1980: Week 5 -- Is community learning an invasive species?

D Cormier comments

How do we make sure there is always room for new and contrarian voices? Do we need to create a ‘them’ to have a ‘we’? How do we cultivate a community learning ecosystem so that it continues to grow outward rather than inward? What does that mean for learning?

There are signs that rhizo15 is becoming an ‘echo chamber’ – analysis shows that there are fewer people participating but more intensive tweeting among the few.

I was especially interested in this topic. I have hinted already that there was a group of participants who had engaged with each other already in various ways, including participating in Rhizo14, and they did seem to dominate [numerically, I mean] the Facebook posts at least. I think they also dominated the blogs listed below.

It is clear that Cormier’s own posts are starting to see some problems with Deweyan types of creativity, however, especially the view that some sort of ‘group think’ comes to replace formal structures. In order to get a glimpse of how this issue was handled, I summarized the comments included in some participant’s blogs for Week 5. D. Cormier had listed the blogs himself:

1.    ‘I feel defensive and protective about community. I just don’t understand how community can possibly invade. It’s like asking someone to go to the moon and map out the dark side… How you commune with learning, your subjective choices in that conversation, makes learning more or less rhizomatic than any design framework or model.

2.    ‘I try to tweet and engage as much as I can but my work during the day takes priority (gots to pays the bills) so I often miss huge chunks of content and ideas from 10-5pm EDT. I try to go back and catch up but again my bubble is such that no matter how I TRY to game the system I still see the same voices. I know there are others, but sadly they seem to be buried or lost to me thanks to algorithms who think for me (they are like the annoying paperclip from Word)….I know for a fact that the feed I see on Twitter using the app on my phone is not the same as the feed I see when I use my laptop. So what does this mean bigger picture? It means that the thing that connects us and allows for this rhizomatic learning experience is also the thing that is stifling the true extent of that learning. I’d like to argue that the algorithms are the invasive weeds it’s not an innate hive mind; it is algorithms that create echo-chamber effects’.

3.    ‘Is group-think a potential problem in teamwork?  I think it is, but just because it's a potential problem it doesn't mean that we have an echo-chamber situation... I think this is a logical part of a course that does not have a linear structure.’

4.    ‘Rhizomatic learning is a natural, organic process.  In micro perspective, it is an eco-system; in macro perspective it is the way how the universe organizes itself.... Rhizomatic learning is a journey with no beginning and no end. The only way to explain this process is the universe metaphor which has no beginning and no end in addition to its organic and chaotic nature. Knowmads are in the center of this universe… It is not planned or predestined. It is self-centered and instinctual. Thus, it is also more about acquisition as well as the learning. So, the motives that trigger to act vertically or horizontally derive from our intrinsic needs. Learning or acquisition is as natural as slaking. They are our decisions we take consciously or unconsciously.

5.    ‘I have seen several posts in #rhizo15 that refer to “something that I saw on one of the blogs somewhere” or posts talking about similar themes that are not citing one another in any way. What is going on here? …I’m no better – I know I have done this but I have to wonder: Are some people intentionally snubbing one another? Do they not see the connections? Are people just lazy? What is up with the connections that we can’t see – as consumers and producers of content (people).’

6.    ‘I genuinely haven't got much to say. I am reminded though of what I posted last week: How does the 'self-replicating' aspect of rhizomatic learning deal with self-replicating bad ideas? It seems that rhizomatic or not, self-replication is problematic. However, if #rhizo15 is a good example of rhizomatic learning, then I'm not sure if I see much self-replication happening. ..Conclusion: I still don't get rhizomatic learning.’

7.    ‘I choose to spend my time with the #rhizo15 learning group as that is where I find the most value — new ideas, challenging ideas, support, encouragement, and the like…. I am not sure how others find this, or even if my experience is common or unique, but I would surely not call #rhizo15 an echo chamber. I have had too many challenges and disagreements for it to be claimed we are all of one mind. If anything, the only commonality some of us may share is the #rhizo15 tag itself.

8.    ‘Then, self-organizing knots are not a problem if you can form your own knot. The best response if you don't like the Twitter dance is to join another dance or start your own dance. In #rhizo15, you can write a song… a story…a play…a poem sequence…maps and graphs …or blog posts. Nothing in an open space precludes you changing the topic. You are free to engage the power. You are not free to expect an absence of power. It takes power to do all those things, and I am pleased that so many want to do so much. God bless the rhizome.’

