Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Sentences: Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I have to start somewhere with the actual prepositions in the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I will cherry pick a sentence from the accounts written by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch.

A few months ago, I became aware of some online textual analysis tools from Voyant Tools, but this is the first chance I've had to use them. I am by no means competent with them yet, but they are already proving useful and promise to be even more useful. I recommend that you check them out if this sort of thing interests you. I will imbed some of the tools in this post to give you a sense of what Voyant has to offer. The tools are live, and should the written texts change, the results would change. That could be helpful.

Anyway, Voyant first gives me a summary of Maha Bali's text:

and a list of her word frequencies:

Then I get a summary of Sarah Honeychurch's text:

And a list of Sarah's word frequencies:

So Maha wrote 977 words, of which 398 were unique (59% duplicates, 41% unique). Her top 10 words include 2 prepositions: to (21/2.2%) and on (16/1.6%). However, at least 9 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to express, to echo); thus, on is the most common preposition for Maha.

Sarah wrote 532 words, of which 267 were unique (50% duplicates, 50% unique). Her top 10 words include 3 prepositions: to (15/2.8%), in (14/2.6%), and of (14/2.6%). Again, however, 8 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to miss, to talk); thus, in is the most common preposition for Sarah.

So Maha is on and Sarah is in. Let's see if this is meaningful; though of course, it first means that I will use on to choose and analyze a sentence from Maha and in to choose and analyze a sentence from Sarah. Let's consider Maha's first sentence with the prepositions highlighted:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
This 33 word sentence has 5 (15%) prepositions, including an on, so it seems a fine sentence to begin with. I mentioned in my last post that I've been thinking of prepositions as stage directors, placing the actors on the stage and indicating any movements in relation to each other and to the stage. The stage for this sentence might look something like this:
Maha Bali's First Sentence

The basic movement of the sentence/scene is simple and runs along the bottom line of the image above: Funny enough, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here. This core sentence places Maha center screen as the main actor not only of this sentence/scene but of the entire movie, as evidenced by the occurrence of the word I 45 times (4.6% of 977 words). After all, this is an auto-ethnographic piece, which almost by definition makes the writer the main actor. There is not much action here, as even the writing is more indicative of framing thoughts than of manipulating a keyboard. So the sentence/scene is more a mood piece, presenting the main actor in some perplexity (funny) at having difficulty with writing (though, the implied wry humor of the term funny should definitely not be ignored, as it hangs like quiet laughter just off camera). Finally, the one preposition in this part of the scene, of, is more conceptual than  active, denoting or pointing to a quality of the rather empty noun lot and, by extension, to writing. Here, of connects qualities to concepts rather than to any active times or spaces. Moreover, this preposition is not very functional given that it is unnecessary. Maha could have easily written: Funny enough, I am having great (or much) difficulty writing here, to replace the casual construction a lot of and eliminate the preposition. This core sentence, then, presents us with the main actor and a bit of emotional and mental atmosphere, but not much else.

All of the stage craft is done in the rather long, parenthetical subordinate clause: even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter. This is the part where the prepositions arrange the movie set, defining the space and time in which Maha thinks and writes, connecting her to a setting, other entities, and other actions. The twin prepositions about function as references or pointers linking Maha's thinking and writing to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, which is a major player in Maha's movie. The complementary prepositional elements since and throughout provide the temporal scope of Maha's movie: from the beginning of Rhizo14 proper through to the end. Finally, the preposition on provides the virtual space where Maha's writing takes place: her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. This is quite economical stage craft, placing Maha in a specific space and time and connecting her to the Rhizo14 MOOC and to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, major entities in her movie.

Now, let's look at a sentence from Sarah's account:
I’m in the early stages of a part time PhD in collaborative learning and I got interested in MOOCs from that point of view, as well as because my Uni signed up with FutureLearn last year.
This 36 word sentence/scene has 7 prepositions (19.4%), including 3 instances of in. In addition, I could easily include the conjunctive phrase as well as (relation/additional) and the adverb up (process/completion), but I will arbitrarily limit this discussion to the 7 traditional prepositions. Sarah is also setting a stage for herself, but this is her second sentence, and the first sentence introduces Rhizo14, a major player in her movie: I can’t remember how I found out about rhizo14, probably from Dave’s blog. Her second sentence, the one I am using here, explains how she became interested in MOOCs such as Rhizo14.

