tumblog summary

I began my tumblog without a clear notion of what I was doing. I had an idea that this was a good thing–that the value would emerge as I dived in and just started posting. I don’t think this would have occurred to me had I not been primed by IDEL, although the tumblog was quite different than the blog for that module.

In the first few weeks I took my cues from the module resources, other students’ tumblogs and the comments I received. It became increasingly apparent, especially in the early stages, that I was constantly having to leap the fences that my mind had put up. The fences were sometimes trying to keep popular culture out, or block ideas that seemed too tenuously connected to the module topics, or concerns that my tumblog would pick up the spill over from my work and personal lives. But the leaping itself, once I’d realised that it was okay for me to do, engendered a sense of freedom that had been lacking in many academic contexts up to this point. (I especially think of a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course in which I combined learning from another module, from a different department, with learning from the one I was studying, and received a failing mark for being ‘off-topic’; this seriously put me off combining different disciplines in assessed work.) The encouragement to actively pursue interdisciplinary connections, the delight of combining  unexpected and diverse content and media, and the challenge to use the academic reading and theory to gain insight into the culture represented was thus a rare intellectually fulfilling process.

It was only near the end of the module, however, that I began to see how closely the tumblog itself related to the module topics. I don’t know if I can quite map the blocks onto the progress of my understanding of the tumblog experience, but perhaps I could suggest that the first block gave us (as a module group) a way into examining and extending our shared understanding of digital cultures and the portrayal of the digital in our cultures (including self-referential reflection on the nature of online environments and individual relations to that environment and identity–which spoke directly to our participation on edc13.education.ed.ac.uk); this collective endeavour developed a community with its own norms and behaviours (again, a playing out of the theory); and finally this ‘environment’ became an amalgam of artefacts, people and ideas around a ‘matter of concern’–cyborg posthumans experimenting.

I also think this module has avoided the error of creating a ‘fake’ journey of discovery in which the student  is scheduled to experience cognitive dissonance on day X, a paradigm shift on day Y and finally a learn-by-doing epiphany on day Z. Perhaps most of my fellow students linked the tumblog to module content long before I did; but the crucial thing as I see it was that the tumblog and projects made this delivery of the module significantly and genuinely uniqueand as such a real-time enactment of the theory.

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week 12 summary

This week I’ve been thinking more about how posthumanism in particular relates to education. This has also been feeding into thoughts about my assignment topic, in which I’m going to critically narrate (in a blog) an interest-pursuing exercise to see if I can evaluate the feasibility of the de-centred, ‘consideration’ educational model.

Framing the assignment topic has been a bit tricky, as I want to keep an open mind about what my conclusions are going to be in the ‘meta’ criticism while also keeping an analytical outlook into the topic of interest… For the latter, I’m trying to find a reasonable balance between a narrowly focused, traditional approach and a genetically altered rhizome going wherever my fancy takes me! And in this, I‘m already conducting a tacit analysis of the interest-pursuit model–which will need to be included in my higher-level blog…

I’ve tried to come at these issues from some disparate starting places in hopes that I can clarify in my mind what I actually mean by interest-pursuit–or perhaps what people like Edwards mean. I think I’ll have to do some more old-fashioned research here!

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No guru, no method, no teacher

The following comment was awaiting my approval when I logged on the other day, and I promptly relegated it to the spam heap:

But then I started to think about its precepts regarding ‘Teachers’ and ‘Leaders’, and about some of the trends we’ve been discussing in education. I’ve made an odd sort of link between this and a small religious group…

The above verse was often used by a fundamentalist Christian faction known as the Plymouth Brethren to argue against the hierarchical structures of most other Christian denominations. They didn’t have priests, bishops, cardinals or even ‘pastors’. The minimised the use of symbols, imagery and ceremony. Their Sunday meetings involved sitting silently in a room until a congregation member decided to say, pray, read or sing something. This was all with the loftiest egalitarian aims, rooted in revulsion against the ecclesial aristocracy of the 19th century Church of England in particular (but obviously other denominations as well).

