Community learning – every ‘we’ makes a ‘them’

I have too many draft blog posts accumulating in this space so I’m committed to publishing whatever drivel comes out of my fingers tonight. I was seconded to lead Academic Planning and Retention/student engagement at UPEI, and with the plan finally out to campus, New Student Orientation ready to go and our analytics project coming together, I can turn my mind to other ideas.

After the open course I ran earlier this year (Rhizo15) we found ourselves tangled in a number of publication and presentation projects. We’ve setup a Slack instance to try and deal with the todos on the different projects. It’s been an interesting process trying to bring enough structure to a ridiculously unstructured concept (rhizomatic learning) to be able to talk to other people about it. We’ve been having a conversation over the last week or so about the viability of running a new rhizo (#rhizo16) next year. The focus of that conversation is about how we can include people in the community so that they feel real membership. The very fact that there’s a ‘we’ talking about this in the first place suggests that we might have a problem on our hands.

WEs creating THEMs
I tend to think that membership and belonging are things that humans seek in most things they do. You may be member of a very small, very pigheaded group, but you still have a place to belong… even if that belonging is only in opposition to the dominant group. In the learning stuff that I play with, I always try to be very sensitive to the idea that it can be difficult for new people to play. By this i don’t mean “do people know enough to join”, but rather “do people feel like they are members of the community”. Rhizo14 (the first Rhizomatic learning open course) spawned a set of tightly knit communities that, in some cases, continued working together after the course was over. In some of those cases I think the community may have formed in opposition to the course… but it still formed. We had created some very strong WE during the course of our work during and after the course. We had created a language. We had reifications that were part of shared experience.

At that point of WE the THEMs are created. Lots of us are interested in making these great communities of knowing, but in doing so we are, defacto, excluding all the folks who didn’t make it in, for whatever reason. Some people expect to be part of the WE – just because they showed up. Some people take great offence to starting out as a THEM. Some are very sensitive to these kinds of belonging and others, of course, could care less. As facilitators we have a double responsibility to both the WEs and the THEMs.

In planning for #rhizo15 my main concern was to create a space where new people could join and participate on a level playing field with folks from #rhizo14. Not possible, I know, I guess maybe it was a direction I was heading in. I took a number of approaches:

  1. I committed to running the course by myself, thereby not overtly creating an ‘in crowd’ (though, to be fair, lots of #rhizo14ers helped lots and lots in the background
  2. I changed the name (to 15), the focus and the location of the course… killing off a very successful facebook group in the process
  3. I attempted (and failed) to create a forkable course
  4. I vowed to do way more social intervention work to include people equally
  5. I equally attempted to avoided ‘right answers’ as these favour the initiated
  6. I was terribly mysterious about the content (and, frankly, the goal) of each week… putting everyone in the same position

For all the efforts I made, it was breathtaking how quickly the WE groups formed themselves. We’re still looking at the data from twitter, suffice it to say that people form up pretty quickly. That shared experience starts to create new language, it melds with the old language, and new WEs are created. And that’s good. People start to trust and like each other, and they start to learn together. They care about each other. Community forms. New thinking emerges. WEs happen. But anyone who did not participate in that experience, who did not, for whatever reason, feel included if they did participate… they are now a them. It’s not something I saw people do overtly… it just seems to happen. I’ve been working in online communities (mostly for learning) for a dozen years or so, as a community emerges, it tends to get more and more difficult to join fully. I’ve come to see this as normal, and to see my job as trying to create ways to allow people to belong over time.

Opening the door
This blog post is here because my excellent colleague asked the question “wonder why we speak of opening the door at all, instead of an open hallway?”. I think we create those doors by liking each other. There are certainly people who are more than willing to just ignore the doors and jump in anyway, but I think that the longer a group of people are together, the fewer people there are who are willing to do that. Unless, of course, people make an overt effort to create strategies that allow people to become members of a community, and, in our case, a community of knowing.

And we all know this really – from the rest of our lives. It takes effort to belong to any tight knit group of people, and I’m certainly not suggesting that all the effort should be on the part of the WE to allow for the THEM. Becoming part of the WE is an overt act of becoming on the part of the THEM. They have to want it. They have to be willing to try and understand the WE even as they come to belong and start to shape what the WE means. But the WE has to continually find new ways to open the door, to allow people to join on equal footing (whatever that means).

What this means for learning – Making people WEs
I’ve always seen Instructivism as a process by which you explain to people that there are things they are supposed to know, and they should just go on about believing those things. There are instances in which i agree with this. Road rules. The names of things (though this is tricky). The fire exits. Timestables. I think its very dangerous, however, when we start applying it to everything. While its probably a more effective way to get someone to pass a test, it’s not as effective a mechanism at encouraging creativity, independence and people’s ability to confront adversity/uncertainty.

