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The paper expands on ideas about peer learning that I presented with Charles Jeffrey Danoff at OKCon 2011 (, and interrogates them from the point of view of "practice". In other words, the question this paper takes up is: "Is paragogy practical?". The paper will draw on Zen Buddhism, Socrates, and Baudrillard's "The Mirror of Production" to argue that the answer is "yes, and indeed, paragogy can be practiced to great personal fulfilment, but it always develops through a process of social dissonance, since it is at odds with any 'received' view." However, far from being simply a contrarian philosophy, paragogy can be used to design functional systems to support information access and social life, as well as learning.

The following sections can be read as they are presented here, or in the opposite order



They refer to the literature as a "body". So if we consider "surveying the literature", it's similar to a body scan (from Jon Kabat-Zinn), similar to body awareness, the first step of the Anapanasati Sutta. (Cf. So in terms of the sutra:

While breathing in long, he knows “I am breathing in long”, while breathing out long, he knows “I am breathing out long”.

And in terms of the literature, maybe it's a book-length piece. For our domain: M. S. Knowles, "The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy". M. Tennant, "Psychology and adult learning". E. Wenger, "Toward a theory of cultural transparency: Elements of a social discourse of the visible and invisible". Carl Bereiter, "Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age". But it is in some ways bad form to cite a long book in a paper, I think, since you impose on your reader. Will they have actually read the "long exhalation" in question?

The hag, who had placed the costly gift of Arbaces in the loose folds of her vest, now rose to depart. When she had gained the door she paused, turned back, and said, 'This may be the last time we meet on earth; but whither flieth the flame when it leaves the ashes?--Wandering to and fro, up and down, as an exhalation on the morass, the flame may be seen in the marshes of the lake below; and the witch and the Magian, the pupil and the master, the great one and the accursed one, may meet again. Farewell!' -- The Last Days of Pompeii, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1834.


The slang term "bogarting" refers to taking an unfairly long time with a cigarette, drink, et cetera, that is supposed to be shared (e.g., "Don't bogart that joint!"). It derives from Bogart's style of cigarette smoking, with which he left his cigarette dangling from his mouth rather than withdrawing it between puffs. --
While breathing in short, he knows “I am breathing in short”, while breathing out short, he knows “I am breathing out short”.

Maybe it's a gasp; perhaps more likely, a sort of shibboleth, or else a buzz-word, or mere muttering.

"Hazel, you've been a part of me forever. Don't you know that? I breathe your name on every exhalation." Caden Cotard, in "Synechdoche, NY"

If it is too much to ask people to read the work in question (which I think almost always is), then you have to summarize it in the literature review. Some of these works represent a flash of inspiration for you. Maybe a sort of "intersection point" where something weird happens.

“You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” says Burroughs. [...] He is fond of the word “mosaic,” especially in its scientific sense of a plant-mottling caused by a virus, and his Muse (see etymology of “mosaic”) is interested in organic processes of multiplication and duplication. The literary notion of time as simultaneous, a montage, is not original with Burroughs; what is original is the scientific bent he gives it and a view of the world that combines biochemistry, anthropology, and politics. -- Mary McCarthy, writing in New York Review of Books, 1963,
He trains like this: experiencing the whole body I will breathe in, he trains like this: experiencing the whole body I will breathe out.

We can imagine a pastoral or an industrial landscape, but the truth is, if anything, more complicated. We can see this when "cut in" via Google search.

I know all the various arts and crafts and sciences in the world dealing with writing, mathematics and symbols, physiology, rhetoric, physical and mental health, city planning, architecture and construction, mechanics and engineering, divination, agriculture and commerce, conduct and manners, good and bad actions, good and bad principles, what makes for felicity and what for misery, what is necessary for enlightenment, and behavior linking reason and action. I know all these sciences, and I also introduce them and teach them to people, and get people to study and practice them, to master and develop them, using these as means to purify, refine, and broaden people. -- From the Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka-sutra), translated by Thomas Cleary
He trains like this: making the bodily process calm I will breathe in, he trains like this: making the bodily process calm I will breathe out.

So we look for the purpose of all of this: it's not just a matter of endless literary machinations and remixing. More likely, it's a matter of getting down to work.

Recommended Reading


You're there at the end of a long work or workout session. Your body hurts, but you know it would be worse if you weren't doing this. You are, after all, only human.

Mentally, things seem a bit scattered too, because you're thinking along a lot of different possible timelines. What just happened? What was supposed to happen? What's right or wrong about what actually happened? How might things be improved for next time? Is there gonna be a next time?

You decide that you better stick with it - after all, what you're doing is a matter of conditioning the body and mind, making some outcomes more likely than others. But stick with what, precisely?

Things can always be refined, in some dimension or another. Maybe you do continue with how things have been, because you're making steady progress. Maybe you have to switch directions or change tactics, change modalities. Why? Because you're tired. This has been a brutal struggle. So much of the struggle has been in your mind, but it's no less brutal for that.

You have some stories you can tell your grandkids about though, if you ever have 'em, if the scars you show off in the bars impress well enough. If nothing else, you've gained experience, and that ought to count for something, somewhere, somehow.

