K.25: Mapping Trajectories of Persons and Practices: A CHAT Approach to Researching Disciplinary and Professional Development

Reviewed by Lillian Campbell, University of Washington, Seattle, WA (lcampb@uw.edu)

Chair: Kevin Roozen, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL
Speakers: Paul Prior, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, “Becoming a Biologist: Tracing Trajectories of Writing and Disciplinarity across the Lifespan”
Kevin Roozen, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, “Coming to See Patients: Relocating the Development of Professional Vision across Textual Engagements”

Note: Rebecca Woodard, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL, was scheduled to present “Mapping Disciplinary Activity: Methods for Tracing Material and Historical Trajectories” but was unable to attend.

Writing scholars have recently been turning to Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) to consider professional enculturation as a process of learning, not just to produce a community’s texts, but also to take up their values, systems of power, and world views. This panel, while embracing the complexity offered by the CHAT framework, challenged the theory’s restricted view of discourse communities and its limited temporal focus. Drawing on truly longitudinal ethnographic research involving decades of data, the panelists offered examples of the rich histories of learning we might access by expanding the spaces and time spans of our research. Their accounts were both poignant and persuasive, fueling audience discussion about the implications of this call for how we think about pedagogy in our classrooms and research trajectories in our field.

Paul Prior began his presentation by taking to task scholars of professional writing who suggest that classroom learning is entirely separate from professional enculturation. He discussed specifically Lave and Wenger’s (1991) claim that a high school physics class has nothing to do with professional work in the field of physics and Dias et al.’s (1999) titular assertion that the classroom and the profession are “worlds apart.” Arguing that the view of location as everything is “fundamentally wrong,” Prior called on the audience to think about where and when we write. He set out to demonstrate that writers recruit past experiences from places and times that we can never truly anticipate, drawing on his daughter Norah’s experiences as a budding biologist as his key example.

Prior traced the beginning of Norah’s enculturation into the field of biology to her early experience at age five, crying during a documentary about cheetahs. In elementary school, her burgeoning understanding of what it would mean to participate in the field of biology grew through her personal narratives about wanting to move to Africa to take care of animals, as well as her nonfiction accounts of diverse creatures like the jaguarondi and climates such as the African desert. Prior ended with an analysis of Norah’s recent peer-reviewed publication on the zebra finch, which represented her full participation in the discourse community but also drew on unexpected resources, including her husband’s graphic design contributions.

Taken together, this collection of artifacts persuasively demonstrated that looking only at Norah’s recent years of biological work in order to understand her acquisition of an identity as a biologist and her ability to write within the community of biologists would be a mistake. Prior instead called for a view of disciplinary training as weaving together various unpredictable trajectories and artifacts in a story of historical becoming. In addition, he emphasized the social nature of this “collateral becoming,” suggesting that Norah’s teachers, parents, friends, and family were all mediators in her acculturation. Thus, in order to study disciplinary training as developing “ways of being in the world,” researchers must expand their view of who, what, when, and how that training is fostered.

Roozen’s research took up the expansive methodology of Prior’s project but applied it to continuing professional communication, rather than the transition into a professional community. His focus was on Terry, a nurse who has been supplementing her hospital work with a variety of writing projects for many years. Roozen began with an overview of research on medical genres like the DSM, patient medical history, case presentations, forensic reports, etc[]. He argued that while these analyses often emphasize the role that genres play in shaping practice and views of patients, they frequently act as if these are the only texts mediating medical exchange. In contrast, Roozen proposed a socio-historic perspective, citing Lev Vygotsky, which enables a researcher to consider the question of “how practice has come to be in the world.”

Roozen turned to a wide range of Terry’s writing to demonstrate how her nursing identity and relationship to patients was being continuously negotiated in a diverse range of genres beyond the patient chart. Terry wrote poems that sought to individualize and humanize her patients and to critique the bureaucratic treatment of the hospital. She wrote and published a book of devotionals for nurses in the critical care unit, which wove together her participation in Christian communities, her scriptural knowledge, and her personal experiences as a nurse. In addition, she spent years developing a science fiction novel about how the medicalized view of patients can lead to inhumane treatment. Showing notes from the novel’s development that utilized short-hand from her charting and drew on knowledge gained from her nursing textbooks, Roozen demonstrated how Terry’s research for the novel drew on her knowledge of the nursing field. Other genres included a memoir excerpt about a friend’s death, which revealed Terry negotiating the roles of nurse and friend throughout the writing, and a multi-media video for her family about breast cancer, which she was planning to revise as a patient education resource.

Thus, Roozen argued that both professional and non-professional texts played a role in coordinating Terry’s relationship to patients and others in the hospital. Patient charting alone could never account for the ways that Terry negotiated her role and her experiences in writing. Roozen called for changing the sites we examine in studies of professional writing to consider professional genres as inter-discursive texts. Finally, he cautioned the audience about presupposing relevance in their research and left them with a guiding research question: “How do moments of textual activity add up to a literate life?”

As someone who has spent the past year doing ethnographic research on student learning in the disciplines and watching my artifacts proliferate before me, I was both inspired and overwhelmed by the panel’s call. Audience members seemed to share my concern with the feasibility of these projects’ scope. One asked whether this kind of research could only be undertaken by scholars with the privilege of tenure who were no longer “on the clock” in the same way as graduate students and pre-tenure faculty. The panelists agreed that the expansive timeline could be a challenge but called scholars to think about projects as long-term endeavors, existing beyond the single product of a dissertation or an article. Others wondered where to draw the line in data collection, and each panelist offered some personal insights from their research, as well as a caution not to make these decisions too early in a project.

In addition, audience questions prompted the panelists to discuss the pedagogical implications of this scholarship, which clearly support a curriculum that will expand on students’ passions and interests rather than evaluate performance. Prior posited the question, “How do we build intensity, identification, and motivation?” as one to guide pedagogical work. Meanwhile, I also wondered about how this kind of analysis could be adapted to help us understand the more erratic career trajectories of the future. While it is valuable to offer a consistent narrative of someone’s disciplinary development over a lifetime, for many of our students the question will be how they recruit experiences across different disciplinary and professional roles. Arguably, the ability to understand the resources that professionals accrue as they move across communities and contexts will become all the more important as the average adult moves through seven careers in a lifetime. Prior and Roozen’s expansive CHAT model reminds us that attention to early home and classroom experiences, non-professional writing, and a wide range of social connections will provide a richer understanding of such career trajectories as well.


Dias, Patrick, Freedman, Aviva, Medway, Peter, & Pare, Anthony. (1999). Worlds apart: Acting and writing in academic and workplace contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lave, Jean, & Wenger, Etienne. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Created by ccccreviews. Last Modification: Thursday 31 of December, 2015 17:58:47 UTC by ccccreviews.