Monday, May 25, 2015

How Does rhizoANT Work?

In my previous post, I summarized Farzana Dudhwala's article What is Actor-Network Theory?, but I didn't really explore what it might mean for the rhizo14 collaborative autoethnography (CAE). I want to do that here.

I start with Dudhwala's first observation that for ANT, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun" (3). This is a particularly tricky issue for rhizo14 participants because we are all educators engaging an online class. Thus, we can easily bring to the class all of the social and educational structures that we have learned and learned very well, given that most of us are successful students, teachers, and administrators. For instance, we can easily assume that Dave Cormier is the teacher and that we are the students, bringing to our research all of the power and social relationships implied by those roles, which can blind us to the structures that actually emerged in rhizo14. If we expect Dave to be a traditional teacher, then we will interpret his behavior, for better or for worse, based on that expectation. An ANT approach to rhizo14 tries to drop expectations of Dave as the teacher and rhizo14 as a MOOC.

This is one of the issues Simon explores so well in his Hybrid Pedagogy article "Insoumis" when he responds to Mackness and Bell's published analysis of rhizo14. If I'm reading Simon correctly, then he suggests that Mackness and Bell bring to their analysis certain assumptions about the roles and responsibilities, especially of the facilitator, that do not apply to rhizo14, given that what emerged was not a traditional on-line class but something else.

Let me say that I do not believe researchers can bring no expectations to a given situation. We are always informed by our theories and models, and the best we can do is recognize and work with our biases, models, and theories. This takes great discipline and rigor. It also helps to have a swarm of researchers who can look at a given social event such as rhizo14 from many more angles.

ANT certainly begins with its own models of reality, which Latour has complained about. ANT assumes that rhizo14, for instance, is best approached as actors interacting in a network of relations, and the structure of rhizo14 is not given beforehand (say by the facilitator, Dave Cormier), but emerges from all those interactions. The global follows the local, unlike traditional classes in which the local interactions among students, teachers, tests, and texts follow from the carefully laid out global course plan.

Keep in mind, however, that ANT is still a model of reality, and while it's the model that I prefer, we have to recognize that it is a model. Therefore, it is wrong in the sense that like all models it is limited, it leaves out too much. I think we use ANT because we find it useful, but we must remember that the old models were useful in their day and may still be useful in some contexts for some tasks. Someday, ANT will not be so useful. Like all models, it will always be wrong.

This model means that we approach rhizo14 "not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). We don't attribute to rhizo14 characteristics of connectivist or constructivist educational theories; rather, we identify as many actors as we can and follow them, scribbling notes madly, to see where they go, how they get there, and what else they connect to. The hope is that if we look closely enough, long enough, then a shape will begin to emerge. We will identify that emerging shape as rhizo14. Perhaps a MOOC, but perhaps not. We will wait to see what emerges. It may have some patterns that resonate with other patterns we know about (MOOCs, connectivism, etc.), but it likely will also have patterns that are peculiar to itself. ANT wants to capture both.

Several distinctive characteristics of ANT emerge here. First, what are actors? We think of people, of course—all of us who engaged in rhizo14—but ANT takes a global view of actors: people, organizations, ideas, things, processes. Thus, when we explore rhizo14, we have to consider Google Docs along with Maha, Sarah, Simon, AK, and others. For ANT, actors are heterogeneous entities. AK writes in his post "Swarm the Google Doc, or so says the ANT" and Len in his post "Actor-Network Theory and Google Docs" about the characteristics of Google Docs that both enabled and shaped the interactions among the humans writing about rhizo14. For ANT researchers, Google Docs is an actor in its own right, just as the humans are. ANT says that we cannot understand the interactions between Rebecca and Sandra if we don't include their interactions with Google Docs.

Of course, we can't stop with just Google Docs. Once we begin this line of thinking, we have to include our devices (PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, ISPs, electrical grids, the Internet, and all the rest). In short, there is no end to the amount of detail that we can collect, and this is a real problem for ANT researchers. The work-load is overwhelming, as the CAE cohort has already discovered. Every relevant detail is interconnected with 10 other relevant details, all clamoring for our attention. It can drive a researcher mad.

