Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

September 18, 2008

A World Run by Buffs?

Filed under: Responses,Week 2 — Lisa M Lane @ 1:24 pm

One possibility that’s occurred to me this week is that we may be in transition from a world where knowledge is determined by a small group of university-trained elites to one where it is developed by small groups of attention-challenged and uneducated enthusiasts. This is worrisome.Kung Fu Panda

When I first read Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum upon its publication this summer, I was intrigued by the metaphor and saw that it helped provide a needed connection between connectivism and community. Now that I’ve done a great deal more reading on connectivism, and responded so negatively to some of its premises as portrayed by Barry Wellman, I have a much more pessimistic view, unless we limit Cormier’s arguments to new disciplines only. Even then, I’m concerned.

Iconoclasm concerning new disciplines is OK

Right up front Cormier seems to restrict his thesis to “new and developing fields”, and that’s exactly where it should stay. “Disciplines” such as educational technology are in the infant stages, and like infants have a great deal of exploring to do before they come into their own. New journals and blogs spring up overnight from people who are doing extraordinary things with the web in expanding educational opportunities and connecting in fascinating ways. M.A.s and Ed.D’s are popping up all over, with certain individuals and their ideas (Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Couros, etc.) rising to the top through both popularity and usefulness in today’s world. Their community is their curriculum, for sure. Their curriculum is based on recognizing, creating and sustaining community among others interested in a very fringe field dedicated to very large concepts. I love living in that community myself, but I am aware that it is new and trendy, and subject to its own changing norms. In last night’s Elluminate meeting, Cormier was fine with admitting his idea might not apply for all fields. When talking about the field of educational technology, it makes perfect sense to attack traditional authorities, identify rhizomatic models as “overtaking traditional models”, and see the “old notion of knowledge” as “frozen in time” with its gate-keeping publication restrictions. Publishing on the web is open, and the freedom is somewhat dizzying.

The problem with interpreting these ideas beyond ed tech

So dizzying that it’s tempting to apply Cormier’s approach to the rest of the disciplines. The assignment of his article as a reading in this class suggests that it should be interpreted more widely than just in new fields like educational technology. So does his occasional broad reference (he mentions websites that create collaborative “snapshots of the knowledge of a particular field”, but all those websites are about educational technology). If one applies his argument at a larger level than new fields, one comes to the conclusion that it is promoting rhizomatic, community-developed knowledge as the response to the speed of change in today’s world, the impossibilty of traditional verification through disciplinary experts, and the almost instant obsolesence of new understandings. No need to kill the gate-keepers; just go around them.

My discipline (history) is very old, even though many of its current methods are new. It is grounded in a tradition, however inconsistent, of the university elites who seem to be under attack in these theories that not only try to describe our changing world, but justify it. Cormier consistently attacks “canonical” sources of knowledge, and all traditional fields have a canon which is not quite as “fluid” as that of the new disciplines. But even with the new areas, frankly, if there is a “delay” that “could make the knowledge itself outdated by the time it is verified”, then it isn’t knowledge at all — it’s a fad. And if groups of voluntary participants “not only explore an established cannon but also…negotiate what qualifies as knowledge”, what’s to keep them from ignoring the canon all together? Nothing; the “rhizomatic knowledge-creation process is already overtaking traditional models”, curriculum itself is “constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.”

My discipline of history needs expertise and reflection before it needs a network

Some history students are very “engaged” in the learning process. A certain number come to class as history enthusiasts. They’ve read a lot of sources and secondary popular books, and spend much time watching the History Channel. They are history buffs. Most cannot construct a historical thesis, much less prove it with evidence. Doing so is the heart of the elitist canonical system historians endure. Enthusiasm is great, but is it not knowledge and does not substitute for knowledge. As in many fields, one uses a pattern of data, to information, to understanding, to knowledge, which can then be applied beyond the discipline. Historians negotiate this understanding and this knowledge in those nasty peer-reviewed journals, where deep differences of opinion lead to reassessments, rexamination of facts, research, and the development of new paradigms arising out of conflict. History is not at all a static field, and its methods are a fairly consistent combination of scientific inference, externally verifiable sources, and the internal goals of the historian. It is not rapid, it is deliberate and requires reflection. As my colleague Ignatia notes in her blog, “reflection demands time”. Quality may not require time in the field of educational technology, but it does in history.

