzes how discursive affordances are articulated as culturally sustaining value propositions (p.158), examining them in terms of design, innovation, and cultural consumption. Among other things, she notes that global mobilities—one example is that of a Hong Kong student studying in the US—shape "people's use of social messaging apps" and demonstrate "how hybrid and global a participant's experience was" (p.178). 

Based on these cases, Sun argues in Ch.7 that we turn the notion of a "design crossroads" into a "design square" with global interconnectedness (pp.190-191; she connects this notion to the 2 or "squared" in CLUE2). That is, she argues for a relational view of design that puts social practice at the center (p.192). 

In my blurb on the back of this book, I enthuse: "The design insights are eye-opening—and deeply needed as we design information and interactions for a global world." Still true! I'll come back to this book over and over—for my current manuscript, for thinking about genre and dialogism in the design space, for cites to sources on decolonialist design approaches, and for teaching my graduate and undergraduate students. 

Should you pick up a copy? Of course! Especially if you are involved in the social media or information design space. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Reading :: Down to Earth

Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
By Bruno Latour

Latour published two books in English in 2018, both focused on the question of climate. This one is the thinner, and I think it’s also more oriented to casual readers. It aims to answer the question: How did we get to this point, at which ecological degradation is increasingly obvious, yet steadfastly denied? Latour argues -- and here I consult the summary on the back of the book -- that powerful people have concluded that our ecology is really threatened and that they can survive only by abandoning the dream of a common future with others. Exploding inequalities, massive deregulation, and globalization are the result. As an antidote, Latour argues that we must reposition politics to lead us not toward the global or the national, but toward the Earth.

Latour connects these three phenomena -- deregulation, increasing inequity, and climate change denial -- and argues that “the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there will be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible -- hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of guilded fortress is to be built for those (a small percentage) who would be able to make it through -- hence the explosion of inequalities; and they have decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world, they would have to reject absolutely the threat at the origin of this headlong flight -- hence the denial of climate change” (pp.18-19). He acknowledges that this looks “too much like a conspiracy theory” (p.21), yet can be documented.

In any case, he argues that “the issue of climate-change denial organizes all politics at the present time” (p.24) and adds that “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world … Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice” (p.25). 

To sketch out this controversy, he uses a simplified diagram similar to those he’s used elsewhere, arguing that we are dealing with “attractors”: the local opposed to the global, and at right angles to that axis, the out-of-this-world attractor of Trumpism (rejecting the world, returning to an imagined past) opposed to the terrestrial (i.e., “down to Earth”). Each attractor makes it appear as if time is flowing in its direction. 

Latour sees Europe as having started the trend of ecological degradation and, more generally, the orientation toward the global (p.102), yet it also has the ability to lead de-globalization -- since the US obviously won’t.

What to make of all this? Many commentators have argued that Latour oscillates between two irreconcilable positions: crude Machiavellianism, in which a few powerful interests pull the strings, and radical symmetry, in which every actant in the network has agency. I’ve largely dismissed this claim of irreconcilability, arguing that for Latour, a more sophisticated Machiavellianism applies for every actor. But here, Latour seems to be confirming his critics. Our poor reaction to climate change is due to a conspiracy of the elites (crude Machiavellianism) -- and at the same time our reckoning is coming because the terrestrial is also an actor (radical symmetry). This is a great story, since it allows us to place the blame on a few people we don’t much like anyway, rather than acknowledging our own roles -- our “shared practice” -- in practices that are leading to our mutual detriment. It’s much easier to revile than to repent!

But ultimately, I was underwhelmed by this analysis. It’s too neat, too simple, and too dependent on the abstract actors that Latour used in We Have Never been Modern. I don’t see it moving the ball on climate change discourse or even the analysis of it. For that reason, unless you’re a Latour completist, I think you could skip this book and instead read Facing Gaia, the more scholarly one that he put out at the same time -- the book that I will review next.