Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Birth of a Text

As I wrote the last post, I had one of those nagging notions that I was leaving something out, that I had not quite said what I needed to say. I kept writing, hoping that the idea would present itself, as it so often does in writing, but it didn't arrive.

Then today at the office I was looking at the new TED-ED site in preparation for a writing lesson about using imagery in documents. I navigated to a page in search of Hans Rosling's quite marvelous video about data visualizations, when I noticed this other video from Deb Roy about how he traced the birth of language in his child by recording his home over a period of several years. I thought I remembered the Roy video and thought that I might review it again after I watched the Rosling video, which was really the video I needed, so I grabbed my mouse and clicked on the Roy video. Of course, it proved to be the video that I was looking for all along. It visualizes the structures I was trying to capture in my last post and not explaining so well.

I think my mind functions mostly underwater, and I am able to see only the surface. Most of my cognition, like the Internet, is submerged and hidden. Things arrive on my screen and in my conscious mind, but I too seldom know how they got there. Usually I don't think about it. It can be too troubling.

Anyway, let's watch this video, and I'll try to make the connection to writing as a function of complex networks. Deb Roy:

What captures my attention first is our emerging ability to capture and investigate large data sets. This ability is critical, I think, for understanding the network nature of texts and writing (or anything else, really). Those who study writing, through either rhetoric or poetic or both, have long had an intuitive sense of the network nature of writing, and we have developed concepts such as genre and process writing and schools such as feminist studies to try to embody those intuitions. Yet, we have never had the ability to collect and investigate texts as Deb Roy and his associates do in this movie where they can position a given television show (a text) within its ecosystems of other TV shows and the resulting social and scholarly buzz. They have access to the computer systems and networks that allow them to collect and investigate an amount of data that simply was not possible to collect and investigate with paper, even though we sensed the presence of those network structures and actions like some great sea creature moving in the depths, not seen clearly enough for analysis or even identification, but definitely felt.

Not only does Roy have the tools to capture and investigate the networks within which a television show emerges or within which a baby learns a new word—both the show and the word are texts to my way of thinking—but Roy can also express those networks in images and movies that help us to see not only the text itself but its emergence, movement, development, and interactions within its ecosystem. In other words, he can visualize with incredible accuracy the patterns that before we could only intuit in the life of the text but could not capture with any accuracy. Those of us who have had children know that our babies develop language, but Roy captures exactly how they develop it, and he contextualizes the text in ways that we could only intuit about our own babies. He demonstrates conclusively that there is no text without a context. Likewise, there is no context with the texts.

Of course, he can also tease out patterns that we can't even intuit are there. This is one of the most exciting promises of the digital humanities, to my mind. At last, we have the technological tools and techniques (and the promise of more) to capture the kinds of data sets necessary to wrap our heads around a complex network structure such as Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which some researcher will soon think of as a complex strand of DNA, with its own internal network structures, introduced into an ecosystem of complex networks, taking root there, and then growing rhizomatically as it feeds value into that ecosystem and eats value from that ecosystem. That's enough work to occupy the entire professional life of a literary scholar. It will take a university of scholars with massive computing power to map the genome and the rhizomatic development of The Bible. That would be a damned fine project to work on, though. I hope someone does it in my lifetime.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writing at Different Scales, #cck12

So what happens to the field of writing if we start with the idea that writing is a function of complex networks?

One of the first concepts that I draw from the study of networks is that network structures appear at most any scale from which you consider an entity. For instance, if we think of human consciousness as a function of complex networks, we find networks whether we consider consciousness at the molecular or cellular levels, the neuronal level, the brain regions level, the level of the nervous system as it extends throughout the body, and on to the sensory level, and out to the interpersonal, social, cultural, historical levels. Physics is currently able to push in to reality all the way to strings (those wispy networks of harmonic vibrations) and push out all the way to networks of galaxies. A dedicated student could follow consciousness all the way in to strings and all the way out to galaxies, I think.

Writing is similar. Whether we look at the scale of cognition, physico-motor, language, interpersonal, social, poetic/rhetoric, genre, or more, we find network structures at work. This text, for instance — this very post that I am writing and you are reading — can be thought of as a network structure: morphemes networked into various words, words networked into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into sections or posts, posts into a blog, the blog into larger educational, intellectual, and social networks. I think this network structure has always been a feature of written texts, but it was not obvious. Given the requirements of print, we tended to emphasize the linear nature of text, but we can think of this linearity in the same way we might consider a strand of DNA: linear if we view it one way, but very much a network if we shift our view just a bit. We can think of DNA strands as they unfold, or blossom, into a living organism. We can think of these sentences as they unfold into a living discussion. These sentences in this post are strands of DNA expanding in an ecosystem, creating an organism that interacts with other organisms, that both draws from and adds to the ecosystem/s within which it finds itself. And of course, hypertext makes explicit this network nature of written text.

