Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Heterogeneity 2

In my previous post, I asked how the principle of heterogeneity might inform the ways we organize a course of instruction, especially a college composition course such as the ones that I teach. Deleuze and Guattari quote Carlos Casteneda to suggest how one might proceed with exploration of a new conversation, or any other slice of life. In The Teachings of Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus gives his student Carlos instructions about how to cultivate a garden of hallucinogenic herbs:
Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (11)
This is not the way most Westerners plant gardens. We start by defining a plot of ground, often in a geometrical shape, most often a rectangle, and defining a desired collection of plants, and then we move both earth and heaven to make reality accommodate our garden. Likewise, we start education by defining the curriculum and the outcomes and then moving heaven and earth to make the reality of our students accommodate our curricula. We assume that the outcomes for the students will match precisely with our pre-defined outcomes, and if they don't, then we punish with bad grades. For example, we composition teachers determine that our students will learn to write persuasive essays in MLA format, which we can do because we know what good, persuasive essays look like, and if the students' essays don't match our ideal essays, then we give them a bad grade to punish their errant writing.

Don Juan Matus doesn't build a garden, or a curriculum, this Western way. Rather, he starts with reality and maps his garden to it. He follows the contours of the land—or the discussion or the skill—and he maps his garden from its flow and runoff. And he teaches his student to do the same. Don Juan knows that his student's garden will look very little like his own garden. He is not troubled by heterogeneity, nor does he expect homogeneity. Carlos' outcomes do not have to match Don Juan's. This is truly a student-centered curriculum, but we would be blind to think that it is without content or specific outcomes. It has both, but the teacher is not foolish enough to think that he knows what they are beforehand. The teacher does hope that he is experienced and sensitive enough to recognize the outcomes when they appear in his student, but maybe not, especially if the student transcends the teacher. In traditional education, the student transcends the teacher only at great peril, at the risk of a failing grade (just try putting an answer the teacher doesn't already know on a test). In rhizomatic education, the student always moves beyond the teacher—maybe not higher, but through and then away to something else.

So what are some specifics I can draw from Don Juan? First, the teacher can provide a starting point. Don Juan wants to teach Carlos to cultivate devil's weed—I want to teach students to cultivate academic conversations. Don Juan gave Carlos his first plant, though he did not tell him where to plant it; rather, he let that come from Carlos. I can start a conversation in my class—even a hackneyed conversation such as gun control—but I must allow each student to come to that conversation from their own point of view. The conversation begins, then, not with my definition of the correct view about gun control (measured by a short test to see if the students got it) and the correct way to present that view in a persuasive essay, but with conversation that allows each student to define their own position in the conversation. We share those positions, and the conversation proceeds as each student maps the positions of the others in the class. Students draft new statements, check it against their own experiences and what others are saying, and then redraft. We proceed further by introducing other positions from beyond the class and mapping those positions. We draft and redraft some more. We blog. We tweet. We build longer statements. Eventually, we tire of the conversation, or run out of time, and we prepare a final, more formal statement, fitting it into the context of the entire conversation, pleased that our own statement is our own: recognizable, but different from the statements of others. We create an artifact: a snapshot of the value that we gained from and gave to the conversation.

Sounds something like a MOOC, doesn't it? That might make for a good start for a class—any class.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Connectivity

As I mentioned in my immediately previous post, one of the big challenges to emerge in response to Dave Cormier's presentation of rhizomatic learning has been the question of utility or practicality. What does the rhizome do for us teachers and students? I have focused on the rhizome as a metaphor, thus minimizing the practical applications of this kind of thinking, but I fear that I may have sold the concept short. I may have implied that rhizomatic thinking has no practical application. So I want to rethink the question in the most concrete, practical terms that I can.

Here's the situation: In January, I will return to the classroom after thirty years of mostly administrative work. I will teach writing classes in a more-or-less traditional setting at South University in West Palm Beach, FL, USA. What the hell will I do? This is a real question. Let's see if rhizomatic learning has any concrete answers.

The first characteristic of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari mention is connection: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). Because I accept the rhizome metaphor, I know that my students will, in fact, show up to class with an infinite array of other connections, many of which are WAY more important to them than their connections to me, to the course content, or to their classmates. South University is a professional school that uses the quarter system, so I have only 10 weeks to cultivate connections among 25 adults who want to become nurses, physicians assistants, paralegals, information tech specialists, and so forth. Many of the students, if not most of them, may see a writing course as a necessary hurdle at best or a total waste of time at worst.  My first task, then, is to find ways to cultivate connections to the class: the teacher (me), the content (writing), and their fellow students. I need to build quickly a discourse community in which the students can engage in meaningful discussion.

