Saturday, March 10, 2012

Defining Connectivism, #cck12

This past Thursday night, I checked in on the CCK12 online session about one of my favorite topics: complexity. When George Siemens opened the session for questions, I raised my hand to ask him if he has had to change the way he defines Connectivism, given that it is itself a complex, open system for studying complex, open systems. As too often happens in an open forum, I did not frame the question well, and George seemed to think I was asking for a definition of Connectivism. That wasn't my intention, so let me reframe the question here. I think it's important.

What I want to get to is the problem of defining complex, open systems. This issue has been popping up from time-to-time from lots of different people and in different contexts. It seemed especially contentious in Dave Cormier's recent discussion of rhizomatics. Lots of people pressed Dave to define rhizomatic thinking, and he did an admirable job. People also press Siemens and Downes to define Connectivism, and in Thursday's session, George noted that he has made a number of statements about what Connectivism is throughout his writing, but that basically he doesn't like to define it too precisely.

That isn't a bad tack: just don't define it. Let the concept work itself out, or not. Perhaps that's the tack we should take with rhizomatics, but I agree with Deleuze and Guattari that if we don't say something, then we will not be convincing. But how do we define Connectivism or Rhizomatics?

I think the problem begins with the act of definition itself. In brief, it seems to me that our habits of definition are informed by the reductionism that has characterized Western intellectual life for the past 300 years. I think we need a new way of defining, a new procedure. I'm certain that someone has dealt adequately with this issue already, but I'm not aware of who has done it or what they have said. If someone will send me a reference, I will be most appreciative.

Anyway, we can start with the simple definition of the word define taken from an Internet dictionary, and we can immediately see the problems (and yes, I am aware of the irony of starting an attack on definition with a definition):
  1. to determine or identify the essential qualities or meaning of.
  2. a : to fix or mark the limits of : demarcate;  b : to make distinct, clear, or detailed especially in outline.
Defining in this sense is an intellectual activity from the outside in. It is an act of overcoding and power by an outside subject onto an object. The outside agent first defines the essential characteristics of the object and then marks the limits or boundaries of the object. Thus, it is an act of reducing the object to its barest minimum. I believe that a definition is always the very least that you can say about anything, which in most conversations renders it useless.

For instance, consider the definition of the word innuendo by the dictionary: an allusive or oblique remark or hint, typically a suggestive or disparaging one. Now, consider Wallace Stevens' use of the word in his poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling,
Or just after.

There is nothing more to say about the dictionary definition of innuendo, but I'm still learning about Wallace Stevens' definition. The dictionary definition creates a closed entity with clear, fixed boundaries, an inert nugget, the ideal item for a multiple-choice question on a middle school English quiz. The Stevens' definition creates an open entity with permeable, active boundaries, a rhizome. It is anything but a multiple-choice answer. We very well may write about Stevens' meaning for the next few centuries.

Connectivism needs this second kind of definition. I think Morin has something useful to say here, and I'll take that up next in a next post. G'night.

PS: I just looked at Dave Cormier's latest post, and I see that he is tackling the same issue as I. What happy serendipity. Dave starts with Snowden's Cynefin framework, a concept that I intended to tackle in a later post, but now Dave has done most of the thinking for me, and he's spot on, so I'll just rip, mix, and burn. Further, I sense that he, too, is unhappy with the process of defining Rhizomatic learning, at least in the terms that most people seem to demand. Nice.
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