Sarah Honeychurch's Second Sentence
Sarah is tracing the origin of her interest in MOOCs first to a PhD program in collaborative learning and then to her university's recent agreement with FutureLearn, a UK online learning group. As with Maha's sentence, Sarah's use of I 26 times (4.9%, about the same frequency as Maha) places her center screen in her movie. Again, she's writing an auto-ethnography. She is supposed to be the star of the movie. The scene begins by situating Sarah in the early stages of a PhD program in collaborative learning through the use of 3 successive prepositions: in with its spatial, temporal, and membership connotations, of with its thing > type relation, and in which has both thing > type relation and reference connotations (she could have easily used the preposition about here). For Sarah, then, Rhizo14 is occurring at the same time as her PhD program and is occupying some of the same intellectual space as collaborative learning. At its conclusion, the sentence extends this setting by adding Sarah's university and its partnership with FutureLearn with the conjunctive phrase as well as and the preposition with. The preposition in connects Sarah's interest in MOOCs to her PhD program and to her university activities. When first considered, the sentence has a rather odd structure: Sarah's interest in MOOCs is framed at the beginning of the sentence by her PhD program and at the end by her university activities, but given the use in 3 times and given the common connotation of enclosure for that preposition, it's easy to see how this structure, even if unconscious on Sarah's part, is appropriate: her interest in MOOCs is in, within, inside her PhD program and university activities.

It's also odd that not one of the uses of in in this sentence primarily implies enclosure; rather, they imply a thing/type relation, a reference relation, sequence, and membership. Still, the sense of enclosure is also there, humming behind the main thought, latent, potential, ready to hand if a reader wants to look closely enough, listen carefully enough. And this sense of enclosure enriches the entire scene, giving it more meaning for those who want it without imposing its meaning on more glib readings.

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.

This will sustain more thinking and writing. I'm traveling on the road for the next two weeks, and my posting may be erratic, but I want to send this up before I become distracted. I have much more to say about meaning as an emergent property of many words rather than an irreducible quality of one word, but this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with. And yes, even though I'm a southerner, I know that I'm not supposed to end sentences with a preposition, so: this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with, ya'll.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Coding Prepositions in the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I promised in my last post to talk about why and how I was coding the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography with prepositions. Maha Bali subsequently pointed out in a tweet that she still doesn't know how I plan to code prepositions. She's right. I spent all of my time yesterday talking about why and very little about how. I ran out of steam last night, so I want to correct that.

I'll start by talking about what I did, which may not be logical, but I'll try to put things back together at the end. Also, I am not so methodical. I tend to do all steps at the same time so that for a long while my work is very messy. Order emerges slowly. The reasonable order implied below by first, second, third steps is a fiction of my writing, not what actually happened.

First, I read the entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch to identify all the prepositions. I thought this would be a simple task, but it was not. I missed many of them, even obvious ones such as on, in, and so forth. They are little words, bare snippets, and easy to overlook. Moreover, I think my brain is accustomed to overlooking them, trained instead to look for the substantives and verbs, the actors and actions in a sentence. The connective words tend to recede into the background, lost in the noise, while the actors strut across the stage in shining, privileged relief. It's a bit like being the bellboy who delivers the note to Tom Cruise in some movie. No one remembers the bellboy's face, and he never has a name; they are blinded instead by His Magnificence center-screen. Prepositions are the bit players in sentences, but the sentences don't work without them. I'm having to retrain my brain to notice them. I find this very odd.

Then, I had trouble with some prepositions that can also function as other parts of speech. For instance, consider in in Maha's text:
  • So I will dip in (adverb)
  • a horrible day in Egypt (preposition)
Obviously I would include the second in, but what about the first? In traditional grammar, it is an adverb because it modifies the verb; yet to my mind, it seemed to be doing a prepositional thing: expressing movement through space/time to connect entities. I will have to do more research to confirm this, but I suspect that traditional grammarians are privileging the substantives and verbals and defining the little words, the bit players, by their relationships to the main actors and actions, rather than defining the little words in their own rights. Thus, in is a preposition when it relates to some substantive, connecting it to some other main part of the sentence; it is an adverb when it relates to a verbal. It seems that the identity of little words depends not so much on their own behavior and role as on their relationship to the main words, the important words. I decided to include the adverbial in along with the prepositional in. I admit up front that sometimes my choices to include or not may appear arbitrary, but I hope to develop some rigor through working with the choices. Rigor may come, or not.

Note the non-grammar definition of substantive:
  1. having a firm basis in reality and therefore important, meaningful, or considerable.
  2. having a separate and independent existence.
This seems to capture the general English attitude toward nouns: they have a firm basis in reality, a separate and independent existence, they are real things, and thus they are important, meaningful, or considerable, worthy of consideration. Prepositions don't have that definite solidity. They have the slimmest basis in reality and almost no separate and independent existence, so they must be unimportant, meaningless, and unworthy of consideration, right? Well, it seems that I once thought so. This will require a post of its own, a line of flight, later. I know I have readers who speak languages other than English, so I'm curious about how those languages treat the little words. Is this an English thing? a Western thing? a universal thing? I don't know.

