Openness, constraint and emergence

Openness does not mean that anything goes. Even openness of mind does not mean this. In our work on emergent learning, we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou and I) have in the papers we have published (see here  and here) suggested that constraints are needed for emergent learning to occur. I have been thinking about this further over the past week or so in relation to the work of two artists – Jackson Mac Low, the American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright and Edmund de Waal, the British ceramic artist and author.

Jackson Mac Lowsafe_image.phpSource of image: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Henry-Flynt/109544385731314?nr

Jackson Mac Low featured in Week 9 of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo).

Edmund de Wall 348664217_640Source of image: http://vimeo.com/50611081

Edmund de Waal featured in a BBC One Imagine arts programme (see below). The two seem connected to me in the way in which they use constraint to fuel their creativity. They have both challenged conventional thinking in their own fields.

Mac Low created a memorial to Peter Inisfree Moore  by using the three words of his name to find 960 words, some recognisable and possibly meaningful and some nonsensical. His idea was that the words become less relevant because they are produced deterministically through a set procedure and not egoistically. Mac Low then got together a group of collaborators to perform this piece. (Click here for a recording).

He gave them rigorous instructions on how to collaboratively perform. He wanted his piece to be collectively intelligible. Each performer must be present with complete concentration, singers must use clear diction and move their eyes freely from any word to any other word and so on. There are a lot of ‘musts’ in his instructions. This was a random piece meticulously performed.  It forces us to shift our attention and listen. Its making and performance relied on constraints.

Jackson MacLow, wrote to Al Filreis about this piece as follows:

The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics  that I would like to see abound in the wider society. The individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also constructing an oral situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses but an oral construction that has a being of its own.

This for me resonates strongly with the original philosophy behind cMOOCs and the idea, which we have discussed in our papers, that emergent learning depends on frequent interaction and self-organisation of learners.

When I watched the BBC programme about Edmund de Waal, I was equally fascinated by how his emphasis on repetition ultimately led to a similar collaborative ‘performance’. deWaal for his exhibition A Thousand Hours – created a thousand porcelain pots through a quite deliberate and repetitive process. He was then meticulous about how they were exhibited in vitrines, using drawn plans which a team of collaborators were required to follow to place the pots in exact positions.

To watch Edmund de Waal at work, view this video.

Edmund de Waal: a thousand hours from Alan Cristea Gallery on Vimeo.

For both artists, the hard work, the open thinking, the collaborative physical experience, shift of attention, the community of performance and the open listening resulted in outcomes beyond anything that could have been predicted; the outcomes were emergent.

As one of the ModPo teaching assistants (Amaris Cuchanski) said in the week 9 video discussion about Jackson Mac Low

‘The individual constraints liberates the community as a whole. Meaning is created in the space between the subjectivity of the people involved’.

I am still grappling with the relationship between openness, constraint and emergence, but both these artists sparked off these thoughts. Edmund de Waal opened his mind to the possibilities of porcelain pots and Jackson Mac Low opened his mind to the possibilities of words and sounds, but both applied constraints to their work.

Identity and the Language Poets

howe-silliman-hejinian

ModPo has been moving too fast for me again. We are already on Week 9 and I am struggling to get to grips with Week 8.

Week 8 focussed on an introduction to Language Poetry. This is how the week was introduced (in part) on the Coursera site:

By starting with Silliman’s “Albany” and Hejinian’s My Life, we focus on ways in which – and reasons why – Language poets refused conventional sequential, cause-and-effect presentations of the writing self. The self is languaged – is formed by and in language – and is multiple across time (moments and eras) and thus from paratactic sentence to paratactic sentence. While this radical revision of the concept of the lyric self (and of the genre of memoir) emphasizes one aspect of the Language Poetry movement at the expense of several other important ideas and practices, it is, we feel, an excellent way to introduce the group.

Other poets introduced in Week 8 were Bob Perelman (Chronic Meanings – a beautiful pre-elegy), Susan Howe (My Emily Dickinson) and Charles Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is” (my mother used to sing the song – When I fall in Love – that this title comes from, when I was a child. At the age of 88 she can still sing it now). And we were introduced to another Ron Silliman poem – BART – written whilst travelling on the BART – the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transport, which I travelled on a couple of years ago on a visit to California.

