Iconoclasty 101: Outsiders in Academe


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.)

Recent Floods in Perry County KY

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.


11 thoughts on “Iconoclasty 101: Outsiders in Academe

  1. Terry this is mille plateaux in a blog post.

    In the Auvergne we have a place called The plateaux of mille vaches. That is getting to the earth and our ecology.

    That is where u take us – back to earth.

    Where I strive to stay before being under it.

    As u say we are too old to be of their system xyz in body mind and soul. I am an unbeliever in the promised land – the green grass.

    I want to lie down and listen to kids thumping around, yelping with joy at the wonder of this beautiful place, not concerning themselves with others’ boxes in which they may bury themselves.

    Scott said it very well – cf rhizo14 fb gp.

    If they want their prison let them have it but only until lights out.

    I bid them well with their renovation work of their crumbling edifice.

    I am on the beach listening to the waves 🙂

    Come on over I love the sound of the sea swashing over sandcastles.

    Ur friend


  2. In total agreement about A spaces! In the same way that my brain would shut down when I had to teach in classrooms without windows (OMG nightmare!), I feel my brain shutting down in certain kinds of online spaces, most notably the D2L BS course management system used at my school, and also the insanely expensive boondoggle we have built, our very own LMS called Janux. I am so aware of the constraints of those systems and the way they are closed off from everything I love about the Internet that I just cannot function. Just as I was never a very good teacher in classrooms without windows.

    Now, for some people, that is not such a big deal, which is what makes human diversity so weird and exciting. I have to believe teachers if they tell me that they don’t care one way or another about windows in a physical classroom. And when people tell me they like using D2L, I have to take that at face value.

    I don’t like it. They do.

    So too with other spaces. I really love Google+, but I am well aware that others feel differently.

    It took me forever to figure out how to make Twitter work for me – how to find the windows as it were. Now, though, it works. I use Twitter in very limited ways, but I use it every day and, much to my own surprise, I have to say I would miss it if it were gone.

    And again to my own surprise, I am delighted by Pinterest and finding all kinds of ways to use it for my classes.

    Other people, however, have a visceral reaction to these hosted services, the same as I have a visceral reaction to classrooms without windows. It just feels WRONG to them to have your stuff inside someone else’s software.

    So, I don’t feel that way myself, but I get it.

    End result is that I think the best thing we can do is be aware of all the options and share our experiences widely, learning from each other.

    So, thank you for this post!!! And I’m looking forward to learning more.

    P.S. About agriculture: if they could, plants would run away screaming when I approach. I do not have a green thumb. 🙂

  3. I will write more later but I had to say that this line: “is this connectedcourses System A or a well-disguised System B” gets to the heart (kinda figuratively but kinda not) of what we are doing and I love that you are asking and demanding to know. I am at work but had to start responding now! More later.

  4. Hey Terry, have to agree with Simon who I think is quoting Scott when he says “If they want their prison let them have it but only until lights out.”

    I have thought that connected courses looked a bit System B-ish in some aspects, but I always felt I still had the space to create my own System A (or even non-system, really).

    Funny, just b4 reading ur post, i tweeted to Jonathan Worth that i migt preemptively blog about trust before its week. I wasn’t truly seeking permission, was almost kidding, but also it made me look at the week’s page and it has lots of interesting looking readings, and i was almost intimidated into not blogging… Reading ur post, i now realize: i am making my own path; i’ll blog what i want, when i want – no one really tried go stop me anyway; it’s years of schooling that made me feel like i shoulda read sthg first…

    Will go write that post now. Thanks for this 🙂 will use some of my comment text in my blog (as u’ve done w me before)

  5. Twitter, Google, Facebook, and all for-profit sites are System B. They aren’t designed for us; they are designed to profit from us. We squeeze into them and adapt them to our own purposes and our own comfort as well as we can. But notice that the same will be true to some degree with any structure, no matter how thoughtfully designed. Needs and desires that are not met by the structure, or not easily met, will always arise.

    Code is the infinitely flexible building material of the digital world. If you want System A digital environments, you are free to build them yourself.

  6. As always, Terry, just when group-think starts to begin-to-think-about-settling-in, you remind us that we need to not fall victim to it.

    My random thoughts:

    I read a blog post recently that was a harsh critique of universities, too harsh I felt, because there are lots of great things happening in universities where people like you are questioning the status quo and doing things beyond the “centralized control systems built into the flying and landing and taking off of airplanes” that is necessary for safety and a sense of security great enough for creative functioning.

    I will say that over time and with the right people, a housing development can become a neighborhood. But the conditions have to be right and can’t be artificially created. It’s an organic process. This goes back to my whole question of “how to create the requisite conditions” for a connected course.

    Should we be creating our own private convivial world akin to G+? The problem I run into with this line of thought is that the people involved in a huge undertaking such as #Ccourses have varying levels of buy-in, so the forum needs to be accessible even to those who don’t have as much time or energy to commit to it; otherwise by its very nature it will be exclusionary. Or……..is that OK?

    I re-watched This is Water and choose to focus on whatever the human element happens to BE in whatever forum we choose, and revel in the way we are able to blast past the templates to make real human connections. Even in a modular home, we can create a fire in the fireplace and drink beer and laugh and connect as real people with all of our frailties and learn from each other and question each other. There is plenty of white clover and fescue and chicory, we just have to see it past the fiberglass grid in the ceiling or the plastic screeen in the window. Maybe we can rebuild the modular home from within simply by virtue of filling it up with so many people and ideas and pictures and words that it gradually is pressed outward in a slow-motion explosion. Simon’s blog post (http://tachesdesens.blogspot.com/2014/09/in-tribble-valley.html?spref=tw) is a good start.

    All I know is that I am glad I met all of you, even if it is in a double-wide.

  7. System A has to be System A all the way down. Fractal. Equally living at each level of detail from macroscopic to microscopic. Setting aside the question of our universities, or even the visible aspects of our digital technologies, the technological sub-structure is hacked-together expediences and compromises. One of thousands of examples: I’ve got fiber-optic cable to my house, but no static IP, and I still have no IPv6 address. It is half-measures all the way down.

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