9.    ‘That led to this comic (which, I now realize, is very America-centered in its reference to invasive species … you may have your own where you live) this morning [graphic omitted]’

10.    ‘Hi, I’m a weed. I’m just minding my own business here. Oooh nice water  oh, what? You wanted to plant some Zucchini here? Ok, i’m just minding my own business…oh, you’re removing me? But I… (cut) (A week later) Hi, I’m a weed. Yes. I know you pulled me out last week when you planted the zucchini. But you do know I was here first? (Resists as feels itself being pulled). You do know I am multiple, don’t you? (Cut) (A week later) Hi. Well it’s useless to introduce myself again. Clearly you recognize us. We’re not trying to intrude upon your space, we’re just trying to survive here. We know we have a different approach to things, but you know, we’re not actually asking you for anything…(cut) (A week later) Resistance is futile. Can’t you see that your plants are growing? I’m only taking as much as I need and making do. (Tone softens) Can’t we just co-exist? (Cut) (A week later) See? I relocated slightly. Well it appears that way to you, but we’ve got underground networks you can’t see that… Oh, I better not tell you about those. (Dig, pull) (10 days later) See? Now that you’ve waited? I’ve got flowers for you this time. Yes, I know, aren’t I pretty? Will you keep me this time? [in lieu of a blogpost for this week, in case i never get time to answer those important questions. Writing the above from my limited gardening experience but it made me think of Palestine too, an imperfect metaphor but it kept coming to me; I blame Dave Cormier for that, too; the idea of writing this way of course is inspired by ppl [other participants]  tho i could never do it as well as any of them.’

11.    ‘My familiarity w the people and process and my comfort w getting to know new ppl online, sthg that energizes me, makes it all fun and exhilarating really….But all of the above also serves to exclude. We are not  “open” simply because we are friendly or say we are open. Openness is more complicated and probably deserves a deeper analysis than I can do here.  But here is what I think (also common to both rhizo15 and hpj101 [hp=Hybrid Pedagogy]): Facilitators are caring individuals, as are most participants No one intends to exclude others and this matters even when it isn’t enough. Many participants are dissenters in their lives and this goes really well with the ethos of both. I tried to go as far as I could without quoting Dave but I have to. He once said that every “us” implies “not us”. I am an only child and when i see siblings interacting i see an “us” that excludes me, a shared language, a history that excludes me. It’s not rude. It just is. Similarly, how can I, who am so familiar with people like Dave and [others], how can I ignore that shared history? But by not ignoring it, by showing it publicly, I exclude. I try to reach out to new people but our connections w people we have known longer are almost magnetic in their pull. And the way we become immersed in a discourse or culture makes it difficult to see it from the outside, with new eyes. But I am reminded these days of how I felt when I first read Hybrid Pedagogy. Journal or magazine? What do you mean collaborative review? Google doc submission? I loved what I was reading and was completely intimidated by the beauty of the writing in it. I am still awed that they would want me to write for them monthly. It was one of my proudest moments in my life. (mind you none of this implies i would be a good editor so i may not make the cut in the course! And i still make mistakes and have misunderstandings and arguments with them ; but there is enough good history to keep us going and lots to look forward to) But here are two things both these courses do: They make us think about what we take for granted They have DIVERSIMILARITY (title of my post). This is a term i first came about during my PhD research from a paper on intercultural learning by my supervisor. He means for us to look at teaching ppl of diverse cultures, to recognize and address both diversity and similarity.

I mean it slightly differently here Ppl at both HP and rhizo are diverse in many ways: nationality. Ethnicity. Sexuality and gender. Profession but also there is much similarity: all educators of some kind. All dissenting in some way. Somewhat interested in ed tech and tech savvy (and for HP interested in critical pedagogy).  Don’t make me think community is a bad thing simply because not everyone can be in it. I don’t think there can ever be a community that is equally welcoming to everyone of every background and interest…It matters that we intentionally avoid excluding on bases of injustice and discrimination. That we are aware of ways our behavior might exclude based on race, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, etc.  But based on interest, values? No. Way. We don’t have to be interesting to everyone and vice versa. Willing to enter into dialogue and know them, yes. Continuing to engage them regardless…no…simply because we can’t live our entire lives working against every current…Because at rhizo and HP many of us are already swimming against the current, teaching against the grain, we thrive on finding a community of others like us. The people outside those communities are around us all the time and part of other groups or communities. Not every participation i have with every group is as deep, nor can nor should it be... rhizo will make u question assumptions about edu that most of us teach without ever questioning. ..So yeah…Learning in community. Some kind of diversimilarity is always a good sign that something is right.

12.    ‘The first objection that had come to me was the fact that this is a category error, the rhizome is a plant type, it is not a species… the rhizome for me doesn’t exist in a bounded space, and that is what is joyful and rich about it. If there are no bounds, there is nothing and no one to be invaded… I see the rhizome as a way of looking at what learning is and how the mind works; we explore, and grow through that exploration, we assimilate nutrients and trace elements, we cluster, and sometimes we throw shoots skywards. And it works: when I sit with it, and follow the thought, I realize that that is how I learn… In this context, to me the idea of “rhizomatic learning” as opposed to any other kind of learning is odd. What would that other kind of learning be? Arborescent learning? I can entertain the notion of arborescent teaching or arborescent education, but my learning is not arborescent, however much I may sometimes express knowledge in arboreal form (and in the process simplify it). Learning just is rhizomatic…the challenge is how to use the notion of the rhizome to improve teaching and education.

