headache…

Julius Axelrod

The image above is that of Julius Axelrod who, with Bernard Brodie, is seen as establishing paracetamol as a leading painkiller.

So, why Axelrod, why paracetamol?

A previous post introduced the idea of me using this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking leading to an academic article (hopefully), inspired by my observation of a pharmacology laboratory practical class.  The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  This has a very practical rationale because paracetamol poisoning is so common, hence the importance of those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects.

As I observed the students engaging in the ‘paracetamol array’ I was taken by the performative character of the activity.  The activity was ‘staged’ in the sense of being performed in a particular setting that gave the activity certain meaning.  Imagine this cluster of young people dressed in white lab coats conducting this test in the student bar?  In being wrenched from the lab its ‘meaning’ would change, there would be an ‘out-of-placeness’ about it; the authority and legitimacy of the activity as SCIENCE would be in question.  WHERE the array was conducted was important.  There was a distinct patterning to the movement of the students between paper, apparatus, chemical compound, and back to paper; or between the pairs of students working together (?) at their bench.

This notion of performance is important here as a key concept in posthuman understandings of science, indeed of helping me understand the activity as science.

So, in what sense might we say these students were engaged in science?

Let me begin with a very brief description of the setting (though I will give more detail of the activity later).

The space within which the activity took place was undoubtedly a ‘laboratory’ something like this,

CICB's_Laboratory

with approximately 50 students wearing white lab coats.  It had all the semiotic clues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space.

This sense of scientific activity immediately begins to break down the distinctions between science as knowledge and science as practice.  And it is this latter sense of scientific endeavour that has preoccupied the work of Andrew Pickering.  Andrew Pickering draws attention to the cultural portrayal of science as primarily cognitive, certainly a conception carried in higher education:

Scientists feature as disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations (and language, as the reflexivists remind us)

Andrew Pickering (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, & Science, Chicago: Chicago University Press (see also here)

Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and in going beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ he argues that this takes us to an understanding of science-as-performance.

This performative understanding of science turns many common-sense notions on their head.  Such notions can lead us to perceive the world as one where ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are there to be found and observed respectively.  Instead, Andrew Pickering conjures up a world of agency – human and non-human.

He uses the example of the weather to illustrate this. Weather acts upon us without us willing it.  Our response to weather is not purely cognitive, but requires non-human materiality in the form of clothes and shelter.  But clothes and shelter have to be understood as not simply extensions of human thought and action, as things that emanate from a human origin (usually understood as cognition).  While cognition plays a part, our responses cannot be reduced to the purely human realm.  Also, the non-human material world does not act simply as ‘tools’ (as things to keep us safe from the weather).  The constituent elements that make up clothes and shelter will continue to ‘do things’ – that is have effects regardless of human action.  It is not the clothes and shelter that have material agency, but the physical and chemical properties of their constituent elements.  However, conjoined with human action and thought they may  have particular effects, which then impact upon human action and thought – human behaviour and thought changing as a consequence of new capabilities afforded by clothing and shelter.  It seems common-sense but for the fact that this understanding often appears missing in everyday language – including academic and scientific.

This is best illustrated with reference to the relationship between scientific knowledge and scientific apparatus/machines, and especially the concept of temporal emergence.  But before I do that I need to briefly outline the process the students followed in the lab:

 The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine the therapeutic/toxic concentration.

The assay involved the students following a procedure similar to this below:

Preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machine for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide).

Based on the reading from the spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity.

 posthuman

Pickering’s discussion focuses on the relationship between scientific thought, practice and the apparatus (or machines) in the particular examples he investigates.  Scientific ‘machines’ work to inscribe material (non-human) agency.  He explores how in practice the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human with machines mediating this.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology lab by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency:

Human Activity

  • reading array instructions
  • discussion with lab partner
  • measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)
  • dispensing solutions into test tubes
  • operating vortex machine
  • recording process and results

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the solutions to mix and settle

[during this period it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait.]

