Thinking About The Learning Affordances of Interpersonal Interaction

As someone who researches social practices of learning which are available to any individual, I am interested to explore how the worlds of formal learning and informal learning can interface and complement each other. It seemed of value to investigate how this history of ‘auditors’ might be gleaned to provide a modern social practice which can operate in social configurations we find today.


Ragged University logo_LOGO_RGB_300x300x72

Key in the formulation of this pilot, the notion of participation in formal learning without disrupting or adding to the workload of teachers or formal students was contemplated as the primary consideration. Without this principle of non-disturbance, the social practice immediately becomes a problem to the academic, the formal students invested in the course and the administrative institution as it stands.


As an independent learner and researcher, I have been detailing perspectives which equip the individual to tune into and utilise the affordances found in the given landscape to form educational experiences beyond the institution.  Some of these perspectives are rooted in understanding possibilities through the relationships which are convenient to the academic.


To surface what characteristics are operative in the word ‘convenient’, it is helpful to draw on the etymology of its origin: “fit, suitable, proper; affording accommodation; opportune, favorable,” from Latin convenientem (nominative conveniens), present participle of convenire “to come together, meet together, assemble; unite, join, combine; agree with, accord; be suitable or proper (to),” from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see con-) + venire “to come” (from a suffixed form of PIE root *gwa- “to go, come”).

[Taken from Online Etymology Dictionary]


Beginning Points For Engaging Academics

As an independent learner, a primary way to engage with the thinking, research and pedagogy (the art of teaching) of an academic is firstly to read the books and papers which they have published and watch any video presentation available online.   This embodies a critical part of forming a respectful relationship with a teacher or academic. It should be considered a form of meditation on a subject in which there is an active exercising of the skills necessary for development of competencies including reading, distillation of notes, formulation of curricular reading, reflection, production of self reflective questions to highlight proximal areas of learning.


All this can be done independently without the need to draw on the academic’s limited time and energy.  It is the preparatory stage which will help inform whatever interactions an individual will go on to prompt with the academic.  In a general sense of researching this stage and practice alone may respond sufficiently to the learning focus which is the motive force of the independent learner.


Informal learning involves developing a collection of productive habits driven by motivation originated by the individual rather than learning in the formal setting where there are a range of extraneous motivators and individuals – like the educator – employed to attend to the needs and progress of the pupil.  Informal learning requires the nurturing of capacities such as self motivation and the capacity to finish a given project without someone else compelling you to.


The perspective here is not about cultivating isolationism but exercising the capacities of the individual to work on their own and coalesce with people when opportunities arise. Part of the rapport an independent learner needs to develop is based in being able to demonstrate a considered investment in the thinking of the academic; this way they will have the opportunity to quickly, and without great effort to them, understand that entering into some form of brief dialogue is not a waste of their time/energy.


It demonstrates a civil respect and illustrates some of the key characteristics that teachers look for – an honest commitment to personal development, the subject field and the processes of education. A dedicated academic is more likely to be in a position to share some of their time with someone outside of the institution if they see a demonstration of an individual who is embodying the traits of a good student or committed learner.


Attending Lectures Open To The Public

A second means of engaging with the work of an academic is to attend any public events they are giving (if possible). It is not uncommon that academics do public events as part of institutional public engagement policies and these are great opportunities to see and be a part of interacting with their thinking in a group of individuals.


It is also not uncommon for an interested member of the public to be welcome to attend a conference or a lecture on request.  I have found that on rare occasion an event will advertise itself as providing access to people without financial means but then find they are presented with a significant financial barrier.  This indicates that it is not an inclusive event and it is better to move on and not get upset.


The opportunity to attend an presentation, lecture or conference  provides the opportunity to personally flesh out a curriculum of study surrounding the work of the academic drawing on themes and references made in the presentation. There are an abundance of such opportunities which can also afford opportunities to be drawn into other worlds as well as to exercise a range of skills from active listening, to note taking, to essay formulation, social and personal organisational skills.


Asking politely at a convenient moment if it is alright to audio record the presentation (one way of creating a learning artifact) is a strategy that is valuable in providing the basis of using the process of making a knowledge artifact based around their presentation to scaffold (structure) personal learning after the event. This means can be used to exercise a range of practical skills that assist in parsing and operationalising the learning which the academic is attempting to prompt in learners.


Consciously Value Individuals To Counteract Tendencies of Instrumentalisation

Important in the development and nurturing of the informal learner-academic dynamic is to make special efforts not to instrumentalise the individual who operates in the academic role.  Understanding in an active – not passive – way that what you are engaging with is a who, and that the life of the academic is intimate and personal to them.  They care about what they do and it is important to them as an intimate part of their experience; much like the production of art is personal to an artist.  Without this being present in mind and action, social and civic damages take place.


