RE: [xmca] Kevin's paper for discussion

From: O'Connor, Kevin (
Date: Sat Jul 01 2006 - 07:43:40 PDT

Hi Mike,
I appreciate your comments. Interestingly, I agree with all of your points, and I could add to your example with further examples of failures and inabilities, both academic and nonacademic, despite effort and support. I don't question at all that, for certain purposes, we can usefully talk about individual abilities, about habitus, about biological differences, etc., and about how these relate to instances or patterns of failure or inability.

Those weren't the purposes for which I was bringing up the issue of failure in my paper, though. What I was trying to foreground is this: Failure, incompetence, inability, etc., happen all the time. There are differences, though, in how consequences of these get organized in different systems of social relations. Some systems are benign, and even if certain displayed inabilities might preclude particular life courses, they don't get used to close off the possibility or likelihood of a desirable and valued future in general. Other systems are not benign, and displayed incompetence, inability, or failure do get used to greatly reduce the likelihood of a valued future. I think it's very important to pay attention to how systems of social relations organize these consequences - whatever the biology, or habitus, or motivation, etc., of the person who displays inability or experiences failure – because analyses that account for outcomes and consequences in benign systems can't necessarily be used as models for understanding outcomes in a system that is not benign.

In my paper, I argued that this is exactly how L&W's work has been used by a great deal of the work that's been inspired by it. L&W’s communities were benign: they were organized so as to produce valued futures for everyone. This doesn’t mean that there was no failure, no displayed inabilities. It's not hard to imagine that apprentice tailors messed up some clothes, that AA newcomers fell off the wagon, etc. But in L&W's account, virtually all went on to occupy valued positions within their respective CoP's despite this. I don’t think analyses of learning in benign contexts can be used uncritically as a model for understanding learning in systems that aren’t benign, though, or in which the benign-ness hasn’t been established (which has very little to do with the benign intentions of those who work within these systems). This leaves out too much, including the possibility that successful futures are distributed inequitably, and that some people’s success depends upon the failure or relative lack of success of others.

There's a passage from L&W (quoted in my paper) that I've always found provocative and sometimes puzzling: "learning only partly - and often incidentally - implies becoming able to be involved in new activities, to perform new tasks and functions, to master new understandings." It’s puzzling because the claim doesn’t entirely fit with the cases they present: I would imagine that a tailor who continually ruins trousers, or can’t sew, or an AA member who fails to recognize his powerlessness with respect to alcohol, is not going to move very far towards full participation. New activities, new tasks, new understandings seem not to be incidental to participation in these CoP’s.

I’ve come to make sense of the “incidental” claim by taking a broader view: that is, given the right circumstances, any particular abilities and understandings might be incidental; what's important is how people become positioned in valued futures, regardless of what abilities and understandings they develop. That is, if particular abilities or understandings are hard to come by, others are cultivated, recognized, drawn out, so that failures or inabilities don't become consequential. In this way of looking at it – which admittedly might be an idiosyncratic interpretation- it seems possible that L&W's focus on trajectories within communities with well-established forms of mastery might have actually clouded a more important point, which is that the newcomers in the cases they looked at were part of a system that allowed for universal access to successful futures. It seems to me that L&W were more interested in understanding learning in terms of access to valued futures than they were in understanding learning in terms of knowledge, no matter how situated and distributed. (The implications of this are very much on my mind right now, and working this out further is my work for the summer.)

In this sense, the ways in which situated learning theory has been developed by some seems at the very least incomplete to me. I think it’s necessary first to demonstrate the benign-ness of a CoP before moving on to demonstrate the effectiveness of particular designed contexts. If benign-ness is not evident, then “success” can’t be our only focus. We also have to look at what Varenne and McDermott call “successful failure.” In this sense, I completely agree with Andy’s point, and would add that my quick move to study the details of situated interaction was intended to provide a warrant to move toward this more complex and symmetrical form of analysis.

I appreciate all of the comments on my paper, and I'll post further on other comments soon - but first, I have a day of travel ahead of me.


-----Original Message-----
From: on behalf of Mike Cole
Sent: Wed 6/28/2006 12:24 AM
To: Steve Gabosch
Cc: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Kevin's paper for discussion
Hi Steve-- It appears that others have not caught up with Kevin's
interesting article which
addresses a ton of issues of relevance to xmca members who come to chat
ideas from
many different perspectives.

