Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Provisional Boundaries

Woermann and Cilliers posit four mechanisms that reinforce and promote the critical attitude: provisionality, followed by transgressivity, irony, and imagination. To my mind, mechanism is an unfortunate term, as none of the four seem mechanical; rather, I would call them heuristics, having more to do with experimentation in contact with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari say it, than with a device for reliably and regularly framing the world. These four mechanisms are bricolage for bricoleurs.

Given our incomplete knowledge of any complex system—and I think that all naturally occurring systems are complex as are many human-created systems such as MOOCs—it should be obvious that knowledge is provisional and, thus, the ethics based on that knowledge is provisional. While we must frame knowledge and ethical responses to complex spaces, we must simultaneously hold that our frames are in some way inadequate both when shifted to other contexts and within our own contexts. Let's see how.

That meaning, knowledge, and ethics change when we shift contexts is almost trivial to say. Even children can sense, if not adequately explain, the different meaning in the words "I love you" when spoken by different people in different situations. Indeed, the words don't mean much without a context. Likely when you just read the words I love you, you automatically supplied a context in your mind to help the words mean something. Without context, there is almost no meaning, and different contexts mean different meanings. Most of the world's love stories are based on two people using the same words from different contexts. Much of humor relies on things said or done in the wrong context (this touches both on transgressivity and irony, which I'll discuss later).

But the provisional nature of knowledge and ethics is even more subtle than this as both knowledge and ethics are uncertain even within a given context. Language, knowledge, and ethics never come to us pure, but they are always stained with their use in other contexts. Woermann and Cilliers quote Bakhtin, who says in his 1984 book Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:
The life of the word is contained in its transfer... from one context to another context... In this process the word does not forget its own path and cannot completely free itself from the power of these concrete contexts into which it has entered. (452)
When we say "I love you", we cannot unsay all the other times we have said the same, for better or for worse, in other contexts, nor can we unsay all the other times the other has heard these words said. We cannot even unsay all the times countless others have said and heard these words. Our boundaries leech. Our frames do not hold absolutely against the outside. Perhaps this is one reason we so often envelope ourselves in emotional frames: to insulate ourselves from the knowledge of other contexts, to focus ourselves on taking the desired action quickly regardless of what we know, to forbid our knowledge and ethics from interfering with what we are passionate to do.

Not only do contexts leech the outside in, they are never complete in themselves. As Woermann and Cilliers note (453), Derrida says in Living On: Border Lines (1979) that "no context permits saturation." Woermann and Cilliers add that "every context is open to further description" and "[t]here are no final meanings that arrest the movement of signification" (453). Even when we position ourselves within a context in order to know what we know and to act as well as we can, our given context is open to further description, further interpretation. We can always know more, and that more always changes our knowledge and understanding.

We are always in trouble. We must make decisions, and the frames that inform our decisions are provisional. Most people do not like this tension, and they work very hard to simplify the complexity of life to render decision-making—which is the heart of ethics—into binary choices, into Thou shalt or Thou shalt not, into nothing can exceed the speed of light or you can understand any phenomenon by breaking it down into its smallest constituents and describing its fundamental interactions. Here is my problem with fundamentalists: not that they do or do not have a different frame than I, but that they insist that theirs is the only frame, the only context. Moreover, the true fundamentalists see it as their job or calling to destroy all frames and contexts other than their own. We have a long history of religions trying to stamp out competing religious frames, but we currently have a strong movement among atheists to stamp out all religious frames. To my mind, both are highly unethical attempts to destroy competing frames and to force their one, true frame onto others.

In a way, fundamentalists want to destroy ethics or to reduce it to a binary choice. Fundamentalism always posits absolute, universal rules, which reduces the complexity of ethics to simple choices: either one honors thy father and thy mother or one does not. A complex ethics rejects simple, binary choices.

A complex ethics also rejects an anything goes relativism that says all choices are the same. This is another way to reduce the burden of ethical choices. If all choices are the same, then just pick whatever is convenient. A complex ethics, however, accepts the constant burden of making choices with incomplete knowledge within restricted contexts.

This, I think, is a key stance for anyone engaging a complex learning space such as a MOOC. Even within the context of the MOOC, one cannot have complete knowledge, can't read it all, can't know everyone. MOOCs seem to work better if participants declare their own points of view, while opening space for others to do the same. MOOCs seem to work better when participants constantly reassess their own frames in light of other frames. Finally, MOOCs seem to work better when participants are willing to transgress their own boundaries when those boundaries, those frames, become inadequate to accommodate different, insistent knowledge and behaviors. This sounds like a recipe for ethics, but that's a trick of language—it isn't a recipe, it's a stance, a habit of mind, a heuristic, a cultivated tendency. It can happen in a moment, in a flash of insight, or it can unpack and emerge over the course of many MOOCs. It's a practice that is never mastered, never finished. It's a way of acting. It's complex ethics. It isn't the Way—it's a manner of walking. It isn't the Truth—it's a manner of conversing and mapping. It isn't neat and tidy enough to be a rule, but at best, a rule of thumb. It is not a social contract. I'm not opposed to contracts, but that ain't what I'm talking about.

I'll talk more about transgressions next. It seems that they are ethical after all.

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