Friday, February 21, 2014

Coda and #rhizo14

Well, didn't we have a party! I really enjoyed Rhizo14, and I thank everyone who joined in, especially the lurkers, who play a much unheralded role in the community as curriculum. I think they are the ones I most want to talk about.

Rhizo14 had such a wonderful wealth of marvelous conversations that I could not track them all. As Dave Cormier said in our unhangout yesterday, he will likely spend the next year hiking his way through the conversation, picking up the trail of things that he passed too quickly during the ride (a term I will steal from Clarissa). Like many others that I've read, I was greatly challenged and enriched by the conversations; yet, through it all, I felt some tension that I couldn't quite surface, but now that I'm a little quieter, I think it had to do with lurkers, those who join a MOOC but aren't vocal. If the statistics about MOOCs are correct, then roughly 80% of people fall into this category, reinforcing the overworked and generally misapplied 80/20 rule. I want to tease this out a bit.

For me, the tension surfaced first as issues with power and causality. Early in Rhizo14, a bit of controversy emerged about comments that appeared to exclude some in the MOOC. The controversy seemed to crystallize into an academics vs. non-academics argument and became something of a power struggle over who could legitimately be in what learning space. I didn't engage that conversation, but it created some tension for me as I wondered why such a boundary would emerge in what I took to be a fairly open learning space with room for all, but as I say, I did not engage the conversation closely enough to gain any clarity.

Then in a comment on one of my posts about the role of space in education, Scott Johnson made a comment about his struggles with the concept of potential in space:
The idea of a potential residing in space is very compelling and also hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything. Maybe we seek to send students in a productive path through a fertile field and need to back away and watch? What was caused by us and what emerged as a result of the students' balancing their path in an unfamiliar setting is hard to know.
 I was keenly struck by his comment that potential residing in space is "hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything", and a wheel turned just a bit. I began to wonder if our view of causality is what prevents us from seeing the community as curriculum. I think it's worth exploring.

As I can see it, the tension I felt is linked to our ingrained habit of thinking of causality as exclusively local. In other words, everything (an effect) is caused by something else (a cause) that is local, or nearby in space and time. The corollary of this definition is that nothing happens that is not caused by another local event. Things that have no local cause are relegated to magic and, thus, to unreality by our classically oriented scientific minds. For us, a body floating on the stage (an effect) must be supported by some wires somewhere (local cause).

In his book Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), Basarab Nicolescu says that modern complexity theory has "expanded the field of reality" by showing that local causality is not the only kind of causality, and he notes both global causalities and circular causalities. I have to expand my field of reality with these additional causalities to make sense of something like Rhizo14 where the community is the curriculum. Expanding my field of reality also helps me see the value of the 80% lurking in the shadows of the group.

As near as I can understand it, global causality refers to the pull of a larger ecosystem on a system. I sometimes think of local causality as a push, as when one billiard ball pushes into another ball and causes it to move. Global causality, then, is a pull, and I see this kind of causality in groups all the time. Studies show that if we put a group of students together for some task and leave them alone, the group will begin immediately to self-organize itself, rank ordering and grouping various students. This self-organization does not have to be locally caused by a teacher. The group will just do it almost as if by magic, but it is magic only if we lock ourselves into the push of local causality. If we open ourselves to the pull of global causality, then we see how any system (a group of students, a human body, a business organization, or a galaxy) will self-organize itself as the whole system pulls itself into functioning sub-systems, depending on the local pushes of the parts and the global pulls of the whole. The jostling of all the parts into useful arrangements can only be partially explained by local causality alone. We need global causality to expand the explanation. The mechanisms for this push and pull (local and global causalities) vary from system to system, but the dynamic interaction appears to hold across all systems, from the inanimate to the animate.

Unfortunately, 400 years of Newtonian physics and Cartesian science has focused us almost exclusively on local causality, relegating global causality to the mystical and magical. The only language we have for global causality is poetic, religious, and metaphoric. Fortunately, complexity theory is providing us with verifiable concepts such as emergence which are just beginning to help us say with more precision and confidence just what we mean by the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complexity theory, which I use to encompass all the disparate ideas from relativity and quantum mechanics to information theory and post-structuralism, is expanding the field of reality and the vocabulary with which to map that expanded field.

