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Rhizomatic Learning: Applying the Pedagogical Concept to the Study of Leadership in Higher Education

I have officially begun my time as an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. I have long-anticipated the day when I might work as a faculty member; I feel honored and blessed to be engaging in work I love: researching, writing, service, and lifelong learning alongside the students and faculty with whom I have the pleasure of working.

As I completed my syllabi this week, I felt the humbling nature of ‘teaching.’  The three courses I am responsible for this fall – Diverse College StudentsResearch in Higher Education, and Leadership in Higher Education all have very different aims, objectives, and feeling to their structure.

rhizomatic-learning-cloudRhizomatic Learning

I want to focus in particular on Leadership in Higher Education – a course where I will be experimenting with a pedagogical strategy now being referred to as rhizomatic learning (Cormier, 2012; Major, 2015; Sharples, 2012).

The concept of rhizomes runs heavily in Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) book A Thousand Plateaus, which I have been reading for the past several months.  Rhizomatic root structures have no beginning or end; as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) state “there are no points or positions in a rhizome. . .there are only lines” (p. 8). All is intra-acting (Barad, 2008), intra-connected: “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (p. 7).

Like Cormier (2012) and others, I believe that thinking rhizomorphously as a pedagogical strategy leads to innovative ways of thinking about concepts such as ‘teaching,’ ‘learning,’ and ‘epistemology’ (what counts as knowledge in a course), and importantly ‘ontology’ – how are learning environments entangled with all else in the world – including our own becomings?

Sharple (2012) makes several important points regarding his framing rhizomatic learning, noting

supporting rhizomatic learning requires the creation of a context within which the curriculum and subject knowledge are constructed from contributions by members of the learning community, and which can be reshaped and reconstructed in a dynamic manner in response to changing environmental conditions. (p. 33)

He goes on to note that rhizomatic learning “promotes peer support, learner responsibility, and an appreciation for the power of the network” (p. 34).

Application of Rhizomatic Approach to the Study of Leadership in Higher Education

I have utilized the concept of rhizomatic learning to create a very different learning experience for this fall’s Leadership in Higher Education course.  My attempt at enacting a rhizomatic pedagogy is enhanced since this course is offered in a fully online environment.  Here are some ways I’m attempting to challenge the traditional pedagogical approach to the study of leadership in higher education.

Course Modules

There are 11 course modules organized around a broad array of topics: Paradigms of Leadership; Political Leadership & Power; College Student Leadership; Global Perspectives on Leadership; Digital Leadership; Social Justice Leadership; Organizational Change; Chaos & Complexity Theories; Gender & Leadership; Ethics; and Researching Leadership.

I recognize there are some difficulties in ‘labeling’ and putting ‘boundaries’ around broad topics. I’m attempting this term to begin the engagement with rhizomatic learning in this way, though I could certainly have organized the course around different topics.

Rhizomatic: Students can complete the modules in any order they wish.  This becomes important in relation to the second innovative pedagogical strategy.

Module Contents

Each module contains a series of journal articles or book chapters, as well as a series of videos and podcasts that broadly relate to the theme of the module. Not all of these readings are focused specifically on higher education, but may come from a broad array of disciplines.  This helps our learning community recognize leadership from an interdisciplinary set of perspectives.

Students choose 1 article or book chapter [reading], as well as 1 video or podcast [digital] to engage, in addition to any required reading coming from our three course books (Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education; Rethinking Student Affairs Practice; and Digital Leader).

Rhizomatic: What makes the module contents rhizomatic is that as students complete a module, they will also be asked to contribute a resource to a module Wiki.  This could be anything they believe pertains to the topic: an article, book chapter, news story, podcast, video, music, piece of art. The idea is to demonstrate that we can view leadership through a variety of mediums.

rhizomeRhizomatic: Students have the option of choosing a posted Wiki resource as their required reading and digital engagement. Since everyone completes the modules in a different order, it is possible that students will engage their classmates’ ideas and additions over those selected by me.

Rhizomatic: The course will continue to grow; resources from one semester will be utilized in subsequent semesters, and thus learning leadership will become an intra-connected activity across cohorts and time.

Course Assignments

Students will complete 1 assignment for each module. There are 7 different assignment types, and while they must complete at least one of each type, they also have flexibility to create their own way of engaging the material at certain points in the semester.

Over the term the students will complete: written reflections; PechaKucha talk; infographic; video responses; podcast; slideshare presentation; digital storytelling; and a quote-a-graph assignment.

Rhizomatic: Each student will engage the material differently; not only does this make it more meaningful to them, but allows us to recognize that we could engage any ‘topic’ or module in a variety of ways.

Digital Leadership

Finally, our learning community will have an opportunity to engage directly with Erik Qualman, author of the book Digital Leader.  This provides an opportunity to think about how we become digital leaders not only in our professional life, but also how we are engaging the online learning space to become digital leaders-knowledge creators. In many ways, the course is an experiment in digital leadership simply by being offered online.


If you are an educator who may be interested in seeing some of the module content that I selected initially, as well as more detailed descriptions of some of the assignments, please feel free to e-mail me at pweaton@gmail.com – I’ll gladly send you along a copy of the syllabus.

Conclusion: Think Rhizomorphously

There is no ‘right’ way to create a rhizomorphous course. This brief introduction is my first attempt at breaking down traditional pathways of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning.’  However, thinking rhizomorphously has provided space to imagine new ways of engaging students not only in their own learning, but in the process of contributing to a learning community in unique ways and recognizing the intra-connected nature of ‘topics’ we often tend to bound rigidly in the classroom.

In what ways are you thinking rhizomorphously? I’d love your insights!


Cormier, D. (2012, April 8). A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://davecormier.com/edblog/2012/04/08/a-review-of-rhizomatic-learning/

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kezar, A. J., Carducci, R., & Contreras-McGavin, M. (2006). Rethinking the “L” word in higher education: The revolution of research on leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley Periodicals.

Love, P. G. & Estanek, S. M. (2004). Rethinking student affairs practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Major, C. H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Qualman, E. (2014). Digital leader: 5 simple keys to success and influence. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Sharple, M. (2012). Rhizomatic learning. In M. Sharple, P. McAndrew, M. Weller, R. Ferguson, E. Fitzgerald, T. Hirst, Y. Mor, M. Gaved, & D. Whitlock, Innovating pedagogy 2012: Open university innovation report 1 (pp. 33-34). Milton Keynes, UK: Open University.


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