But rhizomatic learning suggests that the class needs to connect beyond the classroom. In other words, all those other connections are important, too. Therefore, the class must cultivate connections to what they already know. Finally, the class must cultivate connections to what is known beyond the class. Learning to write requires a large and vibrant community, much like those communities of learning that Dave Cormier describes in his post Community as Curriculum - Vol 2. This idea of community expands the class far beyond the usual definition of a teacher expounding some content to a cohort of students. In rhizomatic learning, this vibrant, dynamic community—this supportive ecosystem—is more important than the individual teacher and specific content. As Cormier says in his post, "We are committing ourselves to people, not to specific bits of knowledge or information and hoping that our commitment to those people will keep what we know relevant, and keep us above water."

Can I be more specific? I think so. The first class could employ exercises that encourage people to introduce themselves to each other, through writing perhaps, and explore their shared and varied interests in writing. I might have students text someone outside of class to tell them what they are doing, or better, to ask the outsider how they use writing in their job. This strategy helps the class tap into the unbelievable energy in texting as a form of writing, and helps these beginning writers understand that they are already writers, if not writers of academic prose. It introduces the whole concept of research, asking questions about reality. These exercises help me to begin developing a sense of what the students know about writing and don't know and what they can do and can't do and how writing might connect to their personal and professional lives. These exercises start placing the community at the center of their writing, with real audiences and real issues. A rhizomatic community is a major reason why young people text so much: they are connecting to people who matter to them about issues that matter to them. It's partly why I write so much in this blog: I'm connecting to people who matter to me about issues that matter to us. All the good writing that I know about emerges out of this kind of rhizomatic, discourse community.

I will not lecture about pre-writing strategies. I will not pretend that I am the sole audience, or even the important, audience for their writing. And I will do all these things in my classes because I accept the rhizomatic principle of connection.

Could I do these things without any knowledge of the rhizome? Of course. If this was the only insight of rhizomatic learning, it would hardly be worth reading Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately, there is more, but that's for later.

Monday, November 14, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Misgivings?

In his post Farewell to Rhizomes, Jeffrey Keefer expresses a rather common misgiving many seem to have with the concept of rhizomatic learning: interesting perhaps, but what does it do for me in the classroom? This is just the kind of question rhizomatic folk need to answer.

Just before I read Keefer's post, I came across an Edutopia post by Bob Lenz called Deeper Learning Community of Practice Recap, in which he lists some comments by Kathleen Cushman in response to a recent Deeper Learning meeting. After reviewing some student work from the workshop, Kushman asked  "What had the teacher done to scaffold this work in its early stages?" She listed several specific techniques the teachers used:

  • They build learning relationships with students.
  • They design and plan backward from clear learning objectives.
  • They co-construct curriculum with students and colleagues.
  • They use inquiry to drive instruction.
  • They scaffold student learning.
  • They assess continuously.
  • They reflect on their own and others' work.
  • They use protocols to engage in collegial critique.
This seems like a pretty good collection of techniques to me, and I use most of them at one time or another, but from which learning theory do these techniques naturally follow? Hmm … seems to me that most any theory could lead to all or part of this collection of classroom activities. Could you use one of these techniques with no particular theory in mind? I could. I suspect most teachers do.

Okay, if you could do all these things in a classroom without a learning theory, then what good is a learning theory, or even more questionable, what good is a learning metaphor?

I think theories and metaphors provide a more or less systematic and coherent set of lenses for looking at reality. A theory highlights certain elements and processes, bringing them to the foreground, and diminishes the rest of the details, letting them recede into the background. This clarifies the picture for us and gives us a sense of understanding and control.

A theory differs from a metaphor, at least in part, by implying some predictive efficacy. A theory says that if A then B, and then we can test to see if this actually happens. If it doesn't, then we adjust the theory. I don't know that a metaphor is held to the same expectation. I just don't know of a way to test how much love is like a rose or a MOOC is like a rhizome.

Does this mean that metaphors are of no use, then? Not to me. Metaphors are marvelous ways of presenting a gestalt understanding of one thing in terms of another, and our minds are wonderfully attuned to and receptive to this kind of holistic learning. For me then, the image of the rhizome provides a more fertile field within which to develop a more rational, predictive theory such as Connectivism, which in turn leads to new techniques, to a reuse of old techniques, and to MOOCs. The rhizome gives me a marvelously rich and pregnant image with which to engage the MOOC, and here's the main point, we all bring an image to the MOOC. If we bring a less useful image—say, the traditional classroom—then the MOOC does not make sense to us, and we are frustrated by it. If we bring the rhizome image, we are more likely to make sense of what is happening in a MOOC and more likely to engage it productively.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Knowing

I woke up this Sunday morning thinking about rhizomatic knowing, but the house is full of guests and the coffee is already on, so I don't have long to write.