Circular causality is another aspect of complexity thinking that expands the field of reality and helps me make sense of Rhizo14. In local causality, cause-effect interactions are regular and repeatable. A billiard ball strikes another ball in the same way if the locations, speeds, and trajectories are the same, and neither ball is essentially changed by the interaction. This is not the case in living systems, and probably not in the case of the billiard balls. When living systems push against each other, they change each other, and those changes are fed back into the subsequent interactions, or pushes, changing them essentially. As I interact with the Rhizo14 community, I am changed and Rhizo14 is changed, and those changes are fed back into our interactions so that the trajectory of our interactions cannot be explained solely by the pushes (local causality) but must include the nonlinear feedback of circular causality. Again, I have to expand my field of reality beyond local causality to understand what is happening in Rhizo14.

Local causality causes us to focus on the push of individuals in any group, so in something like Rhizo14, we tend to think that everything depends on, or is caused by, the few most active individuals (usually, that's whoever is talking the loudest and the most). Using the 80/20 rule, we focus on the 20% and ignore the 80%, just like in business, where we heavily compensate the 20% and barely compensate the 80%. Even in a group with a name like The Community as Curriculum, with community in its name, we habitually focus on the few. This is a mistake, I think. The few cannot make a community without the many. We privilege the few at the expense of the many. I continue to do it, even though I intellectually know better. As a soccer coach, I KNOW that the whole field of players is the most important feature of the game, but as a spectator, I still tend to follow, to privilege, the player with the ball. The player with the ball makes no sense without the other players on the field. Imagine the other players suddenly absent, and what are you left with? Some guy running and dribbling the ball around the field. Time to go home.

I think I can say my tension now: I still tend to privilege the individual, especially the loud, active, powerful individual, over the community. I still privilege local causality at the expense of global and circular causalities. I still unreasonably restrict my field of reality. For instance, I still want to say that Steve Jobs invented the iPhone and to privilege him with money and fame when I KNOW that it really took all of Apple and the rest of the electronics industry to do it. I want to say that Dave Cormier made Rhizo14 happen, when I know it was the community that did it, including the 80% who lurked. To really make sense of Rhizo14, I have to expand my field of reality to include the whole community and to find ways to privilege all parts of the community.

This sounds as if I want to minimize a Steve Jobs or Dave Cormier, but that is not the case at all. They, too, must be included in the field of reality, but I cannot understand the iPhone or Rhizo14 if I limit my vision to local causality, looking simply to those two causes to explain the effects. They are both necessary causes, but not sufficient. Likewise, the other active voices in Rhizo14, mine included, are necessary but insufficient causes. If I want to understand Rhizo14, I have to explore the global and circular causes (and likely other kinds of causes) that help illuminate a complex system. Focusing on local causes is easier, but including all causes provides a better picture, and that's what I want.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Intermezzo and #rhizo14

In her post Questions about rhizomatic learning, Jenny Mackness ponders the arrangement of space in Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome. She quotes D and G: "Nomad space is ‘smooth’, or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other" and "A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo." She then notes the difficulty envisioning such a space, saying that her "past experience has suggested that there are always boundaries that we come up against". I share her difficulty, and I think that it's the boundaries that cause the problem for both of us and for most others.

I start with boundaries as Paul Cilliers uses them in his article Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2007), where he argues that knowledge is not representational but relational: "a result of the dynamic interaction between all the meaningful components in the system" (85). This leads to a problem because any system, even the most trivial garden slug, has an approximately infinite number of dynamic relations that could be considered at any one time. We use context and boundaries to limit the number of considerations that we must make at any given time in order to form some useful understanding of whatever bit of reality we happen to be engaging, the garden slug for instance. We must limit and differentiate. As Cilliers says, "For meaning or knowledge to exist at all, there have to be limits" (87), or boundaries.

