Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Connectivity in the Classroom

So Deleuze and Guattari say that in the rhizome all points are connected to all other points, even unlike, heterogenous points, and that these connected points are a multiplicity emerging from multiplicities. To my mind, this undermines directly the traditional, industrial approach to education which identifies each student and teacher as a discrete unit, each class and lesson as discrete units, each educational cohort as a discrete unit, each discipline as a discrete unit, and arranges them all in some factory order, mostly to meet the demands of the factory, the school.

How would I say this for my classes? A class of 20 students brings together more points of value and knowledge than the class can ever hope to mine, utilize, incorporate, cultivate, or explore. Moreover, limiting the value-add merely to the teacher's knowledge short-changes the students' learning processes significantly. Rhizomatic/Connectivist education, then, looks for ways to form connections to all the value and knowledge resident in any given intersection of students, teachers, content, resources, interests, objectives, and so forth, and suggests that the more connections the class forms, then the more knowledge that emerges for all.

What can we connect to? Well, most everything—especially in higher education. While the class may, and probably should, have a focus similar to my focus on academic writing on the focus of CCK12 on Connectivism and connected knowledge, the rhizomatic/connectivist key is to help students and teachers connect this starting focus to their own personal and professional trajectories. In other words, what is the connection of academic writing to the student in my class who is preparing to be a cop, or a nurse, or a legal assistant? What value can the student with six-years of military service bring to the conversation about academic writing? What value from the student has survived cancer? What value from the student who has just graduated from high school?

A rhizomatic/connectivist approach to education, it seems to me, looks for a space within which students can bring their own value to the discussion of whatever, be it writing, art, or zoology. I think MOOCs are one such space, and I'm grateful to be in two of them at the moment: Change11 and CCK12, but I'm also looking for ways to open my classroom in its traditional space to this rhizomatic/connectivist approach. I need specific techniques.

Monday, January 30, 2012

#CCK12 - Shifting Gears

My new classes are changing the way I think about this blog, and perhaps the biggest change is in the frequency with which I write.

I'm requiring all my Composition I and Principles of Composition students to keep a blog and to post to us four times a week. I think I should do the same, but this changes the way I write. As you will have noticed if you've followed this blog at all, I write long posts, often too long. They take me hours.

So I have to speed up if I'm to post four times a week. I will. I'll try speed writing. I'll shorten my posts. We'll see how it goes.

So I'm still exploring how the rhizome affects the classroom. One of the first things that I do in class is start connecting my students to each other. Of course, lots of teachers who have heard of neither rhizomatics or of Connectivism also use group-building techniques to get students to engage each other, but I think these sorts of connections are required for a Connectivist/rhizomatic approach to teaching.

One of the keys to Connectivism is the insistence that knowledge is in the connections. As Stephen Downes says so succinctly in his blog Half an Hour, "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks." My first order of business, then, is to start students constructing a network of connections, or a personal learning network (PLN), with their colleagues, their peers. I start with their peers, first, because a group of 25 to 30 students makes for a larger PLN than 1 teacher does, and second, because I want to undermine their conditioned reflex that the central connection in the class is with the teacher.

Fortunately, there are countless exercises for building a community of practice, a group, a PLN, or whatever you want to call it, but something as simple as having students introduce each other to the class and tell something interesting about the person they introduce works just fine. It puts the focus on connections among the students.

I then follow up with group exercises, usually very fun stuff at first, that encourages them to talk together about themselves in relation to the course content or to their experience as college students. I want very early in the class to show them that this class values their value-add and that they indeed have knowledge and value to bring to the class. Not all class value comes from the teacher. This further emphasizes that their PLNs go far beyond the teacher and the textbook. I then structure group assignments which challenge them to do something new such as set up a blog. I'm always available as a resource, of course, but if they get stuck, they must seek help from their group first. The group almost always knows. And if their small group doesn't, the class group does. This demonstrates that knowledge is distributed across a network, and not located just in the brain of a single teacher. That's good stuff, I think.

I'm putting words in Deleuze and Guattari's collective mouth, but I think they might say that knowledge is distributed across a rhizome and learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse the rhizome. Of course, they might not say that.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

#change11: Multiplicity and the Composition Classroom

Well, my musings on rhizomatic education are taking a very practical turn. I have returned to fulltime teaching at long last. My last fulltime teaching gig was at Reinhardt College in 1977. Wow.

I'm also getting back to writing. Since my last post, I have retired from the State of Georgia educational system, left Albany State University (not incidentally), packed my home of 25 years and moved to south Florida, spent Christmas in the Bahamas, and started a new teaching job with South University. I just didn't find the time to write, as I was too fragmented—perhaps, too multiple.

