Rhizomatic Learning: Cheating as Learning #rhizo14

Has your cat been cheating on you?

Interesting to try to keep up with all the posts about this Week One idea of cheating as learning in this class on rhizomatic learning.  So many perspectives.  I related to one about the general discomfort around the idea of cheating, and then another person said why not call it “changing the rules” – but as I think it all through, at least from the perspective I’m taking, I think I like the idea of cheating as a conversation starter.

I’ve been fascinated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari ideas about the “rhizomatic,” concepts they created to oppose what they called an “arborescent” concept of knowledge, which was modernist and focused on binaries, and necessarily limited, since taking a graduate level introduction to philosophy and ideas about research.  One of the things that was exciting about the course was that what I had been unable to understand as an undergrad, 20+ years ago, was suddenly really clear (and it was fun to see the notes about my previous confusions in the margins of my old texts).   Deleuze and Guattari, however, had not figured heavily in my earlier education and were still just either really confusing, or really simple and self-evident – I couldn’t tell.   I put them on a shelf and looked forward to getting back to them.  So, having graduated a month ago, it’s interesting that this course, “Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum,” came up suddenly in my blog reader and I was just in time to join.

Kircher, Forest Interior
Kircher, Forest Interior

The idea of rhizomes uses a metaphor about inter-species connections that are all over the map, rather than, like a forest, a series of connections organized along certain axes (vertical and horizontal):

“As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.’ Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a ‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

“In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.” (Wiki)

I am particularly interested in this because I (mostly) work with community development and education organized around people with intellectual disabilities.  There’s almost a necessity for cheating as empowerment for those minorities who are not heard, and whose authentic voices are not going to be heard within any system’s rules.   For a bunch of reasons, I’m really passionate about inclusion, but the most basic of these is that I find that folks with disabilities enrich my life hugely in various ways, and I hope that these are reciprocal relationships.   One of the things that they offer as a group is the opportunity for rupture and looking at things in new ways – and given the general agreement that we need some new answers this seems important – and yet they (and we who support them) are almost all caught up in service systems derived from a medical model that organizes information around them in ways that are almost like sluicegates…     Our very systems are built on the idea of addressing deficits, and as we focus on that, to the exclusion of everything else in an attempt to “get ‘er done,”  we come to think of ourselves, our colleagues and our systems in terms of deficits too.   A construct gets built that so much depends on – so many jobs, assumptions, hierarchies of intelligence.   And it’s not “out there” – like all these prejudices there has to be an ongoing effort to root out all the bits.  In a recent conversation with Al Etmanski he said this rather wonderful thing about how service systems are necessarily based on ideas of efficiencies, and community is based on ideas of abundance – and that there would always be this friction.   He also said that we (all of us) had created these systems so it was up to us to address it.

Henri Rousseau - Jungle Painting.  #rhizomatic
Henri Rousseau – Jungle Painting. #rhizomatic

A few things over the last several years have changed my own thinking about all of this.  First, I was invited by self advocate leader Barb Goode to do the graphic facilitation for a workshop she’d envisioned with Shelley Nessman, called “Climb Every Mountain.”  The workshop began with Barb and Shelley asking of a room of about 100 people with disabilities “How many of you feel that you were put on earth to fulfill a higher calling?”   It was a whole new question – not about appropriate behaviour or community safety or how to “fit in” – but about our shared work of each of us finding our soul’s avocation.   One by one people looked around at each other and started to put up their hands, until they all had their hands up, stretching, grinning – they were hungry for this conversation.   Barb then asked “How many of you feel that the supports and programs you have now are helping you to achieve this calling?  Put down your hand if this is true for you.”   And no one put down their hands.  And then we proceeded with our dialogues (Barb and Shelley are now two of the 8 partners in Spectrum Consulting, which I am Director of.)

