Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Connectivity

As I mentioned in my immediately previous post, one of the big challenges to emerge in response to Dave Cormier's presentation of rhizomatic learning has been the question of utility or practicality. What does the rhizome do for us teachers and students? I have focused on the rhizome as a metaphor, thus minimizing the practical applications of this kind of thinking, but I fear that I may have sold the concept short. I may have implied that rhizomatic thinking has no practical application. So I want to rethink the question in the most concrete, practical terms that I can.

Here's the situation: In January, I will return to the classroom after thirty years of mostly administrative work. I will teach writing classes in a more-or-less traditional setting at South University in West Palm Beach, FL, USA. What the hell will I do? This is a real question. Let's see if rhizomatic learning has any concrete answers.

The first characteristic of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari mention is connection: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). Because I accept the rhizome metaphor, I know that my students will, in fact, show up to class with an infinite array of other connections, many of which are WAY more important to them than their connections to me, to the course content, or to their classmates. South University is a professional school that uses the quarter system, so I have only 10 weeks to cultivate connections among 25 adults who want to become nurses, physicians assistants, paralegals, information tech specialists, and so forth. Many of the students, if not most of them, may see a writing course as a necessary hurdle at best or a total waste of time at worst.  My first task, then, is to find ways to cultivate connections to the class: the teacher (me), the content (writing), and their fellow students. I need to build quickly a discourse community in which the students can engage in meaningful discussion.

But rhizomatic learning suggests that the class needs to connect beyond the classroom. In other words, all those other connections are important, too. Therefore, the class must cultivate connections to what they already know. Finally, the class must cultivate connections to what is known beyond the class. Learning to write requires a large and vibrant community, much like those communities of learning that Dave Cormier describes in his post Community as Curriculum - Vol 2. This idea of community expands the class far beyond the usual definition of a teacher expounding some content to a cohort of students. In rhizomatic learning, this vibrant, dynamic community—this supportive ecosystem—is more important than the individual teacher and specific content. As Cormier says in his post, "We are committing ourselves to people, not to specific bits of knowledge or information and hoping that our commitment to those people will keep what we know relevant, and keep us above water."

Can I be more specific? I think so. The first class could employ exercises that encourage people to introduce themselves to each other, through writing perhaps, and explore their shared and varied interests in writing. I might have students text someone outside of class to tell them what they are doing, or better, to ask the outsider how they use writing in their job. This strategy helps the class tap into the unbelievable energy in texting as a form of writing, and helps these beginning writers understand that they are already writers, if not writers of academic prose. It introduces the whole concept of research, asking questions about reality. These exercises help me to begin developing a sense of what the students know about writing and don't know and what they can do and can't do and how writing might connect to their personal and professional lives. These exercises start placing the community at the center of their writing, with real audiences and real issues. A rhizomatic community is a major reason why young people text so much: they are connecting to people who matter to them about issues that matter to them. It's partly why I write so much in this blog: I'm connecting to people who matter to me about issues that matter to us. All the good writing that I know about emerges out of this kind of rhizomatic, discourse community.

I will not lecture about pre-writing strategies. I will not pretend that I am the sole audience, or even the important, audience for their writing. And I will do all these things in my classes because I accept the rhizomatic principle of connection.

Could I do these things without any knowledge of the rhizome? Of course. If this was the only insight of rhizomatic learning, it would hardly be worth reading Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately, there is more, but that's for later.
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