Human Agency

  • placing samples into the spectrophotometer 

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine

Human Agency

  • interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer
  • charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’
  • recording and reporting the results

 

 

It is within this dance of agency that something called learning occurs.

We can perhaps view this as patterned activity in the sense of a grammar of practice where this grammar does not provide us with the specifics of each articulation.  While there will be a grammar to the students’ practice in the lab, we cannot know in advance what the particular articulations of learning will be in the interaction of human/non-human.  In this regard, learning objectives simply outline the teacher’s (or scientist’s) intentions, but in the end learning will be emergent often relating to specific tasks and problems; learning cannot be predicted other than in the doing of the array. Learning is an accomplished activity rather than a simple acquisition of external knowledge or cognitive activity. Learning is something that occurs in the completeness of the doing, and embodied and situated accomplishment (this will be explored in a further post).

Temporal emergence, then,  might be seen as relating the students’ emergent learning outcomes (ELOs).  These ELOs might develop in real-time (hence the emphasis on ‘temporal’) shifting from a concentration on the knowledge domain, to the need to align their partner to the task-in-hand, to just ‘getting through the day’, to recognition of a psychological resistance to some element of the course.

As part of the temporal emergence of their learning the student might usefully be seen struggling with aligning themselves to the task-in-hand, of applying the necessary protocols (following the instructions for measuring and mixing) for the array and their conceptual understanding (of chemical processes and their practical application).  There could be an iterative relationship between the grasp of the process and their conceptual understanding.  This would mostly likely be more visible or pronounced when something didn’t work (requiring a process of reverse engineering to see what happened).

I will come back to this idea of the way the materiality of the lab and the practical actions of lab-work ‘carry’ knowledge and understanding in another post.


Here, I have tried to relay my current understanding of a complex interpretation of scientific practice through a posthuman lens and its possible application to higher education learning.

Further posts in this series will explore the materiality of lab-work and how this ‘carries’ learning; the organised nature of learning as a social activity of alignment.

In the writing of these posts I am struggling with ideas that take me beyond my habitual zones of practice.  By the time I write another iteration of this it is likely that I will have altered some of my understandings.  It should go without saying that any comments and suggestions from readers would be vital in this process.

 

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what is the point of education? why education should be about the cultivation of humane citizens

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I have just listened to Derek Jarman‘s “Blue” on BBC Radio.

Of course I saw the original film and have the book, though I never got to visit his garden (pictured above).

“Blue” is a touching and poetic account of his struggles with HIV/AIDS which was eventually to take his corporeal life, though his life-force lives on in his work, the love he bestowed on humanity, in the continued fight for equality and social justice.

It made me reflect on what the purpose of higher education is (as I have done before).  As the university seeks to optimise all our efforts towards institutional advancement but with apparently little regard for knowledge or wisdom, it is worth stepping back and reflecting.  Listening to this version of Derek Jarman’s prose-poetry acted to sustain such thought.

In the prose-poem he refers to the Memorial Quilt stitched together to commemorate many of those who died of HIV/AIDS.  It made me think of friends who, like Derek, sat in waiting rooms, received medication, were subjected to abuse, but whose humanity was as startling in their dying as it was in their living.

How this contrasts with the lifelessness of modern academia and academic management in particular.  How lacking in humanity is this metric driven edifice.

Maybe I would be better off visiting Derek’s garden so that I can be witness to some true humanity and wisdom!

It’s amazing what happens over coffee: or deterritoralising the curriculum (a #rhizo15 story 2)

Cracked_Toadstool_Stock_PNG_by_pixievamp_stock

I had meant to take a break from #rhizo15 but instead found myself taking a coffee break that brought me right back.

Over coffee, at the end of a year’s teaching (my first full academic year in the job), myself and a colleague got to reflecting on how the year had gone and how we might develop things next year.  In the back of my mind was the article by @sbayne that I think was put out there by@NomadWarMachine (not @davecormier) and the task he proposed for #rhizo15 this week.

