Wednesday 5 February 2014

Model two: nomads

This is the second in a series of posts about Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome models: nomads. Nomads are characterised as moving across space or territory according to need rather than according to the demands or borders of organised States (such as nations). While Nomads recognise and are aware of points (water points, dwelling points etc) these points are less important than the paths that they determine. In other words, nomads move towards water points so that they can then move beyond them.

In terms of rhizomatic learning, I feel I best understand this in terms of preparing students for their career paths or trajectories. After all, one of the main reasons people pursue education (and particularly Higher Education) is to improve their career prospects. The way that education providers (and here I'm thinking particularly about the tertiary or higher education sector) have approached this task has changed substantially in recent years.

Once upon a time Universities prepared graduates for a relatively stable and knowable set of career paths. In turn, graduates would embark upon those career paths and have them remain relatively stable and knowable across their working lives. Now we are finding that career paths are becoming increasingly unstable and unknowable. For instance, relatively recently we were continuing to train research librarians. Now, in 2014, that job has pretty much disappeared. The future of print journalism has changed considerably in the last five years and is likely to change even more in the next five years. You can probably think of countless other examples. Arguably, the role of university lecturing is itself changing considerably and may be almost unrecognisable in a decade.

The point is that a lot of graduates are going into a world of work that will change and shift almost constantly under their feet. Our current undergraduates are highly likely to find themselves doing jobs and performing roles that we don't even know we need yet at some point in their working lives. The more entrepreneurial of them will even be instrumental in making the changes that bring these new roles into being. For our current students, uncertainty will become a certainty.

Thinking about teaching and learning in this context, it is relatively easy to shape curriculum design along arborescent principles in a world of work that is predictable and stable. In the less predictable and stable world of work that our undergraduates will be experiencing, the skills and abilities that we need to help them acquire at University are going to very different to those needed by previous generations.

In other words, nomadism is going to be a characteristic of many of our graduates' careers than it has ever been in the past. Our students are going to need the skills to help them adapt and change, to find new pathways between career 'points' and to feel comfortable and confident in the inevitable uncertainty that comes with that. Providing a curriculum that is only about certainty is never going to be adequate to equip students with the skills that they need.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Model one: maps

I've noticed quite a few folks taking about Rhizomes (particularly as they come out of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus) as metaphors. I was struck by this and found it surprising and odd to think of them as metaphors. Upon reflection, I realised that this was because I tend to think of them as models rather than metaphors. Exactly what the distinction is, I'm not sure just yet. But I thought I'd write a few posts about some of the models that D&G offer us and how I think they might be applicable in teaching and learning.

The first model I want to focus on is the map. To illustrate my point I've used one of my favourite maps: the London Underground or 'tube' map.
Image Source: Thom Minifig CC Licence
The tube map is itself rhizomatic (it grows and changes in response to desire for instance), but more importantly, the way people engage with it and use it is also rhizomatic. From a pedagogical point of view it is ridiculous to say there is any right or wrong way to traverse London via the underground. You can't say, for instance, that the only correct way to use the tube is to get on at Bethnall Green and get off at Gloucester Road using the Central and Piccadilly lines. That is a correct way to use the tube if you need to get from Bethnall Green to Gloucester Road as quickly as possible but it's not the only correct way to use the tube. That's because the tube has no beginning, middle and end, but instead has multiple entry and exit points and everyone using it has different needs.

Thinking from a teaching point of view about supporting students who are engaging with learning in a rhizomatic context is, in some instances, going to be a bit like this. Students who come to a rhizomatic learning context are going to all be coming from different places and wanting to get to very different places from each other. The role of teachers is to help them navigate and negotiate the journey, to encourage them to seek help from others as well as reading signs along the way and, as I've suggested in a previous post, attending to the 'trees' as and when they encounter them, taking responsibility along the way.

Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails or taking responsibility forlearning

I've been caused to reflect on some of the responses that I've received to my post on theory. This has varied from people saying it made them feel encouraged to give theory a go, to people saying they feel patronised and excluded by what I'd said. I've been reflecting on this a lot (particularly trying to decide for myself whether I've been patronising or not) and I've still not reached any firm conclusions yet. But one point I've arrived at is that it is relevant to a very important issue in any learning (whether it be rhizomatic or not) and that is taking responsibility for learning. To my mind this connects nicely to the topic of week 2 which is 'enforced independence' and to a point I was making in a previous post where I talked about heuristic learning. To support the points I want to make in this post I'd like to start by sharing an anecdote.

There was a paper on rhizomatic learning at a teaching and learning conference I attended recently. I went along to it, keen to learn more. Even though the authors quoted directly from Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus it became clear that what the paper was actually advocating was explicitly an arborescent (not rhizomatic) approach to teaching and learning. I tackled the presenter  on this in question time and the presenting author's reply was that the paper was based on 'her take' on what rhizomatic learning meant. Now while it feels a bit ridiculous to say that they/she had got D&G wrong - D&G are, after all, the poster boys of thinking beyond 'right and wrong' - it must certainly be possible to say that the authors of the paper (or at least some of them) had misunderstood the theory. To me it felt the same as if I'd gone to an anatomy conference, quoted some biology theory and then argued that boys were made of snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails. I would expect to be tackled on this in question time and I'm certain that if I defended my argument by saying 'well, that's what I take the theory to mean' it would only further anger an audience already disgruntled at the waste of their time and money.

So - what has this got to do with 'enforced independence' and heuristic learning in a rhizomatic learning context? I completely agree with Dave Cormier that these things are absolutely central to the success of rhizomatic learning: they're both a way of determining when rhizomatic learning is happening and, conversely,  rhizomatic learning won't work or 'happen' without them. I also agree with him that it's tricky to lure students into it and away from didactic just-tell-me-what-I-need-to-know approaches to learning; I too have seen my students' shoulders slump when I've explained to them what 'heuristic' means. But - and this is my key point here - we need to take very great care that rhizomatic learning doesn't become a euphemism for 'any understanding goes'. 

This is an important reminder that in amongst the rhizomes there will always be trees. I was in conversation with a colleague about rhizome theory the other day [which is a quiet reminder that I read, teach, use, and think and talk about critical theory a lot as part of my day-to-day working life and I'm surrounded by lots of colleagues who do this as well; this frames my perspective and a lot of what I do]. My colleague mentioned that one of the problems he has with D&G is their overemphasis on rhizomes. I think that he's got a good point. After all, I have spent many pleasant hours foraging for elderberries from elder trees and blackberries from the brambles that were spreading rhizomatically around their bases (blackberries and elderberries make a delicious jam BTW). Trees exist. They are beautiful and important. It's just that not everything is tree-ey (or arborescent) and we need to stop thinking as if it is.

This offers an important reminder: that D&G is not pedagogical but philosophical theory. It just happens that their work in this instance is particularly useful for thinking about teaching and learning. I personally find it useful because of one of the quotations I popped onto my first poster: 'It is always by rhizome that desire moves and produces. [...] The rhizome [...] acts on desire by external productive outgrowths' (p. 14). Transposed into pedagogical theory, this allows those of us who teach to think beyond encouraging and rewarding students for answering questions to which we already know the answers and instead encouraging and rewarding them for asking important questions that we've never thought to ask before, even if we don't yet know any answers to them ('productive outgrowths'). We will know the questions are important because they respond to unmet needs ('desire').

That is not to say, however, that encouraging and rewarding students for answering questions to which we already know the answers is a bad thing and should be abandoned. These 'trees' are still there, are important and, in many instances, beautiful. It is also often going to be the case that we can't move or think beyond these 'trees' into more 'rhizomatic' modes of inquiry until we understand them and why they matter. What D&G warn us about is limiting ourselves to 'trees' and not making enough space in our curriculum and our pedagogy for 'rhizomes'.

This leads me to my final statement for this post: in any rhizomatic learning context, each and every student (and that includes the 'teacher') needs to take responsibility not just for their rhizomatic thinking and learning, but also for attending to and understanding the trees that stand and grow in amongst the rhizomes.

There are lots of interesting resonances between this post and Christina Hendricks's thought provoking post on enforced independence. 

