Katherine Brown

Associate Professor of Communication, California State University San Marcos

Email: kbrown@csusm.edu

I was a Communication undergraduate student when I first encountered LCHC. I appreciated learning an interdisciplinary approach to the study of human communication, and practical applications of what I was learning in school in the late 1980’s to thinking about changes in work and workplaces. A course Yrjö Engeström taught having to do with Communication and Work was of great interest to me, with the texts assembled for the course containing both a description of some pressures and upheavals working people confronted in their day to day live as well as a taste of the ideas and methods that inform developmental work research. It made sense to return to UCSD as a graduate student in the 1990s to continue exploring a combination of ideas and research methods that were not widely available elsewhere at the time, both in the Communication Department and in the Lab.

I recall reading studies of work and was excited to se that the skills of working class people were considered worthy of study by scholars. Y. Engeström and R. Engeström’s study of the work of cleaners, and later Sylvia Scribner’s study of work in a dairy led me to readings in the sociology of work, organizational communication, and themes and concepts associated with everyday cognition, mediating artifacts, representations, expert-novice interaction, apprenticeship, and exploring links between ethnomethodology and strands in socio-cultural studies through the work of Barbara Rogoff, Ed Hutchins, Bud Mehan, Harold Garfinkel and others. I remember hearing or reading the basic notion in Engeström’s work that “historically prior forms” of work could offer clues to patterns of change in activity, and that recurring forms of trouble in a system offered researchers and those working in such systems a different way to understand how current arrangements came about and where things might be headed. This seemed a very appealing alternative to the approach taken by “consultants” in business schools. I liked the possibilities of introducing tools and methods, in the case of activity system modeling, which elicited through observation and interview or participant observation the workers’ perspective on constructing models of activity.

I was one of several undergraduate and graduate students learning field based research on work and technological changes in several forms of work during the period that this kind of research was going on at LCHC under the guidance of Yrjö Engeström. One study was about collective memory and technological changes in a urology clinic, another couple of studies were about the organization of courtroom interaction. Professor Engeström went on to establish the Center for Developmental Studies of work in Finland. Subsequently, scholars continued to come to and through LCHC who were interested in activity theory and/or work research, notably Joe Glick and other students and colleagues of Sylvia Scribner. While institutional affiliations and exchanges continued, the period of greatest interest in work research at LCHC was during Engeström’s tenure at the lab.

I applied the general strategy of looking for connections between the surface tensions or disturbances in organizational communication and deeper structural issues that reflected ongoing historical processes in forms of work. I later explored these issues around technological change in specific higher educational activity settings, including a visual arts program and later, in studying research processes of the Fifth Dimension project adaptations of the Distributed Literacy Consortium.

What was important to me about each of these projects was how they encouraged examination of how changes in various kinds of mediating artifacts, (instruments, tools, ideal or material) were indicative of competing forces pushing for stability or change in activity systems in organizations.

Thus, I did not come into the lab in the way many undergraduate students did, (i.e. through involvement in the afterschool program associated with the Communication Department’s practicum in child development course). When I learned about the LCHC through Engeström, and then learned about theories and methods drawing its members together around a range of interests, and international collaborations linked to the lab, I was interested in the Fifth Dimension projects at the level of interactions between researchers, and how a distributed research effort worked. The lab was also appealing to me for its approach to demystifying computer technology. Like many young women of the 1980’s I did not yet have much direct experience with computer technology. I enjoyed the way people at the lab were working on the challenges and issues I saw all around me. ” broadening access to higher education and to the “skills of the future”; trying to understand everyday interactions around this rapidly changing technology; and looking at technology use in a context of broader cultural and historical dimensions of tool use. I was interested in how older and newer technologies exist side by side, but I was also very interested in how people who were connected to the lab via a network of projects but who were in different disciplines and diverse settings interacted and kept things going.

When I was nearing the end of my doctoral program and contemplating next steps, Mike Cole asked me if I wanted to work with him to keep track of the process just getting underway with a new round of funding as the Fifth Dimension network was expanding to a broader group of sites nationally and internationally as a Distributed Literacy Consortium. That phase of the work introduced me to Festschrift contributors Ray McDermott and Luis Moll among others. I worked with Mike documenting the process of consortium organization, as researchers and implementers disseminated, adapted and tried to sustain variations on the Fifth Dimension model in a rapidly expanding number of configurations and settings. We found that there were many effective combinations of types of university and community partners, host academic departments, and site activities. We found no single magic combination of “factors” predicting sustainability or demise of Fifth Dimension sites. The combinations of particular contextual features, elements or resource challenges that might spell trouble and early demise for one site were managed easily by another. We did not identify a single recipe for success or failure in the sustainability of these model systems, but learned a great deal about the variety of ways to succeed and fail. Our data corpus included messages sent via a listserv linking the sites and researchers with each other. During this period, UCLinks was started, and Fifth Dimension sites were soon expanding through the UC system, finding partners or continuing working with existing partners in Sweden, Mexico, and Russia and elsewhere.

In this and other projects, the interdisciplinary climate of the lab, welcoming Communication, Human Development, Education, Psychology, Cognitive Science, Physics, Computer Science, Anthropology, Linguistics, Philosophy– drew scholars interested in bridging, spanning expanding. It was normative to meet people who travelled halfway around the world to work and study at the lab, to advance theories and methods required to work on the problems at hand, sharing insights and perspective offering ideas which were unknown or even unwelcome in settings unfriendly to interdisciplinary, mixed-method, longitudinal research.

I went on to join the tenure track faculty of a Communication Department at CSU San Marcos, where I teach courses on Organizational Communication, Communication and Collaboration, Research Methods, Media Technology and several other subjects. When I joined my campus, it was in the midst of a building and growing boom, as a young campus in the California State university system. We do a lot of teaching and service as well as research. I was well prepared for my undergraduate teaching load and the challenges of developing curriculum and working in groups within and beyond my academic department on a variety of projects.

While maintaining my collaborative work with the LCHC, I met a colleague who was a Linguist at CSU San Marcos. She and I ended up publishing an article together in the journal Mind Culture and Activity using ideas from CHAT to discuss the growth of a project she has with a team of Linguists and a group of Mayan Women. I was socialized to be an interdisciplinary person and so this was an extension of interdisciplinary joint authoring about an emerging collaborative effort.

What I took with me from the lab is an interest in collaborative activity at a number of levels within organizations and interpersonally, inter-institutionally, and an interest in changes in technologies that support collaborative work. Collaboration as a topic is my current research focus, extending to our current effort to write about the evolution of LCHC using the collaboration theory and groupware (a wiki) to carry on the work of LCHC as a “collaboratory” (Wulf, 1993, Olson et al, 2008).

I practice what I learned at LCHC in the way I design courses and assignments, the way I interact with colleagues, and in my efforts promote effective and inclusive collaborative and interdisciplinary work.

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