Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Heterogeneity 2

In my previous post, I asked how the principle of heterogeneity might inform the ways we organize a course of instruction, especially a college composition course such as the ones that I teach. Deleuze and Guattari quote Carlos Casteneda to suggest how one might proceed with exploration of a new conversation, or any other slice of life. In The Teachings of Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus gives his student Carlos instructions about how to cultivate a garden of hallucinogenic herbs:
Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (11)
This is not the way most Westerners plant gardens. We start by defining a plot of ground, often in a geometrical shape, most often a rectangle, and defining a desired collection of plants, and then we move both earth and heaven to make reality accommodate our garden. Likewise, we start education by defining the curriculum and the outcomes and then moving heaven and earth to make the reality of our students accommodate our curricula. We assume that the outcomes for the students will match precisely with our pre-defined outcomes, and if they don't, then we punish with bad grades. For example, we composition teachers determine that our students will learn to write persuasive essays in MLA format, which we can do because we know what good, persuasive essays look like, and if the students' essays don't match our ideal essays, then we give them a bad grade to punish their errant writing.

Don Juan Matus doesn't build a garden, or a curriculum, this Western way. Rather, he starts with reality and maps his garden to it. He follows the contours of the land—or the discussion or the skill—and he maps his garden from its flow and runoff. And he teaches his student to do the same. Don Juan knows that his student's garden will look very little like his own garden. He is not troubled by heterogeneity, nor does he expect homogeneity. Carlos' outcomes do not have to match Don Juan's. This is truly a student-centered curriculum, but we would be blind to think that it is without content or specific outcomes. It has both, but the teacher is not foolish enough to think that he knows what they are beforehand. The teacher does hope that he is experienced and sensitive enough to recognize the outcomes when they appear in his student, but maybe not, especially if the student transcends the teacher. In traditional education, the student transcends the teacher only at great peril, at the risk of a failing grade (just try putting an answer the teacher doesn't already know on a test). In rhizomatic education, the student always moves beyond the teacher—maybe not higher, but through and then away to something else.

So what are some specifics I can draw from Don Juan? First, the teacher can provide a starting point. Don Juan wants to teach Carlos to cultivate devil's weed—I want to teach students to cultivate academic conversations. Don Juan gave Carlos his first plant, though he did not tell him where to plant it; rather, he let that come from Carlos. I can start a conversation in my class—even a hackneyed conversation such as gun control—but I must allow each student to come to that conversation from their own point of view. The conversation begins, then, not with my definition of the correct view about gun control (measured by a short test to see if the students got it) and the correct way to present that view in a persuasive essay, but with conversation that allows each student to define their own position in the conversation. We share those positions, and the conversation proceeds as each student maps the positions of the others in the class. Students draft new statements, check it against their own experiences and what others are saying, and then redraft. We proceed further by introducing other positions from beyond the class and mapping those positions. We draft and redraft some more. We blog. We tweet. We build longer statements. Eventually, we tire of the conversation, or run out of time, and we prepare a final, more formal statement, fitting it into the context of the entire conversation, pleased that our own statement is our own: recognizable, but different from the statements of others. We create an artifact: a snapshot of the value that we gained from and gave to the conversation.

Sounds something like a MOOC, doesn't it? That might make for a good start for a class—any class.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Heterogeneity

Well, Thanksgiving here in the US has been most disruptive for me—pleasant, but disruptive.

In response to a #change11 discussion about the rhizome metaphor, I had started writing about how rhizomatic learning might have very practical implications for a classroom, and I decided to explore how those implications might translate into practices in my upcoming college composition courses. I started with Deleuze and Guattari's first principle of rhizomatic structures: connectivity. The second principle is heterogeneity.

The immediate insight of this principle for the college classroom is that the students and teachers who make up the class are not homogeneous, not the same. They are all in the class for different reasons, with different motivations, and with different webs of connection. They are all on different trajectories, and these different trajectories often run counter to a traditional educational system that assumes and tries to enforce homogeneity. The industrial metaphor of traditional education demands a homogeneous curriculum  to produce a homogeneous product. As a college composition teacher, this means that I must teach twenty-five students at a time how to employ standard written English to produce standard five-hundred word essays and one standard academic, research paper about standard public issues: gun control, abortion, and the death penalty. Most everyone reading this post is familiar with this approach to teaching students to write academic prose. At its heart, lies an assumption of homogeneity in teaching methods, subject matter, writer purposes and needs, reader responses and demands, and texts.

Deleuze and Guattari insist that the rhizome is other than this, that it is dynamic and diverse, especially in the use of language to describe and capture reality, a focus that is particularly relevant to my upcoming composition classes. They say: "A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles" (7). Here, they are undermining one of the core principles of traditional instruction in writing: a standard language with uniform syntax, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. They say:
There is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. Language is, in Weinreich's words, "an essentially heterogeneous reality." There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity. Language stabilizes around a parish, a bishopric, a capital. It forms a bulb. It evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks; it spreads like a patch of oil. (7)
This presents me with an ultimate challenge: if I let go my intent to teach my students a standard written prose, then what am I teaching them? Deleuze and Guattari make some suggestions, in their general sort of way: "A method of the rhizome type … can analyze language only by decentering it onto other dimensions and other registers. A language is never closed upon itself, except as a function of impotence" (8).

How do I decenter my class's study of written prose onto other dimensions and registers? I can start by shifting the focus, the center, of our study away from some supposed standard language to language as it has agglomerated into the tuber of each student, to preserve the botanical metaphor. Each student has a language that they have developed through the bubbling brew of their own mental, social, and physical processes. They all have a language, or even more accurately, languages that they use to negotiate their reality and to make their way—more or less successfully—through their worlds. Our study of written prose must start there for each of them, in all their heterogeneity. This is not at all unlike the focus of MOOCs: on the diverse trajectories of the participants (students and teachers alike) in the wide arena of a common discussion.

I cannot start with a mother tongue, then; rather, I must start with the various patois of the class and then enable a process of relative stabilization around a common conversation. I do not invalidate the patois of the students, but I do help them find ways to engage a conversation that is perhaps foreign to them. I help them to understand the issues and complications of joining a new conversation, and I help them develop the tools and techniques necessary for joining that conversation, for taking value from and returning value to the conversation.

This is a radically different approach to teaching writing (or anything else, I think) than the traditional approach that assumes a stable conversation among known and stable speakers about known and stable issues for known and stable reasons. As Donald Bartholomae shows in his wonderful 1985 essay Inventing the University, our students do not already understand the standard academic conversation, if such a thing even exists. I have directed a writing across the curriculum program for the past two-and-a-half years, and I am confident that no standard academic conversation exists. What mathematicians discuss usually has little to do with the conversations in art history, biology, or nursing. We cannot assume a homogeneous class of speakers.

I'll write more about homogeneity later, especially about planting a garden in rhizomatic, Don Juan Matus fashion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Connectivity

As I mentioned in my immediately previous post, one of the big challenges to emerge in response to Dave Cormier's presentation of rhizomatic learning has been the question of utility or practicality. What does the rhizome do for us teachers and students? I have focused on the rhizome as a metaphor, thus minimizing the practical applications of this kind of thinking, but I fear that I may have sold the concept short. I may have implied that rhizomatic thinking has no practical application. So I want to rethink the question in the most concrete, practical terms that I can.

Here's the situation: In January, I will return to the classroom after thirty years of mostly administrative work. I will teach writing classes in a more-or-less traditional setting at South University in West Palm Beach, FL, USA. What the hell will I do? This is a real question. Let's see if rhizomatic learning has any concrete answers.

The first characteristic of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari mention is connection: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). Because I accept the rhizome metaphor, I know that my students will, in fact, show up to class with an infinite array of other connections, many of which are WAY more important to them than their connections to me, to the course content, or to their classmates. South University is a professional school that uses the quarter system, so I have only 10 weeks to cultivate connections among 25 adults who want to become nurses, physicians assistants, paralegals, information tech specialists, and so forth. Many of the students, if not most of them, may see a writing course as a necessary hurdle at best or a total waste of time at worst.  My first task, then, is to find ways to cultivate connections to the class: the teacher (me), the content (writing), and their fellow students. I need to build quickly a discourse community in which the students can engage in meaningful discussion.