We learn these boundaries from parturition, when we are first separated from the mother and relationship and dynamic interaction become unavoidable. Perhaps we develop some sense of boundaries earlier, but I really have no expertise or even much idea about that. I am certain, however, that one of the first tasks after birth is for babies to differentiate themselves from their mothers. That may be the biggest bit of learning we ever do, and I suspect that everything else we learn follows from that first striation in the rhizome. After we form me and you, we form here/there, up/down, wet/dry, hungry/full, and all the rest. We start slicing and dicing our world, the rhizome, and we form our boundaries within the context of our social groups: mother/child dyad, family, clan, and larger.

These differentiations are always an act of power, and we learn to use our own idiosyncratic powers as well as the power of our groups to form our world. We do it so often and so automatically, that it comes to feel natural, and we are often shocked when we learn that others don't see the same things that we see, don't have the same meaning about the Eiffel Tower as we do.

The point that I think Deleuze and Guattari and others such as Serres are making is that reality is not striated naturally. All of the boundaries and structures that we trace onto the rhizome to make it meaningful and useable are acts of power, individual and group. We say, "up" or "down", and the rhizome says, "Whatever." The rhizome is "always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo", and up and down really depend totally on our point of view and the way we have sliced and diced things. Moreover, something in the rhizome resists our marking and differentiating, or is indifferent to our meaning-making, and flees our naming and knowing through lines of flight, deterritorializing here and reterritorializing in the most unexpected places, as when a grape deterritorializes in Argentina only to reterritorialize in me as a nice Merlot. We make the mistake of thinking that our naming and knowing, our differentializations, are permanent markers on reality. The rhizome teaches us otherwise.

This is, of course, very eastern in its feel—not quite buddhist, but damn near it. It is also very much a part of complexity theory. From what I read, modern physics says that everything in the Universe is interconnected to everything else (gravity, for instance, extends totally across the Universe), and the boundaries we make between this and that are mostly a matter of convention and convenience, not a matter of absolute truth. New laws and new boundaries are constantly emerging, which means that our knowledge should be constantly emerging, should be constantly renewed. This pleases me greatly, as I will never run out of things to learn, even if I should prove to be eternal as the fundamentalists insist. Can you imagine an eternity with nothing new to learn? God spare us.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Space, Possibility, and #rhizo14

In her post Questions about rhizomatic learning, Jenny Mackness notes that I "have written that ‘the space holds all the possibilities’, which has made [her] wonder what possibilities the structure holds." This play with the tensions between open and structured spaces is a conversation I picked up from Michel Serres' book Genesis, his meditations about how form, or structure, emerges from chaos, open spaces. I find Serres' writing incredibly rich and exciting, using precisely the sort of rhizomatic approach to language that I was trying to talk about in my previous post. Serres makes great use of both metaphor and model, being well schooled in both classical literature and mathematics. Thus, he has no problem mixing religious imagery and metaphor on one hand with mathematically precise, rational models on the other. I cannot overlook that his book shares the title of the first book of Judeo/Christian scripture: Genesis.

Anyway, the new idea for me was that space is not empty or silent; rather, space is chaos, in the best sense of that term. Space is the open places where no forms, no boundaries, no things yet exist, but where anything can emerge, anything is possible. Why? Because space is filled with what Serres calls noise, the roiling sea foam out of which every-thing emerges: rocks, people, stars, ideas—not necessarily in that order. This is consistent with my understanding of the current thinking in physics.

This is a big deal for me, because it makes space less threatening and more promising, though just slightly, and it helps me to visualize (I need to visualize in order to understand) what happens when I move into unknown, chaotic, all-possible space. First, every-thing is already there and possible, but only some-things emerge, or differentiate themselves from the background noise, as I engage. The noise is always there, always, and the noise contains all possibilities, to use Serres' terms. But as soon as I engage the space, boundaries form and things begin to emerge, effectively closing down many possibilities as these emerging things and ideas begin to define the once-open space in relationship to me. The space begins to close about me. This is neither good nor bad. This is just what happens as I engage the space, especially in the company of others. Possibilities, then, become potentialities in Serres' terms, and power emerges within the relationships of the emerging things.