That’s where, I believe, Constructivism comes in. From those terms, you are building your own understanding of the world around you. Not a great way to learn to use a stop sign, but a more effective mechanism for emancipation. My particular feelings about learning are, I think, a form of constructivism, where we remove the ‘right answer’ entirely, and try to move people from the THEM category of learning to the WE category. Where we are trying to bring them into the community of knowing rather than enforcing a belief upon them. Teaching is, i think, a constant effort of shoving that damn door open to try and let people in. Making WEs of the THEMs.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

10 thoughts on “Community learning – every ‘we’ makes a ‘them’”

  1. We had a much smaller group in the happenings obviously — MUCH smaller — but a big concern of ours was Hospitable Hypertext. And that’s where this issue of the politics of the Stream comes in. The Stream is based in conversational modes, related to Bahktin’s idea of the Utterance:

    “But in reality the situation is considerably more compl icated. Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another. These mutual reflections determine their
    character. Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication. Every utterance must be regarded primarily as a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word “response” here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes, affirms, supplements, and relies on the others, presupposes
    them to be known, and somehow takes them into account. ” (Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, p.91. http://monoskop.org/images/7/7b/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Speech_Genres_and_Other_Late_Essays.pdf )

    When you look at that, you begin to see part of where the we-creation comes from. I’m not saying all of it, but certainly part:

    “Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account…”

    But if each utterance relies on the previous utterances to achieve meaning, then meaning is inaccessible to those not party to the previous utterances. This discourse coherence is powerful at we-making. And it’s desirable in many ways. In “real-life” it works quite well, in that people in a physical location often share a common conversational history.

    The Stream, however, is something different — it’s the application of the principles of the utterance to the textual realm. This brings with it some unique opportunities, but some unique problems — all, well and good except that we have replaced EVERYTHING with stream these days, and lost some other digital modes that are more hospitable to conversational outsiders.

    I don’t think there is a solution per se, but my intuition is that leaning a bit away from stream and a bit toward original hypertext visions (which were very textual, almost anti-utterance in nature) could help mitigate these problems.

  2. hmmm… methinks meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and that how one sees self may have little to do with how others see the situation…, I haven’t the faintest idea whether you or you or you see me as as within the WE or part of THEM but I’m guessing I might put myself in a different category to you tend to put me… and I assume those I see as part of WE don’t necessarily feel themselves to be any such thing…. does it matter?

    I’m very influenced by Bakhtin, and by Bernstein and most of all by Halliday in my musings about language, text and context, but I’m not sure I share any sense of ‘problem’ with you guys… ? I’m interested always to discuss and define literacy and oracy and the ‘affordances’ or limitations of one or another technology in becoming literate, but if the intention is to talk about what makes a body feel in or out of a discourse, and to get more participation in ‘meaning making processes’, then can’t you just ask folks how they feel and whether they’d like to feel part of?

    Some do actually prefer to observe than play, sometimes.. some hate ‘groups’ with a passion but still love the ideation that reading helps create, and they might change their mind anyway when it gets personal and real… others love the sound of their own voice and don’t care much to learn and change their intellectual potential.. so? What’s the ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’? Maybe it’s fine and lovely to have a group where you can be silent until you feel you need to speak…

    sorry for the ramble, I’m tired today, but basically just wanted to say that pronouns can be used by anyone, they don’t belong anywhere, so the only difference between being a we or a them is the act of occupying the word… back to silent themness now!

  3. The social dimension is crucial, and forms a background to both Bakhtin and Bernstein (and Halliday –OK to all 3. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition). I think the term ‘cultural capital’ sums it up well enough — people acquire dispositions or ‘tastes’ and this unconscious material facilitates some social relations rather than others. I think occupation can be important as well as social class/status — I thought the key participants were mostly fairly marginalised educational developers/educational technologists, with some unattached educational radicals, so they had problems and controversies that were not always explicit but which structured their interventions.
    Finally, not every them wants to become a we. I myself cherish my autonomy and independence and am delighted to be without paid occupation (retired). After years of having to compromise with purveyors of certainties of various kinds, I tend to agree with Sartre that ‘[academic] hell is other people’. Deleuze himself was a notorious loner in academic terms , of course.
    Best wishes for any future rhizos. As you know, my preference would be for more solid Deleuzian theorising ( see my account of Rhizo 15: http://www.arasite.org/rhizomenup.html)

  4. I love this post because your sentiment is beautiful Dave, as what shines through is your genuine care for the inclusion of every individual in the potential community, and that is an outstanding trait in education. 🙂

    I’m trying to think of a real world example where membership of a community doesn’t come with some pre-membership baggage of existing community to navigate. Are there ever any 100% fresh pop-up community experiences? In offline communities, there is also already a shared language, a history – like starting a new school, a new job or moving to a new neighbourhood, or even a new country – or even going to a conference. Even in new communities there usually isn’t a 100% share Day 1.

