MCA Abstracts -Vol. 13 (4)

Toolforthoughts: Reexamining thinking in the digital age

David Williamson Shaffer and Katherine A. Clinton
University of Wisconsin-Madison

In this paper we argue that new computational tools problematize the concept of thought within current sociocultural theories of technology and cognition by challenging the traditional position of privilege that humans occupy in sociocultural analyses. We draw on work by Shaffer and Kaput (1999) and Latour (1996a; 1996b; 1996c) to extend the analytical reach of activity theory (Engeström, Miettinen, & Punamaki, 1999; Nardi, 1996b), mediated action (Wertsch, 1998) and distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995; Pea, 1993; Salomon, 1993) by adopting a stronger form of the concepts of distribution and mediation in the context of cognitive activity. For rhetorical purposes, we posit this stronger form of the distribution of intelligence across persons and objects as a theory of distributed mind. Previous theories of cognition and technology show that persons and artifacts both contribute to meaningful activity. Here we explore how understanding the pedagogical implications of new media may require creating a new analytic category of toolforthoughts. The result of such a shift in thinking provides a view of the relationship between technology and cognitive activity appropriate to the emerging virtual culture of the digital age. We suggest that this may provide a useful perspective from which to analyze pedagogical choices in the context of rapid expansion of powerful cognitive technologies. Theorizing the cognitive agency of tools provides a means to evaluate (in the fullest sense of the word) the educational consequences of new technologies.

Transcripts, Like Shadows on a Wall

Alessandro Duranti
University of California, at Los Angeles

Over the last fifty years the process of producing transcripts of all kinds of interactions has become an important practice for researchers in a wide range of disciplines. Only rarely, however, has transcription been analyzed as a cultural practice. It is here argued that it is precisely the lack of understanding of what is involved in transcribing that has produced a number of epistemological problems, including the tendency to become either virtual-realists or hyper-contextualists. By proposing a new interpretation of Plato’s famous story of the prisoners in the cave who could only see the shadows of what was happening outside, the article examines the advantages of the selective nature of transcription, unveils some of the cognitive and affective implications of engaging in transcription, and proposes a complementary approach to transcription, in which transcripts are evaluated with respect to what they can (or cannot) reveal within a particular domain of inquiry.

Linguistic Research Meets Cultural Historical Theory

Katherine Brown
California State University at San Marcos

Jule Gómez de García
California State University at San Marcos

In this paper, we apply tools from cultural historical theory to an analysis of a series of meetings between a group of linguists and one of Mayan women. The paper describes a journey from the two groups’ initial acquaintance to the formation of a shared object—a literacy project – thereby providing an analysis of six visits to Nebaj, Guatemala, between 2002 and 2004. Fieldnotes and video data reveal that the joint work of a single member, or liaison, from each group modeled a form of interaction that supported an expansive transformation. We introduce the notion of “boundary agents” into activity theoretical discussions of subjectivity to explain how, through the liaisons, two groups became one community of practice focused on using linguistic fieldwork to amplify, rather than compete with, the demands of cultural survival.