the rhizomatic learning lens & what rhizomes are good for

Confession: I’m not entirely sure what week it is in #change11.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tricky creatures, their possibilities and to-do lists inclined to slip away from you and multiply like rabbits the minute you look in another direction. Especially this “mother of all MOOCs,” with its 36 consecutive facilitators and topics.

For a lot of us in education, staying afloat in such a sea of participatory learning opportunities is difficult, overwhelming, contrary to a life’s practice of taking what Liz Renshaw so aptly called “the helicopter view” of any learning experience and trying to overview it. MOOCs are big and distributed and decentralized: conversations are happening all over, there are ostensibly over 2000 participants (even if a lot mostly lurk), and basically, there’s almost no way to keep a finger on the pulse of it all.

It’s rhizomatic, meaning that just like weeding your damn garden, what you see and pull up is only a fraction of what’s there.

This is apt, since while I may not know whether it’s week 7 or 8 of 36 in #change11, I do know it’s Dave’s week, and that the theme is rhizomatic learning.

I may as well dive in.

(Caveat here: I am Dave’s partner and while I have thoughts and opinions on rhizomatic learning I do not actually pay nearly such close attention to his work as I, uh, could? Ought to? So this post does not reflect a particularly privileged or informed perspective on Dave’s ideas, but more where they – and the conversation taking place this week in #Change11 – send me.)

As Dave frames it in his introductory post to the week’s course, rhizomatic learning is:

 “…a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

Sometimes Dave’s work gets taken up either as educational theory or as educational technique. For my part, I don’t think it’s either.

I see rhizomatics as a potent metaphor for conceptualizing the process of learning, and for approaching how we go about learning and working with learning. The value in the idea of the rhizome, for me, is the way in which it foregrounds the unpredictability, the messiness, the connectedness, and the multi-directionality of learning, knowledge, and educational research. I see rhizomatic learning almost as a lens, a pair of glasses one learns to put on in order to view the educational landscape.

These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.

We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling.

And when we try to grapple with the ways in which the discourses of learning and schooling have changed – drastically – in the past generation or so, as we are trying to do with the #change11 MOOC, that colonization often takes over.

Colonization is a harsh word. Education, after all, is a good. Most of us who tend to succeed in it have been taught that from our mothers’ knees. Even those of us who haven’t succeeded – or had the opportunity to succeed – within systematized education have traditionally been made acutely aware of our lack.

I do genuinely believe there can be great value in an education. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, I see education as the worst system…except for all the other ones that have been tried. I place particular import on systems of public education, to the extent to which they help mitigate inequities and create opportunities. Alas, that extent is often profoundly underwhelming.

It is also where technologies and networks and the possibilities of open education really begin to excite me. Because we get the opportunity to rethink or think outside the systemic constraints of traditional education and learning, and to consider what learning and “an education” could mean.

Except then we don’t, all too often. Because we’re colonized.

We conflate learning and schooling. We are subjects of the idea of education as a system, an institution, and so we rely on and replicate this idea in our conceptions of learning: we assume factors like goals and grading and – increasingly – market viability as real parts of what learning involves. They can be, of course. But they do not need to be unless that learning is taking place within the contingencies of mass-delivery and crowd control and normativizing of classed behaviours and literacies that we absorbed with our school milk programs. These practical components of systemic schooling processes are the base map or lens on learning which we, culturally, have inherited.

This idea of systemic education as we in the West know it is not a particularly ancient one. As Dave pointed out in the first post of the week, one of the purposes of mass public education was to train workers. It was also to inculcate what were deemed to be productive civic values in citizens, including a healthy respect for institutional, hierarchical power.

For the last fifty years or so, the idea of that institutional, hierarchical power as natural and good has been broadly challenged- see 1968, deconstruction, Free to Be You & Me, constructivism, and, uh, MOOCs, among other things – but also buoyed up by the rise of neoliberalism and the increasing public acceptance of discourses of corporatism and managerialism in public enterprises such as government and education. It’s a site of fascinating societal struggle. It’s also profoundly self-replicating: we become subjects of the system in school, and then subject others to the operations of the system we’ve come to see as natural and right.