To reference the soccer analogy again, within the open space of the soccer pitch, almost any-thing can emerge, or happen. However, once the ball is played into that space and players engage the space, most of the possibilities that could have happened are eliminated. Now, the game closes, defines, that once open space, and potentialities along with power emerge. The location, trajectory, and pace of the ball and the arrangement, trajectories, and skills of the various players define the open space, closing off most of what had been possible in that space, and the potential takes over from the possible.

Now, there is something of the pedantic here as common usage does not distinguish much between possible and potential, and probably Serres could have swapped the words without harming his meaning, but I find the distinction enlightening and helpful. Consider this post that I am writing and you are reading. A question opened this space for me—as Dave Cormier's questions have opened spaces in #rhizo14—and the possible things that I could have said in reply to Jenny's questions were not infinite, but they were greater than I could imagine, so effectively infinite. However, as soon as I started thinking about the space beyond her question, and especially as I began to write words into that space, I closed off lots of the things I might possibly have said. In the act of writing about the question at hand, I engaged the space and began defining it, moving from very large possible to a more restricted potential. I introduce Serres here but not other thinkers (Paul Cilliers comes to mind) that I could have used. I use a soccer analogy here but not the rhizome analogy, which could work nicely as well. I close off the conversation of necessity. It's the only way I know to make sense.

We do this sort of thing all the time. We must do it to make sense of the world and to share it with others. In his introduction to the Week 5 unhangout of Rhizo14, Dave says that we have to start reassembling the spaces that we've been exploring in the first 4 weeks. This reassembling suggests the meaning-making that I'm trying to talk about.

So does structure have possibility? Well, yes, of course, but to use the terms as I've been using them here, space has possibility and structure has potential—still some room for randomness, but not as much as with space. Most of the time, we do not ever engage absolute space or noise. Such an encounter can usually be spoken of only in mystical terms—I think of Saul's encounter on the road to Damascus when he became St. Paul—rather, we engage the more open spaces beyond our current place—for instance, the open part of the soccer pitch beyond where the ball is now, or the space that lies behind an interesting question about whether or not books are making us stupid. Even though there is space behind the ball or the question, it isn't totally unbounded space. The soccer pitch has sidelines, and the question about books has Rhizo14.

The problem with traditional education is that it makes almost no room for space. Every step in a lesson is absolutely choreographed and paced to a fixed destination. Imagine if a soccer coach (teacher) stopped the game each time a ball was played into space to position the ball and the players and to instruct the players on exactly what to do next. Nobody would want to play or watch that game. On the other hand, imagine if there were no field boundaries, no rules, any number of balls, any number of players, and no goals. Nobody would want to play or watch that game, either. Good education, like a good game, requires some boundary, but not too much. It's why I have swapped American football for soccer: football has too much boundary, too many rules, that lead to too many interruptions of the game (and thus to too many commercials).

Good education, like a good game, also requires the constant tension between the open and the closed. In other words, it requires movement of mind and body. We push out into the open for 4 weeks, and then we pull back into the closed for a week or two.

This translates into some specific, concrete ideas about what happens in my classrooms. First, the spaces that I hope to lead my students into have to be open for my students, even if they are no longer open for me. I'm more excited about their learning if I am learning with them, but for some of the most basic classes, the space is very familiar to me. Of course, this can make me a jaded, disengaged professor if I'm not careful, but the one mistake that I cannot make is stopping my students' exploration of a new space, which is still quite open for them, by giving them the right answer. I have to remember that nothing stops exploration and learning quicker than the right answer. As soon as I give the right answer (at least, right in terms of the class), then my students stop exploring and stop learning. As long as I'm talking, my students are not learning. That's an exaggeration, of course, but it makes my point.

Then, I have to remember that students can enter a new space ONLY from the space where they already are. Sometimes the student's current space is nowhere near the space I want to take him. I have to be sensitive to this—in other words, I have to learn where my students are, which is almost impossible to do if I'm talking or lecturing. Students need to anchor first from where they are, then find some new points of reference in the new space, and finally triangulate those new anchors with the old anchors.

