Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Writing the Rhizome Classroom

I spent the morning replying to emails from a colleague. He is concerned about the direction our writing across the curriculum program is taking, and I was trying to answer his concerns. This reminded me that I really must connect all this conversation about rhizomatic structures to the classroom, especially the writing classroom. The theory is fun, but if I cannot make it relevant to an actual classroom, then I must question the usefulness. So what would a classroom as rhizome look like or behave like, especially a writing classroom?

Let's start where Deleuze and Guattari start, with connectivity and heterogeneity. "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order" (ATP, 7). The principles of connectivity and heterogeneity totally overturn any form of hierarchical command and control structure which ranks, orders, fixes, and names all points within the hierarchy and which determines which points are inside the hierarchy and which are outside.

Actually, the rhizome does not overturn hierarchy. Rhizome does not contest or overpower hierarchy in any way; rather, it simply renders hierarchy irrelevant and flows around it. The rhizome Internet, for instance, treats any form of censorship as a fault which it isolates and flows around. The rhizome tree forms a knot around an infestation or a break and continues to grow around the offending wound. From a rhizomatic perspective, then, hierarchy is a wound which attempts to overpower the rhizome. The rhizome, in turn, is a force which attempts to isolate and flow around the wounds of the hierarchy.

Traditionally, a classroom is a hierarchical structure for impressing student minds with sanctioned, authoritative information and skills. The teacher sits at the top of the pyramid and brings all value to the class. The teacher represents the gatekeeper, determining who is in the class, within the hierarchy, and who is not. Especially at lower grades, the teacher censors the connectivity of students to anyone or anything other than the teacher and the teacher's information, thus violating the rhizomatic principle that any student of a rhizome class can be connected to anything other, and must be. (This certainly means that students must be able to connect to, be in conversation with, the other students in the class, and not only to the teacher, but it also means that students must be able to connect to anything other. Any point in a rhizome can connect not only to any other point in the rhizome but to anything other. In the universe.) The teacher signifies who is an A, who is a B, a C, a D, and an F student. The teacher determines which information, which behaviors, and which activities are valid and which are not. In the hierarchical class, the teacher represents all the power, ultimately of the State or the Academy, and the student is pressed into shape—is signified, named—by that Power.

A rhizomatic classroom is in/different, even when it adopts hierarchical structures for a time. In a rhizomatic classroom, the teacher is one point among others, not the only point with any power, sitting smugly, angrily, fearfully, or benignly at the top of the pyramid. The teacher is one learner among other learners. We hear this often today in the expression that we teachers should move from playing the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, a glib mnemonic that captures, as it also obscures, the shift from command-and-control power structures to connect-and-collaborate force structures. The teacher is one force among others. The teacher's information is one force among others. The teacher may carry greater force by dint of size, learning, and experience, but the students also carry forces from their own knowledge, skills, and experience, and they, too, exert force on each other and on the teacher as the teacher exerts force on them. They all become a rhizomatic solar system or galaxy, perhaps with some bodies exerting more or less gravitational force than others, but with all of them exerting some gravitational pull on all others, and even if remotely, on all other things in the universe. There is no rank order or fixed position in the rhizomatic classroom, though there can be a coherent dance and interplay. In the rhizomatic solar system, we planets find a trajectory and path because of the force of the Sun's gravitational pull, but the Sun finds its own trajectory and path, in part, because of our gravitational pull on it. And we all planets, moons, and Sun stay in our dance because of our gravitational pull each on all the others. Power, then, works in one direction in one way to create something dead, a dryzome. Force works in all directions in all ways to create something living and beautiful, a rhizome.

As a writing teacher, then, I may exert more force as a more experienced and capable writer (though I have been fortunate to have students whose writing force equaled or exceeded my own), but my colleagues/students also exert their own forces. My role is to engage those forces, dance with them, and intensify them before they spin out of my orbit to engage other forces.

My job is not to determine who/what is in the class and who/what is not. Indeed, our class blogs, wikis, chats, textings, aggregators, etc. have enabled more connections to more people, more languages, and more systems of knowledge than we have wit to comprehend. We connect to any person, any topic, any knowledge, any language that we can engage.

My job is not to signify and rank order students. Rather, my job is to help them determine what forces (what assemblages that they muster together in written language, what texts) work well among other forces (audiences and texts and knowledge assemblages) and what texts do not work well. Why POS works so well in this text among these other texts and readers and yet does not work so well in this text with these readers. LOL.

My job is not to censure or sanction knowledge, but to explore knowledge and to develop an eye for what works well and what doesn't, what plays well and what plays less well and for whom. LOL.

My task is to facilitate a beautiful dance in written language, to "write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization" (ATP, 11). As Deleuze and Guattari say: "We're tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles [hierarchies]. They've made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes" (ATP, 15). I have no State power to appeal to, no State regime of knowledge to pass along, no authoritative and blessed mother tongue. Writing always works through collective assemblages of enunciation. "There is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community" (ATP, 7).



alexvera said...

Thank you for this, Keith, very thought-provoking. I found your article via an exploration of the rhizome-concept in a literary context, but am quite taken by what you say about the classroom situation.
I think my teaching approach is rhizomatic or rhizome-shaped in the way you suggest and I agree with the principles and ideals outlined.
What I find quite challenging though is that many if not most students very much oppose non-hierarchical structures. If they had their will, it would be trees and nothing but trees. They seem to crave the pseudo-security of the teacher's answer more than the opportunity to explore their own questions. As exemplified by course evaluations abounding with comments such as 'I'm more interested in what the teacher thinks than what my fellow-students have to say.'
So in attempting to replace hierarchies with innovative, more open schemes, how to deal with the element of uncertainty and the resistance it calls forth? And isn't a teacher's decision to go beyond structures that make the students feel safe an imposition of sorts?

keith.hamon said...

Alex, I think you are quite correct about most of our students preferring the security of a well-defined hierarchical space . To my mind, this preference follows from many years of cultural regimes in general and educational regimes in particular that have practiced and enforced hierarchical approaches to the exclusion of others. Most students, including the most accomplished, have learned to succeed in a very narrow cage, and they don't trust anything outside that cage.

Thus, I don't recommend yanking students from the cage and throwing them into the deep end of freedom, even though this post couches the discussion in those two extremes. Most of my students will drown.

Rather, I try to start with where the students are, mostly comfortable, nearly asleep, in their cages, then open the door, rattle things a bit outside, until finally a few of them creep out to see what's going on. It takes lots of scaffolding, but most of them seem to enjoy it outside once they develop a bit of faith in their own eyes and legs. Though I'm still amazed at how many don't want the freedom and challenge of the rhizome.

And of course, I can hardly take the students too far outside as our school requires certain aspects of caging and won't pay me unless I conform. Still, I make a little progress each term, enough to be satisfied, mostly.

Thanks for connecting.