Critique and Openess

My slides from last week’s presentation at London Conference in Critical Thought.

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LCCT Programme

The schedule for the London Conference on Critical Thought is now available here.

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Flipping Philosophy

Too many people at the Fontana di Trevi

Last week I went to the 6th International Conference in Critical Theory, based at The John Felice Rome Center of Loyola University Chicago in Rome.  I got some useful stuff out my my presentation, both in terms of some headspace to work on the essence of what I wanted to say in some of my PhD work and in that there were some useful comments to come out it too.  I’m newly confident that there’s a reasonable journal article in there somewhere.

It’s been a while since I spent a full three days listening to philosophy papers.  No doubt I’m a bit rusty in terms of my ability to listen, but I repeatedly found myself thinking that reading out from a prepared manuscript is rarely the most stimulating or pedagogically effective way to present material.

The idea that we should aspire to be innovative in how we present information is kind of a given in the environment I work in at present.  Experiments in form have value in themselves.  But philosophers tend to stick to a long-established way of doing things.  You write a paper in advance, print it out, and then read it out load for anywhere between 50% and 99% of the time available for the session with any leftover time devoted to discussion.

Not all philosophers do this, and for those that do the benefit is that you say exactly what you want to say, no matter how vexed or convoluted.  When you’re trying to explain something complicated, it’s easy to get it wrong especially when you’re presenting to a room full of people who are very keen to point out any mistakes.  For many presenters who are shy, a script to hide behind can be a comfort.

However, there are a few things that have come to irk me about this way of doing things.  Firstly, there aren’t many concessions being made to the audience when you are effectively asking them to digest something like a journal article or book chapter in one go, often without a paper copy of your own to follow.  It can be hard to keep a question in mind if you want to keep up with the presentation.  Perhaps this is exacerbated when you’re trying to listen in a language that is not your own; I was chairing at a conference recently and one audience member complained loudly to this effect.  A whole day of passively listening to people speak is fairly draining no matter how interesting the presentation, and it’s hard to think that people can sustain this for a number of days.

You have a great deal of collective intelligence in the room at seminars like these, but it’s hard to see how reading is a good use of that time.  At the conference in Rome there were academics and graduate students from around the world.  Lots of resources have gone into putting these people in the same room.  It’s a chance to have a really good discussion – or at least it would be if everyone had the materials in advance.

This got me thinking along the lines of the ‘flipped‘ classroom, where you do the information delivery (lecture, video, etc) outside of the class and keep the precious (expensive) contact time for discussion and activities.  Students can digest the material over time, through multiple viewings if need be.  If we were to do the same thing with conference sessions you could have all kinds of new formats, or work towards producing something tangible.  (It’s quite ironic that the complaint about technology creating barriers to human interaction is used to defend reading your paper at an audience.)  It also relies on people being organised enough to produce materials in advance but there’s no reason why it need be compulsory.

I’m coming out in favour of the flipped conference.  I understand that a similar call has been made by Alan Levine and Audrey Watters.   There are issues, though, especially to do with recording unfinished or progressing work.  I can’t see many people in the humanities going for that.

They’re a conservative (with a smal ‘c’) bunch, really, philosophers.  I imagine most of the humanities are the same, however:  they like the old ways of doing things and that’s partly how they ended up where they are.  It’s quite telling that when you are in an educational technology conference everybody is sitting on there devices, tweeting, checking things, looking things up and so on.  At a philosophy conference very few do this.  When I went on Twitter there was only one other person on there and we were both looking for some sort of hashtag or conversation to follow.  There’s a sense of defence of a sanctified space among these communities but I wonder how much of that is about the most effective use of that space.

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Social Pathology & Postmetaphysical Thinking

My slides from today’s presentation…

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Perspectives on Open and Distance Learning

I’ve just had notification that Perspectives on Open and Distance Learning: Open Educational Resources: Innovation, Research and Practice (for which I co-wrote a chapter has now been published… you can download directly from here.

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Data visualization as simulacra

I just saw this quote over at Radical Cartography and thought it was really interesting to think about in relation to data visualization, which is essentially also making spatial representations of information.

Information is already abstraction from experience because in regarding it as knowledge rather than immediate sensation.  So, creating representations of information is moving away from the referent and towards the ‘hyperreal’.  This is compounded when we visualize data in order to inform decision making as the ‘map that precedes the territory’.

At the same time, there is something organic and biopolitical about the growth, flourishing and decline of different representations of the world which inevitably reflect and express surrounding power structures.

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where the decline of the Empire sees this map become frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an Imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing) — then this fable has come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra. Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire but our own: The desert of the real itself.

Jean Baudrillard (1981) “The Precession of Simulacra” in Simulacra and Simulation.

There’s some quite interesting stuff over there, in fact.

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JiME Reviews Apr 2013

I have a copy of the following book available for anyone who would like to review it for JiME.  Just let me know if you are interested…

Jenkins, H., Kelley, W., Clinton, K., McWilliams, J., Pitts-Wiley, R. and Reilly, E. (eds.) (2013). Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby Dick in the English Classroom.  Teachers College Press: New York.