I don’t have time to give enough thought to the Language Poets  – week 9 is upon us – so here I will record (and at some stage will need to come back to) – the key idea that came out of Week 8 for me – and that is that:

Language constructs the self

This was discussed particularly in relation to Lynn Hejinian’s work – My Life.

The idea that language is central to the construction of the self and identity resonates with me. This explains the ever-changing self as we continually reconstitute ourselves in response to language and social interaction. I like the idea that every time I speak/write I am involved in the act of constructing/reconstructing myself. It makes sense to me that I can use language to construct my self, but that language will also construct me.

Is the self multiple across time – as mentioned in the introduction to Week 8 above? This would fit with Bonnie Stewart’s work on Digital Identities. I have always felt that although I will inevitably be perceived differently by different people, I have one identity with many facets.  All the facets make up me! But I can see how the language I use and the discourse I engage in creates different perceptions of me. I can also see how language and our use of it influences who we are, and that the self is a fluid construct. But I’m not sure that this means that we have multiple identities. I need to think about this a bit more.

This has been in haste! A marker for future reference. There is lots more to think about and I will have to come back. The week 9 poets are calling!

In what way has this sentence, this blog post constructed/reconstructed my self?

Reflective learning and metacognition Frank O’Hara style

Meta reflectionsSource of image: http://lockergnome.net/questions/61184/are-reflections-within-facing-mirrors-delayed-unique

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have at some stage encouraged students to reflect on their learning and will be familiar with the work of Donald Schön , Kolb, Gibbs, Brookfield, Mezirow, and others. Many students are required to keep learning journals which are thought to encourage metacognition i.e. learning about one’s own process of learning. Jenny Moon has written about this extensively in her book, Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development.

The term meta crops up regularly in the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) in relation to meta poetry, i.e. poems about the process of writing a poem.  This week’s assignment (the third in the MOOC) has been to do a close reading of Frank O’Hara’s  poem – ‘Why I am Not a Painter’ –  and through this discuss the differences between poetry and painting.

Why I Am Not A Painter by Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Source of poem: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/why-i-am-not-a-painter/

For a audio reading of this poem click on this link – http://ia600401.us.archive.org/10/items/audio_poetry_105_2006/OHaraWhyIAmNotAPainter.mp3

As Al Filreis (ModPo convenor) explains in a video discussion of this poem – this poem is a meta poem. It is a poem about a painting that behaves like a poem and about a poem that behaves like a painting. This poem is process oriented. It is a poem that shows you how you can have a meta painting in a poem and how you can have a meta poem in a poem. It is a meta meta poem.

In the light of this discussion I have been wondering how we could encourage students to engage in meta meta reflection, i.e. reflect on their reflection. Many students find reflection and reflective writing difficult, but the video discussion incorporated a lot of points that I thought might be helpful for reflective writing in general.

  1. Consider what you want to represent and how you want to represent it.
  2. Think about structuring the writing in three parts i) Present your case, set up the story ii) Through reflection on your observation and experience, begin your analysis iii) Turn back in on yourself and relate your analysis to your own learning.
  3. Frank O’Hara is one of the New York School poets. He writes present tense narrative – ‘I do this, I do that’ and keeps us in the moment.  This style would serve as a helpful illustration of how to write freely for students engaged in reflective writing.
  4. O’Hara’s poem also depicts the passage of time, the process of unfolding over time. Reflection is not a fast process but a gradual unfolding.
  5. In O’Hara’s poem the composition/process determines the content rather than the content determining the composition. This focus on the emergent process, which will often be unpredictable and surprising, seems to me to be a necessary element of deep reflection.

I have written about reflective learning before (see for example – Reflective Learning and the Glass Half-Empty), but these thoughts from Week 7 in ModPo are welcome additions.

Finding your blogging voice: lessons from Jack Kerouac

This morning I found a pingback on my last post about blogging and conscious incompetence. This came from Lisa Lane’s (online) teaching blog and her post –To Not Speak. Like Bonnie Stewart, Paul Prinsloo, me and I’m sure many others, Lisa has been wondering why some bloggers become tongue-tied and lose their voice.

