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.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Provisional Imperatives

I think I should say something about what I mean by the term ethics, especially as distinguished from morals. In fact, I do not distinguish much between ethics and morals; rather, I follow what Bruce Weinstein says about the distinctions between the two: "[J]ust about everyone understands that both ethics and morality have to do with identifying right conduct and good character. To keep everyone on the same page, and to honor the linguistic history of these two noble concepts, it’s much better to treat ethical and moral as synonymous."

That said, I recognize that some conversations find it useful to distinguish the two:
  • ethics are social standards, while morals are personal beliefs
  • ethics deals with right conduct, while morals deals with good character (or the other way around—I forget)
  • ethics belong to the secular realm, while morals belong to the religious
  • ethics are absolute and objective, while morals are relative and subjective
In this conversation, I don't think I will use these distinctions, but I'm free to do so if the need arises.

At any rate, I'm talking about how people choose to behave in groups, specifically MOOCs. Those choices are both social and personal at the same time. They can also be secular and religious, absolute and relative, objective and subjective at the same time. I said in a comment on Frances Bell's blog that "new structures demand new ethics", and Jenny Mackness questions this assertion in her post New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics? She raises a vital question. If there is no stable, enduring ethical system, then what prevents us from all simply doing what we want to do? Are we left with a totally relativistic, anything goes melee?

Woermann and Cilliers say not, but does their answer imply a new ethics? I want to explore these two questions.

Woermann and Cilliers avoid an anything goes relativism by asserting a  provisional imperative modelled after Kant's categorical imperative. They begin by noting that "the ethics of complexity cannot do more than generate awareness of the fact that we are always in trouble. In other words, it cannot provide substantive guidelines for an ethical system" (451). This is uncomfortable. What use is an ethics that can't tell us how to behave? Doesn't this leave us in an anything goes situation? They answer that "despite not being able to provide a substantive ethics, it is possible to develop a type of meta-ethical position, which serves to highlight important considerations that underscore the ethical strategies that we employ when engaging in the particularities of situations."

What they are aiming for, I think, are heuristics, rules-of-thumb rather than rules. Strategies that can be employed and adjusted on-the-fly as we traverse new territory, encounter new people, and shift contexts across a complex topography, which sounds like most of the MOOCs I've engaged. They capture this type of meta-ethical position, this critical stance, in a provisional imperative:
When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.
To get a sense of the distinction and importance of this imperative, it helps me to compare it to Kant's categorical imperative, which Woermann and Cilliers phrase this way:
When acting, always follow only universal rules, or only rules which you will want all other people to follow.
So what is different about a provisional imperative as opposed to a categorical one? First, note that Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is a contradiction in terms, while Kant's imperative is not. As Woermann and Cilliers readily note:
The idea of a provisional imperative seems to suggest that the imperative itself is subject to change, and in this regard we seem to be advocating an impossible position. This is, to a large extent, exactly the point: we cannot do away with moral imperatives, but, if we take complexity seriously, we should also realise that our imperatives are the outcome of certain framing strategies or ways of thinking about the world, and are thus necessarily exclusionary. Thus the provisional imperative stipulates that we must be guided by the imperative, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the exclusionary nature of all imperatives.
To my mind, their imperative embodies the very complexity they are trying to address. It dialogically juxtaposes two terms that cannot be reconciled: provisional and imperative. The one term suggests open-ended change and flexibility while the second suggests closed, unchanging rigidity. Complexity says we are suspended between these two, irreconcilable positions, and our lives play out in the tensions between them. No relief, no exit. Provisional imperative is similar to the phrase assertive humility that I used in my last post: a dialogic that suspends us between equally demanding and yet irreconcilable positions. This is part of the nature of complex systems, for as Woermann and Cilliers quote theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen: "a system is complex precisely ‘to the extent that it admits non-equivalent encodings; encodings which cannot be reduced to one another'" (450). Morin is quite clear that these non-equivalent encodings are part of the core logic of complex systems: "the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms" (Restricted Complexity, 16).

Neither Kant's categorical imperative nor Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is substantive. Neither gives us explicit guidance about how to behave, but I think that the provisional imperative describes a stance that is more useful for determining behavior in complex systems: act as well as you can within the context you define, but always be aware that others may act in different ways that may be as good or better within the same context and that are quite likely better in different contexts, so always be ready to question your context.

This seems to me a useful ethical stance to take in a complex space such as an rMOOC. I must engage a MOOC within my frame, presented as honestly and as clearly as I can. For instance, when I showed up to Rhizo14 last year, I came with a keen interest in Deleuze and Guattari and complexity thought and wanted to explore how both of these might inform a discussion about rhizomatic learning and the community as the curriculum. Given the title of the MOOC, I thought it was a reasonable frame. As the MOOC emerged, however, Deleuze and Guattari were not the central focus of the discussions. Others brought other frames to the MOOC. The clash of frames disappointed and offended some, causing them to leave the MOOC, and the emerging discussions that were often more artistic than philosophical disappointed others. The reframing of the discussion on Facebook and Twitter at first annoyed me, as I don't like either of those platforms, but the others in the discussion didn't like Google+. I could have stubbornly clung to my original framing of the MOOC, which would have forced me to either abandon the MOOC or try to twist everyone into my frame. I'm pleased that I chose the third way: relax my frame and engage other ways of acting.

I claim no moral high-ground here. I did almost abandon the MOOC. Like everyone else, I'm a busy professional, and I could have easily told myself and others that I was just too busy. They would have believed me. I would have believed me. Of course, now I'm glad I didn't leave, not just because of all the wonderful connections, real friendships, that I've made, but because I learned first-hand Woemann and Cilliers' provisional imperative: When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.

I should note that I did not exactly abandon my D&G frame for another frame; rather, I enlarged my frame to accommodate the others. I still mentioned D&G and complexity, quite often actually, because after all that is the value that I had to bring to the conversation, but my comments were framed not in a narrow, philosophical way, but in a more general community as curriculum way. In other words, I continued to declare the value that I could bring, but I worked to reframe that value into different contexts. I think it worked for others, and I know it worked for me. I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and of complexity by pushing the discussion into different frames. By the way, I also eventually joined the more artsy discussions, which I had at first resisted as they didn't fit my narrow frame. I introduced the haiku form of poetry, which led to a round of haiku among Simon Ensor, Terry Elliot, Kevin Hodgson, and me. Again, I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and complexity and, more importantly, make some treasured friends.

I think this provisional imperative informs Dave Cormier's list of suggestions on Youtube about how to be successful in a MOOC, especially the first three:
  1. orient,
  2. declare,
  3. network,
  4. cluster, and
  5. focus.
We orient ourselves within a MOOC by constructing an initial frame. We anchor to some aspect of the MOOC—a person, a concept, an activity—and look about through our frame. We declare ourselves part of the MOOC and present. Here we can state our frame, our value, our expectations, our point of view. From this position, we begin to connect to others, to network, and this is where we must always remain cognizant of other ways of acting. We must begin working with our frame to accommodate, complement, or stand in dialogical opposition to other frames and points of view.

