Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. Alexandra

Chapter 7 | Coming to Act with Tables:
Tracing the Development of Inscriptional Practice

Inscriptions in the STEM Disciplines

Acting with inscriptions, a term for material documents that "covers everything that is used to refer to some thing or phenomenon in the natural world, including photographs, naturalistic drawings, diagrams, graphs, tables, lists, and equations” (Johri, Roth, & Olds, 2013, p. 8), is central to disciplinary work, perhaps especially in what are known as the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A wealth of situated studies have elaborated on the ways scientists and technologists employ inscriptions to construct and communicate meaning, visualize their work, and make it available for discussion and deliberation in the life and physical sciences (Goodwin, 1994; Latour, 1987, 1999; Latour & Woolgar, 1986; Roth, 2003; Roth & Bowen, 1999), mathematics (Barany & Mackenzie, 2014), and engineering (Haas & Witte, 2001; Vinck, 2003; Winsor, 1990, 1994).

Like other STEM practitioners, generating and using an array of lists, notes, instrument traces, tables, formulas, charts, diagrams, and reports is how engineers “pack the world into words” (Latour, 1999, p. 24). Design work, the core analytic function performed by engineers, is fundamentally about acting with an accumulating combination of inscriptions. A number of studies have documented the role of inscriptions in engineer’s efforts to construct and communicate meaning. Haas and Witte (2001) elaborated on the documents and diagrams at play in the multimodal activity through which engineers engage not only with the material conditions of textual production but also the material contexts to which those texts respond. Winsor (1994) detailed the wealth of notes and lists through which senior-level engineering students generate knowledge and bring it under communal consideration. Poe, Lerner, and Craig (2010) addressed the graphs biomedical engineering students produce from raw data and later incorporate into their reports as they wrestle to create persuasive arguments.

How such inscriptional fluency develops is a central issue that has received little attention (see, however, Johri, Roth, & Olds, 2013; Roth, 2003; Roth & Hsu, 2010). Regarding the representational practices that animate scientific and technical research, Roth and Hsu (2010) asserted that “[k]nowledgeability with respect to inscriptions is indicated by the degree to which individuals participate in purposive, authentic, inscription-related activities” (p. 147). Viewed from the dominant perspective of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization, one in which people’s histories with disciplinary practice are configured solely in terms of their history within a particular disciplinary world, that participation occurs within the assumed borders of the STEM disciplines, a point Winsor (1996) suggested when she wrote that “[l]ike many other practical endeavors, engineering is above all a form of activity, and the students learned it, including the kind of language use it requires, by being immersed in that activity” (p. 100).

Such a narrow conceptualization of disciplinary learning, though, leaves blurry people’s longer histories of practice and identity that flow into and emanate from their engineering activities. Understanding those lengthier histories of development, Prior (1998) argued, demands perspectives that are “longer in term, more diverse in settings, and, not incidentally, less grounded in dominant institutional perspectives” (p. 134). We present here a documented narrative (Becker, 2000; Prior, 1998) that partially traces the sociohistoric and semiotic trajectory of Alexandra’s acting with tables as it is repurposed and remediated across diverse multiple activities and representational media over a span of more than a decade. In assembling and presenting our analyses in this narrative form, our goal is to present the historical pathway of Alexandra’s fluency with tables in a coherent fashion without flattening out the richness, complexity, and dynamics of how it is continually taken up, transformed, re-combined, and re-coordinated across space, time, and media. The documented narrative that follows partially traces the developmental pathway of Alexandra’s acting with tables across an engineering lab activity, playing video games, creating schedules for her daily activities, writing fan novels, and doing a variety of what Alexandra refers to as “thinking-type” puzzles.

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