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Painting and shaping Learning Landscapes with Assemblages in mind

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by Peter Goodyear

This third SRHE Landscapes of Learning symposium – Assemblages – was a deeply engrossing and thought-provoking event. In this response, I want to do three things: pick and connect some particularly fruitful points from each talk – there were many, so this is hard; comment on assemblages and assemblage thinking in relation to current and future learning arrangements, and segue into the practical work of realising better spaces for learning in better universities. Landscapes are both depicted and made. An alertness to relations and flux can sharpen our perception, but can an assemblage sensibility inform better architecture?

Points plucked from the talks

Carol Taylor’s keynote made a persuasive case for connecting Deleuzian thinking about assemblages with a broad set of posthuman perspectives. She went on to offer an impressive array of spatially and materially-grounded example studies, illustrating her approach and also inspiring further research. Assemblage thinking helps us to see things that would otherwise be invisible, to give (almost?) simultaneous attention to questions of how, why, when and what, and to refuse sharp distinctions between bodies, things, words, ideas and feelings – to start with relations between things, rather than with the things themselves. Forming better ways of understanding the circumstances in which things happen is important for students of all fields and disciplines. It is important for teachers and other education workers in a second sense, because it helps set up situations for valued learning and for inducting students into practices of knowledge-making, including the practices of shaping convivial epistemic environments for themselves.

Tim Fawns used ideas of entanglement to reconcile hackneyed arguments about “technology in the service of pedagogy” vs “technology as driving and constraining pedagogy”. Pedagogy first or technology first? In most cases of educational innovation, pedagogical practices and technological infrastructures already exist and are used to justify, explain and constrain one another. They are already assembling or, one might even say, co-constituting one another. This argument is even stronger if one looks more broadly at the personal aims and technologies that students bring with them, and when one takes properly into account the complicated learning places that students configure, furnish and equip for themselves and their peers. 

Karen Gravett’s talk made clear that very little is known about how students’ activities are distributed in space, how students find, make and curate places for learning and what this means for matters of belonging (to a university). Certainly, university teachers and leaders cannot claim to know this in any representative, well-theorised or systematic way. Indeed, it emerges that there are many ways of belonging, no one way of managing campus spaces to afford inclusion and no simple metric connecting qualities of place with feelings of belonging, such as might be useful for an estates director’s KPIs.

Harriet Shortt researches relations between places, artefacts and organizational life, including places we might too-simply tag as “for work” or “for learning”. The main research site she spoke about was a newly-built Business School, though she was using this to advocate for participant-led visual methods: getting the users of buildings to photograph places of significance to them and share their annotated images. This is very useful for post-occupancy evaluation but also raises lots of deeper questions about place-making, including how people reconfigure places to resolve tensions between privacy and community, or collaboration and interruption.

The four talks illustrate the importance of understanding study activities through students’ eyes and experiences, with a capacious framing – so that what students curate and contribute isn’t simply missed – and then weaving more elaborate descriptions that catch multiple entanglements (place, tools, tasks, bodies, minds etc) so that all participants and stakeholders can agree a shared understanding of how things are being achieved, sufficient to improve the circumstances in which joint work is done. Subtle observation and an openness to complexity are important when making descriptions of how things are coming to be as they are. Then provisional simplifications are needed to agree on collective action.            

Assemblages and assemblage thinking

At several points in the “Assemblages” symposium, a leitmotif emerged: an allusion to using theoretical language at Academic Board. This recognisable shorthand conjures up our shared frustrations, as scholars of higher education, with the conceptual and linguistic gaps between research, policy and practice and with a paradox at the heart of educational work in universities: the insistence on discussing education in a vernacular language, unpolluted with exotic terms-of-art.

I am academic enough to value fine-grained disputes between knowledgeable scholars over what Deleuze and Guattari were trying to say when they wrote about rhizomes, lines-of-flight, segmentarity or assemblage. I also endorse something Carol Taylor said about the dangers of extracting ideas and terms from their intellectual homes and deploying mangled versions of them to serve dubious ends.  

