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Structure, authority and other noncepts: teaching in fool-ish spaces

Hamish Macleod & Jen Ross
University of Edinburgh

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In this paper we argue that as the rules of social engagement and hierarchy become less clearly defined in online spaces, so authority becomes an increasingly tricky notion in online teaching. Unstructured (chaotic?) digital spaces (wikis, live chat, virtual worlds) have great potential as sites of learning, connection and construction of meaning and self, but the teacher’s capacity to control or regulate these spaces is limited. Indeed, we argue the teacher’s role in such a space is not to regulate, but rather to participate and provoke in creative and playful ways that open up passages or possibilities in chaotic online spaces (web/s).

If the online teacher is going to move from centre stage, and sacrifice some ideas of their sagacity, what sorts of roles might be taken up to contribute to the guidance of the online learner? There are paradoxes here. We know that distance education (and, by implication, online engagement) is associated with particularly high discontinuation rates, and so it would seem that the online learner will be in need of more, rather than less, perceived support from the teacher. Yet the online teacher has no physical presence to which the online learner can turn, and the nature of time-shifted asynchronous communication that supports much online learning will mean that significant delays must be tolerated between exchanges. In deliberately standing aside to allow the learner more personal autonomy, the online teacher must nevertheless make their virtual presence felt strongly. Steps must be taken to counter the remoteness and mediated nature of the relationship.

We will argue that one vitally important task of the online teacher is to watch. The extent to which this task is both facilitated and corrupted (Land and Bayne 2002) by the amount of data often available to online teachers about what students are doing (in VLEs, etc) makes many educators uncomfortable. We will explore the idea that learners may feel themselves constantly watched over in a digital space, but if they are therefore also able to believe that the “spirit” of their teacher can be invoked, for good or ill, at any time it is needed, this perception may have its advantages for them. Images come to mind, such as Philip Pullman’s daemon1 , or the witch’s familiar.

The teacher must be a presence that the learner can create and control to a certain extent, and yet be a real and autonomous virtual other with whom the learner can interact, collaborate and conflict. The ideal presence is one which is eminently challengeable, which in fact demands contestation, and is impossible to ignore – recalling, perhaps, the Socratic method, in which the learner comes to an understanding which is provoked by an (active) debate, even disagreement with the teacher, rather than by a (passive) agreement and acquiescence. ‘Impossible to ignore’ is key, here: the volume of readily available information ‘out there’, where the teacher and the learner must meet, means that the ability to grab and hold a learner’s attention is challenging: "...in an information economy, the real scarce commodity will always be human attention" (Lanham 2006, online). In an online context, being personally, meaningfully provocative is a way of being noticed amongst the noise.

Bearing all of this in mind, in this paper we would like to explore the notion of the presence of the online educator as being that of the jester, joker or fool. We intend to explore a synthesis of a number of archetypes, from the trickster 2 Loki3 from Norse mythology, the figures of Coyote4 and Raven5 from Native American culture, to the court jester of Europe. The responsibility of these characters is to poke fun at the established authority, and to ask questions about what would seem to be the obvious, natural order of things. The fool is an irritant in the society around - like the proverbial grain of sand in an oyster. S/he (and indeed, ambiguity of sex, sexuality and gender is often a feature of the trickster’s persona) is a maker of mischief and a creator of tension, occasionally with actively malicious intent, but more often than not s/he is also responsible for the resolution of the tension by fun and foolery. The irritation that the fool engenders is frequently the source of insights on the part of others; the protagonists in the stories frequently emerging as sadder, but wiser, following the fool’s ministrations. The fool is the provoker of new wisdom in others, rather than the owner of conventional wisdom in his or her own right. The fool is tolerated rather than loved by the objects of their attention, and yet their importance is tacitly acknowledged through assumptions of divine protection, commission, or even essence.

The fool’s mastery is of context (Welsford 1935, 5), not content. The trickster stands at thresholds and deals in liminality, and delights in the role of outsider, stranger, other. The jester is both grounded and exposed, and is therefore a lightning-rod for aggression. These roles are not easy to sustain - they are uncomfortable and, perhaps, quite lonely. By embracing discomfort and loneliness the teacher/fool can therefore also perhaps gain insight into their students’ sense of being lost in online spaces.

The teacher's role in the digital environment is different. We think the metaphor of fools, jesters and tricksters provides useful ways of understanding and supporting this difference.


1. Quoting from http://www.philip-pullman.com/about_the_writing.asp
Pullman says “... I will say that the daemon is that part of you that helps you grow towards wisdom”.

 

References

Land, R., & Bayne, S., 2002. “Screen or monitor? Surveillance and disciplinary power in online learning environments”. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning using learning technology (pp. 125-138). Oxford: OCSLD.

Lanham, R., 2006. "Economists of Attention" in The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. extract online at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/468828.html

Welsford, E. (1935). The fool; his social and literary history. New York, Farrar & Rinehart.

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updated 24 January 2007