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.

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