Anyone with a cynical bone in their body will probably know how this group progressed since its inception:

  • While arguing that everyone should interpret scripture themselves rather than listening to ‘teachers’ or ‘leaders’, John Nelson Darby‘s writings themselves became ‘scriptures’ (and he a revered figure) even outside of the Brethren.
  •  The meetings (not ‘communion services/eucharists’) were not as egalitarian as they may appear–only adult males who were members of the group (not ‘church’) were allowed to say anything. Women were silent had kept their heads covered.
  • Outside of these Sunday morning meetings, people (men) did give talks (not ‘sermons’). Women taught Sunday School and other women.
  • A great quantity of unwritten laws arose through practice (such as how to carry Bibles and hymnals, what types of prayers to offer when in the course of a meeting, women could not wear trousers to meeting–even in the mini-skirt era, etc.).

Why am I going on (and on and on) about this? Well, it seems to me that often educators can get stuck in the same muddle as the Brethren did. Wanting to make education as egalitarian as possible, and as organic as possible, we try to sidestep traditional educational pitfalls such as hierarchical structures, but oftentimes end up back where we started. I’ll give a few examples…

  • No teacher. The Brethren eschewed ‘priests’ (and the Roman Catholic ‘Father’), but had ‘Travelling Brothers’ who were funded by the Brethren to spend their lives speaking at different meetings, writing articles and books, etc… It doesn’t seem a million miles away from the ‘sage on the stage’ rebranding into ‘guide on the side’ (or ‘meddler in the middle’?!). I’m going to be rather traditionalist here and suggest that, while I think this is pertinent to how students learn (by doing rather than being talked at, for example), the who they are learning from is still important. They are a guide; they are there (ideally!) because they‘ve walked a road similar to this before. They’re not afraid of learning something new from the students, but in this context they do have a certain role.
  • No method. I don’t know much about psychology, but I think it’s safe to say that people like a degree of routine–especially in social situations. They generally feel more comfortable with norms of behaviour, whether their personal rituals or those of a group or society. Thus the many unwritten rules that arose to fill in the gaps in the early days of the Brethren (who had plenty of written rules to go on already) were never overthrown but became part of the culture. Likewise, I think educators sometimes take the rules away in order to give students more freedom, only to find that the students are constantly asking for boundaries to be set, or have misinterpreted a task in an unforeseeable way, or become frustrated by having to ‘guess’ at what they’re supposed to be doing. Not that this isn’t a very difficult balance to achieve–it takes experience and an understanding of a group of students. I guess the important part of this is that ‘open’ does not equal ‘unstructured’.
  • No guru. Another danger of letting students experiment, experience or interpret is that they will do so in a vacuum. In addition to an expert of some kind and a structure, students need to know the broader context–they need the object to be re-solidified. The Brethren, while claiming to rely on the bible alone, actually based their beliefs on other people’s interpretations of it; the most dangerous thing about this was that it was almost always unconscious: people actually thought that such-and-such a doctrine had come from their objective reading of scripture (not from Darby or Brother Smith or from what so-and-so said last week at meeting). The context existed, but was not recognised. I’d like to argue that this can happen in education as well (it was certainly apparent when I was studying literature as an undergrad): students can only form understanding based on the resources available to them–I could read TS Eliot with understanding, but how would this compare to my understanding after some historical background, reading contemporary and modern criticism, reading other poetry of the same era, discussing Eliot with people with different points of view and understandings… These resources existed, but it was seldom explicitly suggested that I go looking for them, that they would broaden my understanding, etc.

This is still all getting away from abstraction, categorisation and the subjective human (which is why I’m blogging about it now!) and I think shows in a different way how the teacher, while their role might have changed in the evolution of educational theory, still has an important (and certainly more nuanced, changeable and demanding) part to play in the student-inquiry-object-rhizome morphology.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, though, we may (like Edwards?) then ask what education is for anyway. But…that’s for another module.

Thanks to Van Morrison for the title.

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week 11 summary

I have to confess that I just this moment realised that we’re meant to continue our tumblogs through weeks 11 and 12. As we Americans say, d’oh.

