Thursday, June 5, 2014

Turbulence and Dialogue in Rhizo14

Ronald L recently shared with me a link to Nicholas C. Burbules' article The Limits of Dialogue as a Critical Pedagogy (2000), which explores and challenges "the claims made on behalf of dialogue as an inherently liberatory pedagogy". It takes Burbules over half of his document to get to his primary issue with dialogue as a pedagogical strategy, but basically, he is troubled by how dialogue in education is too often abstracted and decontextualized. He writes:
The crucial shift in perspective outlined here is from a prescriptive model of dialogue as a neutral communicative process, a procedure in which all participants are treated equally, concerned only with the search for knowledge, understanding, and perhaps agreement, to dialogue as a situated practice, one implicated by the particulars of who, when, where, and how the dialogue takes place. … Rethinking dialogue along these lines holds promise for developing theoretical accounts of dialogue that are richer, more complex, and better attuned to the material circumstances of pedagogical practice. Dialogue, from this standpoint, cannot be viewed simply as a form of question and answer, but as a relation constituted in a web of relations among multiple forms of communication, human practices, and mediating objects or texts." 
In short, Burbule is saying that as a prescriptive educational technique, dialogue obscures and even denies the complex ecosystem of aims, views, and relationships at work in practical dialogue. Decontextualized, prescriptive dialogue ignores the who, when, where, and how (dunno what happened to what) of real-world, practical dialogue. He says:
  • Who: A dialogue is not an engagement of two (or more) abstract persons, but of people with characteristics, styles, values, and assumptions that shape the particular ways in which they engage in discourse.
  • When: A dialogue is not simply a momentary engagement between two or more people; it is a discursive relation situated against the background of previous relations involving them and the relation of what they are speaking today to the history of those words spoken before them.
  • Where: The dialogical relation depends not only upon what people are saying to each other, but the context in which they come together (the classroom or the cafeteria, for example), where they are positioned in relation to each other (standing, sitting, or communicating on-line), and what other gestures or activities work with or against the grain of the interaction. Dialogue has a materiality, which means paying attention to both facilitating and inhibitive characteristics in the circumstances under which it takes place.
  • How: The texts and objects of representation that mediate classroom discourse can have distinctive effects on what can be said and how it can be understood.
While Burbules does not prescribe ways to remedy prescriptive dialogue as an instructional strategy, he seems to suggest that practical dialogue opens itself to the rich, textured ecosystem in which it emerges. This has several implications for rhizomatic rhetoric.

First, it places dialogue in the complex domain, out of the simple and complicated domains. Dialogue is not simple—a script that any literate persons could speak or read—and it is not complicated—a script that any competent actor could perform with conviction. Rather, dialogue is an open-ended engagement in that zone between order and chaos, and while we want the dialogue to end in order (a meaningful consensus), chaos is always at hand and possible. Dialogue, then, is dynamically poised between promise and terror, meaning and nonsense, consensus and strife, resolution and dissolution. Dialogue is turbulent, and while consensus is possible, it is not always probable. And it is not necessarily desirable.

Proponents of prescriptive dialogue assume that at least consensus, if not indeed truth, is the proper and desirable outcome of dialogue. It is not necessarily so. For instance, the recent cMOOC Rhizo14 enabled much dialogue, but I do not think Rhizo14 achieved any consensus. I don't think that consensus and truth was its aim; rather, it intended exploration and insight, and many Rhizo14 participants achieved that. We did not, however, get the right answer. Nothing stops dialogue and discussion quicker than the right answer. And Rhizo14 has been blessed with continuing conversation in large part because there is no right answer, no consensus. Lack of consensus does not mean that Rhizo14 has not had its epiphanies and insights. It has. But I insist that continued epiphanies and insights depend on turbulence. If and when we reach consensus, then order will be fixed, that conversation will be done, and we'll move on to something else. I am still enjoying the turbulence, and I hope we never find the right answer or consensus.

A conversation is turbulent because it is a convergence of people, place, time, issues, and texts (spoken, written, tweeted, acted, etc.), each with its own trajectory and each already a convergence of other trajectories, known and unknown, explicit, implicit, and hidden. The participants in Rhizo14, for instance, all have "characteristics, styles, values, and assumptions that shape the particular ways in which they engage in discourse". They have personal, professional, and socio-economic histories that shape their interests, perceptions, and assumed positions within the group. Each of them has their own unique relationship to the conversational language, mostly English. They have their own trajectories with Facebook, Google+, Hangouts, and Twitter, or asynchronous and synchronous conversational streams. Some wanted to learn more about Deleuze and Guattari, while some were horrified that they might have to tackle those paragons of obscure, French post-modernism, but to use Deleuze and Guattari, a complex conversation is an assemblage, a rhizome, with territorializations and deterritorializations, flights down different lines, a swarm. Turbulence.

Enjoy the flight.

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