Learning Communities: Juntos, Woodsheds, Trainwrecks, assemblies, Academies

02 May 2020

12-minute read

Update 5/4/20: NAVEL got in touch to clarify some info on how their ASSEMBLIES are organized and facilitated. The section on NAVEL’s ASSEMBLIES has been updated to reflect this.

Recently as around the world we’ve turned to online community as our primary form of sharing space and connection I’ve been thinking about the various forms of the online communities I’ve been part of. Partly I’ve been doing this to keep track of the online events and hangouts I want to engage in to feel connected to people. But I’m also thinking through which ones are the most meaningful to me, and implications for how I want to spend time with others online.

I’m an educator so it may seem a tautology to say I love learning communities. I’m not talking about MOOCs, online distance learning, webinars and the like. I’m reflecting on non-traditional learning communities, and specifically those outside of the university setting as well. Some of these communities are very loose. Some are tight-knit. I’m an artist and programmer and educator, so the communities I’m part of mostly reflect this. I’ll describe several of the different online alternative learning communities I’ve participated in recently, how they function, and how it feels to particpate.

The Disquiet Junto Community of Practice

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been a loose member of the Disqiet Junto, started by writer and musician Marc Weidenbaum. I almost want to say I’ve been a participant more than a member, but the community is loose in that it’s encouraged to jump in as little or as much as you want. Each week on a Thursday Marc emails out a prompt to about 1100 people to create a short and usually experimental piece of music, based around a title and specific constraints with a number of ordered steps. Participants have 4 days to create and post a track online, and folks also engage in one of several spaces including by listening to tracks posted to Soundcloud and commenting on them there, on the Disquiet’s Slack group, or on the Lines discourse forum. It’s an amorphous shapeshifting group with some regulars and many folks that drift in and out as time and interest allow.

Marc cites Ben Franklin (!) as being part of the inspiration for the group. Franklin founded a number of groups and organizations in his lifetime, including a fire department, a university, and eventually the US Government! Way back in 1727 he founded the Junto as a club for debate on questions of politics, moral topics, and important issues of the day.

The junto (from the spanish word junta, assembly) was intended as a group formed around intellectual inquiry, curiousity, and mutual improvement, of themselves and their community. Members came from various backgrounds, organizing around these shared principles.

Disquiet Junto Woodshed project

About a year ago Marc gave a talk at the inaugural Algorithmic Art Assembly conference. Marc describes the Disquiet Junto as a community based around mutual improvement, communal rules and creation (here specifically music). In the talk Marc speaks about the musician’s woodshed, a metaphorical term to describe the process of practicing your music, refining your own personal improvisational techniques or specific piece of music. This rehearsal place is actually or metaphorically away from the public.

It’s a supportive community that provides creative prompts and structure. Musician and educator Ethan Hein describes the junto as an online community of practice in a forthcoming chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning) (2020). In Marc’s talk he speaks about the Disquiet Junto supporting a community of networked woodsheds, and the structures that support its participants. A major goal was the ability for folks to work alone, at their own time, offline, and then to post their work at the end.

I enjoy this creative making and learning community. It’s something that I enjoy being able to dive into or walk away from depending on how busy my life is. I like that when I want to engage, I can jump into the group and participate in a small way by making a short music track or listening to music or commenting on others’ work. When I want to be highly engaged because I have more time or a creative making prompt is really exciting to me I can jump in much more and participate in the online forums in discussion. It’s a creative group model that should be more widely imitated by creative practitioners.

Glorious Trainwrecks

I’ve written about Glorious Trainwrecks in previous posts. That is a community of practice based around creating games. As opposed to refining one’s craft, it’s more about expression, play, stretching the medium.

Glorious Trainwrecks is organized around online events which are essentially theme/game prompts. Recently I participated in the Fictional Games event, a jam organized around games that do not exist or currently do not exist, inspired by the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and the speculative videogame art practice of Suzanne Treister.

This community exists on a forum on the Glorious Trainwrecks website. Specifically, people post comments on individual games and respond to each other. In the past year approximately they’ve also created a Discord channel altgamez where they discuss these works. It’s a really supportive community, but I haven’t been involved in it as the conversation moves too fast for me. I don’t want to have it open all the time, and when I check in I’ve missed dozens or hundreds of posts by folks, so I’ve felt discouraged from participating further in this, even though I’ve really enjoyed being part of the community previously. I’ve decided I’ll try to continue to participate by creating and posting games in event prompts, and comment on games, but I don’t think I can consistently participate in discord channel. It’s not the right medium for me to feel part of the community since it’s too hectic for me.

Today I attended the online Common Field Convening, a meeting of cultural organizers from across the US to share resources, ideas and methods for artist-centered spaces, projects and practices.

Amanda Vincelli, Michael Holt and Jennifer Moon of Los Angeles’ NAVEL led a session on ASSEMBLIES: A Model For Collaborative Learning based on their experience organizing around a model of convening assemblies (which they call ASSEMBLIES).


The model of hosting ASSEMBLIES at NAVEL has only been in practice for a year, so this is a nascent practice there, and yet the model is based on many previous alternative nontraditional schools. I like their framing of these as learning communities. ASSEMBLIES are groups of people that come together around a topic. They generally meet bi-weekly and have a facilitator or small group of organizers or small group of organizers. Participants pay a small sliding scale fee amount. 90% of participants’ contributions are divided equally amongst the groups and re-distributed as a micro-grant, which they collectively decide how to spend (on field trips, to pay guest speakers, and/or to provide a small stipend for their facilitator(s), etc).