But I’ll soldier on with a few things I was thinking about in week 11, although displayed post-humously…

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The Big Bang Theory, a show that I am compelled to watch by virtue of being married to a physicist, does virtual presence. Coincidentally enough, Sheldon chooses this manner of being present in the hopes that he will keep his body alive until his consciousness can be transferred into a computer and can thus be immortal. Of course the virtual presence is foiled in the end by virtue of Sheldon wanting Steve Wosniak to sign his vintage Apple. What struck me about this was that the attitude the other characters had (and thus the audience were expected to have?) was a long-suffering incredulity about Sheldon’s self-centredness and unquestioning belief in technology. It wasn’t anti-modernism (‘look what kind of trouble tech has gotten him into now!’) or anti-humanism (‘look at his vain attempt to beat death’), but rather a neutral view of tech and perhaps a reaction to humanism–at least centred around one person…Edwards’ subject?

An extreme example of the person becoming a machine is the cyberman, something else I’m required by holy matrimony to know all about. In recent years, these have been given a bit of a twist: in one of the revival episodes (10th doctor, series 2, 2006 if you’re a serious anorak), a regular character is turned into a cyberman, but remembers her life as a human. She sees it in a completely dispassionate way and can’t understand why the humans are so distraught. Is this opaquely suggesting the impossibility of Sheldon’s dream of moving an intact consciousness into a machine, devoid of physical presence not to mention bodily chemistry? Or is it just the emotion inhibitor? (And why is there an emotion inhibitor? Because if there wasn’t, the brain would be so appalled at what had happened to its…person…that it would die.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, separation of body and mind is seen as simply an inconvenience (this scene and Rimmer’s permanent hologramatic state):

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Or an technicality to be exploited:

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In both of these extremes, however, we find another dichotomy–not just body versus mind, but body versus [robot casing, hologram, killing machine]…or, translated into the debate that seems to really be going on, body versus [Facebook identity, avatar, discussion board moderator, wikipedia contributor...or equally: university alumni profile, letter to the editor, report on the main exports of Uruguay...] It’s not just a case of whether the mind (or personality, consciousness, identity, etc.) can be separated from the body, but what it [the mind/etc.] is if that separation occurs. Lister’s mind is saved onto a highly improbably disc and dropped into a cup of tea–is the disc Lister? Is the war machine Nixon?

Jumping ahead in the future a bit–this approaches my assignment topic at a bit of a tangent, in particular my investigation into fan fiction. In this situation, we have the mind of the original author; the original text; a character (if we can assume that the character is ‘greater than’ the text…which, it seems to me, is the premise that fan fiction is based on, although I won’t draw any conclusions yet…); the mind of the ff author; the text that the ff author writes; the reception of that text by others with intricate knowledge of the first three. Are they all separate entities, or do they all work to create a transtemporal posthuman…?


Schools encouraged to take more risks in the classroom

What I found interesting here was the way in which ‘risk’ was described. It was clear that the students were engaged in a problem-based learning kind of exercise, but the benefits of risk were singled out and described in a circuitous way, as a tack-on to the ‘real’ learning, a trick that would make it more fun. (Which, BTW, would suggest that traditional methods like exams and singling out in class, as high-risk, would be highly beneficial.) Was this just BBC Breakfast Soft Piece shorthand, or is stuff like PBL so outside public consciousness that most people just don’t get it?

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week 10 summary

This week I’ve been trying to coalesce the readings for this block into some sort of working theory. I realise that I’ve been skirting around the edges in what I’ve written; this is probably because I flatter myself that I’ve understood what they mean essentially (expect in the case of Haraway, where I thought getting to the edge was pretty good going). I’ve been musing a lot about what this would look like played out in education, and what the uniting of meaning and matter…ahem…means for online learning. I’d like to apply this, if I can, in my assignment…although my crazy visions of sending material artefacts through the post is probably dispensable…

