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Ryan P. Randall

Instruction & Outreach Librarian at the College of Western Idaho ∴ Literary, media & cultural studies ∴ Web Editor at In the Library with the Lead Pipe ∴ Sous les pavés, la plage ∴ We are, as always, stubborn, stoked, and petrified - GY!BE

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This post responds to the prompt for Week Four of #rhizo15: “How Do We Teach Rhizomatically?”.

For Week Four, Dave asked:

“I think there is value in the ‘course’ in the sense of the eventedness that it represents. It’s a chance for people to come together and focus on a particular topic… it’s one of the ways to garden the internet. But what is the role of the facilitator/teacher/professor where we are using learning subjectives, where learning isn’t measured and where content is actually other people? What cultural concepts do we have that we can use as models? Do we need a new model?

How do we ‘teach’ rhizomatically? Or, even… do we?”

This is a great question, particularly since it helps us think about the differences between “teaching” or “facilitating” and a more general “online learning community.” In order to help me think it through, I’ll examine the online community with which I’m most familiar, #critlib, which mostly happens online through Twitter & Tumblr, plus a few blogs.

#critlib operates more along a facilitation model than teaching model, for while there’s a small core of moderators who organize regular (weekly or biweekly) Twitter chats using the hashtag, the online conversation is most often an open, hour-long Q & A session around that session’s proposed topic. In my mind, at least, the hashtag abbreviates “critical librar*”; the * is sort of a Boolean wildcard, so it can be interpreted as librarian, librarians, librarianship, library workers, library activity, library institutions etc. equally. Critical librarianship, of course, predates the community that has connected through the hashtag on social media—thankfully! The tag’s ability to ambiguously refer to the moderated Twitter chats, the social media community that uses the tag during chats & otherwise, the pages on Tumblr and a Google Document moderated by the Twitter chats’ originators, and/or to critical librarianship has been an occasional nuisance, particularly during the Twitter chats when character limitations hinder disambiguation.

A “teaching” model—even its most open, Freirean variation that actively seeks to recognize the authority of the students and trouble the student/teacher distinction—seems to revolve around an established person or people who have some authority that persists from instance to instance. A “facilitation” model acts a little more “nomadically,” with facilitators only assuming the role of “central authority” on an ad-hoc basis, even if they do so successively over multiple sessions; put another way “facilitating” seems to refer more to the action currently being performed while “teaching” implies more of an identity and sense of authority. As Dave’s prompt implies, one of the great things about these models is that they help produce an “event,” either in the sense of a shift in perception—”okay, brain, gotta focus now!”—or in the more temporal sense of “Oh! I’ve gotta make it to Twitter between 9p-10p ET or I’ll miss #critlib!” As I’m writing this knowing that the prompt for Week Five concerns community learning, I’m going to leave that for my next post and focus here just on what teaching rhizomatically might mean.

Insert roughly two months of intermittently thinking about this, then deciding to come back to this after making a Storify of the #critlib chat in which we critiqued #critlib and revisiting Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed a bit.

I’m not going to write a summary the “critiquing #critlib from within” session, since that seems against the motivation of the event. However, I do recommend you read through the Storify of it! Instead of a summary, I’m offering what it made me think in response.

The most striking thing to me about the recent chat was how different participants perceived barriers around the tag, seeing it more as an established community than group of people mediated by a tag. Perhaps online activities allow for more projection than in-person ones do, in that it’s not as easy to check our ideas with the people we’re physically capable of seeing/asking? Perhaps the rapid pace of an online chat it makes some people feel less comfortable asking for clarification? Perhaps it feels like going “on the record” for some people, rather than just chatting?

In any event, one of my favorite components was when people stopped being polite chatty and started being real.

The other striking thing was how the participants ended up gauging shared experience/attributes. Much as we conversed by using a particular intermediary—the #critlib string—we also appealed to employment types of the moderators, to having read any Freire in order to see who had any pedagogical theory background, and to having read any Foucault. Since the online introductions are brief, there’s little chance to quickly learn the deeper background of the participants. I’m having a hard time imagining a twitter chat where people wrote up more detailed bios on other webpages and then linked to them instead of just using a couple tweets or the twitter bio, since that doesn’t really scale.

What we like to think of as “teaching” or “facilitating” often fundamentally remains closer to “shuttling thoughts around an incoherently, differently understood intermediary.” I’d apply this gloss equally to learning online and off, although the degree of play and range of different interpretation might be larger for online actions, since there are fewer constraints on understanding, attention, following up, etc. Indeed, if the goal of this post is coming up with another figure or model, as Dave invites us to do, I’m thrown back into thinking of queer theory’s insistence that terms operate as sites of resistance, struggle, and production of meaning.

Emily Drabinski has neatly outlined this aspect of queer theory in “Queering the Catalog”:

Where lesbian and gay studies takes gender and sexual identities as its object of study, queer theory is interested in how those identities come discursively and socially into being and the kind of work they do in the world. Lesbian and gay studies is concerned with what homosexuality is. Queer theory is concerned with what homosexuality does. (page 96) 1

Perhaps we can expand this into saying that it’s worth keeping in mind how even terms like #critlib function as shape-shifting hot potatoes as we shuttle them around, pliable boundary objects that continually morph as they move, taking on new facets that appear as distinct and obvious to one handler while remaining invisible, inaccurate, or even entirely fictitious to another—all of this play/change/deferred communication happening in a “community” built out of the people who touch the hot potato in whatever way makes meaning out of it for them.2 None of this happens exclusively within online learning communities, but perhaps they are more open to it.

If I’m going to offer a new model for online communities, I’ll do exactly what I’m describing, and mutate an extant term— #critpotato—into my (current) new figure of how online learning functions. We’ll see how long I sustain this model, or if it functions alongside another later.

More interestingly, does this slightly ridiculous & ludic figure of a critical, conceptual hot potato offer you anything useful? To tease out a link between Deleuze’s stance on what philosophy is for & Freire’s version of praxis: what actions might this conceptual tool support?

  1. Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 83, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 94-111. Get it here! 

  2. On top of being a lurid run-on, this sentence owes a lot to a couple images I dimly remember from past readings. One is of a soccer ball articulating—but not defining—the community who use it. I think this is an article on actor-network theory, but I spent an hour looking for it thinking it was by either Lawrence Lessig or Bruno Latour, and it seems to be neither. Any ideas for what it might actually be? edit 2015-07-05: It turns out the soccer ball image seems to originally come from Michel Serres’ chapter “The Theory of the Quasi-Object” in The Parasite. Quite fittingly, this image has later been kicked around by Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough, and others…including being mentioned on the last page of Latour’s “On actor-network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications”…which I’m not sure I’ve actually read after all. Clearly I could use a better system for reading notes! :flushed: The other image comes from somewhere in Roland Barthes—I think?—where he compares words to onions, as neither has a proper “inside,” only layers upon layers of external skin. 

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