Maybe out of all of this, you've established a better connection with yourself. (And how does that work, precisely?) You've explored some possibilities, and some possible ways of being. Because everything you do here is a way of being: maybe a pose, maybe an attitude, maybe an embodiment of some underlying Platonic form, who knows, but it feels like an exploration of a possible society, a possible life for yourself therein.

Of course, it would be easy to say to yourself that you haven't done enough. I suppose that if you haven't reached the goal you had in mind, it's a natural thing to say. But do you say it cruelly, or kindly? And why?

Or, now, let's switch the perspective, and make all this prospective. You're just at the beginning of planning a project -- how do you want things to wind up? Do you want to be celebrating, or crying? Are we talking about the glee of an endorphin rush? Or is the conclusion not so happy -- dead in a ditch by the side of the road, perhaps. Of course this is not your ambition. You'd rather have the right kind of adventure, something where you come away knowing your capabilities, you come away perhaps a bit stronger.

Here's the tricky thing, though.

You're neither at the beginning nor at the end of a project. You're somewhere in the middle -- and it's tempting to just fix yourself a cup of tea with milk, look out the window, maybe take a walk around the block looking for inspiration. So much depends on this. Are you feeling defeated as you go, or are you in love with life? If you want to go back to bed, why is that? Not enough rest lately? Working too hard? Or is that not it at all? Too much conflict perhaps, making it impossible to rest. You lie down, you sleep, but it doesn't do much for you anymore. Maybe the problem is that you're not eating right. Maybe you don't have enough people around to talk to about your concerns. You're walking around that block and you're kicking at a rock. What ever got you into this game in the first place?

You figure you better get rooted. You can't keep approaching these days blowing around like a leaf in the wind. These days had better be about something. You're not yet ready to retire. So it's not just about whether or not you're moving forward, it's your whole approach.

You're back inside now, you sit down and you start writing. You fill a page or two of your notebook. Things are looking different. You've got some prospects, you figure. You're through with all of that "maybe tomorrow" stuff. After all, it's just noon, the day is not yet -- well, just -- half over.

"We explored connections between paragogy and peer production, and paragogy and learning analytics, and showed how paragogy can intertwine with these to open new avenues for productivity, learning, and evaluation."

It was a good attempt, certainly. We would improve on it later. This afternoon, there are other things to be done, quite a full agenda, really.

Recommended reading

  • : The above "poetic" text is meant to go in the direction of getting the reader thinking about "what purpose do the activities that I am engaged with serve?" Max-Neef's list of fundamental human needs provides a good place to start. For example, for me, work helps to serve my need for "participation", for "subsistence", and for "creation", whereas rest helps to serve my need for "protection" (in the sense of immune systems), and the things I do for entertainment take care of a lot of the others. Keep in mind that the Max-Neef needs are, in fact, needs -- they all get served in different ways. It's interesting to ask "how do I think about the things that I do". I sometimes kick myself for getting so involved with "entertainments", but actually, they seem to do a lot for me. It's useful when thinking about a given piece of research to say, what purpose does this serve? For example, does it shift the relationship between a given activity (work, say) and a given need (e.g. identity)?


He trains like this: experiencing joy I will breathe in, he trains like this: experiencing joy I will breathe out.

There is a sense of the victory of oneself over things, and a sense of the victory of things over oneself. There is also a sense of being in tune with things, and that might be called "conquering illusion" or something like this.

"We encourage the research community to test our ideas in practice of various forms. Some ideas for paragogical design include: (1) Establish a group consensus for expectations/goals/social contract of the course and how each of them should be evaluated at its conclusion. (2) Have learners designate learning goals that they then commit to stick with. (3) Formalize a process for assisting peers (e.g. responding to questions, giving feedback on publicly posted work). (4) Develop explicit pathways for learner feedback to translate into changes to the learning environment."

He trains like this: experiencing pleasure I will breathe in, he trains like this: experiencing pleasure I will breathe out.

And, as a footnote, "bodily pleasure is described as bodily agreeableness and pleasure arising from bodily contact; mental pleasure is described as mental agreeableness and pleasure arising from mental contact." (Ānandajoti Bhikkhu)

These are the sorts of things we want: the fit of the hammer handle in the hand of the master carpenter, the positive camaraderie within a group whose social ergonomics are well suited to their task, the suiting of the words to the action and the action to the words of Prince Hamlet.

It doesn't always always seem to work like this. We are in mental and physical contact with a lot of limitations. This seems to go hand in hand with the world being full of relationships. In my own life: I figure I can say "I will put in 7 hours of work today on programming and grantwriting", but I also expect that I will be defeated by circumstances. Either something will come up in my work context, or else, supposing I'm successful and I manage not to get distracted, I worry that 7 hours won't be enough. I mean, even 7 hours today, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. This sort of thought is rather foundationless and the futility that I imagine constitutes the victory of the world over my ambitions, before I have even gotten off of the ground.

On the other hand, if I work with genuine effort, we might even say valiantly, for, say 5 hours instead of 7, and this happens again tomorrow etc., at least we have not declared a default victory to the world and to circumstance. The default and defeatist judgments are "suffering" in the Buddhist sense of the word, in this context.

The things we know about (Kant), and how much more the things that we experience, come in a certain context. Potentially a constructed reality that we exist in only to keep ourselves in check (PKD, "Time Out of Joint"). It is relatively easy to draw relationships between things on the ideational level, but more difficult to make precise sense of things on the level of experience.