Anyway, as I collected my prepositions (including the prepositional type words, but I will just call them all prepositions for simplicity), I worked with various coding schemes. This was difficult, as I do not have a sufficient background in linguistics to do this from scratch, so finally, I took a shortcut: I simply listed all the dictionary definitions for a given preposition and devised codes for each definition. I used the dictionary built in to Google Docs (I should investigate to see who supplies these definitions) as it was readily to hand, and it seemed as reliable as any other, but this could be very wrong. I did not check that closely. Still, that's what I did for expediency, and so the word in lists and codes like this for me:

Coding for the preposition "in"
I then applied my codes to each preposition in each sentence in Mali and Sarah's entries in the auto-ethnography. I'll use Sarah this time:

Note that I coded in the early stages as time/enclosed, indicating that in indicates a temporal enclosure, placing Sarah within one of the successive stages of a PhD program. This code is a bit too loose and could easily be managed otherwise. I could as easily use a code such as time/succession to indicate that Sarah is at a particular time in a succession of times. Which would be correct? Well, they both are. Is one better? I don't think so. So how do you code in, in this case? Is it a particle or a wave? It's both, and maybe something else as well. My reading suggests that cognitive linguists are having the same issues with devising boxes big enough to contain all the possible meanings of these little words. It seems we can say the most with the least, and that makes things interesting, problematic, very rhizomatic.

So I am not at all settled with my codes. First, I think the dictionary definitions are somewhat arbitrary, which makes my codes arbitrary of necessity. If I stick with this line of thinking, I'll have to do lots of work here. Then, I just noticed that I've been using mostly substantives for codes (space, time, relation, reference, etc.), thus privileging the substantives again and creating static snapshots of what is basically a dynamic connection within a sentence. I could use verbs, which would re-animate the code, but it still privileges a different class of words and a different semantic structure. I'll have to think through all of this, and I'm not there yet, but I'm reading my way onto some possible paths.

I want to continue writing, but I have lots of end-of-term documents to grade, so I'll stop here. Next I want to give an example of how I'm parsing and analyzing a sentence with these codes, with the hopes that the other coders will begin to see some connections between what is emerging here with prepositions and what they are doing with their own codes. This line of research is going somewhere nice for me, but I still don't know if it will play well with the other over-codes.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Prepositions as the Rhizomatic Heart of Writing

I never expected to be writing about prepositions, but it's the approach I've decided to take with the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to sketch what I think I'm doing and why and how I'm doing it. This is a preliminary sketch, so expect abrupt turns of the page and new, emergent directions. In rhizomatic terms, expect lots of deterritorializations and reterritorializations. If you've ever heard the ruffle and rush of a covey of quail scattering in the cold, steel-blue dawn, then you're ready.

I became interested in the rhizomatic potential of prepositions after reading the conversation between Bruno Latour and Michel Serres in Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres talks about his "'philosophy of prepositions'--an argument for considering prepositions, rather than the conventionally emphasized verbs and substantives, as the linguistic keys to understanding human interactions." It was an intriguing concept, but I didn't have a concrete way to engage it until the auto-ethnography emerged. A group of us decided to independently code the entries in the auto-ethnography, and then compare our codings. I jumped at the chance to work the prepositions, and I assumed that most of the other coders would base their coding systems on substantives and verbs as "the linguistic key to understanding human interactions." I had an intuition that prepositions, and prepositional-like elements, might be the linguistic engines that power the rhizome in language. What do I mean by that?

For me, rhizomes are first about connections: making connections, dropping connections, arranging connections into patterns. At its deepest level, the rhizome itself is all possible and potential connections (and even the impossible connections, in a kind of indiscriminate heterogenous coupling and tripling and clustering)—in Serres' terms, it's noise—but humans inevitably select, reduce, and map, bringing a few nodes into relief from the swelter of possible nodes and constructing patterns out of those nodes. Those patterns are what we mean by meaning. Language is one of the core tools we use to map our worlds and to create patterns—both helpful and harmful, rational and whimsical—and prepositional-like elements are the hooks, angels, hermes, and messenger particles that connect the actors (nouns) and actions (verbs) of our thought and arrange them. An early metaphor that emerged for me was prepositions as stage directors, positioning actors on the stage, giving directions about which way to move in relation to other actors, props, audience, and the stage itself, and ramping up the next scene. They are very busy, and they have to know everything. Yup—those little, largely ignored prepositions. Prepositions are the connective, connecting tissue that connects this to that in a pattern that works and makes sense. It's a really big job.

