Posts Tagged ‘ethnography’

In which I consider for myself, at a great length, an unwieldy mass of  raw, cooked, and half-baked idea relating to learning, invisibility and silence… ironically with lots of pictures and an alarming amount of purple-patched prose.

It is an hour past sunrise on this August morning, and I am enjoying the green-scented breeze, the full summer flush of the potted pink impatiens, and the neighborhood’s awakening cicadas. I have settled at the table on our do-it-yourself–to-save-construction-costs second-story deck. Eight years ago, in our most advanced and now-appreciated act of home improvement ever, we mounted the modest twelve by twelve cedar platform just below the outstretched branches of aging, rather unkempt maple and elm trees, framed and anchored on two sides by the ell of our periwinkle Cape Cod’s body and the house-garage breezeway link that extols its 1954 construction. (I hereby admit a reluctance to commit the recommended grown-up acts of pruning and trimming the long limbs nodding overhead, unwilling to let the dreamy tree-house atmosphere and welcome shade fall victim to such mundane maintenance.)

Limbs overhead

It is from this location that, weather and familial circumstances permitting, I commit what an anthropologically-or ethnographically-minded observer might call my first identifiable act of overt personal learning for the day. In the absence of such specifically trained observers (although several other observers, witnesses, participants and/or spectators appear and disappear during the day’s flux), I suppose I am uniquely situated to depict – several years of action research being the ongoing modus operandi –the nature and reverberations of these endeavors.

I do so somewhat cautiously and with great ambiguity, aware that a love-affair backlash seems to be brewing in the tiny, somewhat lonely and amorphous culture  (all highly interpretive words, to be sure) that has embraced the terms personal learning network and personal learning environment… terms now undergoing some scrutiny. I have always found myself uneasy with these phrases, or perhaps with the often techno-cultural-progressive rhetoric that frames them, and have rarely used them raw or straight out of the package, finding myself instead only able to employ in all sincerity the first two-thirds of these phrases, “personal” and “learning.”

These words, in currant parlance, resonate, whereas the implications and assumptions of the terms personal learning network (defined broadly as people connected through communication, and conceptually linked to connective learning) and personal learning environment (insofar as this has consistently been defined as a set of technologically-based tools and programs with which one surrounds oneself and uses to create and connect to the aforementioned network) have left me wary, and, on many days, weary. I also wonder if terms which were coined essentially as Bateson’s  “knots in a handkerchief,” a place marker or temporary terminology to talk about things which are still fuzzy in concept, have become rapidly cemented as absolute ideas with presumably clear definition (perhaps to the dismay of the very originators of the terms).

With these compound terms I have been instinctively inclined to hesitate, drawing meditative breaths, perhaps here and now fatally throwing myself off my quiet and tentative perch in the bandwagon in order to better examine the juxtaposition of apparent and entrenched tradition against prospective and prescriptive innovation from many perspectives. Here I draw on ethnographic, anthropologic and even historiographic perspectives:

“…the moment a professional historian picks up a page, he or she begins taking a sophisticated series of steps that are almost completely unknown to the novice learner. When presented with a document, [they] …began by looking at the bottom of the page in search of information about the author and the nature of the source that would help situate the text within some larger context. But this was only the most obvious of the steps that the experts went through, as they treated texts as complex “rhetorical acts” whose basic nature had to be reconstructed. The historians zigzagged from one text to another in order to make explicit the motivations of the authors, to relate the text to its historical context, to explore the connotations of the words used to describe events, and even to construct a “mock reader” who fell into the rhetorical traps set by the “mock author” who was posited as creator of the text…. the historians read the texts like prosecuting attorneys…”

A series of steps

The paradoxical quest for a significant narrative

As an outcome of this type of deep questioning, I view with particular concern a perceptible shift from descriptive approaches for personal and connective learning permutations to prescriptive ones. Current skirmishes aside, I am finding that the “texts” of personal learning networks and environments, often embedded within “social learning” and connective advocacy, have become their own gospel and cause for hallelujahs, rather than objects of judicious theological study.

It is also here that I wonder if  complaints about change (change is not happening fast enough, at great enough magnitude, at pervasive enough levels of acceptance) are related to a focus on overly large scales of “measurement” and observation. Is the eagerness to formulate grand narratives of change, to identify unifying broad themes and approaches and perhaps even to view one’s life work as a vanguard of a movement also a certain type of… assumptiveness? (Manifest destiny, anyone?) Does the current preoccupation with evaluating and praising “change leadership” perhaps fail to recognize quietly authentic action? (To create an omelet of change, one needs to break a few eggy rules. Advertising this becomes… counterproductive.) And to what degree are people still in the grip of the very learning they expect to change?

