Friday, May 27, 2011

A Connectivist Rhetoric

I suppose that I have already begun exploring the implications of Connectivism for rhetoric, so I might was well say so. I do not know if Connectivism as a learning theory can be a foundation for a rhetoric, but it certainly can inform rhetoric, so let's see how. Along the way, I should learn more about Connectivism and rhetoric. Nice.

Where does a Connectivist rhetoric begin? To my mind it begins with the simple observation that writing is a function of complex networking. I think complex networking is also at the core of Connectivism: the connections inherent in the name are an aspect of complex networking, which in its simplest expression is a dynamic arrangement of nodes and connections. Connectivism asserts, I believe, that knowledge and learning are functions of complex networking. This has always been the case for knowledge, learning, and writing, but modern information technology has made this networking structure intuitively obvious for even the most casual observer. We humans have bought into networking – especially in its most reified expression in the Internet – in the historical blinking of an eye, but we have not worked out the details of this new arrangement nor have we abandoned our old hierarchical structures. A Connectivist rhetoric might help us make this shift, or it might just provide me with a lot of fun. Or both.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Connectivism and Ideology 3

So on the whole, I like what James Berlin has to say about reality, knowledge, and rhetoric in his article Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class: that "the real is located in a relationship that involves the dialectical interaction of the observer, the discourse community (social group) in which the observer is functioning, and the material conditions of existence" (488). Berlin and I are starting from much the same place epistemologically, but a few of his comments secondary to this core concept bother me. I should explore those.

First, Berlin insists emphatically that knowledge depends entirely on language. When he explains the dialectic at work among observer, social group, and material reality, he says:
Knowledge is never found in any one of these but can only be posited as a product of the dialectic in which all three come together. … Most important, this dialectic is grounded in language: the observer, the discourse community, and the material conditions of existence are all verbal constructs. This does not mean that the three do not exist apart from language: they do. This does mean that we cannot talk and write about them – indeed, we cannot know them – apart from language. Furthermore, since language is a social phenomenon that is a product of a particular historical moment, our notions of the observing self, the communities in which the self functions, and the very structures of the material world are social constructions – all specific to a particular time and culture. These social constructions are thus inscribed in the very language we are given to inhabit in responding to our experience. Language, as Raymond Williams explains in an application of Bakhtin (Marxism and Literature 21-44), is one of the material and social conditions involved in producing a culture. This means that in studying rhetoric – the ways discourse is generated – we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence.
If I'm reading Berlin correctly, then he is saying that knowledge is created, managed, expressed, and propagated solely through language. If that is his point, then I disagree. Berlin does not clearly define either language or knowledge in this essay (they are not his central terms), so perhaps he is using both or either in a way that allows him to make them concomitant, but my understanding of both leaves room for much knowledge that is not concomitant with language. For me, it is sensible to say that my dog knows where to find his food or knows how to find his way home, yet aside from a few barks and growls, the dog has no language to speak of (sorry, I couldn't help that. I didn't see it coming). Limiting myself to humans, Berlin's view seems to disregard body knowledge. I've coached enough soccer to know that the foot knows how to do some things that the mind cannot speak of. Any craftsman's hands knows things that her tongue cannot articulate. Our lives are laced with aesthetic, ecstatic, religious, and emotional cognitions that capture a knowledge too deep for words and yet that form some of the most profound and precious knowledge we possess. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people to feel that capturing such knowledge in language profanes that knowledge. For me, this knowledge is real.

I suspect that a dialectical materialism – a wonderful ideology – lies at the heart of Mr. Berlin's point of view, yet he may be giving it too narrow an interpretation. For me, knowledge is a collection of beliefs that structure my interactions with the world. In other words, knowledge is what I'm willing to take action on or against. I am well aware that most of what I know is likely wrong, incorrect, inaccurate, unreliable, inconsistent, unreasonable, irrational, and more. Most of what I take for knowledge will be nonsense, error, and myth 100 years from now, much less 1,000 years, but my errors are my current knowledge none the less. Mr. Berlin may not allow for any reality other than the material or any knowledge other than that which can be named, but that is too narrow for me and, in my rhetoric, it is indefensible.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Connectivism and Ideology Too

I'm still troubled by some of the claims that James Berlin makes in Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class, but I think I prefer to start with what makes sense to me.