Well, I could go on, but I'm reaching the boundaries of my sense of how long my blog post should be, effectively closing down the possibilities of saying more. I hope I've introduced enough potential into the conversation, the game, without totally limiting how others can engage the space. I wish my high school math teacher had allowed more space in his lectures about trigonometry. I might have made a fine mathematician.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jenny, Rhizomatic Learners, and #rhizo14

I've been conversing with Jenny Mackness for a few years now and have always found our conversations instructive and enjoyable, but never more so than now. As part of our engagement with Rhizo14, she wrote a post (Questions about rhizomatic learning) asking me a few questions about rhizomatic learning and thought. I will try to answer as best I can in this post, but you really owe it to yourself to read her post first. It exemplifies what a rhizomatic post can be: exploration from an individual perspective that is informed by years of study and honest engagement with emerging learning spaces. It's the kind of post I try to write, and I'll try to emulate Jenny here.

I'll take her questions in order that I find them as a simple, convenient organizing strategy. We'll see if that works.

She first asks about how "to distinguish a ‘rhizomatic learner’ from other learners". This suggests to me an attempt to fit rhizomatic learner into a theoretical framework, which I have resisted doing as I consider the rhizome a metaphor rather than a theoretical concept such as the constructivist learner. This may sound like a dodge of the question, but I don't think so. I tried to address this issue in a comment on Cath Ellis' post Model one: maps, but I didn't do so well there. To my mind, a theory is a conceptual model of something; thus, constructivism or connectivism are conceptual models, or theories, of learning, and the concepts within those models are supposed to trace accurately and reliably the processes of learning. We build models to help us get a handle on larger things, such as Cath Ellis' map of the London Underground. For me, a map is a model that helps me conceptualize and navigate the too large and confusing London Underground. The model, then, has limited value in itself; rather, its value follows from how accurately and handily it traces the salient, relevant points of the original.

The rhizomatic learner, on the other hand, is for me a metaphor which expands our understanding of one thing (the process of learning) in the light of another thing (a botanical rhizome). The metaphor learning is a rhizome is similar, then, to the metaphor love is a rose. Love is a rose is an expansive way of comparing what we know in a tactile, visceral way about roses to the emotion love, which can be somewhat more abstract. The rose provides some insight into what love can be like, but no one would say that the rose is a model of love, or that understanding a rose helps us manage our love life with any more precision, finesse, or success. Also, the rose does not depend on love for its value. It has value in itself, regardless of the light it sheds on love.

Moreover, we usually don't feel the same sense of conflict with metaphors that we feel with models. In one of her poems, Margaret Atwood says that love is like a fish-hook in the eye, giving us another metaphor for love. While we can all see a different perspective on love highlighted by this metaphor, we don't see the metaphors in conflict or competition. They both say something more or less useful about love, but only the most left-brained, fundamentalist, reductionist critic would say, "Okay, which is it? Is love a rose or a fish-hook, because it can't be both." This either/or thinking is more typical of models: we are fond of arguing that education is either constructivist or connectivist, for instance, but not both. I don't want to reduce the rhizome metaphor to either of these models. I want rhizomatic learning to remain a metaphor that pushes me outward to explore new ways that I might conduct my classes—I don't want it to become a model for how my class ought to be.

But I have to keep in mind that metaphors are not in conflict, as models tend to be. Thus, I'm quite comfortable with other metaphors than the rhizome. For instance, Jenny Mackness and her colleagues have developed a wonderful metaphor they call emergent learning, and in an article that I published this past year in Cosmopolis, I explored the metaphor of the quantum hive. There are other metaphors, and I see none of these metaphors as in competition or conflict; rather, they are all gateways into the spaces that we don't quite understand yet, the spaces that we are not quite yet able to model. These are the spaces that we are still mapping as nomads/knowmads, but I'm confident that someday we will be able to model them, and when we have them mapped and known, the knowmads will move on to the other open spaces that will open up. I'm confident, then, that knowledge will never become stale and boring. I find that very comforting.

