February 2015. Light and Shade.

February arrived in light and went out in shade. We had gloriously crisp cold sunny days for the first half of February in North West England and wet, windy, stormy weather for the second half. It’s ironic that this should also reflect the light and shade around my working life and research practice.

At the beginning of February our first research paper about learner experiences in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (Rhizo14) which took place at this time last year, was published.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

In the spirit of openness, and because we were grateful to all those who participated in the research, we published this in an open journal, Open Praxis, and then on publication sought feedback in various locations, such as Facebook, Twitter, on our blogs and Google+. This has been both a light and shade experience, reflecting the light and shade experiences that we reported on in our research.

I’m not sure why light and shade have been perceived by some to be oppositional to each other. My perspective is that they need each other to be able to see each other more clearly. We learn from both. But the paper seems, for some readers, to have further polarized discussion about the learning experience in Rhizo14, making the light and shade even more obvious and oppositional than it was before. An emerging light for me is that some of the issues that were raised by the paper are being discussed, which is surely a better outcome than the paper being ignored.

Other aspects of shade dotted through the month have been continuing concerns about the effects of ageing, not on me personally, but on those around me. I now find myself sending 80th birthday cards more than I have ever done in the past. With respect to dementia, I have learned this month that many people with dementia become grazers in their eating habits and that the best way to deal with this is to leave small bowls of chopped fruit, vegetables, nuts, chocolate and so on around the house. This piece of information has been comforting.

Two highlights this month have again been around art exhibitions. The first was seeing a film about David Hockney, his life and work which prompted me to think about his recommendation that we try and see the wider picture.  February has been all about trying to see the wider picture and reading Iain McGilchrist who writes that there are two ways of being in the world: in one (the way of the right hemisphere) we ‘experience’ the world, in the other (the way of the left hemisphere) we experience our experience, that is a re-presented version. The right hemisphere sees the whole. The left hemisphere sees the detail. What is new must first be present in the right hemisphere before it can come into focus in the left hemisphere (the new versus the known). The left hemisphere then returns the known to the right hemisphere for further experience. These are not McGilchrist’s words, but my understanding of his words. It seems to me that they might have something to say about experience, interpretation and practice in research. I am still thinking about this.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 14.44.43

The other highlight on the last day of February was a visit to Liverpool to see a fantastic production of Educating Rita at the Liverpool Playhouse, a play that asks us to consider what we understand by ‘education’ and shows us the light and shade that can occur in the process of education. What could be a more fitting play for me to see this month? 🙂

Tate Liverpool

And this was followed by a visit to Liverpool’s Tate Gallery and the free Constellations Exhibition on the first floor, which explored connections between major contemporary works of art. There was a lot here that resonated with my learning this month, so I’ll finish off this post with a few images and observations, thoughts that struck me as I walked round, whilst still thinking about the meaning of education and the light and shade of the learning experience.

IMG_0426Robert Adams. Space with a Spiral 1950. (Steel Wire and Wood)

‘The spiral enables the incorporation of space into an art work as an       architectural element, bringing the surrounding space into an active relation with the physical volume of the sculpture.’

My attention was drawn to this sculpture and the role of space in its construction because of the discussion about our research paper (mentioned above), where the question was raised as to whether a participant who was not active and did not contribute openly in the course had the right to fill in the survey and feedback on the course. This sculpture reminds me of the value of not ignoring the invisible and not assuming that it does not have a role to play. In this sculpture the nodes and connecting wires are as much dependent on the space for their definition as the space is on them.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 15.16.59

Henri Matisse 1919. The Inattentive Reader. (Oil on canvas)

I have sometimes wondered in the past month and in reading the comments that have been made about our published paper (mentioned above), at some of the interpretations. Alternative perspectives are welcome and differences of interpretation are inevitable. As with any published writing, benefit from these alternative perspectives and interpretations can only come from close attention to the ideas presented in the text and a dispassionate attempt to discuss and understand them. What exactly did the authors say? Emotional responses might be inevitable, but might also be a distraction from focused attention, as for Matisse’s ‘Inattentive Reader’.


Mary Martin 1966. Inversion. (Aluminium, oil paint and wood)

Of this work Mary Martin wrote: ‘Establishment of the surface is a primary move, since the parting from and clinging to a surface is the essence of the relief. Then that space which lies between the surface and the highest point becomes a sphere of play, or conflict, between opposites, representing the desire to break away and the inability to leave the norm.’

In her work she recognizes the tensions and conflict that can arise when trying to interpret and/or break away from norms. For me it is interesting how this work fragments the reflected images, emphasizing that everything can be seen from multiple perspectives and as multiples.

Finally this photograph caught my attention.


