Tuesday, October 30, 2012

WAC 3: Writing to Connect

I said in an earlier post that the first objective of a writing across the curriculum program is "to enable students to learn more and better." In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for mapping knowledge networks both in their own minds and in the world about them. The second objective is to enable students to connect with others. In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for exchanging knowledge networks with others.

I think that even a casual reader will sense that these are not unrelated goals; rather, they are interconnected goals. Often, we writers learn best when we are connecting with others, and we connect best when we are learning. From a writer's point of view, the distinction is a matter of focus rather than a change of goals. When writing to learn, we are focused on ourselves; when writing to connect, we are focused on others. For the writer, however, this shift is a complex and dynamic boundary along which a skillful writer constantly checks and refines what she knows with what she wants to achieve with the reader and vice versa. This shift is dynamic because the skillful writer is constantly looking back and forth, and it is complex because what she finds in her own knowledge feeds into and affects what she wants to achieve with another just as her interaction with the other feeds back into her own knowledge.

By the way, I am using the phrase writing to connect rather than my earlier phrase writing to communicate. I want to emphasize the connectivity that writing enables, and of course, that connectivity includes communication, but I think it can include more. Connectivity also resonates with the concepts of networking and connectivism in a way that communication does not. Let's see.

So writing is a network phenomenon that connects us to other people. A writing across the curriculum program can first cultivate writing to connect through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) for each student. This, of course, connects us back to writing to learn, but as should be obvious, I see no separation between the two modes of writing (the one hardly makes sense without the other, though over the years I have found it convenient and useful to talk about them and to teach them separately). A PLN, built mostly through writing and reading in both electronic and print modes, connects each student to other students, to teachers, and to a profession (I am not using profession merely in the sense of a future job, but more so in the sense of a community of practice). Ample research shows that successful college students form strong connections to one or more of three aspects of college: other students, favorite professors, or a discipline. Students who do not connect to at least one of the aspects of college tend to falter, fail, and leave.

The original purpose of college, of course, was to foster such personal learning networks through close, physical proximity on a campus. Such physical proximity is still important, but physical connectivity is now supported and extended through electronic networks that allow any person to connect usefully with so many more people. A useful writing across the curriculum program must rely heavily, then, on these electronic networks.

In addition to helping students build PLNs, a useful WAC program helps students connect to a community of practice (COP). In one sense, one can view a college education as an introduction to and indoctrination in the conversation germane to a particular community of practice. Colleges teach students to walk the walk and talk the talk of some scholarly or professional community of practice. WACs help students first become familiar with the conversation of a COP and gradually to participate in that conversation. It's useful to say that one becomes a professional member of a community of practice when one can engage in the dominant conversations of that community (to rip-off a phrase from George Siemens). WACs cultivate the abilities of students to engage those conversations.

Finally, useful WACs should help students to connect to the world through project-based learning relevant to the students' COPs. Project-based learning is an ideal vehicle for enabling the kind of real-world writing that engages the world (a customer or client, for instance) to effect some change or elicit some response.

Hmm. Does this wear well? I'll have to think on that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

WAC 2: The Rhizomatic Document

It occurs to me that some people may not agree with my characterization of writing, especially in the sense of an actual text or document, as a network phenomenon. After all, scholars have long emphasized the linear nature of printed documents, such as books, typed letters, and journal articles. Electronic documents such as this post have introduced hyperlinks, which so impressed scholars at the beginning of the Internet age, but for these scholars, the novelty of hyperlinks is that they in some way disrupt the inherent, natural linearity of documents. I think this linear view of documents is wrong. Documents have always been network phenomenon, but that fact has been obscured by the mechanical technology we used to produce them and by the lack of electronic technology to see them otherwise. While it's obvious that words in a document are arranged in a line, this line is better visualized as a curving line of genes in DNA: the starting point for an unfolding in complex network fashion into a very, non-linear organism. The words in this post are not individual bricks added one by one to build a wall between you and me for you to analyze or not. Rather, the words in this post are a set of instructions keenly sensitive to their interconnectivity to the other words and to the particular arrangement among all the words to create multi-scale, dynamic patterns that may or may not echo in you.

To my mind, the linear view of writing is part and parcel of the general linear view of reality that has been key to Western intellectual thought for the past few centuries. While the reductionist, linear methods of Western science have been wildly successful in many ways, the development of chaos and complexity theories has done much to expose the limitations of reductionist linearity as a worldview. The old linear views were based on well-established linear mathematics and linear arguments. It was very mechanical, as was much of the technology that supported such thinking. It is easy to see how someone who makes a living out of setting metal type would tend to see a document as a linear structure. But as Gleick shows in his book Chaos, the non-linear mathematics of chaos theory has revealed the limitations of linear mathematics and, by bold extension, the limitations of a linear, reductionist world view. Edgar Morin's book On Complexity shows how complexity theory—which to my mind is subsuming chaos theory, but that may be because I don't understand either well enough—how complexity theory is likewise exposing the limitations of the reductionist, linear worldview. As Albert-lázló Barabási notes: "we always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it," mostly because we didn't have the technology to see it. Now we have that technology and the concomitant patterns of mind to see that the Universe is so much more than a reductionist, linear mechanism. It's time to turn this complex networking lens on writing.