Networks can subsume expertise to inappropriate negotiation

Networks may or may not have any canonically trained “experts”, and if they do it’s possible that no one would listen to them anyway. Historians tend to be pretty boring, not usually the type of internet participants prone to flaming and attention-mongering. The buffs will be the ones verifying, negotiating, “testing” the ideas. Knowledge that is “tested” in a community of enthusiasts unfamiliar with traditional methods and canonical works that came before them is not tested at all. It is shared, collaborated, socialized, negotiated, patterned, and developed, but it isn’t knowledge. To say that a voluntarily networked group of enthusiasts create knowledge would be going beyond giving them the benefit of the doubt. It would be like doing history without historiography (the study of previous historians’ ideas over time). It might lead to an understanding of historical perspectives, but it could as easily lead to a consensus that extraterrestrial aliens built the pyramids. It’s already possible to use historical sources in a semi-scientific way to argue some bizarre things (FDR knew Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed ahead of time and didn’t tell, the Holocaust didn’t happen). Faulty analysis needs only a bit of encouragement (a Hollywood movie, an internet community, a title like “Institute of Historical Review”) to justify its existence. My discipline has enough problems without bringing in every idiot who saw “Troy” and thinks Achilles had a California accent. To point to the ed tech community, which is enthusiastically led by people who are the products of the very same closed educational system they seem to wish to tear down, and use it as an example of connectivism, is a false lead. Dave Cormier is, I think, aware of this. We must be very careful where we apply the theories of networking.

A side note: It really disturbs me that this class is making me look like Edmund Burke and others who argue that traditional foundations are important. I myself have continually tried to “work” the educational system; I don’t have a PhD for precisely the reasons of traditional, canonical gate-keeping that all these wonderful innovators are arguing against. I am one of the most technologically and web savvy individuals at my institution. The result is that I’m having an online identity crisis.



  1. I have applied it to history… but wouldn’t use it without other methods (see I was, at one time, trained as a historian, and have sympathy with your position… but the article claims that it is ONLY targetted at fields where the canon is fluid. This is not generally true of history (even though it has had intense periods of change, say, when the Annals school started doing social history)

    The noise (denying the holocaust, the martin luther kind jr. weirdness, global warming folks (funded by the oil companies) is there now. There is no way to avoid this… the noise exists and will overwrite the traditional model unless we find some way of incorporating rigour into the process.


    Comment by dave cormier — September 18, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  2. Whew, that’s a relief, Dave! And I did indeed get that sense listening to you last evening. But once you’ve presented the idea, of course, you’re no longer in control of it, and I can see it everywhere being applied to everything. Well, OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but still….

    And you’re right; historical scholarship is slow but does have its moments of critical change. You might be interested in a delightfully cantakerous approach to historiography I just finished reading: John Vincent’s “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History”. It focuses on English historiography, but includes the Annales folks and others as well. It’s highly irreverant, but very good.

    The noise is indeed there now, and has always been there. I am not pessimistic enough to think it will overwrite the traditional model among the intellectuals, only the popular “consumers” of history who are in it for the entertainment value.

    Thank you very much for your response! 🙂

    Comment by lisahistory — September 18, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  3. […] post began as a short comment to Lisa Lane’s post “A World Run by Buffs” by quickly grew into something much larger than that.  I’ve been a lurker on her blog […]

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    Pingback by TechTicker » Blog Archive » Of Canons and Rhizomatic Knowledge — September 18, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

  4. Hi Lisa,

    Great post – I found it very thought provoking! I started to submit a brief reply but it took on a life of it’s own so I added it as a track back instead 🙂

    The short version: I prefer to learn this way, but I’m grappling with the practicalities of much of it for formal institutions, and particularly for certain subjects and age groups.

    You made several really going points in that respect that I’ll be mulling over for a while I suspect. Thanks for that.

    By the way, I’ve been lurking as a reader for some time now and love your posts 🙂



    Comment by Mike Bogle — September 18, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

  5. In talking about history – what about the idea that history belongs to the victors? Many times, native histories are ignored or discounted in the name of formal history. Maybe this is the other end of the spectrum than the holocaust deniers. But my point is, even the so-called canonically trained “experts” could be coming at information from the wrong network.