To my mind, this is where the novelists come to our rescue. Ever since Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, novelists have recognized that telling any story connects writers to more details than anyone will publish or read. A novelist is successful as much for what she leaves out as for what she puts in. I suspect that ANT researchers are in the same situation. I will have to read more from them to see how they handle this situation. For a hundred years, we've tried to deal with too much data through statistical analysis: collecting fewer random data points and applying statistical algorithms to them to extrapolate to the whole system. One new approach, though, has to do with big data and computers, which allow researchers to collect more, sometimes almost all, data points from any given situation and process that data with computers in ways that reveal patterns previously obscured by the sheer amount of data (weather patterns are an obvious example). So far in our swarm, we have taken a mostly novelistic approach to studying rhizo14 with our collection of ethnographic stories, but we can apply computers even to those stories, as I started to do with my work on the prepositions in the CAE. I used a computer and text analysis software to identify all the prepositions in the CAE and then followed the connections made by one preposition, identifying the actors and the network of interactions revealed by the CAE. Of course, a more complete study would look not just at the CAE, but also at all the tweets, the Facebook discussion, the blog posts, and even the more remote and obscure hallway discussions as rhizo14 participants discussed rhizomatic learning with their local colleagues. There is no end to data, and we should explore how computers can help us collect and analyze more data in rhizo14.

Another characteristic of actors is their flat status. As Len notes in his post:
ANT does not support levels of importance or status for any set of actants. In other words everything in a system takes on a sort of equal level of importance. While this is difficult to accept at times, I believe the general premise that you do not assign or think about levels of importance (agency/ a flat ontology ?) of actants. In fact, ANT suggests, I believe, our understanding of a system of actants cannot be determined a priori – that things unfold (in situ?).
So we don't assume going into our study that Dave Cormier is the key figure in rhizo14. Indeed, if you look at rhizo14 across the past year, you will most likely identify several figures more prominent than Dave (I think he will happily agree with that assessment). Certainly, this current swarm of participants has been more prominent in my experience of rhizo14 than Dave has been. Jenny and Frances have been more prominent. This flat ontology (thanks for that term, Len) does not mean that ANT doesn't recognize macro, meso, and micro actors—it does—but it doesn't recognize them before it sees them. If we examine all the interactions of rhizo14, and Dave does not emerge as a key player in most of them, then we cannot grant him some special Big Honcho status with special obligations and responsibilities (back to Simon's observations). If some were not happy with rhizo14, then we are all implicated, and all includes all the human and non-human actors. Twitter gets just as much consideration, and possibly as much blame and credit, as Dave does or I do.

Finally for this post, I want to mention a last characteristic of actors: that they are all mediators of the messages they carry and the relationships they form. In other words, when I talk about actor-network theory as I am doing in this post, I stain the message. Google Blogger stains the message. The Internet stains the message. English stains the message. Because I am an American, the U.S. stains the message. I always leave my fingerprints on any message I channel in or out. When you get this message, this post, you will put your fingerprints all over it with your peculiar reading. There is no clear communication free of noise and static. (This, by the way, is probably the single biggest fault of traditional education: the assumption that communication of knowledge from teacher to student can be clear and thus reliably tested. It cannot.) ANT researchers, then, must look for and account for the stains. When we look at Google Docs in rhizo14, we must look for the ways that Google Docs shapes and translates the energy and information that flows through it. When we used Google Docs to write both the original CAE and The Untext, Google Docs was as much a shaping, translating, forming actor as we humans were. And we all shaped and translated and in-formed. ANT recognizes this network phenomenon and tries to account for it.

For me, then, ANT itself is not so difficult an idea; rather, its practice is difficult as it exposes the researcher/s to an overwhelming swelter of information. Try this thought experiment: consider 4 or 5 children playing in a sandbox for an hour. Start with as few preconceptions as possible about what they are doing and how they should do it. Observe as much as possible with the hopes of later explaining what emerges through their play. Now imagine all the technical apparatus you would need to capture all the relevant data (speech, action, toys, games, personalities) unfolding in even this small a space/time. You could write a book about this one hour. Laurence Stern did.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ANT via Dudhwala: #rhizo15

In her article What is Actor-Network Theory?, Farzana Dudhwala explores actor-network theory (ANT) in positive and negative ways: saying both what ANT does and, by contrast with traditional sociologists, what it does not do. She says that ANT practitioners differ from classical sociologists first in their concept of the social. For Durkheim and Comte, society was a thing with both positive and negative characteristics that could be relied on and pointed to as existing prior to the issue at hand. For ANT practitioners such as Callon, Latour, and Law, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun. … Consequently, the sociologists of associations envisage their role not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). As a method of inquiry, then, ANT refuses the "imposition by the sociologist on the social of an a priori social context or framework" (3). Rather, the social must emerge from close observation that follows the actors and traces the rhizomatic connections they forge. It is the dynamic interweaving of these connections from which the social emerges. The social structure is not given; rather, it emerges. Thus, ANT is more inductive than deductive, explaining large social structures (the macro) through close observation of the small details (the micro).

