Friday, February 14, 2014

Space, Possibility, and #rhizo14

In her post Questions about rhizomatic learning, Jenny Mackness notes that I "have written that ‘the space holds all the possibilities’, which has made [her] wonder what possibilities the structure holds." This play with the tensions between open and structured spaces is a conversation I picked up from Michel Serres' book Genesis, his meditations about how form, or structure, emerges from chaos, open spaces. I find Serres' writing incredibly rich and exciting, using precisely the sort of rhizomatic approach to language that I was trying to talk about in my previous post. Serres makes great use of both metaphor and model, being well schooled in both classical literature and mathematics. Thus, he has no problem mixing religious imagery and metaphor on one hand with mathematically precise, rational models on the other. I cannot overlook that his book shares the title of the first book of Judeo/Christian scripture: Genesis.

Anyway, the new idea for me was that space is not empty or silent; rather, space is chaos, in the best sense of that term. Space is the open places where no forms, no boundaries, no things yet exist, but where anything can emerge, anything is possible. Why? Because space is filled with what Serres calls noise, the roiling sea foam out of which every-thing emerges: rocks, people, stars, ideas—not necessarily in that order. This is consistent with my understanding of the current thinking in physics.

This is a big deal for me, because it makes space less threatening and more promising, though just slightly, and it helps me to visualize (I need to visualize in order to understand) what happens when I move into unknown, chaotic, all-possible space. First, every-thing is already there and possible, but only some-things emerge, or differentiate themselves from the background noise, as I engage. The noise is always there, always, and the noise contains all possibilities, to use Serres' terms. But as soon as I engage the space, boundaries form and things begin to emerge, effectively closing down many possibilities as these emerging things and ideas begin to define the once-open space in relationship to me. The space begins to close about me. This is neither good nor bad. This is just what happens as I engage the space, especially in the company of others. Possibilities, then, become potentialities in Serres' terms, and power emerges within the relationships of the emerging things.

To reference the soccer analogy again, within the open space of the soccer pitch, almost any-thing can emerge, or happen. However, once the ball is played into that space and players engage the space, most of the possibilities that could have happened are eliminated. Now, the game closes, defines, that once open space, and potentialities along with power emerge. The location, trajectory, and pace of the ball and the arrangement, trajectories, and skills of the various players define the open space, closing off most of what had been possible in that space, and the potential takes over from the possible.

Now, there is something of the pedantic here as common usage does not distinguish much between possible and potential, and probably Serres could have swapped the words without harming his meaning, but I find the distinction enlightening and helpful. Consider this post that I am writing and you are reading. A question opened this space for me—as Dave Cormier's questions have opened spaces in #rhizo14—and the possible things that I could have said in reply to Jenny's questions were not infinite, but they were greater than I could imagine, so effectively infinite. However, as soon as I started thinking about the space beyond her question, and especially as I began to write words into that space, I closed off lots of the things I might possibly have said. In the act of writing about the question at hand, I engaged the space and began defining it, moving from very large possible to a more restricted potential. I introduce Serres here but not other thinkers (Paul Cilliers comes to mind) that I could have used. I use a soccer analogy here but not the rhizome analogy, which could work nicely as well. I close off the conversation of necessity. It's the only way I know to make sense.

We do this sort of thing all the time. We must do it to make sense of the world and to share it with others. In his introduction to the Week 5 unhangout of Rhizo14, Dave says that we have to start reassembling the spaces that we've been exploring in the first 4 weeks. This reassembling suggests the meaning-making that I'm trying to talk about.

So does structure have possibility? Well, yes, of course, but to use the terms as I've been using them here, space has possibility and structure has potential—still some room for randomness, but not as much as with space. Most of the time, we do not ever engage absolute space or noise. Such an encounter can usually be spoken of only in mystical terms—I think of Saul's encounter on the road to Damascus when he became St. Paul—rather, we engage the more open spaces beyond our current place—for instance, the open part of the soccer pitch beyond where the ball is now, or the space that lies behind an interesting question about whether or not books are making us stupid. Even though there is space behind the ball or the question, it isn't totally unbounded space. The soccer pitch has sidelines, and the question about books has Rhizo14.

The problem with traditional education is that it makes almost no room for space. Every step in a lesson is absolutely choreographed and paced to a fixed destination. Imagine if a soccer coach (teacher) stopped the game each time a ball was played into space to position the ball and the players and to instruct the players on exactly what to do next. Nobody would want to play or watch that game. On the other hand, imagine if there were no field boundaries, no rules, any number of balls, any number of players, and no goals. Nobody would want to play or watch that game, either. Good education, like a good game, requires some boundary, but not too much. It's why I have swapped American football for soccer: football has too much boundary, too many rules, that lead to too many interruptions of the game (and thus to too many commercials).

Good education, like a good game, also requires the constant tension between the open and the closed. In other words, it requires movement of mind and body. We push out into the open for 4 weeks, and then we pull back into the closed for a week or two.

This translates into some specific, concrete ideas about what happens in my classrooms. First, the spaces that I hope to lead my students into have to be open for my students, even if they are no longer open for me. I'm more excited about their learning if I am learning with them, but for some of the most basic classes, the space is very familiar to me. Of course, this can make me a jaded, disengaged professor if I'm not careful, but the one mistake that I cannot make is stopping my students' exploration of a new space, which is still quite open for them, by giving them the right answer. I have to remember that nothing stops exploration and learning quicker than the right answer. As soon as I give the right answer (at least, right in terms of the class), then my students stop exploring and stop learning. As long as I'm talking, my students are not learning. That's an exaggeration, of course, but it makes my point.

Then, I have to remember that students can enter a new space ONLY from the space where they already are. Sometimes the student's current space is nowhere near the space I want to take him. I have to be sensitive to this—in other words, I have to learn where my students are, which is almost impossible to do if I'm talking or lecturing. Students need to anchor first from where they are, then find some new points of reference in the new space, and finally triangulate those new anchors with the old anchors.

Well, I could go on, but I'm reaching the boundaries of my sense of how long my blog post should be, effectively closing down the possibilities of saying more. I hope I've introduced enough potential into the conversation, the game, without totally limiting how others can engage the space. I wish my high school math teacher had allowed more space in his lectures about trigonometry. I might have made a fine mathematician.
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