I want to flash on something that Bon Stewart calls a helicopter view of reality and that I refer to as a God view (Deconstruction: I'm the child of a Pentecostal minister, schooled on the church pew since birth, so God is almost always somewhere in any discussion I have), because this assumed position or vantage point has much to say about what we think we know.

As you may have noticed, I like working with metaphors, or images, as a gateway into thought, so let's play. Envision your life as a plate of spaghetti, and yourself as one noodle in that plate, with a history (a long and happy one, we hope) twisting and intertwining with all the other noodles in your life. Got the image? Ok, find your noodle, the noodle that will represent your life, and for the sake of the game, place your noodle somewhere in the middle of the spaghetti mess.

If you are like most of us, you are almost certainly viewing the plate of spaghetti and your own life from outside, from up above, from a helicopter view, or a God view. From this view, you can see the whole plate of spaghetti, even the table it sits on, and your noodle from start (birth) to finish (death), and you can meticulously identify each twist and turn and convolution in the string of your life, and you can point to, name, and quantify each point of contact with all the other noodles on your plate. You can determine which other noodles (or meatballs, but let's not push this metaphor too far) had significant, lasting impacts on your life. You can make assessments about why things turned out as they did. From this view, you can see and trace causes and effects. This is very useful.

It is also a fiction. You are not God, you don't even have a helicopter. I think this is one of the main points Deleuze and Guattari are trying to make. Giving yourself Godview is a fiction—a sometimes useful fiction, but always a fiction.

To envision what you can actually see in your plate of spaghetti, you have to float down from your privileged vantage point on High and take your place along one point on your noodle. That point is conveniently called Now. Okay, from this point, look about yourself at the plate of spaghetti. It should look very different, Now and Here. You peer back down the length of your noodle, and it twists and turns like a goat path into the past. You can no longer see your birth. You can't see the noodles that impacted you then, though you are reasonably sure your mother was there and likely your father, at least for one brief and shining moment. You look forward along the length of your noodle into the future. Hmm … now you can see even less as your noodle takes a sharp veer into tomorrow. So you look about at the various other noodles (people, events, sounds, colors, countries) intersecting with you at Now, and all those noodles have their own obscure trajectories, a few of which you have some memory, but most of which are just obscure. This is your real, actual view of life. This is what Deleuze and Guattari want to remind you of: that life is a complicated mess of interwoven noodles, a rhizome.

I use the term complicated just here on purpose: complicated suggests to me the intricate arrangement of  many parts. But let's take the plate of spaghetti one iteration beyond by making it not only complicated but complex. Take all those static noodles in the plate of spaghetti and put them in motion so that they become a roiling mass of worms or snakes. Or if you find that image too distasteful, then turn each noodle into an electric arc, a streaming asteroid, a flaming, flashing star, whatever dynamic image works for you, but just put the whole plate in motion so that each once static noodle begins to make its way through the mass of other noodles, being acted upon and in turn acting upon others. Think about the effects of electromagnetic forces that operate powerfully over short distances (physical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic distances) and the gravitational forces that operate over all distances so that your one noodle or arc is pushed and pulled—certainly by the noodles closest to you (family, colleagues, friends, favorite philosophies, etc.) but ultimately by every other noodle in the spaghetti mass. Now, extend your plate of spaghetti out in all directions to encompass all of the Universe and all of history because all of that has exerted some gravitational influence on you in the Here and Now. And because you are likely a teacher, complexify your plate of spaghetti by adding it to the thirty other plates of spaghetti from your students, and then look at me squarely and tell me that you really understand all of this roiling, arcing, flashing, dynamic mess/mass.

