Tuesday, 28 January 2014

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. 


  1. Thanks for this Cath. Trees that stand among the rhizomes eh? That's nice.

    I think the 'anything goes' point is a good one. It's something that i take care of in my classrooms... but not something that I have overtly addressed.

    Thanks for your work.

  2. My (ahem) take on things is that in a rhizomatic world the tree exists as an obstacle. Something you encounter before moving on or around. Or something that might cause an asignifying rupture and a new line of flight. In that sense it is essential for learning. Creativity comes from barriers.

    I think what you (and Christina Hendricks and Keith Hamon) are saying about the space in which the rhizome operates is important. There is always a context. We don't learn or live in a vacuum. The intersection between the rhizome and its context is really interesting.

    On another note, I appreciated your original post about theory. I'm not an academic or a teacher. I don't talk/think about theoretical matters on a regular basis. I don't have any real knowledge/understanding of D&G. I'm picking things up in a piecemeal way and trying to bind them to my own ideas somehow. But theory is important, and having people that get it better than I do is helpful for me. I do not feel patronised. It helps me learn. It is my own barrier... So thanks!

  3. Thanks for this Cath. To try to make sense of the flurry over theory( that played out mainly over Facebook as far as I could see) I blogged about it http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/dimensions-of-power-knowledge-and-rhizomatic-thinking/ We are very fortunate to have some people on rhizo14 like Emily Purser who have had years of thinking and reading about language, meaning and dialogue. I found that taking the 3 dimensional view of power greatly helped me in making some sense of what was happening on #rhizo14. I have also found blogs to be a good place to engage with the riches of rhizo14.
    I came to this party to find out what rhizomatic learning was , and that led me to tussle with the theory, to look at related examples of its application and try to apply it to my own experiences. Though I am making progress, it is going to take some time so my thoughts here are exploratory.

    Two things that might be relevant have occurred to me:
    1. That we came here with different expectations of what the course was 'about', and not just as individuals but in our 'tribes' (sometimes overlapping which challenges that metaphor). I think that relates to the point you make - we each came with our own 'take' on rhizomatic learning AND where we might apply it. That relates to what you say about trees among the rhizomes. I am beginning see it differently as I struggle with striation and smoothness in Chapter 12 but will blog about that in due course.
    2. Up there in the title is the phrase 'the community is the curriculum' a concept that seems to have emerged from community approaches such as http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-community-development/. Danielle Paradis contributed a great post here http://daniparadiseducation.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/teaching-through-community-organizing-being-the-unacademic/ and I found some applications of DLG to what is called 'service learning' in South Africa and elsewhere. Ideas of community, networks are being explored eg http://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-community-is-the-curriculum-in-rhizo14/ and I think this is at the heart of things.

    I wonder if an undue emphasis on formal education and formal learning might hold us back but am cheered by those who are drawing on non-school, non-uni experiences of learning.

  4. And yes puppy dogs tails, become a simple nostalgic about making the life better, i don't care about understanding people, because i understand my self

  5. Hi Cath

    I agree that sometimes one has to be able to say that an author has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misrepresented: because sometimes folk are just plain wrong. I've tried to say something about it here: http://nomadwarmachine.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/meaning-versus-inspiring/

    I also agree that it is important to notice that D&G are writing philosophy, not pedagogy. Also I think they are talking about thinking and knowledge, rather than about teaching. So, as you say, it's a fruitful application of their metaphor, but it is not their application.

    I do use metaphor and that's because I think it is a more appropriate word than "model". D&G are not giving the rhizome as a model (I guess another word might be blue print?) for thinking, they are suggesting that thought is sort of rhizomish, it sort of sparks off ideas about rhixomy things, it's analogous to a rhizome in some way ... but I'm open for discussion about that.

    I love the Underground map. I used to have Simon Patterson'r "Great Bear" on my wall when I was a student. Must find that again.

  6. It is true that trees can provide a place for rhizomes to grow. I'm also glad that trees grow where we can cut them down, because sometimes they hinder the undergrowth.

    In connection, I like what was said in today's unhangout about the need for structure within the rhizome, a territorializing, which also involves a reterritorializing. There must be certainties of uncertainty as new spaces are created.

    Rhizomatic learning is indeed not a free-for-all, do-whatever-you-want approach to learning. It involves contemplation and reflection, that underground growth that emerges when it is ready. We have to provide fertile learning environments that are patient enough for the new shoots to emerge.

  7. Thanks so much for pointing me to this post, Cath! I've been so busy in my day-to-day work life that I haven't been able to be engaged in this course as much as I'd like. But I do enjoy the little bits of times here and there when I get to read others' thoughts and they spark new ideas for me.

    I completely agree about the importance of recognizing the value of trees while not thinking that trees are all there is, or all that we need to pay attention to. Your post got me wondering if we might not even "see" the rhizomes related to a particular issue or area until we've gone through understanding some of the tree-like knowledge in that area? When I thought about rhizomatic learning in the past (a year ago, in ETMOOC--Educational Technology and Media MOOC), I remember thinking that sometimes you tree-like learning in a field is good for beginners, and maybe rhizomatic learning would work better after they have a certain grounding in that field. But it's been awhile since I thought about this, and I'm not sure if I think it must always be the case. Your post brought this issue up for me again, and I'll be considering it further--thanks for that!

    I also find it frustrating when theories that emphasize the prevalence and importance of interpretation and uncertainty lead some to over-emphasize these, and suggest that more or less any interpretation goes. I tell my philosophy and literature students that they should think of themselves as providing an interpretation of texts when they write, and that usually there is more than one interpretation that can be legitimately grounded in the texts. But I stress that this also means that some interpretations can't be adequately grounded in the text, don't fit what the authors say. So while there's room for more than one legitimate interpretation, there isn't room for any and all. Is this a matter of attending to the trees in addition to the rhizomes? That's a thought-provoking idea...I'll have to consider that further as well! The "centre" here is the text itself, and the interpretations have to branch out from, and be connected to that centre? There can be multiple branches going in different directions, but they can't be hanging in the air, completely disconnected from the trunk. Hmmm...that's an intriguing way to think about it (is it what you mean?).

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