But rhizomatic learning suggests that the class needs to connect beyond the classroom. In other words, all those other connections are important, too. Therefore, the class must cultivate connections to what they already know. Finally, the class must cultivate connections to what is known beyond the class. Learning to write requires a large and vibrant community, much like those communities of learning that Dave Cormier describes in his post Community as Curriculum - Vol 2. This idea of community expands the class far beyond the usual definition of a teacher expounding some content to a cohort of students. In rhizomatic learning, this vibrant, dynamic community—this supportive ecosystem—is more important than the individual teacher and specific content. As Cormier says in his post, "We are committing ourselves to people, not to specific bits of knowledge or information and hoping that our commitment to those people will keep what we know relevant, and keep us above water."

Can I be more specific? I think so. The first class could employ exercises that encourage people to introduce themselves to each other, through writing perhaps, and explore their shared and varied interests in writing. I might have students text someone outside of class to tell them what they are doing, or better, to ask the outsider how they use writing in their job. This strategy helps the class tap into the unbelievable energy in texting as a form of writing, and helps these beginning writers understand that they are already writers, if not writers of academic prose. It introduces the whole concept of research, asking questions about reality. These exercises help me to begin developing a sense of what the students know about writing and don't know and what they can do and can't do and how writing might connect to their personal and professional lives. These exercises start placing the community at the center of their writing, with real audiences and real issues. A rhizomatic community is a major reason why young people text so much: they are connecting to people who matter to them about issues that matter to them. It's partly why I write so much in this blog: I'm connecting to people who matter to me about issues that matter to us. All the good writing that I know about emerges out of this kind of rhizomatic, discourse community.

I will not lecture about pre-writing strategies. I will not pretend that I am the sole audience, or even the important, audience for their writing. And I will do all these things in my classes because I accept the rhizomatic principle of connection.

Could I do these things without any knowledge of the rhizome? Of course. If this was the only insight of rhizomatic learning, it would hardly be worth reading Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately, there is more, but that's for later.

Monday, November 14, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Misgivings?

In his post Farewell to Rhizomes, Jeffrey Keefer expresses a rather common misgiving many seem to have with the concept of rhizomatic learning: interesting perhaps, but what does it do for me in the classroom? This is just the kind of question rhizomatic folk need to answer.

Just before I read Keefer's post, I came across an Edutopia post by Bob Lenz called Deeper Learning Community of Practice Recap, in which he lists some comments by Kathleen Cushman in response to a recent Deeper Learning meeting. After reviewing some student work from the workshop, Kushman asked  "What had the teacher done to scaffold this work in its early stages?" She listed several specific techniques the teachers used:

  • They build learning relationships with students.
  • They design and plan backward from clear learning objectives.
  • They co-construct curriculum with students and colleagues.
  • They use inquiry to drive instruction.
  • They scaffold student learning.
  • They assess continuously.
  • They reflect on their own and others' work.
  • They use protocols to engage in collegial critique.
This seems like a pretty good collection of techniques to me, and I use most of them at one time or another, but from which learning theory do these techniques naturally follow? Hmm … seems to me that most any theory could lead to all or part of this collection of classroom activities. Could you use one of these techniques with no particular theory in mind? I could. I suspect most teachers do.

Okay, if you could do all these things in a classroom without a learning theory, then what good is a learning theory, or even more questionable, what good is a learning metaphor?

I think theories and metaphors provide a more or less systematic and coherent set of lenses for looking at reality. A theory highlights certain elements and processes, bringing them to the foreground, and diminishes the rest of the details, letting them recede into the background. This clarifies the picture for us and gives us a sense of understanding and control.

A theory differs from a metaphor, at least in part, by implying some predictive efficacy. A theory says that if A then B, and then we can test to see if this actually happens. If it doesn't, then we adjust the theory. I don't know that a metaphor is held to the same expectation. I just don't know of a way to test how much love is like a rose or a MOOC is like a rhizome.

Does this mean that metaphors are of no use, then? Not to me. Metaphors are marvelous ways of presenting a gestalt understanding of one thing in terms of another, and our minds are wonderfully attuned to and receptive to this kind of holistic learning. For me then, the image of the rhizome provides a more fertile field within which to develop a more rational, predictive theory such as Connectivism, which in turn leads to new techniques, to a reuse of old techniques, and to MOOCs. The rhizome gives me a marvelously rich and pregnant image with which to engage the MOOC, and here's the main point, we all bring an image to the MOOC. If we bring a less useful image—say, the traditional classroom—then the MOOC does not make sense to us, and we are frustrated by it. If we bring the rhizome image, we are more likely to make sense of what is happening in a MOOC and more likely to engage it productively.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Knowing

I woke up this Sunday morning thinking about rhizomatic knowing, but the house is full of guests and the coffee is already on, so I don't have long to write.

I want to flash on something that Bon Stewart calls a helicopter view of reality and that I refer to as a God view (Deconstruction: I'm the child of a Pentecostal minister, schooled on the church pew since birth, so God is almost always somewhere in any discussion I have), because this assumed position or vantage point has much to say about what we think we know.

As you may have noticed, I like working with metaphors, or images, as a gateway into thought, so let's play. Envision your life as a plate of spaghetti, and yourself as one noodle in that plate, with a history (a long and happy one, we hope) twisting and intertwining with all the other noodles in your life. Got the image? Ok, find your noodle, the noodle that will represent your life, and for the sake of the game, place your noodle somewhere in the middle of the spaghetti mess.

If you are like most of us, you are almost certainly viewing the plate of spaghetti and your own life from outside, from up above, from a helicopter view, or a God view. From this view, you can see the whole plate of spaghetti, even the table it sits on, and your noodle from start (birth) to finish (death), and you can meticulously identify each twist and turn and convolution in the string of your life, and you can point to, name, and quantify each point of contact with all the other noodles on your plate. You can determine which other noodles (or meatballs, but let's not push this metaphor too far) had significant, lasting impacts on your life. You can make assessments about why things turned out as they did. From this view, you can see and trace causes and effects. This is very useful.

It is also a fiction. You are not God, you don't even have a helicopter. I think this is one of the main points Deleuze and Guattari are trying to make. Giving yourself Godview is a fiction—a sometimes useful fiction, but always a fiction.

To envision what you can actually see in your plate of spaghetti, you have to float down from your privileged vantage point on High and take your place along one point on your noodle. That point is conveniently called Now. Okay, from this point, look about yourself at the plate of spaghetti. It should look very different, Now and Here. You peer back down the length of your noodle, and it twists and turns like a goat path into the past. You can no longer see your birth. You can't see the noodles that impacted you then, though you are reasonably sure your mother was there and likely your father, at least for one brief and shining moment. You look forward along the length of your noodle into the future. Hmm … now you can see even less as your noodle takes a sharp veer into tomorrow. So you look about at the various other noodles (people, events, sounds, colors, countries) intersecting with you at Now, and all those noodles have their own obscure trajectories, a few of which you have some memory, but most of which are just obscure. This is your real, actual view of life. This is what Deleuze and Guattari want to remind you of: that life is a complicated mess of interwoven noodles, a rhizome.

