Sunday, August 19, 2012

More Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

If agency is the ability to recognize and respond to the surround, then does agency fit with connectivism? Yes. In fact, I can't think of an educational theory that agency does not complement. Education is hardly understandable without some notion of agency on either the teacher's part, the student's part, or usually both parts. But is agency in connectivism distinguishable from agency in behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism? I think so.

In her article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, 420-449), Marilyn M. Cooper locates her concept of rhetorical agency in the same theoretical framework as connectivism: complexity theory, and for her the acting agent is a complex system within a complex system. She is quite clear that the agent is not a classical subject, or a "centered, conscious, rational self", and she defines her task as rescuing the notion of agency from the "death of the subject" (420). She begins this rescue by denying the existence of the subject: "a workable theory of agency requires the death not only of the modernist subject but of the whole notion of the subject" because "the subject is inescapably defined by an agonistic relation to the object/other: the subject attempts to control the object/other in order to escape being controlled" (423).

As I understand her, Cooper is troubled by the inherent and unavoidable power struggle in a modern, reductionist view of the subject – a view I associate with behaviorism and cognitivism. As long as we view agents as discrete subjects distinct from and independent of the objects/others around them, then we cannot avoid sliding into issues of power. Indeed, the agency of a modernist subject can only be viewed in terms of power: the ability of the subject to effect change in an object through the exercise of power, however benign or well-intentioned. This idea of agency as power neatly captures the traditional notion of education: a teacher/school effecting change in students through the exercise of power, usually well-intentioned. We then measure the amount of change in the students to determine the efficacy of the teacher/school. It's a wonderfully simple model that seems as if it should work. One could almost wish it did.

Cooper replaces subject with actor/agent, which she borrows from Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory: "Unlike subjects, agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing" (425). Agency is an emergent property of the interactions of agents with their surround, "the process through which organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions" (426). In other words, we perturb the world, Prufrock notwithstanding, and the world perturbs us in return. In the patterns of this interaction, we come to recognize and know our intentions and agency. Does this complex agency have a place in connectivism? I think so.

Both Cooper's concept of agency and connectivism, then, are grounded in complexity theory. In his blog post What is the unique idea in Connectivism?, George Siemens says that connectivists "find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complexity and systems-based thinking." In his article Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, Stephen Downes notes that knowledge itself is an emergent property of the interactions of neurons: "human thought amounts to patterns of interactions in neural networks." Knowledge does not lie in any neuron or any grouping of neurons but in the emergent patterns of neuronal interactions and networking.

While Siemens and Downes both ground their thinking in complexity theory, I find the most useful treatment for agency in David Cormier's concept of the community as curriculum. In his 2008 article Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum, Cormier describes how curriculum itself can be an emergent property of a community of learners: "In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions."

To my mind, Cooper's concept of agency fits quite nicely into Cormier's community as curriculum, particularly as expressed in connectivist MOOCs. Agency, curriculum, and knowledge all emerge as properties of the interactions of a community of learners, and all three are the trajectories of the patterns of interactions among the various nodes of the community. As learners join a community such as a MOOC, their very presence (even lurkers) perturbs the community, which in turn feeds back into the learner's own mind. The dynamic interplay and interaction of learners, artifacts, and network enables patterns of intention and mapping, in Deleuze's terms, to emerge, and our awareness of these patterns helps us to articulate, mentally and physically, the agencies, knowledges, and curricula that bubble up out of the brew.

I think I have more to say about agency and the rhizome, especially in light of Cormier's use of the term and Cooper's dismissal of Deleuze and Guattari, but not tonight.

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