Breaking FYC: Ripping the Insides

Cat playing peek-a-boo from the inside of a couch. Unlike the damage to the furniture, the cat is adorable.

In his book Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications, Clay Spinuzzi writes about a telecommunications company in Texas that on one hand operated as a single entity but on the other hand was an entity that existed only along borders. It was a collection of edges with no middle. At first, Spinuzzi shows this as an effect of the jobs employees need to do within the company, a consequence of operations:

Telecorp was almost all border. Its people were perpetually massed at the border of the organization because the border was everywhere: nearly every worker at Telecorp could be contacted at any time by a customer, a vendor, a collaborator, or a competitor. (53)

Later, Spinuzzi frames the description in terms of corporate structure, saying that Telecorp is “an organization that is all border and no interior, an organization in which hidden passes potentially connected every person to every other” (95).

That description got me thinking about classroom interactions. While Spinuzzi’s text goes on to use Telecorp’s distinctive structure to tease out tensions between activity theory and actor-network theory, I want to pause here for a minute to consider the structure of progressive classrooms, specifically non-lecture-driven, nonhierarchical classes such as MOOCs. For the purposes of a quick contrast, traditional classrooms have a textbook as the central content, a teacher as the central interpreter of that content, and students who are focused inward on that content within the confines of the classroom. Most of the work done for the classes gets done inside the classroom, with occasional work done after hours for homework. There is no contact with the outside world, which creates much of the “why do we have to learn this?” objection so often offered by students. Unlike Spinuzzi’s Telecorp, traditional classrooms are organizations with an established center and no edge. There are no contact points beyond the meeting of teacher and student.

Schools have long been designed as a collection of rooms in which standardized processes adjust, implant, and shape the knowledge and ideas of standardized students. I too often refer to Ken Robinson’s talk about the design of schools, but he makes a brilliant point about manufacturing date, rather than competence, being the only measure we use in our schools to determine placement and progress. (Born in 2002? That puts you in 5th grade!) This traditional design creates arbitrary, curriculum-dictated (or standardized-test-dictated) learning for learning’s sake, rather than learning with any action or real-world objective as an explicit goal.

In contrast, a more exposed class design (like the everted classroom I wrote about before) can blur or remove the divisions between learning, classwork, and the world outside class. When we challenge that hierarchy and create classes with different structures, we can open our classrooms, create more contact points, and form learning environments that function like networks—producing creative, dynamic connections that matter to students—rather than isolated mechanical boxes producing students who learn only what others dictate. As part of his introductory thoughts on the meaning of the word “network” within actor-network theory, Spinuzzi provides this description:

In actor–network theory, actor–networks are assemblages of humans and nonhumans; any person, artifact, practice, or assemblage of these is considered a node in the network and indeed can be an actor–network in itself. Links are made across and among these nodes in fairly unpredictable ways. Since there is no hierarchy or “analyzable inner structure,” the only restrictions to linking are relational or associational. (7)

This description could fit everted classrooms if we view those classrooms as resources or connection points, rather than meat grinders. Assembling humans and their nonhuman technology to locate, establish, and build on possible connections to expand the working network and draw from the created links. Most critically—and often most disconcerting to teachers—is the comment that the links are created “in fairly unpredictable ways.” Networks do not properly serve the needs of prescriptive curricula, but they do mirror the nature of learning and information discovery.

Stephen Downes, who worked with George Siemens to create what they say was the first MOOC, wrote about the philosophies behind their creation. In that post, Downes asserts that “knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other” and that “learning is the development and traversal of those connections.” This connectivist philosophy treats the learning and the class as a network, and it requires a network on which to operate.

So if the knowledge and learning happens at the points of connection, where’s the inside of the course? What’s at the center? Again, Downes:

The answer is that the course is not without content, but rather, that the content does not define the course. That there is no core of content that everyone must learn does not entail that there is zero content. Quite the opposite. It entails that there is a surplus of content. When you don’t select a certain set of canonical contents, everything becomes potential content.

In other words, the class suddenly replicates life. If you have a problem to solve in real life, you don’t consult the textbook on life. You look at multiple sources until you get what you need. Our students should be given the same flexibility. That relieves teachers of the need to vet all the information students consume, and it demands that schools help prepare students to process information. Connectivist learning doesn’t do away with the need for school, but it drastically re-shapes the purposes of school.

The class I’m teaching next week is a second-semester writing course for undergrads. It emphasizes research as genuine inquiry and rhetorical/genre awareness as key components—not to learn about, but to implement. The core of our course is a process, not content. Students provide their own content by finding a topic worth researching. (And yes, they are the ones who determine what is and is not worth researching.) Because my goal is to have students work with their ideas by finding and managing relevant information, I cannot be the expert or their fount of knowledge. Instead, I am but a node on the class’s network that can function as a resource when they need direction, clarification, motivation, or correction. Spinuzzi says that, in actor-network theory, “there is no hierarchy or analyzable inner structure,” which is exactly what I want. My students should be the ones to find what they want to study, and I shouldn’t be seen as the essential core of the course.

With that, I think I’ve ripped the insides out of my research course. I’d like to hear about other courses that function as all border with no middle. How else can we break open our classrooms?