    Comment by gminks — September 18, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  6. As I posted on Mike Bogle’s blog:

    Maybe we could modify the phrase to be “historical documents are preserved by the victors”. They may or may not write “the history”, but they certainly impact what we can use later (ask anyone living in Stalinist Russia or rewriting history textbooks in Japan).

    They could be seen to “own” the history for the same reason, but that only prevents the opportunity for analysis when documentation is destroyed, and even then reconstruction if often possible (oral history, artifacts, travellers’ reports). The fact of the destruction also becomes a point of analysis.

    Certainly a number of people with wrong ideas are canonically trained — a traditional university education does not necessary weed out the whackos, even in history. My point is that voluntary networks are much more likely to produce far more of them.

    Comment by Lisa — September 18, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. Lisa, I think my pause over your comments that voluntary networks producing wackos is due to the fact that indigenous networks typically are treated as wackos by academia. If a network that has been discounted as having wrong ideas is cut off from participating in the discussion of history, doesn’t this enable the victors to keep their stranglehold on history?

    The victors do indeed write the histories, as well as preseve the historical documents. You can’t kill of hundreds of nations and call their land the “wild west” or “new frontier” without re-writing history.

    Here’s an example: is not an Indigenous website, it’s owned by the Cleveland Indians. Their view of how they got their mascot, who it is named after, etc is completely made up – a nice re-writing of history. Even when presented with the evidence, fans don’t care because they don’t want to face the cognitive dissonance it produces. They dismiss anyone who challenges their view of history as people being politically correct”, or wackos.

    If they would listen to a network other than the team, who are actually acting as information impostors, they would have a fuller historical view from which to make up their world view. But the information impostors discredit any information from voluntary networks.

    Comment by gminks — September 19, 2008 @ 4:46 am

  8. I’m a buff myself on many topics, and an expert on those topics I learned in university in the field, so I know the difference, and respect the difference. As a buff, I like to insist on the rights of buffs to butt in and interfere with hidebound experts and to use the social media tools to achieve more parity with academics who have far too much influence with far too little to say and far too little to show for it. I think the public has this right in a democratic society to demand some kind of accountability for the knowledge product, especially when parents can be expected to pay $40,000 a year to purchase it these days. That isn’t to say that the university must now be subject to masses of Babbits and Wal-Mart moms who dumb it down or subject it to cramped criteria, but it means that it does have to justify itself anew.

    Wikipedia is an example of buffology and not history. Take any contemporary event or figures like Palin or Biden; contrast and compare how their entries were done, especially the lengthy and obsessive Palin entry done by many leftist buffs bent on using the Wikipedia to destroy her even as they neglect biden or even McCain; they do this from fear and political hysteria, all the while keeping the tone mannered and faux-historical — buffs are good at that these days.

    You say a very important thing: “My discipline of history needs expertise and reflection before it needs a network.” Absolutely. You need to sit and struggle alone with the texts and see what they say before you condition that on opening it up to others also struggling and the schools of thought surrounding how to interpret them. No doubt the Connectivists would say “but the expertise and reflection can be done on a network” — with their little PLEs and whatnot — but here, I think you should be resolute and say “No, that’s distracting, and misleading, and at the end of the day, does not yield the same results.”

    However, when you go to this point, I think you go off the rails: “Networks can subsume expertise to inappropriate negotiation.”

    Who’s to say? This is the sort of thing Stephen Downes is doing when he arrogates to himself as teacher the right to cull the blog list and steer people away from forums discussions where he thinks it is “too loud” and into quieter waters that people can moderate heavily. The inappropriateness here comes from a claim that the network is open and the network is all, yet the steerage and culling goes on stealthily, then hiding itself behind an excuse as you might give by saying “experts shouldn’t have to fend off buffs.” But…why? I don’t suggest that every historian of, oh, the space program should have to sit and fend off UFO conspiracy nutters all day in the name of freedom, but he should feel some sense of accountability to the public, should he not? What form should that take?