It also links to something a bit more complex. Jacques Derrida seems to keep coming back to haunt me, and the attacks on Platonic forms (or separation of subject and object) recalled Derrida’s insistence that words don’t have a finite number of dictionary meanings (even if accepted by a culture using the language); rather, each time a word is used, its meaning is unique to that occasion (uniterable). This seems to be very much connected to the idea of ‘chair’ (subject) versus the six different chairs in my house (objects). The chair at the top of the stairs may look exactly like the one with the laptop on it, but they are not the same object…and therefore, you cannot use the same subject to refer to both. There are many interesting ways this thought could go, but two occur to me that are linked to our topics this week:

As I mentioned in my notes on this week’s readings, this is important to Edwardsian ‘experiments’ that the topic explored is perceived as new, even if the ‘experts’ involved have done the experiment many times before. The uniqueness has to do with the uniqueness of the participants, which is built into the [concern, or whatever the 'thing' is], but also (in proper post-human style) the uniqueness of everything else involved as well–the uniterable chair.

I think this also shows Pedersen’s investigation of the lines between human and not-human, and why they need to be drawn in the first place, from a slightly different angle. First, if a human is not iterable, then a clone is as ‘human’ as its genetic twin (that sorts out Never Let Me Go, not to mention The Island). But it goes much further: without iteration, everything is unique. There aren’t any dichotomies because there aren’t any categories. Now I’m not suggesting taking this down the slippery slope of, e.g. Douglas Adams’ ruler of the universe. Going back to language, we still use this to good (not perfect) effect in all its uniterability. And so we still need to see the difference between a hairdryer and a handgun. But it’s the right to draw lines between categories that is to be relinquished to make way for the liquidity and ignorance that have always been there anyway.

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virtual vagrant

Costa Coffee O2 Wifi registration page

This week began with our home broadband dying, making me a sort of virtual vagrant on my study day…I have to confess that I avoided the university library because 1) I needed to be able to answer my mobile and 2) undergraduates. I also avoided the office because 1) work. So where was I to go in the Durham snow? Coffee shops, natch. I’d already given all my personal details to Caffe Nero’s free wifi provider, but had some more to do online after I’d finished the coffee, muffin, cup of water… So I went over to Costa. It’s hard to take a picture of an iPad with a phone while trying to look nonchalant and not knock over your coffee…but someone else has done it, so here it is. After submitting, you are also asked for your name, birthdate, postcode and Costa loyalty card number. I faked the middle two, left the third blank and signed up…but the server was down. Sat drinking second large latte of the afternoon…checked email with husband’s 3G…tried wifi again…started writing this…coffee almost gone…wifi started working…couldn’t sit in full cafe any longer with empty mug. Gave up and went home.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the amputated feeling that five days of no home internet gave this particular cyborg. I think it was more the non-monetary cost of getting online…exchanging information about yourself for a service seems more invasive than exchanging money (although exchanging money over public wifi feels pretty invasive too!), especially when the service is advertised as ‘free’ and the purchase of mildly overpriced, non-essential food items is required before one can avail oneself of the service to begin with. And this all assuming that you’ve got a wifi-ready device about your person…


week 10 readings

Another collection of thoughts on the readings…hopefully toward informing my assignment!

has no subject

As I was reading Edwards and Pedersen, and trying to connect them to the week 9 readings as well, I got in a bit of a muddle. Edwards seems to want to envision a ‘thing’ without a subject. I could think of three possible interpretations: 1) I could be a Montessori student and pursue an interest and let it lead in all different rhizomic directions involving other people, objects, ideas, information, etc.; but then I would still be the centre–I’m pursuing what I find (subjectively) interesting to me and following those tracks. 2) We could have a group of interested people pursuing something, but then the group (or perhaps its convener) would be the central subject, following their collective and/or diversified interests. 3) We could look at these two scenarios another way, and suggest that the individual or group could be de-centred in favour of the interest/topic–this is the central ‘thing’, because it’s not really a thing, but an amalgam of the people, information, locations, objects, times, ideas that go into its thing-ness.

But how does this change what we do? This is where I got stuck because it seemed to me that, if you try to bring down subjectivity (which Edwards does grammatically as well as philosophically throughout his article), you’re bringing down agency as well. To me it seemed that, to not act as a subject, I couldn’t be consciously pursuing anything. I can’t escape my own subjectivity.