Lisa has said that she needs ‘inspiration for a completely different kind of analysis of what I do’. I agree and recently, to my complete surprise, I have been finding this through participation in Al Filreis’ Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo), which I am finding challenging in many ways, to the extent that it has more than once pushed me out of my comfort zone. I know scarcely anything about poetry and what I do know has been gleaned from the last 7 hard weeks in ModPo.

But thinking about the beautiful blogging voices (Bonnie, Lisa and Paul and others) that seem to be undergoing, as Lisa puts it, ‘a crisis of confidence’, I am reminded of Jack Kerouac’s  Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.  List of Essentials.

Jack Kerouac was introduced to us in Week 6 of ModPo as one of the Beat poets. These were poets of the late 1940s and 1950s, who worked against traditional conventions and standards of writing poetry. They were counter-cultural in all aspects of their lives, experimenting not only with poetry, but also with drugs, sexuality and alternative life-styles. Kerouac, a novelist as well as a poet, was interested in the concept of spontaneous prose. A term used to describe this is ‘babble flow’ and here is an example from Kerouac:

Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words– I’d as rather be permiganted in Rusty’s moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you’d soon’s you’s ready’s as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don’t hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give

(My spell checker had a field day with this!)

In this ‘babble flow’ Kerouac is experimenting with the ‘sound’ of poetry. He has let go of literary inhibitions and is making new associations. He writes in the moment without censorship or selectivity of expression and without punctuation or other grammar conventions. He doesn’t wait; he allows an undisturbed and incessant flow from his mind. He is true to his beliefs about modern prose and his list of essential techniques.  This is a long list of 30 points, but there are some wonderful messages in the list for bloggers who are ‘losing their voice’ for whatever reason. Here are some of my favourites from the list.

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

4. Something you feel will find its own form

6. Blow as deep as you want to blow

7. Write as you want bottomless from bottom of mind

9. Be in love with yr life

10. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

14. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

23. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

28. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

29. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

For me Kerouac’s essentials align closely with Stephen Downes’ reasons for his prolific blogging. He writes (see response to Bonnie Stewart’s post):

like any writer – I know that if I stop doing it, I’ll lose it. Being articulate has to be a habit; if you stop, it’s difficult to pick up again. The world moves on; your own internal mental representation of jargon moves on.

In his supportive response to Bonnie Stewart’s concerns Stephen writes:

…. write, Bonnie write (sung to the tune of Run Forrest Run (though I’ve never seen the film so I’ve probably misappropriated it). Write quickly, write forcefully, paint that map and plan a pushpin into it, stake a position, be wrong! But be clear about it.

That’s not to say that blogging needs always to be fast and furious.  I remember that in 2008 I came across the idea of slow blogging and wrote a post about it.

I think there is still a place for slow blogging. There are times when we need solitude and contemplation away from the incessant chatter of the internet, but what I have learned from Week 6 in ModPo is that if and when I find myself in danger of losing my blogging/writing voice, as I surely will – this has happened many times in the past – then I will remind myself of Jack Kerouac’s list and indulge in some ‘babble flow’ to get me going again.

One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing. In order to write one must already be writing. (Maurice Blanchot in The Gaze of Orpheus)

Learning across boundaries with Robert Frost

Week 5 in ModPo was hectic. With the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts, it covered Communist Poets of the 1930s, Haarlem Rennaissance Poets, Robert Frost and a brief look at post-war neo formalism. Poets discussed during this week were Ruth Lechlitner, Genevieve Taggard, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy and, as mentioned, Robert Frost.  It was all fascinating, but one line of discussion caught my attention, and that was in relation to Robert Frost’s poem,  “Mending Wall’.

 Frost-wallSource of image: ModPo syllabus

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The story of this poem is of two neighbours who meet once a year to mend an eroding wall between their two properties – to build it up again. They each stay on their own side of the wall, walking along the wall and repairing it. The speaker’s neighbour believes that “Good fences make good neighbours” …. for the relationship to be good, they have to keep separate – there is a necessary distance between people and we try and connect through the gaps.