But I think even standard printed text can also be seen as a network structure. For instance, this post is one node within this blog, and it interacts with the blog in much the same way that a new tadpole interacts with its puddle. This post draws value and energy from the blog as an ecosystem, and it feeds back its own value. I can scale down, and see the same dynamic at work: this very sentence is a node within this paragraph, and it draws meaning and value from the paragraph and returns meaning and value to the paragraph. This blog is easily seen as just one node within a network of blogs all exploring higher education, or writing, or Connectivism, or things I'm not even aware of.

And meaning emerges at all those different scales, and the meaning at one scale interacts with, supports, and modifies the meanings at the other scales, and we can see different meanings whether we are giving a text a close reading or fitting it into its larger genre. Different meanings emerge at different scales. This is a very dynamic way to think about writing and written texts, and it gives us dynamic tools for thinking about writing and for teaching writing. This, I think, is worth exploring.

We also see that the rules, the patterns of organization and interaction, can shift from scale to scale. This is a new idea for me just now, and I need to do more work on it, but it seems right. I like the ring of it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Writing the Rhizome

Okay, for the sake of discussion, let's just accept that my last post is correct and that a network view of knowledge is indeed part of the DNA of connectivism. Let's even assume that this distinguishes connectivism from constructivism, cognitivism, and behaviorism as learning theories. Is this such a big deal?

I think so. Starting with a view that knowledge is a function of complex networks changes how I view everything else, especially everything about my own discipline. Also, starting from this vantage point allows me to connect to and cultivate different streams on energy. I'm fed differently than if I were starting from another point of view about how knowledge is produced and propagated.

My professional gig is writing — I write and I teach others to write. Connectivism, then, encourages me to say that writing is a function of complex networks at any scale I choose to consider it.

This is worth exploring, and for ease, let me start at the scale I'm working on just now. I'm writing a blog post about connectivism to mostly educators — at least the audience I'm aware of is mostly educators, and most of them at the college level. I write to connect to the conversation of those people. This conversation is a network structure facilitated by many other network structures: my own neural network, the Internet, a MOOC, the English language, educational theory, etc. Through writing, I both connect to the conversation (the network), and I exchange value with the other nodes (people and their own texts, mostly) in the network. I am writing, now, to connect to you and to exchange value with you.

Now, compare this view of writing to the traditional view of writing: a solitary student struggling to complete an assignment, writing about a topic that far too often does not interest him and writing to people (the teacher) to whom he does want to connect. The literary version of this image is not much better: a solitary, starving poet in his lonely garret overlooking Paris struggling to capture his vision of Life for an audience that will not find him until decades after his consumptive, wretched death. Neither of these writers connects to an ecosystem that feeds and nourishes them. None of us would want to be one of these poor wretches.

Actually, the student has an ecosystem, but he is punished for connecting to it (no talking in class). Notice that when students find that they can use writing to connect to their ecosystems (their peeps, gangs, and posses), then they will write their tails off. The last estimates I saw said that the world is now generating over 5 billion text messages per day. No other period in history can approach this volume of writing. Are you not amazed that most teenagers today would rather write to their friends than talk to them? That makes no sense from the traditional views of writing. It makes great sense if you think of writing as a function of complex networks in which nodes connect to nodes, exchange energy and value, and all are enriched. (I know that not all connections are enriching, and that way too often, people connect for the purpose of abusing, but even that kind of bullying is more easily understood — and dealt with — from a network perspective that looks at interconnected nodes in a functioning network than from the perspective of the morally deficient individual preying on others.)

Starting with the notion that the production and propagation of knowledge through writing is a function of complex networks allows me to think very differently about how and why people write. That prompts me to change the way I teach writing to others. I'll explore that soon, but likely I have not finished thinking about writing as a function of complex networks. There are other scales to play in this tune.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Connectivist DNA: Epistemology #cck12

I started this post weeks ago, but life happened. I want to continue talking about defining Connectivism.

So if we are to avoid a definition of Connectivism that disjoins the theory from similar theories and from the rest of the world and reduces the theory to a handful of essential characteristics how should we proceed? Morin says that we proceed by "distinction, conjunction, and implication" (51). I guess that clarifies things. Let's see.

