Dear Rhizo15

I’m sitting on the front porch of my house, the kids just put to sleep, and wondering at the strangeness of it all. Two years ago I had this idea that I wanted to try and run a course on empty. I wanted to take the work I’d been doing on rhizomatic learning and the MOOC stuff I’d done and take it to its logical extreme. What if there really is no content? Can there be a meaningful experience if there’s nothing more than a title to a course and a few questions? Two years later I’m wondering what to say to an unknown number of people now part of a community (set of communities) on the last day of the second of those courses.

Some of you are people who’s names are regularly used in conversation in my house. You’ve become part of the family in some cases, archetypes in others. There are some whose names, when i see them attached to work, immediately bring that feeling of excitement, that frisson of ‘what have they come up with today’ that makes the internet in general and our community in particular such a compelling place to let your brain run through. There are other names that are attached to parts of the work we are all doing that isn’t mine, who’s work i respect, but don’t quite understand. There are some, and it happened today on the very last day of the course, who’ve clearly been here all along and I haven’t seen. How crazy is that?

I guess what i wanted to say, above all, is that you all mean something to me. You are directly, individually and collectively proof that we can come together, from all over, and make meaning together without making a big deal about it. That people can care about each other and the work we are doing in a way that is sometimes partial, but usually meaningful. That people can be supportive of strangers and their work. That they can be generous and forgiving of flaws and cheerleaders on some very, very silly ideas. You all mean something to me. You make me hopeful.

I also wanted to talk about the quality of the work that’s been done this year. Lenandlar has done a great job of collecting blog posts, and I encourage everyone to drop over there and see some of the work that’s been done. Profound, courageous and intelligent work. Some of it devastatingly funny. Some of it a little odd :). None of it dismissive, or condescending. But that’s only part of the story. Just wandering through the image section of the twitter hashtag is a rampage of jokes, research and reflection that make me feel like this work is worthwhile. So thanks for being smart. And for being willing to bring your smart into my world.

I started the journey into the rhizome because there was something about it that rang ‘true’ for me. Or, maybe more to the point, something that seemed familiar. I had been doing a certain amount of work in internet communities, and that connection was certainly part of it – but there was something deeper for me. I’ve always been suspicious of easy answers, of pat responses, of formulas that fit screwdriver into screw. I see answers making sense in some parts of our world, but I think that we examine the human on too profound a level for that to work. As I’ve grown through thinking about it, but mostly through working with your folks this year, and those of you from last year, I’m starting to see what some of it might mean to me.

For education, it means that learning being difficult doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It means that we can trust people to confront complexity and come out better on the other side. Mostly… because they do that everyday anyway. We are immersed in complexity… we can’t escape it. Learning that allows people to confront uncertainty, make responsible decisions and still be good citizens is exactly the kind of learning I want to support. Learning that sees the ‘content’ of what is learned as simply ‘understand each other’… that’s maybe the core message. The journey of the rhizomatic learner, that nomadic journey, is through the earth of humanity. We move passed the ideas of others, expressed the best way they knew how. We feed on them. The process is always broken, filled with miscommunications and bits and pieces…

For me it means that the last ten years of work still make sense. I’m not sure what the next project is… God knows I’m tangled in enough student projects at my university to last the summer at least. But I do know that there are enough people out there that I respect, that I care about, that I like to think with that I could reach out and find a few of you to play with, or that you might reach out to want to try something out with me. It gives the odd little kid that I was, and the not-quite-conformist adult he became the feeling that he is part of a fellowship. A tribe.

You guys are all right.

Thanks.

Content is people – exploring the myth of content

I tend to read (that is, listen to audiobooks) fairly indiscriminately in my spare time. I’m currently caught between reading fantasy novels with my son, re-reading the Iliad, two Sarah Vowell books and a pop-anthropology book called Sapiens. I know i’m not going to remember most of what i read in 12 minutes drives to and from the grocery store so i mostly like books that i can drop in and out of. I also like to be entertained by people’s ideas… regardless of whether they are ‘accurate’. Threaded through the wild and rollicking ride of conjecture, research and really snappy one liners that is Harari’s book Sapiens, are some very entertaining ideas. One of them is a particular view of how we are knitted together by our myths.

He sees myths as shared stories that we use to allow us to communicate and relate to large numbers of other humans. His argument, in part, is that the success of homo sapiens as a species is in our ability to create large scale fabrications that we can all believe in – money is a good example. Money doesn’t really ‘exist’ as a thing, it only works because we all believe it works. He makes the same argument for things like gods and corporations. They aren’t things in the world like you and I and my cat Clementine. They are shared delusions that we make real in order to cope with the complexity of our culture. All myth is, in a sense, a reification – treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.

The thing in the container
The word ‘content’ is exactly this kind of abstraction. It’s a word that is used by almost every english speaking educator, but in many different ways.