So, I don’t know to what extent this musing is a detailing of my ‘subjective’:

How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

or a working out of ideas partly inspired by Sian’s article.


During the coffee chat it became clear that while happy with the main course I oversee (for me still new, to my colleague now possible tired), having made various changes to emphasise the challenges I wanted participants to engage with rather than just go through content (the content instead working as a vehicle for engaging with concepts and problems), I felt a desire to push explore the possibility of creating more open/connected/distributed forms of learning.

My recent engagement with digital scholarship and #connectedlearning has propelled me to consider other options, and to think about how I might hack my own course, hybridise it.

The stimulats, very much driven my the discussions in #tjc15 and #rhizo15, are:

  • think of resources rather than content: while remaining with the striated texture of the current course (a pre-defined syllabus and form of assessment) how might we reconfigure these so that they are more like initial sets of resources organised around difficult ideas that we face as university educators?  How do we communicate that intent and encourage a mode of engagement with them that is more akin to ‘hacking’ than consumption?
  • can aspects of the syllabus be participant driven? one idea that occurred to me as we talked was of playing with the current timetabling in order to facilitate more participant engagement and potential to generate participant relevant content.  Folks did find useful the clear signposting (and if you read my #rhizo15 story previously you know how attached I am to signposting) of key texts/resources that were organised around difficult or challenging ideas.  Rather than being tied to the fortnightly 3 hour workshop (at the end of busy days) why not have the participants work in cross-disciplinary groups (like action learning sets) to work on the key texts and find their own texts, all the time focusing on the critical questions for practice this reading produces (semester 1 is more theory focused while semester 2 is more practice focused); and have shorter workshops that model many of the ideas we promote.  I think this is about pushing my interest in practice theory further to see how it can reconfigure the current approach.  It is also about playing with the potential for learning to come out of the connections folks make within the course.
  • making emergent objectives explicit: while we will have learning objectives, the reality is that folks operate with their own emergent objectives.  They are motivated differently to participate in the course, this motivation often changing over time, and in relation to different aspects of the course.  I make the assumption that they are all strategic learners.  So why not make emergent objectives an explicit structure within the course?  This would be transient, and would help them see their own students differently, more positively.  Emergent objectives could become points for reflecting on what the course should be dealing with, what the difficult ideas and issues are, and therefore the content required.
  • disrupting my role as obligatory point of passage: and how can I dislodge myself as the obligatory point of passage, the ultimate point of authority? I have tried to break this down a little already by sharing with them my own critical reflections on the course (see here and here for examples).  But by constraining the power to archive materials in the institutional VLE a clear hierarchy is established.  I will not pretend that I am removing the hierarchy since I am after all a final arbiter, the one who, institutionally, is responsible for assessment – this Sian Bayne’s struggle to institute smooth spaces within striated institutions.  But this can be disrupted by distributing the curating role across as many participants as possible through the use of social bookmarking to share resources (as well as the VLE).  Also, could we introduce aspects of peer review?

What have I done here?  I think I have, in the doing of this post, identified an emergent objective – that is the way my participation in #rhizo15 can feed back into my thinking about my own practice as an educator; working with the play of smooth and striated space.

But also, it is subjective in that it speaks to how I want to constitute my self as practitioner – what kind of educator can I be?

Emergent outcomes from a field of weeds – or how certainty can emerge from anxiety (a #rhizo15 story)

Helianthus_maximilianii_rhizomes

I have just watched a video of @davecormier where he uses the metaphor of the ‘weed’ as an alternative to the dominant, normative models of curriculum.

In the normative idea of curriculum, curricula ideas (a mix of ontology and epistemology) are reduced to content (syllabus), and learning construed as a linear path from ignorant to knowledgeable, where the teacher is the one who knows.

