Saturday 14 May 2016

Emotion, Embodiment and Logic (and Learning Analytics?)

I've had a busy week running a conference on Emotion and Embodiment at my University. It was great fun - although to be honest I'm not sure we're any the wiser about emotion and embodiment (but I'd guessed that would be the case). Tony Lawson's contribution at the end pinpointed the central difficulty: fundamentally, the raising of issues of embodiment and emotion were a response to the deficiency of an academic discourse dominated by post-structuralism. Post-stucturalism, he argues (I think) is simply wrong, and its wrongness leads to discursive developments which only add to intellectual confusion. I'm sympathetic to this. Similar arguments can be made for the current popular obsession with sociomateriality in educational research. The alternative - realism - by its nature orients itself around real embodied existence. My only quibble here is that I think we cannot know whether what is real is cause or constraint - and it makes a difference which we settle on. Lawson focuses on causation and mechanisms. I am interested in self-organisation and constraint. At some level, they amount to the same thing - but there is an inherent undecidability about which it is which many less thoughtful realists fail to acknowledge.

Undecidability has been a bit of a theme this week as I've found myself playing which IBM's fascinating Quantum Experience ( - thanks to @iantindal for the tip-off). IBM's interface features a music-like score to logically handle the uncertainty of the combination of states of QBITs. I think the metaphor is appropriate: a written note in a musical score does not determine how it will actually sound, but the overall effect is achieved in its combination with other notes in the mind of a performer. The "program" is the ensemble.

At the conference, one of the most interesting presentations concerned the 'Aesthetics of institutional life' and the possibility that there was some kind of 'rhythm' or even a "music" of institutional life. I like this, although it demands we are very careful in saying what we think an institution is: there is a tendency to reify institutions when they are essentially emergent. But a music of institutions? Yes, I suspect this is right. What does it mean?

The question demands we think about what rhythm is, or even what music is. Very ambitious. We might then think about how our understanding of what music might be might relate to what we think institutional life might be. The key words for me here include: 'ecology', 'heterarchy', 'contingency', 'emergence'...

Music is powerful partly because we have some access to its components, their interactions and its processes of growth. In institutional life, all we really have access to are the transactions of the institution - whether they are transactions of daily institutional life, or the transactions between the researcher and institutional stakeholders. Although the transactional perspective appears limiting, it can be a useful lens through which to view music. The musical score is the transaction of the composer, the guitarist's 'lick' is a transaction in emergent performance, the rehearsal schedule is a transaction in the group organisation, the motif is a transaction in the construction of a form, the attenuation of tempo or dynamics by a performer is a transaction in the control of a collective expression. It's just that we can't see these very clearly.

My experiments with Sonic Pi (see last post) are making me think much more clearly about how creative emergent acts can be conceived and captured transactionally. In Sonic Pi, those acts are pieces of code. But it is not just the generation of pieces of code and the sound that emerges, it is the sharing and copying and transformation of ideas. This can all be studied.

So then, what if we look at the institution's transactions from the same perspective? What if we took a subset of institutional transactions? For example, what if we concentrated on the transactions that teachers and learners make in an educational institution?

Seen from this perspective, Learning Analytics is not a way of bettering teaching and learning (whatever that might mean). It might, however, be an opportunity to explore the music of institutional life.

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