And connections beget connections. There is something here to do with desire, the energetic working of the rhizome through things. Prepositions are little desiring machines, to use Deleuze and Guattari, and they desire to connect, to break connections and to reconnect (to deterritorialize and reterritorialize down lines of flight), to emerge, dissolve, and reemerge. They are promiscuous at all levels: phrase, sentence, paragraph, section. This promiscuity works in my reading as I work to code the auto-ethnography (I think it's time to rehabilitate the term promiscuous, not to eliminate the sexual but to expand its field beyond the merely sexual). I have become the intersection of several documents that resonate with my thoughts about the role of prepositions in writing (notice how things appear when you look? they were in the noise all along. looking made them emerge). Simon Ensor sent me an article about ecological psychology on Wikipedia. Terry Elliot wrote a post GOODBYE, CLASSROOM. HELLO, CONNECTION JUKEBOX. that claims we are all "a magnificent and unique filter for the world. Your neurons fire in ways that no one else does or can. If you are attuned to that and share that, you will be adding signal and not noise to the world." Then, two people mentioned their attention shifting from nouns to verbs, Frances Bell in a comment on Maha Bali's wonderful post Network vs community – cc #rhizo14 autoethnog and Aaron Davis's post PLN, a Verb or a Noun?. Is everyone thinking about parts of speech? Finally, just now, tonight as I am struggling with what to say in this post, Simon Ensor writes in his post Spacetimecontinuum …:

I notice how connections suddenly come alive, dormant for indeterminate time they suddenly fire and images, words, ideas flow out.

This appears to be learning.

I start to review the tags that I throw unthinkingly on my blog posts, there is no getting around those key words -


I virtually never write, I never write what I think, imagine, or foresee I am going to write. I am written.

In more prosaic terms: how do prepositions drive the emergence of a sentence into meaning? How do they both coalesce (inward) the potential energy of nouns and verbs into coherent structures AND vibrate (outward) with enough heat to trigger the emergence of larger structures of meaning that flesh out our ideas? This is a very subtle trick, and I'd like to know more about it. Along the way, I think I will learn more about the rhizome and how it can lead to community and away from community. We'll see.

So I'm starting to read about prepositions, and I'm finding a fairly deep if not extensive body of work about them (or on them? which preposition do you prefer here: about or on? it makes a difference. you be the director and make the call). Of course, I'm having to learn a new vocabulary, pulled mostly from cognitive linguistics, where I'm bumping into George Lakoff again, and one of my first new words is polysemy (many possible meanings for a given word). It seems that prepositions just won't take a definition and stick to it. This is driving some really bright and otherwise normal scholars nuts, including Mr. Lakoff, as they search for boxes big enough to put a tiny preposition in. It's similar to what quantum physicists went through when they first started realizing that electrons just can't be pinned down to one place and one speed. Elementary particles such as electrons are frenetic, jittery, smudged, probabilistic entities that most likely exist here but could also be someplace across the universe. Messenger particles, hermes, angels. Prepositions, too, are frenetic. They most likely mean this, but they could mean something else as well. They could mean multiple things at the same time. They violate Aristotle's principle of the excluded third. How messed up is that?

Old-fashioned grammarians hate this kind of imprecision and waffling, but it's perfect if you want to explore the rhizome, as I do. This is very much like elementary particles: it's the frenetic jitteriness and vibrations of those tiny strings that make them imprecise (not reducible to a single, well-defined point) and that generates the energy that fuels the universe. Likewise, prepositions have a frenetic energy that fuels language such as this blog post.

Prepositions are easy to overlook. I first went through the auto ethnographic entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch merely to identify all the prepositions they used. As I was going back through to code each preposition, I found more—not the weird ones, but the common ones: on, of, in, and the like. Easy to overlook, but we lose much when we do.

I don't want to suggest any disparagement of nouns and verbs, but prepositions have caught my attention for the moment. I want to see where they take me. So far, it's been a fun ride.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Educational Research: At the Heart of Things

In a 2008 article entitled Complexity as a theory of education, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara discuss the unique qualities of educational research, especially in light of complexity theory, suggesting to me that complexity plays a unique and insistent role in educational research. Complexity has been on my mind for a few years now, especially in its metaphorical expression as a rhizome and specifically as a way to approach the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to map Davis and Sumara's ideas to rhizomatic thinking in Rhizo14.

Davis and Sumara begin by noting the appropriateness of complexity thought for educational research. Both are relatively young and emerging systems of thought and they share some common approaches to the study of reality.

