Tag Archives: Foucault

The OoS Matrix: FrankenTheorizing Composition MOOCs

What Is A MOOC?

What Is A MOOC?

Composition MOOCs: Theorizing Pedagogy, Space, and Learning.

Why Here? Why Now? As argued in earlier case studies, the Composition MOOC is one of many different types of course offerings in an emerging trend (some would call it a fad) of online higher education. This is a site of considerable tension in our field of Composition studies, perhaps because many scholars see this as a step backward and away from the hard-won push for smaller-sized, learner-centered classrooms for freshman writing courses. Some of the most common concerns expressed by scholars and practitioners in our field about MOOCs are as follows:

  1. They will “devalue the current education system” (Friend).
  2. They will “disrupt” the same (Friend).
  3. MOOCs are a “lightning rod for virtually all that thrills and ails contemporary higher education” (Mitrano).
  4. They are simply another step in the commodification of higher education (Barlow).
  5. By that same token, “college leaders” see MOOCs as the competition, as MOOCs are – by nature – “open” and free of charge (“”What You Need to Know About MOOCs”).
  6. They are anonymous and diffused, thus threatening the teacher/student relationship.
  7. They foster or are founded on wrong-headed teaching practices.
  8. They threaten the role of and need for teachers.
  9. They turn teachers into mere “content developers” (Gardner).
Cover of Sullivan & Tinberg text, What is College-Level Writing?

Cover of Sullivan & Tinberg text, What is College-Level Writing?

Yet, there are other scholars in our field who argue that these digital spaces can, with careful attention to the space’s design, exemplify best-practice models of collaborative learning and scaffolded teaching practices found to be so productive in a face-to-face (f2f) first-year composition (FYC) course (Decker, Cormier, Downes, Hart-Davidson, Bourelle et al.). Some have even gone so far as to argue that many of the criticisms err by conflating MOOC classroom pedagogy design with higher education operations in general (Cormier, Gardner). This discussion reflects our field’s cautious approach to MOOCs in the spirit of Cynthia Selfe’s counsel on “the importance of paying attention” when it comes to 21st century technology literacies. As well, the debate itself seems to emerge from a common paradigm: the place-anchored classroom, one that often limits the “node-load” of a network to a basic binary structure of teacher-learner. However, as this semester’s case studies have demonstrated, a Composition MOOC encompasses a much broader scale of elements: it is a networked space filled with nodes and agencies that emerge from not only the basic system of learning (teacher to student), but ecologies of other systems as well (institutional, assessment, collaborative relations between students independent of teacher directives, software, texts, etc.). As such, when current theories of networks are applied to MOOCs, they are often done so as if all MOOC classroom designs are the same. As Decker points out, this is most certainly not the case (4). Indeed, some Compositionists argue that our field should consider a refreshed pedagogy for learning spaces like MOOCs (Debbie Morrison’s “A Tale of Two MOOCs”). The assertion is that traditional f2f methods and technologies cannot be simply overlaid onto such a complex system / space with any hope of success.

Be that as it may, this final case study is not intended to be an argument for or against Composition MOOCs. Rather, using key threads gleaned from the theories of Spinuzzi, Foucault, Bateson’s and Gibson’s ecologies, and Neurobiology, it is my intention to theorize the potentiality of such space by highlighting key areas of tension in the current debate.

Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge cover

Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge cover

Thread 1: Foucault’s attention to “unities of discourse” provides an open door through which to begin mapping an amalgamation of theory, and serves as the premise by which this theory will address the question of “why this / why now?” Put another way, Foucault’s concepts of gaps, hierarchies, systems, and traces are the elemental glue that holds this FrankenTheory partnership together, calling our attention to those theoretical areas of dissonance that often go unmapped (traces). Foucault’s rejection of a linear, universalist lens by which to explore networks of knowledge pushes at what often appears to be a primacy of Composition Pedagogy Theory (situated in an f2f paradigm) in many of the aforementioned tensions when it comes to MOOCs and English Studies. In essence, his theory establishes a primer for this FrankenTheory, as he defers to a concept of a web — of influences and events (a network) — as a more “realistic” way to see and explore knowledge and knowing (3). Indeed, he asserts that we must see knowledge in terms of a complex system through a lens defined by terms he uses to explain statements as nodes. He proposes a more productive network is not a stable system, but one of complexity and discontinuities which have the power to transform current theoretical frameworks (5). Foucault allows that his “notion of discontinuity… is both an instrument and an object of research” (9), and for this reason becomes what amounts to a genomic element to this attempt to create new theory for examining both the Composition MOOC and theories currently infusing the discourse.


A Synapse, Image from Rediscovering Biology, Chapter 10 “Across the Synapse”

Thread 2: The field of Neurobiology contributes to this discussion in several important ways. First, as a metaphor, it frames the concepts of knowledge and learning in productive ways that can be extended into discussions of ecologies and complex activity systems, as well as the nature of discourse in technologically mediated / created spaces. The neuronal network mapping metaphor provides interesting ways with which to discuss learning and knowledge transfer within a networked system much like a classroom space. It also provides our field with a concrete look into the physiological network that is at the very heart of any learning space: the brain. Learning theories grounded in behavioral / psychology theories are all rooted in this central processing unit; considering the biomechanical processes situates the conversation in a way that moves the more theoretical and ontological discussions back into the realm of “how and where” of learning. Neurobiology, then, allows us to look at the potentiality for knowledge transfer in terms of “how” learners learn. However, the biomechanical will only move the discussion so far; the messiness of a “massive” system composed of many students from varying backgrounds, differently motivated, in many places, and mediated by diverse technologies may push a neurobiology-based metaphor beyond its limits. Alone, it is limited. Combined with these other threads of theory and operationalization, it becomes an important conceptual layer for discussions of the “how.”

Spinuzzi: Traffic Systems (image from NobleEd.com)

Spinuzzi: Traffic Systems (image from NobleEd.com)

Thread 3: Spinuzzi’s Activity Theory contributes in two important ways: (1) distinctive terminology that begins to move our focus from the biomechanical to the relational and (2) as a pragmatic illustration of complex systems operationalized. His work with Actor-Network Theory and Activity Theory illustrates the power of Foucault’s gaps and disruptions when seeking common borders at which this conversation can turn. For example, Spinuzzi points to the gaps of “designer vs. user,” which in turn can productively correlate to a Composition MOOC’s gap / borders between instructor vs. student participant. Further, Spinuzzi’s use of distributed cognition (Activity Theory) and interconnections maps onto MOOC spaces in potentially useful ways, particularly when focusing on “interrelated sets of activities” (such as those described in Downes’ description of a connectivist course) rather than the individual learner, or networked minds vs. an individual mind (62). MOOC classroom models vary widely, earning such monikers as xMOOC and cMOOC, the latter of which has been deemed most effective by several scholars due to its emphasis on coordinated collaborative networking (Downes, Cormier). As scholars and compositionists, we must remain critically aware of the design of the learning / teaching spaces we employ / deploy, and Spinuzzi’s discussion of mediation and mediators provides a means with which to explore these. Spinuzzi’s Activity Theory allows our focus to center on concrete nodes of activity within a system: where and how the participants interact (where the learners learn and connect).

School of Natural Resources & Environment, UF

School of Natural Resources & Environment, UF

Thread 4: Ecology Theory deals exclusively with complex systems, not classroom spaces. However, the potential for mapping a dynamic and complex “living” network of actors, boundaries, and affordances as described by Bateson and Gibson is one of the more productive connections for MOOC discussions.Given the mechanics of the numerous digital platforms and software needed to operationalize a learning/teaching classroom space, it is not surprising to see so many critiques of MOOCs more in line with Hardware Theory, focusing on the mediating structures, than Learning Theory. Bateson and Gibson provide a counterweight to such limitations by attending to the power of boundaries to serve as both frontiers as well as informational economies (Bateson 467). Ecology Theory can thus extend our focus upon a classroom system to a larger scale, allowing me to discuss systems within systems. As proof of this usefulness, Margaret Syverson takes an ecological systems’ approach to the subject of the Composition classroom on the premise that a student’s “process of composing” – i.e., learning – takes place within a dynamic “complex system” based squarely upon ecological principles (Syverson 2-3).

Shaffer MOOC crib sheet

Shaffer MOOC crib sheet

The networked nature of complex systems and the affordances of web technology-based classrooms create a discursive space where each of these theories find play. Building upon Foucault’s concept of traces and gaps, each of these threads serves as both lens and map for examining the nodes and networks that comprise MOOC learning spaces, as well as highlighting the misfits or gaps. Further, each of these theoretical lenses at some point hinges upon the concept of “relationships,” a key component for distributed cognition as well as collaborative, workshop-based FYC theories of pedagogy. Finally, each of these theories provide the means by which to explore collaborative learning as both node and activity, a step which may contribute to the design of future cMOOCs and shape the nature of English Studies.

In sum, exploring this Object of Study using such a FrankenTheory may allow our field to address not only those concerns listed above but others like them, utilizing a network theory that may offer an appropriately complex lens to account for and grapple with the complexity of emerging digital learning, teaching, and theorizing spaces. The design of this synthesis falls into three broad sections, each based on significant questions that seem to lie at the heart of our field’s treatment of MOOCs: (1) knowledge and learning (or, “what does it mean to know?”), (2) the locus or framework of learning (or “how does location shape learning?”), and (3) agency (“who has it and why does that impact the discourse?”).

Baseline Concept: Knowledge and Learning

The concepts of knowledge and learning are key to this attempt to create a viable synthesis using these four theories, becoming an effective organizing principle with which to explore how these theorists give shape or problematize integration into a new theory of networks. Of particular worth is how these theories align and diverge in terms of the theorists’ framing of the terms and how, once synthesized, they become a useful tool with which to describe Composition MOOCs.

Stephen Downes: Connectivism

Stephen Downes: Connectivism

First, spaces in which knowledge is acquired and disseminated are shaped by premises that undergird what we mean when we consider the term knowledge as a thing to be constructed and transferred. David Cormier asserts that in traditional models of online courses that base their knowledge delivery system on a one-to-many model, it is the institution or the instructor who possess the knowledge desired by the students. In their original design, MOOCs constitute “an ecosystem from which knowledge can emerge” as a result of “negotiation”… a nod toward their roots in Vygotsky and the “social nature of learning” (Downes “Connective Knowledge”). From this perspective, it is not enough to use the term “knowledge” as a Composition classroom’s outcomes. Rather, the term “connective knowledge” emerges, pointing to a “gap” in Composition discourse where a network-based FrankentTheory might prove useful.