Macro actors such as religion, economy, and politics are traditionally seen as the cause of the behavior of micro actors, and thus, they are of more importance. ANT insists that the macro and micro must be examined on equal (more flat) terms, and that the micro actors are often more complex than the macro. ANT further flattens the social by mixing non-human actors alongside human actors in the sociological soup. Dudhwala says:
Callon's study of scallops in St. Brieuc bay shows how humans and non-humans alike form networks and associations in order to translate their will and shape their world. This paper therefore, true to ANT's methods, treats researchers, fish farmers, scientists and scallops all in exactly the same way: as actors.
Latour distinguishes intermediaries from mediators. Intermediaries transport force or meaning without transformation, while mediators transform all that they transport among other actors. Mediators, then, introduce an element of surprise and unpredictability in connections among actors that must be allowed and accounted for.

Dudhwala summarizes her amazingly clear examination of ANT this way:
Actor-network theory evidently differs from the classical tradition of sociology at its very core. Its belief in a flat ontology puts all entities, human and non-human, on the same plane – a notion unspoken of in the Durkheimian tradition. Actors are awarded the same level of knowledge about their world as sociologists, and therefore the task of the sociologist is simply to follow these actors.
Finally, she seems to agree that ANT is more a methodology than a theory, though its treatment by sociologists seems to be forcing it into a theory-producing role, much to the dismay of ANTians such as Latour, who insist that the acronym ANT is more appropriate than the term actor-network theory, as the acronym perfectly describes "a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler" such as himself.

The lessons for me, then, from Dudhwala's observations: Study of Rhizo14 may best proceed along the lines of an ethnomethodology which treats Rhizo14 as a hyperobject, to use Timothy Morton's term, or as noise, to use Serres' term. These are objects that are not formed beforehand, but out of which a form emerges. To form an image of the larger object (Rhizo14), we track the connections that actors such as Ensor, Hamon, Honeychurch, Twitter, Facebook, laptops, and others make through the noise. This is something like forming an idea of wind currents in the sky by tracing the paths of murmurating starlings. This is hard work, but we hope that the actual shape of Rhizo14 will emerge from our tracings, or from our mappings as Deleuze and Guattari say it (for them, a tracing is going over a given, existing pathway—which is not what ANT implies by the term—while mapping is following an emerging pathway).

We do not privilege any particular actor in Rhizo14, though clearly some actors had a macro role and others a micro role. Lurkers should be regarded as well as Dave Cormier or Facebook. Finally, we do not privilege our own language as researchers over the language of the actors, especially given that we researchers are also actors in Rhizo14. Finally, I'm particularly interested in Latour's distinction between intermediary and mediator; however, I don't know of many intermediaries. I think most every actor transforms or translates the forces and meanings that it transports among the other actors within the emerging social structure. For instance, when I use Google Docs to communicate with others in Rhizo14, Google Docs translates my meaning. What I put in is not necessarily what others take out. Rather, as Serres notes, there is always a parasitism at work in the movement of information and energy through a system such as Rhizo14. The parasites (such as auto-correct in Google Docs, to pick an obviously parasitic feature) always translate the meaning and the force, changing it as it flows from here to there within Rhizo14 and out. This translation cannot be predicted, and it cannot be ignored.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Power in Rhizo-MOOCs

Maha Bali just published a post Power that Remains When We Leave the Classroom that talks about the results of pulling the teacher and, thus, the teacher's power from the classroom. She notes that this does not leave an absence of power and a group of equals. To my mind, this still leaves power that is now up for grabs whether or not the students have a "sense of community and trust". The group has power, even if it doesn't know what to do with it.

I have written about power in this blog before, but not within the context of ethics. So I want to do that today. I also want to provide a more nuanced response to Dave Cormier's #rhizo15 challenge question: is rhizomatic learning an invasive species? Dave characterizes community learning in terms of aggressive power:
Rhizomatic plants are chaotic, aggressive and resilient. It models some of the qualities that can make a good learner. The rhizome, however, can also be an invasive species. It can choke other plants out of your garden such that only the rhizomatic plant remains.
He is suggesting, of course, that rhizomatic learning is an aggressive process that drowns out other processes, crowding them out of open learning spaces with their incessant posting and tweeting. Sounds like an unwelcome exercise of power to me. Is this so? I don't think so (hence, my short response in my previous post), but now I want to explore why.