In another of Jenny's posts, she mentions Iain MacGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, in which MacGilchrist provides a detailed examination of the differences between the worldview of the right brain (the master) and the left brain (the emissary), the resulting worldview of the whole brain, and the consequences for human culture. As Jenny notes:
Whilst the title of McGilchrist’s book suggests a polarisation between the left and right brain – this is not the case. He is at pains to point out that we need both hemispheres of the brain – but the thrust of his book is that we have become over dependent on the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of abstraction, to the detriment of the right hemisphere, the hemisphere of embodied learning.
This pretty much captures what I understand of MacGilchrist's argument, and for me, metaphor is a tool of the right brain: the hemisphere of embodied learning, while model is a tool of the left brain, the hemisphere of abstraction. Metaphor helps me to expand my boundaries beyond what I know to those open spaces that are still unknown to me, while model helps me to consolidate what I have learned: to corral the open spaces and make sense of them. I need both, but like MacGilchrist, I think that our current culture privileges the model-making left brain to the disenfranchisement of the metaphor-making right brain, and this is to the detriment of us all. On her blog, Jenny features a quote attributed to Albert Einstein which captures this great loss: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honours the servant and has forgotten the gift." While some claim that this particular quote is apocryphal, it still captures the spirit of Einstein's other statements about the value of creative intuition in relation to rationality. It captures MacGilchrist's take on the split brain, and it captures my thinking on metaphor vs. model. I personally tend to value metaphor over model, but I need both. One without the other leads to a skewed world view and to intolerable people: soupy, syrupy airheads on the one hand, and anal-retentive pricks on the other. I'm trying for some balance, recognizing that I could easily slide into the airhead end of the spectrum.

Rhizo14, of course, is focusing on the metaphor-building, intuitive, expansive, open-ended aspect of learning. It should, and I have no problem with this. However, I recognize that this can appear to suggest that rhizomatic learning is all there is to learning. I don't think this is so, and I don't think Dave Cormier thinks it is so. In education as in life, we need all the tools we can master to build good minds and good lives. We need both metaphor and model, we need the right brain and the left brain. We also need to know when to use the one, or the other, or both together.

So to finally address Jenny's question about how to distinguish rhizomatic learners from other learners: I think I can distinguish them from those learners who want only to trace a given path to a given right answer. I cannot distinguish rhizomatic learners from emergent learners or learners in the quantum hive, and I'm not sure that I want to, just yet.

Well, that's question one. I guess I'll have to tackle the other ones later, as I've papers to grade before Monday. But again, thanks to Jenny for pushing me in a righteous direction, and I hope I made sense.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Print, Stupidity, and #rhizo14

I've just listened to a TVO audio lecture by Don Tapscott, in which Tapscott "refutes the belief that the internet is turning today's youth into 'the dumbest generation'". The 55 minute lecture is worth listening to in its entirety, but the relevant section for this discussion starts near the end at 41:18 where Tapscott recounts a meeting with the academic leaders at Florida State University which is on a mission to become a premier 21st century institution. He basically tells them that they must change the way they deliver instruction and relate to students and to other institutions. A dean asks a student attending the meeting what he thinks about Tapscott's comments, and the student agrees, ending with the salient observation that he doesn't read books. Intrigued by the student, Tapscott later learns that he is a straight-A student of incredible accomplishments including an upcoming Rhodes Scholarship. And he doesn't read books.

As I listened to the student talk about how he approaches information, I realized that he basically treats books as Web documents: he links to what he needs, when he needs it. He says that he never reads a book straight through from start to finish, but locates the book on Google Books, finds the relevant bit, and reads just that. Needless to say, he doesn't buy books, either.

Those familiar with Deleuze and Guattari's 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus, which first gave us the concept of the rhizome, will not find this approach to reading a printed book unusual. In his introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, translator Brian Massumi compares reading to playing a vinyl record:
How should A Thousand Plateaus be played? When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don't approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business. … The reader is invited to follow each section to the plateau that rises from the smooth space of its composition, and to move from one plateau to the next at pleasure. But it is just as good to ignore the heights. You can take a concept that is particularly to your liking and jump with it to its next appearance. They tend to cycle back. Some might call that repetitious. Deleuze and Guattari call it a refrain. 