You can find out a bit more about the volume here or at Amazon.

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South Korea: Photos

Just a few photos from our (me and @beckpitt) recent trip to S. Korea…

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Reading: Open Education

I’ve been meaning to spend a bit of time trying to better understand the open education movement of the 1970s and how it relates to contemporary developments in academia.  A useful summary of some key texts is over at but I’ve copied the bibliographic details here just in case it goes down or I can’t find it again.  I’m particularly interested in getting my hands on the Nyberg (for obvious reasons).

Easthope, G. (1975) Community, Hierarchy and Open Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Nyberg, D. (ed.) (1975) The Philosophy of Open Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Puckrose, H. (1975) Open School, Open Society, London: Evans.

Sharp, J. (1973) Open School. The experience of 1964-70 at Wyndham School, Egremont, Cumberland, London: Dent.

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Language Games

I’ve just filed my copy for a review of Martin Weller‘s book, The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice (which, incidentally you can buy online but if I was you I would just grab the free version online because there’s less chance of that getting wet and ultimately crispy like my copy did).  Hopefully it will be forthcoming in JiME fairly soon.

It’s a bit of a strange experience to review someone’s work when you work for them – normally this happens behind a veneer of relative anonymity – but I hope I’ve managed to find the golden mean between obsequiousness and being critical just for the sake of it…

Anyway, the point of this post is to capture something that I was thinking about a long time ago and in the course of writing the review I was reminded of it.  It goes back to the following passage near the start of Martin’s book:

A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.

Weller, M. (2011:4)

A couple of years ago I was a researcher on the Digital Scholarship project and read Martin’s book in manuscript form.  I recall thinking at the time that the whole idea of digital scholarship was a bit sketchy.  After all, who isn’t ‘digital’ these days?  The whole thing seemed to me to need much more precise definition (which Martin always resisted for reasons I’ve never been entirely clear on but seem to have to do with something traumatic in his past around learning objects).  For what it’s worth, I think I understand his perspective a bit better now.

Anyway, re-reading this section got me thinking again and I had another look at the Wittgenstein.  The discussion of ‘games’ comes from the later part of Wittgenstein’s work; Wittgenstein is unusual among philosophers in that he produced two distinct and original philosophies during his life, both of which are primarily concerned with our relation to language.

The so-called ‘early’ Wittgenstein – he of the forbidding Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -argued that most philosophical confusion results from failing to respect the sense-making limits of language.  Only certain kinds of propositional utterances – descriptions of states of affairs (facts) or relations of ideas (definitions) – make any sense and the rest is just confusion.  I’m oversimplifying.  But the general idea is expressed in the seven ‘basic’ propositions of the Tractatus.

  1. The world is everything that is the case.
  2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
  4. The thought is the significant proposition.
  5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)
  6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
  7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

There are of course problems with this, but the idea that philosophy is an activity which is fundamentally therapeutic (or even quietist) is one that has stuck around.  But in his later (posthumously published) work, Wittgenstein attempts to make sense of linguistic meaning moved away from logic in the direction of ordinary language.  I won’t go into the reasons for his development in this direction here, but trying to find absolute definitions is replaced by looking at how language is used in practical social contexts (like working on a building site, acting in a play, cracking a joke or playing a game) since “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§23).  Wittgenstein termed the relationship between utterances and contexts ‘language games‘ to reflect the idea that the ‘rules’ language follows are less like axioms of logic and are mostly to do with making sense in a particular situation.

If we want to resist giving final definitions of (especially new) concepts we shouldn’t talk so much about ‘games’ but instead in terms of family resemblance between uses of language.  Games are just the example Wittgenstein uses to illustrate the point about family resemblances since there are lots of things we call ‘games’ but there are often lots of difference between them (competitiveness, equipment, purpose, etc.).  The thing that binds them all together is our use of the same word to describe them:  “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§65).

The implications of this are more significant for philosophy than they might as first appear.

But to my mind the idea is not that we should give up on the idea of tight or final definitions.  Rather, we just need to be aware of the fact that ‘defining’ is also a language game and one that is often of great use (such as in taxonomy).

When it comes to a neologism like ‘digital scholarship’ we aren’t necessarily looking at a referent which already exists in common usage. Wittgenstein’s point about language use must be taken in conjunction with the idea of the impossibility of private language.  Language doesn’t enable forms of life, but forms of life enable language.  It isn’t through the definition of ‘game’ that Wittgenstein shows this, but through the idea of a ‘family resemblance‘ between different practical uses of the same word.

It’s understandable that we should strive not to get bogged down in trying to define things but we should also recognise that in itself this can be an incredibly valuable activity, particularly when sketching out new developments in existing fields, or indeed when identifying new domains of study.

And that’s the point I struggled to make even this concisely two years ago.  But that’s philosophy for ya.  Or maybe just me.

Weller, M. (2011).  The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Academic.

Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. C.K. Ogden (trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.

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