Well, I don't think you do. I'm positive that I don't. Rather, we build our fictions through abstractions, focuses, reductions, bulbs, agglomerations, tubers, shoots, and so forth, that help us filter the swelter of reality into something that makes sense, into something that is manageable. It's the best we can do, but—and this is another strong point from Deleuze and Guattari—this fiction-making process is always an exercise of power. We create these fictional systems for ourselves and for others. We have to, but it is always an exercise of power however well intentioned: an attempt to wrangle reality, the rhizome, into a more manageable shape, often into our own image. This fascist tendency (D&G's term) is always there, and the rhizome always eventually flows around it. The Greek gods, kings and kingdoms, democracy, algebra, the Free Market, English, Spanish, Impressionistic painting, behaviorism, constructivism, connectivism, and rhizomatic learning have all been more or less useful fictions at one time or another. Deleuze and Guattari do not argue that we should avoid this fiction-making. Rather, they argue that we should never forget that these things are fictions. They are more or less useful ways of engaging reality—the Rhizome—but they never capture reality. They never really give us the total control over ourselves, others, and the World that we seek.

To my mind, this is a profound spiritual truth expressed in totally secular terms. And you can quite reasonably ask, so what? Well, that's another post … or ten. But people are stirring. Time to go.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome Pt 2

Yesterday, I started addressing a question from Sui Fai John Mak about why I would call the rhizome nothing, and I found myself wandering through the first three of the six characteristics of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari list in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987):

  1. Connectivity (an obvious connection to Connectivism)
  2. Heterogeneity
  3. Multiplicity
Today, I want to continue the conversation by working through the final three characteristics:
  1. Asignifying ruptures
  2. Cartography
  3. Decalcomania
I suppose that asignifying ruptures most clearly capture Deleuze and Guattari's push back against power, especially the power we humans exercise through signifying, through naming things. They say that asignifying ruptures work "against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure" (9). We humans are excellent at breaking up reality into manageable pieces by analyzing and segmenting and naming and numbering and quantifying, and these are all useful mental processes that help us build airplanes, buildings, institutions, societies, and so on, but they are also fictions and power structures from which the rhizome flees through deterreritorialization and reterreritorialization. Or as Robert Frost says much more plainly: something there is that doesn't love a wall. Any slice of reality contains within it both the classifications we humans create to manage that reality and the lines of flight that undermine those classifications. As D&G say: "Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome" (9). APPLICATION: Traditional education exerts much energy in classifying, stratifying, organizing, and naming students, teachers, subjects, disciplines, classes, tests, theories, etc. John is an A student, Mary is a C student, and Bubba is an F student. Manuel is a rising senior, and Jinchaun is a freshman. George is a Professor, and Dave is an Assistant Professor, and Stephen is a Dean. I teach essay writing: descriptive, persuasive, argumentative (sometimes the same as persuasive, sometimes listed separately. I don't know why), comparison (or comparison/contrast), expository, formal, informal, research, literary, cause/effect, and more. You can google essay forms or essay types and find oodles of classifications, all more or less arbitrary and, as near as I can tell from 30 years experience in teaching writing, all more or less useless. I've never found an essay that I really liked—say, something by Annie Dillard—that fit any of these groups very well. Rhizomatic education, then, recognizes that reality leaks out in lines of flight from our attempts to peg it, to name it, to pin it, wriggling on the wall, and tries to accomodate those lines of flight. The Change 11 MOOC just suffered a couple of asignifying ruptures with Nancy White's social artists and Dave Cormier's rhizomes and nomads, but unlike a traditional class, we MOOCers work with those lines of flight, riding along with them, ignoring them, or refuting them, as we are so inclined, but not knocked over by them. Indeed, we set up the MOOC to encourage just such ruptures. Rhizomatic learning does not deny the virtues of our analytical mind, but it recognizes that reality ain't really like that and can squirt out of our categories at the weirdest times.

These first four characteristics, I think, explain why lots of people are so confused when they first join a MOOC: a MOOC is an explicitly and intentionally rhizomatic structure:
  1. Connection: any MOOCer can connect to any other or to anyone else not in the MOOC. We don't simply connect to the teachers: Professors Cormier, Downes, and Siemens. We connect more to each other, and for me that has been Jeffrey, Glen, Bonnie, Sui Fai John, Jenny, and others, none of whom are willing or able to tell me what I should be learning or if I have learned it. This is great unless you are thoroughly conditioned to having someone tell you what the learning is all about. Well, rest yourself. You can decide what to learn and what to ignore. Trust yourself.
  2. Heterogeneity: We MOOCers are not the same. We are not homogenized. While we all share an interest in higher education and how it might be changing, that common interest is too vague to provide much guidance in where we are supposed to be going and how we are supposed to get there. We came in on different paths, and we are almost certainly passing through this MOOC on different paths. Cool—unless, of course, you are worried about falling behind. Well, rest yourself. You can't fall behind, as you are likely the only one of 2,000 scholars going your way.
  3. Multiplicity: We MOOCers are each the convergence of different life trajectories that we bring to the mix of all the other life trajectories in the MOOC. We focus on a few of those trajectories to gain some sense of what we are trying to do here, but the open structure of the MOOC allows all those trajectories to emerge in the mix. It can be overwhelming if we try to cover it all. Well, rest yourself. You can't cover it all.
  4. Asignifying ruptures: We MOOCers know that the conversation can take some abrupt, even startling, turns and flights into ideas and concepts that we never anticipated, or even knew about. This can be exciting and challenging or terrifying and frustrating, as not everyone likes snowboarding over a ledge without knowing where the trail's going, or if there even is a trail. Well, rest yourself. You don't have to follow every trail—in fact, you can't—and next week, we'll be back on a trail that works for you.
MOOCs just don't have any of the traditional structures and signposts that people expect when they sign-up for a course. A MOOC isn't a course—it isn't a thing as we usually define things. Rather, a MOOC is an assemblage, a multiplicity. We are legion, and that can be tough to deal with.