Understanding the work and interactions of the teacher/researcher/thinker as a work of art highlights the respects and social conventions that underpin the educational project aligned with philanthropy (from the meaning love of humanity) and culture as learning. This perspective refers back to the notion of education as manifesting processes of human development, in contrast to the notionalising of education as a business.


Just as it is important to reference when the thought of another person is being drawn on in the creation and presentation of work you as the independent learner is producing, it is important to make conscious reference (in your own thoughts) to the academic as a human being with a full and rich intellectual and emotional life who is faced with managing all the demands in their life.  This meditation goes some way to counteract the habits of depersonalisation and dehumanisation which haunt the psychology of humans. In this regard it is helpful to learn something about the psychology of dehumanisation.


The basis of a relationship are the values the individuals are responding through; being aware of, and treating others how you like to be treated yourself is crucial, not just to determining the kind of society which is being created and recreated, but also for being able to reach the potentials which are only found in/through conviviality and collegiality. In the rich and valuable vernacular – don’t take the piss, try to be a decent person.


Returning to the theme of instrumentalisation, it is important to actively resist seeing an academic simply as a means of extracting information or accessing knowledge; that information and knowledge should be understood to be an intimate part of their person capable only of being engaged with through positive, constructive and generative social interaction. Also the understanding that the academic has no obligation to engage with and respond to your attempts at engagement should be put first; we cannot apprehend what is going on in the lives of people without the other person being involved, and sometimes it is just not possible for people to take on what is involved in another interaction in an already complicated world.


That information and knowledge – in relation to their work – is an embodiment of their time, energy, craft; their physical, intellectual and emotional selves. Thus working in the commons of knowledge (knowledge mutually belongs to us all), care needs to be taken to seek out mutual respects as foundations to build interactions on.  I argue that any move away from this position is a move towards depersonalising perception which damages the intimate capacity of humanity and giving rise to subtle behaviours of dehumanization that damage the collegial ecology of knowledge production and pedagogy, ultimately lessening collective access to Gestalt possibilities – in simple words, together what we generate is more than just a sum of our parts and this our greatest asset as a species.


To recap; the strategy for engagement with academics is to, in part demonstrate investment and independent commitment to the subject field and the learner is speaking to their own needs and requirements in developing their living curriculum within the context of their own life circumstances.  As such it is an important development of the dialogue necessary to be part of a fact checking process necessarily involved in knowledge production. It also functions as a vital part of the relationships needed for an individual to be taken into new worlds and out of their own curated psychological-behavioural filter bubble (echo chamber) contributing and becoming part of something bigger than themselves.


Asking Questions As A Means Of Learning

Asking a question of an academic is a valuable opportunity – just as it is of any person invested in their area of life and field of knowledge. Formulating the question in an appropriate way is a skill which will serve the learner throughout the years.  Often in the process of appropriately formulating a question, the versatile thinker will discover the means for responding to it with a research process.


There are two major opportunities to ask a question – during a public event or via initiated correspondence by email. If it is during a public event the independent learner should think about the relevance of their question as to what is being shared and think how the question can be phrased so that it conveniently opens up the topic for both the academic and the rest of the audience.


On the whole, a good question should delight the presenter by putting them at ease and giving them the opportunity to further talk about the work they invested their life in.  The question ideally should reveal that you have understood the presentation prior and that you have grasped key points in the subject.  The question should be short, concise and clear in what it is asking, taking as little of the space during the event as possible so that time is shared for other questions from the floor.


Sometimes it is problematic to ask a question which clashes with or challenges the knowledge or understanding of the presenting academic, as a public event is not a suited environment for working out conflicts of understanding or perspective; it is unfair to put people on the spot with limited time to bring an audience on a journey of understanding. This behaviour is more of a concern with rhetoric and argumentation which has aims distinct from the aims centred as the independent learners in these notes.


It should be borne in mind that the reason you and the attending audience are there is to listen to the speaker and not to hold the floor to espouse your own arguments or work (or those of another’s), unless the event specifically invites this in a forum.  Sometimes a speaker has particular expertise or insight that helps you beyond a current limit of your understanding and so you are keen to have an interaction.


Not uncommonly, a speaker will have a large amount of interest from the audience in their work and as a result have many people trying to put a question to them.  In this case you can formulate your question in such a way the question may be answered in a simple response (of a few words or a sentence); careful formulation can accommodate a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or the suggestions of an authors name or book where you can find a more comprehensive answer to your question through research.