This normative idea is reinforced through the technology of the Learning Objective. Having just taught a class on LOs and got the participants to re-work their courses in light of this I fell upon a different idea, that of Emergent Outcomes.  Now, I know why Biggs has developed the idea of learning objectives – its intent was to design in equity and not let teachers privilege those who already ‘get it’ and neglect those who don’t.

But it all too readily becomes a closed circuit – as many participants in my class argued.

And that’s when I came across emergent outcomes.  Emergent outcomes are conducive, I feel, to the connectivist approach and rhizomatic learning in that knowledge and learning are seen to emerge from the context of learning or practice.  As is becoming clear to me from exchanges with folks who were on #rhizo14 learning objectives are multiple, located (initially) in each individual (and we know from experience that despite setting LOs for our courses all students will have their own and develop new ones as they go through).

So, as I slowly lean in towards #rhizo15 my objectives are loose.

I have a recent experience that taught me to be open and resist the desire to place too much apparent order on events.  For a moment, during the recent #TJC15 (Twitter Journal Club) my attention was taken away from the buzz of tweets.  On turning back towards the dashboard I realised that I was ‘lost’.  But lost implied that perhaps I SHOULD have control.  But, following Jacque Ranciere, what if I simply enacted openness, rhizomatic thinking, and waited to see what happened?

I stepped back, I waited, and a cluster of words rose up to capture my attention.

Let’s hope I can maintain such equanimity.

the unsettling headiness of #rhizo15

Connectivism_and_Connective_Knowledge_(CCK08)_course_network

(image: A network diagram showing the distributive nature of Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ CCK08 course, one of the first MOOCs and the course that inspired the term MOOC to become adopted. Source: http://x28newblog.blog.uni-heidelberg.de/2008/09/06/cck08-first-impressions/)


The pre-rhizo15 cMOOC chatter builds up and a sense of unease wraps itself around me.

This is another step into the digital scholar space, the #connectedlearning space, the #connectivist space that I have ventured into over the past few (only a few?) months, and which is having a transformative effect on my practice and conceptualisation of my professional identity.

Already there are some good pointers as to how to approach this different mode of educational engagement.  Dave Cormier (is he the instigator/facilitator?) has blogged and produced a neat video on ‘managing’ engagement with #rhizo15 and cMOOCs more generally.

Yet there is still that unease, that nervousness, that “maybe I’ll leave this one till next year” feeling.

I know this anxiety well, and the aversion to unfamiliar situations well.  In my everyday teaching, which is overwhelmingly f-2-f these days I deal with this by building in lots of ‘signposting’ for course participants.  I justify this, reasonably, as providing some clarity of direction so that participants can get to grips with the difficult stuff they will encounter.  This is reasonable, but I know it is me transferring my own sense of panic in new situations.

I take a deep breath and steel myself for the adventure (it will be an adventure won’t it?).

So, what’s the source of my unease?

The lack of an explicit, GIVEN syllabus and objectives provokes both desire and aversion in almost equal measure.  Desire because it is liberating (more on this in a moment).  Aversion because my inner voice is screaming: “BUT WHERE’S THE MAP? WON’T YOU GET LOST? WON’T YOU MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF BY NOT GETTING THE RULES OF THE GAME?”.  And of course, that’ s cMOOCs for you, that’s ‘connectivism’.

And yet…and yet am I not also irritated by the (over)abundance of course ‘content’ that yearly I seek to reduce believing, knowing that a richer strain of educational engagement can often emerge when we (learner/teacher participants) are challenged with the invitation/threat of open space?  There has been an intuitive understanding of connectivism that has driven me to open my teaching to more uncertainty (or at least less definitiveness), an approach that has sometimes led to conflict.  It is an approach that underpinned my more creative days as a community educator/artist where I used drama techniques with adults with intellectual disabilities in creating rich and powerful narratives about their lives where all the content and action came from them, and not a learning objective in site.