13.    ‘The focus of the community as a strangling and invasive concept has a ready home in popular discourse in the right wing media response to the ‘left’, to the community as a space of dissent, as a group of malcontents who are somehow apart from, removed and beneath the standard, the norm, the conventional… I have spent a considerable time looking at what community means and the number of definitions means any fixed notion is impossible – a locality?  A shared interest group? A space for punishment? (Community Service is a sentence handed out in UK courts); A professional body?... A community must be something that is formed by its members and have the parameters for it decided by the people that form it…. Teacher/ Student/ Knowledge become removed from the accepted, prescriptive uses of these terms by institutions and reframed by the communities that create them – whether or not the actual terms remain the same or not… Community generates a knowledge that is fundamentally different to that of the arborescent… There is some much here that resonates with the rhizomatic, the concerns with the minoritarian over the majoritarian, the molecular over the molar, the insistence on a becoming through exploration and participation.  And, of course, communities are from all walks of all life – they are not a homogenous group, they are as separate from each other as such varied and diverse groups and individuals should be …I think that Community is far from an invasive species.  It is the natural, primordial shape of life as it has emerged.  Deleuze and Guattari say of semiotic chains that,  ‘there is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity’ ( A Thousand Plateaus, p.8).

14.    ‘From architecture to website design to poetry, and from education to gardening, the true invasive species is the collection of words, in a different configuration than before, that sets off a thought mutation that replicates itself and creates a new and different ecosystem than ore. I know, it’s all a gross over-simplification, and I have probably left off some important steps.  But you see the pattern.  Maybe.’

15.    ‘I keep thinking about the Borg when I reflect upon the collaborative writing that I have been participating in since rhizo14. We’re a diverse group from (as we are proud to tell folk) a range of countries across the globe, and we are all strong-minded, opinionated people who somehow manage to reach consensus without falling out with each other. We’ve played with various ways of describing ourselves, and seem to have settled on calling ourselves a “swarm”. .. When we’re not collaborating I read others from my swarm saying things that I would not put my name to, and I am sure that they feel the same about the stuff I write. This is not because I think that they are wrong, but because we each have our own voice and our own interests. we’re not just a collective, we are individuals as well.’

16.    ‘I am sometimes  asked what makes a good learning developer – is it a bunch of strategies, some great pedagogy, excellent resources, cool curriculum options… something else altogether? And I hark back to the people who have most influenced my own teaching… So – love your students – all of them – and allow the flows and currents – trying if you can to make sure none of them fall out or fall too far – but don’t strangle them or swaddle or limit… and sometimes you will fail and they will get hurt – but that was not your intention – and that makes a difference!!’

17.    ‘Stigmergy, a term coined by Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s with his research on termite behavior, describes self organization of complex tasks by collective inputs of a large number who are responding to changes in their local environment through small simple actions…The concept of stigmergy therefore provides an intuitive and easy-to-grasp theory for helping understand how disparate, distributed, ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen….’

This is quite a critical discussion, clearly recognizing the dangers but opposing to 'group think' various sources of opposition. Some might have turned on the notion of the autonomous individual as a source of resistance to collective pressure again, as in extracts 1, 7, 8, 11 and 15. Some saw the collective pressure from communities in terms of general accounts of power -- eg extracts 2, 8. Some additional critical themes are also apparent: extracts 2 and 5.

One issue with MOOCs in general is that ‘independent learners’ seem able to cope best if they have considerable amounts of cultural capital already. Looking at the contributions above, it seems that some contributors relied on their reflections on experience (e.g. extracts 1. 10, 11, 16), while others drew on more theoretical work (e.g. extracts 12, 13 and 17): the first two examples mention Deleuze and Guattari specifically. It was not possible to establish the occupations of participants, but the more prominent ones seemed to be employed in or retired from Education and the cultural industries.

Contributions from D&G have been cited in earlier sections, on managing the rhizome and on subjectivity. Deleuze is probably more suspicious of 'group think' and 'echo chamber' effects than Guattari, who likes radical group pedagogy as we saw . However, even Guattari found problems actually running the sort of community he advocated. Osborne (2011)* tells us that he 'was notorious for continually forming up and breaking groups' (146) ,  that the 'experimental practices of collective reflexivity --that is endless meetings-- took up much of the time and energy' (147), and that Guattari's 'egalitarian political rationalization [left] behind a string of emotional casualties' (147).