How does a person get stuck with a defeatist attitude? How do they get unstuck? This is on the level of daily practice, though it probably also applies interpersonally and across time, when we look at the limits of knowledge or science or experience at any given point in time. It's not that these things are so horribly disappointing (unless one, for whatever reason, identifies with the sense of "flawedness" or "incompleteness"), there are just some things that we as humans don't know, can't do, etc.

There's the whole "glass half full, glass half empty" thing to consider here. The same things that might be considered limitations give a flavor or color to the world that we're in (actually define this world and its possibilities?). The sense of "defeat" is presumably just another local flavor, much like the sense of "joy" or pleasure.

What are we really in touch with as operating principles? There is something quite pleasurable about giving up an axiom or scientific truth, about taking an assumption that has been held for ages and seeing it go topsy-turvy. Particularly when we're talking about something that was always assumed to be a limitation but that is revealed not to be. So for example when looking at a social context with chagrin or with esteem, at something that either holds one back or pushes one on.

In any case it is the context in question that we respond to, often in a very automatic way.


He trains like this: experiencing the mental process I will breathe in, he trains like this: experiencing the mental process I will breathe out.

The things we cook up! So that perhaps there is a strong sense of how we think things should be, what we want to have happen, etc. If you drop your bicycle or car off at the shop for repairs, you want a certain set of repairs done.

"While I was working on the transmission, I noticed your brakes were gone, so I fixed those as well, that's going to be an extra $600."

"But I didn't ask you to fix the brakes."

"Well, it wasn't safe to drive on like that!"

I'm imagining what it might be like to start a paragogical charter school (see Business Models for or even a model for learning like the International Baccalaureate. It would have been pretty different from my high school, though my home state did have a nice feature whereby students with a "B" average or better could take courses for free at local colleges and universities, up to full time. So for my junior and senior years of high school I got to take pretty much whatever I wanted to take, because I wasn't in a degree program. In a way this sort of spoiled me for disciplined work -- but that didn't matter because by the time I was ready to "go away to college", I mostly wanted to study mathematics courses anyway, so I got something resembling discipline for free.

Still, both of these model are pretty different from the way people learn in free software communities. I'd say that even though I was a good student during my 6 years of undergraduate training, I didn't have the same kind of the kind of "plugged in" feeling that I had later, when I was learning how to program in Emacs Lisp by posting my questions and ideas on the Help-GNU-Emacs mailing list.

It was actually pretty cool: getting help from the people who really make this program that I really use, with the sense that I could contribute things too. In a way it's similar to the undergraduate research stuff I did in math, through the NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. But Emacs hacking felt even more "real", since I was making up my own goals as I went along.

(I mean, what's real? Is academia like Santa Claus for young adults? I don't think that's quite what I'm saying.)

He trains like this: making the mental process calm I will breathe in, he trains like this: making the mental process calm I will breathe out.

One thing's for sure: around the time when I was learning how to program in Lisp, I stopped being such a good student. This was grad school. Discipline, again, wasn't particularly attractive to me, especially when it meant doing what I was "supposed to do". I was big into questioning the system, and I was saying "this doesn't make sense, it doesn't seem particularly efficient". My professors for the most part didn't get it. Those who did sort of understand what my interests were were saying, "Well, supposing it was worthwhile to work on this sort of system stuff, but you should do it when you're a professor, not when you're a student -- when you're a student, you should be focusing on passing your exams."

The only problem with this way of thinking is "When you're a young academic without tenure, you should be focusing on getting tenure" etc. System stuff is this no-man's-land. I remember the graduate advisor in the mathematics department saying that the things I was working on were "secretarial" in nature. And he was right -- but the thing is, since I didn't have a secretary at my disposal, I felt I had to do the secretarial work myself.

Things got to the point where the program really wasn't going so well, and I had found some colleagues on the internet, and I was like, "You know what, I don't really need this place, and they clearly don't really need me. If the exams are such an important obstacle, maybe I can pass them later after I've gotten some of the system stuff taken care of."

It's certainly somewhat odd that I didn't really want to go to class or anything when I was in that program. I kept telling them "Oh, yes, I will turn my behaviour around" and I would try going to class for a while. Some of them I was getting A's in. But there were other classes I didn't care so much for, and I just wouldn't go to those, and I wouldn't officially drop them either, then I'd get "F's".


He trains like this: experiencing the mind I will breathe in, he trains like this: experiencing the mind I will breathe out.

(Because of the long breath (etc.) there is mind-consciousness.)

"One key difference between Star/Wenger on the one hand and Engeström on the other has to do with the nature of boundaries. In the community of practice view, boundary objects exist to effect translations or initiations. In Engeström's view, attention is drawn to boundaries that remain in flux (via an ongoing process of co-configuration) or which are blurred (e.g. by a blurring of consumer and producer roles)."

