Search results for "pedagogy "

Communities of Practice: intersections between learning, fan-fiction and the institution

Author: joe

Friday, 27 March, 2009 - 10:38

Yesterday I was in two unrelated seminars which struck me as having interesting resonances with each other. The first was a Learning & Teaching seminar I led about Communities of Practice and the challenges of pursuing a 'participatory pedagogy' in the constraints of an institution. The second was led by Richard Berger and Bronwen Thomas in the Narratives Research Group, who both talked about fan fiction and slash fic.

In the first seminar which I was leading, one of the I was key ideas I was trying to articulate was the issue of domains of knowledge: academics work within specific disciplines and subject areas; common sense tells us that those disciplines and subject areas are generally stable and fixed; and students expect teachers to act as gatekeepers or transmitters of that body of knowledge. In Situated Learning (1991), Lave and Wenger suggest moving away from a conventional understanding of such bodies of knowledge as stable and external, objective entities which can be transmitted unmodified from tutor to pupil; instead they suggest thinking about disciplines and the engagement with them by a scholarly community as a set of socially reproduced practices. Disciplines are continually constituted by the practices which communities engage in: reading, interpreting, discussing, participating, negotiating and renegotiating. Far from having a constant and fixed set of axioms which teachers repeat to students until the students have learned them, rather, the social practices of academic life are continually transforming the individual and intersubjective meanings that participants construct.

In the second seminar, Richard presented a historical overview of fan fiction, noting the features of intertextuality, variation, and the evolving nature of the participants; Bronwen conducted a "bottom-up" analysis of some of the activities and conventions which characterised the online fan fiction communities. Popular source texts become the site for participatory adaptations; the tensions between the 'authentic' text - that produced by the original author - and the variations produced by the fan community, are resolved in myriad ways: in some cases through legal means (copyright holders try to close such communities down), but more often through mechanisms which start to look much more like master / journeyman / apprentice relationships. New fan fiction authors contribute their efforts, get feedback, rework and improve their work, and in the process of doing so, become recognised and increasingly 'senior' members of the community. Mechanisms are evolved for deciding what is permitted - i.e. what variations are allowed to to be included, and what contraventions of the source 'storyworlds' are proscribed. Original authors (such as Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy) often give their blessing to these communities and sometimes even allow the 'authorised versions' of their work to respond reflexively to new variations in the ever-evolving fan canon - or what Jenkins call the 'fanon'.

In both of these domains there are some crucial features: the notion of canonicity (whether in terms of a clearly defined academic discipline, or in terms of a source text or storyworld) and the participatory practices and conventions which characterise the continual reproduction of that canon.

So, participation, and the learning and adoption of the norms of the community, generate the necessary social capital for participants to become trusted members of the community of practice. It would be interesting to see what sorts of commonalities and differences emerge in comparisons between the two different domains: do fanfic journeymen and masters have to be good at writing fanfic themselves, or can they acquire their position of trust through expert knowledge of the canon, or through the continually respectful and constructive writing of feedback? May academics rely on their past achievements of qualification or recognition, or must they continually reinforce and reproduce their status through continuous participation?

What seems more problematic, though, is how the respective canons in each of the domains are viewed. Lave and Wenger note that a community of practice is characterised by the often antagonistic processes of participation and reification. One might understand the pressure to maintain the integrity of the 'authentic' canon in the face of variations produced by fans as a contest between reification and participation - indeed L&W note that there is inevitably a competitive tension between long-standing members (refered to as 'old-timers') and the newcomers; the latter are destined ultimately to replace the former. Hence the 'old-timers' seek to maintain the integrity of the body of work they have striven towards, while newcomers exert an evolutionary pressure on that work which inevitably undergoes transformation and contestation.

In academia, however, I sense that the reverse is often the case: newcomers in the form of students, raised in the behaviourist hot-house of secondary schooling, and forced to commit to large investment and future debts, are resistant to the idea that academic disciplines might be reflexive, unstable, and more importantly, open to modification and reconstruction by their inexpert selves. Indeed, why would they be asked to pay such a lot of money for 'tuition' fees when 'tuition' is not the necessarily the high-road to the valuable commodity of knowledge? They expect lecturers to transmit considerable quantities of information and distrust the idea that they might learn as much from each other as they might learn from an academic expert. Those same lecturers themselves recognise the pedagogy of situated learning and actively encourage students to question and challenge the handed-down-ness of academic authority, being fully aware of the constructedness of their own expertise and of the discipline as a whole. Meanwhile, the institution itself imposes upon those teachers and students yet more behaviourist assumptions and structures. These take the form of VLEs into which tutor-created resources are fed for students to consume, the minimisation of social and embodied tutor/learner contact in favour of income-generating activities, and locking up contemporary knowledge advancement in the closed-access academic publishing industry which in turn perpetuates itself by persuading scholars that they must lock their knowledge up in the pages of their journals in order to acquire 'esteem'.

Lave & Wenger's model of situated learning makes clear that learning transforms not only the learner but also the subject to be learned. It seems ironic then, that this profoundly liberating and politically significant insight is often lost on learners and ignored by learning institutions.

Categories: learning, pedagogy, Jean-Lave, Etienne-Wenger, situated learning, communities of practice, community, practice, fan fiction, participation, canon,
Comments: 3

On blogging

Author: joe

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 - 16:39

I was recently invited to say a few brief words about the value of blogging. The event was a conference of uni staff who are taking part in a 'research-enhancement' programme of activities with a view to developing their research careers.