  In addition, for Deleuze, for example: 

 Deleuze (2004) begins his critique of conventional thinking by opposing communal  recognition—‘the harmonious exercise of all the faculties upon a supposed same object’ (169). Recognition has to be critiqued, since it ‘has never sanctioned anything but the recognizable and the recognized; form will never inspire anything but conformities’ (170)....‘thought “rediscovers” the State, rediscovers “the Church” and rediscovers all the current values’ (172).  Human communication seems to imply common sense, but we cannot assume a ‘supposed same object’ or ‘or subjective unity in the nature of an “I think”’ (183).

New values are required, but not just in a generational sense, rather in the way that generates permanent newness—‘the new—in other words, difference—calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model’ (172). The last thing we need is community support for our thoughts : What is required is a genuine ‘strangeness or an enmity...  Thought is primarily trespass and violence...  Everything begins with misosophy’ (175 – 6).  Contingent encounters can force thought as an absolute necessity.  ‘Something in the world forces us to think…  an object not of recognition but of fundamental encounter’ (176). What is needed is a pursuit of ‘free or untamed states of difference in itself’ (181), not concepts already determined by representation or the conventional notion of what is sensible.  ‘This element is intensity, understood as pure difference in itself’.  We must not let our imagination be constrained by convention.  We’re after ‘both that which can only be imagined and the empirically unimaginable’ (181). 
This level requires us doing some deleuzian philosophy,of course.

Engaging with a community of friendly learners is cosy and conformist compared to 
an involuntary adventure, the movement of learning which links the sensibility, memory and then a thought, with all the cruelties and violence necessary, as Nietzsche said, precisely in order to train “a nation of ‘thinkers’” or to “provide a training for the mind”’ (205). In particular, we have to avoid a tempting but deadly assumption of  a ‘beautiful soul’ [an Hegelian notion which celebrates difference, which sees all differences as reconcilable, ‘far removed from bloody struggles’(xviii) -- Hegel disapproved too]. This could include Dewey though?Generally, Deleuze identifies a number of nice communal assumptions that drive conventional thought, including one involved in the term 'philosophy' itself -- a shared, communal, well-intentioned, harmonious love of knowledge. As in the paragraph above, he advocates 'misosophy' instead.

Deleuze and Guattari  (1994) say we should just get on and do philosophy, not talk about it in nice communities:
'For this reason philosophers have very little time for discussion' (28).  No-one ever talks about the same thing, and the point is to go on and create concepts—'when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous' (28).  Philosophy is not endless discussion.  'To criticize is only to establish that the concept vanishes when it is forced into a new milieu' (28). Those who advocate debate and discussion 'are inspired by ressentiment. They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another'(29).

ATP has less to offer immediately  here:

Chapter 9 reminds us that families can be replaced by  communities, but with the same dangers of developing 'microfascism' (251), and there is a discussion in Chapter 13 of various forms of the state and how they classically dominate communities by 'overcoding'. The footnote referring to potential forms of political resistance to capitalism include construction of alternative practices nonetheless,  like pirate radio stations, urban community networks, alternatives to psychiatry and so on, with a reference to a collection on Italian autonomism (642).

Overall, it is clear that D&G are happier with what might be seen as 'imaginary communities' of philosophers and artists whose work they have encountered and come to admire, populated by 'conceptual personae'. They are not advocating the heroism of the lonely  individual in the Romantic sense, from what I can see, since they insist on collective assemblages of enunciation and the like. Deleuze might be reacting against what might be seen as the excessively concrete and unmanageably present individuality of actual philosophers and critics whom he meets face to face. Guattari seems to have met the tensions of actual community life big time. Perhaps the sort of limited contacts available in MOOCs would suit them well, as long as people agreed to challenge each other, offer strange encounters and the rest -- but since MOOCs are self-recruited this is unlikely?

So -- what do communities do is my question. Did rhizo15 offer a smothering and conformist community imposing 'group think'? I think there were tendencies that way, with some evidence for a 'beautiful soul' building on the equal respect for all/relativism thing. Resistance to these pressures was easy, but guaranteed more by the ability to break contact with few consequences than by some inbuilt tolerance: what would have happened if we were all locked together in some organization having to communicate? Micropolitics would have ensued inevitably is my guess.  There were few signs of a more positively philosophical community in the deleuzian sense, with adventurous encounters to challenge fundamental structures like 'recognition'  - it was also easy to ignore provocation and criticism, as the echoing silence of responses to some of my own contributions [and those of others] indicated. Finally, there was some sign that the MOOC provided some sort of politically supportive community for those wishing to resist conventional models of pedagogy -- a good and necessary thing in my view.

It is also clear that D&G have collaborated very productively with each other in a little mini writing community . The next section argues that this is far from the usual notions of 'collaborative writing' however.

* Osborne.P. (2011) 'Guattareuze?' New Left Review 69: 139--51.

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