Rhizoid in the Classroom, Week Five: From Feldgang to Ropewalk and Back Again

IMG_20140214_153527469It was a rough week full of fails and surprises. This post represents what Otto Scharmer in his rejuvenating book Theory U calls a ‘feldgang’, a field walk. I practice these on a regular basis on my farm following the time-trodden motto–the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps. Specifically, this post is a feldgang through my week of teaching and learning in my university classrooms (some of which are not classrooms but Google Hangouts, hallways, Google+ alleys, Twitter assignations, in my office, online in unholy Blackboard, and at all the real and virtual coffee shops of the mind).

The picture below is a rough sketch of where I saw our composition class going the next few weeks.  I follow Harold Jarche’s shorthand for…I am not sure what to call it–a learning algorithm?  a personal learning network?–seek/sense/share.  In the whiteboard drawing you can see products and processes and activities and community tools and spaces and a personal ‘kanban’ for the coming weeks in the class.  This is a rhizo fail in a way,  classic overscaffolding.  Ideally, I would just ask my learners what they needed from me, their learning concierge. They might say, “I am needing to create an agbusiness proposal for potential farmers who want to take advantage of the new hemp law in Kentucky” or “I need to look at how the press nationwide has viewed the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky.”  And I would go from there as concierge, coach and midwife/husbander or even Hobbit on an adventure.  Is that rhizomatic?  Still unsure about this word while at the same creating principles about it.  Crazy. Fuzzy. Messy.  Now that’s rhizoid! But for now I do not live there. Not there yet. [Sighs all around.]


The screenshot below this text is from a Google+ community for a group of five interns who I am guiding in a collective blog whose purpose is to be a hub of information, activity and encouragement for English majors at Western Kentucky University.  They are working  here.

How is this a rhizomatic success?  They are beginning to realize that they are a collaborative group who will sink or swim together.  I have just set up the initial conditions for collective action to happen.  To paraphrase Highlander School activist Myles Horton:  the job is to organize the blog just well enough to get learners and audience together “AND SEE THAT IT GETS NO BETTER ORGANIZED (Horton’s capitalization).”  In this I see a basic rhizomatic principle–never let the institutional imperatives trump community principles and values.  This means messification all around.  I don’t much like that. Tough.  No one is making me be a rhizomatic learner and communitarian.

What the conversation below represents is the development of collective writing norms collaboratively arrived at instead of imposed upon.  They may eventually arrive at the place that they conventionally might have reached anyway, but they might also evolve a new, idiosyncratic and locally adaptive path.  Yes, I know reinventing the wheel is not considered to be very efficient, but I could care less about these lesser productivity questions.  There are larger efficiencies, lifelong efficiencies that communitarian learning brings out. Fingers crossed.



Most depressing discovery about the community I am working hardest in to be rhizoid?  I asked them a question on Poll Everywhere:  If you could get out of the writing part of this course by paying extra dollars per credit hour, would you?  I wanted to push a little bit at the community’s attitudes toward writing.  Here is the response:


This is the part of the feldgang where you find a ewe in dreadful labor that you know has gone wrong or you discover a piece of ground that has eroded terribly and that is now a huge project to begin to make right.  Ok, big deal.  They hate to write.  I hate to write sometimes or I hate parts of the writing process.  I mean getting words to paper can be traumatic.

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

So where does this leave the rhizomatic teacher/learner?  No, I am selfish, where does it leave me?  Looking back on my original noodlings in the first image above, I find that I am jamming them up with tools and ideas, pushpushpush.  I have an agenda.  Perhaps that has been the problem with these haters of writing.  Someone has pushed an agenda not theirs onto them.  I think I will keep on pushing the value of digital tools in creating digital research.  I will keep on showing them how I use the tools. I will keep on doing a research paper right along side of them.  I will keep on engaging and patrolling the community we are building.  I will keep looking for converts and I will keep evangelyzing because I believe enough in them.  Just enough.  maybe the solution for too much push is awareness of pushing.  Ease up, dude. Besides, too much pushing will kill ya.