“Howard Gardner…  suggested a few areas where such early patterns of social learning might create …[mental models] such as the expectation that history is organized according to narrative patterns that make a certain kind of moral sense, that events have a single cause, and that general stereotypes can be applied to entire classes of people.”

Some days, when early morning on the deck is already burdened with heavy, humid air and the sulk of coming storms, the combative question of whether there is a hegemonic flavor to the essentially progressive narrative that underlies educational technology and related learning roils on the horizon.

Metaphor made literal: clouds on the horizon

In observing and engaging in efforts to communicate about connective/personal/social learning networks and environments, I tap into an intuitive sense that such connective features might already exist in many places, invisible and undiscussed. I speculate whether it is not a lack of understanding by those not convinced, but rather an issue of approach, or perhaps one of insufficiently connective conceptual language, that might be getting in the way of understanding and encouraging learning in ways that are  (I say while wearing my activist’s hat) essential for survival. In understanding personal learning landscapes, I suspect there is much left uninvestigated, much that is invisible in the efforts to effect change. Ann Oakley notes:

Some issues on which research reports usually do not comment are: social/personal characteristics of those doing the interviewing; interviewees’ feelings about being interviewed and about the interview; interviewers’ feelings about interviewees; and quality of interviewer- interviewee interaction; hospitality offered by interviewees to interviewers; attempts to interviewees to use interviewers as sources of information; and the extension of interviewer-interviewee encounters into more broadly-based social relationships.”

This passage points out the many layers of understanding and, as I see it, learning potentials rendered invisible by standard practices of social sciences. Without understandings of the existing relationships (connections) and personal choices within each person’s complex context, I wonder if connective and personal learning, which are consistently framed within the social science practices of education, run the risk of becoming (ironically) yet another set of externally applied, generically defined learning expectations.

Local landscapes, domestic details, and sense of place

Fortunately, the antidote that prevents this from becoming a paralyzing concern is a daily life that inevitably reflects connective learning embedded in personal contexts, and it is here that I return to the dappled sunlight on the blue-and white checkered tablecloth, a second cup of coffee lapping at the rim of a slender porcelain cup. Personal learning does not appear here as an environment or network imposed or exposed, but rather as emergent activities and occasional performances, ones which I create and improvise. Yes, these are peripherally enabled through an environment in the sense of objects/tools surrounding me, but even more they are crafted and created through and by an environment of multi-sensate and multi-dimensional immersion.

The terms environment, landscape and geography occupy similar connotative space, with varied implications. While my initial preference is for the immersive term “environment,” it has been perhaps irretrievably usurped in relation to personal learning, and so landscape and geography remain more viable terms in attempting to communicate the descriptive essence of personal learning.

In the efforts to capture the apparently fundamental aspects of personal learning, we are often urged to build or reflect upon “our network,” or to construct a “mind map” of the digital tools we use the create a web or network of communicative/learning opportunities. This is helpful in a rudimentary fashion, but I suggest the significance of personal learning is not due to the collection of tools or a grouping of people which allows us to engage, but because it allows us to develop our “sense of self” within a developing “sense of place.” Sense of place, suggests geographer Kent Ryden, is “that complex of meaning that gives a landscape its significance in the eyes of the people who inhabit it, marking it off from the surrounding terra incognita… the sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative…”  (This idea of geography or location is reflected in the concept of online visitors and residents, whereby each group has different agendas, senses of place, and levels of habitation and habituation.)

And yes, there is certainly an awareness of narrative related to personal learning in the nascent personal learning culture. But it seems often to be an awareness imbued with an agenda, one intended to prove the rightness of the learning environment phenomena. Personal anecdotes are informative, but are not proof of rightness for all, and I worry that some efforts confuse the two. Behaviorist cheerleading also disturbs my ethnographic sensibilities, when narratives of shared place and experience are invited based on attitudinal agreement, whereby small but visible groups define the sense of space for others. Instead, I wonder if it would be equally productive to foster gradually accrued understandings (though not “definition”) through astute observation and listening by and to individuals and their own coalescing and competing (even interwoven) existing place narratives in spaces in which they feel most comfortable.