The best way of all to approach the book is to read it as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist. Some might call that promiscuous. Deleuze and Guattari call it revolution.
It is easy to see print texts as linear and limiting, or as Dave Cormier say in this week's Rhizo14 challenge: print moves toward objectivity and distance and remove and impartiality, something that is less participatory, that moves toward the definite and not toward the relational. Dave is quite correct, I think, that this is how most people have viewed printed texts. It is the way most of us were taught in school to write texts (beginning thesis with supporting details that leads logically and inevitably to a specific conclusion, and all that), but I don't think we must view texts this way.

I think it is quite possible—in fact, I think it is inevitable—to view even printed texts rhizomatically, as a function of complex, multi-scale networks. The Rhodes Scholar in Tapscott's lecture is viewing print that way: he enters the text from the arc of his own trajectory, his own interests and needs, not necessarily from the beginning, and he takes from the text what he needs, and he at last reconnects and recombines what he's taken with any variety of other sources and types of information.

Print has rendered language static in some ways, such that one of the big literary tasks of the 20th century was to uncover the definitive text—say of Shakespeare's Hamlet—but that is an aberration of reading that appealed to only a few dilettantes. No one today expects a text to remain static. How many of us will return to a website more than once if it remains the same? Rather, we now expect a text to be dynamic.

While a printed text does possess a kind of permanence simply because it is so difficult to change once printed, this doesn't mean that the text is not dynamic. All of my books contain massive marginalia that modify my book from that of any other copy. Indeed, if there are not marginal notes, I probably didn't like the book and gave it away. The books I keep become mine, really mine, with my thoughts there on the page alongside Deleuze and Guattari's.

Moreover, a text is NOT simply the printed words, the physical thing that you acquire and hold in your hands. It is your reading of it, then your discussion of it with others, and the links and interconnections among your readings and other readings. It's how the text ripples through a social group, or doesn't. It's how it lies dormant for decades or hundreds of years, as Keats' poems did, before emerging into full bloom in more receptive climates. The highly focused New Criticism of the 20th century taught us how to look at a text as an artifact, but that reading ultimately obscures the larger, more rhizomatic reading of a text across a society and over generations. The extreme focus of New Criticism simply cannot explain why we can read the same stories and poems again and again and get new meaning out of them. Where does that meaning come from if not from the multiplicity of interconnections among the printed text and its readers and critics? All texts—certainly electronic texts, but even printed texts—are rhizomatic.

Consider this very post, for instance. People will read it (for which I am thankful), and some may comment on it. Those comments add to the text. Others may link to this post, or follow the links in this post to other texts. The ideas in this post may emerge in other posts in other words. All texts can behave this way, do behave this way.

This said, I do think print will become less important day-to-day as we move it to its electronic forms, but I don't think we will totally do away with it, as we still use handwriting. The printed word does, unfortunately, encourage fundamentalist, restrictive readings, but it doesn't have to. I insist that all printed texts, even the most sacred, are vastly enriched by a rhizomatic reading, the kind of reading that Deleuze and Guattari force us into in the printed book A Thousand Plateaus.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Uncertainty in #rhizo14

The third challenge for #rhizo14 is almost over, and I've yet to say anything about embracing uncertainty. I've been thinking about it, but I also delivered a paper at the Southern Humanities Conference in Richmond, VA, this weekend, so I've had some distractions. Still, on my way home this morning, I read Cathleen Nardi's excellent post Down the Rabbit Hole, and during the flight back to West Palm Beach, I finally had time to organize some thoughts that I'd like to explore for a bit.

I have a tendency to be too glib and cavalier about uncertainty, recommending it heartily to most any passing stranger, but my travels this weekend reminded me that certainty and uncertainty are serious issues that affect our lives. The small conference I attended was decimated by cancelled flights, especially any coming through Atlanta, in the wake of the winter storm that crippled the southeastern United States. My own flight home on Saturday was cancelled, and I did not make it home until Sunday. Sometimes, uncertainty sucks. Every time my flight hit an air pocket, I was reminded about how desperately I wanted to be certain that my plane would land safely. It did.