This, of course, is where the rub comes in. It may be that we find no one to cluster with and we remain alone. We may have to accept that this conversation is not for us. I'm okay with that, but many feel that we should be all inclusive. I may blog about this later, but I'll say here that I don't agree with this point of view. If a group of people wants to play futbol except for one who wants to play baseball, then that one should disengage or decide to embrace the futbol game, and the group should not feel compelled to quit playing futbol to accommodate the one. Fortunately, MOOCs can be large enough to accommodate both futbol and baseball games, if the players will organize themselves that way. What isn't acceptable is for the one baseball player to stay and poison the futbol game. It would have been wrong of me, for instance, to insist that Rhizo14 focus its discussion on Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome metaphor just because that was the game I wanted to play.

Anyway, the provisional imperative may still seem both too vague and too demanding for many. Self-criticality is a difficult, tiring position to maintain and even harder to tell if you're doing it correctly, and so next I want to discuss four mechanisms that Woermann and Cilliers promise will "serve to reinforce and promote the critical attitude, namely provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Assertive Humility

So in my last post I introduced the idea that engagement of complex spaces such as in cMOOCs requires ethical choices. We must define the open, shifting space to make sense of it, deciding what is valuable and what is not, what is in, what is out, and how it should be arranged. We must frame and arrange the complex space, including ourselves in it, and our ethics are revealed in this framing and arranging. This framing and arranging always unfolds with less knowledge than we desire, less than we usually recognize. In complex spaces, we are always acting on the basis of relative ignorance. This lands us in the first complex ethical issue and characterizes the dialogical nature of ethics within the complex domain.

Think of it as being one locust inside a swarm of locusts, far from the edge, and having to make decisions about your place in the swarm and the proper way to move within the swarm. Frame a space of about 35 locusts including yourself, and call it a collaborative autoethnography to give yourself a manageable focus on the swarm. What is the correct stance here?

The first stance is humility. You will never, ever have enough information within your frame to move with absolute certainty within the swarm. The swarm ever has surprises for you that come from all the swarm outside your frame that, despite your frame, is still interacting with the swarm inside your frame. This is always the case.

Like Woermann and Cilliers and Morin, I believe in general complexity as opposed to restricted complexity, both of which Morin defines in his 2008 article Restricted Complexity, General Complexity. Though many in science have accepted complexity and its concomitant incomplete knowledge, many complexity scientists still hold to the nineteenth century faith that we will discover the rules and structures of complexity given enough time and computing power. This restricted view of complexity still believes in the Theory of Everything (TOE). I do not believe in the big TOE. Like Woermann, Cilliers, Morin, and others, I believe that "Complex phenomena are irreducible, or, to elaborate in the words of the theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen (1985: 424), a system is complex precisely ‘to the extent that it admits non-equivalent encodings; encodings which cannot be reduced to one another’" (450).

Within complex spaces, we must always act from positions of relative ignorance, make our choices partially blind. At best, we are less blind than others—we may see 100 other locusts and not just 35—but compared to the swarm both 100 and 35 are near blindness. This is unlike closed systems such as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (the APA style guide). Inside a closed, simple system such as APA, we can often act with absolute certainty. We should not presume to act with absolute certainty within a complex system. Our lives are overwhelmingly lived out in complex spaces. Simple spaces are the rare exceptions, won through tremendous social effort. In part, we humans have invented simple spaces to relieve ourselves of the unbearable weight of ethical choices. There may be ethical choices about whether or not to use APA style, but once APA is chosen, the ethical choices are eliminated. One cannot make an unethical choice in APA, one can only make an inaccurate or unskillful choice. Truly ethical choices belong in the complex domain.

And they are awful choices, an unbearable weight. Ask the poets and the prophets, they will tell you. What you don't know far exceeds what you do know, yet you have to make a choice. You don't know enough to make an absolutely certain choice, yet you still have to make a choice. This should make you humble.

Woermann and Cilliers define this humility in terms of a self-critical rationality and intellectual honesty "that makes no claim for objectivity, or for any special status for the grounds from which the claim is made. A self-critical rationality is therefore the outcome of acknowledging the irreducible nature of complexity" (450).

But as Woermann and Cilliers are careful to say, this does not mean that anything goes, that one choice is as good as another. We must still do the hard work of trying to understand:
We must still be competent at performing the necessary calculations and considering the relevant information, but we should also recognise that doing the groundwork won’t resolve the complexity and that we still remain responsible for our modelling choices, since each choice gives rise to ‘a different spectrum of possible consequences, different successes and failures, and different strengths and weaknesses’ (102). Knowledge acquisition is not the objective pursuit of truth, but rather a process of working towards finding suitable strategies for dealing with complex phenomena.
We are not likely to find truth in a MOOC, but we might find suitable strategies for dealing with complex phenomena.

I suspect that given the topic of ethics, many will not be convinced if I don't provide a rule, an ethical principle. I think a stance is the best I can do: Be confidently humble, or humbly confident. Do you like assertive humility? We are called to make choices based on questionable, contextualized information, but we are called to make choices nonetheless. Quite possibly another context exists within the same swarm in which our choices would be obviously, painfully wrong. Almost certainly another context will arise someday in which our choices are derisively wrong.

We are in an irreconcilable position: on the one hand, we must act; on the other, we do not have complete information. We are suspended between the need to act and our lack of knowledge. This terrifies many of us. Others reduce their situations to the simple domain. Others have too much confidence in their own knowledge. None of these are the ethical stance demanded of us. We must cultivate our knowledge and value, make choices in experimentation with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari say it, all the while knowing that we may well be in error now and will certainly be in error in some other context.

As Morin often points out, irreconcilable positions are the engines of complex spaces, where we are always poised between life and death, order and disorder—where all the fun is. As he says in Restricted Complexity, General Complexity:
We return again to the logical core of complexity which we will see, is dialogical: separability-inseparability, whole-parts, effect-cause, product-producer, life-death, homo sapiens-homo demens, etc. It is here that the principle of the excluded middle reveals its limit. The excluded middle states “A cannot be A and not A”, whereas it can be one and the other. For example, Spinoza is Jewish and non-Jewish, he is neither Jewish, nor non-Jewish. It is here that the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms.
A complex ethic does not seek to resolve these complementary antagonisms in some dialectic, but to cultivate the inherent, creative energy in these dialogics.

****

I think I want to add something more specific. What does this assertive humility say about engaging a cMOOC? It says first that you should not expect to get it all. You can't swallow the whole swarm. You won't know all the people, and you won't read all the content. Neither will anyone else.

Each participant will try to frame the swarm as best they can, many as a traditional classroom, which will cause them much anxiety. Have compassion for them. They are using the frames they know for a space that they don't know.

Very few will frame the swarm as you frame it; thus, almost no one will experience the same MOOC. They will structure, interpret, and value people, content, and events differently than you will. Some will see a white/gold dress, and some a blue/black dress. No one's frame can claim an objective, transcendent, privileged status against which all other frames may be judged or assessed. This is especially the case with the facilitators.