Several years ago I read John Henry Clippinger's book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (2007), and I recall an argument he makes that freedom is best understood as freedom to rather than freedom from. These prepositions and the directions they take are important.

For me, the argument goes something like this: We humans exist always within social and natural networks, these networks create power, and thus, we are always within networks of power. Freedom from power, then, is not possible. Freedom from a given power may not even be possible, though we can insulate ourselves somewhat. For example, I can insulate myself from this year's flu, but even if I don't catch the disease, I am still affected by the power of this disease by forced changes in habits and associations and the illness of friends and family. During the Cold War, I was insulated somewhat from the power of communist dictatorships, but I was still not totally immune—I can recall even now the suffocating fear of imminent nuclear holocaust. That is power.

Of course, the flu and nation states are very large power regimes, much bigger than MOOCs, and I use them to highlight my point. However, all actors at all scales are entangled in power, and I define power as the struggle of a system to develop and maintain its own identity and to exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within the context of other systems trying to do the same. I imagine the difference between the power effects of a nation state and those of my own immune system as the difference between dropping a huge boulder in the water and dropping a pebble. The boulder causes bigger ripples that extend further, but the pebble causes ripples as well. Power ripples through all our different ponds, lakes, and oceans. We emerge physically and socially through rippling power. We swim in it. (I do not know if the ripples cause power or power causes ripples. Perhaps ripples are only the obvious manifestations of power, but that's another post.)

Freedom from power, then, is not an option, and disengagement from a system and its power offers at best some insulation, some distance, perhaps to the degree that you can ignore the power. I insist, however, that you are never really free from any source of power given the entanglement of all within all. Ripples run all the way across the lake, but eventually, they don't rock our boats.

The only real option then is freedom to power, especially in social networks. In other words, we exercise our freedom when we engage the power of the group. We are free when we both can and do engage the power of the group. Freedom is not a negative—an absence of power—it is a positive—an exercise of power.

We can exercise our power, our freedom, in two ways: by engaging and by disengaging. We can stay and play or we can walk away. But keep in mind that walking away is not negative as we are always walking into some other power system. As Timothy Morton has explained quite nicely in his book HyperObjects (2014), there is no away, no space outside of a system and its systemic power. Moreover, we always walk away carrying the stain of whatever we are leaving. There is no away, only a fading influence that we eventually come to ignore if we work at it hard enough (though that very working can sometimes only remind us of what we are working to forget. Damn!).

RhizoMoocs are systems, and like all systems, a given rhizoMOOC generates power, or rather, power emerges as the system tries to form itself and as it exchanges matter, energy, information, and organization with its ecosystem. I have participated in few events that are more open, with more evenly distributed power than rhizoMOOCs. (In 1970, I did attend the Second Atlanta Pop Festival for 3 days of "peace, love, and music", and it may have been a bit more open, but not much.)

In open, self organizing systems with freedom to move—to engage or disengage—knots form. In our bodies, we call these knots organs: stomach, heart, lungs and so on. Such knots form in social systems as well, almost inevitably. We call them cliques, companies, and countries. We preserve freedom in social systems by allowing movement from system to system, knot to knot. RhizoMOOCs preserve this freedom.

For instance, in all the RhizoMOOCs I've participated in a knot has formed around Twitter, as participants congregate there and engage one another. Inevitably, a few people tweet more and more engagingly than do others, and as these prolific tweeters gain more connections, they gain more power. Actually, they don't gain power like a possession. A better way to say this is that because of the number of connections to the prolific tweeters, their words and actions are amplified (power) and perturb the system more than the words and actions of other, less well connected actors. In our current #rhizo15, for instance, both Maha Bali and I use Twitter, but Maha tweets far more than I do with far more connections. Thus, she manifests in #rhizo15 more Twitter power than I do. Maha starts movements along Twitter and perturbs the #rhizo15 system. The following short video shows how such knots can form in open spaces such as a rhizoMOOC or an outdoor music festival. Give a look:



Is this sort of self-organizing knot a problem? Does it threaten the music festival?

It can be a problem if, for instance, the concert organizers try to limit dancing or to limit the number of people who can dance, forcing everyone to sit still and listen to the music. This might seem far-fetched, but we do this in traditional classrooms all the time: limiting conversation to one channel and one content, both belonging to the teacher. Self-organizing knots can also be a problem if the dancing becomes so dominant that no one else can hear the concert. Such things have happened on the Net. DOS attacks are common examples.