The field of neurobiology describes the function of the human brain as a communications network that first “takes in sensory information” via neurons, then “process[es] that information between neurons” as thinking, with the end result or response described in terms of neuronal “outputs” (“Neurobiology”). In other words, knowledge, as treated by neurobiology, is to some degree a byproduct of neurotransmitter activity transferring electrical and chemical impulses that create memories (in essence, knowing a thing). However, the network system – and in particular relationships within that system — in which such processes take place are just as important to how we understand knowledge creation, or learning. Synaptic connections operate on a cause-effect basis, transmitting data in one direction over a gap between neuronal structures. It is important to note that these “synapses are not merely gaps but … functional links between the two neurons” (“Neurobiology”). Foucault might say that these synaptic gaps – like black holes – are significant areas of scrutiny because of their functional nature. The entire “communication infrastructure” in which these neurons exist, however, are not the origin of the process.” Rather, the process that occurs within this series of embedded networks (synaptic systems) “develops because there is something to communicate.” In sum, knowledge is both product and initiator of this sequence of events that result in what neurobiology calls learning. When used as a lens with which to examine MOOCs as a space for learning and sharing knowledge, it seems intuitive to utilize a neuronal network as a fitting and productive metaphor with which to explore this Object of Study (OoS) as not only an environment of constructed connections (from Learning Platforms like Blackboard to blog spaces for assigned student writing to student-created back channels in Facebook for student-directed discussions) but as a representation of cognitive transfer – how humans learn. In neurobiology terms, knowledge is both a material to be transferred between neurons but also an initiator that signals neuronal development, altering existing circuits and driving the creation of new neurons to make new connections (“Neurobiology”).

Stephen Downes refers to George Siemens’ definition of connectivism as “the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Slide 15, Slideshare). Their MOOC, which he describes in a Slideshare presentation from 2009, explores the underlying learning theories informing the structure of the MOOC itself in light of their attention to how students best learn. While his course is not specific to freshman composition content, his theorizing of learning taking place within a network. Each component creates the “mechanisms to input, process and distribute content” (slide 27) – the course map or neuronal network — but students themselves “add to the map” (slides 46-56). The growth of this system — what student writers add and how they add it — might be discussed in terms of our neurobiology metaphor if we align Downes’ “mechanisms” with neurobiology’s initiating force of knowledge to be transmitted, addressing the questions, “how do we know?” and “what is knowledge?” Downes’ use of neurophysiology terminology illuminates a potential connection (what Foucault might say is a case of “minding the gap”) to the type of community networks typical of effective MOOC designs as “a ‘community of communities’” (Connectivism 120), a description which he illustrates using terminology drawn from the field of neuroscience. Downes’ description of a community-as-network asserts that “nodes are highly connected in clusters” and these clusters are defined “as a set of nodes with multiple mutual connections” which are instrumental in the movement or transmission of a “message from one community to the next” (Connectivism 120).

The parallelism to neurobiology is clear here: nodes, transmission, clusters, etc. However, for English Studies and Composition Studies in particular, while such a cellular-based network may ground this physiological process as a scientific set of facts, it does not address the broader question of how this translates to behaviors situated in dispersed cultural and social network systems. This is where Spinuzzi may fill the gap. For example, when Cormier writes of “knowledge networks,” it creates a point of intersection with Spinuzzi ‘s Activity Theory. Spinuzzi employs Hutchins’ theory of distributed cognition to illustrate how humans – not just freshman writers – learn most efficiently when in a collective and collaborative network of others.

Spinuzzi’s effort to correlate Activity Theory with Actor Network Theory provides a view of knowledge and learning from the perspective of activities performed in order to acquire or transmit knowledge. Spinuzzi distinguishes two competing discourse communities and their approaches to knowledge: designers and users, each creating very different hierarchies and relations to the other nodes within the network. His concept of centripetal and centrifugal “impulses” (20) creates a fascinating analogy with which to consider the discourse practices of these two communities and how that creates a perspective of knowledge or learning that could be useful within this FrankenTheory. His suggestion that the centripetal nature of a designer describes a discourse community that gravitates toward “formalization, normalization, regularity, convention, stability, and stasis” (20) may help us characterize a sort of knowledge creation privileging to which Foucault points in his work. The centrifugal nature of the user, on the other hand, represents “resistance…, innovation, — and chaos” (20), features that may also contribute to discussions of agency. This passage alone opens numerous connection nodes of analysis regarding the ways we envision networks functioning or moving knowledge. Spinuzzi’s identification of competing concepts of creation and operationalization of knowledge thus provides a useful tether to which the other theories may connect when examining this Object of Study.

Foucault argues that we must explore discourse “through the use of spatial, strategic metaphors” (emphasis mine) if we hope to perceive “the points at which discourses are transformed” (qtd. in Binkley and Smith). Not only are these points of transformation of a practical matter in the case of MOOCs (e.g., making choices between online platforms and applications to locate collaborative writing), they become the very “gaps” or “traces” (7) so key to Foucault’s theory of knowledge, revealing as they do points of contention and discontinuity where additional theorizing might take the discourse in new directions.

Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge offers this work a theoretical foundation with which to explore several key terms: knowledge and knowing (writing and learning), networks, disruptions of unities, différence and traces (169). With regard to knowledge in particular, Foucault argues that the reason some maintain that “the history of thought could remain the locus of uninterrupted continuities” creates a shelter “[f]or the sovereignty of consciousness” (12). Further, he argues that we must “question those ready-made syntheses” that inform current theories of the individual and society. For this FrankenTheorizing of MOOCs, this concept may provide a way to highlight the presence of a “status quo” element to current critical frameworks of knowledge and/or learning that are applied to scholarly treatment of MOOCs in Composition. Gardner and Cormier both point to ways the original MOOC design was more true to composition theory pedagogies of collaborative, decentered learning spaces. However, when MOOC spaces were corporatized through “Coursera, edX, and Udacity,” classes offered through MOOCs became prone to the “sage-on-stage teaching models” against which our field of composition has come to resist (Gardner). The “status quo” of decentering classrooms, however, always already exists within the larger “status quo” of an educational system that relies on assessment to measure what it deems “academic knowledge.” Within that system, MOOC designs are often perceived as “payload delivery systems,” making the online instructor complicit in this framing of teaching as a “content delivery expert” (Gardner).

black hole

From “Nature Communications” website: Black Holes

Foucault calls us to pay attention – much like Cynthia Selfe does – to ways in which points of disruption or tension in this discussion may actually define what we see. Foucault’s description on page 29 of how looking at absences or gaps (disruptions and displacements, the difference) actually helps define what we see makes its way into this FrankenTheory much the way black holes reveal the unseen by observing the actions of other bodies within its sphere of influence. Foucault writes, “in analyzing discourses themselves,” we should look for “the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice” in order to see them as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49). Foucault’s interest here is in the “discursive formation,” and I would argue at its core is the concept of knowledge and knowledge networks. With regard to previous comments on “delivery systems” and knowledge, this “disruptive” or transformative power of a MOOC creates a troubling gap in terms of how knowledge is conceptualized as content to be delivered, shared, and transferred within most academic communities. As a result, some Compositionists argue that our field must consider a refreshed pedagogy for learning spaces like MOOCs (Debbie Morrison’s “A Tale of Two MOOCs”). The assertion is that the traditional f2f methods and technologies cannot be simply overlaid onto the MOOC space with any hope of success.

Finally, theories of Ecology as advanced by Bateson and Gibson deal with knowledge in terms of more philosophical ideas rather than concrete transfers of material knowledge made within and between ecosystems. Bateson concerns himself with affordances and perspective within what he refers to as an ecology of the mind. Using a blind man and stick analogy to explore the “mental system” that is involved with knowledge and learning, “the stick” or the non-human node within the system that is considered an affordance serves as “a pathway along which transforms [or the effects] of difference are being transmitted” (465). For Bateson, then, the focal point of any discussion is not the “what” but the “how.” Gibson also focuses on the role of affordances – the environment – but in terms of knowledge, there is a considerable degree of unawareness that takes place between actor and activity. Perception is key. The human-centeredness may seem to situate the power of knowledge squarely in “the eye of the beholder,” but Gibson’s explanation of the role of other players in the environment (water, soil, animals) also suggests that the privileging of humans in the knowledge network may be tenuous.

Perhaps the most relevant “gap” in the discussion of MOOCs where Gibson’s theory may be helpful is his exploration of objects versus affordances. Gibson asserts that in an ecology network, objects should not be defined by their “qualities,” but by their “affordances” (134). He is careful to make the importance of this distinction clear when he observes that “to perceive an affordance is not [the same as] to classify an object” (134). He explains that such a distinction “rescues us from the philosophical muddle of assuming fixed classes of objects, each defined by its common features and then given a name” (134). In the case of a Composition MOOC, this distinction becomes especially relevant when our inquiry turns to the nature of distributed activities and network nodes in terms of student identity within the MOOC. By simply employing classifications such as instructor or student, too often these terms become infused with traditional connotations of power and knowledge creation a la “one to many” (Hart-Davidson) being transferred within a hierarchy of primary to secondary, rather than a pattern which follows a more diffused set of relationships fostered by the sort of collaborative-centered design of a cMOOC (Cromier). Further, Gibson’s theory points out that “[t]he richest and most elaborate affordances of the environment” are not even non-human agents. In fact, they are “provided by other…people” whose “behavior affords behavior” (135).Bourelle et al. describe MOOCs in this way, with knowledge being created and transferred (learning) as much between students as between student to instructor. The disruption created by the affordances of the networked and massive space itself thereby resists a fixed nature of objects. So, what does this mean for this OoS?

"Finding Meaning In Networks"  (www.ysc.com)

“Finding Meaning In Networks” (www.ysc.com)

Knowledge is closely aligned with the concept of meaning. In Composition theory, this pairing is typically framed within key rhetorical concepts of audience and rhetor (writer). Gibson asserts that his theory of affordances provides “a new definition of what values and meaning are,” particularly in terms of how these affordances are directed. Gibson’s theory insists that (unlike neuronal pathways), an “affordance…points two ways, to the environment and to the observer” (140-41). Within the network of a Composition MOOC, such principles of meaning and knowledge allow the discourse to shift to the gap which commonly houses a “chicken or the egg” dilemma: is the MOOC environment to be seen as machine interface housing the human interface (the student-student or student-teacher connections), or are the human connections and interfaces transforming the physical network structure itself?