I see that a connectivist rhetoric – and I just realized that defining such a rhetoric is probably the point of this post – belongs to the rhetorical tradition that Berlin calls social-epistemic. First, why wouldn't a connectivist rhetoric belong to the cognitive or expressionistic schools? To explain why, I will borrow an insight from Saul Newman who, in his book From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power (2001), identifies essentialism as the key political and, perhaps, philosophical problem of our age. Essentialism states that for any entity there are "inherent characteristics or properties which any entity of that kind must possess," and most importantly, these inherent, defining properties "are universal, and not dependent on context."

By Berlin's definitions of cognitive and expressionistic rhetorics, both are essentialist. Cognitive rhetoric, for example, asserts that "the real is the rational" (482) and that this essentially rational world is empirically knowable to an essentially rational mind, or as Berlin says it:
Although the heuristics used in problem solving are not themselves rational, the discoveries made through them always conform to the mensurable nature of reality, displaying "an underlying hierarchical organization" (10) that reflects the rationality of the world. Finally, language is regarded as a system of rational signs that is compatible with the mind and the external world, enabling the "translating" or "transforming" of the non-verbal intellectual operations into the verbal. There is thus a beneficent correspondence between the structures of the mind, the structures of the world, the structures of the minds of the audience, and the structures of language. (482,483)
 For the cognitivists then, reality and our knowledge of it is essentially rational and mensurable. The non-rational and immeasurable is nonsense and hardly worth discussing. The expressionists, meanwhile, draw heavily from traditional anarchism to posit a core of pristine human spirit that is corrupted by "economic, political, and social pressures to conform – to engage in various forms of corporate-sponsored thought, feeling, and behavior" (Berlin, 486). As one expressionist Donald Murray says in his book A Writer Teaches Writing (1968): "The writer is on a search for himself. If he finds himself he will find an audience, because all of us have the same common core. And when he digs deeply into himself and is able to define himself, he will find others who will read with a shock of recognition what he has written" (4).

Like Berlin's social-epistemic, connectivism tries to avoid essentialism. If Newman is correct in his analysis, then this puts both the social-epistemic and connectivism in the same camp with the poststructuralists. This may surprise no one.

As I understand them, both social-epistemic rhetoric and connectivism see reality and especially our knowledge of that reality as a function of complex networks, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a rhizome. According to Berlin, social-epistemic rhetoric insists that "the real is located in a relationship that involves the dialectical interaction of the observer, the discourse community (social group) in which the observer is functioning, and the material conditions of existence. Knowledge is never found in any one of these but can only be posited as a product of the dialectic in which all three come together" (488). In his article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age (2004), George Siemens says that "Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individuals" (5). I've not read anything by connectivist thinkers that specifically addresses the nature of reality, but their theory of knowledge easily fits the non-essentialist mold.

The most coherent expression of this non-essential view of reality and knowledge that I know about comes from Edgar Morin's book On Complexity (2008), which I have quoted many times in this blog and must quote again:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically." (11)
Here, then, is where I think I most agree with Berlin. Reality and our knowledge of that reality are both functions of complex networks, and therefore by extension, writing is a function of complex networks. There it is. That is the starting point of a connectivist rhetoric, and it throws me into that briar patch that we call – mostly out of convenience – poststructuralism. Along with Berlin and his social-epistemics, I think. Though if Berlin is a real poststructuralist, then he will deny the association, and rightly so.