At this point NAVEL has held three sessions of ASSEMBLIES, which meet bi-weekly for 3 months.

Based on their presentation, I’d summarize their process of ASSEMBLIES like this:

  1. Each quarter, individuals/groups propose a topic of interest. Recent topics: Queering Death, Building A Radicalized Deaddrop Network, Workshopping Work Beyond Capitalism, Exploring Sleep and Dreams as Collective Resource.
  2. Those making proposed topics give a short public presentation at a public meeting that all may attend.
  3. From this, a smaller subset of proposed topics is accepted based on votes and folks have a signup period and can then join those particular accepted ASSEMBLIES.
  4. NAVEL hosts facilitators training.
  5. Groups meet bi-weekly for 3 months, either at the space of NAVEL itself or offsite for field trips. Facilitators check-in with NAVEL organizers and get ongoing support. There is a shared calendar for the space and access to resources (camera, kitchen onsite, support group on slack, a training on diversity, equity and inclusion).
  6. At the end of three months each assembly gives a short public presentation on their research and findings. Some groups end, while a small subset may apply to continue their work one more session or morph into some other form that grows out of NAVEL into a new form.
  7. Knowledge is archived on Are.na. Some groups make zines. All presentations at the public event at the end go online on vimeo, linked from the NAVEL site. These were described as quite informal videos. Research/reading lists go online.

NAVEL’s current Practical Guide to ASSEMBLIES is their official online guide to this in a lot more detail. It also includes vision and values, program structure, guide and considerations to facilitating a group, and more. They’ve also created an Are.na channel with other example models of alternative schools and collaborative learning models.

I’m excited about this model for other alternative education learning communities built around spaces. I participated as a guest speaker in the Digital Matterealities assembly to speak about my project Messlife and other examples of web-based creative communities as extensions or new forms of physical artist-organized spaces. The ASSEMBLIES meet online via zoom at this time and also use a slack group. And I think this learning community model can work well now online under Covid-19.

Overall, the ASSEMLIES model at NAVEL is young and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it grows.

After publishing this post, NAVEL got in touch to explain more about the facilitator(s)’s role: The workload is divided in most of the groups and many of the groups rotate who takes care of the next session. The lead facilitator is ultimately responsible to make sure the admin work is done, that the groups keep going (that emails are sent, work is documented, and is the main point of contact with NAVEL). And one of the goals of organizers receiving facilitation training is so they empower others to take the lead throughout.

Babycastles Academy

Babycastles Academy

I’m an organizer at experimental videogame artspace Babycastles in Manhattan. Due to COVID-19 we (just as many other orgs) have moved to online. In this process, we created a Twitch stream and now convene many of our public programs there, including our monthly Wordhack event. In the process of streaming we’ve essentially turned into a distributed broadcast studio. Any given day or night might have a few streams at different times, from streaming games, to screening Iranian feminist films, to hosting performances, reading plays, or leading discussions.

I’ve been organizing our public workshops called Babycastles Academy into weekly Sunday afternoon sessions. These are free, though like all of our twitch programs we encourage donations. Recent sessions have covered an Intro to Making a 2D Flatgame in Unity (taught by me), how to create pixel art, how to do Goalsetting, an upcoming workshop on the open source 3d game engine Godot, and others. This is an evolving form, and I’m excited by the community that’s been nascently forming so far. One challenge is to figure out a good method to be able to have eveyone share what they’re making if they’re following along with the workshop. Our presenters-streamers are using OBS Studio with Twitch, which is good for a 1-to-many broadcast but not great for collaborative discussion and sharing. Probably using OBS in conjunction with another more collaborative tool like Zoom or Jitsi might serve best.

Past broadcasts of Babycastles Academy and other Babycastles programs can be found on the twitch stream clips section here. This section will grow each week after our Sunday at 3pm workshops get archived here. We’ll also be building out a page off our regular website to archive these sessions.

I’m excited about this model of learning and teaching at Babycastles. We have a pretty varied community of people and I think it will provide a space for those new to teaching a platform and support to teach something they’re knowledgeable on and passionate about.

More alternative education models!

I’m really excited about lots of models of alternative education models. I love my experience as a university educator, but I see these kinds of education communities serving a different and complementary need. While my public school is more accessible than most, universities as a whole charge burdensome tuition, not to mention room and board. Universities are also structured in more hierarchial relationships. And they are a much larger and formal commitment. These alternative models I’ve discussed here, and the many others that exist out there to be explored create exciting spaces for mutual learning and support. As we continue as a society and as a planet to respond to Covid-19 now is a good time to take stock of forms of support and learning we can form together, first in online communities and then when possible in physical space again. We can invent new forms, test things and experiment and create the fulfilling communities we wish to exist in the world.

In the past month there’s been a group of folks coming together to organize monthly Processing Community Day Hangouts. These are mega 5 or 6 hour sessions, with different hosts every hour from around the world and various speakers coming together to teach a skill or talk about their work. The next one occurs May 9 and I’ll be working with Aaron Montoya-Moraga to help teach online (details TBD).

I’m looking forward to finding more examples and trying out additional alternative educational models and sharing learning in a group!