But this kind of knot is not a problem first if its boundaries are open, if you are free to engage or not engage. Lots of people freely join the dancing guys, but more do not. This is freedom. You can join, but you don't have to. Note that, even though the dancing guy and his second and third mates attract lots of followers, most people in the crowd do not join. They lurk instead, watching from the sidelines, or they remain focused on the stage act. It is possible that some in the crowd were annoyed at the dancing mob and would have supported the police moving in and breaking up the mayhem, but they show a profound misunderstanding of open spaces, and they are too easily annoyed.

Then, self-organizing knots are not a problem if you can form your own knot. The best response if you don't like the Twitter dance is to join another dance or start your own dance. In #rhizo15, you can write a song with Kevin Hodgson, a story with Terry Elliot, a play with Tania Shelko, a poem sequence with Simon Ensor, maps and graphs with Daniel Lynds, or blog posts with Autumm Caines. Nothing in an open space precludes you changing the topic. You are free to engage the power. You are not free to expect an absence of power. It takes power to do all those things, and I am pleased that so many want to do so much. God bless the rhizome.

If Maha is brave enough to start dancing in Twitter, and if one or two others join her, then a knot can form in #rhizo15. As it grows and exerts power, this knot of activity can annoy and intimidate others, especially those who brought their lawn chairs and picnic baskets and have rather strict ideas about decorum at a rock concert, as is beginning to happen in the grey zones at Rolling Stones' concerts (it's a main reason for the very expensive seats: to separate those who no longer dance and drink only wine from those who dance too freely under the influence of other spirits). But Maha is not the problem here. She is behaving ethically and correctly in a rhizomatic learning space.

So what are the ethics? What is appropriate behavior in an open, rhizomatic learning space?
  • Expect power to emerge and cluster just as it did in galaxies.
  • Exercise your right to engage in that power and to emerge with it.
  • Shape the power, and be shaped by it.
  • If it isn't working for you, shift to some other galaxy.
  • Don't expect to ever leave the power totally behind. You've been stained.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#rhizo15: An Invasive Species?

In this week's #rhizo15 question, Dave Cormier asks if rhizomatic learning is an invasive species.

No.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Content in #rhizo15

It's Week 3 in #rhizo15, and Dave Cormier has asked us to consider content and its role in education. He says:
I’ve always been a little confused by the word ‘content.’ There is something lonely and unconnected about the word somehow, when i hear it used with reference to what happens in learning. I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. … So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used?
So what can we say about content? Consider this post that I am now writing and you are now reading (different nows, but that is relevant). Is there any content in this post? If there isn't, then what am I writing and what are you reading and why?

If we look at Google's dictionary, we see that the word content has two distinct clusters of meaning. The first cluster has to do with satisfaction and satisfying, being content with a situation or causing someone else to be contented. This is not the meaning Dave has in mind, but it may be relevant, so let's keep it handy.

The second cluster is more to the point: the stuff contained inside something. It could be an ingredient in a mixture (contents of a cake batter), an object in a container (contents of a barrel), or an idea in a communication (contents of a blog post). I suspect that Dave means mostly the last, contents of a communication, but the others are also relevant. A course could, of course (sorry), actually contain some objects: handouts, textbooks, performances, events, classrooms, chairs, desks, pens, papers, computers, tablets, phones, and so on. It can even contain virtual objects: blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, LMSes, chatrooms, etc. All of these objects are not irrelevant, but I don't think that's the content Dave was asking about. Those objects, that content, does not seem particularly well-aligned with learning objectives, though I suspect most of us would argue that they should be IF we are going to mess with learning objectives at all.

Still, I don't think Dave is asking about objects in a container, like stones in a crate; rather, he is asking about knowledge in our minds. I believe his concern is that we usually treat knowledge in our minds like stones in a crate: an object to transfer from the teacher's crate to the students' crates through the apparatus of a course of study. Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student like a stone. There is no nugget of knowledge that I can give you, for instance, in this blog post. We speak as if there is, but it is only a convenient manner of speaking. Too often, it is a misleading manner of speaking. It leads us to ask of education: did you get the stone, the chunk of knowledge about fractions that I gave you? did you put it in the correct slot in your hierarchy of stones? and can you retrieve this stone upon demand on a test? I think this pretty much sums up traditional education. Dave doesn't seem to like it, and I don't either. It's stone age education. Actually, it isn't. Calling it stone age seriously denigrates the Stone Age. It's simple, mechanical education, and it works only in very limited situations for very limited objectives.