    Navigating communities is very hard – fraught with horrible emotions sometimes and you can feel very outside of the community for a very very long time. You can also find your place and then inexplicably feel lost again for a time. Same with online?

    I just think that you could spend a lot of time trying to scaffold all the welcomeness in the world, trying hard to ensure everyone feels like they have real membership, so that they they don’t feel like they are missing some background. In doing that, trying to smooth those transitions, is that making an artificial community?

    Sometimes joining a community is smooth, and other times bumpy. Sometimes you try and just don’t get that sense of belonging, so you disengage. That very act of overcoming that feelings of being outside, feeling lost, feeling threatened, or being offended, or feeling ignored – all of that – isn’t that just – real? Yes, facing those aspects put people at risk for disengagement – and this can sometimes be extreme. Disengagement can be a dark place to be where having individuals reach out from the community can help you back in. However, the conscious decision to rally against feeling disengaged, to pursue belonging, to ask for an outreached hand – for help – for information – for explanation – and to keep hold of the desire to belong – despite feeling lost -that has to come from the individual?

    Scaffolding your own belonging in an open community – could it be seen as a digital literacy skill that you have to work at and develop and fail at sometimes too? Could you turn the ‘we’ and ‘them’ around from feeling like a problem or responsibility of the community to somehow empower individuals to navigate it?

  5. I’m more interested in my identity as an outsider and have to think out the cause and effect relationship first. The problem of why some people / organizations drive me away no matter what they do, while some pull me in, no-matter-what-they-do is tied to my history and might not be something another can “fix.” More later.

  6. Well, I had something else to do, but … the Force is strong here, and we Slackers are easily pulled in.

    I am a bit troubled by the implication that any group can be totally open and all-inclusive as this violates my definition of a functioning, actionable group. Thinking all-inclusively leads me to a kind of holy holism that is pleasant to contemplate and that, when I do manage to touch it, genuinely reinvigorates my spirit and restores my faith in a basically friendly and supportive universe, so I in no way dismiss it.

    Still, that is a transcendent notion, and day-to-day, I’m mostly concerned with the immanent. From what I see of the Universe, most things have a tendency to aggregate into working structures from which new capabilities and characteristics emerge. This aggregation creates boundaries which both exclude, thus maintaining the integrity of the functioning group, AND include, thus enabling exchanges of energy, matter, information, and organization with the environment. These boundaries must both exclude and include, and these boundaries work across all known scales from subatomic strings up to galaxy clusters and maybe clusters of universes (we humans and our groups are somewhere in the middle).

    Consider carbon. Like most atoms, it’s a collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons (old school physics, I know, but work with me here). Now what would happen if a carbon atom was totally open and all-inclusive. Well, it wouldn’t be carbon, and we wouldn’t have graphite on the one hand, or diamonds on the other, or living creatures on the other (really—work with me here).

    Of course, a functioning unit of carbon is more simple, perhaps, than a functioning social unit such as a MOOC, but to my mind, boundaries are necessary at both scales to create workable entities. Because carbon is higher up the periodic table it seems to have more potential for combinations and expressions (both graphite which is soft and opaque and diamond which is hard and transparent are forms of carbon) than do hydrogen and helium. Likewise, social units work at more complex scales with far more potential for combinations and expressions. Like most of us here, I favor more combinations and expressions, but I am not in favor of being an all-inclusive resort (nor are those resorts—they really don’t want any of the native poor on the property). Becoming a functioning entity requires boundaries with the necessary functions of inclusion, exclusion, and exchange. I don’t know how to function in the world without boundaries, though I still value—greatly value—contact with the transcendent that for beautiful moments seems to remove all boundaries.

    That being said, I resist rigid, absolute boundaries, especially rigid social boundaries. For instance, the US is seriously considering an absolute boundary (The Wall) to protect its southern borders, an idea that I totally reject. The integrity of any social group (a nation, for instance) depends as much on inclusion and exchange as it does on exclusion. Boundaries must be flexible and malleable for an entity to sustain life. But they must also exclude some things. This is the tricky part, especially among social groups which move beyond the performance of boundaries among atoms to include competence and intention among social groups.

    Well … back to my business.

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