I have been waiting to see the video that accompanies Kevin's chapter but we
have had trouble
opening the files and are working on the issue. Meantime, of course, this
gives people an opp
to catch up on the reading.

I'll hope that Kevin will expand on the distinction between presupposing and
entailing indexicality rather
than seek to provide my own interpretation which has a great chance of being

Instead, I thought it might be useful to take up the issue of symmetrical
and assymetrical approaches to context/activity and the
uses of the terms context and activity, which I trip over all the time and
did at various points in Kevin's article.

There is this thing about failure to learn that often worries me. I totally
agree that learning is an inevitable consequence of all
experiences in the world.... in school, in church, in a high chair, on one's
death bed, or next to one's parent's death bed, or,........
But sticking to school for a moment, its difficult for me to put aside my
own experiences, both in my own schooling and in
raising my kids (and being raised/lowered by them!). Geometry gave me a lot
of trouble. And probability theory was not a whole
lot easier for me. I worked at both, and I was, I think, not a successful
learner of the subject matter. I did learn how to get to right
answers in ways that would not genralize-- "rote memory." I do not think I
walked into these subjects with an identity of a bad learner.
I ended up with a degree in mathematical psychology and at one early point
in my grad career I actually figured our something having to
do with all or nothing learning and a simple math model that no one else in
class figured out. But I was/am lousy at math.

My 5th grade grand daughter sends me math problems that are posed as thought
problems in her class and they are tough! So I get
help from my neighbors (a chem phd and an md) and they are too tough for
them. But their 11th grader helps and we work through them
and we all communicate our understandings, and I get enough of an
understanding to try to create an explanation that might actually
be helpful to my grand daughter. And mostly, I do it in a spirit of inquiry
and fun. (Here is where the identity part comes in perhaps). I
do not her to think that math is dumb or boring but rather challenging and
interesting. Personally, if someone had explained to me why
triangles were interesting to Pythagorus, I would have found geometry a lot
more interesting. I am mr triangle locally after all.

So I worry when we dismiss something like "abilities" or "proclivities to
find certain phenomena easy to grok." (Grok is a word for the
over 40 on the list I guess, call it an identity marker). My son at the age
of about 7 found it easy to solve simple algebra word problems
that I did not find easy, nor did his sister. He got behind in college math
so far he was going to flunk until we explained to him that if he
managed to flunk out of colleged, we would wait until he figured out what he
wanted to do with his life before putting more money into
his education. At which point he sat down, solved every problem at the end
of every chapter in the book, and got the highest grade in
his class. I could not have done that on pain of a slow, painful death. But
subsequently he struggled over other problems which his
sister and I could find ways to think about productively when he could not.

All of which makes me nervous about some of the early parts of Kevin's
discussion, while not in any way questioning the usefulness of
his analysis of the students from the two institutions, the complexities of
defining THE goals in activity that apprentices presumably willingly
follow, etc. Its just to say that there was a time in my life when I
desperately wanted and work hard for an identity as a competent
probability theorist of low order and could not do it.

Where do such differences in ability to do what one is trying hard to do,
with full support, come into the analyses of communties of practice?

On 10/25/06, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:
> This tension between the Consortium group and the Institute school
> students - the struggle over who should reveal what information to
> who in the process of building the race cars - seems to touch on
> quite a hornet's nest of conflicts of interest, squabbling over
> access to resources, class differences between the students, etc. I
> liked the use of the techniques of linguistic anthropology to analyze
> the conversations and try to drive some of these tensions out. I
> have a question. I did not fully grasp how Kevin used the
> distinction between "presupposing indexicality" and "entailing
> indexicality" in his analysis of the micro truck project.
> - Steve
> At 01:16 PM 6/22/2006 -0700, Mike wrote:
> >Hello All--
> >
> >Kevin's O'conner's paper , *Communicative Practice, Cultural Production,
> and
> >Situated Learning, is
> >now<>
> >on the xmca web page at,
> >
> >We have not been successful in getting the video up, but are working on
> it.
> >Meantime, some new bedtime reading
> >for discussion.
> >mike
> >*
> >_______________________________________________
> >xmca mailing list
> >
> >
xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Sep 05 2006 - 08:13:16 PDT