I use the term complicated just here on purpose: complicated suggests to me the intricate arrangement of  many parts. But let's take the plate of spaghetti one iteration beyond by making it not only complicated but complex. Take all those static noodles in the plate of spaghetti and put them in motion so that they become a roiling mass of worms or snakes. Or if you find that image too distasteful, then turn each noodle into an electric arc, a streaming asteroid, a flaming, flashing star, whatever dynamic image works for you, but just put the whole plate in motion so that each once static noodle begins to make its way through the mass of other noodles, being acted upon and in turn acting upon others. Think about the effects of electromagnetic forces that operate powerfully over short distances (physical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic distances) and the gravitational forces that operate over all distances so that your one noodle or arc is pushed and pulled—certainly by the noodles closest to you (family, colleagues, friends, favorite philosophies, etc.) but ultimately by every other noodle in the spaghetti mass. Now, extend your plate of spaghetti out in all directions to encompass all of the Universe and all of history because all of that has exerted some gravitational influence on you in the Here and Now. And because you are likely a teacher, complexify your plate of spaghetti by adding it to the thirty other plates of spaghetti from your students, and then look at me squarely and tell me that you really understand all of this roiling, arcing, flashing, dynamic mess/mass.

Well, I don't think you do. I'm positive that I don't. Rather, we build our fictions through abstractions, focuses, reductions, bulbs, agglomerations, tubers, shoots, and so forth, that help us filter the swelter of reality into something that makes sense, into something that is manageable. It's the best we can do, but—and this is another strong point from Deleuze and Guattari—this fiction-making process is always an exercise of power. We create these fictional systems for ourselves and for others. We have to, but it is always an exercise of power however well intentioned: an attempt to wrangle reality, the rhizome, into a more manageable shape, often into our own image. This fascist tendency (D&G's term) is always there, and the rhizome always eventually flows around it. The Greek gods, kings and kingdoms, democracy, algebra, the Free Market, English, Spanish, Impressionistic painting, behaviorism, constructivism, connectivism, and rhizomatic learning have all been more or less useful fictions at one time or another. Deleuze and Guattari do not argue that we should avoid this fiction-making. Rather, they argue that we should never forget that these things are fictions. They are more or less useful ways of engaging reality—the Rhizome—but they never capture reality. They never really give us the total control over ourselves, others, and the World that we seek.

To my mind, this is a profound spiritual truth expressed in totally secular terms. And you can quite reasonably ask, so what? Well, that's another post … or ten. But people are stirring. Time to go.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome Pt 2

Yesterday, I started addressing a question from Sui Fai John Mak about why I would call the rhizome nothing, and I found myself wandering through the first three of the six characteristics of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari list in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987):

  1. Connectivity (an obvious connection to Connectivism)
  2. Heterogeneity
  3. Multiplicity
Today, I want to continue the conversation by working through the final three characteristics:
  1. Asignifying ruptures
  2. Cartography
  3. Decalcomania
I suppose that asignifying ruptures most clearly capture Deleuze and Guattari's push back against power, especially the power we humans exercise through signifying, through naming things. They say that asignifying ruptures work "against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure" (9). We humans are excellent at breaking up reality into manageable pieces by analyzing and segmenting and naming and numbering and quantifying, and these are all useful mental processes that help us build airplanes, buildings, institutions, societies, and so on, but they are also fictions and power structures from which the rhizome flees through deterreritorialization and reterreritorialization. Or as Robert Frost says much more plainly: something there is that doesn't love a wall. Any slice of reality contains within it both the classifications we humans create to manage that reality and the lines of flight that undermine those classifications. As D&G say: "Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome" (9). APPLICATION: Traditional education exerts much energy in classifying, stratifying, organizing, and naming students, teachers, subjects, disciplines, classes, tests, theories, etc. John is an A student, Mary is a C student, and Bubba is an F student. Manuel is a rising senior, and Jinchaun is a freshman. George is a Professor, and Dave is an Assistant Professor, and Stephen is a Dean. I teach essay writing: descriptive, persuasive, argumentative (sometimes the same as persuasive, sometimes listed separately. I don't know why), comparison (or comparison/contrast), expository, formal, informal, research, literary, cause/effect, and more. You can google essay forms or essay types and find oodles of classifications, all more or less arbitrary and, as near as I can tell from 30 years experience in teaching writing, all more or less useless. I've never found an essay that I really liked—say, something by Annie Dillard—that fit any of these groups very well. Rhizomatic education, then, recognizes that reality leaks out in lines of flight from our attempts to peg it, to name it, to pin it, wriggling on the wall, and tries to accomodate those lines of flight. The Change 11 MOOC just suffered a couple of asignifying ruptures with Nancy White's social artists and Dave Cormier's rhizomes and nomads, but unlike a traditional class, we MOOCers work with those lines of flight, riding along with them, ignoring them, or refuting them, as we are so inclined, but not knocked over by them. Indeed, we set up the MOOC to encourage just such ruptures. Rhizomatic learning does not deny the virtues of our analytical mind, but it recognizes that reality ain't really like that and can squirt out of our categories at the weirdest times.

These first four characteristics, I think, explain why lots of people are so confused when they first join a MOOC: a MOOC is an explicitly and intentionally rhizomatic structure:
  1. Connection: any MOOCer can connect to any other or to anyone else not in the MOOC. We don't simply connect to the teachers: Professors Cormier, Downes, and Siemens. We connect more to each other, and for me that has been Jeffrey, Glen, Bonnie, Sui Fai John, Jenny, and others, none of whom are willing or able to tell me what I should be learning or if I have learned it. This is great unless you are thoroughly conditioned to having someone tell you what the learning is all about. Well, rest yourself. You can decide what to learn and what to ignore. Trust yourself.
  2. Heterogeneity: We MOOCers are not the same. We are not homogenized. While we all share an interest in higher education and how it might be changing, that common interest is too vague to provide much guidance in where we are supposed to be going and how we are supposed to get there. We came in on different paths, and we are almost certainly passing through this MOOC on different paths. Cool—unless, of course, you are worried about falling behind. Well, rest yourself. You can't fall behind, as you are likely the only one of 2,000 scholars going your way.
  3. Multiplicity: We MOOCers are each the convergence of different life trajectories that we bring to the mix of all the other life trajectories in the MOOC. We focus on a few of those trajectories to gain some sense of what we are trying to do here, but the open structure of the MOOC allows all those trajectories to emerge in the mix. It can be overwhelming if we try to cover it all. Well, rest yourself. You can't cover it all.
  4. Asignifying ruptures: We MOOCers know that the conversation can take some abrupt, even startling, turns and flights into ideas and concepts that we never anticipated, or even knew about. This can be exciting and challenging or terrifying and frustrating, as not everyone likes snowboarding over a ledge without knowing where the trail's going, or if there even is a trail. Well, rest yourself. You don't have to follow every trail—in fact, you can't—and next week, we'll be back on a trail that works for you.
MOOCs just don't have any of the traditional structures and signposts that people expect when they sign-up for a course. A MOOC isn't a course—it isn't a thing as we usually define things. Rather, a MOOC is an assemblage, a multiplicity. We are legion, and that can be tough to deal with.

But after thoroughly confusing our sense of reality, Deleuze and Guattari give us a couple of strategies for dealing with rhizomes such as a MOOC, and it is just here that I want to note a slight disagreement with, or rather an amendment to, something that Dave Cormier said to George Siemens in his Change 11 presentation. When they were discussing the rhizome as a metaphor and George was pushing for clarification on how rhizomatic learning handled knowledge, Dave said that rhizomatic learning did not address epistemology, or something to that effect—sorry, I'm too lazy to find it in the recording just now. While rhizomatic learning certainly has no systematic epistemology, I still think it has something to say about ways of knowing.