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Some thoughts on theory

Some of the Facebook discussions on #rhizo14 have taken a theoretical turn, mostly focused on Deleuze and Guattari as you would expect. In and amongst the folks trying to make sense of it I'm coming across the odd comment that D&G's writing (and specifically we're talking about the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus) is difficult. Some people are blaming the translators and some people are blaming D&G. Some folks have suggested that if a reader finds critical theory difficult that it's not their fault. Others are suggesting that this is because all critical theory is unnecessarily and therefore deliberately obfuscatory. Others are suggesting that they can be certain of this because the concepts that are being explained in the theory seem to be quite simple and to be things that they already 'get' intuitively.

I'm afraid there's no kind or easy way to say this but theory is hard. It's not the readers' fault, it's not the translators' fault and it's certainly not the theorists' fault. It just is. This statement is true of all theory not just critical theory.

For example, if I were to try reading some theoretical physics (given I've not studied any physics beyond a four week 'taster' in Grade 10) I doubt I would understand much, if any, of it. Frankly, every time I arrived at a formula I would be completely stumped: I don't know how to read formulae and I don't understand what any of the symbols mean. If I needed or wanted to understand that theoretical physics, I fully appreciate that it is my responsibility to learn what all the individual symbols in the formula mean and how to read the formula. I would never expect the theoretical physicist to have to explain every formula from scratch for me. The physicist is writing for a learned audience who already knows this stuff; she is writing in jargon.

This leads me on to my next point: jargon is useful. All of us who work in a scholarly field carry some kind of disciplinary specialism and goodness knows we do tend to love wallowing in jargon. But we do so because it is useful to us. Jargon helps folks who share common knowledges to efficiently import rich meaning into conversations.

To return to my example of trying to understand theoretical physics: some of the things (but by no means all) these theoretical physicists are explaining are things I get intuitively, like gravity and inertia. Just because I get these things intuitively does not mean that their explaining it (in the detail that is useful for theoretical physics) is pointless or deliberately obfuscatory. Furthermore, much of what they're explaining (such as Van der Waals force) is not intuitive to me and I would be arrogant to suggest that everything in the realm of theoretical physics is stuff that I do or could get intuitively.

The same goes for critical theory. The value of critical theory (from my point of view) is that it exposes things that the vast majority of us believe to be 'true' and 'factual' to actually be constructed and mythic. In other words, it's useful precisely because it is counterintuitive. This is especially true of D&G which returns me to my favourite quotation: 'We are tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees... They have made us suffer too much' (p.15). The point they are making here which is so counterintuitive is that lots of things that we believe to be arborescent are not, but we believe that they are because we have been taught that they are.

I've been reading and teaching critical theory for two decades now. With that experience and prior knowledge under my belt, I can approach most critical theory for the first time and get a pretty good grasp of it after a first reading. After a few more goes, I understand more of it and misunderstand less of it. Even though I can do this, it still requires work on my part. I appreciate that for folks who are new to critical theory this is going to be appreciably harder. But - and this is my first key point - that does not absolve anyone from having to do that work if they want or need to understand it.

This leads me to my next key point: there are very real dangers if we don't do that work. We can't just have a bit of a stab at what theory means and hope for the best. Worse still, we can't rely on someone else's take on theory and presume it is accurate. We also can't just defend our take on theory to be correct because that's what we take it to mean. This runs the risk of us deciding that we are in the business of just making things up.

This gets me back to the discussions on #rhizo14. There are lots of people trying to get their heads around what rhizomatic learning actually is. This is understandable, after all, it's why we're all in this course. But there are also folks who are trying to do this without even having read the theoretical material upon which all of this is based. I really want to encourage everyone who is in this boat to give the theory a go.