  1. The ‘content’ of a course may be topic of the course – introductory chemistry.
  2. It may be the ‘materials’ (speaking of abstractions) like a laundry list of published articles
  3. It could be a textbook (grrr…)
  4. It may be the whole curriculum of a course – everything that happens
  5. … lots and lots of other things

And yet with all these varied ways of looking at the word, we use it to generally refer to ‘the things that are studied in that class’. They are ‘the things in the container’ of the course. But what does it mean for a course to have content? What does it mean for there to be things that are/should be in a container of first-year chemistry, or medical ethics or educational theory? These things change all the time. If you looked at the ‘content’ of courses from 50 years ago, or from another country, or even from one course to another we see a totally different things in the container.

So what dave? People teach different things. (i totally just said that in my head)

The so what here comes from our ability to choose between one ‘piece of content’ and another to include in our course. The ways in which those particular pieces of content become more popular is a weird social process. Einstein’s theories of special relavity made it to general acceptance because Max Planck supported them. They could be called ‘Universy roundy bouncy’ and be totally differently conceived if Max had found someone else first. But lets leave deep, i really don’t understand it, science aside for a moment. The laundry list of content that we read in any field is as much a matter of who popularized and named what concept at one time. It is the story that someone (or more likely, lots of someones), somewhere told. Whether it was then written down, and we forgot who wrote it, the fact remains…

We are actually just choosing the different stories that actual people have told to tell to someone else. We are choosing between people. Which is fine… it just means that the ‘content’ is actually people.

Content is people
I seem to think that this is profoundly important for learning. If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum.

An invitation to participation in rhizo15

Blog post writing in my house is a study in contrasts. I will pace around the house, pick up my guitar for ten minutes, read an article, and then write a 1000 word blog post in 20 minutes. After this, I am useless for about an hour (or longer, depending on who you ask). Bonnie (@bonstewart) will sit, still, in the corner of the couch for as many hours as we can scrape out of a life where a 6 and almost 9 year old flit in and out of the room. That flitting comes from their father. It’s how i work. Bonnie is a crafter. Every sentence, every turn of phrase is measured against her sensibility and her intellect. I write a blog post, read it over once and hit publish.

Bonnie sees all possibility, and narrows from there. I, for reasons that people may intuit, will tend to focus obsessively on one idea for short periods of time. Bonnie’s approach produces better writing, mine is faster :). That difference at the middle of my practice as a thinker has got me to thinking about all the potentially different approaches out there that people are going to have when they look at #rhizo15. What we’ve had going so far is going to suit some people’s approaches more than others.

The first 4 days of #rhizo15 have been pretty intense. We’ve had over 2500 tweets, lots of activity on the facebook page and a very interesting set of blog posts from around the world. There are new ideas, new people and, clearly, people who already know each other and are sharing ideas they’ve been working on for a while. I’ve been watching the tagboard, and been very much enjoying the bursts of creativity that I’m seeing everywhere… but i’ve been worrying about what people may think their participation SHOULD be.

there is no WAY to participate
I believe that people come to every situation with a map of where they’ve been and how they’ve known things. While it’s possible to graph a predetermined structure of knowledge onto that map, I tend to think of it as always alien. Like adding a prefab shed to the side of a house. There is a chance that the shed is the same style as the house, but it isn’t terribly likely. It will always be ‘shed’ and won’t be ‘house’. If we can build more organically to our knowledge map, if we approach these situations from where WE are, then there’s a better chance that the learning process is a growth process, a natural extension to what you’ve already known. Our warren just gets new rooms 🙂

The reason that participation instructions for rhizo are so vague is not that I don’t have feeling about it, it’s that I think deep learning has to be deeply personal. I’m hoping to allow folks a chance to participate in spaces that are comfortable for them. One of the central guiding principles in my design of this course is that I need to be constantly creating space. Space for different ideas, space for people to think new things. It is a course about me always saying less. This, hopefully, will give permission for everyone else to say more. The more you guys say about this topic, the more I learn. A side effect of this, I’m starting to think, is that it makes it harder to encourage new people to participate.

One potential approach
If you have been looking at rhizo so far and thinking that it doesn’t quite suit your way of working, I offer one potential approach for giving it a try.

  1. This is a list of week 1 blog posts
  2. Pick one that resonates.
  3. Leave a comment
  4. Approach mirror, give the person in the mirror a high five
  5. return contentedly to previous activity

Once you have made one comment, you’ll have contributed to the course. After that, how far you take it is up to you. If that’s what participation looks like for you, that’s all it ever needs to be.

If you’ve never blogged before, and think you might want to give it a try…

start a blog on wordpress.com

You may only post once in your life, or you may find that it becomes a place from which you communicate with others who are interested in what you are interested in.

Community Curriculum
At every moment of dissonance there is a chance to learn. I am always hoping that we will have participation from someone who does not think ‘they belong’. The more different kinds of input, the more perspectives that engage, the more fun this process is for everyone. If you have thoughts, convergent or divergent, find a way to share them. If you aren’t sure how, message me. Whatever your background or interest, consider this an invitation for you to participate in ways that work for you.

Links
Week One Assignment
Practical guide to rhizo15