Why blogging is important: an interview with Dr Carol Azumah Dennis (Episode 10)

 

Dr Azumah is a Lecturer in Education at the Open University in London. She is an external examiner for Canterbury Christchurch, Birmingham, Sheffield and Brunel University, reviewing various programmes including teacher education and PhD theses.

Her research has focussed on conceptions of quality, adult literacies and the links between policy and professionalization of post 16 teachers. She has also researched in areas of discourses surrounding adult literacy teaching, learning and practices. Her work is located within the research, policy and practice nexus.

Blog refers to both an artefact and a practice. As an artefact, a blog (short for web log) is a frequently updated personal online space. As a practice, to blog is to publish a series of posts for others to read, comment upon, establish a hyperlinked connection to and from, or otherwise engage with.

Transcript

EduSounds: Today, I will be interviewing Dr. Carol Azumah Dennis of the University of Hull (she has since moved to Open University in London). Hello
Dr. Carol: Hi Abdul, How are you?

EduSounds: Fine and you?
Dr. Carol: I’m okay. So you’ve introduced me as Dr. Carol Azumah Dennis. I should just let you know something about who I am. Actually, I’m just about to change jobs but for now I’m working as a lecturer in education. I’m the program director for postgraduate taught programs which basically means I’m program director for the master’s program at the University of Hull and the area that I write and research about is post-16 education, I am particularly interested in policy and how policy impacts practitioners, teachers, managers, leaders, college principals, students. And yes I suppose I have an interest in power, pedagogy and discourse, and how these things contribute to culture formation; about social change, resistance, equity and inclusion. So, very broadly those are the kinds of things that I tend to write and talk about.

Public pedagogy refers to – spaces, sites and languages of education and learning that exist outside of the institution of schools, colleges or universities.

EduSounds: Interesting, I will like us to talk about your 2015 publication on blogging as public pedagogy
Dr. Carol: …Perhaps to position it well I’ll give the paper its proper title, which is full title rather, rather than the short and friendly version that you gave it. It’s “Blogging as public pedagogy – creating alternative educational futures” and you can see within that title the kinds of things which interest me, which is about resistance and which is about change and which is about how practitioners, teachers, managers, students those of us working in this area can bring about the kind of changes we want to see and looking at, particularly within this paper to particular blogging spaces and I argue that these blogging spaces contribute to the creation of alternative educational features.

EduSounds: It is interesting to me that you talk about blogging with respect to public pedagogy, but Henry Giroux in 2004 talked about public pedagogy in terms of physical structures like universities, places of work and things like that.
Dr. Carol: Yes of course, and who am I to say anything other than to be in total agreement with Henry Giroux, but I must say that I think in part, the notion of public pedagogy that I work with is one that almost stands as a critique of Henry Giroux. I mean, I’m a great admirer of his work, as you know as somebody who started on the academic road, his writing is one of the writers that I read and I love the passion that he puts into his writing and find him a really inspirational thinker but years later, this particular text was published which I draw on quite a lot in this research if I can find them, Sandlin, That’s right, Sandlin and O’Malley and Burdick and they wrote quite a comprehensive book actually which is around defining and exploring public pedagogy. In fact, what I have quoted of their work, is just a small paper, a research paper that they wrote. They actually wrote quite a comprehensive text, which is made up of a number of different chapters of contributions, all thinking about this issue of public pedagogy and in part, they are critical in that text of Henry Giroux that they suggest that Henry Giroux’s notion of public pedagogy aid changes, which is fine! You know we do that, we work with a concept in one way at one moment and then you wanted to do some other work another moment. So the concept has to be changed and tweaked in order to enable you to get the insight and analysis that you need but actually they are critical of his notion of public pedagogy, because they say that it’s so broad, it’s so wide, it’s so effusive that it kind of manages to capture everything and nothing.
So, actually he talks about it in-concrete structures but he also talks about it in terms of mass media or press in terms of Hollywood, in terms of newspapers, in terms of a way in which the public is taught certain things about themselves and about the world, in such a way that they lose their critical faculties. I think when he refers to public pedagogy, It’s something in such lines that he talks about it. Whereas, they’re actually reclaiming the the notion and they’re trying to sharpen it and they’re trying to make it more restrictive and more specific and easier to grapple with. Though, this is a phrase, and am afraid this is what academics do, spend a lot of time discussing, arguing over particular concepts and ideas and developing those ideas and working out what is it you want this idea to do?
What does it help you to get out? What does it help you to frame? And then you develop your your concept accordingly. So, I do work with this notion of public pedagogy in a way that’s slightly different or very different to what Henry Giroux was doing with that idea and I work with it really and I define it in the paper, as a kind of a pedagogy that’s intentional. These are, in these two blogging spaces, the two blogging spaces that I work with are led primarily by two women, both of those women are deliberately intending to teach, so it’s pedagogic but it’s a pedagogy that takes place in the public and it’s teaching anybody who chooses to participate in the space. So it’s a kind of pedagogy that takes place within/through the public, so it’s not defined, it’s not restricted to an institution particularly, though, it can have an institutional frame around it and it’s intentional, it’s not just a by product of a range of other issues but the intention of these spaces is pedagogic; it is to teach.

