Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Charles Scott, Jr

Home | Foreword by Paul Prior

We need to follow the developmental pathways of literate and disciplinary practices wherever they lead.

Roozen and Erickson argue that, to trace the changing ways people come to participate in literate and disciplinary practices, we need to follow the developmental trajectories of persons and practices across time, space, materiality, and the imagined boundaries of social maps of situation and identity.

The alternative to such tracing remains, however, the dominant approach in research and theory on academic writing. Grounded in the quasi-technical trope of discourse communities (see Prior, 1998, 2015a) and the dominant tale of learning (Prior, 2016) as a step-by-step graded development of competence in a genre, in a discipline or in a profession, literacy theory and pedagogy continue to imagine writing and knowledge as developmental pathways of growing competence in some practice.

Emblematic of that dominant theory is Dias, Freedman, Medway, and Paré’s (1999) book Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Reporting a multi-site ethnographic study of transitions from school to work, Dias et al. conclude that professional schooling and corresponding workplaces actually are “worlds apart,” that the writing and knowing required of a student in, for example, a senior architecture design course and the writing and knowing used in an architectural workplace perhaps just weeks later are so fundamentally different that little from school could transfer.

It is this worlds apart/discourse community ideology that has animated arguments in writing studies and education about the extreme challenge of getting learning to “transfer” to new settings (see, for example, discussions in Yancey, Robertson, & Taczak, 2014).

Roozen and Erickson’s theoretically framed and empirically documented narratives of Charles, Kate, Lindsey, Terri, and Alexandra offer a very different picture of literate and disciplinary development. They offer tales of becoming, tracing how dynamic and heterogeneous social- practices-that-are-becoming are dialogically taken up by very dynamic and heterogeneous persons-who-are-becoming.

Each of these case studies suggests “transfer” is what we should expect, not something difficult, not something in need of careful pedagogical structuring, but rather something essentially unavoidable for the person and for the practice because no person, no practice, no discipline, no situation exists as a pure neo-Platonic ideal, as an ahistorical fragment. Both persons and practices come from heterogeneous histories, interact in heterogeneous presents, and head off into heterogeneous futures. Really this is just Dialogics 101 (see Bakhtin, 1986; Voloshinov, 1973), but the past 40 years have shown how hard it is for people to see language, semiotics, practice, and identity as dialogic happenings rather than neo-Platonic unities.

Reflecting on the underlying models of “transfer” discourse in composition studies, Donahue (2012) suggests:

Seeing each written text as what Beach calls transformative re-use rather than application of existing to new is powerful, but has not been the subject of extended analysis in composition. In this understanding, the application changes the use; François calls this reprise-modification, literally, re-taking-up-modifying, which is the irrevocable nature of all language production, whether spoken or written. In this sense, and Bakhtin’s way of thinking about utterances and genres is equally useful here, “transfer” is the very nature of language acquisition…. (p. 162)

The transfer question that erupted in Writing Studies over the past 15 years has basically been a long and somewhat tortured attempt to work out how to connect the dots of worlds apart.

Roozen and Erickson’s cases suggest to me that the transfer question as it has been posed can only be a category-mistake (Ryle, 1949) because people’s worlds are always and everywhere concretely, historically, and densely entangled. Of course, these connections don’t mean that everything is easy. Charles’s deep engagement in journalism (first through a high school community paper and then through the university student newspaper), his wide knowledge of sports, and his seasoned awareness of racial politics would seem, in a tale of learning world, to be a natural scaffold for a journalism class but a very uncertain stretch for a kinesiology course. However, Charles does not experience success with the write-1000-words-about-a-tree-in-Standard-Written-English kind of tasks he encounters in his journalism course (and is denied admission to the journalism major), but does quite well in his kinesiology class. Likewise, Kate’s fan fiction writing conflicts with the expectations of the professor in her first MFA course on fiction writing, who flatly tells her to drop. And Alexandra (Roozen, personal communication) ran into trouble (in a later engineering class not reported here) because, of all things, she didn’t use the tables in a course textbook, trying to calculate values from the information given in the homework problems. Each of the case studies displays people connecting up the dots and engaging in practices that cross the imagined boundaries of sociocultural maps, but the consequences of activity, the complexity of others’ responses and values, the situated working out of power and prejudice, the multiple options afforded by distributed cognition, simply do not make life trajectories simple and clean narratives.

Instead of asking how things transfer from composition classroom to disciplinary classroom or from school to work, the questions Roozen and Erickson pursue are the ones Jay Lemke (2000) asked as he opened his classical article on timescales and activity:

How do moments add up to lives?
How do our shared moments together add up to social life as such? (p. 173).

To pursue these questions, they turn particularly to Ron Scollon’s (2001) mediated discourse analysis, to his close tracing of the ontogenesis of practices across settings and to his dynamic notion of the nexus of practice. Scollon (2001) argues “that we can learn much from studying the very specific and concrete set of actions which form the linked chain from earlier to later in the habitus of social actors” (p. 110). It is this task— studying how specific and concrete actions form linked chains—that the case studies in this book take up. The payoff is significant.

Roozen and Erickson consider, for example, what a worlds apart approach to research would have made of the literate practices of Lindsey and Terri:

Had we neglected to trace Lindsey's history through her encounters with graphic design and literature, we would have been tempted to conclude that her sense of herself as a creative writer was forged solely in the instruction and interactions with texts and persons she encountered in the graduate creative writing course. Had we not mapped Terri's histories of participation with the wealth of literate activities that texture her lifeworld, we would have concluded that her identity as a nurse was simply the product of her nursing classes and her long employment as a health care professional.


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