But after thoroughly confusing our sense of reality, Deleuze and Guattari give us a couple of strategies for dealing with rhizomes such as a MOOC, and it is just here that I want to note a slight disagreement with, or rather an amendment to, something that Dave Cormier said to George Siemens in his Change 11 presentation. When they were discussing the rhizome as a metaphor and George was pushing for clarification on how rhizomatic learning handled knowledge, Dave said that rhizomatic learning did not address epistemology, or something to that effect—sorry, I'm too lazy to find it in the recording just now. While rhizomatic learning certainly has no systematic epistemology, I still think it has something to say about ways of knowing.

The first strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is cartography, or mapping. Mapping is a process of constantly monitoring and testing reality, assessing the feedback, and adjusting the map. Mapping assumes that reality is shifting; therefore, knowledge must shift, if it is to remain useful for engaging reality. Most of us don't like shifting knowledge—we want the correct answer, the eternal answer. We want what Deleuze and Guattari call tracings, or "an overcoding structure or supporting axis, something that comes ready-made" (12). The Truth. Mappings are different. 
What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
 APPLICATION: Traditional learning proceeds by fixed curricula and lesson plans about authoritative knowledge with regular measures to determine how competently a student has traced the lines of the lesson. Knowledge in traditional education is a tracing of what is already known. Rhizomatic learning is a mapping, an engagement with reality, a fixing of points of reference, measurements and tests, assessment of feedback, and then an adjustment of the points of reference or creation of new points, with no hope of ever fixing the points of reference, and with total recognition that the very act of mapping itself is part of the reality under examination. This totally collapses the Cartesian dualism that underlies our modern scientific point of view that posits an object for us subjects to trace, or know. Rhizomatic learning says this is not the way to engage reality. It certainly isn't the way to engage a MOOC. When entering a MOOC we must anchor to some point (almost any will do initially: a person, a blog, a presentation, a bit of reading) from which to establish a vantage point. That anchor and vantage point may work for the entire MOOC, or we may switch, but we need that first anchor. What we cannot do is look for some syllabus through which we can trace a course of learning. It ain't there. We must map the MOOC: fix a vantage point, fix other points from there, check distances from where we are to someplace else we might want to be, look for the steps to get to the new place, and strike out, asking others along the way, confident that our goal will shift. That's how you learn in a MOOC.

The second strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is decalcomania, or pressing patterns. Most of us know decalcomania as the process where children put paint on their hands and press the paint onto paper, leaving blue, purple, yellow, and red handprints. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that patterns emerge in the rhizome through a pressing, not a transfer but more an echo. They are careful to say that it is not mimicry, which is tracing. Rather it is a blossoming of a sympathetic, self-similar, fractal pattern. Almost the same, but not quite. APPLICATION: In traditional learning, knowledge is transferred in little nuggets called facts from the teacher's brain to the student's brain; or in progressive classes, the teacher enables students to create their own little nuggets. In rhizomatic learning, the brain is  an amazingly sensitive organ for echoing the patterns that it recognizes in its environment, for feeding those patterns back into its environment, and then taking in the new patterns. Deleuze and Guattari say:
Thought is not arborescent, and the brain is not a rooted or ramified matter. What are wrongly called "dendrites" do not assure the connection of neurons in a continuous fabric. The discontinuity between cells, the role of the axons, the functioning of the synapses, the existence of synaptic microfissures, the leap each message makes across these fissures, make the brain a multiplicity immersed in its plane of consistency or neuroglia, a whole uncertain, probabilistic system. … Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. (15)
The grass of the brain is very sensitive to the moving of wind and rain, echoing the pattern of each, but there is no transfer of pattern. The wind does not transfer its pattern to the grass. In a MOOC, we echo the knowledge (a blog, a presentation, a tweet) that we press against. That echo is never exact, never the thing itself transferred from another mind to our mind. Rather, it is a sympathetic reterritorialization, more or less similar, of a pattern that we perceived. Our minds then operate on that newly emerged pattern, that knowledge, reworking it to fit into the knowledge and patterns already in our minds, looking for consistency and resonance however we define those qualities (rationally, emotionally, aesthetically, etc.), and then feed those patterns back into the ecosystem, deterritorialized and reterritorialized, where they are taken up, or not, and reworked, and fed back into the system, over and over and over. This describes the messy process of learning in a MOOC, and for me, it describes it better than does behaviorism and constructivism do, though they have insights as well.