    As to your comment about “voluntarily created networks creating knowledge,” it is George Siemens’ thesis that knowledge isn’t created. I imagine he would answer this tricky problem of knowledge created badly by amateurs by just blandly assuming “the network will go around it”. I see that comment all the time from these folks about things they don’t like, criticism, etc. — Stephen Downes ask the question — then gives the answer — that the Network produced loudness and confusion, and then the Network, bless its Holy Name, went around the noisy forums and mannered itself into the lodges of moderated blogs, all Hail the Holy Network which has battled the buffs yet another day and risen supreme.

    I’m not interested in Dave incorporating rigour into the process. I don’t want him and his friends to be in charge of “incorporation”. Rather, the process itself has to be defined as to how you arrive at ways to get around the Holocaust deniers, the UFO nutters, etc. That process cannot involve closure; it has to be based on the premise that openness and the ability to keep having the right to float a false hypothesis (a very important concept) can be matched by being able to refute false hypotheses as well to inform the public.

    A problem with the movement in public schools to overcome the classical “history written by the victors” is that they rewrite the story so that it is now “history written by the victims” — and and then simply exaggerate and manifest a bias in the other direction through a modern politically-correct lense.

    I think you’re saying several important things here

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — September 19, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  9. Gminks — The Indians sound like a good example of how one closed opinion creates bad history. I’m not even seeing the organization as a network; it’s too closed. Of course they don’t want input from anyone else. This seems like a power issue rather than a network issue.

    Catherine — Thanks, and yes, I do spend time with my students discussing the implications of portraying people of the past as victims, without historical agency. It devalues the actions of people, the things they did to prevent victimhood. But I let them get all upset about what happened first (affective domain), before guiding them into that discussion.

    I am not defending “academia”, nor am I suggesting that they’re the ones who determine what is and isn’t appropriate negotiation. But in this field, an “expert” (even one without a degree) is schooled (even by the self) in the canons and method of the discipline. Although it has not always been that way, the current system of practicing and reflecting upon those canons and methodology takes place primarily in higher education. The “community” such trained historians are part of is not the same as the one formed by unpracticed enthusiasts.

    Comment by Lisa — September 19, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  10. Lisa, thanks for your posts. They are helping me learn as we go through the C&C here. jay

    Comment by Jay Cross — September 20, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

  11. Re. experts: It does not have to be a buffs vs. experts proposition. The two can, and should, work together. What you seem to be debating is filter mechanisms for allowing experts to be recognized as such. This difference is essentially what the Google Knol project holds above Wikipedia: the entries are made by qualified, referenced, traceable experts.

    In my view, connective filtering mechanisms are essentially like node weights in neural networks. As long as there is a transparent mechanism to add weight to someone’s opinion, then these weights can be used to establish expertise. The more weight someone has, the more their ‘vote’ for another node is worth. Someone might start as a buff, but with enough acknowledgment from prior experts, their weight increases until they may become an expert themselves. One example of this (for stock picking) is as the CAPS system from the Motley Fool.

    Re. static vs. dynamic canons: I’m still thinking this through, but I imagine that the higher the dependency of the material on a static canon (i.e. medicine), the more weight would be given to experts (i.e. peer review), and the higher the barrier to entry for buffs. Conversely, if the material was relatively dynamic by nature (i.e. philosophy), then the weights would be more evenly spread out.

    Who decides how to spread these weights and which canons are more static than others?? As long as it is a transparent and rules-based mechanism, it can be modified as needed (i.e. Democracy comes in many forms, none of which pre-determines a winner; it is, in a way, a meta-ideology). These kind of mechanisms create a recursive abstraction of the underlying system, so the weights can be moved, but only in a way that is transparent and subject to review itself.

    By the way, great posts, this one and others.

    Comment by Eyal Sivan — September 21, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  12. I never knew about Knol before (I find it rather cloying to consider a “unit of knowledge” to be a “knol”). I was interested to read about it. Did this start before or after I looked at some entries, and I would have to conclude that this statement is highly relevative: “the entries are made by qualified, referenced, traceable experts”.

    Anyone can press the button and write an essay.

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — September 21, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  13. […] non-connectivist way. After all, much public knowledge (accumulated through history, of non-buffs, and dead people) is perceived in this way by the ordinary people who use the term in ordinary […]

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    Pingback by x28’s new Blog » Blog Archive » CCK08 My position on Connectivism — October 2, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

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