Knowledge is not an object like a stone. Actually, I don't believe a stone is an object like a stone, but that's another post. Knowledge is not composed of discrete, individual chunks. Knowledge is more like a weather system, and I cannot give you some weather. I can give you pause to consider the weather, but I can't bottle (container) some weather (contents) and transfer it to you. Knowledge is a thing like the weather, a different kind of thing.

Consider this blog post that I am currently writing and you are currently reading. This juxtaposition of two different nows points to the different kind of thing that I mean when I say knowledge. We want our things to cohere in one place and time, not to smudge across different spaces and times and scales. We don't want things to be in multiple places at multiple times on multiple scales, yet here I am writing now AND here you are reading now. Your reading is already in my writing, as my writing is already in your reading. The knowledge in this post—indulge me here—smudges across my here/now AND your here/now and in some way coheres. It is not as if the knowledge is here like a stone with me now/earlier, is transferred along the wires of the Internet, and is then with you now/later. The knowledge is here/now and enfolds both you and me, like the weather.

And like the weather, I can write of raining and you can read of raining, and we will behave as if some chunk of meaning about raining was transferred from me to you, but it wasn't. It's just raining all the way from me to you, but I see only my bit of rain and you see your bit of rain. And of course, we don't see the same bit of rain nor do we see all the rain. Actually, I don't want to say it's raining all the way from me to you. It's more that we are both enfolded in the raining. That's what I mean about knowledge, about content. It isn't a collection of stones to transfer, but a weather system that enfolds us.

So how do you design the weather and what are your learning objectives? And welcome to the rhizo-storm.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Imagination

I want to finish my series about rhizo-ethics before Dave Cormier posts another #rhizo15 challenge. We'll see.

Woermann and Cilliers' discussion of complex ethics in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012) insists that ethics in complex spaces requires a self-critical rationality and that this rationality is supported by four principles: provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination, or creativity. Imagination engages us with the future, they say, whereas irony engages us with the present incongruity between what we expect and what is. They quote Peter Allen's Knowledge, Ignorance, and Learning article (caution: link downloads PDF): that creativity "is the motor of change, and the hidden dynamic that underlies the rise and fall of civilizations, peoples, and regions, and evolution both encourages and feeds on invention" (457). Imagination, then, points us toward a more sustainable future and provides the means to get there, and, they claim, "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future" (457). It is this more sustainable future that seems to connect imagination to ethics for Woermann and Cilliers.

I have mostly enjoyed Woermann and Cilliers' argument, but I have problems with them just here. While I agree that it takes imagination and some creativity to move toward a better future, however one defines it, I do not agree that "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future." While I would not contest our need to move beyond where we are now, I know many who believe that things are pretty good just as they are or that we should, in fact, move back to something in the past. Woermann and Cilliers' point touches precisely on the differences among those who want to preserve society as it is, return society to some better past, or move society forward to a better future. All these groups are well represented in the population. They are all well represented in education. I don't think the progressives are in the majority.

Still, despite these quibbles, I have learned from Woermann and Cilliers, and I do agree with them that imagination and creativity are important for ethically negotiating complex, open spaces.

First, imagination is the engine for creating options, choices, and new paths, an ability that so far has served humanity quite well. Indeed, it is the engine of evolution, of everything. The Universe is imaginative to the extreme. Some physicists hypothesize a Multi-verse, an infinity of universes in which every thing that can exist and can happen does. Maybe so, but even if there is only one Universe, this one, it is still rich enough in imagination and creativity for life, including The Beatles, to emerge. How wonderful is that!

This capacity for imagination—which is not limited to humans, by the way, but is available to flowers, rocks, and quarks as well—is a requirement for negotiating a space/time path through an open, complex universe. Or through a rhizo-MOOC. Imagination is required even if you are following a path pioneered by someone else. You have to imagine that you can get up and go there without falling off the edge of the Earth, so you draft in behind some trusted, lead bird, and once you are confident that the air won't fail beneath your wings, you can start charting your own path from this new position. This is learning. Even for the most daring and brilliant of us. We all start by drafting in someone's path. Without a John Clerk Maxwell charting a new path through electromagnetism, we would have had no Einstein. Maybe even no Beatles. Imagine!

