J.L.Lemke On-line Office


Becoming the Village

 A traditional saying has it that ‘it takes a village to make a child’. Why? In the ecosocial model, the answer is that what normal development is is the process of ‘becoming the village’ (Lemke, in press-b). By this I mean that to live successfully in  a community we have to learn to interact across the inevitable and substantial differences that constitute the diversity of a community. Communities, like other ecosystems, are not defined by what all their participants share in common, but by how their interdepedence on one another articulates across differences of viewpoint, beliefs, values, and practices (cf. Wallace 1970 on ‘ordered heterogeneity’). At every age we normally live in communities of those both younger and older than ourselves to various degrees and those similar and different along all the dimensions that are used to constitutes social castes by age, gender, sexuality, class, occupation, religion, ethnicity, ‘race’ or whatever other culturally arbitrary reductions of the high-dimensional variety of human behaviors prevail in a community. We have to learn how to interact successfully with the whole range of diversity in our village; we have to be able to shift our own patterns of behavior responsively, and so to ‘mirror’ in ourselves (not by replication but by functional responsiveness) this diversity. What is true here person-to-person, is equally true of our interaction with all the nonhuman actants, both for themselves and as mediators of our actions and interactions with other persons. If we could watch any villager, at any age, seeing only their body and actions and hearing only their speech and vocalizations, as they went about a day of living and doing, but blanking out all else, we would still learn a great deal about the whole village: its terrain and its artifacts, its human diversity, activity types, and much else.

 What we call our identities are our modes of response to the diversity of our villages. Identities are fractal, as ecosocial systems themselves are fractal mosaics. On each scale of space and time, of projects activities and interactions, there are more localized and more globally relevant identities, in some loose and constructed coherence. We have a specialized identity for every person we meet, for every activity we engage in, but each of these grows in part out of our prior patterns of interactivity with others, as well as the uniqueness of the moment. There is a continuity of lineage descent (in the sense of inheritance of properties), a historical-biographical continuity of specification and adaptation of past to present, and there is a constructed coherence as we semiotically idealize our behavior and our sense of self. There is also, mediating all of these, the continuity of material objects, of our own body and all that surrounds us, as participants to varying degrees in our activities, by which we link across time from moment to moment and event to event, person to person, activity to activity, on many timescales. From body hexis to every cultural habitus (Bourdieu 1990), our physiologies are also our diaries, along with what is written on paper or cut into cloth or wood. All these mediators not only remind us of our past, but are taken up again and again as partners in activity that better afford some modes of action on our part than others, aiding our continuity by extending the body through tools and material signs.

 We are what we eat, how we dress, where we walk, what we read and write, hear and say, to this other and to that, in this repeated activity type and that.


Identity in education

 Let’s specify again, towards the case of classroom learning as an example of the general process of ecosocially-mediated development. Schooling is supposed to facilitate certain changes in the behavior patterns of students. Both educators and their critics wonder how lasting these changes are; how far do they carry beyond the walls of the school? On what timescales do we imagine that personal identities change significantly? or habits of critical reasoning? ways of reading, coping with quantitative problems, or interpreting the natural world? attitudes toward potential careers or value choices? ways of using a language?

 Do such changes occur in the course of a 40 minute lesson? Even if we imagined that such a change did take place in some ‘breakthrough’ moment, would we still count it as a change of the kind I’ve just described if it disappeared the next day? Or the next week? The formation of identity, or even fundamental change in attitudes or habits of reasoning, cannot take place on short timescales. Even if short-term events contribute toward such changes, it is only the fact that they are not soon erased, do not quickly fade – that subsequent events do not reverse the change – which makes it count. It is the longer-term process, including the effects of subsequent events, which determines for us the reality of basic human social development.

 So how could events on the timescale of a conversation or an experiment or reading a story ever contribute to identity development? The classroom is no different from anywhere else in our world of social artifacts. Its developmental input is there not only on the walls but in the very fact that there are walls; not just in the words in the textbook, but in the existence and use of textbooks. But it is first and foremost in those respects in which the classroom is exactly like the rest of the social world that it contributes to the formation of identities and habits of action that are formed across the longer timescales we also spend in other places. It is not what is unique about classrooms that contributes to our identity development, but what is the same about them compared to many other sites in our culture. Identities develop over long timescales, during which the trajectory of the developing social person takes him and her from classroom to classroom, from school to schoolyard, to street corner, home, shopping mall, Web and TV worlds. The timescale for sampling all these worlds that is relevant to identity development is the long timescale, one that sees the sameness of patterning across all these venues. The little differences between them are blips in this long, slow process. Of course we also learn those differences, and the appropriate roles for classrooms and other places, but our more general dispositions are necessarily a function of their commonalities.