You can join a MOOC such as Rhizo14 expecting to discuss Deleuze and Guattari and even find a few others who share your frame, more or less. Still, the group may frame the content and discussion differently. You should expect antagonistic frames. This is often where the most energy is generated, in the tension between opposing frames. You bring your values and value and present them honestly, knowing that others will bring opposing values and value.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Complex vs. Simple Learning

I've just written two things that have left me dissatisfied, and both of them had to do with ethics. The first was a long comment on France Bell's post Cycling between private and public in researching Rhizo14 about the recent article she wrote with Jenny Mackness, Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. The second was my last blog post Anarchy as Freedom To. In both, I challenged an ethical position that struck me as inappropriate for education in the complex domain, but I did not provide an alternative. It's too easy to tear down and much harder to build up, so I need to repair myself. I want to start a series of posts that I trust will help me think through an ethical stance for education in the complex domain, which I think is the appropriate domain for connectivist MOOCs such as MOOCMOOC and rhizomatic MOOCs such as Rhizo14.

Much of what I will say in the next couple of posts is based on the work of Minka Woermann and Paul Cilliers, especially in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012), and on their extensive use of Edgar Morin's work on complexity. I've just discovered Woermann's work, but I've already written much about Cilliers in this blog and even more about Morin. They provide me a fine way to start thinking about ethics in the complex domain in general and about ethics in rMOOCs in particular.

Woermann and Cilliers begin their discussion of complexity ethics with the limitation of knowledge within the complex domain. To understand why knowledge of complex systems is necessarily incomplete, I have to refer to other essays by Cilliers, such as Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2002) in which he argues to my satisfaction that "meaning is constituted in a specific context where some components [of the complex system] are included and others are not" (86). This contextualization, or framing, of a complex system means that we limit the system in order to understand it, but also means that much, often most, is left outside the frame. That information outside the frame is not irrelevant; rather, it is constitutive of the complex system and leaving it out means that we do not know a complex system completely, cannot know it completely. Unfortunately, knowing it at all, means contextualizing and framing a part of the system to bring it into clarity. The only knowledge we can have of a complex system is incomplete, partial knowledge.

cMOOCs and rMOOCs engage the complex in terms of both content and people. People, of course, are always complex, but content is not, so I want to deal with content first. I teach college composition courses to help students master academic writing, the kind of writing they will do in their college courses. My college requires the APA style for all school documents. Teaching APA style is education in the simple domain, simple content. I do not mean that APA is easy—indeed, most of my students find it difficult to master—rather, APA is simple because it is a closed system, with a finite number of components, and if one is so inclined, then one can know all there is to know about APA. It's just a collection of rules, tedious but doable, and in almost all cases, there is only one right way to do any given reference or citation. This is simple content amenable to a mostly simple way of teaching.

Good writing on the other hand—how to craft an effective and appropriate argument or how to develop an illuminating metaphor—is complex content. You cannot know all there is to know about good writing, and to write anything, this post for instance, you must frame it in a way that privileges some ways of writing and certain language and excludes other ways and words. If I teach academic writing, for instance, I leave out all that I could say—often want to say—about poetics. I can cover APA. I will never cover writing, and I've been teaching it 30 years. APA, then, is education in the simple domain, while writing is education in the complex domain. I must mix both in my 10-week courses.

When Dave Cormier proposed Rhizo14, he posed a field of inquiry about the community as the curriculum and left it to the community to develop most of the content. He did not do this as a clever ploy. He did this because the community as the curriculum is a complex field of study, and he really didn't know how far it extended. We still don't know how far the field extends as we are still exploring, and to my knowledge, we haven't reached any definitive boundaries yet. There may be no boundaries. MOOCMOOC15 posed a bit more of a curriculum, but it is still quite open-ended. Both MOOCs are engaging complex content: open-ended and emerging. We can frame issues within the field of each, but we cannot enclose the field. We cannot exhaust the field, no matter how long we study. We can only grow bored and move on to other fields. In other words, our knowledge of the community as the curriculum can expand, but it is always incomplete. This is education in the complex domain.

Unlike content, people are always complex, though we too often try to reduce people to the simple domain through the use of labels: you are a woman, therefore you must not understand technology very well; or you are a white male of European descent, therefore you must feel unreasonably privileged; or you are an advanced student, you are a slow student. We do this all the time, but as Woermann and Cilliers argue, our identities are complex—they are both particle and wave, to use a familiar observation from quantum physics. They say of identity:
Our identities are neither a priori nor static. Rather, identity is constituted in a complex network, and must be contextualised as both a temporal process of becoming, and as a point in a nexus of relationships (Cilliers, 2010).
My identity in a MOOC is both particle, a point in a nexus of relationships, and wave, a temporal process of becoming. As McGilchrist shows so well in his book The Master and His Emissary (2010), the problem with being two things at once is that creatures such as humans with bicameral brains can see either the particle or the wave view, but not both at the same time. The Uncertainty Principle of physics makes this inability to see two things at once a central tenet of complexity science: we can identify either the position of a particle or its velocity, but not both at the same time. In the daily push and pull, we humans favor the left-brain particle view, which means we tend to reduce other people to their current positions, minimizing or ignoring the right-brain wave view, their stories. I am not either my current position or my trajectory—neither particle nor wave. I am both, at the same time, but you and I can see only one at a time. The key insight here is that we always view the other from a limited perspective. Thus, all our views of the other are based on limited knowledge and contain inaccuracies.

Moreover, our identity is never ours alone, but always a product of our interactions with and within an enclosing ecosystem, itself a very complex structure. Woermann and Cilliers say:
We act on one another in ways that give rise to our personal identities as well as the identities of our social practices, and that leads to the transformation of these identities (Woermann, 2010). We are therefore not only vulnerable with regard to the things that we value, but also with regard to our very identities. My state depends on the state of others (Preiser & Cilliers, 2010).
I can't know you unless I know myself, and I can't know myself unless I know all of you. My knowledge of you and me is incomplete, and while it can expand, it will always be incomplete. This is a monstrous ethical problem that cannot be transcended, but must be engaged.

Woermann and Cilliers say that our incomplete knowledge of any complex system "introduces an unavoidable ethical component into our thinking about complex phenomena", because as soon as "we engage with complexity, we have to make certain modelling choices when describing phenomena. In other words, since we cannot have complete knowledge of complex things, we cannot 'calculate' their behaviour in any deterministic fashion. We have to interpret and evaluate" (448).

Thus, when I engage the people and content in an rMOOC, I introduce an unavoidable ethical component because I have to make certain modelling choices when describing phenomena in the MOOC—when describing the people, the content, the activities and processes and assessing the value of those things. The choices I make in an open field of inquiry reveal my ethics, continue my trajectory, and yet are also influenced by the choices of others.

