I freely admit that this is a mess of post. Some might view it as wail for attention. Feel free to ignore the whining if you wish. Feel free to wander away and pick your nose. Feel free to check your various personal learning networks, but …wander back please.
I wanted to write a post/article about outsiderism, the idea that the best ideas, the best reform, the best chance for legitimate change comes from outside the discipline or, failing that, from those on the margins within a discipline.
Question: are the facilitators and leaders and participants here outsiders or are they ‘rearrangers’? Are we cozy web makers or are we punks? Fuse lit.
My idea of the consummate outsider is architect, Christopher Alexander. Alexander has long been a gadfly to the architecture community. Since the beginning of his career and throughout the creation of his multi-volume works (starting with A Pattern Language) his emphasis has been upon local, humane, sustainable, and intelligent design. In his latest book he really takes on the role of outsider, pariah even, when he blames those in his own profession for the death march that is modern architecture and design.
I feel the same issues with the materials of modern university life, online and face-to-face. They (the insiders) are killing the good that universities do for learners. Perhaps Jim Groom’s abandonment of edupunk and Alan Levine’s disdain for the word “lurker” are part of a growing outsider movement. Perhaps Howard Rhinegold has always been on the outside looking in. Yet I have to ask: are they (including Mike Wesch, Cathy Davidson, and Randy Bass) enough outside to pull the center to the margin? I really don’t know.
Alexander’s critique is that humans design systems, but they are not currently at the center of the system. In his latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, Alexander divides all of architecture into two, prosaic camps: System A and System B. System B is all about efficiency and hierarchy. It is about power and control and productivity. All of which is well and good within its proper context. I want the centralized control systems built into the flying and landing and taking off of airplanes. I don’t want it nearly so much in the ‘ergonomic’ fascism of bathroom design or of learning management systems.
(Aside: anyone who has read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary will note some spooky similarities here.)
System A is all about integrity and health and the folk not as nodes in a machine, but as a growing, adapting, distributed and living whole. It is the difference between a neighborhood and a housing development.
Each of these systems is, in Alexander’s mind, generative. System A is open, sustainable, regenerative, and feels good. System B is oppressive, closed, degenerative, and exhausting. Take your pick. And lest you counter that this is a false dichotomy, you need only look in architecture and higher education for System A generated spaces. There are not that many. Alexander notes that the two systems entail a zero sum game: for one to thrive the other needs to diminish much like predators trying to occupy the same niche in the food chain.
I have a lot of questions about whether any of the web-based tools we are using actually fit the mold of System A. I don’t often feel those spaces as convivial and natural. Behind the artifice of interface lay the reality of code. Is that structure humane? Is it open, sustainable, and regenerative? Does it feel good? Does the whole idea behind code generate System A or System B? I really don’t know.
What I do know is that I get the very distinct feeling that certain systems I use are not convivial. Google+, Facebook, WordPress, Twitter while full of humans, feel closed, feel like templates to be filled in not spaces to be lived in. Hence, the need for outsiders more than ever to raise the question especially in this week of connected courses where we are talking about the why of why.
I am an outsider as many of you are. I came to teaching late after fifteen years of farming and running a couple of businesses (taxes and chimney sweeping). I came to teaching through substitute teaching. WTF. I started teaching at age 39 in a rural setting of intense poverty and dying culture. The culture that was dying was agri-culture. My wife and I unschooled our kids in a time when that was the perceived province of the crank and the zealot. Whatever. I am an iconoclast in a job that values lockstep. I loved the vicious, soul crushing little bastards who I was charged with graduating. Little more was asked of me. I am an outsider who thought that perhaps I could lay a set of parallel sidetracks next to the well-worn ones of System B, an underground railway designed to lift up, carry forward, and sustain those fleeing the plight of System B.
I am still an outsider running an underground railway and I am needing folks to guide me: is this connectedcourses System A or a well-disguised System B. I know how badly that system can abrade, chew up,and spit out its conductors. This paranoia has some pretty deep roots that don’t actually entail black helicopters and the Bilderberg.
So…will the tools we are using and advocating generate System A or System B spaces? Is it even possible to have a System A that arises from our own or other’s codings? How will we know that we have not deluded ourselves, that we are so invested in the time and energy and pride of creation that we fall into the sinkhole of bias and blindspot? I am older than most of you. I don’t have time for this if it’s just another System B in disguise. I have been down that road and it wasn’t of my own making and it doesn’t have a fork in it suitable for a commencement address. (BTW, Robert Frost was not a sweet grandfatherly old gent in that poem. Not very really.)
Alexander’s story in his latest book is one the extends from 80’s to the present day. He continues to fight against the architectural forces that value the modular over the adaptive, the global over the local. His project, the Eishin School, continues to be under fire by the powers-that-be in Japan. He continues to fight back. He is still the consummate outside. He believes in design from the folk up. I will use that yardstick to measure everything I will be trying from this course and in my courses. Is everything I do designed from the folk up? Is everything you do designed from the folk up? Is it humane and regenerative and sustaining, and alive? Or does it just serve the status quo ante bellum?
Thanks for letting me take this feldgang. A feldgang is what farmers do all the time. Fieldwalks. On my farm I see the hope of a rainy August. I see all kinds of forbs for my sheep to eat. Deep rooted docks and Queen Anne’s lace, plaintain weed and hop clover and red clover and white clover. Fescue and chicory. It is a meadow fit for a ruminant. Usually it is pith dry. Sometimes the fallen and broken branches get trampled further by our sheep and as they walk through they sound like marimbas being janked around by a hyperactive eight year old. Yes, this August is rare. I hope that #ccourses is a rainy August. Many feldgangs await. I have been accused of being hyperbolic and of wildly inflating conditions on the ground. I really do call them like I see them. I just need help seeing what I observe. Help me see.