This is a radical over-turning of our usual conception of ethics, which usually means conforming to the prescribed pattern of behavior. In complex spaces, proper behavior implies the imagination to change your paths and patterns—to believe and behave differently than before. And really, if you are not willing to chart new paths, or at least to consider new paths, then why go to school at all?

According to Woermann and Cilliers, Timothy Hargrave argues that imagination is not merely an individual capability, but a social one that, I say, is enhanced and amplified by the swarm. Hargrave says imagination and creativity emerges within "pluralistic processes in which multiple actors with opposing moral viewpoints interact, and [where] no single actor is in control" and within the "lived tensions between contradictory perspectives" (458). That sounds like a swarm to me. Again, this overturns our usual view of the purpose of ethics: to reduce conflict. Instead, complex ethics recognizes the inherent tensions within the multiplicity of a rhizo-swarm. Without this tension, no movement or change is possible. Ask the rocks along the San Andreas fault—without the tension among them, they could never move or change. In some ways, earthquakes are rocks learning to live together. Rock ethics. We can regret when their tensions spill over on us humans, but then, it should remind us of how much non-humans have suffered when our tensions spill over on them. Complex ethics are ecological—never limited to the contracting or conflicting entities.

How do we ethically cope with this tension in human behavior and beliefs? The conservative approach is to make everyone behave and believe the same way. The Way. Complex ethics takes a more imaginative approach based first on recognizing the existence of different ways of believing and behaving. It's amazing how stubborn we humans can be about conceding the existence of views other than our own. We are always surprised when we discover that another person drives to the store along a different highway than we take. Can't they see that this is the correct Way? Rhizo-ethics, then, can conceive of different beliefs and behaviors.

Then rhizo-ethics is tolerant, which as Woermann and Cilliers point out is not some wishy-washy, weak indulgence of strange belief and behavior. Rather, tolerance is an imaginative recognition of the possibilities of other beliefs and behaviors. Woermann and Cilliers rely on James Mensch's observation that "in Latin, tolerance has the sense of supporting or sustaining, rather than enduring or suffering" (459). They quote Edmund Husserl's definition that tolerance is when I affirm for the other "his ideals as his, as ideals which I must affirm in him, just as he must affirm my ideals – not, indeed, as his ideals of life but as the ideals of my being and life" (459). I want to add here that imagining other beliefs and behaviors is a call, even a challenge, to us to transgress or rethink our own beliefs and behaviors. Rhizo-ethics means the imagination to consider what different constellations in the sky might mean even if we keep to our own constellations. Mensch says that tolerance "can be understood as the attitude that actively sustains the maximum number of compatible possibilities of being human" (459).

Finally, I think an imaginative rhizo-ethics involves trust. We usually think of trust as interpersonal, but consider it first as ecological.  We must trust first that a minimum "requisite diversity" is "needed for a system to cope with its environment" (457) and that some excess diversity is "needed for long-term systems survival, since the ‘fat’ of excess knowledge and diversity is needed both for breaking out of our conceptual schema and for imagining, and thereby experimenting and innovating for the future" (458). We humans are here because of the excess diversity in some cyanobacteria that emerged a few billion years ago. That bacteria existed because of the excess diversity in some nucleotides that lead to RNA. Trust diversity. It has worked magnificently well ever since hot gases started clumping into stars and galaxies. Likewise, mistrust anyone who claims that they know what we all should believe and how we all should behave. They do not have our best interests at heart.

So rhizo-ethics says that the proper stance toward a complex, open space calls for imagination and creativity. We do not know The Way through, and at times, we must imagine a path where none exists. We must expect others to follow other paths, to already be on other trajectories with different subjectives in mind. We must expect different beliefs and behaviors and challenge ourselves to understand them, even if we do not accept them. We must expect that our own beliefs and behaviors are as strange to them and as difficult to understand. Ours is not the only way to model a useful, beautiful, and productive world. It may not even be a comparatively good way.

And Dave posted a new #rhizo15 challenge last night, so I didn't finish this in time (whatever that means), but it doesn't matter, as I think I have one more rhizo-ethics post to write anyway.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Do We Count in #rhizo15?

I will eventually return to finish my series of posts on ethics in MOOCs, or swarm ethics, or rhizo-ethics, but Dave Cormier has issued a second challenge for #rhizo15, and I want to respond.