I have made a big discovery for myself this week as I redefine rhizomatic learning.  (Ultimately, when we internalize we redefine, don’t we?)  At least at first (and probably throughout the course) I still need to lead.  I mean digital research can be a long, digital haul across rock and sand until you get to the oasis and we all need help to make it.  Another realization?  You are Moses to every learner who you invite to the Promised Land.  You will never enter their promised land any more than a rich man’s camel will go through the eye of a needle. Get over it.

So where does this leave us.  We have a compass.  We have a checklist of potential tools to live with for the duration of this course.  We have the minimal frame of “seek/sense/share” to help steady us as we write together.  Where next?

This feldgang leads me to the second unfamiliar word in my title–ropewalk.  I steal that word from Rick Bartlett’s evocative blog.  A ropewalk is


simply a low shed or even an open area where strands of hemp are wound together to create a rope.  (There is a superb article on this lost art in Low-Tech Magazine that is well worth a side trip.)  I love the image in my mind that Longfellow spins from his poem, “Ropewalk” which ends thus:

All these scenes do I behold,
These, and many left untold,
  In that building long and low;
While the wheel goes round and round,
With a drowsy, dreamy sound,
  And the spinners backward go.

I can extend the metaphor.  We take learning strands and weave them into stronger strands.  And by “we” I mean the learning community.  And by strands I mean…hell, I don’t know for sure.  Learners? Processes?Product?Skills?  I think the closest I can come to meaning here is to suggest that rhizoid learning is at least as much concerned with the final rope that emerges–the community itself as it is the solitary learner that lives inside it.  Rhizo14 is a strengthener of the folk.  If it isn’t that, then I don’t know what it is.

The other (and way more disturbing) extension of the metaphor goes back to Longfellow’s last line in the poem, “And the spinners backward go.” Are we backing into the future? Are we blind to the future at the same time we back toward it?  It certainly feels that way to me sometimes, head down, winding away to I know not where.  Of course, we might be hopeful that the future we are slouching toward is not the Jerusalem in Yeats’ Second Coming, that the initial learning threads lead us toward a future we know and want to reach; but chaos theory (to my basic understanding of it) states that even simple initial conditions emerge as complex systems with unpredictable behaviors.

This leads me to an even larger issue.  As an older teacher I feel much obliged to help my students live in the future, the space where they will practice what we learn together now.  If I am walking backwards toward a future that is full of unknown unknowns then how can I help anyone? Rhizomatic thinking, communitarian thinking says, “We know that we may not know WTF, but together we are capable of making ourselves strong enough to face those unknown unknowns.”  In other words, if we don’t know how to do something individually then we will figure out it out collectively.

Lately when confronted by my own mortality and the seeming professional impossibility of it all, I return to Voltaire’s Candide. At the end of that work he faces denier-in-chief, his teacher, Pangloss, who continues to argue even after a lifetime full of catastrophe, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide’s only answer is this:

That is very well put, but we must cultivate our garden.

Walking backward, walking together, twisting the common threads together, through the garden of earthly delights, keeping the faith and keeping on through feldgang and ropewalk.  Standing tall, not slouching. Cultivate and twist on.














  1. // Reply

    Feel your inspiration, check not your respiration, fear not the expiration.
    Love and let live.

    1. // Reply

      I have ranted at length on Ann’s blog. I think the Muse made me a little crazy at worst and hyperbolic at best.

      I agree that one of the best ways to break the logjam of learning is to blast it with dynamite from other disciplines or at the very least with dynamite from within that discipline. At one time every farmer in my part of rural Kentucky had a stick of dynamite and some blasting caps to do the work of living in these hills and hollars. I feel that Dave has given us some dynamite. That is not hyperbolic. Theory is nothing to me if it can’t do work. That is an acutely instrumental view of theory, but so be it. That is why I am looking so closely at my own application of it. And that is why I invite people to this campfire. And that is why I am so grateful when someone drops by. It is all the same fire.

  2. // Reply

    Thanks to the shout to my blog post last week and particularly to the Ropewalk title.
    I’ve been drawn to the ropewalk metaphor for learning for the past few years, as you mention, the image of weaving different strands together is very powerful.
    Thanks too for the link to the ropemaking article in LowTech and the Longfellow poem. I found both very useful.
    I’m enjoying this #rhizo14 journey with you all.

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