First, both complexity and educational theories approach systems that learn. Davis and Sumara say, "Brains, social collectives, bodies of knowledge, and so on can all become broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities." I'm sorry that Davis and Sumara seem to limit learning to higher order life systems with sophisticated neuronal structures such as brains, as it seems to me that almost all scales of the universe are capable of becoming broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities. For instance, the antibodies and antigens that help make up my innate immune system learn to recognize and defeat new attacks on my body, and as far as I know, they learn this without benefit of a brain. Of course, the pathogens attacking me also learn how to get around my innate defenses and any medicine that I might add to the mix. I don't think bacteria have brains either. So for me, learning is one of the fundamental processes of reality as entities at all scales exchange not only energy and matter, but also information and organization, in order to adapt to and thrive within their environments. Learning theories go to the heart of everything and every theory. Thus, educational theory should be informing all other theories, from sociology and psychology down to chemistry and physics, rather than always pulling its frameworks from those other theories. Educational theory is not derivative, it is generative. Down to the core.

Still, Rhizo14 certainly meets Davis and Sumara's concept of a learning system, and their implied definition of learning might guide investigation of Rhizo14: did Rhizo14 learn, becoming broader, more nuanced, and capable of more diverse possibilities? If not, why not? If so, why and how? Did Rhizo14 exchange information and organization within itself and with its environment? If so, how and why? If not, why not? What values emerged from this exchange? What was the new, emergent information? What was the new, emergent organization? What are the salient characteristics and values of this emergent information and organization?

The term emergent leads to another shared characteristic of complexity and educational theories: emergence. Davis and Sumara say, "each of these phenomena is emergent—that is, each arises in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions are in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts." Learning has always been an emergent event, but courses such as Rhizo14 make emergence explicit and attempt to ride the emergent wave, assuming that emergence is the source of broader, more nuanced, more diverse possibilities.

Emergence is certainly relevant to the study of a cMOOC such as Rhizo14. The course arose in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions [were] in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts. Any study of Rhizo14 must be constantly aware of the sub-components and agents that embodied the course and must be aware that each of those sub-components and agents are themselves emergent entities informed by yet another scale of sub-components and agents, all the way down to the core, and learning takes place on each scale and between scales. In other words, information and organization is exchanged in circularly causal loops within a scale and across scales. Learning is unbelievably complex, and while any particular study of learning will out of cognitive necessity focus on a particular human scale (usually an individual or a social group), it must acknowledge that its particular scale is not discrete, but is an integral part of scales within it and without it. Any processes on one scale are fully understandable only in context.

And this brings me to another objection to Davis and Sumara's treatment of complexity: a failure to recognize the transcendent. Perhaps Davis and Sumara are too influenced by the very reductionistic sciences that they are trying to move beyond, but they seem to me trapped just here. Davis and Sumara can see emergence coming up from the core in the sub-components and agents, but they don't recognize in this article the scales above us, the transcendent scales. Western culture has a strong bias—scientific, social, and religious—toward seeing humanity as the highest expression of either nature or the gods. We regularly hear that the human brain is the most highly advanced, most complex structure in the Universe. Being scientific these days, we've traded the soul for the human brain, but the effect is about the same: humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of Nature's eye, blessed above all else. What a profound failure of imagination and insight!

Many spiritual traditions, but also complexity science itself, suggest the limitation of this point of view. With ever better tools, science has continued to push out the immanent and transcendent scales of reality: inward/downward to vibrating strings and outward/upward to multi-verses. Just when we think we've hit rock bottom or soared to the absolute ends of the Universe, we find more layers. We humans are somewhere in the middle. Not insignificant, but not so important either, and our normal, unsupported vision is limited to a very narrow scale, a very narrow band of the light spectrum. We don't see the infra-red or the ultra-violet, so we think it isn't there, but it is. Complexity thought says that any scale of reality depends both on the scales below/within it and the scales above/without it. And there are always scales beyond. There is always a transcendent.

Now I do think that it is somehow easier for us, in the West especially, to see the scales below/within us, but this may just be our reductionistic habits and heightened sense of importance over the past few centuries. Still, educational studies must be conscious of and allow for the influences of scales beyond the individual learner or the group learners. The enclosing ecosystem always pulls the emerging learner or group into shapes and processes that it might not otherwise assume, and of course, the ecosystem is then affected itself by the emergence of this new structure within. Imagine a new and beneficial organ emerging in your body to provide some new capability. The organ cannot take any shape it chooses, but must find its shape and place with the existing body, which must rearrange itself to benefit from the new organ. The local causality of the new organ is not enough to explain it. We must include the circular and global causalities also at work.