Alternatively, commonly in these situations, it may be better to note your question and make a considered approach via email at a later point.  In writing the email, address it as a polite enquiry, briefly introduce yourself, briefly explain how you have engaged with their work and highlight where their expertise would be valued in facilitating your research.  Then make a clear ask of them, bearing in mind that they are limited as to what they can engage with – just as you or anyone else is.


As an independent learner your aim is to minimise the draw on their time and to take ownership of the work involved to reach the level of intellectual development you are aiming to achieve.  Academics and thinkers are not there to shortcut you or externalise (dump) intellectual workloads onto; they are not there to be used as an instrument of your achieving your goal but understood as a friendly colleague in a collegial relationship who may or may not be able to help you if they can through convenient affirmations and/or steers.


Learning Through Helping

Thinking about how you can be helpful to them in their work is a valuable and generative strategy for learning which has broad application. Learning through helping can open up chances to learn from many and varied different people and contexts. If you have some expertise and skill in an area which offers value for the academic or thinker, you can gain opportunities to ‘learn by doing’ – for example – sound recording, video making, website creation, document creation, simple logistical support and so on.  This way there is a positive reciprocal dynamic which brings you appropriately into proximity with them to glean insights of their field of expertise. Doing this kind of exercise you get the benefit of practicing and strengthening your technical, social and labour skills, and they get the output you have created to facilitate their work.


People Are Sometimes Too Busy

Their interaction with you should be effortless as their time and energy are as precious as yours.  Should you not get a response, do not send nagging emails or feel offended but resolve to find the answers to your question other ways.  People live busy lives often with little time to do the basic things in life; their email inbox is not uncommonly saturated with correspondence and professional demands on their time which they are bound by their job status to privilege.


Academics have hidden workloads such as teaching and marking and administrative tasks associated with their institutions; not only this but they may also have children, pets and family to take care of not to mention time to factor into their own happiness and wellbeing (something commonly not attributed the level of importance which it should have in society).


Be Sensitive To Controversy

Another aspect of making an approach in some circumstances, is being aware of problematic areas of knowledge.  Collected life is controversial – human society can manifest odd group behaviours around something as simple as the notion of ‘what is the right way to make a cup of tea’ let alone issues of greater collective significance. Do not court controversy but if your enquiry is to do with an area which is controversial, be sensitive to this and aim not to put them in a position where they might get caught up in the controversy.


Especially important here is not putting them on a spot in public but to be patient and wait for a moment which constitutes a safe space for them.  Also it is key to remember that the professional email addresses of those working in institutional contexts are generally monitored and are not appropriate places to attempt to discuss things which they might be happy to explore informally in somewhere like a pub or café.


Often policy prevents academics and researchers from discussing or making statements on unresolved matters; institutions can have management who project their ideas onto the working lives of others which dictate what they can and cannot discuss for reasons of say, intellectual property etc. It is unfair to put people in a position where they are being asked to contravene their terms of employment or take a position contrary to policy which governs their outputs – this approach is more fitted to a political dynamic rather than an educational dynamic. This is not to say that some academics are not actively interested and involved in trying to influence policy or political settings, but in these notes – here and now – I am interested in the educational and not the political.


As a general consideration – like conversations – communications should be regarded as confidential interactions between yourself and them (as I imagine is good practice with anyone). Should you want to quote them, be transparent and overt in asking permission; if they are not comfortable, do not press the issue but aim to become the researcher you desire to quote in the world.  There are no shortcuts and the feelings of the individuals are important. Without holding these respects it is easy to cause damage where you sought to do something constructive.  This is as important as declaring your citations on sources of information so that the rest of the world can tune into their work, like you have.


Let Be People And Their Peccadillos

Carry with you an understanding that you are dealing with humans and all their peccadillos.  From afar we never know what another person is having to deal with in their life. It bears repeating, do not take personally situations where you have not got the engagement you wanted; there are infinite undiscovered reasons why someone may not have responded; move on and don’t make idle gossip – gossip is a social pollutant.


Occasionally you may come across an individual operating in a role who, for some arbitrary reason, they take a disliking to you.  Mark these incidents up as social foibles – sometimes you might be wearing the wrong clothes, you may have caught them in a time where some experience has made them pugilistic, they may not like your shoes, accent, gender, ethnicity; you may remind them of an ex-partner – who knows !! Let it go and move on. They may be dealing with grief, they may be encultured into a hostile workplace, they may hold as some legacy a prejudice, they may feel you are interloping in the area of thinking they feel protective over – practice a bit of stoicism.


There are unknowns which only serve as rabbit holes to take you away from your real purpose of deep learning and independent learning practice.  It will only be an unnecessary expenditure on your time and energy as well as theirs getting involved in conflict or friction. The independent learner should be searching for the fertile, friendly interactions that lend themselves so well to constructive collaborations – things which enrich the world. The unfriendly and the hostile can be put aside as part of human theatre which is inexorably bound up with public life sometimes, and meeting large numbers of people outside of your personal life will inevitably mean that on occasion you will meet someone who takes a disliking to you.


