Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Lave/Wenger as Chicken Soup for This Graduate Student’s Soul

Apologies in advance for (a) invoking such trite self-help pap as the CHICKEN SOUP series and (b) being overly gushy and personal.

While Fleck was a captivating read, full of fresh, even startling ideas, it ultimately left me cold; Lave/Wenger, in contrast, somehow managed, despite the severe disadvantage of its terminology-packed sentences, to provide succor to this “overwhelmed, overawed, and overworked” learner (116). While others noted in last week’s posts that they identified themselves as members of a “thought community” after reading Fleck, now Lave/Wegner’s “legitimate peripheral participation” comes along to explain my situation as a 1st-year graduate student.

Perhaps this is an obvious point to make, but: I found the case studies of situated learning in Lave/Wenger to parallel my experience (all of three weeks’) of graduate school. In essence, we’re being initiated into a community of practice--our profession is being modeled for us, but, as newcomers, we learn through observation and imitation, rather than through explicit instruction in the Art of Professing/Theorizing. Yes, it is also a site of "intentional instruction" (40) but essentially, we are experiencing a different way of learning, in which the techniques that brought us success from elementary school through college are no longer applicable. In particular, ”learning to become a legitimate participant in a community involves learning how to talk (and be silent) in the manner of full participants” (104); certainly, learning how to read/write/speak theory is essential to our participation in this community.

Perhaps I attributed a certain touchy-feely-ness to Lave/Wenger because the focus, unlike in Fleck, is on the individual, even while acknowledging that the individual is situated in (rather, his/her situation is constantly changing but always in relation to) a community of practice. Most resonant for me was the claim that “learning and a sense of identity are inseparable. They are aspects of the same phenomenon” (115). Having been, if not a full participant, then a journeyman of sorts in textbook publishing for the past four years, it’s disorienting to suddenly find myself a newcomer in a different community of practice, to the point where it seems that my very sense of self has suddenly become elusive.

Lave and Wenger are careful to delineate the boundaries of their research to exclude the study of schooling. However, I’m curious to know, particularly from those members of the class w/ a background in ed. psych., whether there have been studies comparing graduate learning to an apprenticeship model (if not directly connected to the ideas advanced here, perhaps in the same spirit?) Where I’ve seen the comparison made (for instance, in David Damrosch’s WE SCHOLARS), it has been used in a dismissive way to suggest a feudal/outmoded system and a simple master-apprentice relationship, stereotypes Lave and Wenger attempt to move beyond.

Did anyone else strongly associate Lave/Wenger’s model of “legitimate peripheral participation” with the way we learn in graduate school? Have I failed to pick up on fundamental differences?


Blogger asw said...

I am so glad that you saw this from a graduate student perspective too! I was also thinking of using that analogy for my analysis of the readings.

I agree with you that as graduate students much of the learning we experience is not only in the classroom but through the various experiences we have in the research projects we complete, conferences and events that we attend to with other graduate students that help shape our learning. I know that in my experience since coming to graduate school, I have learned several aspects of writing for a journal article and conference not from a class but from the old-timers who guided us apprentices in getting through it and what we need to be aware of. But there have been times when the old-timers were not around and a group of us graduate students gathered together to figure out some aspect of writing a journal article or some other aspect in handling graduate school that we learned from each other. I am so glad that you posted this connection -- as I think it is a good example to demonstrate the concept from Lave and Wenger on situated learning.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Annie said...


Thank you for your openness. I'm now in my third year at UT, but continue to bump up against the fact that, "...we are experiencing a different way of learning, in which the techniques that brought us success from elementary school through college are no longer applicable."

I now know my own pattern, so it's not quite as unnerving~ At the beginning of every semester, I experience something close to total panic. I think I don't know anything, I ask myself why I'm diving further into debt to pursue a deeper understanding of how much I don't know, and I wonder how I'm going to avoid going crazy as I sit alone in my apartment reading and thinking and writing-by myself.

My background is in hotel management and training, a highly interactive, high energy environment in which initiation for new comers is explicit and immediate (at least on the outer layers). Like you, I felt overhwlemed my first semester--and completely disoriented.

I came to UT to study with a particular person, Oscar Mink, who quickly became my mentor and friend. Besides providing many layers of personal and professional fulfillment, my association with him helped me to consider myself a legitimate member of the academic community. L & W might consider our relationship an (unformalized) apprenticeship.

Last September, Oscar passed away, and I've had to realize a new (more legitimate?) sense of belonging in this community. My apprenticeship ended without my consent! But, this led to my transitioning from a peripheral to a more direct participant because I had to find (and trust) my own voice. It's quite a journey we're on...

10:07 AM  
Blogger gfp said...

I definitely see the connection to graduate school. It brings up all of the frustrations I felt trying to figure out everything that's left "unsaid" that is integral to academia. I guess Lave and Wenger would see all of the time spent OUTSIDE of class as the true learning situation, when we're scrambling to immitate masters in our thought collectives. This situation teaches us how to function as academics and is well suited if out intent is to become university professors, but could one argue it doesn't provide the learning really needed to be K-12 teachers, or administrators, or any other position in the field?

Is it possible that I can succeed here and not be "well-situated" to move into the career I'm preparing for? If Lave and Wenger are right, that kind of sucks.

12:44 PM  

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