We distinguish Connectivism as a theory about education without separating it from other such theories about education and without separating it from the very thing that it seeks to illuminate: Education. We look for both the particular starting point of Connectivism and the connections that Connectivism affords us (connections should be easy for a Connectivist theory). The starting point is the DNA; the connections are the flows of energy, matter, organization, and information between Connectivism and its eco-system. Thus, we distinguish Connectivism from Cognitivism, say, but we do not disjoin it from Cognitivism. Rather, we include in our definition the flows of energy between the two. Likewise, we look for the flows of energy and information between Connectivism and all those who have explored it and between the theory and the actual practice of Education. We also include our own DNA and the DNA of others who are exploring Connectivism. We assume, then, that Connectivism is defined by the dialogue, the unresolved tension and interplay, between its DNA and its eco-system. Connectivism is what emerges within this dialogue. This is a start.

For me, the first bit of Connectivist DNA is found in its epistemology. This is not a casual choice, but one that reflects my interest in rhetoric, my own intellectual DNA. In his book Rhetoric and Reality (1987), James Berlin says that the rhetorics of the 20th century can be defined by their epistemologies. In fine Cartesian fashion, he disjoins the three main strains of 20th century rhetoric and reduces each to a central tenet about how knowledge is generated and propagated. I have an interest, then, in what a Connectivist, or rhizomatic, rhetoric might look like, so I want to follow Berlin's lead—if not his methodology—and begin with epistemology. Given that Education is all about the generation and propagation of knowledge, epistemology has much to recommend it as a starting point.

So what is the epistemological DNA that Connectivism brings to the eco-system? Both Downes and Siemens write about knowledge, but I'm drawn first to Downes' 2005 article An Introduction to Connective Knowledge, mostly because I'm familiar with it, but also because it has received significant reading from others and, finally, because I just reread it. For me, this article makes about as clear and concise a statement about knowledge as an article can make when it says that "Knowledge is a network phenomenon, to 'know' something is to be organized in a certain way, to exhibit patterns of connectivity. To 'learn' is to acquire certain patterns. This is as true for a community as it is for an individual."

At the heart of Connectivism, then, is this idea that knowledge is not some thing, like a nugget, that we can pass among ourselves and reduce to a nifty definition. Knowledge is not a nugget that resides either in objective, external things or in a subjective, internal mind. Rather, knowledge is a function of complex networks. Knowledge is the pattern of dynamic connections among various nodes regardless of whether the nodes are neurons in an individual brain, people within an individual community, communities within an individual society, or societies within an epoch. Knowledge is what emerges from the patterns of interactions of millions of individual neurons functioning according to their own rules of behavior and in response to the rules of the clusters of neurons they have joined or found themselves grouped with. Knowledge on a different scale is what emerges from the patterns of interactions of millions of individual people according to their own rules of behavior and in response to the rules of the clusters of people they have joined or found themselves grouped with. While the specific mechanisms and rules may vary from node to node and scale to scale, the pattern seems remarkably consistent: meaning and knowledge emerge from the unresolved, dynamic interplay between an individual node and its network/s of other nodes.

This view of knowledge seems to me to be different from that of other educational theories. Behaviorism, as I understand it, appears to place meaning and knowledge firmly in the objective, external world of observable, measurable behaviors, and it focuses on developing those behaviors. Cognitivism, on the other hand, places meaning and knowledge in the subjective, internal world of the mind, however defined, and it focuses on developing those cognitive skills and resources. As I understand constructivism, it places meaning and knowledge in the interaction of the individual mind with reality. Social constructivism expands the concept by adding the social group to the mix so that meaning and knowledge is created by the individual in her interaction both with reality and the group. Social constructivism, then, focuses on developing those interactions among the individual, the group, and reality. This approaches, perhaps even implies, a network structure, but I don't know that it requires it.

I am aware that my statements about the above theories are gross reductions that distort the ideas of some brilliant thinkers, and I do not want to suggest that those theories and thinkers do not have tremendous value in helping us understand knowledge and how people learn. I am least fond of behaviorism, but that line of thought has generated true insight into humanity and education. They have all contributed, but I do want to say that I think we can see and understand things differently by starting from the view that knowledge is a function of complex networks, as Connectivism does. And I think that particular starting point is part of the DNA of Connectivism, but not core to the other theories, not even social constructivism. I think one can be a social constructivist without a commitment to knowledge as a function of networks. I know that one can be a behaviorist or a cognitivist without any consideration of networks. I don't think one can be a Connectivist without that very commitment.

So what do we gain by saying that knowledge is a function of networks? If we climb this particular mountain, then what do we see that we didn't see from the other peaks? What can we connect to from this starting point that we could not connect to so easily from the other starting points? I want to explore that.