The various conceptions of human ecology (Star, Engeström, etc.) bring to mind McCalla, writing on "The Ecological Approach to the Design of E-Learning Environments: Purpose-based Capture and Use of Information About Learners". McCalla's idea is in some ways reminiscent to what Slavoj Zizek calls the fantasy of total recycling:

"(It is often said that the ultimate products of capitalism are piles of trash – useless computers, cars, TVs, and VCRs ... : places like the famous "graveyard" of hun­dreds of abandoned planes in the Mojave desert confront us with the obverse truth of capitalist dynamics, its inert objectal remainder. And it is against this background that one should read the ecological dream-notion of total recycling – in which every remainder is used again – as the ultimate capitalist dream, even if it is couched in the terms of retaining the natural balance on Planet Earth: the dream of the self-propelling circulation of capital which would succeed in leav­ing behind no material residue – the proof of how capitalism can appropriate ideologies which seem to oppose it.)" -- January, 2008, The Prospects of Radical Politics Today,

"This is the true utopia, the idea that a legal order can make recompense for its founding crimes, thereby retroactively cleansing itself of its guilt and regaining its innocence. What lies at the end of this road is the ecological utopia of humanity in its entirety repaying its debt to Nature for all its past exploitation. In effect, is not the idea of 'recycling' part of the same pattern as that of restitution for past injustices? The underlying utopian notion is the same: the system which emerged through violence should repay its debt in order to regain an ethico-ecological balance. The ideal of 'recycling' involves the utopia of a self-enclosed circle in which all waste, all useless remainder, is sublated: nothing gets lost, all trash is re-used. It is at this level that one should make the shift from the circle to the ellipse: already in nature itself, there is no circle of total recycling, there is un-usable waste. Recall the methodological madness of Jeremy Bentham's 'Panopticon' in which everything, up to and including the prisoner' excrement and urine, should be put to further use. [...] This is why the properly aesthetic attitude of a radical ecologist is not that of admiring or longing for a pristine nature of virgin forests and clear sky, but rather that of accepting waste as such, of discovering the aesthetic potential of waste, of decay, of the inertia of rotten material which serves no purpose." -- Living in the End Times, page 35

What we are envisioning with PlanetMath is from one point of view, a utopian ideal of "encyclopedia as complete instruction", bringing to bear all of the questions and comments of students into one integrated panoptic, an organized junkyard of all of the qualms and quandries that people encounter when they think about mathematics, with a spare part available and ready to fit any need.

He trains like this: gladdening the mind I will breathe in, he trains like this: gladdening the mind I will breathe out.

(Because of the long breath (etc.) he knows his mind is one-pointed and unscattered, and gladness arises in the mind.)

Can we also argue another point of view that says that PlanetMath is something other than the utopian ideal of a circle? Our first clue comes from one of Zizek's favorite subjects, psychoanalysis. Perhaps it is not so much a matter of reusing junk (no detail to insignificant to be interpreted) but a matter of cultivating mind, supple, creative, responsive. PlanetMath -- as mirrored or embodied in its software -- could just as well be thought of as a Deleuzian "nomadic war machine", built via the infamous process of tinkering or bricolage, which doesn't really excuse it from claims of utopianism, but does give a (potentially) different point of view to the capitalist one, since the nomad machine is happy living in and returning to the Mojave...

My point being that "construction of the subject" is part of what is going on here. How does a subject exist and function? It is not by integrating every last bit of "knowledge" -- we also forget, for example. Sometimes we forget in such a way as to become non-functional -- neglecting to think or pay attention, for example. Is the subject constituted by talking with many people? Or in relative isolation? With one trusted counsellor? Or with frenetic multi-media mumbo jumbo? Quite a lot depends on this.

Recommended Reading


He trains like this: concentrating the mind I will breathe in, he trains like this: concentrating the mind I will breathe out.

"Blondy points out both uses and challenges to each of Knowles principles of andragogy. For example, 'Cheren stated that while learners may express a desire to be self-directed in their learning, most lack the required understanding of learning necessary to be self-directed and thus need guidance and encouragement in the learning process.'"

Actually, Cheren's view is that "being self-directed" isn't an on-off switch (either you have it or you don't), but more of a continuum, so, he speaks for example of "highly self-directed learners". He offers advice on how an educator can help a learner become more self directed, but doesn't say that they then "are" self-directed. It's a subtle distinction!

But what would it mean to be self-directed, or to be more self-directed? Considering that the mind is sensitive to its context, and is always providing feedback on things to do, problems, solutions, joys, sorrows, etc., "self-directed" seems like a somewhat iffy predicate to bear. What about being in tune with one's surroundings?

Perhaps being "more" self-directed means that one does not so much rely on other people (at least explicitly) to decipher these surroundings, and tell one what to do. In other words we would expect a "more self-directed" person to be "more in tune with their surroundings", as well as their goals and sentiments and so forth.

So a steady mind would be quite the boon here, if becoming "more self-directed" was the goal. But why would it be? Certainly, one cannot always turn to others for help -- sometimes they are unavailable or inaccessible, or they have better things to do than to guide you. (Which is probably why educators typically get paid: there is an opportunity cost to their time.) So, in these moments, will you feel lost and confused, or will you feel with it, productive (if that is your ambition), collected, and reasonably happy?

Developing powers of concentration and responsiveness would seem to be useful in these circumstances. Of course, these abilities can be cultivated in a social context and applied solo -- and vice versa, cultivated in a solo context and applied socially.

He trains like this: freeing the mind I will breathe in, he trains like this: freeing the mind I will breathe out.