Well, I've gone a long way around to tell Sui Fai John Mak why I think a rhizome is nothing. I hope the answer works for him, but at any rate, I hope he understands now why I like rhizomatic learning. As a metaphor, a way of mapping but NOT precisely tracing, the rhizome helps me understand learning in a MOOC much better than most any other theory or metaphor that I know. And with people such as Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart, the metaphor is just getting richer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome

Change11 heated up for me this week, and I'm pleased. It was not planned, but it does have a design: a convergence of several arcs that can be traced back, if one is so inclined, for many years:

  • The paperwork associated with my impending retirement from Albany State University is over; thus, I am not so distracted now and can attend to the MOOC. This is an arc that stretches back thirty-five years to 1976 when I assumed my first position as an English instructor at Reinhardt College in the hills of north Georgia and started a professional life in academia.
  • My interest in networks, an arc that goes back to 1982 when I became the director of the Communications Center at the University of Houston-Victoria and installed a lab of DEC Pro 380s and connected them to the campus network.
  • A conversation in 2002 with my friend and philosopher Carl Hays about how networking structures were replacing hierarchical structures as the dominant metaphor for organizing society.
  • An email in 2009 with my friend and English scholar Dan Jaeckle about how the rhizome was a better metaphor than networks for understanding the emerging changes in society and about why I should read Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Change11 is my fourth MOOC. This arc stretches back three years to 2008.
  • Discovering in 2010 that Dave Cormier, one of the main guys in the Connectivism/MOOC thing that I was following, was also interested in rhizomatic thinking.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Take any one point in your life, and you can follow back from it multiple strands or arcs that seem to come from everywhere in your life to converge on this one moment to imbue it with more significance than you could ever muster through your own conscious intention and power. This convergence would seem so magical if it weren't so ordinary. It happens every moment of every day as the arcs and strands of our lives and others weave in and out to form each successive moment.

When we stop to think about this rhizomatic process, as Change11 has forced me to do this week, then we can gain a sense of some larger purpose or design or force at work. Something that seems bigger than ourselves. Being language-using creatures, we want to name it, though several of our religious traditions warn us explicitly not to do this. Naming God is a bad idea, but we do it anyway. George Lucas calls it The Force, which seems parsimonious. Religious traditions call it Yaweh, Allah, the Tao, or just God, which seems too parsimonious to me.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says noosphere, and James Lovelock says gaia. Others say it is emergence, just random, blind convergence, or a rigid nexus of cause and effect. All of these names capture something useful, I suppose, but not one of these names is adequate. Rhizome is not adequate, either, but it's the name Deleuze and Guattari came up with, and like the other names, it has some really good uses, providing some wonderful benefits and insights. But eventually, like all names, it will fall short. Signs always fall short of the things they signify, but for all that, signs are incredibly useful. So let's talk about rhizomes, exploring what the metaphor provides and what it does not provide.

As often happens with me, I've gone way too cosmic. Let's bring this down to something more concrete. In my previous post, I made several comments about the rhizome that Sui Fai John Mak and likely others found confusing. I will try to provide some clarity, though I've just noticed that Bonnie Stewart has provided an answer that is likely better than what I have in mind. Still, maybe the two answers together will be even better yet.

Mak asks what I meant by saying that the rhizome is nothing. As I understand the rhizome, it is not a thing in our usual sense of things: a discrete unit with a rather fixed set of describable features usually shared with other units of its type. Each thing may interact with other things, but it maintains its own identity. And perhaps most importantly, we humans always stand outside the thing—we are the viewing subject and it is the viewed thing. The rhizome is not a thing in this sense. That's what I meant by saying it is nothing. I am not saying that the rhizome is an absence, or emptiness, or vacuity. How so?