In short, when it comes to a Composition MOOC, what does it mean “to know” – for both teacher and student? These theorists take the discussion out of the realm of assessment, assignments, and the writing process, and shifts us into the realm of how we learnin a complex system of networked relationships. I deliberately do not refer to “networked space” as these four theories facilitate a move away from the structural configurations of boundaries, tools, and computer-mediated access, and into the realm of social networks.

Baseline Concept: The Locus or Framework of Learning

highed-mooc_475x300_0Of all these lenses, some are more useful than others when it comes to interrogating the MOOC space as a learning and teaching space. Gibson argues that “a place is not an object with definite boundaries” but is instead more of “a region” (136). Bateson famously observes that “the map is not the territory” (455). What do these mean for a new network theory meant to analyze a Composition MOOC? It is Bateson’s map/territory equation that may be most productive initially, as we endeavor to discuss a MOOC as uniquely networked on a level that must be theorized differently than a physical Composition classroom space filled with desks, one teacher, 20 students, textbooks (or even eBooks). When attempting to theorize a space as massive and open as a MOOC, it soon becomes clear that we cannot talk about its practices or its situatedness using the same framework and terms we use to analyze a traditional Composition course following traditional paradigms of f2f classroom theory. In fact, Bateson’s theory is predicated on the assumption that we must “change our whole way of thinking about mental and communicational process” (458). When Bateson notes that the “differences are the things that get onto a map” (457), it is a phrase remarkably reminiscent of Foucault’s differences, disruptions, and traces as the more productive locus of our attention when it comes to theorizing knowledge and networks within MOOCs. But just what does this mean – “the map is not the territory” – for MOOCs?

Neurobiology may help address this if seen as a metaphor for the type of learning that happens in a MOOC. MOOCs have been cast by many skeptics (including many composition scholars) as a troubling “break” from traditional models of higher education. However, if seen through the prism of learning models, a Composition MOOC space may instead become one that facilitates creativity and independent thinking by participants who become co-creative powers within a network of learners. The concepts of neurobiology applied as both metaphor and learning theory may facilitate this view.

Hart-Davidson’s article recently published in Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Coursesfocuses on student learning – specifically learning to write — in digital environments.  He observes that digital technology like MOOCs may promote “peerlearning,” which he asserts is “the way most humans actually learn to write” (212).  His analysis relies heavily upon Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning, and especially the “zone of proximal development” principle, or ZPD (212-213). Briefly, we might summarize this theory in terms of a composition classroom learning model as “I do – We do – You do”: the instructor provides the learner with a scaffolded structure of activity that is at first mediated through modeling, then co-created or co-supported with student involvement, until finally the student requires no further mediated support and proceeds independently. Hart-Davidson summarizes Vygotsky’s importance to his approach to writing in MOOC classrooms by pointing out that peer learning involves “networks” – each individual bringing to the mix “a rich set of resources” that “boosts the learning potential” (213). The “zone of proximal development” or “ZPD” allows students to perform (i.e., write) and learn “better than one of us alone because we are surrounded by resources – one another – to scaffold our learning” (214). In such a network, “[t]here may be no stable individual ‘experts’ at any given moment, but among the group there exists a collective ability for a successful performance” (214).

MOOC Web Wheel

MOOC Web Wheel

She asserts that one course failed because of its reliance on a pedagogy that had not adapted its methods to the characteristics that define the web space as a learning space. In particular, she argues that the failed course did so due to its reliance on a “learning model that most of higher education institutions follow – instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor,” a method not unlike the way many face-to-face (f2f) Composition courses are conducted. Such methods, she argues, are unsuited for the ways in which the Web “as a platform for open, online, and even massive learning creates a different context for learning – one that requires different pedagogical methods.” Morrison’s observation may illustrate one of the limitations of the neurobiology thread because the metaphoric image of a neural network isolates the picture somewhat, “tuning out” the environmental influences surrounding the neural pathways. In other words, the neural network nodes are a very small part of a much larger system, equated only to the “basic cellular mechanism in the brain” (“Neurobiology”). The dilemma for this application is whether this “smallness” can correlate to the “bigness” and complexity of a MOOC. This gap may be usefully bridged by integrating Spinuzzi’s work with chained activity networks and the concept of “connectivism” as applied learning theory.

Spinuzzi defines Activity Theory (AT) as “a theory of distributed cognition” that “focuses on issues of labor, learning, and concept formation” (62). Further, this theory continues to evolve, moving “from the study of individuals and focused activities to the study of interrelated sets of activities” (62) – networks that may include collaborative learning and development, both of which play significant roles in Composition pedagogy and MOOC structural designs. Such concepts and terms create a framework with which to explore how using a network lens provides a means with which to locate this discussion in terms of borders. As Morrison observes, such concepts and terms create a framework with which to explore how using a network lens provides a means with which to locate this discussion in terms of borders. As Morrison observes, the nature of a MOOC space does not easily align with the nature of an f2f classroom space. While the basic principles of Composition pedagogical theory must ground both in terms of the aforementioned priorities of student learning (as outlined by the NCTE in “Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing”), the nature of the space – the networks that represent the physical, the theoretical, and what AT calls the “dialectical” qualities of that space – create tensions at those boundaries which represent how to implement that learning. Morrison refers to the importance of “connectivism” as a corollary to “social constructivism,” a thread woven into modern pedagogical theory (and connected to principles of Ecology as well as Neurobiology) that states “students learn more effectively” when they are actively involved in knowledge construction that includes their own knowledge bases.

Spinuzzi Structure of Activity, Networks

Spinuzzi Structure of Activity, Networks

Activity Theory as distributed cognition incorporates mediation as a key concept. Described by Spinuzzi as “tools, rules, and divisions of labor” (71), mediators are used by individuals within an activity system to “transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” in a way that is meaningful and connected to a (discourse) community (71-72). Composition MOOCs as networks are often seen through the filter of traditional f2f structural limitations, leading to concerns such as those described by Halasek et al., who assert that reflecting on “the MOOC learning environment” reveals the “ways we understood – and sometimes failed to understand – our roles as teachers of composition and our students’ roles as writers and learners” (156). Again, the example of the Discussion Boards serves as an example of how Activity Theory allows us to productively analyze the MOOC environment. Halasek et al. observe that Discussion Forums are typically conceptualized as nodes in which student participants depend on the “controlled exhanges…shaped and guided by teachers…and oriented toward assignment expectations” (159). In effect, these learning nodes are mediated in specific ways by a limited number of people who occupy academically hierarchical positions with relation to the student-to-teacher activity pathways. In the revised iteration of their MOOC class, Halasek et al. discovered that students “actively occupied” these learning spaces and mediated the activity as well as the flow of content when they “engaged and even tested the faculty team by making their needs explicit and articulating the problems the instructional context posed” (159). Such meta-participation is then makes students the mediators who transform the learning environment through their activity and co-creating of the space.

Finally, Activity Theory involves “chained activity systems,” a concept that may account for the sort of “organizational…boundaries” that create “informal linkages” between activities that could be interpreted as metacognitive nodes where transfer takes place (Spinuzzi “Networks” 74-77). As Spinuzzi explains, there are two types of work that takes place in systems: modular and net work (“How”). Complex tasks in Modular work is described as more compartmentalized and specialized, with clear boundaries and hierarchical orders of authority. Net work refers to the “coordinated work that holds” complex systems together (“How”). Foucault’s concepts of disruption and chaos as areas of transformation may fit here as Spinuzzi explains that modular work (a system of activity that emerged from the Industrial Revolution) has been “disrupted” or “destabilized” by technology’s impact. As a result, homogenous units of work gave way to “heterogenous networks…[that] form dense interconnections among people, texts, tools, etc.” (“How”).

Spinuzzi applies Activity Theory in terms of connected activity systems in which mediators – which in this case may be the digital space itself, the technology, or the pedagogical system that functions as a genre – provide the “tools, rules, and division of labor” (71) to create a system suited for “distributed cognition” (69). In terms of MOOCs, Spinuzzi’s characterization of “contradictions” as “engines of change” and transformation (a key component of Activity Theory) becomes a means of considering the impact of designers’ pedagogies as well as the agency afforded users in this learning space.

Further, Spinuzzi asserts that chained activities “don’t chain so much as they overlap and interfere with each other,” allowing the participants “to take on many functions” (“How”). This distinction is reminiscent of Syverson’s application of ecology to the Composition classroom in terms of how it allows us to treat a MOOC space as a “complex system” rather than a technology-mediated space. As a result of these theoretical combinations, discussions of the most productive teaching/learning models for a MOOC allow more credence to the “many-to-many” as opposed to one of “one-to-many” (Hart-Davidson).

For Composition, metacognitive transfer has become an increasingly foregrounded concept in discussions of student writing. For the Composition MOOC, AT becomes especially productive as a way to analyze it as a potentially viable mediator of student writing. It also offers a point of alignment with the neuronal metaphor (the way axons and dendrites constitute independent nodes of activity as part of the larger neuronal system that make up brain activity) as well as ecology theories.

But what of Agency within these complex systems? What of the students’ ability to co-create their learning and knowledge?

Baseline Concept: Agency

Foucault describes members of a discourse community as existing inside “a web of which they are not the Masters, of which they cannot see the whole, and of whose breadth they have a very inadequate idea” (126). These notions of control and scope are key to understanding and exploring the notion of agency in MOOC spaces, in particular how that impacts writing pedagogy. Because Foucault’s theories challenge the linear homogeneity of not only academic discourse but knowledge conventions as well, the notion of hierarchical agency as a power dichotomy comes under scrutiny.

As stated earlier, classrooms are often analyzed in terms of structural components: the mechanical, the hardware, the situatedness of student and teacher. In the case of any online classroom including MOOCs, it is easy to believe there is an individual mastery over the network, which Spinuzzi might refer to in terms of designer, as when the architects of that network exert an unseen filter in the form of a control system. Agency, then, within such networks must also be a point of analysis, and is a boundary where all four theories contribute to one degree or another.