EduSounds: Let’s bring in Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, how would you situate that in this kind of situation?
Dr Carol: Well, I mean we are all friends you know, we are all working in a very similar terrain with a very similar set of interests and yes, I would put myself within that critical pedagogy frame which again means that it’s impossible to be within this terrain and not draw substantial inspiration from the work of Paulo Freire but again Paulo Freire was talking about teaching particular communities and he was talking… if you like I think possibly in a more instant, with a clear institutional frame about them as a teacher and he was talking about a way of teaching in which you recognize that the social and the political circumstances that you’re both within and you attempt to teach in such a way that you teach an understanding of what those circumstances are and how those circumstances can be changed.
I’m actually really using this notion of public pedagogy to define what I think that these two particular people and the people that coalesce around them are doing in these spaces. That part of what this paper came from was a kind of an anxiety I think that people tend to or it’s easy to look at blogging spaces as quite trivial spaces, that you know people talk about cooking and hair and makeup and that kind of stuff and I don’t have any problem with those kind of blogging spaces. I think those are interesting, valuable, worthwhile spaces and they’re public and they’re pedagogic in themselves but I wanted to say it also point out that these spaces aren’t just trivial, light hearted spaces but there’s actually quite serious work that goes on within them and I wanted to look at these two spaces as examples and say well, what’s going on here? And my argument is that, part of what’s going on here is the creation of an alternative features; alternative educational features is part of what’s happening in these places.

EduSounds: …but there’s the problem of validation. For instance, is it Kate’s blog, she is a feminist but she has retired and she worked for 25 years, but then, she rarely talked about her classroom practice directly in that sense from what I could deduce.
Dr. Carol: Okay, that’s interesting. I think to be fair it’s Kate, I can mention her name because, although when I did the work I originally sent it off to a publication as an anonymous… to anonymous spaces but they were so easily identifiable that in the end, I had to write to Kate and I had to write to Ann Walker who’s the director of the Workers’ Educational Association in the U.K.
So, Kate, she’s a literacy tutor and she’s as you say she’s in the process of retiring and I think and I quite found this quite an intriguing strap line that, the purpose of her blog was to pass on everything that she knew about teaching adult literacy before her retirement or in the event of her retirement and she’s a phenomenal blog writer, I don’t quite know where this energy comes from because you know for the past X-number of years she’s written a blog post at least every week sometimes more than that and it’s quite phenomenal that somebody has the energy to do that and they’re all interesting, big blogs, small blogs, big issues, minor issues etc. She does actually talk about her classroom practice but what I did, is I simply went through and using the traces which were publicly left on the blogs; the likes, the read, the re-postings, the comments, the engagements you know, the Facebook likes, the Twitter likes etc. I came up with the 20 most popular posts and so, although, this is a blog about her teaching, actually the most popular posts were the ones that I chose to analyze. There was simply too much for me to feel I could do this justice you know, to the whole lot of it justice and the way I work, I wanted insight and I wanted depth rather than breadth of coverage. I didn’t want to just do a summary of the blog, I wanted to do a detailed discuss analysis of actually what is she talking about and what’s going on. So, I took her most popular posts.

