Books, print, recordings & conversations (#rhizo14)

Tonight’s reading, taken Feb. 17, 2014, by Christina Hendricks

For week four of the P2PU course on “Rhizomatic Learning,” we were prompted to think about whether books are making us stupid. How might it even be possible to consider that they could be?

Dave Cormier on print

Dave Cormier explains in his short video introducing the week (available on the previous link). There, he asks us to consider that there is something about print that encourages “objectivity,” “distance,” “remove,” “impartiality” (I didn’t get all his words written down exactly, so I’m just quoting the parts I did write down exactly!). He argues that print tends to move us more towards the definite, the defined, rather than the relational. And he asks us to consider moving more towards orality in learning. This is not to say that books are a problem, but rather that we think about how we learn with books and print in general, and consider both its upsides and downsides.

Here’s a post by Dave that really helped me get my head around what he’s getting at: “Is books making us stupid? Behind the curtain of #rhizo14.” There, he suggests that in moving from orality to print, “We moved from ideas moving towards fluidity to them becoming more truth based,” and he suggests that conversations bring out more complexity while print can lead us to think about things in more simple terms. Here’s the quote from that post that gave me that proverbial light bulb turning on in my head:

The book promotes independence of thought, our ‘own’ ideas and our ‘own’ inferences. It promotes possession. It reifies the things we are reading and makes them a thing that can belong to a person. There is value in this. But there is also a fundamental difference between an idea that I HAVE that I DEFEND against someone else and an ongoing conversation that develops BETWEEN people.

I read this is saying that part of the issue with print is that it encourages us to think of ideas as belonging to their authors. We start to talk in terms of “Foucault’s view,” and “Nietzsche’s view” (I’m currently teaching a course on Nietzsche and Foucault, so they’re on my brain), and try to figure out what their ideas were. Those ideas and arguments become stuck in time, in the same form, for as long as the print exists and people remember it. The ideas are held by a certain person and the arguments are their defense of these ideas, as if the ideas need to stay static. As authors of print works ourselves, we start to think about our “own” ideas and arguments as embodied in the print. Of course, intellectual property and citation requirements in written works add to this sense.

Another part of what I think Dave may be getting at is that in printed works, the “feel” is that ideas are presented with arguments supporting them as if they are to be taken as true, as if there is little conversation to be had because the answer has been given. When we read arguments for positions it can feel like the author is saying: here is what is the case, I’ve backed it up with reasons and evidence, so we really don’t have much to talk about. I don’t know if that’s what Dave means, but I can see how that might be a concern too.

How different is the notion of having a conversation in which ideas develop through the conversation itself, and are not really owned by anyone in the conversation because they emerged out of it. And of course, it’s probably the case that most (or all?) of our ideas work this way anyway, it’s just that the conversations are spaced out further in time (more on this below). How different too the experience of engaging in a conversation with someone about ideas and arguments, rather than just reading those of a distant author in a book. The ideas and arguments become more fluid, change with the conversation.

I really liked this opportunity to think this way about print, as it’s something I hadn’t really considered before. Of course, it’s not just print that does this, since video and audio recordings can be part of the same phenomenon. They, too, freeze ideas and arguments in time, can make us think of these as belonging to a particular person who is espousing them. Indeed, Frances Bell says in a recent blog post that she recorded a video for week four of Rhizomatic Learning, thinking it might be less “book-like,” but that the video itself reifies her words and thoughts just as much as text does, and the comments on the video are a conversation but reified in text (they would be in video too). Her point in this thought-provoking post is that both the reified and the participatory are useful, and can intertwine in complex ways (the video and comments were reified, but also constituted a participatory conversation). You can’t have one without the other, as the title of this blog post states (she notes that this comes from the idea of a “duality of participation and reification” from Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice).

My reflections

My first thought on considering this topic was: well, the books I read (philosophy, literature, some educational theory, mostly) do not stay the same over time. Every time I read them, and especially when doing so with students, they change. What they say is not so much a matter of what’s on the page, but how it’s interpreted and understood, and this changes between people and over time in the same person. Further, as others have pointed out, including Jenny Mackness on her blog post on this topic, reading printed works doesn’t preclude having lots of conversations with others about those works.

Later, I also thought: I consider at least some books, especially those that are more open to interpretation, as conversations over long periods of time. Whereas a conversation that takes place simultaneously, or in a short period of time, can only include a few people, a printed work can reach many more over longer periods. Socrates and Nietzsche and Foucault are all still talking to us, and we can converse with them to some degree insofar as we read and react to their works. They cannot respond, though, and so it’s a one-way conversation.

