::: A moment’s ponder :::

Temperatures are expected to go down into the -20s (C), but we experience them as -28 to -30 (C). These are cold days my friends. Dress warmly.


Arts-Based Research :: What level of skill is needed?

Recently two of my colleagues from my advanced qualitative doctoral seminar presented work in the area of arts-based research.  I was delighted and intrigued. To prepare for the class, we were given some articles to read. One article —  See: Finley, Susan. (2011). Critical Arts-Based Inquiry. In Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (4th edition) (pp. 435-450). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.  —  was particularly interesting to me for its discussion of expertism. This is an important discussion to have. If scholars in the social sciences want to do arts-based research, what level of skill in the arts is needed? In the article, it is suggested that if the researcher uses an arts-based research methodology but doesn’t have a lot of practice or knowledge of the medium, the value of the research will be compromised. If the standards are too high, social scientists might be scared away from doing this kind of research. Eisner (2008) suggests that graduates in the social sciences wanting to develop arts-based research should work directly with practitioners of the arts in the form of collaboration.  He also suggests that curriculum developed for graduate social science students include ways for them to develop and apply their “imaginative, perceptual and interpretive abilities” (Finley, 2011, p. 441). My take on these issues is this: coming from a background in the arts with a practice, I personally have high expectations, and as a teacher I’ve always pushed my adult students (supportively) to think through their medium in light of its history and contemporary applications. In art whatever is expressed is expressed through the medium. I’m not interested in defining a standard of expertise in the medium for social scientists doing arts based research because I don’t wan’t to interfere with the possible emergence of a unique arts based research form, however, I agree with Eisner, that it is important for the researcher to develop a sensitivity to creative practice. Beyond that, I think, because making is integral to acquiring knowledge of the medium, social scientists interested in ABR would benefit from developing a practice. This means not just working with the medium but becoming part of an art community where critical discussions about art occur. One could make a similar argument for the importance of skill in the medium of writing for academics. Without the skill of writing and familiarity with its modalities and grammar, a researcher will be limited in her ability to convey ideas.

As Bruno Latour (2005)* argues, in a good account, the social appears. To arrive at that good account, great sensitivity on the part of the analyst (researcher) is required.


*Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

::: Phenomenology: Bag and Stone Exercise :::


Phenomenology. As I was reviewing phenomenology and hermeneutics for my Advanced Qualitative Methodologies class I remembered a simple contemplative exercise that I was introduced to in a graduate fine arts class that brought awareness to the pre-reflective stage of cognition.  I think that the originator of the exercise was the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988).  I’m offering my recollection of it in the hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did. Here’s how it goes:

You need the following materials:

  • 1 stone. The stone should be 1.5 to 2” in diameter, give or take.
  • 1  plastic bag. The bag should be the kind you find in the vegetable section of the grocery store — the clear or slightly frosted kind you pull from a roll.  This exercise doesn’t really work with ordinary plastic bags, so you have to get this part right!
  • something to write on and with.


1. Fill the bag with air and tie a knot at the opening to keep the air in.

2. Put the stone on the bag.

3. Hold the bag in your hands with the stone balanced on it.

4. Just experience how this feels for a while.

5. Notice what comes to mind.

6. When you are ready, put the bag down and write.

If you need prompting, think about the relationships between the stone, the bag, the air, and yourself. What happens when you move, even slightly? What sensations do you become aware of?  What do you feel?  What thoughts arise?  Where do they go?  How do sensations, feelings, perceptions and thoughts arise, influence one another and change?  Where does this lead you?

As I recall, some of the final writing pieces produced by my colleagues had only the faintest traces of the stone and the bag.  But that didn’t matter.  The point of the project was to heighten one’s awareness of the fluid, uncertain and interdependent relationship of matter and mind in its multiple aspects and to give voice to the experience that unfolds.  What begins as a sensorial experience becomes contemplative and, finally, reflexive.

Phenomenology bodes well in the arts where the emphasis is on the senses and the practice of working mindfully with materials in the world matters.

The awe I experienced holding this simple construction in my hands seems miles away now. But that one moment, that one teaching and learning moment, continues to inform me.