And we are turning the network lens on writing, even when we don't recognize it as such. I read just yesterday an article in The Atlantic by Peg Tyre entitled The Writing Revolution, in which Ms. Tyre describes how Principal Deirdre DeAngelis turned around her failing New York high school, New Dorp, by implementing a writing across the curriculum program that placed "an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class." The result was "an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform." Unfortunately, the article seems to cast this most fortunate development in a return to basics narrative, pitting old-fashioned instructional methods against misguided, New-age methods:
In a profoundly hopeful irony, New Dorp’s re­emergence as a viable institution has hinged not on a radical new innovation but on an old idea done better. The school’s success suggests that perhaps certain instructional fundamentals—fundamentals that schools have devalued or forgotten—need to be rediscovered, updated, and reintroduced. And if that can be done correctly, traditional instruction delivered by the teachers already in classrooms may turn out to be the most powerful lever we have for improving school performance after all.
This is certainly one way to view the New Dorp saga, but not the only way. I prefer to look at New Dorp's story as a success of network thinking. To my mind, New Dorp discovered that its students did not know how to use language to map a complex network of ideas. As one New Dorp teacher noted: "the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence," but the 14- and 15-year olds at New Dorp "were missing a crucial understanding of how language works." The students could not generate useful knowledge networks in their minds when they were reading, nor could they generate useful knowledge networks on paper when they were writing, because they did not understand the grammatical and syntactical connectors and connections which arrange words into meaningful patterns. As one student said of her own skills: "I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words … The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

Writing is not just a sea of words. It is not simply stringing along a sequence of words, brick by brick, even in grammatically correct ways, until one reaches 500 words, which is what most of my students seem to think writing is. Rather, writing is a mapping of words that interconnect and relate to each other  and to neural networks, social, and physical networks in significant ways. The sequence of words, the proximity of words to other words, the frequency of words, and the repetition of words unfolds the meanings of words, and naive readers and writers miss these dynamic and critical inter-relationships. Naive readers and writers see just a wall of bricks—one word following another in a line. They do not see the unfolding of a sequence of words in a meaningful orchestration of networked patterns. In other words, they do not see the unfolding of a sequence of genes in a strand of DNA that eventually blossoms into a kitten, which in my experience is a most non-linear, chaotic, complex structure, certainly as complex as any James Joyce novel.

Tyre actually captures this network thinking when she quotes Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany: “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding [italics added] … has become increasingly rare.” Applebee is correct, I think, and the solution is a rhizomatic program of writing across the curriculum which provides students numerous, persistent, and ubiquitous opportunities to use writing and reading documents as tools for learning. As with any beginners, these opportunities can begin small, just as Tyre describes happened at New Dorp:
In chemistry class in the winter of 2010, [student] Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although
Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.” 
Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.” 
If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
This is not the old drill-and-practice and diagramming sentences characteristic of back-to-basics grammar and writing. Rather, this is using writing to map the complex relationships among chemistry concepts. Yes, it begins small, at the sentence level with precise prompts. That's fine. This provides the scaffolding for Monica to begin to construct paragraphs with even more complex networks of ideas, and this helps Monica to become a better writer and a better chemistry student. That sounds like a win-win to me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

WAC: Writing to Learn across the Curriculum

I have the opportunity to design a new writing across the curriculum program for college, and I'm interested to see how I might translate theory into practice. I have been writing for three years now about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic education, but it has all been rather abstract. So let's see what practice might look like.

Let's start with a statement about writing: writing is a network phenomenon. Writing's first job is to engage, develop, and render explicit internal, neural networks. As Olaf Sporns says, and as I have quoted often enough, "Cognition is a network phenomenon" (Networks of the Brain, 181). Writing is the networking tool that helps me to verbalize my cognition. It helps me to reinforce and reform my cognition. Writing is one of the best tools we have for cultivating thought and translating it into a text that helps the writer to clarify for herself what she means. This is the primary mode of writing that I am using in this blog. I am writing first for myself to explore my thoughts, mostly about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic structures. I don't mean to insult any who might read this blog—indeed, many have made comments that have greatly helped me to clarify my thinking—but this blog is where I do my thinking and learning. I'm really my own first reader here, and I'm writing this blog first for my learning.

As a tool for learning, writing works in two different directions. First, writing works from the inside out. Writing helps me to engage, shape, and map my thoughts in a recursive probing that I can follow and remember. Writing helps me to make what I know explicit to myself, and that is of inestimable value to me. Once my thoughts are explicit, once they are mapped to a text, then I can interact with them more objectively and systematically than I can if they are just floating about in my head. I can keep my thoughts, remember them, much better and more reliably if they are mapped to words in a document than if I just keep them in my head. I do not mean to denigrate purely mental thought—often I think things through long before I put them in text, and I am aware that much cognition is not even available to the conscious, rational mind—but I want to speak for the added benefits of writing as a supplement to cognition. Writing affords me a conscious engagement with my thoughts that is difficult to get any other way. (This recursive dynamic between the external textual network and the internal neural network is worth much more investigation than I am giving it here, but that's for later.)

