Academic Betreat as a landscape of practice

In preparation for the Academic Betreat 2012 , we have been asked to read a number of chapters from Etienne Wenger’s book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity.  I have just read Chapter 4: Boundary (p.103 -121) and Chapter 5: Locality (p. 122 – 133).

I have heard Etienne speak about landscapes of practice before, most notably last year at Lancaster University – I blogged about it here  – but reading these chapters adds some new dimensions to my thinking and understanding.

Chapter 4 Boundary

Chapter 4 keywords – boundary objects, brokering, connections, boundaries, peripheries, negotiation, meaning

In Chapter 4 (p.105)  Etienne writes about two types of connections:

  1. boundary objects – artifacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections
  2. brokering  – connections provided by people who can introduce elements of one practice into another

If, as is written on p.107 ‘A boundary object is not necessarily an artifact or encoded information’, it occurred to me that the BEtreat itself might be considered a boundary object and the participants might be considered to be ‘brokers’.  ‘Brokers are able to make new connections across communities of practice, enable coordination, and – if they are good brokers – open new possibilities for meaning.’ Who will emerge as ‘brokers’? Will we all be ‘brokers’ or just some of us? What skills are required?

I also wondered whether people who work as independent consultants are more likely to be ‘brokers’. Some characteristics of brokers are:

  • they tend to stay at the boundaries of many practices, rather than move to the core of any one practice, i.e. at the permeable periphery
  • they translate, coordinate and align different perspectives
  • experience of multimembership and spanning boundaries
  • ability to facilitate transactions across practices and boundaries
  • ability to manage coexistence of membership and nonmembership
  • have enough distance to bring a different perspective,  but also enough legitimacy to be listened to.

My experience is that the last point is not always easy to achieve.

Will we see different types of boundary encounters in the BEtreat (a one-on-one conversation between two participants, immersion through visiting the practice of one participant, or delegations)?  Will the BEtreat keep the insiders in and the outsiders out, or will we be inviting outsiders in and working across boundaries ourselves?  Is this realistically possible in such a short period of time where the activity will be very intense?  What do we mean by insider and outside in this context? Do brokers necessarily work on the periphery?

Chapter 5 Locality

Chapter 5 keywords: locality, constellation, practice, landscape, geography

In Chapter 5 (p.122)  Etienne writes about how the concept of a community of practice constitutes a level of analysis, through discussing locality of practice and a constellation of practices. For me this chapter is summed up by the following two quotes:

‘My argument is not that physical proximity, institutional affiliation, or frequency of interaction are irrelevant, but rather that the geography of practice cannot be reduced to them. Practice is always located in time and space because it always exists in specific communities and arises out of mutual engagement, which is largely dependent on specific places and times. Yet the relations that constitute practice are primarily defined by learning. As a result, the landscape of practice is an emergent structure in which learning constantly creates localities that reconfigure the geography.’ (p.130)

These lines, for me, relate very closely to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau (Portsmouth University, UK) on emergent learning and emergent curriculum, in which we have developed a 3D model of landscapes of learning, for exploring the relationship between prescribed and emergent learning in any given curriculum. This paper has been submitted to IRRODL  and accepted but has not yet been published. (see Publications for further information)

The second quote is from the final lines of Chapter 5 (p.111), in which Etienne writes that communities of practice

‘… are important places of negotiation, learning, meaning, and identity. Focussing on the level of communities of practice is not to glorify the local, but to see these processes – negotiation of meaning, learning, the development of practices, and the formation of identities and social configurations – as involving complex interactions between the local and global.’

So will the Academic BEtreat be a community of practice or simply a course? It seems to fulfill many of the criteria of a CoP. What would prevent it from being a community of practice? Does it matter anyhow? What will be our experience of landscapes of practice in this BEtreat?

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