I envision personal learning as growing from the local, the small things forgotten, the minutia of daily life. These things are, I would posit, the very essence of personal learning, much as history is comprised of the amassed flow of uncounted, unidentified and yet undiscovered individuals, in spite of work which frames it in terms of leadership, power and those people, places and things easily and widely documented.

Maps with meaning

And so, for example, fighting a bit with the gentle breeze and finding the coffee suitably cooled, I spread before me an oddly obsolete personal learning device, the daily print edition of the local newspaper. There would be those witnessing this act who would, I suspect, jump to conclusions about absent RSS feeds, about my technological know-how, about hardware have and have-nots. A curious ethnographer would soon elicit the information that even with laptop and iphone immediately at hand, and ready recognition that the very same articles are available without cost on those devices, and sophisticated information abundance coping and flow mechanisms, I still continue to subscribe, with admitted environmental qualms, to dead tree deliveries. I posit that the “whys” in this scenario offer one set of examples about the complex and often ambiguous processes that support personal learning on the personal level. But first my coffee needs cream, and the sun is penetrating the leafy branches, which means I need a hat.

In documenting geography and landscapes, much as we have been asked to document our personal learning networks and environments, one turns to graphic representations, largely maps and charts and neatly packaged videos. In a world just coming to terms with the renewed idea that learning is not just a matter of manipulating text and language, the less-verbal pictorial representations are indeed a welcome expansion.  But, as Ryden notes…

“While the modern map is a marvel of efficient geographical communication… in other important ways it does not tell us very much as all…. I spent nine years of my childhood among these hills, houses, rivers, and lanes. The map tells me where certain hills are, but I retain in my legs the physical memory of what it feels like for a child to climb them. It tells me where certain buildings are, but I know what they look like inside and out—and not just as a photograph freezes an image, but what they look like at different times of the day and year. I … remember what I did in those buildings… [maps convert] a complex geographical reality into a purified objet of aesthetic contemplation. The map pays no heed to the ambiguities of that shifting, amorphous zone where land meets sea; it states firm conclusions in sharply etched lines and bright cartographic blues and greens… it compresses that landscape’s ambiguities into an arbitrary and simple flatness- it is all surface, lacking depth… The map has nothing to so with the quality and character of human existence as it is lived and felt on the surfaces that it describes…”

"A feeling in the legs"

It strikes me that descriptions of personal learning networks and environments are often as similarly sterile as the modern map, or obedient recitations of latitude and longitude. I wonder if descriptions and instruction intended to support personal learning to this point are absent the acknowledgement or discussion of precisely this “feeling in the legs.” Yes, “you have to do it to get it” is a popular phrase. But while encouraging participation, it also implies that unless the learner is engaged in the “it”  (blogging, podcasting, writing a wiki, joining a Ning group) identified by the speaker,  “it” is not right. This phrase further tangles with chicken-and-egg learning dilemmas, suggesting the act of doing will inspire the feeling the speaker wishes the other to achieve, rather than working toward a feeling of emerging or connected rightness to inspire a selected act.

I would posit that many people already have a feeling in the legs regarding their own learning, but that we have not supported a culture that allows this to become a legitimate and valued part of a map, or learning landscape. While maps in the pre-satellite image world were created by individuals, and for centuries were idiosyncratic and artistic representations of and by their creators, they have long since been consistently stripped of personal and lived reflections.  How many of our current learning maps, whether curriculum guides or and mind maps of personal learning environments, are reflections that, as Ryden says, “inspire imagination, emotion and words,” or any type of “poetic creativity?”

Folklorists, ethnographers and the like value maps, but learn to see them not as an end in themselves, but largely as one of many potential scaffolds for understanding lived experience; experience they seek themselves in attempting to comprehend to map, and also experience they seek to understand by listening to others inhabiting the map space.

Experiencing the map

Complexities of tradition, change, and reading the comics

In the summer, the two teenagers of the house are relatively late risers, but still, I have found that it is best to peruse the newspaper first thing. Otherwise, I find myself negotiating for the front page, a time-consuming endeavor, and can’t track down the features section until much later in the day, usually finding it crumpled, scrambled and half-hidden under the dark blue couch cushions. Worse yet, householders persist in wanting to read amusing cartoon captions and punchlines to me, whereas I prefer to enjoy words and visuals as a single entity as intended by the creator (or at least the Creators Syndicate). The rhythm of my personal newspaper reading is best capped off (and the direness of the previous news sections mitigated) by the unspoiled Reading of the Cartoons.