So - here's my advice on how to do that. Download it or borrow it from your library. (You only need to read the 25 page introduction not the whole book). Get hold of a good dictionary of critical theory (not just a regular dictionary which will actually be unhelpful): Ian Buchanan's is a good 'un. Give yourself two hours. Go somewhere quiet and comfortable where you're not going to be disturbed. Give it a go. Annotate it as you go. Write yourself questions about bits you don't understand. Celebrate the bits you do understand. Put it down. Walk away. Give yourself a break (24 hours or more). Then pick it up and read it again. Repeat. Repeat again. You cannot expect to understand much of it on a first, second or even third reading. Finally, be kind to yourself: you cannot expect to ever really understand all of it.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Rhizome Poster

As part of my contribution to #rhizo14, I've bashed together a poster which for me distills the key points that Deleuze and Guattari are making in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus. I hope that others find it helpful.

Monday 20 January 2014

Cheating is learning

The topic for the first week of Dave Cormier's #rhizo14 course is 'Cheating AS Learning' but I've called this post 'Cheating IS Learning' because that's what I say to students all the time in the classroom. When I chuck a question at them in the classroom, I often (well in the first few weeks at least) find them staring back at me blankly. This is, plainly, because they don't know the answer to the question. Pretty much every single one of them has some kind of mobile device on their person that they can whip out and use to cheat but they're all so well trained in standards of teaching and learning that they believe that unless they can pull the answer out of their memory banks then it's not valid as an answer. As soon as I suggest that they can 'cheat' (i.e. they can look up the answer on their phone) then suddenly they are into it. It often becomes a bit of a race to see who can get to the answer first.

The phrase 'cheating is learning' became a kind of catchphrase in that class alongside another one that I picked up from Lindsay Jordan: "No one knows as much as everyone". Lindsay explains it as: 10 people working together on something will always achieve more than one person competing against the other 9. These two principles are, of course, linked; I'll get onto that link in a bit.

There are lots of ways students can cheat: they can look stuff up online (invariably they google it which often gets them to wikipedia), they can look stuff up in a book (usually their text book) or their notes, they can ask someone else in the room or they can ask the teacher. The point is that I want it to be clear to my students that the whole principle of learning has to work from the assumption that there is a whole pile of stuff they don't yet know; not knowing it isn't a big deal, but not finding out is.

The link between 'cheating is learning' and 'noone knows as much as everyone' is, of course, that learning collaboratively (and by extension working collaboratively) is a very productive approach.  The principle  I offer is that I don't expect them to come to an active learning session with the complete picture, but I do expect them to come with at least some of the jigsaw puzzle pieces. It's likely that not everyone will come with the same pieces so the job of work to be done in the learning session is for each student to declare which pieces they've brought and do what they can to piece them together with the pieces that others have brought. It's still highly likely that at the end of that session they they'll have that annoying charity-shop jigsaw scenario of missing pieces, but the  picture should at least be starting to form.

The student reflective responses to these types of classes are always positive: that they feel they've really learned something because they've had to figure it out for themselves rather than simply being told it. This is, of course, heuristic learning at its best.

The first thing that I want to reflect on in this post is that after my confident declaration that 'cheating is learning' I routinely find myself muttering 'don't tell my colleagues I said that'. There's something deeply iconoclastic about saying these things and believing them to be true. That's especially the case for someone who, as I do, also sits on academic misconduct panels. So the first reflective question I pose (to myself and others reading this) is: what are the limits we might want to or be required to impose upon collaborative learning within the academy? What role might rhizomatic learning play in 'loosening the regulatory bolts'?

The other thing I want to reflect on is how this approach I've described fits within a rhizomatic model of learning. It still very much works from the 'arborescent' assumption that the principle of good learning is finding (whether through cheating or not) the right answers to questions. This is, of course, all well and good for things that are arborescent, but, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, 'we're tired of trees... they've made us suffer too much' (15). So the second reflective question I ask (again of myself and others) is how might the 'cheating is learning' principle apply in a rhizomatic context and, particularly, a context in which I want to value and reward students not for answering questions to which we already know the answers, but instead for asking questions we've never thought to ask before (even if we don't yet have any answers)?


I've just signed up (albeit a squeak late) to Dave Cormier's Rhizomatic Learning course (#rhizo14) for two main reasons: a) because I want to explore the concept of rhizomatic learning in more detail and b) because I want to experience some collaborative/conversational open online learning to get some of the design principles into my head. I'm going to be firing this blog back up to engage with some of the ideas on the course and to contribute my responses to the course activities each week.