The suggestion in the discussion about this poem was that the two neighbours are both Robert Frost. One side of Robert Frost is conservative and wants to stick with tradition, keeping the wall up, keeping everything as it has always been, keeping the distance between neighbours, mending the wall when it begins to crumble, and preventing the chaos that might ensue if the wall was allowed to come down. This side of him liked formal restrictions, rules and the distinction between “I’ and “Other”.  The other side of Robert Frost, is the frost itself that does the eroding, that consciously tries to bring the wall down, that wants things to change and nature to take its course, that believes that the natural state of boundaries is that they erode.

This discussion reminded me of Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and working at the boundaries of communities. I remember him saying that learning can be very effective at the boundaries of communities, i.e. if you can straddle communities having feet in more than one community of practice at a time.

Robert Frost’s poem suggests to me that it’s a question of balance – we need a bit of distance away from the boundary (i.e. more towards the core of a community of practice, or your own personal and individual ‘space’ for solitude and contemplation) but also the opportunity to meet across boundaries and to work collaboratively at boundaries, for at least some of the time.

Finally, Al Filreis raised the interesting point that in New England walls were not originally built with the intention of marking boundaries, but to get rid of glacial boulders from the earth, so that the soil could be tilled. Walls were formed when stones and boulders were moved out of the way for agricultural purposes. I suspect there’s a lot that could be read into this. We seem to live in a world where we will naturally and sometimes unintentionally build up boundaries, but they will naturally erode with time, unless we consciously maintain them.

Learning about learning from Gertrude Stein

Gertrude_Stein_by_Alvin_Langdon_Coburn Link to source of image

ModPo moves on at a furious pace – a bit too fast for me!  Week 5 has started (with the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts), but I am still thinking about Week 4 and Gertrude Stein –  and what I can learn from her about teaching and learning. Of course, this was not her objective. According to one of the poets who presented with Al Filreis in the great live webcast  this week….

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/DuPlessis.php
Bob Perelman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Perelman.php
Ron Silliman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Silliman.php

….. I think it was Rachel Blau DuPlessis – Stein was the total proponent of discovery. ‘She was not concerned about the future and her legacy, instead her focus was on the excitement of an opening present’ – how refreshing.

But despite this I think Stein has a lot of messages for teachers and learners, never mind poets and authors – so a legacy in spite of herself.

I will try and gather my thoughts into some sort of order, although in doing this I contradict my first point and Gertrude Stein!

1. Thinking spatially, instead of linearly.

A ModPo participant phoned in to the live webcast to say that last year she couldn’t make sense of Stein’s work. This year she had an ‘epiphany’ when she realized that Stein’s work cannot be thought of linearly –  she realized she had to think of Stein’s poetry in terms of spatial relationships. According to one of the guest poets (apologies for not remembering who) Stein’s work proceeds rhythmically. Her writing is very clear but very abstract. For Stein the continual present is what is important – things don’t add up.

For me thinking spatially instead of linearly describes the learning process. We like to think we are working through a curriculum/syllabus linearly, and pretty much everything in education is presented to us in this way (even ModPo!) – but in fact our learning, even the learning of very small children, does not proceed in a linear orderly fashion, but goes forwards and backwards and from side to side – in fact in every direction. This relates to Stephen Downes’ thoughts about learning being the recognition of patterns (connectivism) and Dave Cormier’s work on rhizomatic learning.

2. The role of multiple perspectives

Picasso and the Cubists wanted to see and present different sides of an object – to see the object from multiple perspectives. Stein tried to do the same with words.  Here is a video of her reading her Portrait of Picasso –

There is also a video in which we can see how she goes even further than Picasso. The video puts her poetry to dance (which relates to the point I make about embodied learning below). (This video has been made private, since I initially wrote this post).

For Stein each word was an event. Any word in Stein’s work is a frame. It could mean a lot of different things. Learning in MOOCs has exposed us to a greatly increased number of perspectives in terms of the people we could come in contact with (34 000 in ModPo), than was possible in the small classes and limited access to texts of the past.  It is interesting to think of the different ways in which learners can be exposed to multiple perspectives and the effect of multiple perspectives on learning. For Stein it was about liberation from traditional ways of thinking and writing – putting her mind through a different way of thinking.