Thus as a learning tool, writing works first from the inside out, but it also works from the outside in. As I have experiences—most often through constant reading and conversation with others, but pretty sunsets are also included—I use writing to develop new knowledge networks and to engage my existing networks in different ways. This allows new knowledge to bloom in my mind, and writing about those experiences is a physical process that reinforces and cultivates those new mental blooms in ways that few other activities can do.

In short, writing is a very complex and wonderfully malleable boundary between the networks of knowledge in my mind and the networks of knowledge outside my mind. Writing is one of the key boundaries where knowledge leaks out of me and oozes into me. Writing is like a cell membrane, or the mechanism within the membrane that manages the exchange between the inside and the outside of the organism. It is a zone of engagement. As a tool for building and traversing knowledge networks, writing is one of the best technologies that humanity has invented. Writing makes me smarter and more knowledgeable than I am without writing. I think writing has this benefit for everyone, and I am convinced that the more students write about the things they are learning, the better they will learn those things.
ASIDE: The cell membrane analogy for knowledge exchange is problematic. It suggests too physical an activity. Actually, I don't think there is any physical exchange when I push knowledge into the world or the world pushes knowledge into me. There is no token, no chunk of knowledge, that is passed from you to me and back. Rather, there is an echo of patterns from you to me and back. This is much more like Deleuze and Guattari's concept of decalcomania, in which a pattern in one part of the rhizome (you) is echoed in another part (me) as we encounter each other either physically or via some media such as this blog post. Thus, this echo always happens at some boundary, or some pressing of one structure against another. A text is just such a boundary, or pressing, or zone of engagement. As James Gleick describes so well in his book Chaos: Making a New Science (2008), this boundary is where all the action takes place between or among structures. The boundary is where each structure (my mind and your mind, say) begins to vibrate under the presence of the other, and pattern in the one begins to echo in the other. This echoing of pattern has a definite physical ground, but the physical substrate is not sufficient to explain it.
Anyway, if I am thinking correctly, then the first goal for a writing across the curriculum program should be to enable students to learn more and better. Writing helps students to make better sense of the knowledge networks in their own minds, and it helps to feed those networks with new knowledge from outside.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Connectivism?

I've not blogged in over a month, and I have a serious case of disconnection. I'm irritable about it. Really. I'm not so pleasant just now, and I think a large part of it has to do with my loss of connection with my writing, my thoughts, my conversation. Of course, I have good reasons for being disconnected—mostly demands from other connections: family, vacation, a personal blog, work, an election, and more—but those reasons do not ameliorate the dissatisfaction. The only solution is to reconnect. Perhaps a better way to say it is: it's time for me to refire a dormant neuron.

And it occurs to me how differently I think about things now and how I owe much of that difference to this conversation about connectivism.This has been a most important conversation for me, and I'm uncomfortable when I don't exercise it regularly. So what is it that makes connectivism important? If I had to chose one word for you, then I would say networks, networks in both their formal sense as mathematical, scientific structures and their informal sense as rhizomatic, literary structures. I admire and respect the first way to think about networks, but I love the second. The first is a revered teacher, the second a passionate lover. Both aspects of networks have reshaped my thinking about most everything in life, but especially the way I view education and rhetoric. Networking is an archetypal meme that radically changes the way I see my world. For me, this has been big stuff.

I've been reminded from several sources just this past week about the revolution that is occurring all around us as the networking meme (virus might be a better term) spreads. The webzine Edge had a great conversation with Albert-lázló Barabási about thinking in network terms. Barabási notes first that "we always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it." We became aware of networks as technologies gave us a way of better viewing them. This is the same as our using telescopes to learn that the Earth is but a speck of dust on the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We had always been a speck of dust on a speck of dust, but the telescope helped us to see that. Similarly, we have always been nodes in physical, chemical, biological, social, spiritual, intellectual, rhetorical networks, but it took computers and computer networks for us to appreciate that fact and to address it. Now, as Barabási notes, "We never perceived connectedness as being quantifiable, as being something that we can describe, that we can measure, that we have ways of quantifying the process. That has changed drastically in the last decade, at many, many different levels." New technology has given us the ability to approach rationally a phenomenon that has always been here and sensed on some (usually spiritual or artistic) level, but not quite graspable outside of poetry and prophecy. At last, science has the tools to systematically deal with networking, and it's going to change everything.

The network meme is in the DNA of connectivism. As far as I know, connectivism is the most coherent  and vibrant attempt in educational theory to deal with education as a network structure, and for me, that is connectivism's greatest value. Just as many scholars are doing in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, mathematics, and other disciplines, connectivism places networking at the core of its methodology and thinking. Networking guides its practice and preaching. Connectivism has converted me, and like the Apostle Paul, I hope to take this new thinking to my home town: Rhetoric. I believe that networking will revolutionize rhetoric and writing instruction.

I'd better start writing. Wow. I do feel better. I hope you do, too.