His challenge:
Get out there and count! What can we measure that isn’t learning? Think about all the other facets of the human experience… can we do better? What about all the fancy tools we’ve seen… can they help? Should we throw it out all together? Can we help people measure themselves? Is there a better way of looking at it? Be theoretical. Be practical… but GRADE ME!
Measuring has always been problematic for me, in part I suppose because of my discipline: writing. I do not approve of counting writing as a way of assessing students' abilities to write. A 76 on an essay has always struck me as meaningless and wrong-headed, and my readings in complexity theory cause me even more concerns.

For instance, I'm currently reading Timothy Morton's challenging book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). Morton, by the way, is an English professor at Rice University who seems to share some of my own interests. At any rate and without getting into the meaning of hyperobjects themselves, which I'm not yet ready to discuss, Morton makes some interesting observations about the problems of observation and measurement in relativistic and quantum sciences. These ideas resonate with me.

First, he notes that measurement is always incomplete. Any measurement reveals and blinds at the same time. As we focus on some aspect of an object—say, an electron or a fourth grade boy—we lose sight of some other aspect of the boy or electron. This is not some mental trick; rather, it is the nature of reality as far as we can currently describe reality: Morton says, "This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. … The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level" (Kindle Locations 756-758). Think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle here. Morton elucidates:
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. … Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. (Kindle Locations 748-753)
There are no complete observations, whether by human or instrument. Thus, there are no complete measurements. At best, measurements are adequate, but this always introduces the question: adequate for what? In education, especially, we can never have complete confidence in our measurements of our fourth-grade boy, and we must always revisit our reasons for taking the measurement in the first place. Any measurement of our fourth-grader will, at the same time, reveal and hide salient aspects of the student. We ignore those hidden aspects at peril to both ourselves and the student.

Then Morton notes that measurements always entangle the observer with the observed. This entanglement is very problematic. Morton says, "[Nils] Bohr argued that quantum phenomena don’t simply concatenate themselves with their measuring devices. They’re identical to them: the equipment and the phenomena form an indivisible whole" (Kindle Locations 760-762). This should sober all of us, if not frighten the piddle out of us. Let's say this more practically: In some important sense, I become what I measure—both the things I measure and the tools with which I measure—and my tools and the things I measure become me. We all become entangled in a larger identity (this starts suggesting, I think, what Morton means by hyperobjects, but I'm not pursuing that here). If I measure our fourth-grade boy with a standardized test, then I become that test and that boy. I do not mean that I become ONLY that test and that boy, but that test and boy become entangled in my identity—indeed, for the boy, that test may be all that I am to him. There is no meta-language or privileged position outside the entanglement of me, test, and boy from which I can safely conduct my measurement. If I measure, then I am included in the measurement. In education, we should choose our measurements most thoughtfully, for we become our measurements. Moreover, our students become our measurements. That is an awful burden.

This entanglement suggests to me that any measurement changes the observer, the instruments, and the observed, and this change feeds imprecision back into the incompleteness of observations and measurements. The act of observing our fourth-grade boy changes that boy. He would have been different if not measured. Of course, the boy—along with everything else—is constantly observed and measured by other objects, and that constant observation and measurement and its resulting entanglement is in part what makes the boy what he is. In some sense, then, we cannot avoid making observations and taking measurements of others or being observed and measured in turn, but we seem to have some freedom in choosing the kinds of observations and measurements that we make. We should choose wisely. I wish I knew what was wise.

Of course, I am not suggesting here that education is in any way special. We all constantly measure our worlds, if only informally and loosely: that's more, this is less; you are prettier than he; you are big, you little; this is near, that is far away; you have more money than I. Counting numerically is more precise and handy than counting in natural language, but Morton is reminding us that measurement, counting, is not the benign activity that we imagine it to be. It implicates and entangles. What counts in life is what we count and how we count it. Counting has two entangled meanings here: enumeration and evaluation. We count what counts, and what we count comes to count.

Awareness of this entanglement is not new, I think. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (KJV Bible, Matthew 7:1,2). This passage is usually read as a moral lesson to avoid hypocrisy and censure, but I think we can give it a more profound reading: what and how you count determines how you yourself count. Perhaps the spiritually advanced among us, the deep meditators of the various religious and philosophical traditions, can measure without judging and without becoming their measurements, but I cannot. If I want to know who I am, then I can get a reliable read by noting what and how I measure my world, especially others, and how I assess the value of those measurements. That stuff counts.

I don't think comma faults count much, so I don't count them, but I know people who do. A comma fault—what a sad thing to become. It's really hard to have a pleasing conversation with someone who's always correcting your grammar, so I usually don't. What do you measure?