The first strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is cartography, or mapping. Mapping is a process of constantly monitoring and testing reality, assessing the feedback, and adjusting the map. Mapping assumes that reality is shifting; therefore, knowledge must shift, if it is to remain useful for engaging reality. Most of us don't like shifting knowledge—we want the correct answer, the eternal answer. We want what Deleuze and Guattari call tracings, or "an overcoding structure or supporting axis, something that comes ready-made" (12). The Truth. Mappings are different. 
What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
 APPLICATION: Traditional learning proceeds by fixed curricula and lesson plans about authoritative knowledge with regular measures to determine how competently a student has traced the lines of the lesson. Knowledge in traditional education is a tracing of what is already known. Rhizomatic learning is a mapping, an engagement with reality, a fixing of points of reference, measurements and tests, assessment of feedback, and then an adjustment of the points of reference or creation of new points, with no hope of ever fixing the points of reference, and with total recognition that the very act of mapping itself is part of the reality under examination. This totally collapses the Cartesian dualism that underlies our modern scientific point of view that posits an object for us subjects to trace, or know. Rhizomatic learning says this is not the way to engage reality. It certainly isn't the way to engage a MOOC. When entering a MOOC we must anchor to some point (almost any will do initially: a person, a blog, a presentation, a bit of reading) from which to establish a vantage point. That anchor and vantage point may work for the entire MOOC, or we may switch, but we need that first anchor. What we cannot do is look for some syllabus through which we can trace a course of learning. It ain't there. We must map the MOOC: fix a vantage point, fix other points from there, check distances from where we are to someplace else we might want to be, look for the steps to get to the new place, and strike out, asking others along the way, confident that our goal will shift. That's how you learn in a MOOC.

The second strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is decalcomania, or pressing patterns. Most of us know decalcomania as the process where children put paint on their hands and press the paint onto paper, leaving blue, purple, yellow, and red handprints. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that patterns emerge in the rhizome through a pressing, not a transfer but more an echo. They are careful to say that it is not mimicry, which is tracing. Rather it is a blossoming of a sympathetic, self-similar, fractal pattern. Almost the same, but not quite. APPLICATION: In traditional learning, knowledge is transferred in little nuggets called facts from the teacher's brain to the student's brain; or in progressive classes, the teacher enables students to create their own little nuggets. In rhizomatic learning, the brain is  an amazingly sensitive organ for echoing the patterns that it recognizes in its environment, for feeding those patterns back into its environment, and then taking in the new patterns. Deleuze and Guattari say:
Thought is not arborescent, and the brain is not a rooted or ramified matter. What are wrongly called "dendrites" do not assure the connection of neurons in a continuous fabric. The discontinuity between cells, the role of the axons, the functioning of the synapses, the existence of synaptic microfissures, the leap each message makes across these fissures, make the brain a multiplicity immersed in its plane of consistency or neuroglia, a whole uncertain, probabilistic system. … Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. (15)
The grass of the brain is very sensitive to the moving of wind and rain, echoing the pattern of each, but there is no transfer of pattern. The wind does not transfer its pattern to the grass. In a MOOC, we echo the knowledge (a blog, a presentation, a tweet) that we press against. That echo is never exact, never the thing itself transferred from another mind to our mind. Rather, it is a sympathetic reterritorialization, more or less similar, of a pattern that we perceived. Our minds then operate on that newly emerged pattern, that knowledge, reworking it to fit into the knowledge and patterns already in our minds, looking for consistency and resonance however we define those qualities (rationally, emotionally, aesthetically, etc.), and then feed those patterns back into the ecosystem, deterritorialized and reterritorialized, where they are taken up, or not, and reworked, and fed back into the system, over and over and over. This describes the messy process of learning in a MOOC, and for me, it describes it better than does behaviorism and constructivism do, though they have insights as well.

Well, I've gone a long way around to tell Sui Fai John Mak why I think a rhizome is nothing. I hope the answer works for him, but at any rate, I hope he understands now why I like rhizomatic learning. As a metaphor, a way of mapping but NOT precisely tracing, the rhizome helps me understand learning in a MOOC much better than most any other theory or metaphor that I know. And with people such as Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart, the metaphor is just getting richer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome

Change11 heated up for me this week, and I'm pleased. It was not planned, but it does have a design: a convergence of several arcs that can be traced back, if one is so inclined, for many years:

  • The paperwork associated with my impending retirement from Albany State University is over; thus, I am not so distracted now and can attend to the MOOC. This is an arc that stretches back thirty-five years to 1976 when I assumed my first position as an English instructor at Reinhardt College in the hills of north Georgia and started a professional life in academia.
  • My interest in networks, an arc that goes back to 1982 when I became the director of the Communications Center at the University of Houston-Victoria and installed a lab of DEC Pro 380s and connected them to the campus network.
  • A conversation in 2002 with my friend and philosopher Carl Hays about how networking structures were replacing hierarchical structures as the dominant metaphor for organizing society.
  • An email in 2009 with my friend and English scholar Dan Jaeckle about how the rhizome was a better metaphor than networks for understanding the emerging changes in society and about why I should read Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Change11 is my fourth MOOC. This arc stretches back three years to 2008.
  • Discovering in 2010 that Dave Cormier, one of the main guys in the Connectivism/MOOC thing that I was following, was also interested in rhizomatic thinking.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Take any one point in your life, and you can follow back from it multiple strands or arcs that seem to come from everywhere in your life to converge on this one moment to imbue it with more significance than you could ever muster through your own conscious intention and power. This convergence would seem so magical if it weren't so ordinary. It happens every moment of every day as the arcs and strands of our lives and others weave in and out to form each successive moment.

When we stop to think about this rhizomatic process, as Change11 has forced me to do this week, then we can gain a sense of some larger purpose or design or force at work. Something that seems bigger than ourselves. Being language-using creatures, we want to name it, though several of our religious traditions warn us explicitly not to do this. Naming God is a bad idea, but we do it anyway. George Lucas calls it The Force, which seems parsimonious. Religious traditions call it Yaweh, Allah, the Tao, or just God, which seems too parsimonious to me.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says noosphere, and James Lovelock says gaia. Others say it is emergence, just random, blind convergence, or a rigid nexus of cause and effect. All of these names capture something useful, I suppose, but not one of these names is adequate. Rhizome is not adequate, either, but it's the name Deleuze and Guattari came up with, and like the other names, it has some really good uses, providing some wonderful benefits and insights. But eventually, like all names, it will fall short. Signs always fall short of the things they signify, but for all that, signs are incredibly useful. So let's talk about rhizomes, exploring what the metaphor provides and what it does not provide.

As often happens with me, I've gone way too cosmic. Let's bring this down to something more concrete. In my previous post, I made several comments about the rhizome that Sui Fai John Mak and likely others found confusing. I will try to provide some clarity, though I've just noticed that Bonnie Stewart has provided an answer that is likely better than what I have in mind. Still, maybe the two answers together will be even better yet.

Mak asks what I meant by saying that the rhizome is nothing. As I understand the rhizome, it is not a thing in our usual sense of things: a discrete unit with a rather fixed set of describable features usually shared with other units of its type. Each thing may interact with other things, but it maintains its own identity. And perhaps most importantly, we humans always stand outside the thing—we are the viewing subject and it is the viewed thing. The rhizome is not a thing in this sense. That's what I meant by saying it is nothing. I am not saying that the rhizome is an absence, or emptiness, or vacuity. How so?

First, as Deleuze and Guattari make very clear, the rhizome is an assemblage. It is not a thing, but many things, though even that statement is misleading in the end, but let's use it for a moment. What makes an assemblage of many things a rhizome? First, they are all connected. D&G say pointedly: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order" (7). Indeed, not only is every thing in the rhizome connected to every other thing in the rhizome, but to everything else anywhere. Rhizomes work against boundaries, hierarchies work within them, and this fuzziness of boundary is one of the qualities that works against the thinginess of rhizomes. APPLICATION: In a traditional classroom, student connections are very closely managed and quite limited. Students connect to the teacher and the teacher's content only. In a rhizomatic classroom, student connections are opened and expanded, starting with student-to-student collaboration and moving outward. Rhizomatic learning helps us see the sense of this reduction or elimination of boundaries. In MOOCs, the boundaries dissolve almost totally.

Second, the rhizome is heterogeneous. A rhizome is an assemblage of different, sometimes radically different, things. In speaking of language as a rhizomatic structure, D&G write that "there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogenous linguistic community. Language is, in Winreich's words, an essentially heterogeneous reality" (7). APPLICATION: Traditional education acts as if students are homogenous units to be educated in batches (usually by age), in the same way, at the same time. Rhizomatic education insists that students are heterogeneous and seeks way to educate them in different ways, at different times, in different contexts, about different things. In MOOCs, heterogeneity is so obvious as to hardly be worth noting. We are all in a MOOC for a dizzying array of reasons, even if many of us share some of those reasons.