This is so unlike learning to use APA style, which involves no ethical choices after we commit to using APA. The questions cease to be am I right or wrong and become am I accurate or inaccurate. I do not differ, dare not differ, from others or from the teacher, but I must do APA exactly like everyone else. Conformity is the only reasonable option, the only sanctionable option, in simple learning. Learning becomes, as Deleuze and Guattari say, an issue of tracing accurately, of competence, not an issue of performance, of mapping, which is always an issue of ethics. Most students and teachers like the precision, clarity, and regularity of the simple domain. It's easy to teach here: accurate or inaccurate. That's easy to grade. I suspect that we teachers too often force some topics that are really complex into the simple domain to ease our burdens. It's like writing teachers who base their grades mostly on grammar. They can point to the rules and justify the 74 grade.

I've taken longer than I expected to arrive at my point: learning in the complex domain is an ethical issue. And ethics are constitutive of complex learning, not an add on. As Woermann and Cilliers insist:
[E]thics should be understood as something that constitutes both our knowledge and us, rather than as a normative system that dictates right action. Hence, the ethics of complexity is not an add-on, but inherent to any real engagement with complex phenomena. Otherwise stated, the ethics of complexity is a structural element of complexity thinking. In practice, this means that we should assume a critical attitude when modelling phenomena, where the critical attitude amounts to both the recognition of, and engagement with, the limits of knowledge (Preiser & Cilliers, 2010). (448)
Ethics is not a list of rules or norms or a social contract or a syllabus; rather, it is a critical attitude, complexity thinking, and a way of engaging and mapping an open field of inquiry, such as the community as the curriculum or critical learning. We make ethical choices in education when we are creating new knowledge, mapping new territory, forking a syllabus, not when we are memorizing a list of rules, such as APA. In simple learning, the ethical choices have all been made for us, while in complex learning, we must make the ethical choices through our own engagement with complex others and with complex content.

So what is this ethical stance, this ethical way of engaging and mapping in open terrain? I'll tackle that next.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Anarchy as Freedom To

I found myself perplexed about the use of the word power in Wednesday's (2015.02.11) #moocmooc Twitter chat, especially by the implication that anarchy is defined primarily by resistance to power and, hopefully, freedom from power. I appreciate Nick Kearney(@nickkearney) pointing out that anarchy as a word starts from a rejection of rulers (though my dictionary says that the word comes from the Greek anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’, so without a ruler, which is not quite the same thing), but either way I have to define power too narrowly to make that concept of anarchy work. I prefer not to define anarchy as freedom from but as freedom to. These prepositions and the directions they imply are important, I think.

My first problem is that I don't think freedom from power is possible, as I define power most broadly as the forces that bind the world together, making life and everything else possible. It takes power at all scales (strings to galaxies) for anything to emerge and to act within a Universe with its own powers to emerge and act. Almost none of the power in the Universe is discretionary—that is, it can't be switched off. It exists, and we exist because of it and through interaction with it.

I know full well that when people speak of power they usually mean human social power in all its political, economic, educational, familial, and religious manifestations. I suppose that it makes sense in many discussions to distinguish natural forces from human powers, but something about this troubles me: when does natural force become human power? or to ask it more precisely: when does natural force cease and human power emerge? Is this a sliding scale with blind natural forces at one end and human powers at the other? Perhaps, but I balk at privileging the human this way and even more at differentiating the human too much from the natural.

Perhaps power is an emergent property that comes with agency and consciousness, when we can choose to act or not, but I'm not so fond of this either as it suggests that most of the Universe for most of the time lacked and still lacks agency, just blindly, stupidly clumping until some random, fortuitous magic happens and self-replicating clumps emerge, leading eventually to creatures with agency and consciousness. This view reduces reality to interactions of matter and energy, leaving out information and organization, which I think have been there all along. So I suspect agency and consciousness, like power, from the beginning. Power, not just dumb forces, from the beginning and through everything.

Still, the MOOCMOOC chat was about power in education, a very human enterprise, so I'll try to stick to that. For me, education requires power. For instance, it took great power (electrical, material, organizational, informational, intellectual, and more) for us to gather on Twitter Wednesday to discuss how to avoid power. The flows of power through that one conversation are truly staggering. We had to assemble a dizzying array of international organizations starting with the Internet, but including dozens of software, hardware, and transport multinationals, each a nexus of streams of power (I relied mostly on Apple, the richest company ever with a well-earned reputation for amassing and enforcing its power). And don't overlook the power of English—currently making as huge a power grab as humanity has ever witnessed—as our Twitter conversation likely would not have taken place without the affordances of that particular power stream. The college and university buildings and our houses or coffee shops that housed us as we chatted are all configurations of power. Sugars ran the streams of my veins and fed my neurons with power so that I could think and move my fingers and converse. I simply don't know how to think about education—or anything else—free from power. For me, power is implicated in every educational effort at every scale.

So if it isn't power in general that we complain about, what particular kind of power is it that we want to avoid? It's a bit too glib to say we complain about any power that we just don't like, but that isn't such a bad place to begin thinking about this. Let's start with the obvious: we don't like power which injures or destroys us or our groups, though the psychological and medical literature is full of exceptions to this generalization. We especially don't like those harmful powers that we think are intentional. Injury in a hunting accident is bad enough, but injury from an intentional shooting is worse. The first injury can be mitigated somewhat, the other cannot and is likely exacerbated.

Next, we don't like power that constrains us, even without injuring us. I generally don't like anything that prevents me from doing whatever I want to do, but I especially don't like those things which intentionally and regularly prevent me from doing what I want to do. My current school falls into this category.

Finally, we don't like power that moves us, even without injuring us, in directions and into spaces (physical, virtual, and mental) that we don't want to go. I generally don't like groups that expect me to participate in their activities for no reason other than my proximity. I don't like those things which intentionally and regularly make me do what I don't want to do. My current school falls into this category as well.

There are probably other kinds of power we don't like, but this should be sufficient for this discussion. We don't like power that stops or constrains our own desired flow of power, but we are least offended by power that flows from totally random acts of chance, more so by power that flows from good intentions, even more by power of carelessness and ignorance, and finally most by the power of foul intentions. As we perceive outside power impinging more on our own power flows, to the point of overwhelming our own power, and as we perceive the exercise of that power as more intentionally harmful, then we object more to that power. That power is more oppressive.

But we don't all find the same power oppressive. While most of us in the Twitter chat enjoyed the power flows opened by the technology and the conversation, some of us—including me—found the 140 character limit to be an oppressive exercise of power. That's the way most things are for me: a mix of power flows that enable and oppress, and I find it most difficult to separate the flows. All human engagements are complex flows of power and desire—some enabling, some oppressive—like different streams feeding into the flow of a river. Separating those streams of power is difficult once you're in the river, especially a really big river such as a nation, a business, or a university.

Moreover, what I find oppressive (140-character limit), others may find liberating. Or I myself may find the 140-character limit oppressive sometimes and liberating at others. How do I sort this bad power from good power? And what do I do with it after I've sorted it?

Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and his Emissary (2009) and Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire, especially in Anti-Oedipus (1977) help me think about power. From D&G I take the notion that all human engagements, from the most intimate to the most world-wide, result from the desire to connect, to couple, with others to create something new: new pair-bonds and babies to new schools, businesses, and nations, or new MOOCs such as #moocmooc15. These desires—themselves complex flows of often conflicting drives—depend on material, energy, informational, and organizational power to explore an environment and to connect.

It so happens, though, that this flow of desire is not mine alone. As D&G note even those desires that I think of as mine are really flowing through me, coming from beyond me and eventually going on beyond me. My desires are mine more in the sense that a wave belongs to a surfer, or in the sense that my breath belongs to me. The breathing is mine, the breath is not. The desiring is mine, the desire is not. The desire, like the air, comes to me already scented by my environment. I add my own scent, my own desiring, but the stream is not mine alone.

My desiring is not alone, either. Others are desiring as well—sometimes a great many others—and the force of their desiring can overwhelm me, turning my desires back upon themselves and diverting them, perverting them. For instance, I can desire certain activities, directions, and results in #moocmooc15, but others have their own desires, the weight and force of which can frustrate me, leading me to act out or to disengage. I'm much more likely to act out if I cannot disengage. These things happen all the time.

Let's make this concrete. I find MOOCs such as #moocmooc15 and #rhizo14 free spaces mostly because I am free to engage and free to disengage, but once I engage, I cannot ignore the group's power. When engaged with a group, even if merely lurking, I cannot avoid exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization with the group. The group has weight, power. I am stained by the group. Of course, I stain the group in turn, but in terms of gravity, the group outweighs me.

Unless, of course, I have some other power, and this is perhaps what people resent most when they complain about power. Let's say I was Paulo Freire come back from the dead. I could probably sway #moocmooc15 and turn the discussion all by my miraculous self. Or if I was Bill Gates with a billion dollar grant to standardize MOOCs, then I might sway #moocmooc15 again. Or if I was the NSA and decided that MOOCs are subversive and a danger to national security, then again I might turn, even silence, the discussion (I think the billion dollars from Gates is the more unlikely exercise of power here, though the Freire resurrection might be pushing it). I don't know that I as a #moocmooc15 participant could really resist the various powers of Freire, Gates, or the NSA, though in the Romantic novel I'm writing about myself, I do.

Really, I can't even resist the power of #moocmooc15. I've just spent hours writing this post as part of my engagement. Is anarchy, then, my freedom to engage or to walk away? Ursula K. Le Guin seems to suggest as much in Omelas, though she doesn't seem to happy about it.

Well, you've probably noticed that I've not reached closure here. I'm not even sure what clarity I've achieved, but it was fun thinking about it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

#moocmooc & Critical Pedagogy

I'm following #moocmooc's exploration of critical pedagogy, and this week I read Chapter 4, "The Promise of Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Globalization" in Henry A. Giroux's On Critical Pedagogy (2011). As near as I can tell, Giroux's argument goes something like this:
  • We are under the threat of a neoliberalism that is 
    • dismantling the safety net of the state, 
    • defining democracy in terms of profit-making and market freedoms, 
    • diminishing civil liberties, and
    • thus robbing us of "the ethical ideal of intervening in the world" and insisting that we "adapt both our hopes and our abilities to the new global market."
  • To counter this worldwide threat, we educators need new educational approaches that should both resurrect the "blemished traditions of Enlightenment thought" (freedom, equality, liberty, self-determination, and civic agency) and engage various post-modern discourses (feminism, postmodernism, critical theory, post-structuralism, neo-marxism, etc) that expand Enlightenment thought.
    • avoiding the split between "modernist material politics" and "postmodern cultural politics" by recognizing "how each works through and on the other within and across specific historical contexts and social formations" and
    • affirming modernity's democratic legacy while rethinking it in light of the postmodern insistence "that democracy is never finished and must be viewed primarily as a process of democratization."
  • Educators must define "the pedagogical as a political practice while at the same time making the political more pedagogical" as "pedagogy has less to do with the language of technique and methodology than it does with issues of politics and power." Giroux sums up education as "a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations and must be understood as a cultural politics that offers both a particular version and vision of civic life, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment."
  • Learning must be "linked to social change" and pedagogy must regenerate both "a renewed sense of social and political agency and a critical subversion of dominant power itself", for "learning is not about processing received knowledge but about actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice."
In the rest of his article, he addresses the implications of his definition of education for students, teachers, and society.

On the whole, I agree with Giroux, but this leads to one of my main problems with this article: It is needlessly abstract and neither education nor politics are abstract. They are very concrete. I suspect that if I did not already agree with Giroux, then this essay would not persuade me to accept critical pedagogy. At best, the essay tweaks some of my understanding of critical pedagogy, but it does not connect me to it very well—not nearly so well as Paulo Freire does. Freire leaves chalk dust under my fingernails, Giroux does not.

This is most unfortunate, because if critical pedagogy is to have any chance of success then it must succeed with the fourth-grade teacher who is trying to decide if she should focus less on penmanship and more on keyboarding skills or the college biology professor debating whether or not to allow cell phone use during her exams. I suspect that these issues on the ground seem more to do with the language of technique and methodology than [they do] with issues of politics and power, and Giroux would not likely convince those teachers otherwise—at least not with this essay alone. Perhaps this is not Giroux's intention, though his article seems to have an argumentative edge to it, but I wish he had connected better to the classroom.

A second issue for me involves framing education in opposition to a particular social movement: in this case, neoliberalism. I am not a neoliberal, but I have to ask if I could be a neoliberal and pursue a critical pedagogy at the same time. I think I could. I would not be a fundamentalist, but I could pursue a line of critical inquiry that agreed with neoliberal conclusions about the role of capital and the market in society and the implications for people and education. My own thinking has taken me in a very different direction, but some very smart, critical thinkers happen to be neoliberals, which is what makes them so dangerous to my mind.

This leads me to a third issue with Giroux's argument, and I'll stop here: he comes too close to privileging critical pedagogy above all other pedagogies. For me, this privilege is too close to fundamentalism which sanctions one view, one system, to the exclusion of any other and has the primary objective of protecting itself from outside influence, with the concomitant tasks either of proselytizing those outside or of destroying them. While Giroux certainly does not go this far and while he does say that critical pedagogy should always scrutinize its own methods and madness within the local context, I still sense something in his presentation of a blessing and privilege above other views, and I still suspect that he would not mind too much if neoliberalism disappeared. I would have preferred that he talk in terms of the current affordances of critical pedagogy (and perhaps this is implied) while acknowledging that whatever affordances we have now are likely to be impediments in the not too distant future. Our rock-solid physics will almost certainly be overturned by the next Einstein. Critical pedagogy will be rendered irrelevant by the next Freire. Such knowledge keeps us humble, I think, without undermining our agency. We have to make decisions with the full understanding that eventually they will be seen as wrong.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Deleuze, Serres, and the Desires of Prepositions

What I propose here is a travelog, the flow and emergence of an idea. I want to ride the Chattooga River of my blog posts over the past year, and along the way, I want to map the desires of prepositions and determine what the desires of these little words have to do with the ways we conduct higher education. The Chattooga starts as a small stream in the mountains of North Carolina, but it quickly becomes a raging, uncontrollable river as it snakes and twists its way between Georgia and South Carolina. Along this boundary between the two states, the Chattooga has some of the most challenging and dangerous rapids in the United States, but soon in flows into the Tugaloo River and becomes more calm. By the time the Tugaloo flows into the Savannah River, the Chattooga has become a placid and respectable. This narrative structure may work for me, or it may not. Let's see.