First, as Deleuze and Guattari make very clear, the rhizome is an assemblage. It is not a thing, but many things, though even that statement is misleading in the end, but let's use it for a moment. What makes an assemblage of many things a rhizome? First, they are all connected. D&G say pointedly: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order" (7). Indeed, not only is every thing in the rhizome connected to every other thing in the rhizome, but to everything else anywhere. Rhizomes work against boundaries, hierarchies work within them, and this fuzziness of boundary is one of the qualities that works against the thinginess of rhizomes. APPLICATION: In a traditional classroom, student connections are very closely managed and quite limited. Students connect to the teacher and the teacher's content only. In a rhizomatic classroom, student connections are opened and expanded, starting with student-to-student collaboration and moving outward. Rhizomatic learning helps us see the sense of this reduction or elimination of boundaries. In MOOCs, the boundaries dissolve almost totally.

Second, the rhizome is heterogeneous. A rhizome is an assemblage of different, sometimes radically different, things. In speaking of language as a rhizomatic structure, D&G write that "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 homogenous linguistic community. Language is, in Winreich's words, an essentially heterogeneous reality" (7). APPLICATION: Traditional education acts as if students are homogenous units to be educated in batches (usually by age), in the same way, at the same time. Rhizomatic education insists that students are heterogeneous and seeks way to educate them in different ways, at different times, in different contexts, about different things. In MOOCs, heterogeneity is so obvious as to hardly be worth noting. We are all in a MOOC for a dizzying array of reasons, even if many of us share some of those reasons.

Third, the rhizome is a multiplicity, an assemblage, but a kind different from a mere collection of things.   I find this point exciting but very slippery: "A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature. … Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions connected to the first: 'Call the strings or rods that move the puppet the weave. It might be objected that its multiplicity resides in the person of the actor, who projects it into the text. Granted; but the actor's nerve fibers in turn form a weave. And they fall through the gray matter, the grid, into the undifferentiated. … The interplay approximates the pure activity of weavers attributed in myth to the Fates or Norns'" (8). APPLICATION: In a traditional class, a teacher assumes a specific lesson taught to specific students who are only and specifically here for the specific purpose of transferring specific information from the teacher to the student. In a rhizomatic class, a teacher assumes that each class is the convergence of perhaps infinite lines and arcs and trajectories of differing magnitudes and dimensions. More simply: each child shows up to the lesson on different nutritional, emotional, intellectual, cultural, aesthetic trajectories—just to name a few—and the energy of each of those trajectories affects the lesson. Then fold in the differing trajectories the teacher brings, the differing trajectories of the content of the lesson, the fluctuating trajectories of the language and other media the teacher employs. Traditional education assumes that through a clean, well-lighted lesson plan, a teacher can adequately control and manage a lesson toward a specific outcome, that her tests can reliably test the same thing in different students, that she can replicate the experience across different times, places, and people. Rhizomatic education insists that while lesson plans can be useful, we ignore and forget about the multiplicity of any moment at our peril. While we humans must reduce any reality to some handy, manageable concepts, or things, we should never forget that things are only more-or-less convenient fictions that the rhizome frequently disrupts.

Which brings us to the next characteristic of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures. However, this has become a very long post. I'll write later about the three other characteristics of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures, cartography, and decalcomania.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#change11 Defining the Rhizome

I just watched the Ed Tech Weekly interview with Dave Cormier about rhizomatic learning, and by the end of the hour, I found myself chafed by the attempt to encourage Cormier to define the concept. The interviewers Jeff Lebow and Jennifer Maddrell seem very pleasant, engaged educators who really wanted to understand Cormier's point, and I do not even slightly suspect them of badgering Cormier; rather, I think the very nature of academic language itself forces us to seek definitions first and then talk later. All of the participants wanted to distinguish rhizomatic learning as a particular learning theory or process or way of knowing (it can be all of those) that is distinct from, say, the positivist way of knowing or the constructivist way of learning. The hope, I think, is that the concept of rhizomatic learning can lead to specific teaching and learning behaviors that will improve education. I think there are a few problems with this attempt to wrangle the rhizome into something it isn't.