The next thing that happened was that I walked into another workshop where people were sitting in rows and expecting me to explain to them some part of disability – they had their notebooks ready and I thought of all the learning I’ve done around teaching and convening and how the whole thing wasn’t working for me any longer.   So I stared asking them who here knows someone with a disability?  A sibling – put up your hands – a cousin, a child, a neighbour, a co-worker, the person at Starbucks who makes your day – anyone you know that you care about that I haven’t mentioned?  And everyone had their hands up.  So the conversation changed from “here’s a thing about disability” to “let’s talk about people we care about and see what happens” (this story is part of this story here, if you want to hear it).   People came up afterwards to say it was the first time they’d claimed their sibling (or whoever) publicly.  The third thing happened quite recently.  I was with a group of self advocates and we were co-learning about something – it was amazing, inspiring, energising, so much fun.   And then we went into another session where someone in authority stood at the front of the room and organized things into lists and bits and I realized that what they were making boring and pedestrian were the magical people I had just spent time with.   And I had this sense of outrage, this “How dare you?” reaction…So I’ve been re-learning how to teach in new ways – using art, drama, stories, circles, dialogues.   Part of what Barb showed me how to do in that workshop was to “have fun with it, make it fun for everyone.”  She named the workshop after a favourite song, “Climb Every Mountain.”   She wanted to begin with a video of Julie Andrews singing and dancing up the slopes.   There would be art, movement, talking and people would leave the workshop with a mission to expand their connections – they’d go find three people and ask them, “What do you think the gift I bring to our community is?”

And she wanted us to wear nun outfits.   I refused, and it is one of my regrets.

Pierre Bonnard, Girl Writing
Pierre Bonnard, Girl Writing

We’d asked to sit in a big circle together, but when we got to the room the conference organizers had scheduled us into a big ballroom with crowded tables and it was intimidating and hard to move around in – particularly for people in wheelchairs, even though the conference was for people with multiple disabilities.   Our video equipment didn’t work and the space was too big to jury rig our little speakers, and getting the hotel techs in to help was something like $450 an hour.   “We will just have to sing the song ourselves,” Barb said, and took my hand.   I have many terrors – sharks, blindness, tripping down escalators – but of them all, singing in public is always at the top of my list.  And yet I began to sing, as loudly as I could, and people began to sing along, and Barb’s dancing hands moved mine to conduct…

More things  happened and I went back to school at 50, to study in an interdisciplinary program.  It was amazing.  I learned about new ways of including people with disabilities in research and leadership.  I went to Ireland and spent a day with the County Clare Inclusive Research group – a small, experienced group of researchers with disabilities who choose what they want to research and then collect data in new ways and disseminate it in new ways: skits, plays, art, expanding community dialogues.   “Because let’s face it, Aaron,” said one of the members, pronouncing both the As in my name with a rolling lilt, “nobody wants to read your f***ing papers.  Not even those who can.”

When I was there, they had chosen to research access to churches.  Why, in one of the world’s most religious countries, were churches one of the last places to get on the accessibility program?  I would never have thought to consider this – who cares about churches – there are so many more important things.   One of the researchers said, “My family has belonged to this congregation for more than 300 years – it is where people come when they are born, when they marry, when they have children, when their parents die and when they die themselves.   Last week my nephew was baptized and I was not able to be there.”   It would be one thing for me to show up in such a place, understanding this, and speak to those in charge about accessibility – part of my job, part of the dialogue of a healthy community that believes in access for all.   But what a different thing it was for the seven of them, teetering on their walkers, in their wheelchairs trying to figure out a ramp, moving headlong and whispering a kind of unrelated chant in a way that indicated autism – to show up and ask why they were not welcome?   The asking of the research question begins the change.

Henri Rousseau, Horse Attacked by Jaguar
Henri Rousseau, Horse Attacked by Jaguar

So this first week’s “assignment” is great.   David Cormier says let’s talk about the “story of cheating” and that “rhizomatic learning is all about finding new ways to talk about the things we all understand.”   He then points out that for cheating to occur, there need to be rules to be broken.  You must steal the answer from someone who knows *the* answer – someone who knows the “one right way.”   So, already, there are “many rules” that have fallen into place without anyone ever giving out the rule book.   

And the rules, he points out, are really just traditions and conventions that have been passed forward.   We talk about these rules like they’re true, but they’re really pieces of other bigger stories.   So what happens if we talk about cheating as learning?  It’s the opportunity for a disruption in the rules.   He says in his courses he likes to figure out a problem that no one can solve on their own, that requires collaboration – that requires the stealing of answers from each other.   In my field there are so many unanswered or unaddressed questions – such confusion around what the point of support is and why it matters, despite lots of evidence that what matters is authentic inclusion.  The common premise, for example, that many people are encouraged to believe, that support keeps people safe because in the hands of tested, accredited professionals who are accredited, falls apart under the weight of  everything we know about institutions and larger systems.  There is lots of evidence that people are much safer supported by friends, neighbours, co-workers, family members and people who are there because they care about them.   Yet in this sticky web of beliefs is the idea of professional distance, and my latest investigations are about how people come to support folks with disabilities out of ideas about social justice, or out of shared joy in each other’s presence, and then are “professionalised” into automatons and “evaluated” on everything but their caring and their desire for connectedness.    Again, in terms of cheating and rhizomes, when we meet these staff they tell us about things they’ve done and feelings they’ve had and have, and the connections they are making…  but it is all rarely if ever reflected in anything to do with their working relationships as portrayed by professionals.   