3. Risk and transformative learning

It was suggested in the webcast that without the Cubists there would have been no Gertrude Stein as we know her. The effect of the Cubists was to completely disrupt her existing way of thinking and writing, moving her irreversibly into a new relationship with words. The Cubists changed her ‘frames of reference’. As Meyer and Land  would describe it, she passed through a portal

a threshold  has always demarcated that which belongs within, the place of familiarity and relative security, from what lies beyond that, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the potentially dangerous. It reminds us too that all journeys begin with leaving that familiar space and crossing over into the riskier space beyond the threshold. (p.ix)

Stein was seeking a new kind of community and meaning making. She embraced the unfamiliar riskier space. Learning is not always ‘safe’ .

4. Embodied learning

I have always thought of embodied learning in terms of using the whole body. Little children do this through play as a natural part of their every day learning and there are some disciplines, such as dance, sport and some of the arts subjects where embodied learning is an easily recognizable element. It is harder to think about embodied learning in relation to text-based disciplines, but I think Stein shows us how this might be done. Stein treats words as impressionist brush strokes. See for example

Water Raining – from Tender Buttons.  (scroll down to find it)

Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke.

Stein paints poetry and writes poetry as music. It was suggested in the webcast that she uses words for self-pleasuring – a form of intellectual eroticism. She plays a game with herself, not a game with us – enjoying the mechanisms of her mind – pleasuring herself – enjoying herself. Stein threw herself into her world of words as Jackson Pollock threw paint onto a canvas.

There is more, much more, I could learn from Gertrude Stein, but I want to keep up with the linear flow of the ModPo syllabus 😉 – so I’ll have to come back to Stein another time. Would Stein have been a ModPo participant?  I wonder. Maybe too linear for her?

Re-purposing, poetry and plagiarism

Since 2008 I have been aware that re-purposing is a key activity of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs).  George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier explained what they meant by this in their introduction to Change 11 MOOC,  where they wrote:

We don’t want you simply to repeat what other people have said. We want you to create something of your own.

Remember that you are not starting from scratch. Nobody ever creates something from nothing. That’s why we call this section ‘repurpose’ instead of ‘create’.

In a paper that my colleagues Marion Waite, George Roberts, Elizabeth Lovegrove and I have had published this week, we have pointed out, as others have before us, the tensions between repurposing and plagiarism. It seems to be an intractable problem for Higher Education institutions wanting to go down the ‘MOOC with accreditation’ route.

A discussion in ModPo  this week about Dadaist poetry and with reference to Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem, is closely related to ideas around open educational resources, repurposing, creativity and plagiarism.

Tzara’s instructions

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Source: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5774

This video illustrates the idea for those who relate better to video than text.

Is a poem written in this way an example of repurposing, or plagiarism, or both?

As chance would have it, just in the past week there has been a ‘storm’ about plagiarism by two Australian poets.

Toby Fitch of the Guardian writes:

But in all the outrage, and the quibbling over how poets should footnote their poems, the very legitimate poetic practice called “collage” is being dragged through the proverbial mud. Other experimental practices have been implicated, too – homage, misquotation, mistranslation, and more.

and

…..  it would be a great shame if, in our rush to lynch a couple of plagiarists and their misguided ideas of “patchwork”, “sampling” and “remixing”, we forget to remember why poetry needs experimentation.

Looking around it seems that plagiarism has been a concern in poetry for a while. See this excellent article by Kenneth Goldsmith in The Chronicle Review back in 2011 –

It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’.

It seems that the boundaries between plagiarism and repurposing, what is creativity and what is not, remain very blurred and a bit of a minefield. Did Tzara plagiarise the newspaper article he cut up? At what point does repurposing end and plagiarism begin?

Interestingly, plagiarism has been made much of in ModPo, although, if I remember correctly, the word was not used in discussion of Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem.

I wonder  – how many poets license their poetry under Creative Commons?  Of course for this to work, poets would need to publish in the open. Perhaps its ‘openness’ and all that entails that is the problem, rather than plagiarism.

Update 28-01-14

See also this video – Embrace the Remix

Progress in Learning – lessons from painting and poetry

I am once again amazed by how I keep coming across poems (in the ModPo MOOC) that resonate with the research I am currently working on with my colleagues Roy Williams and Jutta Pauschenwein.

