Tag Archives: MOOCs

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.

Case Study #1: MOOCs and Theory

The Power of Analogy: MOOCs and Hardware Theory (How Stuff Works)

The Value of the Lens

The value of what we might call “hardware theory” (for this project, this reference is to the collected “How Stuff Works” readings) is both practical as well as theoretical when used as a lens through which to analyze my object of study: a Composition MOOC. In fact, it appears to be a nearly flawless fit, given the overlapping functionality of the vocabulary used to define MOOCs in this instructional video:

“What Is A Mooc?” EdTechReview:

Further, the theory provides concepts that are key to understanding not only the hardware but also the relationships between hardware and software when used to make and exploit connections.  These very same concepts often mirror the issues, practices, and structural considerations of an online composition classroom space like a MOOC.

As the image below suggests, a MOOC is not yet a widely accepted educational space or practice. In fact, the tensions and reservations frequently expressed by

day of the MOOC gif

Creative Commons image; author M. Branson Smith

those in higher education toward online learning in general (but especially for freshman writing courses) seem to be based most commonly in pedagogical theories (Kolowich). For example, Jones and Singer, in an article to be presented at the 2014 CCCC, make the observation that these tensions exhibited toward educational MOOCs are not just manifestations of “techno-phobia,” but “a conflation of the … model with the whole of the MOOC movement” (1). In other words, the individual writing classroom application is interrogated in the context of a larger trend. While framing the subject in this way seems to drive many of the discussions in our field, and often incorporates a discussion of access-as connectivity, a narrow focus on pedagogical theory may not closely examine network paths as physical / mechanical components that allow such connectivity to take place.  Therefore, it may be productive if we first examine this structurally to reemphasize how a MOOC’s networked structure may actually reinforce some of the Compositionist’s pedagogical outcomes (i.e., WPA and NCTE frameworks) as Glance, Forsey, and Riley explore in their article.

The Network as Infrastructure / Space 

A MOOC, as the above video describes, is “learning in a networked world” (Cormier), but is in some very basic ways very much like off-line courses in that it involves students, assignments and materials, a facilitator, activities that promote knowledge or data generation, assessment, and an infrastructure or space where this learning and communication take place. Applying a network / hardware lens in order to define this object of study builds upon these pre-existing instructional design systems, frequently using language that carries over from the face-to-face composition classroom (assignments, essays, peer review, due dates, writing process, etc.). Yet, as Cormier states, “a MOOC is not a school; it’s not just an online course. It’s a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills.” Interestingly, a MOOC is described not simply in terms of knowledge or skill dissemination; it is described in more dialogic, distributed agency terms. Cormier even describes it as “an event around which people who care about a topic can get together and work and talk about it in a structured way.” Therefore, an additional means of analyzing this educational space is needed, in order to account for the digitally-mediated spaces of access and the means by and degrees to which the technology itself informs and defines this as an object of study.

Another relation to network is also the most obvious: the medium. While initially the term might be read as a reference to the digital nature of the course, the medium might also be explored as a node of communication. For example, Pappano writes that “the lecture” – however brief — is still the most commonly used delivery / pedagogical tool with which to share knowledge. MOOCs frequently deliver course content via short instructor videos, but also may rely on discussion threads (a common feature of Blackboard) or blogs to facilitate connectivity or activities assigned. The home page of Georgia Institute of Technology’s composition MOOC explains that its platform is comprised of a series of instructor-generated videos, along with “recorded ‘Hangout” discussion sessions. These are “complemented by” other, unspecified multimodal materials for assessment and activity.

Nodes & Buses highway

Borrowing terms from articles found on the site “How Stuff Works” offers a beginning, but there are publications that highlight the usefulness of this analytical approach. For example, Jeffrey Young refers to the means by which the classroom becomes a node of dispersion and connectivity as a “platform,” a term that connotes a physical launching or foundational place upon which the classroom emerges. However, his article refers to a software component (Blackboard) much the same way others might refer to a physical classroom or institution. Thus, this hardware/software “node” of the online learning network structure opens new possibilities of discussion in terms of theorizing digital spaces, from platforms like Blackboard to Facebook, Google Hangout, or online tutoring (Fredette 32).

