The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC

boypoolrhizome

(Source of image: https://socialdigitalelective.wordpress.com/groups/rhizomes/)

Drawing ‘boypoolrhuzome’ by Dr Mark Ingham, Reader in Critical and Nomadic Pedagogies at the University of the Arts London LCC

Our second paper which explores how the rhizome metaphor was understood in the Rhizo14 MOOC (Rhizomatic Learning. The Community is the Curriculum) has finally been published by The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

The paper was accepted following revision in response to reviewers’ comments last July, so it has felt like a long wait, but there have been some changes of the Journal’s staff and website so I think a bit of a backlog built up. The Editors were very patient with our ‘nagging’ 🙂

The body of work we have developed in relation to the Rhizo 14 MOOC is now growing. The first paper was published by Open Praxis.

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

We have also given a couple of presentations and written many blog posts

18-06-2015 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities. Mackness & Bell Conference Submission 2015 . Blog post about the presentation

27-6-2014 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. ALTMOOCSIG Conference The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC. See also Emerging ambiguities and concerns for blog posts about this presentation and the related Prezi.

A third paper has just today been returned by the reviewers and will hopefully be published within the next three months.

The second paper about the rhizome metaphor was really enjoyable to work on as it introduced us to new authors and presented us with many challenges. As always we worked on a private wiki to collect, share and discuss resources and our thoughts, as well as paper drafts.

At the beginning we were inspired by this website – Nomadology  – and wondered whether we could present our paper as an interactive document in this way (with no beginning and no end), but it was not to be. Even our attempt to present the paper as independent sections (mimicking Deleuze and Guattari’s plateaus) did not work. Ultimately, we shared the concerns expressed by Douglas-Jones and Sariola (2009):

– we are recognizing the academy’s need to communicate ideas in writing, in a linear format. Even if methodologically and theoretically we become more rhizomatic, the imparting of knowledge currently requires some arborescence. (p. 2) ( cited in Mackness, Bell and Funes, 2016, p.87)

For now, I’m OK with that, but it would be good to see the development of more creative, multi-media and interactive ways of presenting research and discussion papers. If nothing else, it could make the papers more fun to work on and multi-media might help to explain the work more effectively.

Academic Writing as a ‘Desire to Relate’

A couple of days ago, Nancy White posted this video on Facebook (thank you for sharing it Nancy)

David Gregson : A Desire To Relate from Creative Matters on Vimeo.

The video, of the western Australian artist, David Gregson, tries to capture how he uses his art to communicate and his desire to relate. Quoting from the text under the video:

In the year 2000, the late Western Australian artist, David Gregson (1934 – 2002) allowed students from Curtin University of Technology (Perth, Australia) to access his Kellerberrin studio to film him as he worked. David, still recovering from recent surgery, completed the painting ‘Provence Window’ over a period of four days.

A highly prodigious visual artist, whose career spanned over 50 years, David Gregson is one of Western Australia’s most highly regarded figurative painters. His dedication to opening our eyes to the communicative power of art, and his virtuosic talent with a paintbrush, strongly informed his art and continues to influence many an aspiring and established artist.

At the same time as being introduced to this video and David Gregson’s work, I have been following Pat Thomson’s blog in which she is sharing how she is running her 8-day writing course in Iceland . Patter is a wonderful blog and I always look forward to Pat’s posts. I like the initial questions that Pat posed:

  • What is the contribution your paper will make?
  • Why is this important?
  • What will connect your readers with this topic?
  • How will you create the niche for your work?

These are questions that I have been asking myself in some recent writing I have been doing, although they have been implicit concerns rather than articulated. Pat’s next post was all about the writing the Introduction for a paper – and again, all very good advice. Since then she has written about the Literature  and Methods sections of a thesis or paper.

How does all this relate to the David Gregson video? Well, when I watched the David Gregson video I immediately recognised the way of working, whereas when reading Pat’s posts, I had to admit to myself that that is not the way I work. For example, in the most recent writing I have been doing, the introduction was the last section I wrote, I only had a very vague idea of where I was going at the start and I was waiting for ideas to emerge, for ‘Ah Ha’ moments.

On watching the video some of the things that David Gregson said resonated very strongly with me. On starting his painting he says:

‘You may think that I am dithering. I am not really. I am trying to get into character of what it is that I am going to paint’.

Gregson painted his picture ‘Provence Window’ over four days. The video doesn’t tell us how long he ‘dithered’ for, but in my most recent writing that I have been doing with Frances Bell about the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning, I dithered for weeks and weeks. It has taken almost a year to get to the final draft.

Gregson says that in your work you are the performer, but you have to remember that standing behind you, looking over your shoulder, is the past, the present, the critic and the director. In other words, the act of painting, or in my case writing, is a multi-faceted conversation and you have to prepare yourself in your daily work by first calming down. He talks of becoming re-familiar with your materials each day in this calming preparation phase, saying ‘hello’ again, cruising around the painting surface, becoming as one with it – ‘there’s a little courtship about it’.