All these facets of experience are, one could argue, available elsewhere, with technological ease. And while I conceded the inevitability of online newspaper perusal into the future, my current assessment is:

  • The navigation of the online version is cumbersome and oddly linear.
  • Learning serendipity, particularly related to local oddities and grim curiosities often not addressed in even the best of my feeds, is greatly reduced online due to layout constraints.

    Serendipitous print amusements

  • Coffee and keyboards are a dangerous combination, especially on dark, bleary-eyed winter mornings in the depths of Minnesota winter.
  • The printed newspaper serves as an insidious and highly effective gateway drug for accumulating awareness of the surrounding world for younger household members. At the youngest ages, the two pages of comics easily endured banana-mash fingers (pages only improved by the liberal application of crayon). Later, cartoon-peripheral, ambient news awareness emerged since the paper was an item of high portability and great physical endurance, and because it was visually more obvious, tactilely more satisfying and acoustically more intriguing than a Macbook screen.
  • And yes, even though everyone in the house now has methods for tailoring and expanding their news and information processing, the pull of tradition, of messy newspapers first thing in the morning and the “could someone finally put the paper in the recycling” call to prayer in late afternoon are a part of the household routine creating “home.”

I cite this example not in attempt to defend a Luddite approach to the news, or to facilely defend the simple superiority of the old ways, or to deny the wonders of technology. Instead, it is simply to point out that this is but one small and yet extremely complex example of the kinds of preferences and contexts which contribute to the choices, processes and tools for personal learning– learning which is, I would add, never just my own, but is innately connective in facilitating or modeling these things (or serving as a cautionary tale, for that matter) for others.

Newspaper comics as gateway drug to ambient news awareness

Multiply these observations and choices by the almost limitless contextual elements related to the rationales for the construction of my idiosyncratic blogroll, my Google alerts, my Twitter followings, my library browsing, my love-hate relationship with my scanner pen (the very ownership of which reveals my constant negotiation among the printed and digital world), my need to change or eliminate chairs, my selection of conversational (dare one say social learning) partners based on, for a start, quickness of wit and their ability to recognize the difference between useful conversation and what one acerbic sociologist of my acquaintance called “online and offline grooming behaviors masquerading as friendship.” Add to this my weakness for fine-tipped colored Sharpies and the sly use of iMovie 09 sound effects, and the fact that I have an admittedly promiscuous attitude toward novel or high-quality expression, whether “open” and digital or not. In this context, my personal learning and expressions thereof, while meeting some obvious hallmarks of social and connective learning in networks, and while using diverse tools which comprise an “environment,” are best seen as complex tapestries that are not well represented by a map or a network diagram.

Is this complexity and humanness communicated to others in current discussions and descriptions of personal learning environments and networks?

Go left at the fiberglass beaver

To speculate a bit further: if we regard personal learning as a form of geographic exploration within a personally situated and interpreted landscape, I wonder if current efforts to create maps or to identify the large landscape features as guidance systems for others suggest a misleading simplicity.

Instead, I am inclined to map whatever personal learning processes and features (routes/routines; likes and dislikes; fearsome, edge-dwelling dragons) are already part of a personal landscape, but still perhaps invisible because formal (and even personal?) learning cartographers have been taught or inclined to ignore or neutralize these features and interpretations. It would seem more reflective of human experience to ask about existing conceptual maps, which potentially offer views of personal learning already deeply rooted in common behaviors, activities and worldviews. It does not necessarily mean these processes will be polished, ideal, or immediately effective for learning going forward. But they provide a much different framework and/or language in considering if, how or whether learning might occur.

An example aside: our household recently required the services of a lawyer. In subsequent conversation, it turned out that while one member of the household viewed this as hiring someone to review and amend a document, another saw this as hiring someone to protect the interests of the potential document signer. Both things were true and occurred, but the frames of understanding were quite different. It is this expansion of available frames for understanding, rather than rejection of any particular frame, that I am attempting to address here.  A further, landscape-oriented example: When I need directions, I need to hear “slow down when you see the Git-n-Gun and swing a left by the giant fiberglass beaver,” not “go east on Highway 18.” Both pieces of information lead to the same location, but one type of information “works” better for me.