EduSounds: Kate is a retired teacher already,
Dr. Carol: Yes…

The bloggers’ public may at times be invisible; there is a public who observes, reads, engages with but leaves no trace of their presence. A more visible public is implied by the blogs’ status as multi-authored – groups of or individual writers interact with those who comment, like and re-circulate blog posts.

The bloggers’ public is not a public that equates to a literal everyone. It is a public restricted to those who constitute the blog’s readership. A readership that selects only those with electricity, IT equipment, access to the internet, and the knowledge, skills and interest required to locate, read and make meaning of blogging. This is an exclusive ‘everyone’.

EduSounds: …but there are some practitioners who would be thinking of confidentiality for instance.
Dr. Carol: Yes, I don’t feel that there is any compromise in terms of confidentiality in what she does. Partly because you get stories, you get made up names, you get pseudo-names, you get what I’m sure is poetic license, in terms of how people are described. They are at some distance from the readership of the blog and the actual event. You don’t necessarily get an accurate…, so, she for example describes you know what I still think is just an amazing way of treating a student who is unable to speak, unwilling to speak in her lessons and I hope I did write about this one, I can’t remember whether I included an analysis of this blog post in the paper or not, but she has a practice where she expects every student in the class to say something and if a student doesn’t want to contribute to a session they have to just say “I pass”. She then talks about encouraging them to do something else and you have to forgive me my memory of this is a little fuzzy, so I’m going of how I’ve remembered which might be added to my imagination but they have to work I think in terms of cutting out these brightly colored stickers and creating some kind of a highly visual collage and she describes one student particularly, who every session would say “I pass” and to my mind it’s quite interesting that in order to remain silent she still has to speak, she has to voice her preference for silence. So, silence is respected, you don’t have to contribute to the discussion if you don’t want to but you’re not allowed to be silent because you have to voice that preference.
I know that you said that you’re interested in notions of agency and passivity and how much difference we can make into the world etc. So to my mind there was an interesting play on her not allowing this person to completely withdraw into silence. You can make the choice not to contribute but you can’t make the choice to, if you like, completely efface yourself and in making that choice to withdraw from the conversation, you still have to voice it, you’re not effaced and you then have to do something with makes you highly visual because you’re producing this beautifully multi-colored collage and then she then goes on to describe the sessions, this is her talking of her classroom practice now. She then goes on to describe a situation in which this student for some reason, for one session decides that she’s not going to be silent, she is going to say something and she starts to say something and she doesn’t go into the Hollywood cliche that she speaks and it’s the most beautiful eloquent speech that anybody has ever heard etc. She actually says very little on this, you know he stumbled, he startled, it’s a little bit unclear but actually the rest of the group are very supportive, often very interested in what she has to say and it’s very obvious from what this person says, you know, that they have a really interesting, emotional and engaging life story which if you like, explains the back story which explains the position that they now adopt and then she talks about not being able to have followed up because the following week the student moved on. In describing that scenario there is no compromise. Perhaps, if I was there and part of that class, I would have an idea of who that student was but that student’s confidentiality is completely respected. There’s no way in which that student can be identified. So, in other words it seems to me that if we’re talking about confidentiality, the idea is ensuring that people can’t be identified and if you can tell your story in such a way that there are no compromises, I don’t feel that there is a major difficulty at all.

Blog posts are perpetually open and always incomplete. Once published, they are always available to be edited, commented upon and re-contextualised. They can therefore be read in multiple ways.