One of the biggest gaps in community living (the support of people with disabilities in their neighbourhoods) is the confusion around what community is.   In their paper, “Community participation of people with an intellectual disability: a review of empirical findings,”  Verdonschot et al look at the research around community participation and find that of 2936 possible studies, only 23 met their criteria for inclusion, which as well as concepts of validity included things like was community defined.   So, in a research question like “are people active in their community?” the idea of community was often conflated and confused – was it a place we go to, or was it a sense (and evidence of) belonging?  The authors conclude:

It can be concluded that on the basis of empirical research, published within the time frame of this literature search, little is known about community participation of people with ID. Many researchers did not clearly define community participation or restrict their study to limited aspects of community participation. A valid conceptual framework is hardly referred to. The researchers in the present review used the ICF [International Classification of Function- ing, Disability and Health] as a theoretical framework for conceptualising community participation. Because the ICF treats ‘participation’ as a dimension of general human functioning and because the construct of ‘participation’ is well defined and categorised, the ICF could be considered a valid theoretical framework for the study of participation in people with ID.

This is a field into which billions of dollars are poured, and a great deal of rhetoric about the care of “our most vulnerable” citizens, yet at the end of the day “little is known about community participation of people with ID.”   So much is on autopilot without time to reflect on what we are doing together.   There are other great insights in this study (that the studies which met the requirements were mostly of people who were verbal and had little incapacity, for example, so only a very narrow range of disabilities were studied).   And the authors point out that it’s not because there is no theoretical framework – it’s because the researchers, who’s work informs the educational and support systems that embark on hiring staff to care for people, have willingly refused in a kind of complicity to examine what is really being produced by such groups.

These kinds of issues, which victimize people with disabilities, those who care about them, and even the staff who are hired to support them (caught up in an endless cycle of not being able to ever succeed because there is no identified success) require re-thinking that is only possible when there are new forms of open collaboration with new partners.   One of our earliest and best lessons was that the grandmothers of the folks we support would not tolerate what was acceptable to the professionals around them, and they had some great ideas about what to try that they wanted to share.   Neither, when invited in, will people’s neighbours tolerate such a lack of clarity and quality.

Louise Bourgeois, "Maman."
Louise Bourgeois, “Maman.”

So our current hope is to learn better ways of inviting in others who will help us.  This is going amazingly well, but it requires far less ego – far more openness to other kinds of answers and other kinds of expertise.   It is part of the reason I’m preferring to take the role of graphic facilitator – I want to learn better how to listen.   I want to perfect listening.

So, if cheating is collaboration (is it?) – is borrowing the answer you don’t know – then that’s my thought.   New players who will question the rules that “we all know” and ask who made that rule and is it actually written down and why is it there and what is it accomplishing?   Because even a system when dedicated to innovation acts way too much like an old boy’s network – consistently rewarding not what is authentically innovative (which is really rare in any case) but rewarding the people who show up and say the same old unchallenging things but include negligible changes presented as innovations.

Note.  This is my personal blog in which I record my thinking, and does not reflect the thinking of any organization I am affiliated with.

One thought on “Rhizomatic Learning: Cheating as Learning #rhizo14

  1. The notion of identity, both of self and also in terms of recognising identity of self amongst others, is strong throughout this and I think that is central to much of the discussion on rhizo14 in general. It is a calling, perhaps, to recognise self, and involvement, participation, rather than talking in abstracts, of others, of something we do externally and which will have an impact elsewhere for the groups.
    the closing quote, that, ‘Because even a system when dedicated to innovation acts way too much like an old boy’s network – consistently rewarding not what is authentically innovative (which is really rare in any case) but rewarding the people who show up and say the same old unchallenging things but include negligible changes presented as innovations’ struck a chord. That ‘old boy’s network’ is far more prevalent, deeply entrenched and so fundamental that it is iceberg like in the depths, hidden yet massive.
    Good luck in your continued efforts, I see links to another post I read earlier based on the Ghandi quote ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. That is important, yet also requires a deeper reflection on what our worlds consist off and making sure it is our change, our actual experienced world we want to make better, and not a continued response to a constructed, expected, correct answer – like the old Miss World cliche, “I want world peace and all the children to be happy’.
    I will look up Verdonschot as I try to establish a better definition of community for my own research and life too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s