This week we have been discussing, in relation to a paper we are writing, how difficult it is to succinctly describe emergent learning and how difficult it is to capture it. (My last post relates to this). We attempt to do this through our visualization methodology – footprints of emergence  – but we are aware that each visualization is only a snapshot of a brief instance in time. (See our open wiki for examples of these visualizations).

We have found that if we tell our workshop participants that the footprint they have drawn of their learning experience could be different if drawn the next hour, day, week, month – then they question the value of the process. The idea that progress in learning can’t be pinned down is so counter-intuitive. But this week I feel I had confirmation of the constantly changing nature of student progress in learning from a number of sources.

1. In week 3 of ModPo,  we have been introduced to Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. In this he tries to represent what he sees in a moment and in so doing acknowledges how fleeting that moment is. I discuss how this resonates with me in my last blog post

2. A book chapter by Ray Land and Jan H.F. Meyer. I was trying to find out more about what we mean by transformational learning. On page xvii of the book (or p.18 of the PDF document) they describe a student’s progress along the transformational journey as like a ‘flickering movie’.

3. This reminded me of Eadweard Muybridge’s book – The Human Figure in Motion, which I have had on my bookshelf for about 40 years.

muybridge

Through his camera, Muybridge captured what the eye could not see as separate movements, just as the imagist poets sought analogy with sculpture, and just as educators try to capture the dynamics of the learning process and progress in learning, usually through assessment, but in our case through Footprints of Emergence.

4.  And finally coming back again to ModPo – Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which was used to explain that with prolonged exposure motion can be captured in different frames.

Nude_Descending_a_StaircaseSource: http://www.marcelduchamp.net/Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.php

This painting is viewed in ModPo alongside William Carlos Williams’ poem, ‘Portrait of a Lady’

Williams tries to find the language to depict a portrait of a lady. He and Duchamp tried to rebuke traditional depictions. Duchamp attempts to depict multiple perspectives at different points in time and Williams shows how difficult it is to do this in words. Both Williams and Duchamp are saying that if you look at a portrait a 100 times you will see something different each time.

This is exactly the problem we have with capturing the meaning of learning, because it is in constant motion. Not only do we not have adequate language to describe it, but we also cannot fix it in time. These are the issues we are struggling with in our work on Footprints of Emergence, and what we mean when we say that a Footprint depicts a snapshot in time. For us the value in this is in a recognition of the dynamic complexity of learning and therefore the need to surface deep tacit understanding of the learning experience.

Imagism, interpretation and education

In Week 3 of ModPo we have been introduced to the Imagist movement in poetry, focussing on the poetry of Hilda Doolittle (or H.D. as she liked to sign herself) and Ezra Pound. The Imagists wanted to escape the wordy floweriness and blurry, sloppy, careless thinking (as they saw it) of their predecessors. They wanted their poetry to depict precise, clear and sharp visual images, which were devoid of sentiment and economic in the use of language. They attempted to isolate a single image, and reveal its essence as we see here in Ezra Pound’s poem

In a station of the Metro jpgSource of image: http://slothnorentropy.tumblr.com/

The imagists felt so strongly about this that they even wrote an Imagist Manifesto.

They aimed at ‘clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images’.

How successful they were is the subject of much debate in the Week 3 ModPo forums, and the question of whether it is ever possible to write in such a way that your writing is interpreted exactly as you mean it to be and depicts exactly what you saw has been on my mind all week.

Somewhere in one of the videos this week, I can’t recall where, a comment was made to the effect that it is only in poetry that you would see an attempt at condensing language in this way.  Evidently Ezra Pound started off without about 30 lines for his poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, before he condensed it down to two (three with the title). But my sense is that this is something that all writers, and indeed educators, have to deal with. For example, one of my colleagues, when writing up her research, writes as a stream of consciousness and then has to reduce 10000 words to 5000 for submission to a journal. Researchers are very often asked to be more succinct and concise in their writing. In a recent review of an article I submitted for publication, the reviewer shouted at me FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS! – I say shouted because it came to me just like that – in capital letters. S/he was right though 🙂

I don’t think I am alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be succinct and concise – to condense writing from a stream of consciousness to a short piece.  It has been pointed out in the forums that the nearest thing that could be likened to what the imagists were trying achieve is scientific writing, where, for example, nominalization is often used to condense writing and make it harder, more precise and more formal.