My job, then, is to start filling in the details of this connectivist rhetoric. Not a bad summer's project. One of the first ways to do that is to explore how this rhetoric differs from Berlin's social-epistemic rhetoric. More about that later.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Connectivism and Ideology

I'm reading James A. Berlin's essay Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class (College English. Vol. 50, No. 5 (Sep., 1988), pp. 477-494) in which Berlin explores the relationships between rhetoric and ideology. Berlin says that three main rhetorics are at work today:
  1. cognitive,
  2. expressionistic, and
  3. social-epistimic.
He asserts that each of these rhetorics is imbricated with ideology in a reflexive relationship in which both affect and are affected by the other to the point that one does not–perhaps cannot–exist without the other, and he finds deficient any rhetoric, such as the cognitive and expressionistic, which ignores or mishandles ideology.

Berlin carefully defines his terms, beginning with ideology, which Berlin (following Göran Therborn) says is how we structure and inform our worldview and which is "inscribed in language practices, entering all features of our experience" (479). He quotes Therborn as saying that ideology "involves the constitution and patterning of how human beings live their lives as conscious, reflecting initiators of acts in a structured, meaningful world" and that "ideology operates as discourse, addressing or, as Althusser puts it, interpellating human beings as subjects" (The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology. London: Verso, 1980. 15). For Berlin, ideology structures how we answer three main questions: what is real (epistemology), what is good (ethics & aesthetics), and what is possible. Ideology, then, has much to do with how power is distributed in a society, determining as it does who holds what power and how they can use it. Thus, language is also always implicated in the distribution and exercise of power in society in any given historical context.

If I understand Berlin, then, ideology is how we structure reality, and language is the primary tool for this structuring. As we learn a language, we shape our world in certain, learned ways, or ideologically. For the rest of our lives, ideology shapes our language and our language in turn shapes our ideology and both shape the kind of world that we see, though I think Berlin suggests that ideology is the senior partner, for he says early in his essay that:
Ideology is here foregrounded and problematized in a way that situates rhetoric within ideology, rather than ideology within rhetoric. In other words, instead of rhetoric acting as the transcendental recorder or arbiter of competing ideological claims, rhetoric is regarded as always already ideological.
After defining ideology, Berlin then defines rhetoric broadly as "the ways discourse is generated" (489), and he distinguishes the three rhetorics under consideration mostly in terms of their relationship to ideology.

First, cognitive rhetoric denies any ideological framework, insisting instead on "a disinterested scientism" (477) that assumes that "the real is the rational" (482) and that "the existent, the good, and the possible are inscribed in the very nature of things as indisputable scientific facts, rather than being seen as humanly devised social constructions always remaining open to discussion" (484). Cognitive rhetoricians engage in empirical studies of the writing process to uncover the heuristics used by successful writers to achieve their goals, and they see the purpose of writing as defining goals and solving problems. However, according to Berlin, because they ignore any consideration of ideology, their insights are easily hijacked by "the technocratic science characteristic of late capitalism" (483).

Second, expressionistic rhetoric fully recognizes its ideological framework, which locates the existent "within the individual subject" (484), charges rhetoric with the creative task of discovering and expressing the "true self" (484), and denounces "economic, political, and social pressures to conform … [and] indirectly but unmistakably decrying the dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism" (486). Because expressionistic rhetoric so thoroughly rejects any collective efforts, it deprives itself of any power to resist the forces it denounces. Therefore, says Berlin, "expressionistic rhetoric is easily co-opted by the very capitalist forces it opposes [as it can be] used to reinforce the entrepreneurial virtues capitalism most values: individualism, private initiative, the confidence for risk taking, the right to be contentious with authority (especially the state)" (487).

Last, social-epistimic rhetoric fully embraces its ideological framework, recognizing "rhetoric as a political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation" (488). In this rhetoric, reality is located in the interactive relationships, realized through language, among the observer, the social group, and material reality.