 

EduSounds: I have been trying to convince some teachers in Nigeria to start writing about their classroom experience because I think in that digital world, you could get a lot of work by teachers or practitioners from US, UK, Australia and different parts of the world but you get little out of places like Africa for instance. And there are practices that they’re doing and they are doing very well but if they don’t bring them into public space, you know we’re talking about public pedagogy, nobody would get to know about that and they won’t be advancing and sharing experience, creating this community of practitioners, but part of the challenges I think, two key ones I have noticed; there is this perceived sense of lack of agency and the other one is maybe that has to do with language barrier. And what I mean is, I have my own native language, so my thought process (because I grew up speaking it) is in that native language which is Yoruba language but then I have to communicate in English and write in English. So, that could lead to like a bit of impairment or deficiency when you are trying to articulate your ideas or when you’re thinking would you get it wrong, grammatically and this kind of create a huge barrier. Having in mind that they’re teachers and people will have this perception – oh, this teacher works at so-so school and has written this, he is atrocious, he is horrible, so I mean, in that kind of situation, how would blogging then serve as public pedagogy?
Dr. Carol: Right, You brought two issues but I can remember the last one, so you have to remind me of what the other one was. I think it has to do with agency and the other to do with language. I think that blogging is a particular type of genre and I think it’s an informal space, I think it’s a self defined space, it’s up to you to define what kind of blogging space you want and I think that the moment you open your mouth to say anything, there is risk attached and once you get over that, then, I think that life becomes much easier. So, for example, one of these disclaimers I have on one of the professional blogs I keep is – please accept this blog as a working space, the ideas which are expressed here are kind of ideas in formation and they might change, because I know that some of the people who write in the blog are like myself, people who are developing an academic profile, wanting to begin to build an academic presence in terms of published papers etc. And the invitation is always, you know, if you’re going to quote me please don’t quote the blog please quote my published work. So in other words, what I’m saying is, I think it’s quite easy for somebody to say these are not neatly polished bits of work which go on these blog, these are rough and ready ideas that I want to write about and get them out there quickly in order to just, in the spirit of collegiality, in sharing, which might mean I might sometimes get the odd apostrophe in the wrong place, I might do this or do that. Please don’t take that too seriously, engage with the idea, except in that there are going to be people who will feel that if you misplace an apostrophe it’s just an abomination but if you try to please that audience you will remain silent and never do anything. So, just accept that what you put on the blog is not necessarily going to be your best work and it’s not going to be perfect work and make sure that your audience is aware of that. The other thing, the nice thing about a blog is that it’s infinitely editable. Any blog post that I have written, I publish it, go back and look at it the following day. I think, blast, you know, what was I thinking about? I connect with it and it still remains up you know. I can come back a week later and read it and oh gosh still got a spelling mistake here never mind, go edited it, it’s sorted. So in other words it’s a nice slow developing space and a continually evolving space, so it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be stripped correct in terms of its grammar. This English is a world language and English is being changed and developing and evolving all the time. The English that we have now is just the mistakes that were made with other languages previously which come to form this language called English.
Even the way we write and the the way we spell in English is evolving and evolving largely out of errors or inconveniences etc. So I don’t think that one should approach a blog with the idea that this is a perfect publication, it’s not, these are ideas in the working and I think your focus should be on what the content of what you’re writing is. Are you happy with these ideas being associated with you and then just get on with it and do it. If you are doubting and anxious about it, then appoint a person whose English is quite good, who will take on to read and correct the blog for you, yeah!

EduSounds: Like an editor for the blog or something like that?
Dr. Carol: …why not?

EduSounds: So that brings in the idea of collaboration?
Dr. Carol: Oh gosh yes! I mean I think to write a blog on your own, by yourself, I say Kate does it and Ann does it brilliantly but it is extraordinarily difficult and if there are a group of teachers in a group of schools who are happy to be writing, one thing you say is like I keep or I have started is a blog for the EdD, the Dr in education program that we have here. There were some students on that course who were very wary of being publicly outed on a blog, didn’t really feel that it was appropriate for them to do and so sometimes, I do put blog posts under my name but make sure I just say this student has written this blog but I’m the one who posts it, in order to allow that person to maintain confidentiality. So you can, if some people are happy to be named and located and other people want to post on the blog anonymously, that’s possible. It’s easier if there’s a group of you because of course it’s easier to keep it a vibrant space in which lots of different people are writing. I think a single blog can become quite eccentric because it just becomes what one person’s journey is through this life but when you’ve got a group of you, it’s possibly less extreme.

Whatever the content or purpose, the physical act of reading, authoring, curating and coalescing around a blog constitutes a form of lifelong education – the mass uptake of the educative approach to life taking hold.