So let me begin by saying that I recognize great areas of my own life in which I will beg, borrow, steal, or pay for as much certainty as I can. Certainty is important, just as important as uncertainty; still, a life of total certainty is deadly boring. A curriculum of total certainty is deadly boring. Rather, life is enriched by the tension within the complex dance between certainty and uncertainty, the known and the unknown, and I am certain that traditional education does not have enough dance in it, not nearly enough uncertainty.

So how do we intelligently introduce uncertainty into a curriculum that wants to guarantee that no child is left behind? Cathleen's post gave me an answer this morning, describing for me a rhizomatic approach to education that embraces uncertainty and knowmadic wanderings while remaining a reproducible pedagogical strategy. You should stop here and read her post, if you haven't already, as I'm going to write as if you know what I'm talking about.

Note that Cathleen uses the concept of the nomad/knowmad in her post, and this made me think of the topological structure of knowledge. Space is topological, and if Michel Serres is correct, time is topological as well; thus, it makes sense to me that knowledge is topological. Thus, the knowmad is a perfect image for those who wander up the hills, down the valleys, and along the chreod of inquiry. So embracing uncertainty is like hiking into a new territory, and I think that Cathleen is saying that Rhizo14 has been like that: hiking into a new territory, or falling down the rabbit hole, but let me stick with hiking in this post.

Once in the new territory, Cathleen does what any sensible explorer will do: she sets some landmarks, both old and new, to get her bearings. She appeals first to Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodren, both of whom she has heard speak from a buddhist perspective about embracing uncertainty in life. I assume their ideas became landmarks for her. Then she sets some new landmarks with Deleuze and Guattari and rhizo14. I think these landmarks are essential, both old and new, and I think that too often MOOCs overlook this crucial first step. When entering new territory, we benefit from looking back to familiar landmarks that help us orient and then finding a new landmark. We can then triangulate to see how the new stuff is related to the old. I think this is a key to rhizomatic learning: starting where the knowmad is and then trying to move the knowmad beyond that space and helping the knowmad to identify salient landmarks, old and new. Traditional learning starts with the endpoint, the goal of learning, the place a curriculum wants the student to end up, and then lays out the steps and measures how well the student gets there. Rhizomatic learning starts with the knowmad and invites them to enter a new space. It is key, though, that the knowmad knows where they are to begin with. If they start lost, they may very well end up lost. Getting lost along the way can be okay, but ending up lost sucks. I think many xMOOCs have relied on the usually advanced students who have a good sense of where they are in the topology of their knowledge to skip this first step, but that won't work so well with beginning students, who need a chance to reflect on what they already know before they can triangulate the new landmarks they are discovering.

Then, Cathleen notes how she connects to fellow hikers such as Cath Ellis, Maureen Maher, and The Knowmadic Society. Traditional knowledge is fond of separating students, not letting them look on each other's papers. Rhizomatic education, on the other hand, seeks to connect knowmads, knowing that connected knowmads are more likely to identify interesting new landmarks that help them all map the territory. This is also a point at which cMOOCs could do more. I think we assume that all participants will automatically understand how to use the new net tools to connect and that they will have the impulse to connect, but old learning habits are hard to break and new ones may not form so quickly. I know that my students need several opening exercises before they even start to believe that I really want them to connect to their fellows to accomplish their study.

Finally, I want to note the contributions of Dave Cormier to Cathleen's knowmadic trek through rhizo14. He's done it right. First, he's identified the new territory, setting up the general area for mapping, providing ample scope for most any exploration. Next, Dave has provided highly effective prompts to keep the explorers moving along, pushing the boundaries of exploration ever outward. A good teacher pulls with attraction and appeal rather than pushing with power. Then finally, Dave has done the most important thing: he is still a knowmad himself. Stephen Downes has said that good teaching is basically modeling, and I think that is the best role for a rhizomatic teacher: a more experienced knowmad, perhaps, but a knowmad along with the others, mapping new territory. As a writing teacher, I am dismayed by how few of my colleagues write with their students, share their own writing with their students, ask for their students assessment of their own writing.

Thanks, Cathleen. This is a model that can be replicated and used widely. I will.