I have stated that my approach to this uncertain terrain is that of the dérive, a concept that has has guided me over the past year or so professionally and intellectually.

derive

I will meander through this new landscape, slowly picking out the features that resonate with (or frighten) me, and begin to see the social structure of this ‘openness’ – that is see the rules-walls-and-public-spaces.  I will explore the contours of this connectivist mode, and try to grasp (which is impossible) the rhizomatic metaphor, of enjoying its inbetweeness:

‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ (Deleuze & Guattari ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’)

 

Some useful ideas emerging on #rhizo15

http://tachesdesens.blogspot.ie/2015/04/no-pushing-please.html

http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/04/10/a-practical-guide-to-rhizo15/

#rhizo15

Continuous Publishing and the digital republic of letters

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It has become something of a truism that we (that is academics) live in a time of intensification of academic labour with its technologies of surveillance such as research assessment exercises, key performance indicators, and metrics of productivity.  We are caught up in what Mark Carrigan has referred to as the ‘accelerated academy’ and its toxic and murderous effects.  It is this ‘toxic academy’ that I have directed some of my own energy, partly through my blog but more recently through more ‘legitimate’ (?) forms of academic publishing (book chapter under review).

In response to this situation some have called for the institution of a slow university that draws on the ethos of the slow food movement.  Others, however, have championed forms of open scholarship and open access as alternative or complementary practices.  Indeed some initiatives, such as the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, deliberately situate themselves in this space.

Many of these debates congregate around the issue of academic publishing in these accelerated times.  In particular they attend to a number of intersecting issues:

  • the closed nature or privatisation of academic traditional publishing
  • the impact of the digital on traditional analogue publishing.

I won’t go into these issues in detail.  However, there has been growing concern about the dominance of academic publishers over the nature of academic labour, and that this constitutes a privatisation of what should be regarded as a public good.  The digital landscape has been seen by some as opening up a new republic of letters, a new way of reconnecting scholarship with its many publics.

My own scholarly practice has been impacted positively, in my view, by this more recent idea of a DIGITAL REPUBLIC OF LETTERS.  As Edward Said would note, there are many beginnings associated with this turn in my practice.  Specifically, I was inspired (and I use that term deliberately) by a number of articles in the LSE’s ‘Impact of Social Sciences’ blog.  These articles deal with the practice of continuous publishing.  One ‘beginning’ was my reading of Mark Carrigan’s discussion of The Open-Source Academic and the use of participatory media (for instance blogging and twitter).  I followed this discussion through two sister articles written by Mark and Pat Lockley.  They noted that “We need to have an ongoing and honest conversation about what academic publishing is, what it could be and what it should be.”, drawing attention to the perverse incentives generated by the particular kind of reputational economy that the accelerated academy is producing.  In this scenario university managers appear to fetishise metrics of academic productivity, being obsessed with improving their institutions’ relative position in an insular economy.  This particular reputational economy is increasingly divorced from the the big issues, and leads to public goods (research knowledge) being locked behind ever expensive paywalls.  They then go on to argue that multiple forms of publishing – journals, blogs, twitter, etc. should become the norm if we are serious about public engagement, and could enhance more traditional forms of reputational value.  Bonnie Stewart has done some incisive work looking at twitter activity as a measure of impact and contribution in open scholarly networks (which often sit alongside the traditional mode) (and it is important to mention Bonnie’s work here since a brief review of the LSE ‘Impact’ blog shows that men seem to be dominating this discussion in that particular space even though my personal empirical experience is of a dynamic network of women driving much of this forward).

But I think there is something beyond the #altmetrics buzz we are getting just now, something that has to do with ethical choices about the kind of academic you want to be.

I am struggling with this right now, caught between embracing digital and open scholarship as a strategy of increasing professional presence and public engagement (though the matter of publics is in need of serious deconstruction), and something more akin to #alt-ac.

