Friday, April 3, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Humble Transgressions

This post was extended by a Rhizo14 article and presentation, but that was fine as I learned some new stuff. But back to complexity ethics.

Transgressivity is the second of Woermann and Cilliers' four mechanisms that reinforce and promote the critical attitude toward complex systems. To my mind, this heuristic is the most important to open learning spaces, and it is also the heuristic most likely to cause problems.

Basically, Woermann and Cilliers are insisting that a critical approach to complex systems such as MOOCs requires transgressing boundaries. From the perspective of the learner, this should be intuitively obvious: if we are to learn, then we must push beyond, or transgress, the boundaries of our current knowledge. No educator would deny this. The problem, of course, is that the limits of our personal knowledge are not the only boundaries that can be transgressed. We can also transgress the boundaries of others' knowledge, especially the limits of the teachers' knowledge, and the boundaries of sanctioned, blessed, or authorized knowledge. Now we are in trouble.

People commonly do not like their boundaries challenged. If they believe in God or global warming, then they do not want others to challenge those beliefs. Especially on issues core to one's worldview, there is no challenge—however kindly or innocently presented—that will not be perceived as a dire threat to be strenuously, even violently resisted. Yet, a critical approach to complex spaces such as MOOCs demands transgression. When we enter a MOOC, we should expect to have our beliefs and our knowledge challenged. Moreover, we are called to challenge and push beyond current boundaries of belief and knowledge. As Woermann and Cilliers say, a critical approach "can never simply re-enforce that which is current, but – as the definition states – involves a violation of accepted or imposed boundaries" (453).

This sounds almost aggressive and combative and a clear contradiction of the humility that Woermann and Cilliers insist also informs the critical attitude. Welcome to complexity. Transgression and humility are irreconcilable forces, and we must act out of the tension between them. We must challenge the boundaries of knowledge, but we must do so humbly, knowing that our own positions from which we challenge are themselves limited and filled with error. Woermann and Cilliers sum up the tension this way: "Modesty and transgressivity … go hand-in-hand, since modesty acts as the impetus for transgressivity, in focusing attention on the possibility of other rules of action (as commanded by the provisional imperative)" (453). Knowing that there is more beyond what we currently know gives us the courage to transgress boundaries. Knowing that our new knowledge, like our current knowledge, will be at best only provisionally true and useful keeps us humble.

We have, after all, small light cones, small knowledge cones. The dark unknown is infinitely greater than the little light within our cones of knowledge. At their most expansive, our boundaries are too tight. This is sometimes painfully obvious in a MOOC, where the 20 or 30 people we may come to know and interact with are only a fraction of the hundreds or thousands in the MOOC. We frame our little MOOC group in large part to make sense of the swelter, but this of necessity excludes the majority. And we must frame to make sense of things. For instance, Rhizo14 was framed in English, but this excluded billions. It talked mostly about education, and this excluded a different billion. We set up frames only to transgress them. Welcome to complexity.

And note that transgressing our frames does not do away with frames—it merely reframes, a point that Woermann and Cilliers pick up from Derrida's Positions (1981):
There is not a transgression, if one understands by that a pure and simple landing into a beyond of metaphysics... Now, even in aggressions or transgressions, we are consorting with a code to which metaphysics is tied irreducibly, such that every transgressive gesture reencloses us – precisely by giving us a hold on the closure of metaphysics – within this closure. But, by means of the work done on one side and the other of the limit the field inside is modified and a transgression is produced that consequently is nowhere present as a fait accompli. One is never installed within transgression, one never lives elsewhere. Transgression implies that the limit is always at work.
If Derrida is correct, then we may be outside this particular boundary, this limit or frame, but we are never outside some limit or boundary. However we frame a MOOC, understand a MOOC, we always exclude something—and more importantly for ethics, someone. I just worked with a cohort of Rhizo14 researchers who truly agonized about the voices excluded from the ethnography we were writing. Our group was painfully aware of the silent voices beyond our ken and wondered how we could speak with any confidence about Rhizo14 when clearly so many voices were absent, outside our frame. We did not have the comforting, simplistic fiction of scientific objectivity to tell us that we were outside the system and could therefore see and account for it all. We were writing from the inside, and we knew that we didn't see it all.

Yet, we still had to say something. We had to tell our story, or let our story be told by someone else.

And other stories have and will be told about Rhizo14. We should expect that these other stories will frame Rhizo14 differently than we have, differently than we might six months from now. As a complex system, Rhizo14 can be framed in an infinite number of ways, and each frame will exclude something and someone that is truly important for understanding the MOOC. This is unavoidable and grounds us in humility. We all can only state our position about Rhizo14 as honestly as we can, but all our positions are limited, provisional, and riddled with error. This limited position calls us to transgression as our frames will not likely match the frames of others and will certainly not be adequate to encompass the MOOC. We will transgress, will be called to transgression, and will be transgressed ourselves.

The unknown, that which lies outside and beyond our boundaries, is vitally important for ethics in complex systems. Woermann and Cilliers note that it is the presence of the outside—the numberless people and infinite knowledge outside our frames, what Alain Badiou calls the non-existent—that gives ethics its potency, its pressing and critical insistence upon our attention. The non-existent is what couples ethics to politics, forcing one to move "to action and do something, even if it is imperfect" as Derrida says. If ethics was only a simple collection of rules to follow, how nice everything would be. But it isn't. In complex systems such as MOOCs, we must declare a position, knowing that it is imperfect and that it will transgress the positions of others. We must welcome the declarations of others, knowing that they are imperfect and transgress our own positions. We must move beyond into darkness and call others to the same transgressions. Otherwise, why be there?

Finally, it is others who bring our ethics into focus—they, especially the silent, unknown others, who make our choices critical and important. We must transgress our boundaries, moving and expanding them to include the silent unknown, and yet this transgresses their boundaries. They may resist inclusion within our boundaries. We are caught between the restrictions of framing reality from political positions merely to make sense of things and the call of the unknown to move beyond our frames to know the unknown. Morin says that we have freedom in terms of constraints, constraints in terms of freedom: "the complex notion of self-organization permits us to conceive of beings that are relatively autonomous as beings while remaining subject to the necessities and hazards of existence" (On Complexity, 113). Woermann and Cilliers say that we must "acknowledge the fact that there is no way in which we can fully engage with the excess of meaning that results from complexity; that our context (i.e. our position) is defined by certain freedom and constraints, which acts as the necessary conditions for action and transformation; and, that we have to acknowledge and exercise choice" (454)

What prevents our transgressions from becoming aggression? The knowledge that we may be wrong here and now and that we will certainly be wrong some other time or other place. There always exist a context in which our current knowledge is wrong, inappropriate, harmful, or irrelevant. It is the arrogant confidence that our current knowledge is Truth for all time and places and people that leads to aggression. This is the case in all human domains: social, religious, political, economic, educational, scientific. When we cease to believe that our knowledge is provisional, the best we can do at the moment, then we fall into aggression, either covert or overt.
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