In a similar vein, philosopher Gary Comstock (cited by Ryden) points out there is a difference between “places of little sense” and “places of big sense.”

Places of little sense

“Places of little sense, says Comstock, ‘have very much sense; it is just of a modest, local, sort: farmers in orange feed caps discussing whether the girls’ basketball team hadn’t oughta switched to five-player rules, doughnutmakers showing sixteen-year-olds how to boil potatoes to make broth for Paget’s Bakery cinnamon rolls, children encouraged by their parents on Saturday night to layout their Sunday clothes. Such people have a good deal of practical wisdom, knowledge located in bones and bellies.’ The sense of such little, unpretentious places derives from the everyday round of localized experience. It emerges, piecemeal and humble, of custom and conversation. Places of big sense, on the other hand, are characterized by the University of Chicago, where Comstock went to graduate school, where daily conversation is devoted to big ideas and grand abstract theories, a place populated by ‘philosophers spending their lives searching for the key to all moralities, dinner guests telling intimate details about the lives of G. E. Moore and Paul Tillich. There is plenty of knowledge here, of a cerebral sort. Often, the bones are brittle.'”

Tacit and emergent maps

Would inquiries into existing (rather than projected or prescriptive) frames– “little” frames, perhaps– simply uncover what is already known as a personal learning network or environment? If not, what does this suggest about the nature of such networks? Or will they operate as is currently the understanding of “big frames” among network scholars? Will one person’s belief in or understanding of the networked environment be borne out in another’s personal landscape? What would this mean for efforts to deliberately alter learning landscapes on a large scale? And what about the idea that changes on our personal maps (towns damaged by storms or floods, neighbors who move away, road construction that tangles up the fastest route) invoke frustration and even grief?

The point is not to “refudiate” the concepts of networks, or personal learning environments, learning technology, or social learning. It is instead an attempt to expand the focus of conversation and investigation to reflect the intimate, the personal, the domestic aspects of learning that seem invisible in the big thinking language which expresses the desire to propagate change through mechanics, strategy and construction. (Social network “building,” for example.)

Perhaps there would be some benefits in an effort to create a process that recognizes the existing landscapes of personal learning that speak to and with others, including those who are often resistantly overwhelmed by the language of social media, high technology, and information abundance learning.  The idea that today’s personal learning options are new and improved—or even just improved—is not, I suspect, a sufficiently convincing reason for most people to move from the suburbs to a condo with a view of the skyline. Rather than colonizing others’ maps with prebuilt homes, it makes more sense to me to explore any territories that individuals already tacitly, shyly, or even defiantly have mapped and occupied, in order to understand how, or even if, they may link to other places with other senses and sensibilities.

A personal and connective learning landscape offers complex mapping challenges

While I have no patience for the pervasive, impersonal and standardized mapping that is a hallmark of much current formal learning, I worry that viewing an alternative landscape of personal learning as a currently underutilized or unoccupied space, waiting for just the right people and tools to bring forth fertile growth, is equally presumptive. Equally troublesome in these considerations are claims that lack of openness and obvious (publicly visible and “audible”) expression and exchange — public mapping, if you will– correlates with lack of learning. Poet Adrianne Rich wrote:

The technology of silence

The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms

silence not absence

of words or music or even

raw sounds

Silence can be a plan

Rigorously executed

The blueprint to a life

It is a presence

It has a history a form

Do not confuse it

With any kind of absence.

At the end of the day, I often return to my perch on the deck to watch swaths of pink and purpled clouds slip silently over the last glowing efforts of the sun. And here I am led to speculate: what could become of concepts and paradigms related to personal and connective learning if instead of first framing these in terms of power shifts and trying to re-sculpt the landscape with blogs and wikis and the deliberate construction of networks, we began by  recognizing and mapping the personal learning landscapes that we already inhabit, however silently and invisibly?

Works considered

Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an ecology of mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” The American Historical Review October 2004 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/109.4/pace.html&gt; (3 Aug. 2010).

Glenn, Cheryl, Unspoken: a rhetoric of silence. (SIU Press, 2004).

Oakley, Ann, “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms,” in Lincoln, Yvonne and Denzin, Norman K. Turning points in qualitative research: tying knots in a handkerchief. (Rowman Altamira, 2003).

Ryden, Kent C. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing and the Sense of Place (University of Iowa Press, 1993)


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