(He trains like this: freeing the mind from excessive ferver ... hate ... delusion ... conceit ... wrong views ... doubt ... sloth and torpor ... agitation and worry ... lack of conscience ... and shamelessness I will breathe in, etc.)

"The first paragogical principle says that instead of focusing on how learners see themselves (e.g. as 'self-directed' or 'dependent' or something else), we should be asking how the learning context shapes what learners are actually able to do. Note that this includes looking at ways in which learners can contribute to reshaping the learning context."

Since we are thinking of learning as adaptation, it makes sense to focus on what adaptation is -- and communicate this clearly with students or peer learners. Adaptation is what we're here to do, and maladaptive patterns and strategies only get in the way of this.

That doesn't mean that maladaptivity should be paddled out of students (which would presumably only be additional maladaptivity on another level) -- rather, I think the goal would be to lead (pedagogically) people to draw attention to their own sense of what is maladaptive and what is adaptive behavior -- or else (paragogically) to enact "adaptation" and see if other people follow this good example!

Well, that might be over simplifying things, but it does bring up this question: is there really such a thing as "paragogical teaching"? Maybe peer learners need to agree to some basic axioms in the first place (e.g. "learning is adaptation") and then there won't be any particular need to missionize them and bring them on board.

Furthermore, if we agree that this is the axiom, then it works the other way as well ("adaptation is learning"). So that even "maladaptive" patterns are learned. Accusing someone of doing something "maladaptive" really means saying that they have learned something that puts them out of tune with their environment. This doesn't mean that paragogy is aiming to homogenize people: being in tune doesn't mean everyone playing the same note or even the same style. This musical metaphor presumably only goes so far, but it does have a fairly well established history in the philosophy of state-craft. It would be nice to say more about what this means -- inner conflict, interpersonal conflict, wasted resources, versus inner peace, interpersonal harmony, good use of resources, etc. -- clearly these are very qualitative and almost "aesthetic" judgements.

Key Message

For today I am presenting a sequence of quotations. First, we examine the view that commons-based peer production communities are based both on learning and on assessment, in the form of peer review. If a given piece of work is accepted into a given community, it has passed a test.

We then turn to a lyrical quotation from Leonard Cohen, examining the nature of "conflict", here imagined to take place between the would-be contributor and the potential community.

An outsider voice is, quite often, neither accepted nor desired. We could compare the notion of a constituent moment, "defined as a historical moment when 'underauthorized' individuals seize the mantle of authority, and, by doing so, change the inherited rules of authorization and produce new conditions for political representation" ( The point being, that to be in tune with one's life need not mean being in tune with one's society (to go a little further in depth with something we were talking about in the essay on Implementing).

The most outstanding "negative" instance of this is then considered in an extended series of quotes - from Plato's "Apology". A "positive" example (in the eyes of Jason A. Frank, "Constituent moments: enacting the people in postrevolutionary America") is found in a speech from Frederick Douglass.

Finally, we consider a quote that puts the conflict back in terms of gender relations figured by Cohen. (This quote is reminiscent of several chapters from "The Politics of Friendship" by Jacques Derrida.)

Having built up this weighty dossier of quotations, we offer a summary statement on their relationship to paragogy.

"[U]pon closer inspection of commons-based peer production communities we find learning at their core. [...] In a commons-based peer production framework, the concepts of (i) learning and (ii) assessment of learning become inseparable. The community continuously reviews and evaluates the contributions of its members. Open source software developers do not write exams, but the quality of their work (as an indicator for their knowledge) is tested as part of the project's inherent quality review process. Acceptance of a developer's software code into the release of the application is the equivalent of passing an exam." -- J. Philipp Schmidt,
"You cannot stand what I've become, // You much prefer the gentleman I was before. // I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control, // I didn't even know there was a war." -- Leonard Cohen, "There is a war", from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (
"And do not be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is, that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly striving against the many lawless and unrighteous deeds which are done in a state, will save his life; he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one." -- Socrates, in Plato's "Apology", tr. Benjamin Jowett,
"If any one likes to come and hear me while I am pursuing my mission, whether he be young or old, he is not excluded. Nor do I converse only with those who pay; but any one, whether he be rich or poor, may ask and answer me and listen to my words; and whether he turns out to be a bad man or a good one, neither result can be justly imputed to me; for I never taught or professed to teach him anything. And if any one says that he has ever learned or heard anything from me in private which all the world has not heard, let me tell you that he is lying." -- ibid.
"Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me." -- ibid.
"When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing,--then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, both I and my sons will have received justice at your hands." -- ibid.
"Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? " -- Frederick Douglass, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro",
"Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote." -- David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
"[W]oman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work." -- Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, "Venus in Furs"

This final quote is perhaps particularly "striking"! Severin (the main character in "Venus in Furs") has received the cure for his donkey-like dilletantish slackitude at the hands of his "Venus", Wanda. This is a sexual education, if ever we saw one; one that is developed in a curious peer-like manner, as both characters egg each other on to develop the "scene" (shared context), and the final denouement of Severin's "cure".

