Saturday, January 18, 2014

A More Practical View of the Rhizome for #rhizo14

Well, I intended to write a practical view of the rhizome in my last post, but I basically ended up giving my take on the place of the rhizome metaphor in the general development of Western thought over the past few centuries. That seems too general and abstract to be practical, so I want to try again in this post to make the rhizome—as I understand it—concrete. To help keep me grounded, I'll latch onto a specific discussion that Dave has started in this first week: learning as cheating.

I glanced through lots of the comments on the #rhizo14 site and on Google+, but I'm mostly responding to the discussion between Dave Cormier and Jenny Mackness. It seems to me that Dave uses the intentionally flagrant concept of cheating to get us to rethink our assumptions about education. As he says in his unhangout response to Jenny's blog post Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics, "I'm trying to make the assumptions we have about learning a problem." He's done that.

But I would say it slightly differently. Dave doesn't need to make our assumptions about education a problem—they are already a problem. As I suggested in my last post, most of our assumptions about education and almost all the working assumptions of our educational institutions are grounded in and shaped by the reductionist, mechanical view of reality that we inherited from the Enlightenment. It does not surprise me, then, that our concepts of cheating will vary depending on our context for defining it. If we view cheating in the framework of the social contract of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, then cheating means one thing. If we view cheating in the framework of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, then it means something else. For me, cheating in a clockwork universe is not the same as cheating in a rhizomatic universe—though I insist that cheating is a useful concept in both. How they differ will help me explain something practical about the rhizome—I hope.

I'll start with a common definition of the word cheat:
  1. act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, esp. in a game or examination, "she always cheats at cards"; deceive or trick. "he had cheated her out of everything she had" synonyms: swindle, defraud, deceive, trick, scam, dupe, hoodwink, double-cross, gull; informal be sexually unfaithful. "his wife was cheating on him" synonyms: commit adultery, be unfaithful, stray; 
  2. avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill. "she cheated death in a spectacular crash" synonyms: avoid, escape, evade, elude; archaic help (time) pass. "the tuneless rhyme with which the warder cheats the time"
I want to explore cheating as a boundary issue to show that the mechanistic view of boundaries is quite different from the rhizomatic view. First, let's note that cheating is a human activity—rocks and animals don't cheat. Even when animals play games—and they frequently do—we usually don't say that they cheat. Similarly, we would not likely say that a mare cheated on her stud. Animals may trick, deceive, hoodwink, and steal from each other, but it doesn't carry the same stain of cheating as it does with us, so in this discussion, I'm talking about human behavior across human boundaries.

The mechanistic view of classical liberalism assumes that humans are discrete individuals with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson. Classical liberalism defines humans as unique, independent, discrete individuals, it defines clear boundaries separating individuals, and it defines the acceptable and unacceptable exchanges across those boundaries. It can do this, in part, because it sees society as a large mechanism, with clearly defined parts that interact in clearly defined ways. Violations of those definitions of parts or interactions are sanctioned legally, while adherence to those definitions are reinforced in myriad ways. One can change the role one plays (move up or down in the organization), but one is still expected to play the role correctly. One must accept the boundaries between themselves and others and make proper exchanges across those boundaries, just as the parts in a clock do.

This is nice for clocks, and we wanted it to work for schools. We defined parts/roles: student, teacher, administrator, counselor, etc. We defined knowledge: curricula, subjects, disciplines, etc. We defined learning times: school day, periods, terms, etc. We defined learning spaces: classrooms, labs, etc. But we always defined in a certain way: from the outside in, or as Dave Cormier says we defined by locking things up in little boxes, with clear boundaries. This is how definition works in a mechanistic worldview: clearly defined entities within clearly defined boundaries making appropriate exchanges with other clearly defined entities across those boundaries.

If schools were really clocks, then this would work wonderfully, and cheating would be a clear concept. If I as a student look on your test paper, then I am violating a clear boundary to unfairly steal your knowledge, or at least your answer. Such cheating is policed and punished. Only the teacher can look on the students' test papers. We were all born and raised with some subset of this kind of thinking. It makes sense to us, and we don't like it when our cherished boundaries are violated or moved or upset—at least, I don't.

But schools are not clocks. They are messy rhizomes, and in a complex rhizome, boundaries are not such clear and obvious entities. I've written a fair amount in this blog about boundaries, so I won't repeat all that, but suffice it to say that for modern science, boundaries are not at all a clear issue. For instance, in the traditional view, I should be clearly defined by my body, yet modern science says that my body is about 90% bacteria which I apparently share widely with others, even others of different species, and they share with me. I regularly exchange the energy and information that constitutes my body with my eco-system. My boundaries are fluid, interpenetrating me and others (human and non-human alike), and it is becoming increasingly difficult to say just where my body, much less the more nebulous my self, begins or ends.

Cilliers says that we can create boundaries because we are always working within a context, but then he notes that when the context changes, the boundaries change. This lands us directly into the problem of relativistic, situational ethics that fundamentalists hate so much. We have no absolute knowledge, but we do have knowledge.

So what is cheating in the rhizome? I would tell you if I knew, but I don't. The problem with rhizomatic/complexity thinking is that we are still figuring it out. We do not yet have—at least, I don't have—all the concepts and language we need to talk about ethics in the rhizome. I have faith that ethics makes sense in the rhizome, but I'm pretty sure that it won't be the ethics that work in a clock.

Still, I think we have some pointers. First, we define differently in the rhizome: from the inside out, rather than the outside in. I can see this clearly in terms of DNA. If we define from the outside in, then our DNA (color of skin, height, IQ, etc.) is the endpoint and it defines or limits who we are. A mechanistic definition locks us in a tight little box bounded by our DNA. If, on the other hand, we define from the inside, then our DNA (color of skin, height, IQ, etc.) is the beginning point of who we are. A rhizomatic definition opens us to an ecosystem in which our DNA can unfold, finding its own space and limits. It's kind of like a game of cards: you don't have to be defined by the cards that you are dealt (something that you have no choice about); rather, you can be defined by how you play the cards you are dealt (something that you DO have a choice about). Of course, it's likely that you are defined a bit by both your DNA and how it unpacks itself.

Of course, we recognize in this shift in how we define people echoes of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, self-actualization, and lots of other social movements of the past 50 years, including the MOOC movement. MOOCs open the learning space so that students (that's you and me) can define ourselves from the inside out rather than having the school or teacher (that's Dave Cormier) define us from the outside in. I'm being unfair to Dave. He's trying valiantly NOT to define us, but rather to challenge us to define ourselves—to become our own curriculum.

A second pointer toward ethical behavior in the rhizome has to do with rethinking boundaries. Boundaries are not rigid lines that separate and limit, as the mechanistic world view suggests; rather, boundaries are flexible zones of engagement. We cannot insulate ourselves from others and our environment; we can only engage skillfully, intelligently, and honestly. We can join a MOOC and then connect to people, exchanging ideas, exploring the conversation, propagating knowledge.

Of course, we hear in this echoes of all those organic concepts that have arced through society over the past 50 years. Indeed, most of what has been noteworthy and newsworthy over the past century—even the fundamentalist, reactionary backlash—has been this monumental shift in human consciousness from a mechanistic mode of thinking to complexity thinking, from the clock to the rhizome. For myself, I enjoy being part of something this big. All of us in this #rhizo14 MOOC are exploring this shift, and Dave kicked it all off with cheating. Nice rhetorical move, that.

Well, was that any more practical? I can't tell from the inside. But it's a beautiful day here in south Florida, so I'm going outside. You come, too.
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