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

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


What does this cascade of tabling suggest regarding the development of Alexandra’s facility with tables in ways valued by engineers, and how we might understand the development of these inscriptional practices?

Configuring the historical sequence of Alexandra’s “tabling” within the dominant timescale associated with her Introduction to Engineering class illuminates her experiences with tables for that class and for previous encounters with “engineering,” and would thus depict Alexandra’s facility with tables as the result of her engagement with tables as an engineer. Our analysis suggests that the developmental pathway of Alexandra’s facility for acting with tables runs through multiple sites of engagement and highlights the crucial role that repurposings and remediations for use in multiple engagements play in the production of textual practice. Alexandra’s acting with tables is not limited to privileged sites of school and work; rather, it circulates through an extensive history connecting the literate activity of her engineering classes, her gaming, her scheduling, her novel writing, and her puzzle solving, and perhaps others as well. Any analysis of Alexandra’s pathway toward successfully acting with inscriptions in ways valued by engineers, we argue, cannot disregard those engagements as critical links in the developmental chains of repurposing and remediation along which her fluency with tables developed. If, as Roth and Hsu (2010) asserted, “[k]nowledgeability with respect to inscriptions is indicated by the degree to which individuals participate in purposive, authentic, inscription-related activities” (p. 147), then Alexandra is quite knowledgeable indeed.

In elaborating the development of the social practice of handing (i.e., handing money to a store clerk, a surgical tool to a doctor, a crayon to a child), Scollon (2001a) noted that the practice “is the aggregation, over a considerable period of time, of a history of concrete, specific acts of handing” even though “each of these acts is different from each other; each may be carried out with different participants; each may involve different objects; each has its own constraints on the act of handing; and each act may be different from others in the linkages made with other social and discursive practices” (p. 73). Alexandra’s ability to act with tables in ways valued by engineers develops in a similar manner, with learning, gaming, scheduling, novel writing, and puzzle solving serving as critical links in its development. Of course, Alexandra’s trajectory is unique, but it speaks to the far-flung networks (Prior & Shipka, 2003) that actors and artifacts trace across multiple domains and representations and throughout the full range of the literate landscapes they inhabit. Our analysis suggests that, to echo Scollon (2001a), Alexandra’s inscriptional fluency develops bit by bit across a lengthy history of engagements.

Alexandra’s “tabling” for Introduction to Engineering is “structured” by her encounters with tables for her engineering courses, but also by her use of tables for playing Minecraft, creating class schedules, creating fan fiction novels, and doing logic puzzles, and other activities beyond the ones mentioned here. Consider, for example, Alexandra’s mention of her father creating tables and charts in Excel to explain to Alexandra and her siblings how the family budget worked. Each of these uses has “elaborated” Alexandra’s acting with tables, re-tooling it not only for an increasing variety of purposes, but in an increasing range of semiotic media as well, and opening it up for more complex uses: Logic puzzles that are visual and numerical and textual; novels that involve generating pencil and paper charts but also on the computer using programs like Word and/or Excel; engineering projects that involve collecting and working with numerical data in a wide range of media, including pencils, textbooks, Excel, PowerPoint, and so on. These repurposings and their attendant remediations are crucial in the development of the practice. Thus, in acting with tables for Introduction to Engineering, think of Alexandra as tacitly doing the kind of “heterogeneous engineering” that Bazerman (1999) described as “the coordination and application of many kinds of knowledge and practice” (p. 335).

The development of acting with tables certainly does not end with Alexandra’s Introduction to Engineering class. Tabling continues to be elaborated during future encounters. As a civil engineering major, Alexandra acts with increasingly complex tables for the classes she takes, and not just in her engineering classes. And, keep in mind that she continues to act with tables as she plays Minecraft, generates class schedules, writes her novels, and solves logic puzzles. We want to note that the analysis of these data suggests a developmental pathway that is much less linear, much more complex and messy, than the chronology we’ve mapped here. There are linkages and interplays of tabling between many of these engagements. For example, Alexandra creates her own class schedules for her high school and college classes and the class schedules she creates for the teenage characters in one of her novels, schedules generated so that Alexandra would know which classes they would be in during various scenes. Attending to the wealth of interactions among Alexandra’s uses of tabling is important in understanding its development. Noting that because “[a]ny action is situated in a life-long historical sequence of acts,” Scollon (2001a) argued that “at no point could one say that the right bracketing had been done to isolate just those actions in a sequence of actions which would give any one of those actions its meaning” (p. 22).

In the same way that Alexandra’s use of tables for engineering cannot be understood apart from the various other uses it has seen, Alexandra’s identity as an engineer-in-becoming cannot be understood apart from her participation as an engineering student, but also for the variety of other engagements elaborated in this chapter. According to Scollon (2001a), the trajectory through the nexus of practice is not only the site of the production and appropriation of practice, but also for the production of persons as well. In repurposing tools across a range of social practices, persons are producing and reproducing social identities associated with those practices. Like cultural tools, then, selves are an aggregation of an array of one’s experiences across multiple and diverse practices. Drawing upon Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of “habitus,” Scollon (2001a) saw this matrix of practices as “the basis of the identities we produce and claim through our social actions” (p. 7). Scollon’s notions of the production of self across contexts echoes other theoretical work that attends to trajectories of identification and participation across activities (Beach, 2003; Bourdieu, 1977; Holland et al., 1998; Van Maanen, 1984; Wenger, 1998; Wortham, 2006). According to Holland, Lachiotte, Skinner, and Cain (1998), these often creatively improvised re-deployments of previous experiences from other domains into present situations—a process they referred to as “heuristic development” (p. 40)—are a key means by which persons achieve coherence across tasks and author themselves as new kinds of persons.