::: Questions: “Promises of Constructivism” (Latour, 2000)” :::

The prominent questions raised for me by The Promises of Constructivism (Latour, 2000) are as follows:

  1. Latour critiques social constructivists for assuming that “society” is foundational and homogeneous.  But Latour is also guilty of painting social constructivists with a broad stroke.  There are different kinds of social constructivists, with different approaches and beliefs.
  2. While Latour critiques theory, saying it is quite different from practice, his approach is very theoretical.  Again, does his model match up with how scholars actually think?

The relevance of Latour’s ideas for my research:

  1. While Latour’s model is schematic and reductionist, it does bring into focus a point of view that avoids the pitfalls of both realism and endless relativism and proposes a set of guarantees to ensure the gradual construction of the common world.
  2. This common world includes more than humans.  How will these non-human actors speak and be heard?  How will scholars take them into account?  How will I factor them into my research?

Questions raised during my seminar include:

  1. Can understanding the relationships between the human and non-human help us rethink or understand society in a better way?
  2. How does the idea of the ‘knowing subject’ which has been subjected to critique in critical sociology and post-colonial studies figure into some of these ideas?

::: Summary: “The Promises of Constructivism” (Latour, 2000):::

To grasp theory, I begin with a summary of the article.

In The Promises of Constructivism (2000),  Latour sets up two horizons of belief about reality –  deconstruction (which posits endless mediations) and fundamentalism (which takes perceived reality at face value) – and offers “constructivism” as a third option that refuses to see reality and construction as mutually exclusive terms.  And while deconstruction leaves nothing to grasp in its wake, it is fundamentalism that is perceived by Latour as the real danger because it denies the very existence of the constructed. Negotiating towards a peaceful world is still possible for constructivists, but impossible with and for fundamentalists, especially at the diplomatic table.


NOTE: Bruno Latour identifies as a social scientist interested in the ways that truth is built. (Crawford, 1993, para. 7, see http://0-muse.jhu.edu.mercury.concordia.ca/journals/configurations/v001/1.2crawford.html). He acknowledges the influence of Foucault and notes that Foucault’s idea of “regime of statements” and “how they spread” “can be used as network argument”. At the same time, he expresses reservations about Foucault’s approach for its exclusion of the hard sciences. Latour explains,

“[Foucault’s] knowledge/power works for the social sciences, but what about the hard ones? My suspicion is that he has retained the typically French attitude–a complete belief in the solidity of the hard sciences.” (para 14)


To “deploy the promises hidden in this confusing concept [constructivism]”, Latour (2000) first addresses the problems of constructivism. The first is that “[w]hen people hear the word “construction”, they substitute it with the expression “social construction,” meaning that the construction is made of social stuff.” (p. 28) The social, however, is not matter but a “process through which any thing, including matters of fact, has been built”. (p.28) The “social constructivist” approach, in which “society” is considered foundational and homogenous, runs into problems when trying to explain the facts of nature (pp. 29-30) or the great variety of science and technology. In the 1990s, when scholars in the field of science and technology began to explore how science and technology provide some of the ingredients out of which solid constructs are created through a collective process (p. 30), they found themselves fighting on two fronts: against critical sociology, which posited “an unconstructed, homogeneous, overarching, indisputable “society”, and nature fundamentalists – who posited “an unconstructed, already there, indisputable “nature”” (p.30).

Latour then tackles the problems of constructivism. The first is the problem of the maker. The term “construction”, Latour states, implies that there is an agency.  He asks:

“But then by what sort of agency?” If it is an all-powerful creator who has full command of what is produced out of nothing, this is certainly not a realistic account of the building of any real structure. Even if some architects see themselves as God, none would be foolish enough to believe they create ex nihilo (Yaneva 2002).” (Latour, 2000)

Listening to humbler ways of speaking (making a dress or a soufflé) shows that makers are dealing with all sorts of constraints. Makers have to be sensitive to these constraints and to the various “things,” “agents,” “actants” with which they have to share the action.”(p. 31). What results or what is being made has a certain autonomy from the individual making it in part because of all the other actors involved in the making process. This introduces uncertainty. Latour writes,

“[…] there is no maker, no master, no creator that could be said to dominate materials, or, at the very least, a new uncertainty is introduced as to what is to be built as well as to who is responsible for the emergence of the virtualities of the materials at hand. To use the word constructivism and to forget this uncertainty so constitutive of the very act of building is nonsense.” (Latour, 2000, p. 32)

This brings Latour to the second problem, the problem of materials. He identifies three roles given the things in constructivism:  1.  Material agencies must be obeyed.  2. Things are merely plastic.  3.  Things are plastic but offer some resistance.  In experience, however, it is never so simple.  Every artist, artisan, engineer, architect, house-person and even children know that there are intermediary positions that are simultaneously occupied by agencies.

