Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#change11 The Practical Rhizome: Heterogeneity 2

In my previous post, I asked how the principle of heterogeneity might inform the ways we organize a course of instruction, especially a college composition course such as the ones that I teach. Deleuze and Guattari quote Carlos Casteneda to suggest how one might proceed with exploration of a new conversation, or any other slice of life. In The Teachings of Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus gives his student Carlos instructions about how to cultivate a garden of hallucinogenic herbs:
Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (11)
This is not the way most Westerners plant gardens. We start by defining a plot of ground, often in a geometrical shape, most often a rectangle, and defining a desired collection of plants, and then we move both earth and heaven to make reality accommodate our garden. Likewise, we start education by defining the curriculum and the outcomes and then moving heaven and earth to make the reality of our students accommodate our curricula. We assume that the outcomes for the students will match precisely with our pre-defined outcomes, and if they don't, then we punish with bad grades. For example, we composition teachers determine that our students will learn to write persuasive essays in MLA format, which we can do because we know what good, persuasive essays look like, and if the students' essays don't match our ideal essays, then we give them a bad grade to punish their errant writing.

Don Juan Matus doesn't build a garden, or a curriculum, this Western way. Rather, he starts with reality and maps his garden to it. He follows the contours of the land—or the discussion or the skill—and he maps his garden from its flow and runoff. And he teaches his student to do the same. Don Juan knows that his student's garden will look very little like his own garden. He is not troubled by heterogeneity, nor does he expect homogeneity. Carlos' outcomes do not have to match Don Juan's. This is truly a student-centered curriculum, but we would be blind to think that it is without content or specific outcomes. It has both, but the teacher is not foolish enough to think that he knows what they are beforehand. The teacher does hope that he is experienced and sensitive enough to recognize the outcomes when they appear in his student, but maybe not, especially if the student transcends the teacher. In traditional education, the student transcends the teacher only at great peril, at the risk of a failing grade (just try putting an answer the teacher doesn't already know on a test). In rhizomatic education, the student always moves beyond the teacher—maybe not higher, but through and then away to something else.

So what are some specifics I can draw from Don Juan? First, the teacher can provide a starting point. Don Juan wants to teach Carlos to cultivate devil's weed—I want to teach students to cultivate academic conversations. Don Juan gave Carlos his first plant, though he did not tell him where to plant it; rather, he let that come from Carlos. I can start a conversation in my class—even a hackneyed conversation such as gun control—but I must allow each student to come to that conversation from their own point of view. The conversation begins, then, not with my definition of the correct view about gun control (measured by a short test to see if the students got it) and the correct way to present that view in a persuasive essay, but with conversation that allows each student to define their own position in the conversation. We share those positions, and the conversation proceeds as each student maps the positions of the others in the class. Students draft new statements, check it against their own experiences and what others are saying, and then redraft. We proceed further by introducing other positions from beyond the class and mapping those positions. We draft and redraft some more. We blog. We tweet. We build longer statements. Eventually, we tire of the conversation, or run out of time, and we prepare a final, more formal statement, fitting it into the context of the entire conversation, pleased that our own statement is our own: recognizable, but different from the statements of others. We create an artifact: a snapshot of the value that we gained from and gave to the conversation.

Sounds something like a MOOC, doesn't it? That might make for a good start for a class—any class.
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