Clearly this isn’t Edwards’ goal. What I assume he (and Pedersen as well) mean is that we need to revolutionise our perception of our subjectivity by acknowledging both total inter-relatedness and the false dichotomy between meaning and matter.

Okay, so I can go pursuing my interests and ‘experimenting’ as Edwards says, I’ve just got to be constantly aware of the never-ending network to which my experimental topic is attached, and to avoid trying to disentangle abstractions from objects…

becomes the object

What annoyed me about Edwards was that, apart from the grammatical gymnastics, the whole article was (as far as I could tell) a total abstraction. There was not a single example of what he was talking about, not one tentative application to real life, not even a ‘this is what not to do’ scenario. I could guess what he was getting at, but this mostly came from prior knowledge of other educational theories–and not terribly new ones; was his idea so radical that it couldn’t be described in any way other than abstraction? (Pedersen, on the other hand, was the perfect foil–taking time to tell two stories that informed the later abstractions.)

So, while my concern about individual/group agency, as far as interest-pursuit, was put to rest, I was still not clear on what this would look like on the ground for learning. I could imagine Edwards abolishing all universities and putting public funds towards everyone making their interest-pursuit experiments public. Or I could imagine him making employers give their workers weekly times to learn something new related to their jobs. Somehow, though, I couldn’t shoehorn his ideas into a more traditional classroom.

Even Angus et al, while a good example of teaching students how to perceive the world in this way, were still instructors of a certain course at a university. If their subject was American literature 1700-1850…or nuclear physics…they might have struggled more to follow the rhizomes and cover the topic as their department expected and relinquish the authority of the instructor…all of which they had to contend with as it was. The context itself dictates that one person(s) tells other people what kinds of things they need to engage with.

tyranny of self?

This brings me back to the question of agency. But the problem now is: how do we justify pursuing one interest over another? I would argue that it isn’t problematic that Angus et al decided that students who had chosen to take their course (or chosen a path of study for which is was compulsory) should engage with this topic. They had the experience to tell them that this was a beneficial thing to do; the students might not have been equipped to make such a decision themselves, or could have followed unproductive or skewed pathways; they might have wasted a lot of time looking for resources that the instructors knew of or might have gotten hold of something incorrect and continued on with misinformation…most importantly, though, is that we don’t know what we don’t know. That, to me, is what experts are for.

On the other hand, I don’t think this necessarily goes against the arguments we’ve encountered over the last couple weeks. In fact, I think this kind of group situation, where there are acknowledged experts who structure but do not lead, and where the non-experts are responsible to themselves and each other, has the potential to reduce subject-centrality both in an individual’s worldview and in their ‘experiments’. The problem with the interest-pursuit model remains that, as much as one person can attempt to let a topic guide them and de-centre themselves, they are always going to be a subjective self. A group, on the other hand, and especially one with members who have both ‘done it before’ and realised the uniqueness and value of every subsequent ‘doing it again’, is more likely to keep taking its focus away from the self and putting it on the common area of inquiry.

parting shot

In academia, of course, as well as in many other arenas, a good portion of this inquiry is going to lead to…

abstract ideas

very narrowly defined research

rehashings of power relationships

retellings of dichotomied meta-narratives




What strikes me about both this automaton and the ‘Turk’ is that the point of them is that they’re not human, and yet they’re made in human likeness and to do uniquely human things. Is this a cul-de-sac of humanism?

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Horrible Histories – Napoleon Bonaparte vs The Mechanical Turk

A silly but pithy clip about the Mechanical Turk–more extensively explained here: A Point of View: Chess and 18th Century artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it was the non-humanness of the ‘Turk’ that made it internationally famous…but this would have been down to the ingenuity of the creator (if it had been real) and its chess-playing skills were in fact down to a series of bendy masters (its cyborg mates?). In a kind of way, though, the Turk was also a post-human: an amalgam of the creator, the machine, the chess master inside, the chess board and pieces, the rules of the game, and the expectations/perceptions/suspensions of disbelief of the Turk’s opponents and audience. Without one of these, it wouldn’t have existed as…itself!

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