By incorporating the analogies afforded by such articles as “How PCI Works,” the concept of a bus — defined as “ a channel or path between the components in a computer” (Tyson and Grabianowski) – may serve in some situations as a synonym for a network node, a focal point of transference and intersection. If, as the article states, we understand a bus as a means of connecting all of the vital components of a computer to the primary hub – the central processor – it is possible to extend this powerful analogy to the way an online classroom functions. In the case of a MOOC, this is especially advantageous as the concept of a “serial PCI” may be used to discuss both agency of participants as well as the relationships between nodes. The “serial bus is a one-lane road” (thanks to Leslie Valley’s research into buses for the video), while a parallel bus allows more traffic, in multiple directions. This analogy suggests a means of thinking of the multiple network paths made possible by a MOOC classroom design. Whereas a f2f writing classroom often involves one node of facilitation or direction (the instructor herself), typically in the direction from instructor to student (although in a very effective student-centered design, student-to-student learning also takes place), a composition MOOC may be designed to allow multiple avenues. For example, in the MOOC at Georgia Institute of Technology, the instructor as well as learning center tutors participate in the instruction; conceivably the student-designed multimodal assignments also contribute to the learner-centered knowledge exchange. By thinking of this system of exchange in this way, issues with labor, technology divides, and other areas of tension frequently associated with online learning may be discussed in terms of structural terms.

The structural nature of a network itself provides new ways to interrogate and explore a MOOC as an educational space. Thinking of such a system in terms like routers or switches or modems allows us to focus on the subject of information transfer, which raises the subject of agency. As instructors – whose packets of information may be disseminated through texts or eBooks as well as discussions, videos, web activities, etc. – we must examine how such information delivered from a distance might be transformed by the path and mechanisms of transference. For example, a successful MOOC experience demands that the technology – like a router —  “handles the traffic to and from other networks” or nodes in a way that maintains the integrity of the material. But we might also think of the boundaries (which may be how we might see routers) MOOC students must face. What if a student experiences access issues due to technology? Further, routers serve as gatekeepers of information, moving, redirecting, or even halting information between networks. Such a concept resonates strongly among Compositionists, as student access and agency have become bywords for our field over the past several decades. Moreover, using such hardware terms allows us to consider the identity assignment function of a router when discussing issues of digital identity and persona when planning for a Composition MOOC.

In summary, some of the most compelling ideas prompted by this theory when examining my object of study has to do with connectivity, another article found at the “How Stuff Works” resource. In the FYC classroom – whether f2f or online or in a MOOC – the collaborative nature of the course design is an essential element. It is likely safe to state that Compositionists reject the idea of an FYC classroom that follows the Banking Theory model (Friere) that was so prominent in our field’s past. This hardware theory provides powerful, analogous language and imagery with which to explore what is still an emerging topic of study: the MOOC.



Clark, Donald. “MOOC Platforms: A Primer – Biggies, Newbies & Freeboters.” Donald Clark Plan B. 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Franklin, Curt. “How Cable Modems Work.”   20 September 2000.  HowStuffWorks.com. Web. 10 February 2014.

Fredette, Michelle. “How To Convert a Classroom Course into a MOOC.” Campus Technology. 27 – 30. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

Glance, David George, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses.” First Monday 18.5. 6 May 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Google Course-Builder.  https://code.google.com/p/course-builder/

Head, Karen. “First-Year Composition 2.0.” Georgia Institute of Technology. Coursera.org.

Jones, Sherry and Daniel Singer. CCCC 2014 – “Composition on a New Scale: Game Studies and Massive Open Online Composition.”  Forthcoming Presentation, Conference on College Composition and Communication. Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

Kolowich, Steve. “Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

McGuire, Robert. “Building A Sense of Community in MOOCs.” Campus Technology. 31-33. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

Pappano, Laura. “The Year of the MOOC.” The New York Times. 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Tastic, Raz. “The Computer Bus.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Rw2Q7KPIE

Tyson, Jeff, and Ed Grabianowski.  “How PCI Works.”  2 May 2001.  HowStuffWorks.com. 10 February 2014.

White, Joshua. “The Ultimate Student Guide to Navigating the Writing MOOC.”  MOOC News & Reviews. 26 June 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

Young, Jeffrey R. “Blackboard Announces New MOOC Platform.” Wired Campus. 10 July 2013. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.