J.L.Lemke On-line Office

 Index to 'Across the Scales of  Time'


Identities and Trajectories


What’s happening to a student in that classroom?  What kinds of changes are taking place, and on what timescales?

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? 

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 ‘breakthough’ 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 even contribute to identity development? What is the system, or network, within which a notion of ‘identity’ can be defined? It is surely not that of an isolated organism taken at a single moment of time. At the very least, identity must express itself, and that expression in action takes time. An organism as such is not even alive in a single instant of time; its constitutive processes require finite time to occur, and taken as a whole, from its molecular level to its organismic level of integration, it is a multi-timescale dynamical system. From the viewpoint of physics, an organism is alive only across a time interval that necessarily extends somewhat into the future. It can only be observed to be alive across some finite interval of time, and each of its characteristic dynamical properties has some minimum timescale for possible observation. In fact, the self-organization processes which constitute the living organism as being more than the sum of its nonliving parts have a minimum timescale, biologically, of something not much less than a second or two. 

Moreover, beyond that second or two the organism only stays alive by interacting with its environment. It has to release heat constantly and waste chemicals eventually, it has to take in oxygen steadily and nutrients periodically. It would never have come to exist in the first place without having developed in a supportive environment that supplied exactly the conditions that evolution had led its development to depend on. If we think about the organism as such a dynamical system, we need to revise our ideas of it in at least two fundamental ways. First, it is not definable or viable apart from its operating as an element in a larger system, some minimal ecosystem. Secondly, it is not definable at a single instant in time, but only over finite time-intervals, and in fact ultimately only as a trajectory-entity developing and individuating through its interactions with its environment over the whole lifespan course from conception to decay. 

An organism is a biological unit of organization. Its definition says nothing about semiosis, about how it responds to a material environment in ways that depend on its interpretation of things as signs as well as on its direct interactions with their material properties. What is the minimum timescale on which we can observe a dynamical system to be a person? What is the minimum time, and the typical time, for actions that indicate both that sign-interpretation is playing a role, and that the sign-interpretation is recognizably that of a social persona? A system with a self-conscious identity? 

Just as in the case of our revision of the notion of an organism to both situate it always within a larger-scale system and to look at it over all its relevant timescales (i.e. as a developing trajectory through time), we must do the same thing, for the same reasons, in the case of the definition of a person. A human is not a person apart from social interactions within a community, nor on timescales less than those on which a sense of identity or habits of sign-interpretation develop and are used. Meanings are not made by organisms, but by persons, and they are not made within organisms but within an ecosocial system that minimally includes other persons and the things they make meaning about, and that minimally operates over timescales sufficient for a developing person to come to engage in socially meaningful interactions with others and with the nonhuman surround. 

So what then is a self-conscious personal identity? We might say that it is a semiotic articulation of a person’s evaluative stance toward interactions. It is what we are inclined to believe or doubt, desire or dislike, expect or find surprising, etc. (cf. Lemke 1998 for the semantic dimensions of evaluative stances in language), cast in the romantic folk-language of ‘who we are’, what social types or categories we identify with on the basis of shared values. It is a very complex construct, not usually explicitly articulated; in fact it would be reasonable to say that people do not have stable, unitary identities, but rather than we all learn to interpret certain persistent evaluative stances toward action in these terms and articulate the relevant pieces ad hoc from situation to situation, and not necessarily consistently. We can also construct some ad hoc consistency if we have to, but we don’t usually bother. 

Thus ‘personal identity’ may not be as long-term a phenomenon as we imagine. Like most everything else, it too requires integration across timescales: across who we are in this event and that, at this moment or the other, with this person or another, in one role and situation or another. Nevertheless, evaluative stances or dispositions do develop and change on timescales  much longer than that of a classroom lesson. In his extensive research on evaluative dispositions, Bourdieu (1979) finds that they are created by our participation in the typical activities of a local social community over timescales of a decade or two, and change more slowly as we grow older. He finds significant social class differences, tied specifically to education and to economic life-prospects, and comes close to proposing that social class itself be redefined in terms of the differences in ‘habitus’ or dispositions to action produced by different trajectories of socialization. 

Every developing biological system develops partly uniquely (individuation of the trajectory) and partly as a typical member of its kind (type-specific, equifinal trajectory). The latter effect is due not just to common genetic heritage, obviously, but to similar epigenetic circumstances eliciting gene expression. In fact it is easy to imagine the effect of much of that epigenetic information as just an internalization of the landscape we write with our lives. Each of us leaves some imprint on the world, if only in the bodies and memories of those we interact with; and those imprints, as semiotic mediating artifacts, provide informational input to the development of others of our kind. It is the larger-scale social system, obviously, that persists from generation to generation and tends to make one person in a community grow up to act somewhat like others of his or her time and place and class and gender and age. 

The classroom then 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, to home, to shopping mall, to 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. 

The most amazing feature of developmental processes is that each step along a developmental trajectory changes the way the system interacts with its environment at the next step. There are no ‘shortcuts’ in development; you must pass through each step in order to be prepared to take the next one, because at each step you become a dynamically different system. Different dynamical possibilities are open to you. You have also extended your trajectory to a new timescale on which there are emergent phenomena, in you and in your interactions with a larger-scale environment. In biological organisms like ourselves, the developmental pathway is extremely long and complex, and each critical turn could easily go down some other path; the message from our genes is a roadmap for the paths followed by our most successful ancestors. Our ontogeny recapitulates their phylogeny, up to a point. But only up to a point, and less so as developmental pathways come to be guided more by social interaction and culture-specific semiotic information supplied after birth. 

Everyone in that classroom was experiencing a different lesson, was interacting with the teacher and the semiotic artifacts of the room and with each other in ways that depended on their trajectory-up-to-now (and now-in-progress). No matter how much we homogenize classroom groups -- by age, by social class, by gender, by culture, race, or dominant language – for the classroom processes at each timescale there will be considerable 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 long-term 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 long-term and wide-ranging persistence of what happens in the classroom. (For similar arguments about identity issues and the role of real-life apprenticeship in learning, see Lave & Wenger 1991). 

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’. Reflexivity is itself an instance of heterochrony. 

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 when 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. If my identity’s dispositions value aggressiveness, I may seek activities and roles in which aggression is socially acceptable, or I may make use of other activities in ways that support this identity need. It is likely in our society that gender identity needs are very strong in many people, particularly males, and that the conduct of many life-activities, from driving a car to writing a scientific paper, may be entrained in the service of these needs, and so be a very different experience for males and for females, or generally for those constructing different kinds of gender identities with different degrees of intensity. (What I say here of gender identities will also be true in general of age-, class-, and more broadly of all subculture- and culture- specific identity patterns.) 

It is somewhat ironic that classroom education and the formal curricula that are supposed to create more long-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, when 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, 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 late 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’. (How many? How intensely? On how long a timescale? How integrated with the more general identifications like gender?) 

Nor of course does this picture change very much ‘after school’ (in either sense). In our paid employment, as in our family and leisure life, we are often still involved in the long-term project of maintaining and enhancing, and perhaps occasionally revising, who we are. We integrate each event into this longer timescale project in many ways: in our body hexis, in our habitual ways of talking, in our retrospective narratives about ourselves, in written diaries, in titles on bookshelves or inscriptions on trophy walls, in photographs of children and friends, in collections of videotapes and knickknacks. 

But it is not easy to study lives over the timescale of decades and lifetimes.