Foucault’s Definition of Agency – Foucault resists essentialisms and absolutes. Therefore, his approach to agency is one that resists what he refers to as a “history of ideas” that promotes a linear approach to influences — a one-to-one, top-down hierarchy. Instead, he seems to locate that agency in moments of disruption and discontinuity, which networks facilitate in their “redistributions” (5). He argues that the “sovereignty of the subject” (12) is problematic, one fostered by the history of ideas. His assertion, through his archeology of knowledge, is to dethrone or decenter the subject. If we view “subject” as having the sort of primary agency as might a designer (Spinuzzi), a theory that decenters that subject’s hierarchical (and linear) primacy would fit a networked system in which agency is diffused. The MOOC’s essential networked structure can serve Foucault’s argument, but only if the hierarchical system of one teacher distributing knowledge to many students is disrupted. Some MOOCs, as Hart-Davidson points out, fail to operate in this way, but there are cases, such as the online classrooms cited by Bourelle et al. as well as Halasek et al., which operationalize a networked, student-prioritized course that diffuses the agencies of knowledge generation and transfer to tutors as well as students. Moreover, a consideration of how their online course failed to produce envisioned learning outcomes – a gap – served to focus their theorizing efforts to address these disruptions via a redistribution of agency. Foucault’s theory both frames the disruptive powers of networks as well as serving to illuminate the gaps where questions of agency may be asked.

Spunuzzi and Agency: Vygotsky’s theory of learning might locate agency in the relationship b/w nodes — teacher, student – which may be discussed in terms of scaffolding. The scaffolding, of course, takes on an entirely new location in a MOOC, but activity theory may allow this to be applied in a more decentered way than Vygotsky originally intended when he wrote about educational strategies for teaching children new concepts. While Vygotsky’s theories have been folded into Writing Center and even Composition theories, at their core is a collaborative activity. All too often, however, that collaboration still relies on a designer (tutor / teacher) who crafts the structure for that scaffolded behavior. In the case of MOOCs, the course design begins within the institutionalized origin of the course, but the networked system may allow designer agency to be diffused through the course through peerlearning nodes, some predesigned and others initiated and created by students (as in the composition MOOCs of Hart-Davidson and Bourelle et al.). As Downes observes, when MOOCs are designed following theories of Connectivism, students are empowered (i.e., are afforded agency) by the space itself to become “creators of learning” (Downes “Connectivism”). Teachers as well adopt “new roles” as “coaches and mentors” (Downes “Connectivism”). Due to this increased and diffused agency, learning then becomes “a network phenomenon” (Downes). Spinuzzi’s use of distributed cognition (Activity Theory) and interconnections also maps onto MOOC spaces in potentially useful ways, particularly when focusing on “interrelated sets of activities” (62) rather than the individual learner.

Ecology and Agency: For Bateson, meaning is “projected” onto the world by the perceptions and subjectivity of the viewer. Dividing potential agents into “creatura” and “pleroma,” he sets up a binary of subject/object. To set up the question, “what does it mean to know,” Bateson’s agency is diffused, but not shared. It is still very much a human-centered approach to networks, knowledge, and agency, an approach which Spinuzzi might find appealing. Gibson’s theory pushes back against the worldview born of the Enlightenment that sees the world in terms of mechanical cause and effect. Affordances are potential activity that allow agency, but have no agency of their own per se. The environment is not a “cause” of action, but instead facilitates it. The interactivity of an environment’s connectivity is one of give and take, self-regulating. Non-human actors (animals) are not simply machine-like, responding to environmental stimuli. His concept of agency is a theoretical one meant to disrupt a subject-object / subjective-objective dichotomy. Most interestingly, “[a]n affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer” (129). This relationship or network, while still privileging the human actor, opens up a means of exploring the structural elements of a created structural network (a system of connections that afford students and instructors to create relationships one with the other) of a MOOC. Affordances themselves, therefore, seem to possess agency of a kind. Their existence does NOT depend on their perception. Actions, then, reveal how animals are using those affordances, which Foucault might see as a trace or gap that results in new possibilities for analysis (statements).

Neurobiology and Agency: The neurotransmitters are the key to connectivity within the network, and specifically between synapses. Neurotransmitters are the key to movement within a neural pathway. A chemically-based reaction to stimuli, these “energy impulses” create a connection between two neurons. The very act of transmission transforms both neurons, opening “channels” and allowing movement through the phenomenon not unlike a differential seeking balance (“Neurobiology”). This action may be useful to discuss as a metaphor of how the types of peer writing practices employed in a MOOC writing class transmit and encounter text; emphasizing the rhetorical importance of audience by introducing the authority of “reader” may change or alter the writer’s perception of what he or she is doing and can have profound effects on a student’s understanding of the process and the text. (Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford wrote about this topic decades ago and more recently in a compilation that explores the current trend in English Studies to better foreground audience in Composition.) The usefulness of this metaphor is wide ranging, as the neurotransmitter’s role as agent or node can be applied to questions of student agency as well as affordances of the system itself (that is, technology choices made by both the course designers as well as the students to facilitate learning and/or writing).

Summation: Syverson offers a justification for an ecological approach to Composition, one which translates over to this OoS as well. As she observes, the layering of theory is “crucial in developing new knowledge” (Syverson 2). As well, we might argue that, just as MOOCs should be seen and theorized as a complex system, these theories are part of that system. In the end, as a unifying element of this FrankenTheory, Ecology seems the most productive of the four in terms of framing discussions of MOOCs as spaces for teaching, learning, and practicing writing. Too often, MOOCs seem to be cast in terms of a “simple system” of teacher-student relationships, when in reality – and as Foucault, Spinuzzi, Neurobiology, Bateson, and Gibson all demonstrate – it is far more complicated than criticisms based on “mechanistic explanations” permit (Syverson 2).

Indeed, as Syverson posits, the cMOOC is a “meta-complex system,” one wherein Ecology Theory may productively integrate (subsume) Neurobiology, Activity Theory, even Foucault. As Syverson argues, such ecologies allow us to discuss “writers, readers, and texts” as part of a complex system that is composed of “self-organizing, adaptive, and dynamic interactions” (3). This system, as she envisions it, is built of “interrelated and interdependent complex systems and their environmental structures,” structures that include “theoretical frames, academic disciplines, and language itself” (3) along with – I argue — assumptions about knowledge and agency.

In Music, It’s Called A Deceptive Cadence: I must admit, I’ve been suspicious of MOOCs as a productive place for freshman writing instruction since I first learned of them a few years ago. As a proponent of our field’s insistence upon smaller-scaled classrooms following a student-centered workshop / studio activity design, the sheer size and decentered nature of the MOOC seemed destined for trouble. I have taught freshman writing sequences online in the past, and it quickly became clear to me that the nature of the space cannot simply mirror that of the f2f classroom. The MOOC design takes this distinction to entirely new levels of complication.

But the very nature of our field demands flexibility and openness to new ground and new theories with which to best equip college-level writers for the demands of communication across disciplines and across technology-mediated spaces. MOOCs may be in their early stages of a full life in the realm of Composition Studies, or they may be on the road to extinction – a fast-burning flame. Another possibility is that they must simply be reclassified, recognized as a unique learning space for unique student populations. What the scholarly discussions seem to reveal is that we as a field are not yet certain how to deal with MOOCs, all the more reason why such theorizing (even after the fact) can be so productive.

Coda: If our field approaches the Composition MOOC as an ecology, how might the conversation change? How will it reflect the “enunciative function” identified by Foucault (88)? What new threads, nodes, or means of transmission might emerge as part of the discourse if we apply theories of learning like Vygotsky through the lenses of Neurobiology and Activity Theories combined? How might the goals and motives of our pedagogy evolve if we treat the technology of MOOCs as having productive, rather than reductive, agency in the ways students learn to write in a massive digitally-mediated space?

When these digital spaces are built as adaptive, complex systems rather than static delivery systems based on one-to-many models like Coursera and eduX courses (Hart-Davidson), how will the conversation be transformed?

Questions aside, as important is how we as a field of study will frame this discussion of the MOOCs place in 21st century higher education. Syverson’s question seems productive to our response: “Can the concepts currently emerging in diverse fields on the nature of complex systems provide us with a new understanding of composing as an ecological system?” (5). Her question posits the very behavior itself – composing – as a system (Spinuzzi might call it a networked activity) itself, not a learned behavior designed to produce a product. The transformation of our field of view afforded by this proposed FrankenTheory may allow those of us in the field of Composition Studies to bring this question, and these three key areas of theoretical overlap, to the forefront of this discussion in an effort to move us forward.


Works Cited:

Barlow, Aaron. “Teachers and Students: Machines and Their Products?”Academe Magazine 26 May 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps To An Ecology of Mind. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987.

Binkley, Roberta and Marissa Smith. “Re-Composing Space: Composition’s Rhetorical Geography.” Composition Forum 15 (2006). Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

Bourelle, Tiffany, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen. “Assessing Learning in Redesigned Online First-Year Composition Courses.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation.  Eds. Heidi A. McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Cormier, David. “Knowledge In A MOOC.” YouTube. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

Downes, Stephen. Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on Meaning and Learning Networks. 19 May 2012. Creative Commons. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Downes, Stephen. “The Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Course.” Slide Share. 24 Feb. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. < http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/the-connectivism-and-connective-knowledge-course>

Downes, Stephen and George Siemens. “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Getting Started.” MOOC course, University of Manitoba. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <http://elearnspace.org/media/GettingStarted/player.html>

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

Friend, Chris. “Will MOOCs Work For Writing?” Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Technology. 28 March 2013. Web.

Gardner, Traci. “The Misunderstood MOOC.” Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition. Bedford / St. Martins. 5 June 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.

Gibson, J. J. “The Theory of Affordances.” In R. E. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1977. pp. 127-143.

Hart-Davidson, Bill. “Learning Many-to-Many: The Best Case for Writing in Digital Environments.” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Eds. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Mitrano, Tracy. “MOOCs as a Lightning Rod.” Inside Higher Education 31 May 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.

“Neurobiology.” Rediscovering Biology. Annenberg Foundation, 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” jnd.org. 2004. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

Spinuzzi, Clay. “How Are Networks Theorized?” Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. NY: Cambridge UP, 2008. 62-95.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Syverson, Margaret A. “Introduction.” The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition. Southern Illinois UP, 1999. 1-27.

“What You Need to Know About MOOCs.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Technology. 1 May 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.


Coda: Rickert’s Wonderful World of Oz Meets Pocahontas

First, an aside: I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of this scene from The Wizard of Oz in an entirely new way. While it’s clearly made with the human worldview of home in mind, I began to think of the technology of the sepia tone, the production tools, the stage scenaries and props, a plot filled with concepts of place in terms of time and dreams, the natural (i.e., the tornado). Thanks a lot, Rickert.

I get it. There’s a pattern here; I think I finally see it. When I started reading Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, I thought this was a logical next step to our discussions of ecology, ecosystems, affordances, agency, and ANTS, to bring us full circle to Rhetorical Situation where we began. I had no problems buying into Rickert’s premise that the subject-object binary and rhizomatic network pathways so common to discussions of Internet network theories might need some additional theorizing to be really useful. After all, that’s what FrankenTheory building is all about, right? Taking the theories of others and repurposing them or resisting them to fit an application or case study we see as worthy of analysis?