Third, the rhizome is a multiplicity, an assemblage, but a kind different from a mere collection of things.   I find this point exciting but very slippery: "A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature. … Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions connected to the first: 'Call the strings or rods that move the puppet the weave. It might be objected that its multiplicity resides in the person of the actor, who projects it into the text. Granted; but the actor's nerve fibers in turn form a weave. And they fall through the gray matter, the grid, into the undifferentiated. … The interplay approximates the pure activity of weavers attributed in myth to the Fates or Norns'" (8). APPLICATION: In a traditional class, a teacher assumes a specific lesson taught to specific students who are only and specifically here for the specific purpose of transferring specific information from the teacher to the student. In a rhizomatic class, a teacher assumes that each class is the convergence of perhaps infinite lines and arcs and trajectories of differing magnitudes and dimensions. More simply: each child shows up to the lesson on different nutritional, emotional, intellectual, cultural, aesthetic trajectories—just to name a few—and the energy of each of those trajectories affects the lesson. Then fold in the differing trajectories the teacher brings, the differing trajectories of the content of the lesson, the fluctuating trajectories of the language and other media the teacher employs. Traditional education assumes that through a clean, well-lighted lesson plan, a teacher can adequately control and manage a lesson toward a specific outcome, that her tests can reliably test the same thing in different students, that she can replicate the experience across different times, places, and people. Rhizomatic education insists that while lesson plans can be useful, we ignore and forget about the multiplicity of any moment at our peril. While we humans must reduce any reality to some handy, manageable concepts, or things, we should never forget that things are only more-or-less convenient fictions that the rhizome frequently disrupts.

Which brings us to the next characteristic of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures. However, this has become a very long post. I'll write later about the three other characteristics of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures, cartography, and decalcomania.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#change11 Defining the Rhizome

I just watched the Ed Tech Weekly interview with Dave Cormier about rhizomatic learning, and by the end of the hour, I found myself chafed by the attempt to encourage Cormier to define the concept. The interviewers Jeff Lebow and Jennifer Maddrell seem very pleasant, engaged educators who really wanted to understand Cormier's point, and I do not even slightly suspect them of badgering Cormier; rather, I think the very nature of academic language itself forces us to seek definitions first and then talk later. All of the participants wanted to distinguish rhizomatic learning as a particular learning theory or process or way of knowing (it can be all of those) that is distinct from, say, the positivist way of knowing or the constructivist way of learning. The hope, I think, is that the concept of rhizomatic learning can lead to specific teaching and learning behaviors that will improve education. I think there are a few problems with this attempt to wrangle the rhizome into something it isn't.

First, the rhizome is a metaphor, not a theory or a procedure based on a theory. When speaking of rhizomatics in the interview, Jeff Lebow says, "I think the metaphor is helpful." To my mind, this is spot on. A metaphor is a help in understanding something else, it is not the something else itself. Rhizomatic learning speaks of a more or less helpful way of looking at and thinking about learning. It is not a prescription for learning — it is at best a somewhat helpful description of how learning happens. Through the metaphor of the rhizome as first explored so nicely by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987) educators can look afresh at learning and see things that they had not seen before. At least, this has been the case for me.

For instance, the metaphor of the rhizome is a fine antidote to our tendency toward reductionism. This reductionism lies in the background of the interviewers' attempts to define rhizomatic learning, I think. Like most of us, they want a handy nugget that says, "Oh, yes, that is rhizomatic learning."  The metaphor of the rhizome, however, helps us to see that reductionism is always a fiction. No thing can ever actually be reduced to a discrete thing, or not in reality. We can think of ourselves as discrete and alone in the Universe, a train of thought that usually leads to all sorts of misery and suffering, but none of us are discrete, however convenient or persuasive the reductionist fiction might be.

I am not saying that we should avoid reductionist thinking. That is silly. As Morin has shown, science has scored huge successes through reducing an aspect of reality to a single point, studying it in great detail, and discovering things about this reduced entity that it could hardly have discovered in any other way. Reductionism has great focus and, thus, great power. Rhizomatic thinking, on the other hand, encourages us to replace the discrete thing into its ecosystem, to recontextualize it, and to integrate what we learned through our extreme focus into our knowledge of the whole. In short, we can learn a great deal by studying a single tree, but what we learn only makes sense in the context of a forest. We must see both forest and tree. The rhizome metaphor helps us to do that.

The second thing that bothers me is that a definition of rhizomatic learning reduces the rhizome to the status of one thing among other things: rhizomatic learning as opposed to constructivist or behaviorist learning. Here's the thing: the rhizome is not a thing, it is nothing. This is partly what makes the rhizome so difficult to discuss within a language made of nouns and verbs, or things doing things. This is partly why D&G are so difficult to read: they are trying to map a structure through a language primarily adapted to mapping different kinds of structures. Modern academic language is a fine tool for mapping linear, hierarchical, positivistic structures. Mapping the rhizome with this tool is a bit like building an igloo with hammers and screwdrivers. It can be done, I suppose, but … In their discussion of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari are not trying to focus our attention on the rhizome so much as they are trying to get us to relax our focus, our critical intellect, to capture the arcs, the asignifying ruptures, the starts and fits and interconnectedness of things. From this point of view, then, things are the precipitate of experience (to use Randall Collins' term) at the intersection of multiple arcs of existence at any given time. Think of a plate of spaghetti. Keith Hamon is one noodle strand intertwined and thoroughly embedded in the mass of noodles, and my sense of myself or your sense of me as a discrete entity totally depends upon where along the noodle strand you or I happen to be focusing and what other noodles intersect me there.

Reductionism wants to disentangle the single noodle of my life, stretch it out on an examination tray, name and number the parts, establish the tidy sequences of cause and effect, and finally declare that it understands me. And here's the thing: it will understand a great deal about me that could not have been understood so easily while I was tangled up in the plate of spaghetti. But it will also lose a great deal, if not most, of the contours, the arcs, the twists and turns, the connections and intersections, the forces and counterforces that truly make my life interesting to me, if not to others. Stretched out on the examination table, washed clean of sauce, separated from all the other noodles, and allowed to harden, the noodle of my life will be reduced to the bare facts. Boring. Reductionism reveals nicely what about me is like other spaghetti noodles, but it hardly captures the unique contours that make me interesting, or me.

Rhizomatic thinking, then, is a useful strategy for looking at learning in a different way. It includes positivist thought and reductionist thought and all the other systems of thought, but at the same time that the rhizome provides a rich context for those systems of thought, it is also shifting, deterritorializing and reterreitorializing, and thereby undermining the very systems of thought that it incubated. Our job is to build these structures within the rhizome because they are useful, while remaining very aware that their usefulness has a shelf life. The danger is when we become attached to a system, an ideology, and refuse to acknowledge that it no longer helps.

This makes me think of the night sky. We humans look at the panoply of stars, and we select a few with which to structure constellations, pictures and stories. Because from our vantage point the stars seem to shift so slowly — in our lifetimes hardly at all — then we are seduced into thinking that our pictures and stories are eternal. Modern astro-physics has taught us better. The rhizome of the universe is shifting at incredible speeds constantly, and eventually our treasured stories and pictures will no longer map well to reality. The stars will have moved. The challenge of the rhizome is to look afresh at those stars and to create new stories and new pictures. That's what the rhizome does.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Writing as Network Enterprise

Manuel Castells' book The Rise of the Network Society continues to inform my understanding of a Connectivist rhetoric, though my reading has been incredibly slow over the past month or two. I've had way too many distractions.

Anyway, Castells' discussion of the emergence of the network enterprise has clarified my understanding of the socio-linguistic ecosystem that informs writing. Castells defines the network enterprise as that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of segments of autonomous systems of goals (187). I understand him to mean that a networked enterprise (he is speaking almost exclusively of business organizations) organizes itself and conducts its business through various segments of autonomous networks that are available to the enterprise but not owned or controlled by the enterprise.