By my reading, Berlin sees the relationship between rhetoric and ideology as one of the defining characteristics of any given rhetoric and a strong indicator of the relative value of that rhetoric. That rhetoric is poorer which has a truncated understanding of and incorrect relationship with ideology. This is an assertion worth investigating.

First, Berlin uses more terms than the two he defines: ideology and rhetoric. He also mentions power, language, and knowledge, and he implicates them with each other, so let's explore the relationships among all these terms. Berlin, strongly connects ideology to rhetoric. Ideology works out its view of reality through rhetoric, and rhetoric always expresses an ideology. If I understand Berlin correctly, then there is no rhetoric without an ideology, but is there an ideology without rhetoric? Berlin seems to suggest not when he says that ideology "is inscribed in language practices" and that "ideology provides the language to define the subject (the self), other subjects, the material world, and the relation of all of these to each other" (479). Note that when he connects rhetoric and ideology, Berlin switches fluidly between rhetoric and language. He can do this because he says that rhetoric is "the ways discourse is generated." So language is rhetoric is ideology? Perhaps.

But then Berlin seems to say that knowledge is language:
The observer, the discourse community, and the material conditions of existence are all verbal constructs. This does not mean that the three do not exist apart from language: they do. This does mean that we cannot talk and write about them-indeed, we cannot know them-apart from language.
So then Knowledge is Language is Rhetoric is Ideology? And since K = L = R = I, then K = I, or knowledge is ideology and ideology is knowledge? I'm beginning to have trouble with this jumble of terms, and if I throw in the notion of Power, as Berlin does, then I'm troubled even a bit more. I'll have to think on this a bit.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

ePortfolios and Networks

In our roles as coordinators of Albany State's writing across the curriculum program, Tom and I have been talking about adding student ePortfolios to the program. We see ePortfolios as great tools for organizing student writing in any given class, resulting in enhanced learning in that class and an enhanced presence on the Web for the student. This seems promising. Then a few weeks ago, when we were discussing what to do this coming academic year with our next cohort of WAC faculty, I got the idea that we might have each faculty member create their own ePortfolio. I want to think through that idea a little more in this post, and I want to feed off an essay by Chris M. Anson called Portfolios for Teachers: Writing Our Way to Reflective Practice. The essay was originally published in Laurel Black's 1994 collection New Directions in Portfolio Asessment, but I found it in T. R. Johnson's Teaching Compositions: Background Readings (2005).

Anson seems to view teaching portfolios as a form of story-telling. He says that "teaching portfolios invite teachers to tell the story of their work and in doing so to become more reflective of their own practice" (3).  Thus, a teaching portfolio is more than just a collection of artifacts, or "a container for storing and displaying evidence of a teacher's knowledge and skills" (4); rather, a teaching portfolio is, first "something programmatic or anchored in a community, [and not] a 'file' stored away in a department cabinet" (5). Given my conception of writing as a function of networks, this notion of ePortfolios "anchored in a community" seems promising, but as I read his essay, I came to realize that Anson was writing in 1994, the Dark Ages of the Web, long before Web 2.0, and so I found the promise more latent than realized. The shift from print-based portfolios to ePortfolios is much more than the addition of a letter – it's a shift from an ossuary to a lively street corner. By the way, I don't think Anson v. 2011 would necessarily disagree with what I say in this post – it's just that Anson v. 1994 couldn't see Web 2.0 coming down the pike.

A traditional portfolio is a collection of artifacts that demonstrates one's roles, knowledge, and experiences. It defines one in some public, professional manner, as Anson's own, now web-based portfolio demonstrates. Even though Anson has moved his own teaching portfolio to the Web, it is still recognizable as a traditional portfolio: a collection of lists and artifacts. It has not become the living hub of Anson's own PLN, or professional/personal learning network, nor his Net brand, and this is what I think an ePortfolio can be. It's what I want to teach our teachers and what I want them to teach their students. In short, I want our teachers to use the ePortfolio to define themselves on the Web from the center outward (to follow Morin's dictum) in a dynamic document that orchestrates the shifting connections in their PLN, or community of practice. Unlike the portfolio, the ePortfolio is not a series of still shots; rather, it is a window into an unfolding drama.