Not that I know much about research careers - I have cunningly managed to avoid disturbing anyone at the uni who keeps track of people's research activity. No journal papers, no conference papers, nothing that carries any esteem indicators whatsoever. I earn no esteem.

But anyway, I do write a blog, but more importantly have used blogging in teaching for four years now, so did have a couple of things to say about it. We ask students to start a blog when they begin the course, though we don't make it compulsory via assessment. I think it is important to make things elective, since incentivisation usually encourages instrumentality. (And only a cynic would note that this is the story of HE generally...)

Since the blogs aren't compulsory, you quickly find that the 'participation pyramid' (the imbalance between contributors and lurkers) which we see on sites like Wikipedia also characterises student participation. I increasingly think it is important to accept and allow such inequalities in uptake. By making things compulsory you infantilise the activities and the participants, and so those who would have contributed anyway get less benefit (who benefits from being infantilised?) and those who are compelled to join in do so in a tokenistic way. Ultimately, we want to encourage responsibility and independence, and micro-managing everyone's participation in various activities undermines that very aim.

Those who do participate voluntarily go on to experience many of the useful outcomes of writing in public. Of course, sometimes the writing is a whinging stream of consciousness, but actually this is a tiny part of it. More often, students write about the progress of their group work, or they articulate their desire to be better organised; sometimes they mull over the consequences of postmodern thought on their own dearly-held beliefs. I have read students link their own ideas to the Zapatistas, or share design ideas with clients. They write commentaries on oddities they have found in the wilds of the web, or they talk about the distresses and calamities of everyday life in eloquent ways. The range of subjects are fantastically kaleidoscopic, and it is, dare I say it, a little patronising to suggest it is simply an opportunity to whinge.

Just the act of writing (and especially in public) has many meta-cognitive benefits. Formless ideas are given form through writing. Feelings find expression. Thoughts which struggle to make sense become more sensible when we force ourselves to interpret them through language. There is something transformative and risky about writing ideas down and sharing them with others.

Jeremy Crampton, a Foucault scholar who keeps a blog, writes about Levy Bryant, a philosopher and author, and his blog, Larval Subjects, a blog I enjoy hugely. These thoughts capture the relationship between articulation and actualisation.

Larval subjects. Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

Larval Subjects

This captures the spirit of not knowing where you're going when you set out, a kind of lostness. [...] But there is something experimental to blogging, as a technology of the self. recall Foucault's comments about the pointlessness of writing a book if you already know what you're going to say.

Foucault Blog

Writing moves our ideas along, and develops them, determines and exposes their form and offers the potential for them to be further shaped and worked. This is true even if you write your diary in an underground cave, burn it and lock the ashes in an iron vault which you sink in an abyss (or write it in Blackboard). It is even more true if you do it in the open, out in the wild, and use the writing of your ideas to send out taproots seeking out people with similar interests, who can respond to you constructively, or people who couldn't disagree more, who will tell you exactly why your ideas stink. It is the ultimate in peer-review.

The objection raised to this is often that you shouldn't write about your research publicly in a blog because people will steal ideas from you, or you'll struggle to publish it in a journal later because it will already be in the public domain. I think both of these objections highlight the two main things that are wrong with academia. There are no ideas that can't be improved by being exposed to criticism, and the desperate need to retain ownership and exclusivity over ideas is, it seems to me, antithetical to the premise of education.

So, in the 30-or-so seconds I spoke at the mini-conference, I didn't manage to say quite all of those things, but those are the things I meant.

Categories: blogging, writing, meta-cognitive, articulation, learning, education, research, pedagogy,
Comments: 4


Author: joe

Tuesday, 13 January, 2009 - 23:19

There are often serendipities (though I'm talking about reading theoretical works here, so when I write 'serendipity' you may read 'pain in the arse') in the way I discover new avenues of critical thought to pursue, though now I think about it, the serendipity probably resides in my limited ability to discern and decipher connections rather than the rarity, inscrutability - or even coincidence - of the connections themselves. Perhaps I'm like a half-wit, or at least the opposite of a Quasimodo, who given any chance sees the rightness and absolute simplicity of analogies and apposite moments as though they were the salty truth of the world. I, on the contrary, make hard work where there might be restful ease.

In any case, I was reading Lave and Wenger on the subject on legitimate peripheral participation [1] (their precursor to the inexaggerably important idea of communities of practice) when I was drawn to their description of Bourdieu's ideas of 'conductorless orchestras' (what other metaphor for benign anarchy could you hope for?) and thus led to Michael Grenfell's edited work, Bourdieu and Education, in which I was teased by the characterisation of Bourdieu's work as an attempt to resolve the dichotomy of objective knowledge ('knowledge without a knowing subject') and hermeneutics (subjective and individual understanding).

His intent is to find a theory which is robust enough to be objective and generalizable, and yet accounts for individual, subjective thought and action. [2]

This for me is another case of serendipitously discovering more justification for resolving such dichotomies (e.g. the subject / object dichotomy) by encapsulating the whole dyad under the reunified sign of 'practice', as Mike and I discussed (if you can be arsed to read pages and pages of burbling) at the CEMP blog.

In any case, if you cannot see the woods for the trees, try banging your head on those trees until they tire of your bloody-minded importuning and give you a map of the locality.

[1] Lave, Jean & Wenger, Etienne, 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Grenfell, Michael, 1998. Bourdieu & Education: Acts of Practical Theory,
Florence, KY, USA: Taylor & Francis, Incorporated

Categories: theory, PhD, objectivity, subjectivity, hermeneutics, Bourdieu, pedagogy, participation,
Comments: 0