My engagement with the work of Mark Carrigan and Pat Lockley came at a moment (a beginning) where I was reconsidering my place in academia, indeed whether I wanted to remain in it all.  A good colleague of mine had been gently nudging me to venture further into the digital and open scholarship space, and to build on my existing blog.  While my blog had initially been developed with a vague idea of the potential of participatory media as a platform for reflection, this was to be further and more deliberately developed later in response to my embracing of the digital identity.  This signalled a desire to refashion my professional identity and practice, to explore the opportunities afforded by ‘digital’, ’openness’, ‘connectedness’. 

In part this is a continuation of traditional modes of academic endeavour.  My sister blog ‘The Broken Academic’ is a vehicle for rehearsing ideas and writing leading to academic publication.  And in my main blog I am currently trying to tease out my understanding of various literatures in relation to aspects of learning and teaching in higher education, with the intent of publishing.  But I have taken to heart the ethic of continuous publishing as also being about uncovering the artfulness of academic writing, of its created sense; to capture in blog posts some of the messiness, the experimentation, so that it does not appear as ready-formed, as rationally produced, as the mere outcome of a recipe that one simply needs to follow.  In this it is a refashioning of the self and a framing of ‘engagement’ as making oneself vulnerable, and so undermining the potential mantle of ‘expert’.  Is this, though, a kind of ‘academic suicide’, a denial of the possibility of being an ‘academic’?

And this is why it is more than enhancing the traditional form of academic publishing (while not, as yet, refusing that offer completely). 

Jacque Ranciere is a fantom here, present not in his corporeal person but in his evocation of a spirit – the spirit that says “Enact openness and see what happens”.  I am seeing what happens, and what ‘openness’ might mean.

It is taking on interesting forms.

While for me the digital and open scholarship practices that I am trying to enact are about ‘connected scholarship’ I find myself enjoying the company of folks who might be described (inscribed?) by the term ‘connected learning’.  This space is defined by certain practitioners and certain concepts and certain networks, many of which overlap:

  • @catherinecronin; @bali_maha; @GoogleGuacamole (Laura Gogia); @JeffreyKeefer; @jessifer, @bonstewart, etc (just some most pertinent to this particular discussion) I am new to most of these folks and in a few short, but intense months, have learned so much that I doubt I can go back to where I was; and the use of ‘@‘ is deliberate because that is how I mostly know/communicate with them, the platform that carries the learning;
  • #connectivism; #connectedlearning; rhizomatic learning; digital scholarship; #digiped; #openscholar, etc. – and again the ‘#’ is instructive as to how I engage with these;
  • Hybrid Pedagogy/@HybridPed; @LSEImpactBlog; #TJC15 (via Laura Gogia); and now #rhizo15.

Now that most of my teaching has become f-2-f (having been distance/blended for so long), I find myself embedded in conversations about hybrid/connected/rhizomatic learning.  And although my concerns are with digital and open scholarship the crossover conversations are stimulating, push me beyond the familiar and habitual, push me into uncomfortable (but enriching) liminal spaces.

And, finally, perhaps this is what I really want to say:

I had imagined academia as a place where we regularly engaged in stimulating intellectual discussion, where, when one was teaching there would be pedagogic debate.  I never believed that this would happen all of the time.  But I had worked in spaces that on the surface appeared to share similar creative impulses (in community arts and education).  In those spaces debates/discussions/considerations of principle, of ideas, of pedagogy were central to what we did – TO OUR DAILY PRACTICE, TO OUR DOING.  Approaching 20 years in academia, in the company of the folks, the concepts, and the networks above, I find myself in that kind of stimulating arena, of being daily tested/attracted/disgruntled. 

BUT much of my normative/paid ‘academic’ doing is dominated by timetabling, meeting committee deadlines, instrumental demands around introducing modules rather than why we are doing it, what does it mean for teaching or for learning (and so for who we are or could be as academics).  Academic publishing and conferences are seldom experienced as invigorating but as enervating.

So, the discussions of continuous publishing speak, to me, of where we experience the kinds of discussion that academia should have, the spaces where we engage with people and ideas and practices that place us in liminal spaces, and therefore powerful learning.