An ePortfolio does all that a portfolio does. It keeps all the artifacts that Anson lists:
  • syllabi & course overviews
  • assignments & exams
  • study guides & other classroom materials
  • student papers with teacher's comments
  • student evaluations
  • teacher reflections on peer-observations & course evaluations
  • self-evaluations
  • narrative accounts of problem-solving
  • responses to case studies
  • journals documenting thoughtfulness about instructional issues
  • goal statements & philosophies
  • letters of assessments from others
But it does more. So much more. First, an ePortfolio is a nerve center that orchestrates and tweaks the connections that make up who and what the owner knows and can do. An ePortfolio is very much like Sporns' concept of the brain: an intensely rich neurological hub, an electronic substrate, that has the tools and connective tissue to self-organize into meaningful patterns and that has the resources to interact with its environment to augment and to extend its patterns of meaning.

But that is a bit abstract. What does such an ePortfolio actually look like, and how does it work? Let me  envision the ePortfolio that I want to create for myself and then help my faculty to create for themselves.

I might start with one of the public wiki services such as Google Sites. Wikis are a most flexible tool that can accommodate much of what might be created in an ePortfolio. For instance, a wiki can house all those different kinds of documents listed above. Thus, I am not overlooking or denigrating the repository function of an ePortfolio. My ePortfolio will house work that best exemplifies my professional skills and expertise, including Word-style documents, PDFs, and web documents, but because all this is on the Web, I can link to documents rather than physically house them all in the same space. Moreover, I can link to Google Docs which will update automatically as I continue to work with them and edit them. Of course, I can also create static, archive copies. The point is that I can display static and dynamic documents depending on what suits my purpose.

Then, my ePortfolio should have a blog component that captures my current thinking and my reflection on my work and professional learning network. My blog – this blog that you are reading just now – is often the incubator for ideas that turn into professional presentations and publications, and it helps me figure out what I mean. It helps me reflect on my thinking over the past few years as I uncover trends and patterns in my posts. Most traditional portfolios don't have this reflective, creative component – certainly not one that is as dynamic as a blog can be.

But my blog captures more than just my thoughts – it also captures my interaction with people who read the blog and make comments. Now we are adding a feature that the traditional portfolio simply cannot do as well as an ePortfolio: connectivity. A lively blog shows both those who read me and me myself the kinds of professional connections and conversations that I am cultivating. As most professionals know, my network of connections and conversations can say as much about my professionalism as anything I might say about myself.

Then my ePortfolio should have a reading component, links to my RSS feeds and social bookmarks and any other publicly available Web documents that mean something to me. Do you want to know what's really been on my mind for the past couple of years? Then look at my Diigo bookmarks. I should display those on or link to them from my ePortfolio.

My ePortfolio should display or link to my slideshows, podcasts, instructional videos, and whatever other multimedia documents I have hosted on the Web. It should display or link to online classes and webinars that I have participated in. Of course, it should also list, or better yet, link to any classes that I have taken or taught.

Well, this is already a rather involved list of things that my ePortfolio should do. Those of you familiar  with building personal learning networks will immediately seen how indebted this idea of ePortfolios really is. Some might argue that a portfolio should remain a static snapshot created solely for the purpose of demonstrating ones professional expertise to very specific people for very specific reasons. Obviously,  my idea of a dynamic ePortfolio doesn't agree. I should start building my ePortfolio soon, and I'll link it back to this post when I have something to show (if I remember). By then, I'm sure I will think of more things that the ePortfolio can do. and it would be great if some of you would drop some suggestions in the Comment box.

And thanks to Chris Anson for kicking off this exploration about teaching ePortfolios.