“Everywhere, building, creating, constructing, laboring means to learn how to become sensitive to the contrary requirements, to the exigencies, to the pressures of conflicting agencies where none of them is really in command.” (Latour, 2000, p. 33)

How to save constructivism?  As architects know, the reason a building stands solidly and independently of the architect is because it has been well-done. The hard work of the architect results in a well-built building.  If the work has not been “designed, planned or built” well, the it will be “shaky, unfinished, ugly, inhabitable” (Latour, 2000,p.34). Likewise with scientists “it is because they work and work well that facts are autonomous and stand independently of their (the scientists’) own action” (34).  In other words, it is not a choice between construction and autonomous reality, but a choice between good and bad construction.

Latour (2000) proposes a “Constitution” that includes guarantees from all of the participants involved in the progressive definition of the common world.  He bases this on an ordering of “social constructivists” by Ian Hacking to which Latour adds the explicit politics of the different factions. They are:

·      1st guarantee: “once there, and no matter how it came about, discussion about X should stop for good.”

·      2nd guarantee:  “in spite of the indisputability of insured by the former, a revision process should be maintained, an appeal of some sort, to make sure that new claimants—which the former established order had not been able to take into account—will be able to have their voices heard.  And “voice,” of course, is not limited to humans.”

·      3rd guarantee:  “the common world is to be composed progressively; it is not already there once and for all.

·      4th guarantee:  “humans and non-humans are engaged in a history that should render their separation impossible.”

·      5th guarantee:  “institutions assuring due process should be able to specify the quality of the “good common world” they have to monitor.

With these guarantees in place, Latour (2000) believes it is possible to retain the word “constructivism”:

“Any term will do as long as it can allow me to designate something which (a) has not always been around, (b) which is of humble origin, (c) which is composed on heterogeneous parts, (d) which was never fully under the control of its makers, (e) which could have failed to come into existence, (f) which now provides occasions as well as obligations, and (g) which needs for this reason to be protected and maintained if it is to continue to exist.” (p.40)

Latour suggests that this solution will probably fail because of the association of constructionism and “deconstruction”.  Like fundamentalists, deconstructionists believe that “if something is built, that alone is a proof that it is so weak that it should be deconstructed until one reaches the ultimate ideal they all share, namely what has not been built at all by any human hand” (p. 41).  Yet constructionism and deconstructivism have divergent goals:  while both insist on the “impossibility of any direct access to objectivity, truth, morality, divinities, or beauty”, deconstruction emphasizes absence while constructionism tries “to catch as much presence as possible” (p. 41).

This article raises questions. See: http://wp.me/pwOVP-46



Latour, B. (2000). The Promises of Constructivism. In Don Ihde and Evan Selinger (Eds.). Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality (pp. 27-46). Indiana: Indiana University Press.

::: introduction & bio :::

Unlike most people, I like theory.  And, like most people in graduate programs, I work hard at understanding it.  I sometimes think that, because I am older than many of my colleagues in the PhD program, I have to work a bit harder to get it.  But what is lost in speed is balanced by a vast array of intellectual and emotional resources that have been built up through years of life experience.

Learning is like breathing air to me.  If I cannot learn, I cannot truly live.  My superpower (thanks Kris!) is inquiry.  And it is this that led me to a PhD program that is about learning. I am pursuing my PhD in Educational Technology at Concordia University. Through this program, I am both broadening and refining my interests, exploring new directions and, learning about learning.

Writing is a key part of this process.  As I write, I am transformed.  I try to set down words on the page that will match or clarify the concepts in my mind and, in the process, my thoughts change. Sometimes I “artify” my writing a bit too much for the social sciences. I should mention that I am trained as an artist, meaning that I have learned to think with materials and from materials in their temporal, spatial, historical and cultural engagements.  It’s hard to specify what artistic thinking is.  On the one hand, it could be characterized as open and sensitive.  As an artist, one trains in becoming an instrument that registers the forces and relations of the world.  On the other hand, artistic thinking is analytical.  It involves taking things apart in order that new potentials can be realized. That I value and am steeped in these two aspects of artistic thinking might help to explain why I find Bruno Latour’s work so compelling.  I’ll come back to that later. I attended a Canadian art college where I received my BFA. Later I acquired an MFA focusing on human-machine relations through new media and robotic artwork investigations and productions.