At first glance, this may not seem like much of an insight. Haven't organizations always used autonomous networks such as highways, waterways, airways, mail systems, and so forth to do their business? They have, but something has shifted in the past few decades. The biggest shift is, of course, the emergence of the Internet – the distribution of millions of interconnected computers. The Internet provides a new, highly capable, very flexible, and autonomous substrate that allows organizations of any kind or purpose to organize themselves on most any scale and to interconnect in most any way with markets: researchers, suppliers, producers, transporters, customers, regulators, and information.

The Internet also makes explicit to most everyone exposed to it the networked structure of human interaction. Transportation systems and postal systems were also networked structures, also mostly autonomous of any one business enterprise, but for whatever reason, those networks lacked the visual or emotional impact to knock most people from their focus on the individual, at least in Western culture. We could continue to think of Microsoft as mostly Bill Gates, WalMart as Sam Walton, and the United States as JFK or Ronald Reagan.

This viewpoint is hardly sustainable in a networked enterprise. The Internet makes the network explicit to all because it connects all to all. In the old industrial enterprises, only the top management could see and connect to the entire organization. Only they could see how the whole hierarchy fit together. Most people in the hierarchy, certainly the mass of workers, saw and connected only to a handful of others and only to very little information. Today, even workers connect to others both inside and outside the enterprise, and they are more aware of the scope and reach and intricate network nature of their organizations and their place within that network. Moreover, their place in the enterprise is becoming more fluid. No longer do we all have jobs that are discrete positions on an unchanging organizational chart with static duties. Organizations are more flexible, jobs are more fluid, and this flexible fluidity requires a greater awareness on the part of each person of not only their current position within the organization but also their trajectory through the organization.

Thus, as Castells demonstrates quite thoroughly, the convergence of organizational change with technological change has led to new kinds of enterprises, which he calls networked enterprises. These new enterprises make explicit for everyone from CEOs to janitors the network reality of business. Or government, or religion, or education. My hat is off to businesses for capitalizing on these new structures more quickly than have governments, churches, and schools.

So what does this have to do with rhetoric, writing in particular? Well, writing has always been a network phenomenon, but as with business enterprises, that network has been somewhat obscured by the hierarchical structures within which writing took place and by our own intellectual, social, and emotional biases in favor of the individual. On the most sophisticated level, writing was a hierarchical, industrial process with clearly defined jobs: writer, editor, typographer, typesetter, printer, bookseller, reader/consumer, etc. Even in classes, the job of the student writer was quite distinct from the teacher grader, and seldom were the student and teacher in a real conversation that was meaningful to either of them as a conversation rather than a graded exercise. Even writing a letter home to Mom through the postal system (a network) was obscured by the disconnect between the discrete processes of writing the letter, transporting the letter, and reading the letter. Today, people text each other, and they feel (I don't think most of them think about it) connected to the processes of composing, transporting, reading, and responding. Or a better way to say this is that people now see writing as the coherent, systematic, mostly social interaction between networked nodes that it has always been at heart. We'll explore later how to make this mostly social interaction more academic and intellectual.

By the way, I think this coherence of writing/reading as a unified social transaction is the root reason why people are so attached to texting. When writing connects people to their peeps and to their info, then they come to value writing. This is a value and an energy that schools and teachers have yet to capitalize upon. Shame on us.

Then, writing as a network phenomenon makes use of an autonomous substrate known as language. I use English. I don't own English and I don't control it. If I did, then English would quickly become useless as an environment within which millions of people (network nodes) can connect to other people and information sources (other network nodes) to do the work and play of society. This substrate has rules (grammar), as does the Internet (TCP/IP), that are fairly reliable in the sense that no single person or entity (not Apple or Google or English Teachers) can change them for everyone else but that are flexible in the sense that the group as a whole can modify them if a sufficiently compelling reason emerges. Internal use rather than any standard of external merit or appropriateness determines the rules.

Moreover, the substrate is almost infinitely malleable, so that a particular subgroup (say, lawyers or redheaded, left-handed skateboarders) can create their own localized language to facilitate organizing themselves and conducting their affairs. This is quite similar to how organizations will create their own virtual networks over the substrate of the Internet. Here is the reason for network neutrality. If the Internet does not remain autonomous in the sense described here, then it will cease to be a sufficient substrate for all of us. We should expect various entities – governments, businesses, churches, schools – to try to dominate the Internet (or English) and to dictate what is proper to it and how it can be used, but if any group ever captures control of either the Internet or English, then both will be finished as adequate substrates for cultural evolution and progress. Fortunately, most networks have the ability to identify any nodes that attempt to calcify the network into a rigid, authoritarian, hierarchical structure, and the network can isolate those nodes and flow around them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Networks as Frames

I'm always thinking about writing as complex, network phenomena—to the point that I can hardly think of writing any other way. It doesn't seem to matter what level or scale I use to think about writing—the neuronal through the writing process of a single person to a book to the socio-historical movement of languages and genres—it's networks all the way down and up and across. Rhizomes, really. I do think Deleuze and Guattari have a most useful understanding of the structure of reality that they capture graphically in the term rhizome, but that term is a bit foreign to most, almost quirky, while network has a better exchange rate. Network, then, is for me one of those large concepts that frames and informs my other concepts.

And it seems useful to know how one is framing ones reality. Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, is to realize that one is, in fact, framing reality. Actually, that is not quite right. I am not framing reality, though I am absolutely necessary for reality's frames. Rather, I am part of the dialog that frames reality. This is an important aspect of rhizomatic thinking: any frame for reality emerges out of the interactions of nodes—the dialog of nodes—within that reality. Thus, the frame itself is an emergent, and temporary, part of the reality it frames. I see everything as networks because that kind of dialog and frame explains so many things to me. Things that were unclear are now clear. Things that were incoherent are now coherent.

Apparently, others find network structures useful for understanding their favorite slice of reality. In his book Networks of the Brain (2010), about which I have already written much in this blog, Olaf Sporns frames cognition and consciousness in terms of networks on multiple scales, from a chain of neurons, to the interactions of brain regions, and onward to the connections of brains to other brains and to human artifacts. As Sporns says plainly: "cognition is a network phenomenon" (181). In his book Interaction Ritual Chains (2005), Randall Collins frames microsociology in terms of networks at the micro and macro levels of human interaction. Collins says plainly that "the center of microsociological explanation is not the individual but the situation" (3). This situation is for Collins much like what I mean by networks: the interaction and retro-interactions of nodes within a system, across that system, and with other systems. Manuel Castells' book The Rise of the Network Society (2010), frames macrosociology in terms of networks, showing how the interactions of large social groups is a complex, network phenomenon.

Network ideas are certainly common in conversations about rhetoric and education. James Berlin says in his book Rhetoric and Reality that "Transactional rhetoric is based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object, audience, and language—operating simultaneously" (15). Other rhetoricians and academicians accept this way of structuring reality as a dynamic, complex network.

I find this idea that meaning, or reality, is an emergent property of communal dialog implicit and explicit in much that I've been reading about rhetoric, or the skillful use of language, especially in education. In his 1970 classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire refers to the "banking concept of education" that turns students "into containers, into receptacles to be filled by the teacher. The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor." This communal way of speaking about education, of course, frames what can be said and thought about education and what can be done in education. And the frame is so convincing that it feels as if Nature itself is structured this way. Of course students know next to nothing, and of course teachers know next to everything, and of course the teachers must deposit that knowledge into the students. What else could education be but this?

Freire spends much of his book poking holes in this language, but for me his salient point is that the reality of our educational system is an emergent property of the interactions among the constituent nodes within that system. Those interactions involve, of course, language and rhetoric as one, but not the only, type of meaning-creating interaction. Freire identifies the dominant language with the politically dominant group, and in this, I think he is mostly correct, and the heart of his message is that revolution depends in some part in over-turning this language. If we shift the meaning-creating interactions among ourselves and our artefacts, then we can shift our reality. This shift is accomplished partly, sometimes in large part, through a shift in language.