Cave paintings

Cave paintings

So I enjoyed this text and found innumerable ways to connect it to AND frame our semester’s worth of reading. Rickert’s visit to antiquity – from cave paintings to Aristotle to Plato, to (dare I say it?) the 1970s ambient musician Eno and Microsoft Windows’ early operation system music all created a foundational premise for his argument that was quite engaging. I drank in his discussions of complex systems as evolving environments where – like Deleuze’s rhizome metaphor – the human subject is no longer “all that” given the way our networked lives have evolved to become, well, cyborg like. His discussion of the Earthrise image and the rhetorical nature it reveals, the importance of distinguishing between things and objects – it all really makes sense to me. In fact, I found Rickert articulating so well what I’ve envisioned for many years now: humans and our worldviews err in seeing ourselves through the lens of the “I” for it ignores the almost spiritual balance of existence. I’m avoiding using the words “ecosystem” and “ecology” because Rickert problematizes them in significant ways in Chapter 8, but if delivered through the ambient, these terms may be rendered “safe,” revealing (as he argues) ways these concepts and theorizing “place” as ambient “can be transformative … when it affects our mode of being in the world, making our relationship to the earth not that of subject to depicted object but that of mutually sustaining assemblages of humans and nonhumans fitted into an ecologically modulated world” (218).

I thought of the many movies I’ve watched over the last decade or more with an ecofriendly message – Wall-E, Avatar, Fern Gully, and the one that started it all, Pocahontas – and thought how even the rhetorical moves embedded there remained somewhat human-centered. Even when the messages (as Rickert points out) encourage an eco-consciousness, they still localize the human agency as primary, with rhetoric in persuasive mode rather than a transformative ontological relationship (163).


Even though Pocahontas’ “Color of the Wind” comes close to how I started envisioning Rickert’s approach to ambient rhetoric as “one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1), it soon became clear that it missed one of the features of an ambient rhetoric in terms of how “rhetoric’s comportment toward objects in turn shapes rhetoric itself” (204). As Rickert observes, ambient rhetoric:

  • Can’t be separated from “material being,”
  • Emerges from the environment,
  • This emergence and relationship aren’t simply due to human direction, and
  • In “grappling with these entangled, mutually coevolving and transformative interactions among persons, world, and discourses,” we will need “a new appreciation for…their complexity” (163).

In other words, environmental messages miss the mark when it comes to successfully achieving a rhetoric of ambience. I can already see the benefit of this revisioning to comp/rhet, and thought again and again of how this book takes the call to remap the canon of rhetoric made by Prior et al. in a new direction.

Rickert’s journey through Latour, Heidegger, Foucault, and others clearly qualifies as a FrankenTheory, finding and resolving a gap in the scholarship that – by pulling interdisciplinary threads – offers a richer theory. At the heart of this is the object/subject dichotomy and, as he argues, its continued control of our theories and applications of rhetoric. Rickert’s Ambient weaves together theorists of sociology, psychology, classical rhetoric, linguistics, and more as a means of exploring how these often stumble over a continued reliance on this either/or scenario. As the Borg would say, Rickert is taking the “biological and technological distinctiveness” of others’ theories and rhetorical history and adding it to his own to deal with our culture’s (and our field’s) “standard technological quandary where we are either masters of technology or by technology mastered” (204).

His turn to the technological has ramifications for the way MOOCs are currently being theorized as places of learning and places for teaching. His exploration of the image Earthrise as ambient was just the start. His argument that even the network metaphor is insufficient for the task is compelling, pointing out that it still relies heavily on a binary conceptualization of our complex system of inhabiting (122), a flaw he asserts is addressed by his theory of ambience.

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position (from J. Gibson, 1979)

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position
(from J. Gibson, 1979)

While looking for appropriate images to supplement my post this week, I came back across Maury’s recent post on her 3rd case study, which embedded an image from Gibson’s 1979 work on affordances and the visual similar to that on the left. I found these images to be especially productive in terms of thinking of what Rickert was framing in his book on rhetoric and ambience as the “I” centeredness of rhetoric’s history of discourse and meaning (and the way we often continue to theorize rhetoric and networks in a technological era of MOOCs and communications’ technology). Earlier in the term, I considered Latour’s actants as a way to frame discussions about Composition MOOCs, but Rickert layers in Heidegger seem to carry it a step further: “things make claims on us that help constitute not just the various kinds of knowledge we produce but also our very ways of being in the world” (229). In the case of a MOOC, many scholars (who resist dismissing education MOOC technologies as pedagogically blasphemous) would likely agree with this, and certainly Gibson’s theory of affordances would align neatly here. I can see how conceptualizing the online environment of a MOOC as an ambient place, where learning happens not merely at the direction of the human teacher/student, but also when theorized and discussed in terms of ways the diffusion of knowledge through such a complex system must always already be seen in terms of Foucault’s traces. Indeed, at times I wondered in the marginal comments in my book at whether ambient rhetoric is Foucault’s trace metaphor reborn. What would happen if we discussed learning / teaching / collaboration / writing in a MOOC in terms of “dwelling”? How might that open up the discussion about MOOCs as place and the technology’s impact on design as actant / ambient / attunement? In fact, Rickert’s chapter 7 provided me with a host of new ways to discuss the tensions of the place of MOOCs in education. His exploration of the concept of “dwelling” as an “ecological attunement to the environment” (223) may suggest students and teachers (human actants) are less well served when seen through the “worldview” of a God’s eye perspective and its resulting treatment of objects / subjects and their interpretation (224-25). In fact, Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric highlights the cultural lens that may have been at the heart of one of my arguments that a “nostalgic” approach to face-to-face pedagogy is at the core of some of our field’s tensions when it comes to online pedagogy practices.

Really, Rickert’s work brought together for me much of our semester’s trajectory. His theorizing is thick with name dropping, clearly demonstrating how to build a FrankenTheory to fill the gaps made visible by those who have come before. Throughout the work, he builds upon Heidegger’s theories of rhetoric in interesting pathways, reinforcing his view that an ambient rhetoric is preferred over traditional rhetoric in the way it becomes “a responsive way of revealing the world for others” (162). His book brought to mind rhizomes and networks, hardware and ANT. For me, even our final mind map took on new meaning as I read his argument that “the complex cannot be…analyzed through…the component elements but rather enters a new state of order … that transcends the initial state” (100). As we watched our mind maps grow in complexity, we might also say we have been“haunted by increasing points of connection but also by their interactive emergence into new forms” (101). Thus, after reading Rickert, I found myself wondering if being asked to reconceptualize and recreate our semester’s worth of work in Popplet might have been the plan all along.

Coda: it seems only appropriate that I conclude my final reading post with a rerun…

"The A Team": Dr. Romrigo

“The A Team”: Dr. Romrigo

Works Cited

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

CHAT Reading Notes: Feb. 18th

 “Given the collaborative and integrated nature of this week’s assigned readings, I’m opting to treat them all in one post.”

The addition this week of the Kairos publication on canon reform, Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity, extended many of the frameworks I’ve been applying thus far to our class conversations as well as my OoS. (Even more, as it pertains to teaching composition.) Coming on the heels of an operationalized theory (Spinuzzi), the authors and researchers involved with the creation of this collaborative work — itself the very epitome of a network — evoked a strong link to the Rhetorical Situation theorists we began with (Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker). However, I think I imagined Foucault’s most throughout these readings. This seemed especially pronounced in the introductory section as the authors argued that “classical canons have always represented only a partial map of rhetorical activity” (Prior et al., “Introduction”). Even in the construction of this node-based composition, Foucault “speaks” to me. After all, this text resists in multiple ways the homogeneity of linearities that Foucault argued were germane to a book-based literacy and culture (with which Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola concur).

As I annotated the text, I remarked how appropriate it seemed that the “Mapping Page” – or the “Start Here” node – serves as the main navigation hub, yet the nature of the web text allows the reader to enter at many other points, driven not by a directed funneling of cultural convention or theoretical bias, but by reader-centered agency. Even so… it also occurred to me that the authors may have also purposely built in familiar rhetorical structures in their decision to place each node / design the overall structural image of the page, possibly creating some of the latent system (a “back door,” of sorts) to the type of navigation system assumptions we text- / book-based readers / scholars might operate under. For example, the introductory text is located in the upper left corner of the web page, which for Western readers signals the “starting point.” This despite the rhetorical choice of situating the “core text” (made especially visually relevant by it’s stand-out choice of red as the color, along with it’s circular shape differentiating it from the rest of the articles (all square).

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Perhaps, just as it seems Shipka and Chewning were doing in their visual construction of their research text and Prior et al. suggest by offering multiple versions of the “Core Text,” these authors are creating a “mapping overlay” for us, using both the canon of rhetorical tradition as well as their remapped and reconceptualized view of rhetorical activity. While I do not believe they intend to suggest a 1:1 trade, the layout does seem that the same logic is at work, the same understanding (Foucault’s rules) of how knowledge sharing works for readers. In other words, I wondered if this is a means of foregrounding the multimodal levels of this network of ideas in a way that makes the invisible structures — whether the gaps or the traces –- (Foucault) more visible? Reviewing my Foucault notes, I discovered a statement that captures my sense of these two rhetorical activity theories existing within the same plane. Foucault is writing of objects, but might we see the concept of rhetorical canon / rhetorical activity an object of analysis as well? Of course, this is precisely what Prior et al. seem to be doing in their proof of concept. Foucault writes that “[b]y deriving in this way the contradiction between two theses from a certain domain of objects, from its delimitations and divisions, one does not discover a point of conciliation…. One defines the locus in which it takes place; it reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join; it localizes the divergence and the place where the two discourses are juxtaposed” (152). At the same time, I imagine Foucault would see the traditional rhetorical canon as every bit a “traditional history of ideas” (166), a force of sorts that hides or resists the types of “discontinuities, ruptures, gaps, [and] entirely new forms” (167) which Prior et al. propose as necessary to the transformative effects of technology and multimodalities. Through this juxtaposition of theories, the Prior et al. collaborative text (could we even refer to this as an “event”?) seems familiar as a “redistributions” (Foucault 5) of the familiar nodes of rhetorical activity.