Claude Cahun. I Extend My Arms. 1931 or 1932. (Photograph, black and white, on paper)

‘I extend my arms shows a dramatically gesturing pair of arms apparently emerging from inside a stone monolith of similar dimensions to a human body. Cahun’s photograph is a staged self-portrait in which her face and torso are replaced by inanimate stone, shielding her identity from the viewer.’

My reflections this month on light and shade have reinforced for me that our identities can be fragile and learners in ‘the open’ are vulnerable. The extended arms in this photo show a willingness to reach out, but the stone shield also suggests to me that we might need to protect our identities from open space. Open environments are spaces of both light and shade.

 Update: 06-03-15

In a comment on this post Simon Ensor has posted a link to a post he has made on his blog to which he has given the title – In a tangle. This made me think of another sculpture that I saw and thought about on my visit to the Liverpool Tate. Here is a photo of the sculpture with the artist’s name and details of the work.


Leon Ferrari (1963)

Tower of Babel

Steel, copper wire, bronze, tin and lead

11 thoughts on “February 2015. Light and Shade.

  1. Simon Ensor March 5, 2015 / 1:53 pm

    Light and shade and dark are never fixed except apparently on a page. We are all vulnerable. I am sorry if I have upset you personally. I don’t believe we can have an unemotional reading. Distance from emotion is perhaps being inattentive. Yes everything can be seen from multiple perspectives. We need space to appreciate form and sense. Thank you for sharing your/the art. Thank you for reaching out.


  2. francesbell March 5, 2015 / 4:17 pm

    What a lyrical post – writing about art and life suits you. At home we have been busy today booking a last minute holiday to Deia in Mallorca and we’ll be staying near the Robert Graves museum. That made me think about his poem the Cool Web by Robert Graves. Thinking of what you say Simon about emotion, I think you are right about being unable to have an unemotional reading but there is a question of balance if we want to engage with ideas that we might instinctively reject. We had an interesting discussion about the idea of cool webs last yearhttps://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/cool-webs-for-rhizo14/ that continued months later. It’s not a discussion that I think would have happened everywhere on rhizo14 or been revived later.

  3. Nancy White March 5, 2015 / 4:32 pm

    What a joy to read. Thank you for this gift, Jenny.

  4. Gordon Lockhart March 5, 2015 / 5:29 pm

    I was also a little surprised at some of reactions to the paper. I can’t say I was much of a participant in rhizo14 but I was a fairly close observer and both positive and negative reflections raised in the paper strike me as fair and accurate. I think you and Frances have gone to great lengths to achieve this in a qualitative study contributing a research paper that places your work in the context of the existing academic literature. I can’t judge how successful the contribution will be but now it’s out there and exposed to a far larger audience.

    IMHO the positive in rhizo14 greatly outweighed the negative but maybe not the case if cMOOC flavoured online learning events were extended to populations other than the already well-educated. Also, with around 500 initial rhizo14 participants the fate of the majority not participating at the end is of considerable interest. Identification of ‘learning hiccups’ of one sort or another before they become endemic seems a good research objective – I guess participants in present day open online courses are inevitably guinea pigs!

  5. jennymackness March 6, 2015 / 11:01 am

    Thank you Simon, Frances, Nancy and Gordon for sharing your alternative perspectives here which are much appreciated 🙂

  6. jennymackness March 6, 2015 / 8:50 pm

    Thanks Simon. I have updated this post and added a new image in the light of the link you have shared.

  7. Glenyan March 9, 2015 / 7:31 pm

    Hi Jenny, Thanks for posting your and Frances’ paper – it’s a very interesting read! I found a lot of ideas that could link back to the idea of ‘growers and harvesters’ that you commented on last month. The ethical implications are almost too deep to think about, and maybe still largely unknown to practitioners and designers of MOOCs. In setting up the spaces for learning, what are the responsibilities of either ‘harvesting’ or or actively ‘growing’?

  8. jennymackness March 10, 2015 / 4:20 pm

    Hi Glen – good to hear from you. For me your ideas about ‘growers’ and ‘harvesters’ also relate to the role of the ‘teacher’ – or in your metaphor the ‘gardener’. This is currently where my attention is focussed and in particular I have been thinking a lot about the teacher’s ethical responsibilities. I’m not sure if you have seen this video – http://ethicsofcare.org/interviews/joan-tronto/ – which was passed on to us by someone who has read our paper and is also interested in these ideas. Your question about the responsibilities of growers and harvesters is an interesting one which I am still thinking about 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  9. Stephen Downes March 31, 2015 / 10:47 pm

    We require both the ink and the space between the ink in order to form words. Most things are like that.

  10. jennymackness April 1, 2015 / 9:10 am

    Thank you Stephen. I really like that and it fits with all the other thinking I have been doing in the last couple of months about the spaces between.

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