Like Freire, Nedra Reynolds also explores how community dialog can frame reality. In her 1998 essay Composition's Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace, she shows how something as apparently concrete as geography is itself a product of communal dialog, especially when that language is applied to a specific discipline such as English Composition. "Spatial metaphors have long dominated our written discourse in this field ('field' being one of the first spatial references we can name) because, first, writing itself is spatial, or we cannot very well conceive of writing in ways other than spatial." Again, for me, the salient point is that the reality of English Composition emerges in large part from the dialog of the community that discusses it, lives it, and interacts within it.

This view of meaning and reality as emergent properties of a dialogic community seems to me to be at the heart of a connectivist rhetoric. I think such a frame brings some amazing explanatory power and a pleasing, aesthetically beautiful coherence to a swelter of confusing aspects of today's reality. I could easily climb atop my soapbox and proclaim the Gospel of the Net. This iGospel or eGospel has a certain appeal to it, and many of its evangelists are growing rich and powerful from it, but I must keep in mind that network is but one way of framing reality, one way among other ways. Network has a temporary advantage perhaps—a heightened currency—but in the end, network, too, will be supplanted by other ways of viewing the world. Better ways perhaps, though I can't see it at the moment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Knowledge Nonetheless

I take issue with how Castells defines knowledge in his book The Rise of the Network Society. To be fair to Castells, his book is not about epistemology, and he says up front that defining knowledge is problematic even for those who focus on the topic. Still, he gives a definition:
I have no compelling reason to improve on Daniel Bell's … own definition of knowledge: "Knowledge: a set of organized statements of facts or ideas, presenting a reasoned judgment or an experimental result, which is transmitted to others through some communication medium in some systematic form. Thus, I distinguish knowledge from news and entertainment." (17)
If I'm reading Castells correctly, then for him, knowledge is based totally on a formal subset of language: a set of organized statements that is grounded in reason or experimental result and that is transmittable or communicable. As I said in my posts about James Berlin's book Rhetoric and Reality, I am uncomfortable with limiting knowledge to language, especially in Bell's case, to a mere subset of language. I think that all sentient beings can learn about their environments, and the things they learn are knowledge and the things they can learn are knowable, even if those knowledges are not expressed, or even not expressible, in language.

I'll give a quick example from my own experience. I have coached youth soccer teams for fifteen years, and I have tried to teach many children to kick a soccer ball. Very little of what I said—or transmitted to these players through a set of organized statements—about kicking a soccer ball did any good. Rather, I was most successful when I allowed them ample opportunity to kick the soccer ball. Through the trial and error of repeated attempts, most of them learned how to kick a soccer ball. I could say of a player that she knew how to kick a ball, or that he did not know how to kick a ball. This was real knowledge, but hardly communicated through a set of organized statements, hardly even expressible through a set of organized, reasoned statements—knowledge nonetheless.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing in the Network

I'm reading a new book: Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society, second edition (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Originally published in 1996, this book makes a strong case for the monumental shift caused by the emergence of electronic networks. Though I'm just beginning the book, clearly Castells provides exhaustive, well-researched evidence that networks have changed every sphere of life: political, social, economic, religious, educational, criminal, and mental. I'm thinking, then, that he may provide a useful context for exploring how composition and rhetoric have changed.

In the Prologue, Castells introduces the general problem for anyone wanting to write in a networked world. In speaking of how global networks switch on and off individuals and groups according to their perceived relevance to the global network, Castells notes that:
There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities. Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self. [Thus], in this condition of structural schizophrenia between function and meaning, patterns of social communication become increasingly under stress. … The information society, in its global manifestation, is also the world of Shinrikyo, of the American militia, of Islamic/Christian theocratic ambitions, and of Hutu/Tutsi reciprocal genocide. … Postmodern culture, and theory, indulge in celebrating the end of history, and, to some extent, the end of reason, giving up on our capacity to understand and make sense, even of nonsense. (3, 4)
As I understand him, then, Castells is saying that the complexity and irresistible momentum of the global networks is overwhelming individuals and groups who seek refuge in chauvinistic creeds and identities to provide the meaning and values that they need. As one might suspect from the sheer length of Castell's book and the amount of energy that has gone into writing it, Manuel Castells does not accept the end of history and reason. Rather, he affirms his faith that the world has pattern and that human reason can make sense of that pattern. His book is one attempt to discern and describe that pattern.

This is, perhaps, the heart of modern rhetoric: the use of reason (the regular and sharable heuristics of thought and communication) to explore and explain the world and to inform human activity in that world. But I wonder if Castell accepts an essentialist view of reason that posits one standard of reason applicable to all people, at all times, in all situations, or if he accepts a complex view of reason that posits a relative standard of reason negotiated by a group of people, at a given time, in a given situation. I suppose I will find out.

Whichever way he goes, he poses an interesting challenge for rhetoric: how do we communicate in a world that is polarized, on one hand, by global processes that can subsume and crush individuals and groups with an economic logic and, on the other hand, by the fragmentation of individuals and groups into discrete, antagonistic identities that not only resist communication with other groups, but deny that communication is possible? This is a tough challenge, if indeed, it is real.

P.S.— It happened that just an hour after writing this post, I came across a NYTimes article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? by Guy Deutscher. Mr. Deutscher argues that we have recovered enough from the excesses of Benjamin Whorf to look more clearly at the influence of language on the way we think, including the way we reason.
For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.
I accept that we do not all think the same. I think common experience tells us this is so, and I think research is beginning to confirm that it is so. The challenge of academic rhetoric for me, then, is to reason about the world and our activities in the world, while at the same time being conscious of the thought structures we are employing and being explicit about them. Finally, we must employ strategies of engagement with our audiences that allow for those who, through willfulness or ignorance, disregard our own impeccable and exemplary reason. I must think more about those strategies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Coin Toss and Epistemology

On the drive to work this morning, I was thinking about the World Cup Final and lamenting that it ended in a most unsatisfying penalty kick shootout—not unsatisfying because the US lost, though I did want them to win, but unsatisfying because the shootout seems so random, more like a coin toss than a competitive decision. And in my mind (I was driving alone), I said, "A shootout is like a toss of the coin, it's like a coin toss." Or that's what I meant to say. What I actually said in the safe confines of my own brain was: "A shootout is like a toss of the coin, it's like a toin coss."

Of course, I made a common speech error in which I swapped the initial phonemes of two words. Most everyone has done something like this at some time, and some of us do it more often than others, but usually we simply chuckle or blush, correct ourselves, and move on with the conversation. However, I was conversing with myself this morning, and when I noticed what I'd done in my mind, I was reminded of the conversation I've been having about epistemology these past few weeks with Dave Cormier, David Wiley, Stephen Downes, and others. The conversation started when Wiley posted some observations about the value of MOOCs, and then George Siemens, Cormier, Downes, and others responded to Wiley's observations. The conversation was for me a wonderful chance to clarify my own thinking about knowledge and learning, and some of the ideas from that conversation help me clarify my phonetic shuffle this morning.

Why did I say toin coss rather than coin toss? Where did the non-words toin coss come from? I have not learned these near-words, so it makes no sense to say that they were stored in my brain in either short-term or long-term memory waiting for the right occasion to present themselves for use. The point is, until I used them this morning, these phonetic structures didn't exist, at least not for me. However, they are clearly related to two authentic phonetic structures—coin and toss—that did exist for me. I had just used those real words in the preceding sentence. But then I wonder if the real-words coin and toss also existed prior to my using them this morning, and I think that this may be an important question.