In scientific writing, techniques such as nominalization are aimed at clarifying definitions and bringing readers to a common understanding. The focus of the imagist poets on condensing their writing seems to me to have the opposite effect – it completely opens up the poem to an infinite number of interpretations.

It struck me that this is a dilemma faced by teachers, educators, authors and researchers (and maybe all artists) all the time, i.e. how much information is the right amount to keep the message clear. It seems to me that both too much and too little can lead to mixed messages and problems of interpretation. This is something I have known for a long time. I just hadn’t expected it to be confirmed by poetry!

Power and control in ModPo

I am now, 3 weeks into ModPo, very aware of the differences between the original cMOOCs (e.g. CCK08 – the very first MOOC run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens) and xMOOCs – and I think it relates to this slide that Stephen Downes recently talked us through at the ALT-C Conference

SD ALT-C slideshareWhat are cultures of Learning – http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/2013-09-12-altc

xMOOCs might be either A) Centralised or B) Decentralised but they are not C) Distributed, i.e. not in the same sense that CCK08 and subsequent MOOCs such as Change 11, run by Downes and Siemens, were.  Although xMOOCs such as ModPo do have a Twitter stream and a Facebook group, they do not encourage people to find and create their own discussion groups in locations of their choice, as the original cMOOCs did.

ModPo for me is very centralized – with the centre being Al Filreis and to a certain extent his TAs. No Al Filreis – no ModPo. He is the ‘sage on the stage’. And it seems to be working well for most people. Al is charismatic. There are hundreds of discussion threads and Al Filreis and his team of TAs are very visible in there. They must be exhausted.

I am loving the poetry in ModPo – all new to me – and the video discussions which model and demonstrate how to close read these poems are very engaging. Even within one week I felt I had learned a lot, not least that some poets resonate and others do not.

But, despite this, there are elements of ModPo that I find disturbing and they are mostly to do with the assessment process, which on a professional level (as an educator) have concerned me.

I have already mentioned in a previous post  that I can’t see any value in having to post to discussion forums as an assessment requirement. Now there are three other points related to assessment that I find troubling.

1. The assessment criteria (peer review instructions) were not posted before people submitted their assignments and this does make a difference – because, for example, the reviewers were asked to judge whether assignment writers had understood Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes in her poetry. Whilst dashes were discussed at length in the videos, they were not mentioned in the assignment writing guidance. Participants/students should always know the criteria they are being assessed against.

2. The fact that all the assignments, once they have received one peer review, are automatically posted to one of the Coursera forums, i.e. all the 30 000 participants can see the submitted assignment if they have the time and energy to wade through the 75 (at the last count) that have automatically been posted.

Assignment writers were not asked whether they would be willing for this to happen.  In an Announcement to the class they were told that “This enables everyone to participate, at least a little bit, in the reading and reviewing of essays” – but frankly all it does it load even more discussion threads to the forums, which are already overloaded and – more significantly – takes the control and ownership of the assignment and learning process out of the hands of the learner more than is necessary.

For me a successful adult learning process relies on learners having as much autonomy as possible (another principle from the early cMOOCs, but also one backed up by research into adult learning). All it needed was consent from the assignment writer.

3. The third point is the worst. A participant has been publicly named and shamed for plagiarism in the assignment submission forum mentioned above. Her assignment was automatically posted as explained – so she had no choice over the matter. The reviewer had not noticed the plagiarism (a section copied from Wikipedia) – but to the title of her post has been added (Note from Al: this essay has been plagiarized).  At the beginning of the course there was a stern warning in the initial announcement about plagiarism – although I can’t find it now – and participants submitting assignments are asked to tick a box saying that the work is their own.

It could be argued that public naming and shaming of a participant serves as a warning to all other participants – but I think it is cruel and ultimately destructive. I know from experience that foreign students often have difficulty understanding what plagiarism means and as far as I can see there is no advice on the site about citing sources. However you look at it, I don’t believe a student should ever be publicly named and shamed. She should have been contacted privately by email. That would have been enough – especially since she may not get the certificate anyhow, since she hasn’t made any discussion forum posts. Did anyone bother to check?

These exhibitions of power, control and centralization are a long way off the original conception of MOOCs.