But, in my own practice, I am deeply invested in understanding how knowledge, ways of knowing and ways of coming to know, that emerge in our work as scholars of education, can be made useful to other teachers and to students.  I have a practical interest in this occurring, coupled with an intellectual interest in how people actually do this work; I study epistemic practices at the boundaries of disciplines and professions. I try to understand what happens when (say) university managers in education, campus infrastructure and IT try to create better learning spaces or when people try to help design ideas travel. In thinking about “assemblage”, I am interested in how clusters of ideas migrate and become useful – to students, when they are tackling challenges that matter to them – and to teachers, architects, technologists and others involved in shaping educational spaces. So, I would say:

  • Whatever disciplines, professions or roles our students might be preparing themselves for, they will need subtle and sophisticated tools for understanding the world and acting ethically and effectively with others. Posthuman and postdigital perspectives can help students analyse the complex (learning) situations in which they find themselves, and reflect more deeply about how good work is accomplished.   
  • Scholarly teaching must acknowledge the complexities and risks involved when ideas move outside the domain of specialist scholarly debate. It is one thing to induct students into academic life by modelling scholarly disputation. It is quite another to maim or kill a half-grasped idea while it is in flight. There is a time and a place for correcting other people’s use of the term “assemblage” – but perhaps not at meetings of Academic Board.  

It’s also worth noting that “assemblage” exists somewhat independently as a technical term in fields such as archaeology, ecology, data science and art practice. One can use the noun “assemblage” to speak about the toolset of an ancient culture, the animals and plants typically inhabiting an area, a complex data set or a three-dimensional collage of objets trouvés, though these usages don’t normally have strong connotations of flux and evolution, such as we find when assemblage is understood as a verb. Moreover, there are lines of analysis within organisational science and science and technology studies (STS) that talk cogently about sociomaterial and sociotechnical assemblages, free from any visible Deleuzian mooring. I’m thinking, for example, of writing by Wanda Orlikowski, Susan Scott and Lucy Suchman on  technology in organisations and sociomaterial entanglements in working practices: productive resources for thinking about educational technology, technology in higher education, current and future learning spaces.

In sum, “assemblage” helps us notice and depict sociomaterial relations and change, but it is not the sole preserve of Deleuzian scholarship.

Learning landscapes: making places for coming-to-know

“A key element of placemaking is thus its open-ended and contingent nature. Placemaking is a dynamic experience, through which people, practice and the materiality of place undergo constant change.” (Sweeney et al, 2018, 582).

Harriett Shortt asked why so many new campus buildings mirror corporate head offices. Why do estates directors and architects impose these giant glazed voids upon us? She asked us to think of other more congenial forms: galleries and museums, for example. I think we should also be bolder and think how it might become possible for everyone involved in university life to engage in intentional place-making. We see what can be done in course and curriculum design through movements such as “Students as Partners”. We get other glimpses of what’s possible in the place-making events captured in the images our speakers shared. Beyond that, I suggest, we might try to make a scholarship of learning places that works in symbiosis with much more organic, bottom-up developments: less concerned with space-efficiency metrics and enabling the corporate; more invested in giving biophilic form to the market-place of ideas. There’s a well-established strand of work in architecture, urban planning and place-making on which we can draw. Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Marwa al-Sabouni and Thomas Heatherwick spring to mind.

It can be helpful to make a distinction, in educational work, between analysis and design. The first tries to depict and understand an existing state of affairs. The second involves steps to protect or improve upon it. The two depend upon one another, but work upon different objects. They require a dual ontology. In reflecting upon past and present educational events, we do well to acknowledge that tasks, tools and people are deeply entangled – considering assemblages or agencement helps here. But in thinking about what we can change (eg for the next time a course is run, or for the layout of a new learning space), we must break tangled realities into components over which we have some control. By “we” I don’t just mean teacher-designers or learning space researchers. Everyone has a role in this kind of place-making.

Collectively shaping material instances of what Raewyn Connell calls the “Good University” or Ron Barnett calls the “Ecological University” involves some tricky challenges. How do we form coalitions around images of what universities should be doing? How do we identify zones in which we have power to make change – including changes that give us more power to make other changes? How do we consolidate incremental changes so that we don’t dissipate our strength in perpetual defensive work? How do we co-create the infrastructure and reshape the landscapes that afford more socially responsible, sustainable and just ways of working and learning together?

Some of this may still be in our DNA. Jane Jacobs closed her great book on the organized complexity of cities with the following words. I like to think we can apply them to universities.

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” (Jacobs, 1961, p448)

Peter Goodyear is Emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Sydney. His research on place, space and learning has appeared in a number of books, including “The Education ecology of universities: integrating learning, strategy and the academy” (Routledge/SRHE, with Rob Ellis, 2019); “Spaces of teaching and learning: integrating research and practice” (Springer, with Rob Ellis, 2018) and “Place-based spaces for networked learning” (Routledge, with Lucila Carvalho & Maarten de Laat, 2017).

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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