Finally, I thought: do I consider printed works as solidifying or at least stabilizing ideas and arguments in the sense that they are presented, with supporting arguments, as “true” and thus do not invite further conversation? The rhetoric with which some works are written, including philosophical ones, can often seem this way. But I think of offering reasons for claims as actually inviting conversation rather than closing it off. By giving reasons for a view, one is suggesting that the view is potentially debatable; for if it were not, if it were clearly true, no one would take the time to offer an argument for it. So in a way, I think of writing arguments for views as inviting others, from many places and over long periods of time, to engage in a kind of conversation by considering whether those views and arguments are valid, inviting criticism as well as potential agreement. We might even say that printed or recorded works can potentially engage more people in conversation with them than simultaneous conversations can do at any one time, since those who miss out on that conversation can’t participate in it later unless it’s written down or recorded in some way. But once again, the “conversation” one can have with a written or recorded work may be one way only (not a conversation with the author), especially if the author cannot respond (though we can still have a multi-way conversation between various readers!).

Thus I think I’m agreeing with Frances Bell that the relationships between more stable works and the conversations with and around them are complex. First, many of our ideas that we write down or record most likely come from conversations (whether through textual or other media), such as in-person conversations, comments on blogs, responses to journal articles, online meetings, and more. But also, once they’re written down or recorded they can be part of several conversations, perhaps even after we’re gone.

Does any of this address the issue of thinking of ideas as “belonging” to their authors in some deep way? Probably not. Inviting discussion of one’s views and arguments puts them up for contention and change, but by connecting them with a specific author we are likely to still them of them as the view of a particular person. I wonder how much that happens in oral conversations too, though? We do, after all, have ways to “cite” oral communication as well as written. And there are so many social and educational structures built on the need to be able to tie ideas to people that it’s hard to avoid thinking in this way. Which is not to say it’s impossible. 


  1. I love the idea of ongoing dialogue with authors of times past long since dead.

    I have always felt that my favourite authors somehow ‘keep me company’ on my bookshelves :-) It makes me think of how much of the way we approach books has to do with how our teachers dialogue with us about them. In my view it is a cyclical thing as Frances suggests. We read/view/listen to a static artefact and this can generate fluid conversation and new ideas in conversation. This, in turn, gets reified again in some new shape and so the life of ideas continues. It can be a beautiful thing and all of the elements are needed for the cycle to continue. Polarising as good/bad fixed/fluid reify/participate just leads us to see an incomplete picture. I think Frances has done a great job a re-framing the conversation to include a descriptive rather than a judgemental frame. I have appreciated that and I can see in your examples that there is a natural rhythm to this reify and participate that is fundamental to us as educators.

    Your post also put me in mind of Andee’s new post on our evolving online identity – – the nature of the open web is that ‘forgetting’ is difficult as it is all recorded somewhere and she muses on how do we allow for the evolving and changing nature of ideas and views. She suggests that in order to engage online we need to recognise ‘that the integrity of one’s opinion first and foremost lies in the act of participating, rather than being “right”. ‘ She seems to be saying that the processes of reification and participation are core to our evolving online identities as well as to the way we learn.

    Ownership of ideas? hmmm…possession and sharing also two sides of the same coin…

    Always balances and great questions, I am always glad I set aside time to read your posts. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Mariana, and sorry for my delay here. Been a busy week.

      And thank you for the link to Andee’s post, which I hadn’t seen. I hadn’t thought about how the fact that “forgetting” and erasing are difficult on the web relates to this idea of the importance of changing ideas through conversation. I keep thinking of the web as allowing for many more conversations than I ever had before I had a blog, Twitter, etc., but it also means that things are written down and recorded and kept somewhere for a very, very long time. I think of what I write here and on social media sites, and what I record in audio or video, as being just short stopping places in my evolving thoughts, but that may not be the only way they function. It could end up that I get ‘stuck’ in something I’ve once said, even though I meant it to just be a tentative idea.

      This reminds me of something that Michel Foucault once said in an interview, that he’d like to see texts come out without authors attached, so that we could consider them for what’s actually in them rather than read them through the lens of what the author has said in the past. He often talked in interviews about how he writes in order to change his ideas, not remain the same, and yet whatever you write gets attached to you as an author and others may think you have to somehow own it even if you have moved on.

      I really like your point about possession and sharing being two sides of the same coin–how can you share if you don’t possess in some way? Okay, now I’ve got to think more about this ownership of ideas thing.