Like the Chattooga, my ride begins in the headwaters, on a mountain, with a trickle, a spring that bubbles up from somewhere deep. This particular stream broke the rocks one year ago at the Southern Humanities Conference at the end of January, 2014, and with the MOOC Rhizomatic Learning: The Community Is the Curriculum (Rhizo14), that ran through February and into early March, when I contributed to a collaborative autoethnography (CAE) about Rhizo14 started by Sarah Honeychurch and Maha Bali. MOOCs were on my mind, and I did not yet know that I had not finished either SHC or Rhizo14, but had just begun the flow of ideas that they spun me into.

My thinking started innocently enough, as I wrote a couple of posts about who was in Rhizo14 and who wasn't. Boundaries are a tricky issue online, and the Rhizo14 group was questioning who belonged in, who belonged out, and how we could tell the difference. I thought I brought some clarity to the idea of boundaries, and my thoughts were tight and tidy.

As is often the case, however, the quiet trickle of a meditative mountain stream leads to a precipitous fall. Falls are beautiful unless you are in them, and then they can be scary. In April, I suffered a great fall, a sudden realization that I did not understand the nature of connectivist-style MOOCs, those massive open online courses that I had been engaging since 2010 and was trying to describe in the Rhizo14 autoethnography. I was walking one balmy, South Florida evening, thinking about Rhizo14, when all my thoughts fell suddenly away. The ground collapsed beneath me, and I had the unshakeable conviction that I had no idea what I was doing or talking about. This seems overly dramatic, I know, but that's how it felt as I described in my April 23 post A Rhizomatic Snow Crash. I had to find a new way to think, because my current thinking was not getting it done.

I started with noise, a concept I had gleaned from Michel Serres' book Genesis (1995). After all, genesis is a fine place to start, in the beginning with the swarm, with the chaos, with the undifferentiated whole. I was determined to go way back, to start again, for as Serres says, "Background noise is the first object of metaphysics, the noise of the crowd is the first object of anthropology. The background noise made by the crowd is the first object of history. Before lan­guage, before even the word, the noise." I can report truthfully that my head was very noisy.

My first realization was that there is no position outside the noise, no objective stance away that says the noise is over there apart from me, and I can assess it and judge it from over here apart from over there. If you've ever run a wild river such as the Chattooga, then you understand noise. On the Chattooga, you are always inside the noise, part of the noise. The noise flows through and around you. There is no transcending the noise of the river, nor is the noise transcendent. The noise is always immanent. Actually, transcendent as something beyond and immanent as something inherent mean nothing in the noise. The noise simply is, and you are simply in it, differentiated more or less at different times, but never distanced. Your own noise is included in the noise but not inclusive of it.

And this was my second realization: if I am to define what cMOOCs are, then I must define from the inside out, not from the customary outside in. This is a tip I had picked up from Edgar Morin's book On Complexity (2008), but my ride over the falls made it obvious to me and helped me understand it, from the inside. There are things you can learn in the swirl, tug, and fall of the river that you just can't learn standing on the banks.

Early in May, in a post entitle Experience and the Ludic in Rhizomatic Education, I hit the ludic rapids that often emerge just below the falls. The rapids introduced the concept of play, very active play, and not merely play as the fun behavior of children, though it certainly includes that, but play as mapping and performance as Deleuze and Guattari discuss in their chapter "Rhizome" in A Thousand Plateaus (1988) and play as the basis of much of culture as Huizinga insists in his book Homo Ludens (1970). Play, or performance, is all about mapping new pathways in contact with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari put it. And it all starts from inside the great noise. When you are riding the Chattooga, you are in the noise and in contact with the real, and you realize that play is both exhilarating and deadly serious. You can drown here.

I was happy for the play. I might not actually get anywhere, but it could be a fun trip. And as I was riding the rapids, I was connecting to other Rhizo14 alumni, specifically Maha Bali of Egypt, Shyam Sharma of Nepal, Simon Ensor of France, Clarissa Bazerra of Brazil, and Frances Bell of England in posts such as Sliding Out through Rhizo14. My play space was enlarging. My raft was getting bigger, and it was filled with interesting playmates. The noise was a rich and fecund field out of which voices arose, faded, and emerged again, yelling excitedly as the raft twisted, rocked, and threatened to flip.

At the end of May, I realized that my wild river of ideas had begun in a trickle of tears even before Rhizo14 in my January presentation to the Southern Humanities Conference in Richmond, VA. I wrote a post Emergence and Crying in Public about crying as I presented an emotional paper and tender thoughts flowed through me and down my face. It seems the springs of the Chattooga really do originate deep in the heart of the mountain in waters flowing all the way from the last ice age and before. As it happened, Linnéa Franits of Utica College was on that same panel with me, and she shared with me her own account of crying in public in her article "Mothers as Storytellers" in the Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio book Disability and Mothering: Liminal Spaces of Embodied Knowledge (2011), a collection of—get this—autoethnographies. Okay … so flows start way back long before you are aware of them, and when you grab a flow, other flows start converging. Flows want to connect. It's how flowing rivers and flowing ideas work. Trajectories of different flows synchronize and respond to each other. Most curious.

I desired to keep riding this flow to learn where it might go, but I had not used the term desire yet. That was to come.

In early June and still in the rapids, Ronald L shared with me Nicholas C. Burbules' article The Limits of Dialogue as a Critical Pedagogy (2000), which explores and challenges "the claims made on behalf of dialogue as an inherently liberatory pedagogy". In my post, Turbulence and Dialog in Rhizo14, I said:
Dialogue is an open-ended engagement in that zone between order and chaos, and while we want the dialogue to end in order (a meaningful consensus), chaos is always at hand and possible. Dialogue, then, is dynamically poised between promise and terror, meaning and nonsense, consensus and strife, resolution and dissolution. Dialogue is turbulent, and while consensus is possible, it is not always probable. And it is not necessarily desirable.
If you want to understand that dialogic tension that drives most of reality, ride the Chattooga River. You are dynamically poised between promise and terror, sense and nonsense, resolution and dissolution. That's exactly where I was in my thinking. Eyes wide and holding on. And my raft was getting bigger, accommodating more mates. And notice the title of my June post: Turbulence in Rhizo14. As I look back on it, I can't help but think that I was already writing this post, but perhaps that is just an illusion of narrative.