This is not dithering. This is becoming immersed in the process. It is not following a plan. It is allowing the process to ‘speak to you’. I find it comforting to think that what might be perceived as dithering is actually a necessary part of the process.

Gregson then talks of introducing the characters and says that it is worthwhile introducing some extremes initially so that you have an intuitive scale from which to work. ‘If you kick off on a high key it will keep you there’, but if you introduce a major dark area you get a tangible meaningful contrast to the light. That makes sense to me. As he says, you can always rub out ‘the bum notes’. If you are immersed in the process, sensitive to the areas which need attention and let the process (writing or painting) speak to you, you will know what you’ve got to get rid of, although in my own case, I have to say that this can take months rather than days.

I agree with Gregson when he says that we need to sustain a mood and be open to ‘happy accidents’. The beginning and the middle of the process can all be very suggestive and vague, but the sense, the meaning, slowly emerges. I can recognise this too. I have to consciously be ‘open’ and patient, because at times, it can all feel so extraordinarily messy.

Gregson’s commentary on his painting relates closely to my recent thinking and reading around Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome and the nomad. Nomadic thought encourages an avoidance of boundaries and free wandering. Rhizomatic thought encourages taking lines of flight and breaking free of traditional, hierarchical thinking – a deterritorialisation of thought. Ultimately though, there is reterritorialisation such that in the case of David Gregson he finally produced his painting ‘Provence Window’. That was a reified outcome, which satisfied the requirements of the art world. Similarly, academic writers ultimately reify their written communications in the format required to satisfy the requirements of the audience for which the writing is intended. Currently many journals, if not most, require authors to write in very traditional ways, almost to a template. This is difficult to escape, for academics who want to be published – but perhaps the process of writing, before the final drafts, can benefit from lines of flight and deterritorialisation – a bit of free wandering rather than following a plan. Does this lead to more creative, communicative academic writing that fulfils a desire to relate, or does it just lead to a messy incoherence?

Principles for Rhizomatic Thinking

This is the third in a series of posts which outline the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for their presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Principles for Rhizomatic Thinking 

Slide 5

(Source of image: Deconstructive Rhizome by Pongtidasantayanon:  http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/rhizome-2/)

Deleuze and Guattari  (D & G) enumerate 6 approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There are others that are also relevant to rhizomatic learning and teaching and may even be more relevant, such as ‘nomadic thought’; ‘wolves, tribes and packs’; ‘smooth and striated space’;  ‘assemblages’; ‘territorialisation’; and ‘lines of flight’ – which we are still unpicking in relation to our data, but don’t have time to discuss here.

So for now we’ll stick with the six principle characteristics, which are on the image above and listed below.

In Week 2 of Rhizo14 a discussion arose in the Facebook Group around some participants’ perception that they were expected to study theory, and that some other participants’ posts were condescending. This has subsequently been labelled within #Rhizo14 as a theorists versus pragmatists divide. There was an attempt at self-healing by Rhizo14 participants but apparently the outcome was not satisfactory to those most affected and some people left the course as a result.  Leaving a MOOC need not be seen as some sort of failure if you have drunk enough from the well, but leaving from a sense of alienation would be more troubling.  Subsequently, ‘pragmatism’ achieved a kind of ascendance in #Rhizo14 and Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about rhizomatic thinking were discussed less and less during Rhizo14. Recently in the Facebook group there has been a discussion about whether or not the group should now discuss Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas – but the discussion was fairly quickly passed over. A key contributor to Rhizo14, Keith Hamon, had already published a treasure trove of posts on D & G’s rhizomatic thinking and continued to apply their theory and that of others during the MOOC.

There are D & G principles that can be considered in relation to learning in open learning environments and were in evidence in Rhizo14. We do not claim to be philosophers. Neither can we claim to have read or understood all of D & G’s work, but we are finding evidence of some tentative links between D & G’s ‘approximate characteristics of the rhizome’ and learning in Rhizo14.

Big health warning here – these findings/thoughts are tentative

1. Connections – a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections.

There is evidence of this in Rhizo14 – plenty of connections were made and are still being made, but some survey responses have revealed that this was not the case for everyone. Some people felt excluded or peripheral to what was going on in the course. A feature of Rhizo14 was the core group that gathered in Facebook (originally set up by Dave Cormier) and though a wider range of participants contributed less frequently, the core group persisted and now refer to themselves as ‘die-hard rhizo14ers’. As the contributions to P2PU, the G+ group and blog posts began to tail off in Weeks 4-6, the Facebook group became the main focus of activity on Rhizo14. When the course ended this is largely where discussion continues, although the core group posted topics on P2PU for Weeks 7-12, after the ‘official’ end of the course.

A rhizome has multiple points of entry. One of the most active participants didn’t join until Week 4, and new people still appear in the Facebook group and post to Twitter with the #rhizo14 hashtag. A rhizome also has no beginning and no end and we have evidence that the Rhizo14 course is an example of this.