First, the rhizome is a metaphor, not a theory or a procedure based on a theory. When speaking of rhizomatics in the interview, Jeff Lebow says, "I think the metaphor is helpful." To my mind, this is spot on. A metaphor is a help in understanding something else, it is not the something else itself. Rhizomatic learning speaks of a more or less helpful way of looking at and thinking about learning. It is not a prescription for learning — it is at best a somewhat helpful description of how learning happens. Through the metaphor of the rhizome as first explored so nicely by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987) educators can look afresh at learning and see things that they had not seen before. At least, this has been the case for me.

For instance, the metaphor of the rhizome is a fine antidote to our tendency toward reductionism. This reductionism lies in the background of the interviewers' attempts to define rhizomatic learning, I think. Like most of us, they want a handy nugget that says, "Oh, yes, that is rhizomatic learning."  The metaphor of the rhizome, however, helps us to see that reductionism is always a fiction. No thing can ever actually be reduced to a discrete thing, or not in reality. We can think of ourselves as discrete and alone in the Universe, a train of thought that usually leads to all sorts of misery and suffering, but none of us are discrete, however convenient or persuasive the reductionist fiction might be.

I am not saying that we should avoid reductionist thinking. That is silly. As Morin has shown, science has scored huge successes through reducing an aspect of reality to a single point, studying it in great detail, and discovering things about this reduced entity that it could hardly have discovered in any other way. Reductionism has great focus and, thus, great power. Rhizomatic thinking, on the other hand, encourages us to replace the discrete thing into its ecosystem, to recontextualize it, and to integrate what we learned through our extreme focus into our knowledge of the whole. In short, we can learn a great deal by studying a single tree, but what we learn only makes sense in the context of a forest. We must see both forest and tree. The rhizome metaphor helps us to do that.

The second thing that bothers me is that a definition of rhizomatic learning reduces the rhizome to the status of one thing among other things: rhizomatic learning as opposed to constructivist or behaviorist learning. Here's the thing: the rhizome is not a thing, it is nothing. This is partly what makes the rhizome so difficult to discuss within a language made of nouns and verbs, or things doing things. This is partly why D&G are so difficult to read: they are trying to map a structure through a language primarily adapted to mapping different kinds of structures. Modern academic language is a fine tool for mapping linear, hierarchical, positivistic structures. Mapping the rhizome with this tool is a bit like building an igloo with hammers and screwdrivers. It can be done, I suppose, but … In their discussion of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari are not trying to focus our attention on the rhizome so much as they are trying to get us to relax our focus, our critical intellect, to capture the arcs, the asignifying ruptures, the starts and fits and interconnectedness of things. From this point of view, then, things are the precipitate of experience (to use Randall Collins' term) at the intersection of multiple arcs of existence at any given time. Think of a plate of spaghetti. Keith Hamon is one noodle strand intertwined and thoroughly embedded in the mass of noodles, and my sense of myself or your sense of me as a discrete entity totally depends upon where along the noodle strand you or I happen to be focusing and what other noodles intersect me there.

Reductionism wants to disentangle the single noodle of my life, stretch it out on an examination tray, name and number the parts, establish the tidy sequences of cause and effect, and finally declare that it understands me. And here's the thing: it will understand a great deal about me that could not have been understood so easily while I was tangled up in the plate of spaghetti. But it will also lose a great deal, if not most, of the contours, the arcs, the twists and turns, the connections and intersections, the forces and counterforces that truly make my life interesting to me, if not to others. Stretched out on the examination table, washed clean of sauce, separated from all the other noodles, and allowed to harden, the noodle of my life will be reduced to the bare facts. Boring. Reductionism reveals nicely what about me is like other spaghetti noodles, but it hardly captures the unique contours that make me interesting, or me.

Rhizomatic thinking, then, is a useful strategy for looking at learning in a different way. It includes positivist thought and reductionist thought and all the other systems of thought, but at the same time that the rhizome provides a rich context for those systems of thought, it is also shifting, deterritorializing and reterreitorializing, and thereby undermining the very systems of thought that it incubated. Our job is to build these structures within the rhizome because they are useful, while remaining very aware that their usefulness has a shelf life. The danger is when we become attached to a system, an ideology, and refuse to acknowledge that it no longer helps.

This makes me think of the night sky. We humans look at the panoply of stars, and we select a few with which to structure constellations, pictures and stories. Because from our vantage point the stars seem to shift so slowly — in our lifetimes hardly at all — then we are seduced into thinking that our pictures and stories are eternal. Modern astro-physics has taught us better. The rhizome of the universe is shifting at incredible speeds constantly, and eventually our treasured stories and pictures will no longer map well to reality. The stars will have moved. The challenge of the rhizome is to look afresh at those stars and to create new stories and new pictures. That's what the rhizome does.