There is always a higher body, and if cMOOCs such as Rhizo14 are beneficial, affording us new capabilities, then they will shape themselves within existing systems while changing the shapes of those systems. They will exchange information and organization with a transcendent scale of reality. Thus, Rhizo14 should ask what local causes were at work within Rhizo14 to make it behave as it did, but also what circular causalities were at work among the various scales and what global causalities pulled Rhizo14 into its emergent shapes. For instance, a number of Rhizo14 participants wanted to discuss Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome and how it informs our thinking about education, but that conversation was short-circuited and other conversations emerged. This was certainly not caused simply by any local decision, though local decisions can be identified; rather, it was a pull, a global cause, that emerged from the group and transcended any individual decision or cause. How did that work? How does that work? Leaders in the group emerge. How? Why? In short, there are wonderful dynamics at play in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14 that can only be accounted for by reference to scales beyond the individual or even the group. Of course, that pushes into the fog, the noise, enclosing us. It's a bit akin to a single neuron in a human brain trying to understand the consciousness that emerges on a scale several levels beyond it. It may not even know that it is a part of consciousness. We likely don't know what entities we are part of on the scales beyond us, either, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be open to those scales and recognize their influences on us.

I'll explore more of Davis and Sumara again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who's Writing the Rhizo14 Ethnography: The Problem of Authorship

I read through the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography this past week, in part to re-connect but also to see if it was moving anywhere (I won't say moving forward as that is far too linear a concept for anything out of Rhizo14), but the document itself has been largely inactive since April or so, and I've not seen it emerge in any other space. It is an exciting document with much potential, so I wonder why it isn't moving. This question is not an indictment or even a challenge, as I haven't done much with it myself, but it is a chance to think about the problems of authorship of such a document through such a writing process.

First, authorship has been problematic from the beginning, as the document itself demonstrates. Sarah Honeychurch created Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 in Google Docs on Feb 16, 2014, announcing that "We (Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, Sandra, Sarah, and anyone else who fancies joining us) intend writing a paper about #rhizo14 and will be including quotations from this document." Thus, the document was opened from its inception to anyone else who fancies joining us. A number of people did fancy joining, at least for a while and in a way. The document was initially shared publicly so that people could, and did, contribute anonymously; still, I can identify contributions either to the text and/or to the comments from these 35 different people, in the order that I could identify them, with no priority or rank implied:

  • Sarah Honeychurch
  • Arthur Oglesby
  • Kevin Hodgson
  • Sandra Sinfield
  • Apostolos Koutropoulos
  • Terry Elliot
  • Maha Bali
  • Monika Hardy
  • Ron Leunissen
  • Vance Stevens
  • Ellie Trees
  • Heli Nurmi

  • Barry Dyck
  • Bonnie Stewart
  • Simon Ensor
  • Aaron Johannes
  • Vanessa Vaile
  • Lou Mycroft
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Clarissa Bezerra
  • Scott Johnson
  • Paul Gareth Smith
  • Tanya Lau
  • Keith Hamon

  • David Jones
  • Janet Webster
  • Nick Kearney
  • Jim Stauffer
  • Danielle Paradis
  • Rebecca J. Hogue
  • Frances Bell
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Carol Yeager
  • Dave Cormier
  • Paige Cuffe

  • And if I include the eclectic Anonymous, then I have 36 contributors. Quite a rabble itself, but additionally complicated by some who did not want to be identified with the group and others who used the auto-ethnographic content without permission, though just whose permission they needed is somewhat confusing itself.

    So who is writing this document? I think my question itself is problematic, starting with the words who and document. I'll get to the verb writing later.

    For more than a half a millennium, western culture has tried to define the role of the author, limiting it to an individual or a definable group following a positivistic epistemology and mostly for the purposes of establishing property rights within the Western legal tradition. The history of this development is far beyond the scope of what I want to say in this post, but it's worth noting that our ideas about writers writing documents are culturally informed and have mostly to do with identifying what person or group produced what document and thus knowing whom to praise or blame and whom to pay or persecute.

    Western language and speech has a strong bias toward discrete, definable actors (nouns and pronouns) performing discrete, definable actions (verbs). We like stable relationships between one word and one thing, and we become uneasy when words begin to slip their meanings. We expect and want who in who is writing this document to refer to either a clearly definable individual (let's pick Sarah Honeychurch since she created the initial Google Document) or to a clearly definable group (maybe Sarah, Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, and Sandra; maybe all 36 above; maybe some other assemblage) and document to refer to a clearly definable electronic artifact. Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 doesn't seem to be playing this way, and that may be causing problems. We have a rabble writing a cacophony, and it's confusing and paralyzing.

