(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Body of Knowledge, or Embodied Knowledge? On theory, reading, privilege and #rhizo14

17 Comments

I am compelled to write this post quickly before I pick up my daughter from daycare. I need to write this post.

First off – I think #rhizo14 has been an amazing experience so far. A wonderful group of people who are kind and supportive and generous towards each other… some of whom have known each other for years (since CCK08 or some such experience) and yet welcomed me right in. Some of whom I knew briefly via #edcmooc or on Twitter or just a few weeks ago on Dave’s blog. They are now important parts of my life and my learning.

Second – the main reason for this post relates to a discussion on facebook related to Deleuze & Guttari and whether we should be reading them. Personally, I am happy for people who want to read them to go ahead and read them. I am happy for them to encourage others to read them (such as Cath’s eloquently worded blogpost here) but I think it is more important for people to not make others feel excluded for NOT wanting to read that complex literature (as Jaap does here).

As I told Cath on facebook, her blogpost is very kindly written. It does not look down upon the person who finds D&G difficult or irrelevant. However, there seems to be a group of people on #rhizo14 who are interested in learning the theory (note that D&G’s writing on rhizomatic thinking inspired Dave’s work on rhizomatic learning, but they are not the same thing)… but feel everyone else should be reading it, too. This is problematic for many reasons.

Mainly: this is a MOOC about rhizomatic learning. I know little of what this means, but I am pretty sure it means each of us can have his/her own learning goal and choose his/her own independent learning path towards reaching that goal. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have just finished my PhD from a prestigious UK university; I know how to read scholarship. I just don’t want to spend my time reading D&G right now. I’d do it if it engaged me, but other people’s blogs are engaging me much more and I’m learning much more (relevant to my learning goals about this course) from the experience of rhizomatic learning itself. We can learn from theory. But we can learn from the embodiment of that theory by experiencing what it is. As I understand it, Dave’s rhizomatic learning describes a process of learning that already occurs in real life outside formal education, and that occurs increasingly in an age of abundance (of knowledge, information, connectivity). Others may have experienced this in cMOOCs before and be ready to move onto theory. Others may prefer to read the theory before experiencing it, or do both together. For my own purposes, I prefer to experience it for now (in the limited time I have between juggling a new job, a toddler, and other scholarly publications and work that I need to read more urgently).

I did try to read D&G today on the way home on the bus (I know, not ideal for concentration). I got a few useful ideas, but nothing revolutionary, but I am sure it is there somewhere if I look long and hard enough.

I think, though, that I will be rebellious a little longer and say that I think too much emphasis on theory is problematic on more levels:

1. It privileges those of us who are academics, social science or humanities academics. Because, believe me, when I started my PhD I could not read a single paper written about philosophy (my PhD was about critical thinking) – and it took me a while to get where I am today and I STILL find D&G hard… so am sure those of us who are not academics must be having a harder time with it? Not all of us have the social capital needed to read this easily. It may be hard for all, but not equally hard for all.

2. It privileges those who are native speakers. I am fluent but not a native speaker. Reading translated stuff (esp. continental philosophical postmodern stuff) is very difficult for me. IT is not always worth the effort. It might or might not be. My strategy is to read secondary sources, see if I find anything interesting, then decide what original writing to read. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that strategy. Discourse and jargon are useful to those who understand it and are immersed in it. It is exclusive to others outside the “discipline”. If it’s an important educational concept, we should be able to communicate it clearly to non-academics e.g. school teachers or univ professors who teach e.g. engineering or management. How else would it be “useful” to those people?

3. It privileges a certain body of knowledge rather than the embodiment of that knowledge. Books are static. Rhizomatic learning must be dynamic, right? This course is rhizomatic learning in action. One way of understanding it is being in it and doing it. Another way is reading about it. Connectivism sounded weird to me until I experienced it a little in #edcmooc and now in #rhizo14… but rhizomatic learning (as I understood in an earlier article be Dave) resonated with me more… enough to make me take this course. I have written previously about how teachers may be looking at the question of “why students don’t read” from the wrong angle.