EduSounds: I started blogging for like four months now and it’s quite a lonely experience to be honest because right now I do a lot on my own. But what I do is I’ve got some very reliable friends and family members that when I send out things, they will give me feedback and say “did you see this?” and I’d I say “oh I didn’t see it” or sometimes before I send it out, I might send it to them, so I give like four or five of them and they would say “oh this is in this title” which helps really. But at the same time there is this perceived lack of agency for some people.
Dr. Carol: Yes, I mean, I don’t know that a blog is necessarily the space that is going to in any meaningful way address that. I think that’s a matter of somebody coming to understand what they feel that their role is, in bringing about the changes that they want to change What I do feel and it is just a feeling is if there’s going to be any change with anything, we have to at least be in an environment where we’ve got those ideas, where we’ve got that environment of critique and we are developing scholarship and understanding of the world and the things which are around us and I think that blogging at the minimum can contribute that.
If I could do anything to make sure that we don’t have in this country (UK) the levels of homelessness and food banks and poverty and tax avoidance etc. that we had or in the states that we don’t have the level of police brutality and and so on, I would surely do it but what I do think I can do is – contribute our understanding to an understanding of the world as it is and begin to look for those shots of light that talk about those moments of possibility, those moments of change or those moments where people are creating and living the kind of future that they want to envisage and partly I felt that this is part of what these blogs do. The way that they talk about education is so at odds to the way that education is talked about in public policy spaces and my suggestion is that in those discussions, they are partly creating an alternative and creating a series of possibilities.

Whilst blogging, the physical process of writing, is a solitary activity, it is one that takes place with/in and through the public. As such it requires interaction with real or imagined others, implying an intersubjectivity that allows for the emergence and sustenance of affinity, interest and identification. They provide an extensive mechanism for the facilitation of a dialogic self.

EduSounds: …and you talked about the difference between blogging and writing.
Dr. Carol: I don’t know that I see that there is much of a difference between blogging and writing…

EduSounds: …it’s a bit like a very slight difference, like blogging is like you’re writing on your own perhaps, but you’re engaged with the public…
Dr. Carol: Oh yes

EduSounds: …and there’s this constant discourse between you and the public, when you’re writing it’s more an isolated experience.
Dr Carol: The physical process of writing is one that you do on your own, your fingers, your keyboard, your screen and you do it largely at some point on your own. You can write collaboratively, in which case once it’s written, it’s shared, it’s discussed and it’s rewritten accordingly, so there is degree of collaboration there. The difference of course of the blog is that it’s multimedia, I never write anything unless I also have an image that goes along with what I’m writing. Sometimes it’s just that I like the image so I just post the image and the writing doesn’t necessarily connect to it but I like to find an image that in some way illustrates what it is I’m talking about in the blog post; illustrates or just decorate, I don’t mind which. Of course as this encounter is demonstration of, within a blogging space you have the advantage of having lots of different type of media. So it’s not just writing, you’ve got the images, you got audio as this is, it’s a podcast, you’ve got video. So it’s a multimedia platform and you’ve got loads of different ways of getting your message across.

EduSounds: Thank you very much Dr Carol Azumah Dennis
Dr. Carol: You’re welcome, thank you.

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • The need for collaboration in blogging
  • The dialog nature of blogging
  • Blogging as a way of sharing experience and best practice
  • Blogs as public spaces for educational discourse
  • The collegiality nature of blogs

Enjoy!

  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here

 

All quotes are from “Blogging as public pedagogy: creating alternative educational futures” by Carol Azumah Dennis, Int. J. of Lifelong Education, 2015. Vol. 34, No. 3, 284-299.

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1 Comment

  • I must say you are doing a very wonderful job with these interviews. I love the fact the she thinks your blog doesn’t mean your best. Bloggers can make mistakes so it is not a reason anyone should not write. I enjoyed it up until when you wrote about Nigerian teachers, the truthfulness of those lines saddens me. But hope is one thing teachers hang on to and I hope all concerned educators in Nigeria would join the league of world teachers to share, learn and explore their teaching experiences.
    Looking forward to you having an interview with some educators here in Nigeria soon, on blogging.

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