In the course of my PhD education I had been reviewing hundreds of experimental or quasi-experimental studies on the effects of technology integration in the classroom. This is one of the fundamental areas in my field: to better understand how technology use can facilitate or improve learning. One theme that kept presenting itself was the continued and mostly unquestioned assumption that something [in the classroom] needs to be improved, such as increased student engagement, better achievement scores for the learners, improved student satisfaction and so on. Generally, the technology referred to in the studies either improves the outcomes for learners depending on what it is that is being measured, or has little or no effect on learners (whether any intervention applied has little or no effect is debatable of course but we won’t delve here).The point is that improvement in the classroom is associated with technology use. This is one underlying assumption of the field.

As an aside or as a further rationalization for technology implementation, the authors often articulated the economic benefits of the particular technology used — it reduced costs for the institution, or made better use of the teacher’s time and skills. I’m not opposed to efficiency, nor to the use of technology to facilitate learning. And I’m not at all opposed to saving money. I am concerned about the unquestioned assumption that technology use necessarily leads to economic benefit. Technology use should not take precedence over what constitutes quality education.

I am interested in several issues: the first is to better understand and problematize “technology” from various philosophical lenses and methodologies and to closely examine the underlying assumptions around its investigation and application in educational technology and educational research; and, second, to investigate new potentials for technology use in the classroom, particularly in the ways it can empower students and professors within higher education settings; and third, to generate and inform policy based on these investigations.

I recently wrote a paper that explored the massification of pedagogy through COURSERA, a social entrepreneurial venture in mass online education. In the massification of pedagogy, I am concerned about the loss of intellectual autonomy, meaningful relationships between students and their professors, and the possibility of creative risk-taking that can occur when trust develops in the classroom. To critique a new venture such as this does not make me anti-technology, as some would like to suggest. If an organization is going to posit itself as a major contributor to education, then it should do so from a place that is informed by the work that has already been done in the field. But if we are conscientious, concerned citizens we must ask the important questions and always keep in mind the impacts and effects, not as an afterthought but as ethical considerations from the beginning of our projects.

I draw on the philosophy of technology to help me make sense of all of this such as Andrew Feenberg’s (2005) Critical Theory of Technology and the post-phenomenological hermeneutics of Ihde (1995), actor-network theory (Latour, 2005). But I will also draw on post-structuralist theorists such as Foucault (1979; 1972) and philosophers of education such as Dewey (1990; 1934) and contemporary thinkers too. As part of my course in Advanced qualitative research I will explore the methods for these theoretical applications. What interests me about some of the theories I am encountering is the emphasis on reflexivity and transformation.  At the same time, I find it a challenge to let go of validity, reliability, the standards established by my field. But the arguments within qualitative research that address these traditional concerns expand upon and highlight the potentialities in educational research.

I want my research to have a practical application, to have a positive effect, to provide something to the people with whom I’m engaged in research. I am integral to the process. I am an actor, an artist, a social scientist, a learning specialist, an educational technologist in the shared and networked world of living research and creation through inquiry.

Leni posing for the picture.

Continue reading

drawing on graph paper and working with light

I printed the word sustainability. Seven minutes later, this was the result. Light reflecting on the graphite…took me by surprise.

the summit

after reading 4

I’m working towards developing a measure: a method of assessing progression and  a way of recording the results of research over a period of time. I began today by drawing some simple forms — a square, a circle, and an unusual shape. I repeat the gesture of tracing over the same marks hundreds of times. Repetition is comforting. I mark the page, I mark the mark and the page, I move slowly at first, calculating the motion. I don’t have perfect control. I make marks over marks, almost always diverging from the previous path …the desire to trace and the desire to evade. There is a tension in the mark as I search for new territory, unmarked territory. The shapes seem to drift,  if I continue they will leave the paper. Speed leads to simplicity. Fluidity.