The authors’ definition of CHAT is based on activity theory, so it is no surprise (but a delightful discovery) that the “Core Text” offers not one but three activities of reading and knowledge making by presenting what at first glance seems to be the same text delivered through three forms: PDF, Audio, and HTML. I took the time to review all three forms, and found that the Audio version provides the “motives” (Miller 152; Bazerman 309) behind the rhetorical activity, narrating as he does the “traces” of the creative context that are lost in the PDF and HTML versions: his daughter crying, music, sounds of nature outside.

"You Are Here"

“You Are Here”

Place, then, becomes part of the discourse – a reference to the book Cognition in the Wilda very relevant concept to analyzing multimodal and networked spaces of work and creativity. His design magnifies his point about the limits of the traditional canonical elements of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, and addresses his question, “What mediations, what kinds of detours, might delivery of a text involve?” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 6). This approach offers us what I might call a more “open” means of applying a sense of reading and/or texts as engaged with a system of networks, a map which demands we consider a complete “remap the territory” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 17) that we call rhetorical activity instead of a “retrofit,” in large part due to the binary framing pattern of speaker / audience on which the original canon was built. Given the complications and multiple possibilities for identifying just the act of “reading,” what Prior refers to as “lamination” (“multiple frames or fields co-exist[ing] in any situated act”), such thinking carries considerable weight for our work with networks.

Prior’s “Remaking IO” builds out from here, providing a case study in which such a remapped canon might apply to multimedia tests. However, I did wonder once again: are we still relying on the basic “genetic” elements of a traditional canon – the way we refer to language, text, author, reader, reception all seems to suggest that there is a multi-dimensionality here which may still rely on much of the same knowledge base. I was reminded of the 3-D chess set in Star Trek. The pieces in this 3-D game are the same, as is the goal, but the board has changed and therefore requires us to re-see the connections and possibilities from a very different sense of motion (potential energy of nodes once again – activity theory). With the new “board,” some new moves are now accommodated, and the flow of activity has been altered – or has it merely been expanded? This is the image I think of when I read Prior’s explanation of remapping and lamination.

Moving on to Van Ittersum’s Data Palace, dealing with another canonical element – memory – provides a pivotal tool for applying this concept. Van Ittersum writes that one goal of CHAT is to “direct our attention” to new nodes of activity, expanding our approach to rhetorical activity to incorporate systems terms – the role of the culture (the laminated layer offered by cultural-historical theory) AND the individual (the rhetorical canon’s binary core). Van Ittersum’s work points to an experiment that may impact the way I explore MOOCs in terms of seeing this a system of transfer and navigation, along with tools of memory (like using digital tools to maintain our note-taking records, for example), to see online activity as the means to “mobiliz[e] information within complex systems of tools, environments, situations, and people” – which in every way describes online classroom spaces like MOOCs.

Karen Lunsford’s work on “Remediating Science” in terms of socialization was a fascinating look at the “other” directional flow of this networked means of understanding rhetorical activity, one that rests heavily on cultural-historical theories of genres, I think, when that genre is both the text as well as the delivery / medium. Lunsford demonstrates that while conventions and rules (Foucault, Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker, etc.) may inform the discourse community’s knowledge framework (i.e., what should a journal article look like), the digital system of publication itself “informs, shapes, and itself evolves thanks to the need to remediate a standard means of discursive practice – sharing of knowledge, a publication” when that publication moves to a digital space (Lunsford). She refers to the negotiations among those involved as an attempt at “alignment” of all the activity taking place (or being forced forward) between nodes – the researchers, journal editors, discourse community members, peer reviewers, publishers. CHAT, then, successfully “direct[s] attention” to ways in which the rhetorical activity of a science journal editor “is situated in concrete interactions” (Prior et al., “What is CHAT?”), framing the ways these nodes function and interact to “co-construct” this culture’s “material, formal, and social practices” (Lunsford).

Finally, as I pointed out in my MindMap blog commentary for this week, the project of Jody Shipka/ Bill Chewning in “Live Composition” modeled for me what Prior et al. refer to as “images of rhetorical activity” (“Introduction”).  The purpose of this article seemed to be to demonstrate how applying views made possible by varying network activities (audio narration, text-mediated narration, image-mediated narration), as well as moves to “recontextualize” the event (the act of narrating) and the composition activity at the center of the analysis, cause us to “pay attention” to the nodes of production as well as the text being produced (the artifact). The synchronization of each of these nodes creates yet another distinctive “remediation” of the narrative event, demonstrating and making visible (Foucault) the complexity of this human activity in ways that a traditional process model might not capture in such a degree.

The article is multifaceted, and at times seems to be approaching the text from multiple entry points. The introduction sets the stage to begin “rais[ing] questions about whom and how many people are recognized as active participants in the production of a process narrative” (Shipka and Chewning). Each iteration privileges different information and lenses, whether the student voice, the teacher’s curricular designs, the researcher, or the reader’s response / interaction.  Further, just as the CHAT lens is designed to do, the authors point to “the importance of attending to what participates in the production and reception” of this narrative. Their attention to the types of “mediations …[and] kinds of detours” that might be produced through these means are also under scrutiny (Shipka and Chewning).

At the forefront of my mind as I was navigating (not “reading”) this text, I found myself recalling the importance of Foucault’s attention to the “here/not here” of trace as part of conceptualizing discourse and history. In addition, I was reminded of Spinuzzi’s comments on disruption/innovation via “resistance…and chaos” (20) –- both in the way the authors describe their motivation behind the classroom activity at the center of this piece, as well as in the very design of the delivery.

Such disruptions were also part of my experience as a reader of Shipka and Chewning’s rhetorical activities in the form of their article’s design and flow. For “Telling 4,” I found myself at an impass when the .wmv file refused to play on my Mac. So in order to “participate” in the telling, I had to circumvent this software issue. Perhaps this was an intentional move on the authors’ part, to select a non-universal media player, as a way to suggest (draw our attention to) the barriers, borders, or limitations of the network’s reach? Or perhaps this was simply a glitch, with no rhetorical meaning intended at all. Yet, because we are using the CHAT theory to explore the canon as an activity, rather than static nodes or rule systems, such an event or deviation certainly must become part of the analysis – a continued lamination of parts (Prior, “CHAT”) in this complex human activity of discourse and discourse analysis.

Reading Bibliography:

Lunsford, Karen J.  Karen J. Lunsford: Remediating Science: A Case Study of Socialization. In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Paul. “Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Prior, Janine Solberg, Patrick Berry, Hannah Bellwoar, Bill Chewning, Karen J. Lunsford, Liz Rohan, Kevin Roozen, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Jody Shipka, Derek Van Ittersum, and Joyce Walker. Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

“Introduction + Navigation”

“What is CHAT?”

“Core Text”

Shipka, Jody and Bill Chewning.Live Composition: Four Variations of a Telling.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Van Ittersum, Derek. “Data-Palace: Modern Memory Work In Digital Environments.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.


Case Study Gumbo: Responses

(My alternative title to this post was going to be a music reference: “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” But then, I thought the video link I posted below would be more fun.)

building bridges MIT

Photo credit to Donna Coveney of MIT

I found the applications of theories by classmates Daniel and Leslie to really expand the thinking I’ve done so far on my own OoS. In fact, building bridges between such operationalizing of network objects suggests they are not so different at all. Leslie’s comments on the hardware theory’s impact on her writing center space reminded me at some points of Daniel’s (as well as my own OoS of Composition MOOCs), especially with Leslie’s observations about ways data is transformed through back end and front end access points. Daniel’s treatment of Google Analytics is all about transformation of data, by the software as well as the hardware, and of course the human agents who apply the information thus gathered for future analysis and interrogation.

This passage in Leslie’s Case Study also reminded me of Popham’s article on “Forms as Boundary Genres,” in that the forms used by students and moved along the network system to different nodes / operators effectively transformed / were transformed by the localized exigency of the user and the activity. Given the nature of that movement, which Leslie points out resembles the serial / parallel bus structures of hardware theory, I could not help but think of the networks of a MOOC space, a thought I also had while reading Daniel’s Case Study. In my response to Daniel’s post, I wrote about his attention to Foucault’s “conditions of existence,” an idea that “seems [perfectly] suited to a discussion of the inner workings of a website, a “text” or locus of activity that for many readers conceals such rules and conditions.”

The connection between Daniel’s and Leslie’s thinking, then, emerged in this consideration of concealment or underlying structures that often go unrevealed, whether due to their existence as software / hardware “behind the scenes” movements or when they are considered from the perspective of agency. For example, what control (or creative agency) does the user of the websites Daniel discusses have upon the ways in which that data is used by those on the “back end” of the network’s framework? Similarly, Leslie’s observations about the latent hierarchies of power / oversight made me think of the user-design focus (could this be Spinuzzi creeping in?) and how the direction of information has the power to mediate the form or site of encounters.

There is so much potential application to my own OoS as a result of reading both Daniel’s and Leslie’s posts. I feel as though I’m going to need a bigger invention space than one Popplet will allow. Leslie, can I come and work on your studio  white board space?

And now, the promised audio — not a bridge metaphor precisely, but attention-getting just the same.


Mindmap: Applications

Mindmap for 4 February:

4 Feb Connections

4 Feb Connections

This past week’s class activities brought a lot of moving parts into one place, allowing me to begin operationalizing many of the connecting nodes (i.e., theory) we’ve been absorbing. For example, even as I wrote this last sentence, I began to question whether my use of the term “node” really captures the latent kinesthetic power and potential activity or “motive” (Miller) that node implies through relationship or connectivity. As several of our theorists have expressed (Foucault, Bazerman, Vatz), the action is where our analytical attentions should be focused. Seeing nodes, therefore, as potential activity — whether as a router or a switch (“How Stuff Works”) — is an essential component of fitting all of these puzzle pieces (theory and objects of study) together.

Potential Energy: Physicsclassroom.com

Potential Energy: Physicsclassroom.com

Physics refers to this idea as potential energy, which has been defined as “the stored energy of position possessed by an object” (The Physics Classroom).  I seem to be constantly dipping back into the realm of physics (a class I did not pass as an undergraduate — but that’s another story), perhaps demonstrating the viability of network theory as a way to connect not only concepts but  actions as well (thinking here of interdisciplinary work).

In the mindmap for this week, that idea of nodes being storehouses of energy (or knowledge, as the case may be) fits some of the connections I found myself making as I reviewed our classroom notes. The discussions of theory application and function reinforced the “power of analogy” that theory can provide. In an earlier post, I asked the question, “Is that what theory is? A metaphoric framework whereby we take an existing accepted structural system and treat it as an analogy-based means of translating knowledge or data?” Perhaps it is, indeed.