Critical Analysis: Make Lemonade from Lemons

Should you run into prejudice or structural violence you can make it an autonomous part of your study to document and process the sociology and psychology at work as part of the human ecology of knowledge production and education. Anonymise any detail as of any individuals involved in anti-social behaviour but highlight those who act constructively in the world.  This I have found is a good way to personally metabolize what has happened on occasions and in certain situations, and it is a means to make something constructive of negative experience.


If you notice particular patterns and situations which are associated with anti-social behaviours it can serve as an interesting basis for learning in itself prompting further learning in the areas of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and so on.  This kind of meaning making for the independent learner can be very valuable in identifying what are the fertile areas in society for social learning, identifying and studying – from safe distances; for example how ethnicity or gender functions prejudicial structures of employment in a given area etc.


Learning As An Adaptive Behaviour

Learning in the wild should be understood as an ends in itself which leads to opening means; means within the terrain of the individuals life (yourself) which are unique to them.  Education can be operationalised (put into practice) as engagement with culture, ecology and positive excited-ness of otherness/difference. This way of working speaks to the adaptation inherent in a growth mindset which contributes to the fitness and appropriateness a living organism required to thrive within a landscape.


The academic (and any other educator) should be understood as they are, an individual working in an academic or professional role. In this conception they are not to be confused with the corporate identity of the administrative system which they happen to work within and under.  It may be that you are learning from a gas and heating engineer or a potter or a waitress or a croupier – all of whom may have a distilled a lifetimes craft into knowledge they have distilled and can communicate; I feel the same considerations apply.


This project, that of ‘education in the wild’, the Ragged University – your Ragged University – is formulated of the curriculum you discover, research, coordinate and embody through work; effort you have put in to gain the benefits of human development in your own life.


This particular strategy for learning and development aims to work independently, but at times in coalescent ways with whatever activity goes on within what is formal education and other structured opportunities.  The interests in this project you read on this website/in this book are to formulate educational methodologies, strategies and activities in ways that everyone can (rather than possibilities only obtainable by the few – like making firsthand observations through using an electron microscope etc); this is why money is screened out as an exclusionary cultural practice.


In this sense this essay of notes and writing embodies an attempt to put into practical form notes, tools, methods, projects, framings, perspectives the means composed of the common instruments of knowledge – the elemental means of building understandings which have some practical and experiential value that are available to all people – especially in terms of finance or availability correlated with ‘status’.


This is borne off the back of the notion of a theory of knowledge which is inherent in experience; experience available and accessible by all. At the very foundations of this enquiry are the educational possibilities inherent in the individual and their environment – as such it is a recognition of inherently equitable status rather than an appeal to human cultures status which are exclusionary by the distinctions they make.


In the face of the theatre of human activity, and particularly of the psychology of group behaviours (some bizarre to the human species), there is a whole terrain which can be gleaned from beyond the human experience that offers an infinitely rich living universe with all that is found within the word of education.  It is within that universe which any human may compose as great an education as any institution may offer – itself a human organisation which gazes out at the same universe.  Any institution is not a walled garden but a walled garden within a greater landscape.


Learning and education as human development is one of the natural instincts and behaviours of human beings (and arguably other species).  Strategies to coalesce are a stable way to build an education compared to the disastrous habits of financialisation.  Education as a fundamental behavour is inherent in our make up whether we think of the immigrants interred at Lesbos who write elaborate phylogenetic assays of the flora and fauna in the shanty towns they have constructed from scrap materials, people who map the stars of the turning heavens from their economic exile; whether it is the people interred in prison of war camps in the second world war or a person stuck on an island alone; or whether it is learning embedded in the lives of ordinary every day people – education is a behaviour which spontaneously emerges as a part of living with the given environment.


‘Education’ is a feature in each individuals life so the notion of formulating a ‘Ragged University’ is merely a conscious choice a person might do to get exercising their own mind, will and emotional interests in a way to develop specific understandings through shared social experiences set in the given situation.   What is being alluded to is that any situation may hold the scaffolding of a focused study of anything and I argue for the cultures, traditions and social behaviours which demonstrate this throughout time and across cultures.


Navigating an exploration and appreciation of your own boundaries of knowledge affords the opportunities necessary to realise what the proximal steps are for your further to research to continue. The methodology of doing public events is one of many exercises where an individual may get to meet and talk to and learn from people who are passionate about something.  It is that mark of passion which distinguishes them and attracts possibilities the setting.