Anyway, I have new footing from which to consider the practical implications of rhizomatic education: my own classrooms. I talked earlier of the first two characteristics of the rhizome: connectivity and heterogeneity. These characteristics lead—quite directly to my mind—to the third characteristic listed by Deleuze and Guattari: multiplicity.

Another reason for balking is that I don't think that I yet understand what DnG mean by multiplicity, or a better way to say this is that the concept still has resonances that I'm not feeling. Still, a lack of understanding should be no reason for not writing—at least, for not writing in ones blog. Writing is where my understanding, such as it is, emerges.

It would be easy to start the discussion of multiplicity in my classrooms with the simple observation that my students are a multiplicity. There are about 80 of them spread rather unevenly across four different classes. Therefore, my students are multiple, more than one. I could aim for some unity by saying, however, that they are all students in one of my classes. This is a conventional way of categorizing reality, and most people will understand this, and yet it is the very concept that Deleuze and Guattari are working against. My statement: these 80 people are the multiple students in my classes is my use of language to categorize, summarize, and unify a multiplicity so that I can make sense of them, and probably so that I can exercise some authority over them. It's the bit of fascism in me that DnG insist is at work everywhere: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize" (10). But what am I to do? Deny that these 80 students are my students? What does that accomplish?

DnG suggest a different tack when they note that our significations and measurements of the rhizome, even with the big categories such as Good and Evil, are temporary, provisional markers: "Good and bad are only the products of an active and temporary selection, which must be renewed" (10). I must make these measurements and significations about the collection of 80 people because I am a meaning-creating, pattern-recognizing organism. I am, for example, the creature that looks at the night sky with its countless multiplicity of lights and sees scorpions, bears, scales, and warriors. Or at least that's what I saw 3,000 years ago when I stood on Mount Olympus in ancient Greece. Today, when I stand on Mount Palomar in California, I see quasars, galaxies, and star nurseries. But it's the same meaning-creating, pattern-recognizing activity, and both the mythic and scientific understandings—those different ways of naming and measuring—are "products of an active and temporary selection, which must be renewed."

Selections from what, we might ask. From the multiplicity, Deleuze and Guattari might answer. And what is the multiplicity? That from which we select and from which we form those patterns that give meaning/s to our lives.

But—and for me this is the big Sunday School lesson—our selections are never, ever the totality or the finality of the multiplicity. Our selections are always active and temporary, and when they cease to be active and temporary, then they become points of dogma about which we crystallize into little fascist camps. So the multiplicity is that grand ground of being from which all emerges? I can't quite get a handle on that idea, but that is precisely the point: I can't get a handle on the multiplicity. It's always bigger than my handles.

Of course, we humans don't like that. We like formulasGod Is Love and E=MC2 come to mind—that capture the multiplicity, make sense of it for us, and put it under our controlbut as DnG point out with their concept of asignifying ruptures, the multiplicity laughs at our attempts to control it.

This makes sense to us somewhat if we think of the multiplicity as St. Paul's God or Einstein's Universe, but multiplicity is more local than that. Each of my 80 students is also a multiplicity. Not only did they emerge from the multiplicity—both for themselves and for me—but they are, in fact, a multiplicity within themselves and within me. The multiplicity, then, works at all scales, both the macro and the micro. A single cell in each of their bodies is a multiplicity (as Wordsworth observed 200 years ago: To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears). All of reality, at any point on any scale that we attempt to engage it, is the multiplicity—not part of the multiplicity or an aspect of the multiplicity or an emergence from the multiplicity, but the multiplicity itself. We touch the multiplicity when we touch anything.

The practical lesson for me in all this is that there is far more to know about each of my students than I can  ever hope to know, and my measurements of them through my pronouncements, names, and grades are active and temporary. Even these classes that I have invented under the auspices and within the structures of my sponsoring university are each an active and temporary selection. Each has utility, allowing us to gather, coordinate, and perhaps collaborate, but each is provisional.

The class, the syllabus, the collection of people. These are all temporary anchors that allow us to play the same game for a time, but as any boatsman will tell you: anchors are always provisional, tenuous, very useful to have and very useful to let go. A boat that seeks a permanent anchor is useless and probably a great danger to the sailors aboard.

Well, I really would like some help here with the concept of multiplicity. Those of you with a better philosophical reading than I have could chime in here, especially with a clarification of Bergson's concept of multiplicity, which Deleuze apparently used. Thanks.