  2. Hi Christina. I thought I had replied to this post weeks ago but apparently not. Still, it’s fun to re-read. My first thought this time is about books in the plural. A child’s experience of books might be in the singular – this is the book about x. So how do we introduce them to the idea of multiple perspectives? I have taught postgraduates whose education seems to have drummed into them a singular approach to ‘truth’. I am trying to think back to my own children and the example I am coming up with is recipe books. If we always ‘follow the recipe’ then we could be reinforcing the book as imprimatur. When we say – shall we use orange zest instead of lemon? perhaps we are helping to put the book in its place.
    Your post recalled a lovely playful memory for me. One (or more) participants on CCK08 (my first MOOC) set up accounts as dead philosophers so we had Socrates and others joining in the conversation.

    1. Oh my gosh, I must have forgotten to reply to this comment earlier! So sorry.

      Good point about introducing children to multiple perspectives. I think the idea of changing recipes might work. My son is 6, and mostly we read fictional stories, but sometimes we read books about nature, the human body, etc. It’s certainly easier to read the fictional stories in a way that could provide multiple perspectives; often they invite this. So we can ask questions about the story that would bring out different ways of reading it. There are some practices in what is sometimes called “philosophy for children” that do this; one way to do philosophy with children is to read a story and ask questions about it, engaging children in a discussion about the story itself and about the philosophical ideas (like what makes someone a good friend, what makes something beautiful, can we know for certain if others aren’t just cleverly-programmed machines, etc.). This discussion, like many philosophical discussions, can bring out multiple ways of reading a text.

      Great idea to have dead philosophers joining in the conversation in CCK08! I actually have several dead philosophers following me on Twitter, including multiple accounts held by Friedrich Nietzsche, apparently!

  3. This has been a pressing question for me too quite recently, and so I was especially delighted to read this entry. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

    There are two styles of reading which I found to be rather mind-numbing. The first is a kind of memorization of the text. During my 1st year as an undergraduate, I have been (half) forced to adopt this reading style due to what the exams and papers required – i.e. reciting definitions and so forth. But this just alienates the reader from the text.

    The second approach is to follow one’s gut-feeling, so to speak, and intuitively come up with a “creative” interpretation. Again, I feel that I was very much compelled to adopt this style due to needs arising from certain undergraduate courses, where the professor encouraged students to “open their minds.” But the problem with this was that I often got carried away with my thoughts and lost sight of the text. Especially during my senior years, I received several critical comments from professors which really worked as a splash of water on my face – and these comments taught me that I must pay more attention to the text I am reading, rather than trying to modify the text so that it might fit into my initial gut-reaction.

    I agree that reading is a kind of conversation, in that when I am “listening” to the writer, I just have to be patient and refrain from interpolating my own immediate reactions into the text. On the other hand, it is also true that when one is reading certain philosophical or scientific texts, one must ask whether what the author is saying is true. This is because reading the text at first amounts to sharing the author’s thoughts, and the author’s thoughts in these kinds of texts arise as a result of the author’s pursuit of truth – i.e. the author must also have been asking him/her self “is this true?” as he/she was writing the text. And especially in philosophy and science, a text would not be worth our full attention if the author was not asking these questions to him/her self. Even in literature, I think the same holds to a certain extent. (Other texts, whose purpose is to produce beauty, pleasure, or vital energy, might still be worth paying attention even if they lack this background questioning.) Reading is a conversation, but a critical conversation, in which the reader ought to ask whether the text is telling the truth or not. I might just be repeating points which were already made in your entry, but let me throw in my two cents nonetheless.

    Again, a pleasure to read.

  4. Great to hear from you, Kenji! I think you brought up slightly different points than I did, so I very much appreciate your comments. I was reacting to a claim that written works tend to solidify ideas, presenting them as unchanging, and I was saying I didn’t think that had to be the case because the way I read the text is that they change with each reading and with each discussion of them with others. Okay, this probably only applies to texts whose meaning is not immediately obvious on the surface. But you get the idea.

    I think your points about finding a balance in the conversation between the text and the reader are important. We can’t just take the text “as it is” and try to memorize it without contributing anything of our own (or else we’re alienated, as you nicely put it, and then we’re no longer in conversation really at all). But we can end up going too far the other direction, and not being in a conversation b/c we’re not taking the text as seriously as our own ideas. There has to be a real conversation, and this requires a balance between what is in the text and what we bring to it. That’s not always easy to do, of course.

    And I agree that in some sorts of texts, especially the ones I read most of the time (philosophy!), the author is usually seeking truth in some way, and so am I when reading. This doesn’t mean that I must read any particular text as making a claim that it is presenting the last answer as to what the truth is; at least in philosophy, though we may write as if this could be the case, we all know that writing an argument is an invitation to further questioning and criticism, that very little stops with any particular argument. But I do, in all of this, see myself as pursuing what is true.

    Thank you so much for adding in your thoughts!

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