Agency and Reclaiming Student Demographics in Our Discourse

(Or Looking for a Giroux in a Haystack)

This iteration of #moocmooc with its focus on critical pedagogy has been very insightful and in some ways has gotten to the core of some very important socio-cultural issues in relation to pedagogy. However, there is one aspect that seems to be muted which definitely needs more critical engagement and that is student demographics.

 Most of the conversation seems to be geared towards/ assumes we are speaking in relation to a very homogeneous 20something, digital literate student population. This is of course not the case. Critical pedagogy, hybrid pedagogy all of this encourages the dismantling of hierarchical structures that seems innate in educational spaces. It is about highlighting and facilitating student agency.

However, the interconnection of agency and access to information and the frustration my students feel at the lack of resources they feel they have at their disposal was reinforced when couldn't find a copy of Giroux's text to read for this week’s #moocmooc discussion. My college library did not have access to a copy (even though it is the largest college in Canada). My city library did not have a copy of this book, (even though it is the largest public library system in Canada). No online versions were available. The only copies I could possibly have access to were at the university library where I sometimes adjunct and even the one available copy was restricted to those students studying in the education department. The largest commercial bookstore chain in Canada only had it available to order and it would take a week and they did not have a single physical copy in any bookstore (so I couldn’t even go steal a peak at the 4th chapter and leave). And the small bookstore in my neighbourhood that I patronise because I love shopping local didn’t have a copy.

 All this left me with a high level of….discomfort.

I know that @NomadWarMachine did a great job of Storifying the discussion around discomfort that was raised in relation to the last #moocmooc topic. Discomfort is always something that I actively try to avoid in my classrooms, I want to foster safe spaces, ethical spaces. Yes I do agree that we need to help student challenge themselves and their boundaries but I think the term “discomfort” is not what that challenging is about. It is about highlighting agency.

Education is definitely intimately related to power and power structures. This week’s topic asks us to think about how we can encourage student empowerment. Well I know one way to make students feel divorced from educational spaces is by focusing on technology and information they cannot access. (Much like my Giroux wild goose chase this week)

I have read some really great posts from educators doing really exciting things with technology in their classrooms. This technology helps create agency, helps students feel more in control of their education and access to information. It can help them speak to a larger audience like #fergusonsyllabus. But what happens if you don’t have tech or what happens if the student demographic does not have digital literacy skills or technological literacy due to socio-economics?
As the quotation from Giroux from this week’s discussion prompt states: “pedagogy would take on the task of regenerating both a renewed sense of social and political agency” (Giroux 71). And this is what I do in my classroom, where my motto is “low tech can be high touch.” (You can touch, figuratively and literally at the heart of the matter with little to no technology)

I teach two sections of women’s literature for the faculty of continuing education at my college. My students are taking my class because they need to take at least one literature course in order to graduate from their diploma program. This semester my students are attempting to complete diplomas in nursing, building engineering, accounting, early childhood education, or business. Approximately 80% of my students are ELL, the average age of my students would be early 40s, and approximately 90% of my students are first-generation Canadians. Agency is the last word they would ever use in any context as they walk into my classrooms week 1. Most feel trapped by governmental or educational systems, all feel trapped by financial and socio-cultural class systems.

My primary goal every semester is that at the end of week 14 the students in this class will appreciate that the texts we have encountered and discussed, the ideas and texts they have brought into the educational space, all reflect and speak to who they are and more importantly that they have the power to create and explore new spaces. Distilled down to the common denominator- agency is available, but only through confidence. They possess (if they believe in themselves) the ability to engage with political issues, to access and use information and the skills they have in order to do this.

Most students come in feeling triply removed from workplace and societal currency because they are older, they are immigrants, and have little to no technological literacy. Alongside an active discussion of literature and themes is a discussion of information. In the first few weeks when I use a prompt like: where do you acquire information? the answer is almost always “when I come to school because I don’t have a computer or Internet at home.” Their ability to engage, their access to information, seems to be geographically tethered.

However, I open discussion further as the weeks go on: how can you acquire information? This is where I can emphasize that technology is not the only manner of acquiring information even though society and the workplace culture seems to be saying to them, if you don’t have ready access to a computer you will fail in your profession. Almost like clockwork, newspaper articles, ripped pieces of text they encountered somewhere, appear in class. Those who do have smartphones take pictures of ads they saw on the subway or bus that really made them think of gender roles. Others bring in stories that their child had shared with them that weekend. Information, all of it useful, not all of it technologically based. All these actions demonstrate agency taking responsibility for their education and bringing in new ideas to help shape the educational experience they wish to have. The texts on the syllabus do no limit their agency, content here works as a stepping stone to bigger ideas.