Alternative perspectives on making connections in Rhizo14 are exemplified by these quotes from two respondents:

I’m also disappointed that it seemed so hard to connect in Rhizome 14

I stayed because of the community – it was great fun. It gave me space to reflect on D&G, collaborative learning, and learning communities and to talk to other like-minded people.

2. Heterogeneity –  any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other and must be.

In relation to Rhizo14 was this characteristic of a rhizome in evidence? – yes and no.  Ultimately there has been a discussion about whether Rhizo14 ended up being a clique and how heterogeneous is the Rhizo14 rhizome; there seems to be a tension between ‘community’ and the principles of a rhizome in D & G terms. This is something we need to explore further.

3. Multiplicity  – A multiplicity is, in the most basic sense, a complex structure that does not reference a prior unity.

There was diversity in Rhizo14 – but was there multiplicity – which requires no central pivot point – being a-centred and de-subjectified?

Holland, p.39 writes: 

There are no pre-determined positions or points within a rhizomatic multiplicity, only lines along with random nodes arising at the haphazard intersections of them (felt).  

This principle seems difficult to achieve in a course. As discussed in the previous blog post Dave Cormier was perceived by some in Rhizo14 as being at the centre. As one respondent wrote:

A big part of being a good facilitator is the weaving and prompting, asking good questions, etc. What I noticed in rhizo14 was a facilitator who appeared to be very much at the centre of the course, and who, while very present and active, stated his own views and conclusions quite (too?) often

But another wrote:

Now, clearly, Dave Cormier was at the centre in the sense of organizing the course and providing intro videos, but the vast majority of the actual course content and activities was made up of what we, the participants did. 

From a technological perspective one could perceive the variety of platforms as ‘multiple’: participants could engage at P2PU, G+, in the Facebook group, posting on their blogs, commenting on others’ blog posts, conversing via the Twitter hashtag, expressing ideas through Zeega. Where the interlinking between these spaces was simple and bi-directional, such as posting a link to an open blog, youtube video or another open web resource this seemed to be like multiplicity in the rhizomatic sense.  Where the interlinking was more inward looking, such as commenting on a Facebook post about a blog post or a link that was not truly open, like a link to a Facebook or G+ group/ community thread, then some of the ‘felt-like’ qualities of the rhizome were lost, and the multiplicity seemed more apparent than real.

(For further discussion of  the ‘felt-like’ qualities of a rhizome and smooth and striated space in a rhizome, see Frances’ blog post – Wandering across smooth and jagged spaces – bring a blanket and beware the Chief ants )

  1. Asignifying rupture. If you break a rhizome it can start growing again on its old line or on a new line. Connections are constantly breaking (deterritorialisation) and reforming (reterritorialisation).

It’s difficult to get evidence for this because once people have taken a line of flight it’s hard to find them or find their new rhizomatic connections. This is an issue in our research – despite our best efforts to reach early leavers, we know that some important voices are missing from our research. However territorialisation in the form of the Facebook group was dominant in the course – but those who took a line of flight will have taken something with them, although as D & G point out a line of flight can become ineffectual and lead to regressive transformations and rigid segments.

Holland, p.39, writes

‘…. rhizomes are philosophically defined at the limit by their outside, by the “lines of flight” that connect them outside of themselves and transform them.’

Lines of flight were evident in Rhizo14 in the sense that some participants went off on their own paths, but in D&G’s terms these are supposed to remain connected to the rhizome – some did, some didn’t. As one respondent wrote:

There was a point at which engagement in rhizo14 was over for me and I left the facebook group, which had been my main point of contact (I still enjoy following people on Twitter). There was no reason other than it had served its time for me (for now) and this has helped me be less controlling [in my own community]

There were also lines of flight within the Rhizo14 course. Participants were looking for lines of flight from traditional ways of thinking and working – taking their classes out onto the Internet, away from canonical texts, valorising cheating, etc.

One can also identify people whose lines of flight brought them into Rhizo14, for example Dave Cormier and a few participants who had already applied rhizomatic thinking to teaching and learning contexts.

5 & 6. Cartography and decalcomania – the rhizome is like a map and not a tracing.

You can enter a rhizome at any point. Maps are always unfinished and subject to revision – so in this sense Rhizo14 was a map rather than a tracing.  The discussion around Rhizo14 continues – albeit in one space – and new members are joining.

 

These are our first tentative thoughts about how the Rhizo14 course and our investigation of learner experience within it might or might not be informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s six approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There is still a lot more to explore and understand in relation to this and we are a long way off coming to any conclusions, if indeed that is possible or there are any.

References:

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury

************************************************************************************

This Creative Commons License applies to this blog post and supercedes the one that normally applies to this blog, which can be found in the sidebar. In publishing interim findings to our blogs, we are cautious about how we publish what could ultimately be part of a journal article. For this reason, the license under which we publish these posts relating to our presentation is different from the one normally applied to our blogs.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.