    This is understandable. In his book Genesis (1995), Michel Serres explains much better than I can our problems with rabbles and swarms and rhizomes and the noise they make:
    We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in mo­nadologies. (pp 2, 3)
    As Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus (1980, p 3), we humans need to "fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements." Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate an author to explain a text or to write a text. Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate a specific text—one thing directly attributable to specific authors—to explain the rhizomatic movements of Rhizo14. We may feel the need to subsume the babble of voices beneath a unity, or the flights of tweets, texts, and doggerel into a single document. We want monads: a single, genius author or a single, collaborative group to produce a single document, or several single documents. We want a thesis, a single governing idea, best attributable to a single voice. We want One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. We have centuries of culture that tell us this is authorship, this is writing, this is how sensible documents are done.

    There is much power in this concept of writing, authorship, and text. First, it brings into relief a writer and a text against the background of noise and chaos. We can say, "Keith Hamon wrote this blog post", but it is just a manner of speaking. While there may be something of me in this post (if there is really even something of me in me), I am acutely aware of how much I am only orchestrating various strands that did not come from me but pass through me and will not end with me. I conventionally attribute other writers, of course, but only where I remember to do so, and my practice covers only the most obvious of my borrowings. I suspect that you could google each sentence in this post and find some source for a similar idea. I didn't attribute any of those. I've forgotten the sources for most of my ideas, and while I can find sources for all of my ideas, I'm not sure that they are my sources, but I am sure that it doesn't matter. All my ideas come out of the noise, attain a brief clarity and configuration (occasionally perhaps a novel configuration) in me, and then melt back into the noise which holds all ideas.

    Then, if we bring into relief a specific writer and a specific text, then we can trace and manage the power relations between this writer and others, this text and others. We can trace flows of status, money, prestige, fame or infamy, credit or blame, influence or anonymity. We can rank and point. We can name and demarcate. We can know if we are in or out, up or down. We can say that we are playing by the rules or not. We can have a profession and be paid for it. We can attain great clarity, and with clarity comes power. We can say, "I have seen the night sky, and these are the patterns in the stars, and these patterns make clear the meaning of life."

    I do not dismiss the virtues of this approach to writing, or to life in general. Clarity and power can lead to a secure sense of one's place in the universe, and that has immeasurable benefits. However, seeing the patterns in a few stars requires ignoring all those trillions of other stars, causing them to recede into the background. It means ignoring the background noise, which holds all the stars, all the patterns, all the meaning, and focusing on just a handful of stars and a bit of meaning. It's an awful dilemma, but while we gain much, we lose more. We in the West don't have good words and concepts for the background hum, the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang, captured here in a recording by University of Washington physicist John Cramer:

    What do you do with such a sound? You can't dance to it. You can't wrap your head around it. You can only open yourself to it. You have to relax your normal cognitive structures—those insistent, almost automatic processes that frame reality, and bring a few stars, a subset of reality, into relief and render them sensible. But this Big Bang sound isn't a few stars. It's all stars. All galaxies. All things. We don't do so well with that. As Serres notes, it is disaggregation and aggregation without contradiction, and we are overwhelmed. All meaning is no meaning.

    Well, I didn't really intend to write about the Big Bang and all, so let me return to what may have been my point: we, at least we in the West, like to reduce documents to a single artifact and writers to a single person or group of persons. We are not comfortable with distributed documents that emerge out of the noise of many people talking, even though we experience such noise daily in cafeterias, bars, street corners, stadiums, auditoriums, and more. Mostly, we just try to ignore that background noise and talk over it. We don't think that it communicates to us beyond a general tone or timbre. Such documents certainly don't make sense in an academic setting. Who gets credit? Who gets tenure? Who publishes this? What do they publish? Does publication demarcate the document? Who demarcates the authors? This is just a cluster fuck in a mosh pit, and how will we ever determine the genealogy of such monstrous offspring?

    Well, that's the point, I think. Deleuze and Guattari and later Serres are saying that the noise, the rhizome, is the norm and that the clarity and power are the exceptions, the bits of amorphous reality that we wrench into relief for a time, but never for a thousand years. I want to say, then, that the Rhizo14 document is already being written, began before Sarah Honeychurch created the Google Doc, and that it is still being written by any number of people, including me in this post you are reading. It is being written in an academic conference by scholars who didn't even participate in Rhizo14. It is being written by students in Maha Bali's classes who don't even recognize the term Rhizo14.