 No matter how much we homogenize classroom groups -- by age, by social class, by gender, culture, ‘race’, or dominant language – for the classroom processes at each timescale there will still be considerable individual differences in affective engagement, in evaluative dispositions, in relevant knowledge and skills, in resources for integrating the events of the moment into patterns that will persist on longer timescales. The very act of homogenizing defeats the goal of longterm results: the world outside the classroom is not homogenous in any of these ways, and every difference between the meaning organization of the classroom and that of the rest of life means that much less longterm and wide-ranging persistence of what happens in the classroom. Nonetheless, some contribution toward identity development is taking place all the time, including during classroom lessons. What’s happening?

 Again it is useful to analyze on multiple timescales. On each timescale each student is participating in some ecosocial processes and taking on relevant roles. Students interact with one another and with the other available semiotic objects in various intersecting activities, and these activities are recognizable and repeatable and usually repeated. In this participation we learn to do differently and to be different. We engage with a person or an artifact in a particular way, typical of that activity, and now the system in which our persona exists and functions changes. Dynamically, we are what we do, and we are now creating ourselves as personae in interaction with new others and artifacts, which means that the current, and perhaps temporary, ‘I’ is the one that exists in the ‘loop’ of efference and afference, of ‘differences that make a difference’ in a kind of complex feedback circuit (in the terms of Bateson’s 1972 cybernetic version). There are longer-term Selves already engaged in on-going longer-term projects and activities, and the shorter-term Selves of current activities, some of which contribute to longer-term projects and some of which may not. As we interact socially at the human event scale, we ‘identify’, if not with the Other as such (cf. Van de Vijver, in press), at least with our agency and participation in each emergent new activity whole, always taking place in a larger-scale system than our former, or more isolated Self. In fact we can even take a reflective perspective in the activity and see our own role in it; that is, we can frame a separated ‘me’ from the viewpoint of this new dynamical ‘I’.

 But all such activities come to an end. What then of the dynamical ‘I’? is there a longer-term residual effect of our participation? Perhaps only a weak one, for now we are asking about quantitative matters of degree. Will we re-engage in the same activity with the same persons or artifacts? How soon? How often? Will we re-constitute some features of the former activity: the same person in a different but similar activity? or the same artifact in a new activity? the same type of activity but with other participants? And in each case how much of an ‘impression’ will be made on the organism and in the larger system that enables the organism to reconstitute its emerging identities by getting these activities going again, or interacting again with the same persons or artifacts, or ones it considers similar for this purpose? How strong will the affective engagement be? How positive will the identification be, evaluatively? And above all, how long will the sequence of activities last across which the same identity features are being reinforced?

 The person we become for a moment with a new stranger for whom we have no strong feelings and whom we never see or remember again may be transient indeed. The person we feel ourselves to be when interacting with someone we feel strongly about, again and again over the course of a lifetime, is an essential part of who we are. The Self I am when I am writing, or teaching, or doing those things that mean something fundamental to me, and that I can do over many years, is basic to my identity. Even the Self I am whenever I read a particular book, hear a particular kind of music, play or sing or dance to that music, if I feel strongly enough about it, can become basic to my identity. When I teach, or write, or have conversations with colleagues, I am often working to recreate activities and senses of Self that are basic to my identity. I am seeking to keep an identity-constituting process going on a longer timescale and across a wider range of settings and participants. To some extent, whatever I am doing, I am also doing ‘identity work’, and what I choose to do more often and with greater affective engagement, may well be what works best for me in confirming aspects of my identity about which I have the strongest concerns (e.g. gender identity, class identity, and other more specific culturally salient aspects of identity).

 It is somewhat ironic that classroom education and formal curricula that are supposed to create longer-term continuity from lesson to lesson and unit to unit (though not, after the earliest years, from hour to hour in the same day or from year to year in the same subject) are narrowly focused on informational content which is more or less unique to school experience, while the major developmental processes of these years appear to be about the formation of identities that fit large-scale social models for gender-, class-, age-, and culture- specific patterns. Students are mainly going about the business of learning to be six-year-olds or twelve-year-olds, masculine or feminine, gay or heterosexual, middle-class or working-class, Jewish or Catholic, Irish American or Jamaican American, or any of the many dozens of sociotypical identities for which there are identity-kits available in a particular community (cf. Gee 1992). Whatever we offer up in the classroom becomes an opportunity to pursue this longer-term agenda of identity-building; our primary affective engagement is with this agenda, with becoming who we want to be, and not with learning this or that bit of curriculum, except insofar as it fits our particular agenda or insofar as ‘being a good student’ or ‘not falling for that bullshit’ fits it. Perhaps later in schooling a few of us are also working to form, within these larger identity projects, specific partial identities as ‘future scientists’ or ‘future teachers’.


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