Similarly I am not of the belief that learning outcomes necessarily shackle agency. The learning outcomes for the class I teach are set by the college, but how I get the students to attain those outcomes varies every semester. Every class is different because every classroom dynamic is different AND every classroom demographic is different.

 Fostering agency is also very much tied to classroom architecture for me. I am lucky in that I am often assigned classroom spaces where the desks are on wheels and I can get the students to move the chairs around in a more intimate discussion format than the preconceived hierarchical classroom set up of rows of desks/chairs and the teacher in the front. When the ability to hack the classroom is prevented I counteract this by physically moving/walking around the classroom space to disrupt that hierarchy. This reinforces that we are working together in this space and one person is not more important than the other; we all have agency here. The same goes for how the students call me (which I have previously blogged about here).

 So how does this story of classroom agency end? Well it doesn’t, that’s the point. I usually end the semester with a prompt something along this line: how do you ethically use and disseminate information? The range of responses and the tangents the discussion takes goes from media propaganda tactics, to addressing visual and textual gender representation, to curriculum content in highschools. Most importantly the students realize that they can take this information, their confidence, and their experience in order to exact change in their micro or macrocosms.

 I would like to end this rather lengthy post with a challenge, yes I am challenging you #moocmooc participants. Can you think of ways that what you do in your classrooms now using tech to expand concepts of agency can be done with low tech or no tech? And as an aside can you think of ways discussions of agency would change if your student demographic was 20 years older? Made up of primarily new immigrants?


  1. Hey Ann, as co-facilitator of #moocmooc and someone who really truly cares about and lives with access issues, I've discussed this with folks. The agreement was that we would provide at least one open access resource for each week and make sure there was a way to access the non-free resource on the web. We only link to the official source, but everything on the reading list is available online in some way or another (check things like first chapters in kindle samples, pdf versions on ppl's blogs, etc.)

    you may be interested in this post I wrote a while ago, because believe me, if you have access issues, there are people with much bigger access issues:

    1. Hi Maha,
      No worries about the treading for the week I read the disclaimer on the #moocmooc site, I was just shocked at how difficult it was to acquire from Toronto (as a person who studies touch I don't have a kindle cause the purist in me likes the feel of paper).
      I too really care about access and I hope that my post did not come across as me complaining from a privileged point about access. I only brought in the Giroux hunt for it reaffirmed the kinds of things my students experience on a regular basis (which you touch on on your blog as well, so thank you for sharing that). I don't think this is a my access issue is bigger (better) than your access issue thing, all student lack of access is problematic and I am glad we can speak about it and formulate strategies to work to gain access and possibly tear down some barriers.

  2. Hi Ann - you've got me thinking, as usual. My Uni is Russell Group, and as well as my philosophy tutoring I also work with Ed Tech, and I run a bi-annual survey of incoming students so I know that all but a handful (less than 20 of 2,000 respondents last time) have no internet access at home (and they will have access on campus). It is easy for me to forget that not all students are so privileged - I had a conversation recently with a contact from one of the less highly rated Unis close by and was surprised to realise that far fewer of their students had ready access to the tech our students take for granted. We rely on tech (Moodle, email) to disseminate info to our students. I think, given our student demographic that we're not being unreasonable. That said, all I use in tutorials is a white board and (if they are really lucky) a worksheet to scaffold the lesson. Tutorials are for discussion, not tech ;)

    I used to teach lifelong learning for one Uni and distance learning for another, and then I thought a lot more about how to ensure everybody could get access to support materials. Not easy for students from Orkney, or working out at sea on an oil rig. Your hunt for Giroux reminded me of how disempowered you can suddenly feel. I once spent 6 months without a library card because admin kept "forgetting" to approve my registration. That was a challenge!.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    I had this conversation with my best friend yesterday who teaches a younger demographic (on average) at uni with very few access issues. She is doing such exciting and interesting things with tech it really does demonstrate the need to contextualize our discussions, especially demographically and geographically.
    (6 months without a library card would have me in hives I think)

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  5. Ugh. Google ate my comment, then published a second one twice, then deleted both when I tried deleting the duplicate. I bow in submission to Google and will try again later!

    your classes sound amazing and I'm so challenged by this question of educating lower-income women who have had little experience with digital work. My students are mostly native English speakers and often can do their university work only after their high school children have finished their homework and gone to bed ...


    1. Hi Jane,
      Sometimes Google does that. But if you find it posts twice, just refresh the page and you will see it is actually just posted once (silly Google glitch).
      I can understand that only doing work after the children have gone to bed thing, I hear it often from my students. It is a challenge for sure but I do hope that in the end they realize they do not have to be absolutely tethered to technology in order to have a voice in society or their communities!


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