On another level, Frederick Douglass and Socrates also seem to have the intention of whipping up some sentiment or other in their audience. (This is the speech in which Socrates describes himself as a "gadfly".) Underlying Douglass's points have to do with the virtue of equality, not just with equality itself. Like Socrates he is calling people out on their hypocrisy. Both he Socrates are in some sense on the "winning side", at least in the sense of moral victory.

It is little wonder that Douglass's essay appears on a site run by OWS activists: his case that "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie" -- could be repeated for unrighteous inequalities without slavery. The question of what is "unrighteous" is of course something that will be socially determined. (Should wealth be distributed to each according to his need, or to each according to his greed, or something else?)

Socrates's public dialogs are one of the original "open source" forms: again, "[...] Nor do I converse only with those who pay; but any one, whether he be rich or poor, may ask and answer me and listen to my words [...] And if any one says that he has ever learned or heard anything from me in private which all the world has not heard, let me tell you that he is lying." The open criticism of those in power that Socrates foresaw is present today on the internet, along with plenty of "reactionary" talk by the same sort of crowd who despised him. The "war" (to use Leonard Cohen's turn of phrase) continues apace.

But are we necessarily talking about a conflict at all? Might not the "receptive" and "evaluating" -- what could be broadly termed "female" aspects of communities -- be brought into some sort of harmony with the "generative", "contributing" -- correspondingly, broadly male -- aspects of contributors? And what would this mean?

For the purposes of this essay, whether we call it "mind" or "virtue" or something else, there is both the question of constituting the self, and constituting the community. Foucault points out that Socrates' "care of self" will entail care for the city. We see frequently that the city (or any other corporate body) does not always care for the individual. We might consider Deleuze and Guattari's "becoming-woman" here (cf.; or Fritz Lang's "Metropolis".

Recommended Reading


He trains like this: contemplating impermanence I will breathe in, he trains like this: contemplating impermanence I will breathe out.

Part of the challenge for us, as for all writers, is to know who our audience is (cf. Academic Peer Review). Are we writing for teachers, or philosophers? For students, or for the popular press? The proliferation of options and possibilities is somewhat exhausting.

Since this essay falls within the "practice" section, it's probably a reasonable bet to think that we are, in the first place, writing for ourselves -- aiming to create a manual that describes and helps with our own learning process as we work on and on other tasks in our own lives.

"In the situated learning and communities of practice point of view, 'learning was shown to be an inevitable aspect of all productive practices' (Engeström)."

And so life goes on, we produce lots of words, and they go out into the world's word-stream. Some people here and there read these words and they may have an effect. The human world, like an organism, is full of communication processes; the written word plays a role that is in some way comparable to cytokines in the body.

While I don't agree completely with this paragraph, I'll quote it at length:

"And in addition, if you look at the time scales that's involved here-- two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, 100,000 years for mankind as we know it-- you're beginning to see the telescoping nature of the evolutionary paradigm. And then when you get to agricultural, when you get to scientific revolution and industrial revolution, you’re looking at 10,000 years, 400 years, 150 years. You're seeing a further telescoping of this evolutionary time. What that means is that as we go through the new evolution, it's gonna telescope to the point we should be able to see it manifest itself... within our lifetime, within this generation. The new evolution stems from information, and it stems from two types of information: digital and analog. The digital is artificial intelligence. The analog results from molecular biology, the cloning of the organism. And you knit the two together with neurobiology. Before on the old evolutionary paradigm, one would die and the other would grow and dominate. But under the new paradigm, they would exist... as a mutually supportive, noncompetitive grouping, independent from the external. And what is interesting here is that evolution now becomes an individually centered process, emanating from the needs and the desires of the individual, and not an external process, a passive process... where the individual is just at the whim of the collective. So, you produce a neo-human with a new individuality and a new consciousness. But that's only the beginning of the evolutionary cycle... because as the next cycle proceeds, the input is now this new intelligence. As intelligence piles on intelligence, as ability piles on ability, the speed changes. Until what? Until you reach a crescendo in a way... it could be imagined as an enormous instantaneous fulfillment of human, human and neo-human potential. It could be something totally different. It could be the amplification of the individual, the multiplication of individual existences. Parallel existences now with the individual no longer restricted by time and space. And the manifestations of this neo-human-type evolution, manifestations could be dramatically counter-intuitive. That's the interesting part. The old evolution is cold. It's sterile. It's efficient, okay? And its manifestations are those social adaptations. You're talking about parasitism, dominance, morality, okay? War, predation. These would [now] be subject to de-emphasis. These would be subject to de-evolution. The new evolutionary paradigm will give us the human traits of truth, of loyalty, of justice, of freedom. These will be the manifestations of the new evolution. That is what we would hope to see from this. That would be nice." -- Eamonn Healy, in Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" (2001)

This seems like a good way to get at "impermanence" -- but I think it misses some basic things about evolution, the nature of horizontal gene transfer, for example. Nothing ever really happens "independent from the external". Among other things, Healy's "new individuality" is at odds with the "post-individual human" (cf Sherry Turkle, "Alone Together"). The phenomenology of this sort of mind is in some sense the proper target of paragogy. Note that we are not talking about some sort of "universal mind" or an integrated whole (see Connections).