Genre Readings & Applications: Miller, Bazerman, Popham, & Digital Assessment

ggraphic Substance over Form

Substance Over Form

The readings this week on Genre Theory (listed below in the Works Cited section) represented a bit of a paradigm shift from the more intense theoretical frameworks of Foucault and Biesecker. And yet… I found myself making both of them a touchstone reference again and again. The concepts of difference and trace, as well as disruptions, etc. returned to mind repeatedly as I read about Miller’s and Bazerman’s attempts to define genre “as a stable classifying subject” (Miller, “Genre” 151), not as a system which derives its definition by focusing on / creating a set of classifying characteristics — in essence, an object. Rather, the works by Miller and Bazerman insist that the most productive and rhetorically viable way to approach the concept of genre is much the same as Foucault and Biesecker — it’s all about the activity, the connections, and the relationships.

The  Miller and Bazerman article sets provide both vocabularic underpinnings as well as ways to apply “conceptual and analytic tools” (Bazerman, “Speech Acts” 309). Miller situates the concept of genre as a “stable classifying concept” that is not to be applied as a static form but “on the action it is used to accomplish” (“Genre” 151). This emphasis aligns her with what we’ve read of Foucault, Bitzer, as well as Bazerman, and the turn toward “social action” as the motivating interpretive force behind genre as a tool of analysis. Miller’s “Rhetorical Community” article extends this basic primer by reconsidering her use of the concept of “hierarchy” (68). She reframes her earlier use of the term by applying a new set of concepts: pragmatic or action, syntactic or form, and semantic or what she calls the substance “of our cultural life” (68). She also creates a link with Foucault when she presents genres as “cultural artifact[s]” that can change as cultures evolve (69). Thus, a genre can represent relationships and activities, not simply assessing an inventory of formative characteristics.

Bazerman‘s article on “Speech Acts” adds a considerable collection of terms to our vocabulary list, contributing such terms as ilocutionary, perlocutionary, and locutionary as analytical concepts that can be used to examine speech acts. “Locutionary” refers to “what was literally stated” — the facts (314). “Ilocutionary” refers to the intended act response of the discursive action (314). “Perlocutionary” then refers to the “actual effect” of the action (315). He establishes a hierarchy into which we can place the relationships between genres, facts, and speech acts — creating a system of nodes, a network that might represent (to Bazerman) “systems of human activity” via discourse (319). In order, this hierarchy builds from “social facts” (312) to “speech acts” (what “words mean and do”) (313), to genres (316) and genre sets (318), on to genre systems (318). These concepts are likely some of the most relevant to our current discussions, as they provide a means of making connections between  disciplines or communities in applied situations, to which Popham refers in her article “Forms as Boundary Genres.” Briefly:

  • Genre set  – “a collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce” (318)
  • Genre system –  “several genre sets of people working together in an organized way, plus the patterned relations in the production, flow, and use of these documents” (318)
  • System of Activity – a means to “identify a framework which organizes their work, attention, and accomplishment” (319)

These terms provide us with a means to apply a genre theory as an activity-based (rather than form-based) means to focus “on what people are doing and how texts help [them] do it, rather than on texts as ends in themselves” (319).

In “Systems of Genres,” Bazerman then uses these concepts in an illustrative application of patent forms and the system in which they function to make and shape discursive meaning. His reference to the dangers of allowing our understanding of genres as merely “sediment[ing] into forms” (80) becomes clearer as he walks us through the history of patent systems and their associated texts, demonstrating as he does the activity / formative powers of the genre forms upon the culture and history impacted by this system, creating an understanding of genres as a textual variation of a “speech act” that exists “precisely where langue and parole meet” as an active node site of action (88).

The practical application of genre theory continues in Popham‘s article, which provides the clearest sense yet of how texts (or genres and the communities that use them) can locate a boundary of action — not of object. Her practical analysis of the way medical forms create a boundary space between the medical, scientific, and business communities provides an interesting example of how genre theory, combined with theories of networks and rhetorical situations as we’ve explored thus far, can be successfully applied to real world situations as a means of illuminating those “gaps” or traces to which Foucault refers.

Finally, the online text,  Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation: Forward, Preface, and Afterword, situates our studies within the discipline of higher education and specifically writing studies. In the ancillary chapters, the authors provide the rhetorical situation our field finds itself in: in the midst of the current debate over machine-scoring essays, as well as “what writing is and what it means to write” (Lunsford “Forward”). The emphasis of this work is primarily on “developing … appropriate forms of assessment and evaluation” for digital / multimodal writing (Lunsford), and in doing so situates itself squarely in the midst of our discussion of genre theory and, thanks to the emphasis on digital spaces, network, mechanical, and rhetorical situation theories as well. In short, this collection brings the theory home for those of us engaged in scholarship in English Studies.


Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Sysems; How Texts Organize Activity and People.” What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 309-339. Print.

Bazerman, Charles. “Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions.” Genre and the New Rhetoric. Eds. Aviva Freddman and Peter Medway. Great Britain: Burgess Science Press, 1994.  79-101. Print.

Bourelle, Tiffany, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen. “Assessing Learning in Redesigned Online First-Year Composition Courses.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation.  Eds. Heidi A. McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

McKee, Heidi A., and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss DeVoss, Eds. Digital Writing Assessment & Evaluation. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre As Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167. Print.

Miller – “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.”  Genre and the New Rhetoric. Eds. Aviva Freddman and Peter Medway. Great Britain: Burgess Science Press, 1994.  67-78. Print.

Popham, Susan.  “Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 19.3 (2005). 297-303. Print.

Annotated Bibliography Entry: Bourelle et al.

Bourelle, Tiffany, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen. “Assessing Learning in Redesigned Online First-Year Composition Courses.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation.  Eds. Heidi A. McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

image of online computer learning

Online Learning Environment

Tiffany Bourelle, Sherry Rankins-Roberston, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen describe the response of their university English department to an institution-wide budget-cutting impetus meant to restructure “approaches to teaching and learning” in order to cut costs and “reduce faculty workloads,” all the while maintaining the student learning outcomes. These authors chronicle the changes made to a traditional freshman composition course sequence (i.e., face-to-face or f2f, 25:1 student:faculty classroom ratio producing process-outcome-based essays) into a completely online, portfolio-assessed, multi-instructor, mass student enrollment design, which they dubbed the Writer’s Studio. The article describes the methodological as well as pedagogical and institutional considerations that went into this change. The authors point to specific changes to classroom design, teacher / student roles, assessment rubrics and methods, as well as curricular materials. Of course, the online nature of the course, as well as the incorporation of a collaborative team-teaching methodology, lends itself to analysis as both a genre as well as a network system (perhaps a genre system as well, as it combines elements of the f2f as well as digital environments). While the success of the change is measured only anecdotally at this point (based on student reviews), the authors encourage other institutions to consider their model as a potential basis for alternative composition course design elsewhere.

Key features of this modification make it a suitable candidate to which to apply our recent discussions of networks as well. Bourelle et al. describe how a single-teacher f2f classroom of 25 students moved to a totally online environment (a rhetorical situation) facilitated by a network of instructors/tutors. The economic force behind this change is reminiscent of the hierarchies referred to by several of our recent readings (Foucault, Bazerman, Popham), and represent an intersection of values that – for many in our field – are points of tension (i.e., institutional / business protocols taking precedence over disciplinary and pedagogical practices (Popham 281). In fact, Bazerman’s and Popham’s work both relate to the formative influences of one disciplinary culture (the academic administration) upon another as described in this article.

network hub of classroom redesign based on Bourelle et a.

Classroom Network Representation based on Bourelle et al.

The design of the course is of interest to our discussion as it incorporates several factors that may be explored in terms of genre. First, the redesign employs a collaborative-, network-based instruction model, incorporating several hierarchies of writing instruction – from lead instructor (full time, non-tenure track) to graduate teaching assistants (who are also cross listed as students, since they are earning credit toward their own academic work), to peer tutors. This hierarchy does raise some questions, as the description of the economic forces driving this change stress not only reduced cost but increased efficiency in terms of decreasing teacher workloads (which is reminiscent of not only Popham’s boundary cultures but also Bazerman’s activity systems). Secondly, the redesign is based on a shift in text forms, moving from a traditional series of text-based essays to fully “multimodal composition” (Bourelle et al.). In addition, aside from addressing the institutional edicts, the writing faculty at this university wanted to maintain a learner-centered course design, a concept that lends itself to applying network concepts in terms of connectivity, influence, and activity. Finally, the method of assessment moves from a single teacher-reader grading a final text toward  collaborative feedback using an e-portfolio system (which could possibly be explored using Bazerman’s concept of genre systems).

As a final thought on how we might bring all of our theories together, the redesigned program may also raise the question of whether, in addition to genre theory, we might apply Foucault’s theories of discursive formations if we see this Writing Studio’s existence as “a space of multiple dissensions,” a node of Arch of Knowledgeintersection created by the values of the administration and those of the composition program, If so, archaeological analysis may be another way to define “the form” as well as “the relations that they have with each other” (155)  The curriculum redesign relies heavily on key learning outcomes documents (forms) embraced by the discipline– the WPA Outcomes and NCTE Framework — along with the Quality Matters guidelines, a set of stabilizing practices (perhaps even a genre set) as described by Bazerman (“Speech Acts” 318).

There are several nodes of tension that the authors do not explore in any detail, such as the question of labor hierarchies (just as it is with most freshman composition sequences, this model relies heavily on contingent faculty and graduate assistants in the name of “reducing faculty workloads”). While many of the goals, methods, and forms (assignments, rubrics, course policy documents, etc.) are not unlike the traditional f2f one-teacher model, the changes made to the system of instruction / classroom connectivity raise the question of whether all of the “traces” (Foucault) have been accounted for in assessing this teaching/classroom genre. For example, while the authors briefly address the technology mediating the classroom, this is limited to / framed by concerns of student computer knowledge and “maturity” (Bourelle et al.). This may be based on the mechanical structure of the connectivity (boundary spaces) – the digitally-mediated access to peers and instructor teams, as well as writing materials / resources. Analyzing this redesign using those analytical concepts provided by Foucault, Bazerman, Miller, and Popham may prove informative and illuminating.

MindMap #3: Things Could Get Messy Before Long

This week’s mind map exercise illustrates some overlap potential, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the organic nature of this network of ideas is developing a mind of its own.

Mind Map 3

Mind Map #3: Feb. 2nd

My early efforts at mind mapping these connections are relying largely on key concepts of individual authors or activities. I notice, however, that the temptation is to begin arcing into mini-narratives – hardly suited to the limited space of this particular “genre.” There is simply so MUCH content to sift through, and trying to work within the rules of 2-D spatial limitations (design / color choices, creating sufficient white space, using concise terminology) is clearly becoming part of this network map’s constitution.

