Reflections on Structurelessness

tangle toy

This post is inspired by an article called The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. Thanks to Gardner Campbell for sharing it while collaboratively annotating an article for the #OpenLearning17 MOOC. Freeman’s article, originally written about the women’s liberation movement, can be repurposed with a focus on academia: on our classrooms, our institutions, our conferences and gatherings.

Structurelessness does not prevent the formation of (informal) structures

Jo Freeman writes:

“to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.”

This means that when we as instructors step back in our class and say we will let students take over the classroom, we have to remember that we have not actually removed authority from the classroom, we have not created a structureless classroom – we have, instead, created space for new, informal, structures to form, based on student personalities and other attributes, which means that some students will emerge as dominant and authoritative, because of their race, gender, sexuality, personality, or other reasons. The same occurs in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs).

My conclusion: when we do not explicitly aim for equitable structures, we allow hegemonic informal structures to emerge.

This also means that in events such as conferences, creating space for less formal interaction via unconferences does not completely remove structure – it allows for a different structure to emerge, perhaps one where a different group of people feel empowered, but still not one where everyone has equal opportunity to contribute. I am a fan of the unconference idea – but I also recognize that only particular people have the confidence to step up and suggest sessions, and persuade others that this is what we wish to talk about today. It’s a more flexible, agile structure than the regular conference proposal with peer review system, but it is not structureless.

The Need to Make Rules Explicit

Jo Freeman reminds us that not having stated rules does not mean there are no rules:

“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules”

I remember facilitating web-based cross-cultural dialogue in a very informal structure, and students (primarily from Arab countries) who were unfamiliar with dialogue as a pedagogy felt the need to raise their hands for permission each time before they spoke. They were also unfamiliar with the unspoken preference for politically correct language, something they had not grown up learning, and so some of their contributions were unintentionally offensive to others.

I also notice in some institutional committee meetings that there are often some unspoken rules about when it is acceptable to offer criticism, and when doing so would get me into trouble, and no one has ever shown me how to tell the difference. These “rules” are hidden.

Hidden rules limit power to a select few:

“For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit.”

This made me think particularly of our Virtually Connecting movement, where we have been trying to make explicit our processes so that new members can participate fully, and realizing that because much of what we do is not explicit, it presents a barrier to new people participating unless one of those “in the know” spends time orienting them (which does not happen all the time in any formal way, even though we try). So we have been working towards formalizing our processes and making them available to all group members when they join.

What are your views on structurelessness in academia? Tell us in the comments

“Tangle Toy” flickr photo by wwarby shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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