In July, I joined CLMOOC, mostly because of my Rhizo14 colleague Kevin Hodgson. In response to one of the CLMOOC prompts and a chance mention, I critiqued Pierre Dillenbourg’s introductory chapter "What do you mean by ‘collaborative learning’?" in his 1999 book Collaborative-learning to see if he could provide me with an analytical approach to MOOCs. I devoted three long posts trying to make his methods work for me, but I couldn't do it, and my raft was stuck on a rock for much of the month of July. This is a dangerous place to be in rapidly moving current, as you risk capsizing trying to re-enter the stream.

Fortunately, I made it back into the stream by the end of the month with the post Who's Writing the Rhizo14 Ethnography. I re-read the Rhizo14 CAE and saw that not much new had happened with it. Others seemed to be as stuck in the rocks as I was.

A couple of days later in an August post entitled Educational Research: At the Heart of Things, I connected the Rhizo14 CAE with complexity studies after reading an article by Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara entitled Complexity as a theory of education (2008). This proved to be a major stream feeding into my own, and as usually happens when streams join together, they swell into a wider, deeper, and more stable river. The rapids were receding, and I was starting to make progress toward the desires of prepositions. Complexity studies carry the flows of many disciplines, and although it is by no means a well-defined discipline, it brings many useful concepts such as emergence. This would be most helpful.

Then, in the first week of September, half a year after Rhizo14, I announced in a post called Prepositions as the Rhizomatic Heart of Writing that I would approach the Rhizo14 CAE through a study of its prepositions. That I should use prepositions seems so obvious to me now, but at the time, it was not. I really had no idea how to proceed, but I had an intuition based on Serres' "argument for considering prepositions, rather than the conventionally emphasized verbs and substantives, as the linguistic keys to understanding human interactions." To my mind, "prepositions are the connective, connecting tissue that connects this to that in a pattern that works and makes sense." If I could follow the prepositions in the CAE, then I was certain that they would tell me something I might not otherwise learn.

This was the approach to complexity that I needed, and with this decision, my river run settled into its longer, slower phase as the water calmed. At last, I thought I knew what I was doing, and I could get on with the business of doing rather than just surviving. Now I merely had to learn how to follow prepositions and note where they might lead.

In a post called bluntly enough Coding Prepositions in the Rhizo14 Autoethnography, I started by coding prepositions in the CAE, taking about as simple an approach as is imaginable: I used the Google spreadsheet from Maha Bali to list all the prepositions in the CAE, listed the dictionary definitions as the categories for each definition, and matched a definition/category to each preposition. This wasn't such a bad way to begin as, one, it was somewhat similar to the coding my Rhizo14 colleagues were doing, and two, it forced me into some fairly close reading of the CAE, but the category approach had a couple of problems that became obvious almost immediately.

First, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data. I had 652 instances of the preposition of in a 23,717 word document. A spreadsheet was simply inadequate for handling this kind of big data. I needed a better tool.

Then, my category choices were very problematic. At times, a given instance of a preposition might fit several categories. I thought about just assigning several categories, but that felt messy, and I didn't want to do it. At other times, some prepositions didn't seem to fit any of the dictionary definitions that I had gotten from my MacBook's online dictionary. I thought about using a better dictionary with more definitions—say, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I was quickly souring on the idea of discrete categories. It seemed wrong, and I was a bit lost and somewhat afraid that my river was about to spread out into a trackless swamp.

By mid-September, my thinking had taken two fortunate turns which appear in the post A Tale of Two Sentences: Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography. First, I decided to analyze two sentences rather than all of them. While I often attack reductionism as the preferred, blessed approach to all issues, I still recognize that it has its utility: it allowed me to focus on a manageable sub-scale (two sentences) with the promise of extrapolating my findings to the larger scale of the CAE. Then, I decided to use Voyant Tools, a suite of text analysis tools by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell. I would have to learn to use the tools as I was trying to apply them to the CAE, but it was clear that the spreadsheet was hopeless. These two shifts led to my first real sense of what prepositions do in conversation:
This captures for me a basic function of prepositions: to start in the center and to extend outward in space, time, and relational structures. This is defining from the inside out. This is defining in terms of relationships rather than in terms of identifiable qualities of the thing itself. This approach to prepositions in particular and to sentence structure in general implies that meaning is not an identifiable quality of a word but is an emergent property of how words relate to other words.
I can see now, though I still couldn't see in mid-September, that I was flowing into the desires of prepositions. For me now, the journey seems inevitable at this point, but I still had some paddling to do.

During the entire trip from the mountain stream, over the falls, through the rapids, and into the deep river, I was reading and talking to my Rhizo14 cohort. Some of the reading and conversations I have mentioned, much of it I haven't. Most all of it had to do with complexity, with some articles about prepositions thrown in. This reading was, of course, dredging the river for me, making it deeper. A deep river loses its turbulences, but it gains something in tides and currents—slower forces, but just as strong—in the long run, stronger.

In the second week of October, I wrote A Background for Studying Prepositions in Rhizo14 Auto-Ethnography, seemingly a bit late in the trip for a background, but I think I sensed that I was on the verge of some new ideas for me, and I needed to sort through some things, or maybe just take a deep breath before paddling on. I say for me because I really don't think many people have truly original ideas—maybe just a handful per society per century, but this doesn't matter really, and I take it as no diminution of my own discoveries here. For me, they were new, and that's really good news. Anyone can have new ideas, even children. In fact, I suspect that children have more new ideas than anyone, and that's why they learn so much so fast. Of course, we educators knock that shit out of their heads with our rote, regimented curricula, but most children do start off quite well.

I returned to meditating on Serres and Latour and made a big decision: I would try to define from the inside out. I would try to avoid applying a given theory and problem to Rhizo14 CAE and instead let the theory and problem arise from it. Rather than applying connectivism, say, to the CAE, I would try to meditate on the arcs of the prepositions and let patterns emerge as they might. Most importantly, I would not dismiss those arcs that made no pattern that I could see. I would have faith that the pattern is there somewhere and that Rhizo14 is intelligible. Forgetting your theoretical training is, of course, impossible to do, but as Derrida says, perhaps tongue in cheek, if we do only the possible, we don't do much. I make no claim to having actually accomplished it, but it set me on the path to righteousness and got me much further down the river. It allowed some new stuff to emerge.

Later in October, I met with Simon Ensor, Frances Bell, and Terry Elliot online, and the issue of Gamergate caught my attention, so I wrote a post Left/Write and the Desires of Prepositions that re-awakened my interest in Iain McGilchrist's ideas about the different world views of the left and right brain, and for the first time I wrote about the "desires of prepositions". I realized that, although both left and right brain connect to the world for different reasons—the left to manipulate and possess, the right to relate—they both desperately want to connect, regardless of their different reasons. The desire for connection comes first. And one of those little light bulbs turned on to reveal prepositions doing the same thing. Prepositions find their entire purpose in connecting. Well, yeah. It was such an obvious thing, that I'm a bit embarrassed that I hadn't seen it sooner, but there it is late in October.