Regarding Sherry Turkle's book, here's an anecdote. My housemate was talking about a conversation with her friend. The friend had been saying, I got together with my family recently and all we were doing was sitting around on our laptops, we weren't talking with each other. And my housemate said, yeah, this happened when I got together with my family recently too. And now, here I am, writing about their conversation. There's something about "uploading information" that seems fun and interesting, though it is embodied in a very different kind of "moment" from the typical family gathering. This disturbing video for a David Lynch song may capture the dystopic flavor:

He trains like this: contemplating dispassion I will breathe in, he trains like this: contemplating dispassion I will breathe out.

Investigations in paragogy may in some ways resemble investigations in parapsychology, but without the hokum. Instead of looking for psychic abilities, we would instead look at real, documented, communication events. It is potentially less interesting to document "spooky effects" like yesterday's crossword puzzle's being easier to solve than today's than it is to try and get some impression of where people get their ideas from in concrete, experiential, ways.

Where do good intentions go to? Where does actual productivity come from? It's not just a matter of pomodoro technique or getting things done, though these systems (designed for the standard "individual) do, no doubt, relate.

The 43folders summary of Getting Things Done is:

  1. identify all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place (close all open loops)
  2. get rid of the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now
  3. create a right place that you trust and that supports your working style and values
  4. put your stuff in the right place, consistently
  5. do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment
  6. iterate and refactor mercilessly

Note a sort of skew-symmetry of the first five principles with the paragogy principles. We are all existing in contexts that may or may not have a whole lot to do with "us". If we learn how to moderate these contexts in a way that works for how we work, we tend to feel better and more adaptive. If we work with the right set of supports, things go better than they would otherwise. Maintaining this supportive context is an ongoing process. Once we have all of this going nicely, we've realized the dream (in this case, the "productivity" dream).

This reading of the fourth principle stands out as an example of an evolved adaptive behavior: "nest-building", as discussed by C. G. Jung -- by now a necessary adjunct to procreation in humans. In the context of GTD, we might say that once everything else is out of the way, there will be nothing left to do but be productive. But when and how does that really happen?

What research methods are most appropriate to studying these questions without getting weird about it? Some ideas for this are outlined in the PlanetMath case study, but they could be made more precise, and generalized for other settings. We can imagine that, worst case scenario, as a reflection on the process, paragogy itself represents an amplification and re-valorization of the distracting elements that need to be cleared away in order for "real work" to happen -- a sort of "navel gazing" or an overly "processy" way of relating to one's life's work; in effect, a sort of self-disabling through frittering away of anxious energy. To look at this more positively, a "science of procrastination" or even simply a mutual aid group, "Cunctator's Universal Network and Triage Cooperative" (name created by my friend Tim) that would look at things like chatting on Facebook while doing homework without the judgmental lens -- might help people understand the current human, particularly in his/her incubatory aspects.

Recommended Reading

  • "The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature" - reading the Amazon comments may be enough
  • A curious coincidence. (Studying the existence and effects of coincidences is presumably where paragogy and parapsychology have their interface.)
  • "In my coaching work I have dealt with a number of individuals who consider themselves chronic procrastinators. They often feel guilty that they take so long to engage with projects and frequently criticize their own performance. And yet, they all have in common that they are extraordinarily successful but most objective standards-- doctorate degrees, high incomes, productive at work, etc. This has led me to question whether they are really procrastinators or whether there might be a productive work style issue at hand."
  • "African cultures are often described as 'polychronic', which means basically that people tend to manage more than one thing at a time rather than in a strict sequence. Personal interactions and relationships are also managed in this way (such that it is not uncommon, for instance, to have more than one simultaneous conversation). Perhaps for this reason, an African 'emotional time consciousness' has been suggested in contrast with Western 'mechanical time consciousness' as a way of understanding African time."
  • David Allen on Weird Time "In other words, you can't do things faster until you learn how to slow down. How do you slow down? It's all about the dynamic of detachment. You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you're doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively."


The theory of paragogy was developed in the context of two online courses that we ran at Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) in Autumn of 2010. One of the courses was called "DIY Math", and it was "designed to build independent study and peer-support skills for mathematics learners at all levels." The other course was called "Collaborative Lesson Planning", and it was built around the question "Can publishing and collaboratively building lesson plans online make them better?" The first course was not such a resounding success, but we learned a lot from it anyway, especially in a rich discussion about how it could be improved that took place in the second course. The key outcome was an outline of an analytical framework that applies to peer-to-peer or peer-based teaching-and-learning-between-equals. The difficulties with DIY Math pointed to possible improvements at the organizational level, such as developing a P2PU-wide "social contract", or only running courses when sufficient commitments had been "anted up". The post-mortem analysis of DIY Math suggested that the concept of pedagogy is not sufficient in the peer-based learning context.

He trains like this: contemplating cessation I will breathe in, he trains like this: contemplating cessation I will breathe out.

We can look for places and ways in which paragogy is not just a good idea, but a descriptive theory. The five principles are a nice way to spell something out, but what's more important is to look at what really happens when peers learn together. For example, peers might learn to take over some function that had previously been run by a centralized authority, particularly when this central authority has not been doing a particularly good job. They might learn how to present themselves honestly both in terms of what they're after, and what they have to offer, and in other respects as well. Through interactive hands-on experience, they might decide that certain tasks or responsibilities aren't enjoyable, and that others are. We could be talking about a lot or sometimes just a little experience -- but whether we're talking about a lifetime of negotiations, or a day on the job, peer learning can help individuals build self-understanding, and also help them develop together ways to communicate about the potential exchanges and collaborations they can make together.