Based on our conversations of last week, Foucault’s thinking took on more clarity, enough that I was able to begin thinking through some possible connections — the basis of several of the new popplet entries. One of the more significant emerging threads is the possible connections between Foucault’s idea of Trace, the seen / not-seen in-between  that has the power to define a discourse with as much (some like Bazerman might say more) power as the more traditional visible features (like grammar rules). So I began to wonder — in discussions of genre — whether we can see the Trace as Activity or as Bazerman puts it “enactment of social intentions” (“Systems of Genres” 75)? Bazerman and Foucault both comment on the reciprocal nature of the discourse (or genre) and the participants in same — Bazerman alludes to this on a cultural scale on pg. 325 of his “Speech Acts” article — in creative, connective, shaping powers. What might this mean on a disciplinary scale (I’m thinking of the current debates about online teaching and digital writing)?

Finally, thinking of the “master narratives” comment made in our last class, I began to wonder if past discussions of genre within English Studies (as an end it itself, typified by structural components or features alone rather than the alternative tools of analysis put forth this week by Miller, Bazerman, and Popham) constitute a Master Narrative of our discipline — if dominant theories created static, inflexible nodes. With the added layer of genre theory as described by Miller and Bazerman (and the scholars they cite) as well as Foucault’s archaeology, archives, and trace, can we now reflect upon our own discourse community’s history as one which performed through a model of  “history of ideas”? And are we now moving confidently toward the more flexible  “archaeologies of knowledge” thanks to interdisciplinary foci? But how do we navigate the presence of embedded inflexible nodes (such as theories and competing disciplines within our field — linguistics, composition, literary studies — that tend to foster a discourse of homogeneity (Foucault)? How do we “disrupt” the boundaries and structures in productive ways on a disciplinary as well as on a classroom scale? Certainly some unfinished thinking here, but as Foucault might say, understanding “discursive formation” is all about seeing it as a “space of multiple dissensions” (156) where analysis of the structure is not about the objects, but the tensions created by the activity, functions, relationships, and gaps.

2014 "Mimi and Eunice"

2014 “Mimi and Eunice”

Foucault, part deux

Foucault, Michel. “The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language.” New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

Parts 3-5:

writing my masters words

From Alighieri, Dante: “La Vita Nuova (The New Life)” (1910)

The second half of Archaeology proved both daunting and illuminating. However, I must confess that I would probably have to read the book one or two times more to feel as though I am in a position to interrogate any of Foucault’s methods or conclusions. Instead, I found it helpful to isolate small threads  from his overall argument and see how they might be woven into the overall theme of our course. So I selected key quotations that really seemed to have direct connections to our course objectives, our recent HTW activities, and our other three authors (Biesecker, Bitzer, and Vatz).

First, a quick summary of the second section: a key principle seems to be that Foucault is pushing back against schools of theory and history that depend heavily on the established and immovable structures of dominant historical and cultural analytical practices. In this final half of the book, he pits the traditional “history of ideas” against his own definition of archaeology as a means of analyzing discourses and their functions.

He seems to assert that the disadvantage of applying uniformity-creating models of interpretation is that they create a structure that does not allow for difference or alternatives … variations that may allow for alternative cultural discourses. He frequently refers to these alternatives as, “discontinuities, ruptures, gaps” (169). Because the “history of ideas” theoretical model relies on analyzing discourses via linear, succession-based order systems, thereby creating a set of absolutes, Foucault considers it  “untrustworthy” (166). Like Biesecker, Foucault considers the “difference” a viable and more productive locus of study because it allows us to consider discourses as “a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles” can be “described” as a means of understanding knowledge (Foucault 155). His theory / not-theory of Archaeology allows for the inclusion of the unexpected and deviations in order to consider what I will call “the big picture” or potential network of possible connections — Foucault, after all, is concerned more with the way Archaeology reveals “relationships” (162) rather than static objects of time and place (the nodes themselves).

Mind the gap in London underground, Victoria Station

Mind the gap in London underground, Victoria Station (Wikimedia Commons)

Minding The Gap: 

“A discursive formation is not … an ideal…It is rather a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described.” (Foucault 155).

This focus on difference and relationships allows Foucault to point his analytical efforts toward the more productive areas of relationships, and as we explore networks, I find that the inter-connections are often where the action is.  He writes, “Archaeology also reveals relations between discursive formations and non-discursive domains (institutions, political events, economic practices and processes)” (162). The purpose? In his words, to “map, in a particular discursive practice, the point at which [these multiple dissensions] are constituted, to define the form they assume, the relations that they have with each other” (155). In other words, what might a close examination of these networks reveal about “the way it works”?

system bus vs. pci bus diagram

Image from “How PCI Works” 2001

Thinking back to the activity on buses, I’m reminded of all of those data packets traversing back and forth between nodes — or objects secured in “history.” Foucault seems to be resisting traditional means of theorizing subject matter (and thus, knowledge) as overly restrictive and limited precisely because the “ideas” become monolithic places along a timeline. As a result, such linear focus may cause us to miss a “gap” — and while that may not result in the sort of unfortunate accident suffered by a subway rider, the loss to knowledge and understanding is of serious concern to Foucault.

In sum, the “take-away” lesson I see here — the one that I find connects to our other readings and our exploration of networks — is Foucault’s emphasis on the importance of the “gaps” and discursive functions to our understanding of and analysis of discourse. If we continue to trod the beaten path (a history of ideas), we are more likely to simply ignore the anomalies and exceptions, the new and untried — such a path might (especially in English Studies and Composition Theories) create a narrow focus that limits what we teach and how we teach. For example, looking

Digital Writing Spaces

Digital Writing Spaces

at the recent history of Composition, digital spaces were not (and some might say are still not) considered worthy of academic writing or inquiry. Yet many scholars have posited that they open avenues for student expression and critical thinking that expand upon traditional “history of ideas” or writing theories — I would argue — to the benefit of 21st century student writers.

To close, the following quotation from Foucault stands out to me as encapsulating the potentiality of what we are studying this term: exploring and mapping networks and potential connections, opening new spaces for active exploration and study.

“By deriving in this way the contradiction between two theses from a certain domain of objects, from its delimitations and divisions, one does not discover a point of conciliation…. One defines the locus in which it takes place; it reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join; it localizes the divergence and the place where the two discourses are juxtaposed. The theory of structure is not a common postulate…. By taking contradictions as objects to be described, archaeological analysis…tries to determine the extent and form of the gap that separates them. In relation to a history of ideas that attempts to melt contradictions in the…unity of an overall figure…. Archaeology describes the different spaces of dissension” (153).

My closing question will be this: How will networks and network theory transform our approach to knowledge-building or knowledge-making this semester, given Foucault’s charge to pay attention to or define the objects of our analysis (nodes vs. relationships)?


Summary of HTW Activity Posts: A Reading Overview & Mindmap Commentary

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore! ~ Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz


In a few separate blog entries, I’ve commented on the thinking prompted by classmates’ HTW Activities  (Leslie’s, Daniel’s, and Suzanne’s). As I put these in the mix with my own reading response on WiFi and Mobile,  my mind wandered to some odd places as I attempted to fit all of these into a coherent set of connections — rhizomes again. What popped into my head was the famous phrase from “The Wizard of Oz,”

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears…oh my!

Why? Great question. I think it’s because so many of us might be considered Millennials in our embrace of technologies and networking (even if not in age range), and as such, we often use that technology without “seeing” deeply into its structure. These activities and readings bring those areas to the surface, and activities like those mentioned above — involving reflective assessments of who and what we are within that structure / network — brought that home to me.

For example, Summer‘s collaborative Popplet activity invited all of us to visualize how we are part of a cloud — a cyborg. The connections made by others, overlapping nodes, first reinforces the concept of cloud networking — supporting the argument that we are not operating in isolation, but are simply part of a transparent network of links and shared spaces. While I can appreciate that assertion on its face, when I think of how we as humans are still flesh-and-blood nodes (the organic) who are deeply entrenched in physical-based f2f communities, I wonder if this explanation isn’t a bit facile given so much of our field’s scholarship on the need to create pedagogy and learning spaces that embed f2f awareness and practices. As a composition instructor, reflective awareness of how I create lessons that embed technology (see Kairos publication review as an example of this focus).

Maury and Jenny both tackled Networking. Maury’s focus on network nesting really resonated with me, given this week’s Foucault readings and our work with mind maps and Google drawing. Visualizing the networking of our individual lives, and thinking about the hardware side of it all in my own HTW assignment (partnering with Chvonne) really exposed the 3- and 4-dimensionality of this space we’re exploring. Experimenting with the node-connection possibilities of IFTTT, and reading over classmates’ experiences with it, brought to mind the idea of mechanical vs. organic once again, but it seems the potential for complete creative independence is limited for the user. Here’s a repeat of my post onto Maury’s Google document to illustrate what I mean:

I lingered in the start gate on this one because I first had to ask myself what connections would be most useful to me. I’m not heavily embedded in FB, and I am fairly conservative when it comes to sharing or moving any photos (so no, I don’t Instagram). As I mentioned in my comment on Daniel’s post, this “meaning-making” or “meaning-making facilitative” program seems to add that organic back into the mechanical of networks, allowing us to become part of the “packet switching” function, I think. So, after I concluded what type of connection I’d find useful, the process was quite intuitive. But it did make me see the constructedness of the choices as boundaries. For example, I combined the NY Times with an email (I know, how unimaginative), but the predesigned options for “this” allowed no creativity on my part in terms of what I might value about the NY Times. So as a system or network node creation activity, this is still rather controlled.

Finally, when looking at Jenny’s Popplet of personal networks,  it’s interesting to note the variations among us. In our home, we do not own any SmartPhones and no game systems (unless our grown kids are visiting), so my network diagram is pretty simplistic. It’s a lot of hardware based hubs, which I chose to diagram through basic coloring.

So, here is how my current mindmap reflects all of these encounters (as well as my continuing journey through Foucault:

mindmap update 26 Jan.

26 January Mindmap Update


All in all,  my concept of the structural and conceptual scaffolding of networks, while certainly expanded through technology into both visible and transparent hubs as well as connections, seems much deeper now than when I started this class. Yet I’m also aware that sometimes, things aren’t always what they seem, and the very same boundaries and rule systems of meaning-making as exist in f2f discourse communities have the potential to infuse the way we use technologies.