In this sense, the narrative we offer in this chapter elaborates not only the ways that complex chains of semiotics arise across engagements—engineering, gaming, scheduling, novel writing, and puzzle solving—but also how those chains are implicated in the sociogenetic formation of Alexandra herself. In acting with tables for her engineering class, then, Alexandra recontextualizes not just a set of inscriptional practices but also her history of engagement with those activities as well. Rather than disappearing, Alexandra’s identity as a fan-novel writer is quite relevant as she participates in her engineering class. Likewise, in remediating those practices she had previously employed for scheduling her life’s activities and solving puzzles, Alexandra extends her trajectories of identification (Wortham, 2006) with those engagements into her activities as an engineer, thus drawing together all of these forms of participation, and perhaps others as well, into one nexus. To echo Prior (2003), then, there is no place in where Alexandra is only an engineering student, a gamer, a writer, and a puzzle solver.

From this perspective, it is interesting to consider how Alexandra’s repeated repurposing of her experiences with tables allowed her to author herself as an engineer. Consider, for example, Alexandra’s reputation as the team’s “Excel chart person.” Given that the working group to which Alexandra was assigned for this project consisted of herself and three males, it is worth noting that Alexandra’s extensive history of acting with tables, which includes her use of them for crafting her fan novels, a feminized activity, mediates her engagement with the masculinized world of civil engineering.

Or, consider Alexandra’s application materials for a competitive summer research program at a different university. As part of their packet, applicants were asked to submit a single PowerPoint slide describing themselves to the selection committee. In addition to listing her work for the Office of Sustainability and her role as treasurer for her university’s chapter of Engineers without Borders, Alexandra listed that she enjoyed Minecraft and that she “writes creative fiction,” the very activities in which she acts with tables. She made a similar move on the resume she submitted, listing “creative writing: Historical, modern, and fantasy fiction” among her activities. Clearly, Alexandra saw these engagements as being a prominent part of her identity as an engineer, both in the immediate and long-term future. In addition to highlighting the role that such repurposings of practice can have on the construction of self, these instances make visible how persons’ participation with seemingly discrete, autonomous literate activities shape the pace and path of a literate life that crosses the boundaries of everyday, disciplinary, and professional worlds.

The narrative we present in this chapter points to the wealth of artifacts and their representations at play as Alexandra engages with engineering, carried there along this very partial tracing of their journey, and thus underscores how prominently tabling for gaming, scheduling, novel writing, and puzzle solving figure into Alexandra’s engagement with engineering. This narrative also illuminates the ways the re-use of practice across domains involves re-working tools across representational states, as well as the ways that multiple representations are simultaneously deployed and then continually re-coordinated as they are taken up for other activities. In addition to the profound multimodality of such trajectories, this narrative also foregrounds the complex combinations of occluded genres (Swales, 1996) and those meant for more public consumption that make up such chains.

In addition, this narrative points to how thoroughly disciplinary and vernacular activities can interpenetrate one another. Alexandra’s actings with tables do not lead fleeting half-lives on the peripheries of her various engagements; instead, they come to occupy prominent and sustained roles in these activities. Acting with tables figured prominently in her engagement with “thinking-type” puzzles, and remained so for more than a decade. Likewise, the use of tables and charts was a central feature of her fan activities, from acting out Star Trek episodes with her younger sister to writing the novels she is currently working on. The disciplinary and everyday, then, are not just linked at their borders, but are shot through with one another. To echo Prior (2003) yet again, there is no literate activity that is only engineering, gaming, scheduling, fan novel-ing, or puzzle solving; no inscriptions only for solving engineering problems, playing a video game, scheduling a life, inventing a fan novel, or solving puzzles.

Our analysis focuses intently on Alexandra’s coming to act with tables throughout her life span, but we need also to emphasize that its development in Alexandra’s history is intimately connected to its sociogenesis, its propagation through society. Such a move is in keeping with Scollon’s (2001a) observation that the cultural resources persons act with are always linked to two histories, “a history in the world [and] a history for each person who has appropriated it” (p. 120). It is important to note that it is not Alexandra’s reuse of tabling that forged these linkages. Rather, Alexandra is inventively taking advantage of what Prior and Shipka (2003) described as “co-genetic” linkages created as the collective propagates tabling throughout a society’s multiple activities. Tables are a central part of the Minecraft game, for example, whether Alexandra ever existed or not. Alexandra’s use of tables in inventing and arranging her novels might be more her extension, but graphic representation to guide composing practices is certainly widespread. This is an important point because it emphasizes that the ontogenetic trajectory of tabling throughout Alexandra’s life span both emerges from and contributes to the sociogenesis of tabling.

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