But paragogy isn't just a theory of one-to-one exchanges or transactions: it is also a theory of externalities. As people engage in exchange behavior, there are side-effects that run all over the place. The stakeholders to these "downstream effects" may well be "peers", even if they are not party to the original conversation. (E.g. Wikipedia is "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.")

We can look for ways to allow downstream users to communicate with each other and add additional value to the system through these communications. What we might hope to see is an end to dogma, whether that means "the customer is always right" or "the producer is always right", as the system becomes "marketized", bringing in additional conversations and resources.

It would be foolish to think that every object, every transaction, can be fully understood, that all externalities can be internalized. Indeed, the practice of paragogy works at least as much by putting things out there than it does by synthesizing and combining ideas!

Learning to do this in a way that allows us to cultivate "That quality of wisdom that all the wise wish, and call creative qualities, and good creation of the mind" seems a reasonable way to encapsulate our hopes for paragogy. As multiple conversations and viewpoints are brought to bear, knowledge systems improve, not just at the "container" level (i.e. more knowledge), but at the level of their articulation as well.

He trains like this: contemplating letting go I will breathe in, he trains like this: contemplating letting go I will breathe out.

In the end, paragogy could be "just another buzzword", or it could become a real practical philosophy. To "realize the dream and then wake up" suggests that we should discard the impractical aspects of paragogy. As we've stated elsewhere, there are often times when pedagogy or andragogy will work better for a given goal.

And yet, there are times and places where those social technologies do not work so well, and examining them was our goal in this project. People frequently learn as peers.

We shouldn't just ask just conceptual questions like "Who are peers?" or "What is learning?", but practical ones like "Who are the peers now?", "What is adaptive for the current situation?". Quite frequently, something is "learned" by identifying a pattern and learning how recognize other instance that fit the pattern. Once this is done, you can move beyond the (centralized) "training data" -- it's literally like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle.

In the same way, this month of writing in the book is shortly coming to a close. We've had a chance to generate a lot of content, but the practice of working on the book, everything is likely to change. I expect that we will gradually smooth out the text to make it more readable, getting rid of bits that are too obscure or too tedious for whatever reason. This editing process will take some time and trust!

This is similar to the way in which you would find any group of people creating their social environment (see the recent book "Bubbles" by Sloterdjik). It's curious that writing -- putting your ideas out there by doing introspection and figuring out what the ideas actually are -- often comes first. Or at least it seems to.

In fact, we have been through this cycle a few times before -- writing, critiquing, revising. In each iteration we have to be ready to let go of the result and allow other people to decide, "is this any good". Eventually we may have to let go of the paragogy project as a whole -- but we will hopefully see it in other good hands by that time.

Recommended Reading


In the beginning, there was PageRank.

A simplified model of the PageRank value for any page u can be expressed as the sum of PageRank(v)/L(v) over all v in the set of pages linking to page u, where L(v) is the number L(v) of links from page v. The PageRank computations require several passes, called "iterations", through the collection to adjust approximate PageRank values to more closely reflect the theoretical true value. [...] A version of PageRank has recently been proposed as a replacement for the traditional Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) impact factor and implemented at Instead of merely counting total citation to a journal, the "importance" of each citation is determined in a PageRank fashion. A similar new use of PageRank is to rank academic doctoral programs based on their records of placing their graduates in faculty positions. In PageRank terms, academic departments link to each other by hiring their faculty from each other (and from themselves). -- from

These days, there are also things like Facebook "like", for conferring appreciation, and Google+ for conferring appreciation while sharing content with a specific group of people. But these do not have a specific "learning" or "adaptivity" orientation.

In further developing paragogy, we could make use of PageRank-like ideas, for example, by determining when people are writing about similar concepts in a content aggregator (like or what have you), in order to indicate that these people are "peers". The amount of text that someone contributes that is related to a given topic would confer their "ranking" as an expert on that topic. Expertise could be used for prestige or price-signalling -- and even more importantly, we would quickly recognize that not everyone is an expert on everything, so varied degrees of expertise could be used to build teams (labor consumption or co-consumption bundles).

At a prototyping level, this could all also be done in a simpler and more "discretized" way, just by self-identifying interests and skill level. In this way, people can be peers in the sense of having a common interest, or peers in the sense of additionally having a common skill level related to that interest. Co-learning and working groups could be established with peer learners who will have similar questions about their applied projects, and expert guides who would help with these various projects (presumably for a fee, but possibly also as a volunteer). A current "applied" conversation about these ideas is taking place here:

On a deeper level (see recommended reading), these techniques could be used to study and develop adaptive strategies for collaboration and learning. In other words, we can see paragogy as an applied ethnomethodology.

Recommended Reading

  • "If one assumes, as Garfinkel does, that the meaningful, patterned, and orderly character of everyday life is something that people must work to achieve, then one must also assume that they have some methods for doing so". That is, "...members of society must have some shared methods that they use to mutually construct the meaningful orderliness of social situations" (Rawls/Garfinkel: 2002:6).