We are not all the same in this course or in any course. I love the supportiveness of the community. I did not have this for my PhD and maybe I would have read more or wider or deeper for my PhD if I had had a supportive community of people to discuss it with. But I also think it is totally acceptable and respectable to want to pursue this differently. I would love it if folks who wanted to read the theory were willing to simplify or summarize some of the ideas in their own blogs (thanks to all who posted dictionaries, resources, etc.). This all reminds me of an earlier post by Scott Johnson on Noise – when it is a new idea or concept we are totally unfamiliar with, it sounds like noise. Without a supportive community, we are unlikely to pursue it. (sorry no time to look for the link now)

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

17 thoughts on “Body of Knowledge, or Embodied Knowledge? On theory, reading, privilege and #rhizo14

  1. Thanks for making the point about native speakers Maha. One of the topics I am interested in in rhizomatic learning is diversity and one way I will explore it through my reading , and I am very hopeful that it will be explored through other ways too, images, videos, stories of practice. From what I can tell rhizomatic thinking helps to sustain different ideas without collapsing them into an agreed view.
    I haven’t seen a group of people who think that everyone should read theory (and hope you don’t think that is my view as it isn’t).
    One aspect of lack of diversity that troubles me slightly is that much of the discussion is based on formal learning settings. That may be inevitable but I wonder if it will limit our view of rhizomatic learning.

  2. I agree absolutely (just said as much on Jaap’s blog). D&G have given us an interesting metaphor -= which comes from botany, and we can think about that independently of reading D&G and see how the metaphor applies to learning. I’m going to read D&G because I have two degrees in philosophy and that’s what I do, but it doesn’t mean that I am more qualified to give opinions in #rhizo14 than anyone else.

    I do think that the theory is helpful for me to understand rhizomatic thinking, because it connects up to other metaphors, such as the nomad, the war machine (hence my user name) and stuff like that. It is REALLY hard to write about though (I find the same with Foucault). I’m trained as an analytic philosopher and this continental stuff is alien to me. I will try, though. πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks Frances and Sarah. To be fair, I don’t feel anyone (definitely not you) on #rhizo14 tried to make others feel inferior, etc., but it looked like it might be heading in that direction (an undertone, maybe?) and i wanted to clarify in one place why i was rebelling against it early on. If that makes sense?
    Sarah, if you are a philosopher and grappling with it, imagine someone with an undergrad degree in physics or accounting and a non-native speaker? I know u can imagine it and do πŸ˜‰

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  5. You’ve so clearly articulated how I feel about theory – it’s uncanny! I especially appreciate your comments on how difficult muddling through theory must be for non-native speakers – I’d not thought of that. Often when I’m (trying to) read theory I think it must be how a non-native speaker feels trying to wade through any English writing – there are words I’ve never seen before and words that I think I know are used in ways that don’t make any sense. That’s one of the main issues I have with much theory – if you feel like you’re ideas are important enough to be understood, then you owe it to both the readers and the idea to communicate it in a way that’s accessible to those you want to read it. Too often it seems like theorists are deliberately obfuscatory, writing in a way that only those in their ‘club’ will understand. There may be a reason for that which I’m simply not getting, but for me it seems clique-ish and elitist. I had to read a lot of theory as part of my PhD, and I eventually decided that if I didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say after making three dedicated attempts to read the first three paragraphs, then it just wasn’t worth my time. Possibly I’m missing out on ideas that would be useful, but there’s so many brilliant ideas communicated in a way that’s accessible and encourages discussion that I think I’ll be ok. πŸ™‚

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  7. I think you have hit the nail on the head. The theory is relevant only if it’s relevant (and the same for the experience). George Siemens has often made the point (and here I’m thinking of a recorded talk, not sure if it counts as literature) that his ideas on connectivism stemmed from a realization that each of his students was unique with unique reasons for taking his courses (as Ken Robinson says, in The Element, there are 8 billion unique “intelligences” in the world). MOOCs give us a framework, or an opportunity, to throw off others’ expectations of what we should be doing in a course. We take time to do these things, to interact with one another, or read deeply, or dip in and get out, whatever, for ourselves, and for no one else. MOOCs make it OK to do that.