I could say—and perhaps most people would say—that the real-words existed in my mind because I have learned them, used them before, and know them; thus, they must be stored somewhere in the brain's memory that my mind can access when it needs that word. The image of a filing cabinet or a computer hard drive seems like a good image for this way of thinking about the brain, but this fails to explain the near-words. They clearly weren't stored in my neural filing cabinet. I could explain the near-words by saying, "Well, my brain just misread the words the second go-round, as brains are wont to do, and produced the near-words." But I think there is a more satisfying explanation that relies much more on the notion of complex, dynamic networks.

Neither the real-words nor the near-words existed in my brain in some storage system before I used them this morning. Rather, my mind created all of them on-the-fly as it helped me find the meaning I was searching for. In the very instance that I sought to express an idea about the value of penalty kick shootouts, a network of neurons and clusters of neurons in different regions of my brain began firing, assembling almost instantaneously phonemes, words, word clusters, sentences, and clusters of sentences. The brain uses both inherited and learned sets of rules to structure this network of neurons and the mind uses mostly learned set of rules to structure the physical network into phonemes and words and sentences and they do it so quickly and, usually, so reliably that I don't notice it. I'm too busy thinking my thoughts to notice how those thoughts emerge—at least, until I make a mistake. Then I notice.

So what have I learned from my mistakes this morning? First, knowledge is not some static thing stored in the brain. Even something that we might commonly think of as irreducible and as stable as a word is assembled, on-the-fly, as a network structure. It's likely also that the brain does not store or preserve even that network structure representing any given word. Rather, each word dynamically emerges each time I use it from and within a network of sounds and other sounds and words and sentences using a different neuronal substrate, depending on the total state of my mind and body and social situation, so that how I say the word coin this time is slightly, perhaps greatly, different from the way I said it last time or the way I may say it in the future. The coin I type here just now is different from the coin I thought this morning in the car.

Of course, the two instances of coin are also the same. Or perhaps it's better to say that they are receptive to definition from the center out so that they possess a core that keeps them recognizable from instance to instance of use. This core is the definition that we might find in the dictionary, and it is absolutely necessary for the word coin to be useful to us humans, but the definition is also just about the least we can say about the word coin. A definition artificially isolates an entity from its environment. It reduces a coin to one thing totally separate and distinct from all other things. This is a useful fiction, and we can learn things about coin this way that we might not see any other way, but the real value of coin usually arises when we embed coin in a conversation, an ecosystem, and the meaning begins to resonate across, through, and within other network structures.

I also see that I have separated brain and mind. That wasn't my intention when I started this post; however, in trying to say one thing, I have inadvertently said another thing. That often happens to me, and it is what editing is for: to correct your mis-statements or un-intended statements. However, I'm going to let this one stand, mainly because I don't know how to correct it. I know that lots of people want to make mind and brain synonymous, to reduce mind to a physical function of neuronal structures and processes. I'm not ready to say that just yet. I do believe that mind absolutely depends upon brain, but I'm not at all certain that it doesn't also depend on the body, on society, on speech, writing, and television, or on the spirit as well. That's another post.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Appropriating Language

In his 1985 essay Inventing the University, Donald Bartholomae explores the struggles of students to join a scholarly community, in large part through appropriating the language of that community. Facility with a certain language is, of course, the ticket into most social communities, not just the English Department in your local college. If you want to run with your peeps, then you'd better learn to talk like your peeps and to talk about what they talk about. Language is a key social marker.

As Bartholomae notes, the problem for most first-year college students is that they have to use academic language long before they have mastered it. Indeed, the academy expects entering students to read, talk, and write like academicians before actually joining the academy. This is not an issue of mere correctness in grammar, punctuation, and spelling—though, correctness also counts—rather, it is an issue of relationships among members of an established community and those outside that community. Language is one of the boundaries—though not the only boundary—that separates those inside the community from those outside the community. Most entering college students are definitely outside, and those of us on the inside spend a lot of time talking about how poorly those on the outside talk. The political and power implications should be obvious.

I have no issues with the rhetorical assumptions underlying Bartholomae's essay: that we use language to create social groups such as English Departments, that we use language to determine who is included in or excluded from the group, and that language in large part determines the knowledge of the group. What bothers me just now about Bartholomae's essay is that he never questions the practice of testing students to determine who is worthy of admittance to the club and who is not.

This question, of course, has ethical implications, but it also has practical implications. We assume that students want to be in our group, so we test them and admit only those who measure up. It seems to me, however, that fewer and fewer students want to be in our group, and that is partly why they don't write and speak they way that we do and why they don't take our admissions tests seriously: they don't want to identify with us teachers. At best, they may want to jump through our hoops because they are still convinced that a college degree has some value (though I think this conviction is on the decline), but they don't care a fig for talking like us so that they can join our cocktail parties. Thus, they will pass our tests anyway they can, including cheating. After all, it's just a hoop.

Can they learn to talk and write as we do? Yes, most of them. Millions of college students have learned tweeting and txting, with their intricate and strange grammars, punctuations, and spellings, in a very short time and without formal training. Why? Because they wanted entry into the groups enabled by those languages. Also, they did it because they were free to create a new language to define their new groups with, and they didn't have to answer to us English teachers for it. Damn.

So on the one hand, millions of college students can learn to write in a peculiar way to join their beloved peeps in marvelous conversations about Lady Gaga or about inventing new online currencies; or on the other hand, they can take a demeaning test writing about some inane topic they would never talk about with anyone they respect all in the hopes of gaining entry to a group of people with whom they wouldn't want to be seen in public.

It's a tough call, but I think the votes are in.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Complexity and Connectivist Rhetoric

So I read Berlin's 1985 book and found the absence of any mention of the Net a glaring hole in the discussion. What if I read something current? As you might expect, I am rewarded … richly rewarded.

I read the first article in the current issue (June, 2011) of College Composition and Communication, an article by Lauren Marshall Bowen entitled Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research (586-607), in which Bowen explores the age-based bias against older people being regarded as digitally literate. According to Bowen, most scholars and the popular media have decided that when it comes to blogs, wikis, and Twitter, most older people just don't—perhaps can't—get it, certainly not the way young people do. As you might suspect, Bowen says that this bias is a mistake that blinds us to the literacies of older people, and she cites as evidence her case study of the digital literacies of Beverly, born 1927.

Of course, digital literacy is at the heart of Bowen's discussion, so I am in familiar territory; however, her rhetorical framework also appears to me to be informed by complexity and networking, core concepts in a Connectivist rhetoric. She says up front that she values "the Internet as a productive, participatory space, qualities sometimes credited to technologies and practices labeled 'Web 2.0'" (588). Literacy in this participatory space is "embedded within everyday contexts, … distributed across social domains, and … developed and evolved over time" (588). This situated approach to literacy means "examining not only the physiological and cognitive barriers to literacy but also the impact of affective experiences (such as feelings of desire or anxiety) in which literacy practices can thrive or become mired" (589). Finally, this literacy "can only be understood in relation to broader sociohistorical context, including nondigital literacies and technologies," and "we must look to the stories individuals tell about literacy and how those stories are embedded within evolving social, technologica, and cultural histories over time" (590).

Bowen's literacy, then, is not a cognitive skill belonging merely to an individual and measurable merely within that individual—a definition that might be common to traditional education and to both objective and subjective rhetorics—rather, literacy is the dynamic interaction of a unique individual (in this case, Beverly) with a unique ecosystem over the course of a unique lifetime. Literacy is not a thing but a web of connections that Beverly weaves out of her own body, heart, and mind and across her social, economic, intellectual, emotional, physical, and other domains. This is a very complex, rhizomatic view of literacy—a view made obvious by digital technology, though not dependent on digital technology. In this context, rhetoric is the skillful use of language to cultivate those connections among ourselves, our communities, and our ecosystems. That web of connections forms our respective realities, and that web is in part formed by and informed by rhetoric, or our use of language.

I don't see anything here that the 1985 version of James Berlin would disagree with. This rhizomatic, connectivist view of rhetoric would fit quite easily into his general view of transactional rhetoric. The only difference is that Bowen and I have the advantage of two decades use of Web 1.0 and almost a decade of Web 2.0. Berlin v.1985 just didn't have that advantage.