    This kind of writing is not new, but it is not part of the Western rhetoric that I know. I recently read an article by Samuel Arbesman called The Network Structure of Jewish Texts in which he discusses the network nature—I would say the rhizomatic nature—of Jewish texts as revealed by Sefaria, "an open source database of Jewish texts", which Liz Shayne of UC Santa Barbara has graphically mapped (see some beautiful pix of rhizomatic structures in her article Sefaria in Gephi: Seeing Links in Jewish Literature). So who wrote the Talmud? It is the wrong question, for it assumes an author or limited authorial group and a specific text. The Talmud has neither. Rather, it is the accretion and emergence of cacophonous conversation over millennia. It is aggregation and disaggregation without contradiction. It is a rhizome. We likely don't have all of the Talmud, but we seem to have enough to continue the conversation. There will, of course, be clumps in the conversation, tubers and bulbs called scholarly papers or blog posts, just as there are clumps in the heavens called galaxies and clumps in our bodies called organs, and the clumps are important. They stand out in relief and give us a momentary clarity, but the clumps are not the whole thing, and eventually, they do return to the noise either as a consequence of time and entropy or a shift in our attention. Authors and their texts are convenient fictions, even useful at times, but fictions nonetheless.

    So what conversations about Rhizo14 are emerging?  What patterns can we create out of it? How do we map this conversation and traverse it as knowmads, mindful that knowmads cannot be monads? I'll have to think about that some more, unless of course one of you has a ready answer. I'd love to hear it.

    Friday, July 18, 2014

    hackAhack in light: #clmooc

    My friend Maha Bali writes so well, and she is prolific. I've thought about trying to keep up with her, but I can't, so …

    Still, she just wrote a wonderful post I ____ therefore I am human that challenges me to think about what it means to be human. She hacks Descartes' famous dictum I think; therefore, I am, shifting away from thinking to feeling, framing her thoughts within the current fighting between Israel and Palestine. She ends up with:
    I feel therefore I empathize
    I empathize therefore I am human
    I think I see her point. Descartes grounded his scientific philosophy in an intellectual reductionism that tends to separate everything, breaking down wholes into the tiniest constituent parts and the most basic of interactions, with the assumption that he could put it back together with a more complete understanding. Well, try that with a frog sometimes. Take the frog apart, identify its constituent parts and the basic processes among those parts, and then put it back together. You don't get a frog. You get Frankenfrog—a monstrous, mechanistic mess with no life in it and little value to you or the frog.

    Now try that with a people: Palestinians, European Jews, American Indians … you pick. There are plenty of examples. Try it with a person: your spouse, your children, your students. Take them apart, name their parts and processes, and then try to put them back together. You get Frankenkids and Frankenclasses. When you pull life apart, you lose something really important, and the knowledge or whatever else you gain may not be worth what you lost. Often enough, it isn't.

    Now, I am not suggesting that a reductionist scientific point of view has no value. It does. As Edgar Morin has stated, much of the advances in modern culture can be directly attributed to the patient, inexorable workings of reductionistic science. But it isn't enough, and by itself, that kind of thought blinds us as much as it enlightens. We need something more.

    We need a complex science that incorporates feelings along with intellect. Intellect alone will kill us. Intellect counterpoised with feeling just might save us. I don't suggest that the one resolves into the other; rather, they maintain a delicate, creative tension that informs the other without ever subsuming or canceling the other. They keep in dialogue, never completely agreeing, never disengaging, knowing that both are richer for the other, that one without the other is madness.

    We need a science that values connections as much as it values separation. I connect with Maha Bali. We both connect with the communities of Rhizo14 and CLMOOC. I think it's those connections that make us human. Without those living connections, we are merely Frankenpeople.

    So I want to hack Maha's hack. I want to make a hackAhack:

    I connect to others; therefore, I am human. I could have used the word engage instead of connect. I've been using engage and engagement more in my writing lately, but I'll stick with connect and connection in this post as it may be the more inclusive term. Engagement seems to suggest a more intentional and deliberate connection; whereas, many of our connections are not intentional, deliberate, or even conscious. When I breathe air with you, I usually don't think about it, but it's a connection that I ignore at my peril.

    I'm human, then, because I think and feel, and I think and feel because I connect to others. Without my communities, I really wouldn't have much thought or feeling. I wouldn't be human.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2014

    Hacking Post: #clmooc

    Well, my first Make Cycle for #clmooc (write a how to) took longer than I anticipated, and now I have missed some of the other tasks, but this is one of the best things about MOOCs: only the organizers and facilitators have to stay on task, and even they can slip if they do it right.

    Anyway, I've decided to skip to Make Cycle #4: Hack Your Writing. I'll hack my blog posts, which tend to be analytical pieces, with some poetry, starting with haiku. I'll use the titles of the hacked blog posts.

    How to Study a cMOOC: Part 3 of a list for #CLMOOC

    Pierre Dillenbourg
    turns from fifteen years away,
    answers, "Here I am."

    Investigating MOOCs, Part 2 of a #CLMOOC List

    a tweet uncalled for
    as pointed as a finger

    How to Study a cMOOC: A list for #CLMOOC

    human scale hangs in
    the balance against scaled fish
    — a neuron waits to fire