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  12. Well, your post has certainly attracted some sensible, thoughtful responses. In the first comment, Frances make a good point about our acceptance and valuing of diversity. As we are both currently doing the #FutureEd MOOC, we have heard Cathy Davidson underline the importance of diversity. “Difference is our operating system”, she likes to say. Although it is easy to agree with this statement, it is harder to alter our views and practices accordingly. It’s difficult for me to understand what it is like to be in a minority, non-mainstream, or disadvantaged group or position, because I am, and have been, for the most part, more fortunate and privileged than most people. The fact that I am a white, beyond-middle-age, mono-lingual English speaking male also shapes my view of the world. My understanding of the position and experience of others can be only theoretical and abstract. If I want to know what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, I have to ask them.

    I can think of an example that brought this home for me. When I lived in Toronto (I moved to New Zealand in 1993) I lived near the Ontario Gallery of Art, which is in the centre of town on Dundas Street W.. Next to the gallery, on the corner of Dundas Street W. and McCaul Street, there is a Henry Moore sculpture called “Two Forms” (http://goo.gl/2JyKFW), which I saw every time I visited the gallery or walked by. I like the sculpture and would often sit near it, walk between the two pieces, and run my hand over the surface. I read the information the gallery provided about the sculpture; its history, how it was made, its place within Moore’s body of work, and so on. I photographed it from many angles, including from across the street and from windows above street level. I thought I knew that sculpture pretty well.

    One day, I saw a child sitting very comfortably inside the hole of one of the two forms. She fitted perfectly, as though that hole has been made to measure, just for her. Like other adults, I was too big to sit in that hole and experience that Henry Moore sculpture as that child could. If I wanted to know what that sculpture meant to that child, I would have had to ask her. I didn’t talk to the young girl that day, but I could see that she really felt comfortable sitting inside that sculpture. She could appreciate it without anyone having to explain it to her. There are many books about Henry Moore’s sculptures and many art experts have written about how they were not very well accepted by members of the public when they were first shown, despite the efforts of the experts to explain it. Maybe someone should have asked a child what the work meant to him or her. Or they could have simply observed how children interacted with the work, came to terms with it and made it their own.

    • Thanks for commenting Mark. First time i get a chance to read you in paragraphs (vs tweets) haha

      I think you make a good point but you miss something important: you assume the “other” will be able to express themselves in a language that you can understand, whereas this is rarely true. Definitely not for a kid even of your native tongue, more so for a non-native speaker of ur language, and very often, even a fluent speaker of your language (like me) who’s lived experience might be too foreign for you to comprehend even when the words are clear. Dominant cultures are familiar to the non-dominant because of depth and breadth of exposure. The opposite is not necessarily true. I am just saying that “asking” and “telling” are not enough. Ethnographers got it slightly right when they decided to research by immersing themselves in living other people”s lives. But still you cannot truly live someone else’s life from their perspective. You can try to understand and empathize and to recognize that your understanding will always be partial. You can try to give the other a voice, but recognize that whatever they express may not be properly heard or understood. You have made me reflect a lot… Thanks

  13. Plenty to think about here. I agree that it is very difficult to see the world as someone else sees it, especially if the other person is steeped in a different culture, or is of another generation.

  14. I’m not part of this MOOC, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your post Maha. My awareness is far from deep, but it seems to me that the notion of the rhizome (whether according to D&G or Cormier) does not provide an *explanatory* theory; it offers only an *orienting* theory (a very useful one). It is a theory to *think with*, since it is one step removed from the empirical. This makes grounding things in practice essential: to discover how the metaphor might inform learning and teaching. And of course, more often than not (and across the disciplines) it is through practice that theory emerges. To engage only with theory is to remain head in the clouds…rather than (here) in the cloud πŸ˜‰ – i.e. grounded in the connected conversations that help make the theory work for pedagogy, for personal learning, for research endeavours, etc. As Basil Bernstein wrote, we should have allegiance to a problem, not to an approach. Let’s not reify theory, but rather make it work for us, to improve what we do as learners, with learners and for learners.

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