Saturday, June 2, 2012

Writing to Learn Connectivism

Stephen Downes was kind enough to comment on my last post, and that's a good thing. His comment brought a fair number of visitors to my blog, giving that post as many hits as any other I've written.

But alas, it seems that I was not very clear in what I was trying to say. Stephen complains that:
Keith Hamon ties himself in knots trying to reconcile essentialism and connectivism. And I don't think he helps himself adding DNA to the mix. "Richard Cartwright has defined essentialism as 'the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of … attributes all of which are necessary to its identity and function.'" But there are many things for which essentialism is false. As Wittgenstein famously argues, consider the definition of 'game'. There's nothing essential to being a game. For every property you can think of - competition, rules, points - there are exceptions. Or consider membership in a family. People in a family resemble each other, but there is no one trait that their [sic] all share. What makes them a family is that they are connected, not that they share some essential trait. In many ways, connection replaces essentialism, and does not need to account for it.
Quite likely I did tie myself in knots in that post, though from my point of view, I was untangling a knot. I was trying to untangle an issue in my head, and now that I've done it, it is really quite straightforward, so let me now write the post I should have published.
I've been trying to define Connectivism without resorting to the essentialism and reductionism typical of most definitions, relying instead on complex, multi-scale networking to frame my definition (I was, in fact, replacing essentialism with connectivism). I had been using some language from Edgar Morin's book On Complexity, including the concept of DNA. Gradually, I realized that DNA as a concept could be too easily shaded with Essentialist overtones, and that would be problematic for my argument. So I wanted to see if I could show how Morin's concept of DNA does not necessarily imply Essentialism. I decided that DNA avoids essentialism in two ways:
  1. it is a start point for an entity, not an end point, and
  2. it is specific to one entity, not many.
That's a rather short post and likely would not have caught Stephen Downes' eye; however, I didn't have my conclusion when I started writing the post. I was just pulling at the tangle of thought until I had it unraveled, at least in my own mind.

The more interesting question now, though, is how did Stephen and I miscommunicate? It would be trite  to say merely that I didn't write well, or that Stephen didn't read well, or perhaps a bit of both. Is there a Connectivist explanation for this kind of communication where the meaning in the author's head does not seem to match closely enough the meaning in the reader's head? There should be. So let's sketch some outlines that might suggest how and why this communication fell out as it did.

First, keep in mind that this post is itself exploration rather than an explanation. I may be able to explain whatever emerges—if anything—more clearly later, but I can't now. Just now, I'm playing, pushing around some ideas that just might work, but no guarantees.

I'll start with what I was doing—my writing—mainly because I can speak with some authority about that. I've been writing for decades, and I've paid attention to how I write. I'll have to be far more general and speculative about Stephen's reading, as I don't know his particular reading habits.

I was writing the previous post in a writing to learn mode. This is one of two large modes of writing that I introduce to my students:

  1. writing to learn, and
  2. writing to communicate.
Perhaps you think that any writing loosed on the public, such as blog posts, should be writing to communicate, but I don't think this is the case. So what's the difference between the two? Writing to learn is mostly for ourselves while writing to communicate is mostly for others. It's a shift along a sliding scale rather than a shift in kind, however, but it is an important shift. When we are writing to learn, we are using writing as a tool for rendering explicit to ourselves what we know. When we are writing to communicate, we are using writing as a tool for engaging others.

In a connectivist sense, then, when I wrote my post I was using written language to externalize the patterns of thought in my mind. I was creating a text as an external artifact onto which I could arrange and play with my thoughts. The text, the post, became an other somewhat removed from me, with which I could converse. I would write a phrase or sentence, and then stop to read it, looking for a match between the patterns I felt, sensed, or thought in my mind and the patterns I read on the screen. Sometimes the sentence spoke back to me, or stained me, in a way that felt right, and I would keep the sentence, but more often than not, the sentence did not stain me in quite the right sense, and so I would change it. I would erase it and try again. Or sometimes, I would just leave it and move on to try again.

The post became, then, another node in the network of interactions that formed my thoughts about essentialism and DNA and connectivism, but it is a node with some peculiar affordances (thanks again, Bon) that renders thinking more productive in certain ways. First, it became an explicit thing, outside my head. This is of inestimable value. While a few people can structure and manage quite well the thoughts in their heads, most people, including me, lack that ability. My thoughts are too often jumbled—and when they are crystal clear, I seldom know why—and I can go over and over the same idea in my head without ever moving it forward, but as soon as I put it on screen or paper, then it seems to stabilize. It becomes an explicit, external object that I can work with. I can assess it's value, shape, and meaning, and decide whether or not it meets my needs. I too often find that hard to do in my head alone.

Then, the post became another node in the pattern of meaning that I was trying to create through my thinking and writing. As such, the post fed back into my head the thoughts that I had written, and those written thoughts began to interact with the mental thoughts, each affecting the other. I thought something, I wrote something, that fed back into my thoughts, and that fed back into my writing, over and over. It is a reiterative process that constantly maps back and forth, in and out, as the thoughts in my head feed into the thoughts on the screen which in turn feed back into the thoughts in my head. Each loop modifies the the internal and external thoughts, tweaking the patterns until I feel (it really is a feeling for me) an elegance and coherence between the text and the thoughts. The great rock guitarist Duane Allman used to speak of "hitting the note," of how he would play all night looking for that one note that pulled the whole performance together. That really is the feeling I'm looking for, and sometimes I have to write, or play, a long time before I find the pattern, or note, that pulls it together for me. It is the process that Deleuze and Guattari describe as cartography and decalcomania: a reiterative mapping between mind and reality, trying to shape the patterns in each in ways that are useful for ones life. I had to write a long time in that post to find out what I was trying to say. I had to play a long time to "hit the note."

This is writing to learn. And I think it is the part of writing that my students are most challenged by and least convinced of its value. It's also the part of writing this is too often least useful for readers, though its value for writers is inestimable.

This feedback loop, this mapping to use D&G's terms, is an integral part of Connectivism and Rhizomatic learning, I think. I know it is an important part of writing. It describes how we gaze upon the text and it gazes back at us. It describes how we push the text and it pushes back. Our thoughts feed into the text, and the text feeds back into our thoughts, and the loop continues round and round until we feel at peace somehow with the place that the text occupies in our thoughts. We come to terms with the text, our own creation, and we accept it as a fair node of the network that is our knowledge.

This does not mean, however, that the text is yet suitable for a reader. Quite likely it isn't. I'll talk more about writing to communicate next.