On October 30, Maha Bali and I started writing a Google Doc called Writing the Unreadable Untext. We had such fun that we invited some of our Rhizo14 buddies to join in the mayhem, and we all discovered our swarm voice over the next several days. The swarm voice was all about connecting, swarming about each other, bringing in this and that. The Unreadable Untext is a map, "an experimentation in contact with the real", and not a tracing or an analysis. It is a performance, not a competent tracing with elucidations from point A to point B, pulling out of the noise of the swarm a logic that is clearly there, but that the swarm ignores and flows around. As we wrote the Untext, we were susceptible to constant modification, reworked. Our aim was performance, not competence. It was all very Deleuzional.

Not until the middle of November in a post called Rise of the iSwarm: A First Global Look at the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography did I connect the swarm idea with prepositions. Prepositions create swarms. I didn't know that, but there it was. I could see it in the numbers and patterns I generated with the Voyant tools. I slipped into a strong current, confident that this was going somewhere.

By mid-December, I had mapped one of the less frequently occurring prepositions into (33 occurrences), and the resulting image was so very pleasing to me. It settled into my heart and head like an old, dear friend that I had just met for the first time.


Prepositions are really all about connecting things into a swarm. How satisfying.

Of course, this is only a static snapshot of the swarm, and I do not yet have the tools that will create a more dynamic image or movie, but imagine looking at a swarm of locusts out on the plains. Now imagine that you can identify 33 of those locusts and that you can track them through their own small-scale swarm and through the large-scale swarm. That's what I have in mind, and I'm convinced that I can do it, though I haven't yet. In fact, I believe Voyant Tools can handle this if I just learn how to rig it.

Early in January, I tackled the problem of polysemy in prepositions. It seems that most everyone has recognized that prepositions can mean any number of things, but not many seem to know what to make of that. Meaning as a characteristic of a word itself and independent of a context seems an unshakeable tenet of faith. But the abstract of a 2008 presentation by Dagmara Dowbor entitled "The case of over revisited: Results from a corpus-linguistic analysis and further proposals" provided me with a more complex understanding of meaning as something that is always context-dependent. At least in the case of prepositions, meaning is not context-independent. I tied this in my mind to some earlier articles I had read by Paul Cilliers that discussed how meaning in general is always context-dependent, and I realized just how unsatisfactory the dictionary's list of often disconnected meanings for a single preposition really is. Prepositions don't really mean much until they are in a sentence coupling this to that. It is the coupling that meaning emerges from. (Ending an English sentence with a preposition is a major faux pas, but I'm convinced that it's because it brings too much attention to a little word that most grammarians want to bury in the middle of the sentence. This may not be factual, but it seems true.)

A few days later, I reworked this insight, trying to connect it to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire by showing that the meaning of a preposition is immanent rather than transcendent. I don't know that this use of immanent and transcendent will stand examination, but what I meant is that the meaning of a preposition is inherent in the coupling marked by the preposition. It is not dependent on some appeal to something beyond the coupling. I don't know that this was the correct way to connect prepositions to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire, but it's what I had at hand, and I explored it. A better connection can likely be made through D&G's concept of mapping, but that's for later.

This brought me finally to the post The Desires of Prepositions written just 10 days ago, when I finally made a stab at defining what I meant by the desires of prepositions. As I understand Deleuze and Guattari, they see desires as the complex flows of drives through reality, the flows that couple different things to produce new things. The opening paragraph of Anti-Oedipus (1977) says best what desire is:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing machine (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines. (8)
Prepositions, then, are desiring machines. They are the couplings that connect words together into a flow of information that flows into us, through us, and out of us, coupling ideas to ideas, ideas to us, and us to others. We desire to know, to connect, to couple with ideas and people and this wonderful world, and that coupling produces all the new things that the Universe appears to be so fond of.

It occurs to me now—just two days before I deliver this talk to the SHC and publish it on my blog—that I could have traced the prepositions in my blog posts as I am tracing them in the CAE, and that way, my presentation could have embodied my presentation. I like that, but old habits die hard, and this narrative occurred to me first.

So what did I learn about the ways that we teach and learn in higher education? Perhaps the biggest lesson is that desire for connection flows through all of us. I hear regular complaints that college students are apathetic and don't want to learn. This isn't true.  Everyone wants to connect to new things and to learn, as is obvious to anyone who has ever visited a kindergarten class. Kids will wallow with anyone, with anything, or with any idea to produce something new. Anyone who can create a castle out of a cardboard box has no problems with creativity. For the most part, kids are all about connecting. (This, of course, has dire implications during cold and flu season as kids spread diseases easily, but the easy spread of germs just illustrates the ease of connectivity among kids).

My second insight is that we educators mostly mishandle the desires to connect and learn, the flows, that our students already have. While all students want to learn new things, they may not immediately want to learn our things. Because we have only a short time to cover our material, to trace the flow of our information, we disregard the flows of energy and information that the student is already in. We ignore their trajectories. It's worse than ignoring, we are willfully ignorant of their trajectories, assuming that the only value in our class is the trajectory of our own information. We make too little attempt to coordinate and connect student trajectories to our trajectories. Regardless of our subject matter, all of us have a few students who show up ready to jump into the flow of our information, but too many students don't show up ready, and we make too little attempt, especially given the constraints of traditional classroom structures, to identify their trajectories and fit them to our trajectories.

Or better yet, to fit our trajectory to their trajectories. Why not? I teach college writing in a professional school with not a single English major. Most of my students think of Composition I and II as required hoops to jump through, at best, or damned obstructions to their professional goals, at worst. If I can't show them how good written communications complements their professional trajectories, then I have lost them. I have to start with them where they are and try to flow with them and help them flow with me.

We also mishandle student desires to learn by truncating our own desires to learn. Too many teachers quit learning in their classrooms. They choke off and turn back upon itself the natural desire to connect to ideas and to people. They see the flow in the classroom as one way—from themselves to the student—and they don't see themselves joining that flow. This kind of flow is devoid of all desire, and why should we expect our students to want travel such a dry, rocky stream? It is passionless, with no excitement.

Then, what have I learned from tracking prepositions? First, I have come to appreciate how complex and multidimensional writing is. Prepositions couple the flow of one idea to another to create new ideas. Like a flock of birds or a swarm of bees, prepositions orchestrate the flow of ideas in a text. This has always been so, but static print concealed this dynamic flow of ideas through text. Modern technology has made this flow of desire more apparent. The Untext written by the Rhizo14 cohort was a visceral demonstration of the iSwarm voice and the swarm of ideas that flow through a text as a swarm of writers desire to connect to each other and to new ideas. Just today, I participated in a #MOOCMOOC Twitter chat. The swarm of ideas and the emergent iSwarm voice was obvious, graphically displayed for all to see. We have traditionally thought of English text as linear, but it is linear in the way DNA is linear. It is an expression of a genetic flow, and it's the unpacking and expression of that flow that creates meaning. We need new reading and writing skills and strategies to handle flowing text.

I've also learned that prepositions are both makers and markers of coupling. They join and those joints are trackable. This gives me a new strategy for engaging texts, a strategy that I intend to employ much in the coming months. I do not yet know if others have used this strategy, but I hope so. I'd like to see how they track prepositions, or some other part of speech, to unpack a text.