So long as our lenses on learning are actually focused on schooling, we replicate the same colonizing systems. Even where we try not to. Even online, where we don’t have to.

Which is where rhizomatic learning and the new pair of glasses come in.

The rhizome is non-binary, non-hierarchical, and non-linear: it’s also aggressive and chaotic and resists the tree-like arboreal model of knowledge. For Deleuze & Guattari, it is a cultural process that emphasizes “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yeh. That.

I don’t think rhizomatic learning can be used particularly effectively to address grading, or curriculum, or most of the structures of systemic education. The rhizome is not a way of tweaking the systems we have.

The idea of rhizomatic learning emphasizes how ideas spread, popping out roots and shoots. Some of these take on whole lives of their own. Others abort at the bud stage. As a visual image for how learning operates, it enables us to – maybe – break down or see beyond some of the colonized perceptions we’ve been trained to, like the one that makes me feel slightly anxious when I realize I’ve missed an entire week of what’s gone on in the MOOC, say. That’s a perspective trained to assume that a) what’s on offer is what I should learn, b) that a view of the “whole” is possible and desirable and that partiality is less, and c) that missing things in a learning experience is abnormal.

Yet when I think back to my high school or undergraduate “learning experiences,” I begin to wonder if the process of popping out little roots and shoots in relatively unpredictable response to whatever I happened to tune into isn’t what I’ve been doing all along, however much the curriculum and my nice, tidy grades from those days might like to tell another story.

I try to wear my rhizomatic learning glasses when I think about this MOOC. I focus on the connections that occur, the relations between ideas and people and platforms, and the ones that seem to abort. I always think of whatever I might happen to think about the MOOC as if it were a picture of a tiny part of our very-rhizome-infested garden, partial and limited and chaotic and heading off in a tangle of directions.

Slowly, very slowly, this perspective on my own learning and participation and subject position begins to help me alter the way I conceive of education.

And that, my friends, is what rhizomes are good for.

the branded cyborg manifesto: identity in the public domain

It’s just me.

A person isn’t a brand.

If “online” is just another place to manage identity, why does digital identity deserve special treatment?

Thanks – big thanks – to all of you who gave me input on digital identity and how you think of it and name it. The paraphrased quotes from the last post’s comments all helped me dig deeper into the specifics of what I’m aiming to explore with this dissertation-in-the-making. I both agree and disagree with each: the conversation hones my thinking and my writing, and I am grateful.

Here’s what I think: the specific kind of cyborg identity that interests me is new. People have, arguably, depended on technologies to construct and perform identity for thousands of years: the wheel created social structures that shaped who people were and how they saw themselves, and writing – to Socrates’ chagrin – enabled a persistence of self over time that has deeply shaped our notion of what it is to be human.

But what I call – for now, at least – the branded cyborg is a particular hybrid of human and social media platform that creates a circulation of identity different from previous incarnations or understandings of self. It is a reputational identity with tangible, visible, measurable attributes, and the economy in which it operates makes demands on the entity who generates it.

In this sense, I think the branded cyborg – for those of us who are one – is us and reaches beyond us, at the same time. It is identity in the public domain. And I think how it operates matters.

That’s why I think digital identity deserves special focus, even if it is perceived by social media users as a simple extension of themselves. Operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are in so-called “real life,” no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no. The speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the reputational and corporate economic aspects of social media, and the ways in which power circulates and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances all change the subject positions that the environment creates and privileges.

Donna Haraway first wrote her particular version of the cyborg into being in 1985: a creature without origin and without innocence, resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” A couple of years ago, in response to the irritatingly popular mythology of the digital native, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek cyborg momifesto, on the cyborg nature of mommybloggers. We perform aspects of self for each other, intimately, but accept that the whole is seldom represented. We often parody notions of what motherhood should be in an effort to resist the discourses that frame our identities. We are hybrids of human and technology just as surely as our children are touted to be.

My ‘we’ has expanded since then, but I still find the figure of the cyborg valuable as a representation of the particular kind of digital identity I want to explore. In my dissertation, I’ll revision Haraway’s late 20th century version of the cyborg as a 21st century digital subject; an entity of social media.

Now, I don’t think everyone online is a cyborg, or at least not a branded cyborg, not really. It depends on what we DO online. Those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the creation/consumption sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. If you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is mostly surfing, maybe you’re not branding. It’s about level of engagement in that reputational, rhizomatic economy. It’s about sharing, putting aspects of self out there, seeking recognition and being open to new connections in the network. It’s about reciprocity, as well: sharing the work of others, leaving comments, participating in the circulation.

So the digital identities of cyborgs are multi-faceted representations, contributed to and amplified by others as part of the etiquette of social media. Cyborg subjects involved in social media produsage networks ‘create content’ such blog posts, tweets, video work, slideshows, or comments attached to a particular digital identity that circulates in the open, building social – and potential financial – capital for its creators in the process. Traditional media appearances or in the online work of others will sometimes factor into a person’s digital identity: the traces that register with Google as a part of our digital identity are not always fully under our control. However, as Google’s page rank works on scale of views, longterm commitment to a particular digital profile or identity means that sites or accounts managed by the user will usually end up outranking random facets of identity originating with other subjects. The identity can encompass many platforms: depth and frequency of use lend gravitas, as do statistical data like blog pageviews and public rankings like Klout.

For Judith Butler, we are called into being as subjects by the operations of power and discourse, and our agency is concommitant with our subjectivity. What does this mean for digital identity? Cyborg digital identities are the product of already-formed subjects: the traces of us that circulate online are deployed in that environment by subjects always already navigating discourse and power. The digital identity may be constructed the same, psychically and discursively, but operates in a different environment. It is the agency of the digital subject – and whether the digital environment offers alternative opportunities for agency not previously available to the subject in embodied form – that interests me.

As an educator, I’m also interested in whether these potentially new digital subjectivities and their agency then impact the embodied subject and his or her expectations. In other words, what does it mean to teach a branded cyborg in an educational system premised on very different subject roles and agentive constructions than are available here online?

This is why I don’t believe that your online identity is simply ‘you.’ When a subject chooses to engage in the produsage economy, creating and sharing content and contributing to the consumption of others’ content as a means of connecting and building visibility and reputation, a cyborg digital identity comes into being. This digital identity, I will argue, cannot be identical to the subjectivity of the embodied person creating the content, even if the person intends it to be. The digital identity will almost invariably end up being recognized and interacted with differently than the embodied person, because the medium allows for and privileges different types of engagement. Few people, even if they write for a living, walk into an office in the morning and are told outright what a wonderful writer they are. Few students can walk into schools, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, and say Hey! This really amazing/terrible/striking thing came across my radar last night and I’d like to take this morning to respond to and share it creatively. Not everyday. And I’m not sure school should be about that every day, though I’m not sure it shouldn’t. But most students learn from their earliest years that schooling means a set of power relations that tend to preclude and sanction statements like that. They learn a different subject position, one with a very different sort of agency than they will encounter online, as cyborgs.

In this context, then, new forms of agency and specifically digital subjectivity are indeed jointly called into being. The discourses and power relations that create the specific subjugation that calls each individual into cyborg identity would, I assume, be individual: I will want to explore Butler’s work on desire and on giving account of oneself in order to consider the myriad of ways this may operate. Certainly, in my own experience, it was subjugation to and representation by a discourse of motherhood that I felt excluded my experience of loss and attachment that led me to try to narrate my own story online, visibly: in creating cribchronicles, I created my own agency to speak a counter-discourse.

This all sounds delightfully, misleadingly emancipatory. I don’t mean it to. I see change as carrying good and bad, cultural gain and cultural loss: I want to explore both. Social media is neither saviour nor sin, in my mind. And lots of people, I’m sure, go online mostly for the porn.

My read of both Haraway’s original cyborg and Butler’s notions of subjectivity and performativity is that the messiness is okay; that clean trajectories are to be mistrusted, interrogated, that porn – and all the aspects of humanity that it stands for – are part of the package I’ve taken on here, in looking to study identity in this public domain of the digital.

My hope, really, is that in exploring what it means to be a branded cyborg I will stumble and grope my way to a more complex understanding of what it means to be human, here and now.