Mike Cole Remembers Peg

I met Peg Griffin at Rockefeller University in New York in 1977. She was part of a delegation from the Center for Applied Linguistics that came to visit LCHC along with Bud Mehan from UCSD and Marjorie Martus from the Ford Foundation. The topic that brought us together was our complementary critiques of standardized IQ tests as a context-free measure of human intellectual capacities. We shared a common belief in the need to study testing practices in their social and cultural contexts as a matter of what now would be called social justice. During the meeting we discussed the methods that each of us brought to the problem in the hopes that collectively we could enhance each other’s efforts to make visible the role of cultural and social context in supposedly culture-free tests of ability. A year later, Peg joined the newly created Laboratory of Comparative Cognition (LCHC) at UCSD where she played a pivotal role in the Lab’s work for more than a decade and continues to be a strong influence on my daily thinking even as I write these lines.

It is impossible to fully describe her influence in all the Lab’s affairs. Several features of her background were central to her contribution —  her classroom teaching experiences in both the Philippines and New York City, her background in analytic philosophy, her deep knowledge of linguistics and conversational analysis, all made her invaluable in advancing the unorthodox mixture of experimental-psychological, micro-ethnographic, and socio-linguistic methods that came to characterize LCHC’s work in later decades.

It was Peg, who, in a moment of crisis in a large project that got derailed several months after it began, made it possible to pursue the use of after-school activities, turning disaster into a unique research program. Using the Christmas vacation as a time for redesign, Peg created an entire early literacy curriculum. It includes several game-like literacy tasks that could engage a group of 6-8 children sufficiently to serve as excellent theory-driven teaching/learning activities. The 5th Dimension after-school program arose within this curriculum to serve the double goals of using the new-fangled Apple 2 computer as promising media of instruction and as an attractive motivating activity for children who might otherwise be out playing with their peers. The 5thD became the most enduring project undertaken in the course of the lab’s long history. (For its state as of 2022, see UC Links).

Along with Dennis Newman and two classroom teachers, Peg was central to the design and implementation of a year-long, 3rd – 4th grade teaching experiment in a public school. The curriculum created by the team was both a model science unit and a research project on the vexing problem of how to analyze the learning of isomorphic cognitive tasks embedded in different activity contexts. The result was not only a successful curriculum, but a deeper understanding of the dynamic interplay between task and context (text and con-text) in the process of teaching/learning.

Peg again played a central role in the LCHC’s joint project with Soviet developmental educationalists to explore the instructional potential of computer-mediated educational activities with Soviet developmental educationalists. She spent many months in Moscow where she thrived in the challenging environment of Glasnost and Perestroika and was instrumental in cutting through the many challenges of creating an LCHC in a country where public access to telecommunications was tightly controlled. She caused the authorities endless hassles by daring to do what our Soviet colleagues could not: insist that the researchers with whom we were collaborating, and the children who were collaborating with kids in various parts of the US, should be able to access the nascent internet from their Club. By the same token, she won the admiration of our Soviet colleagues for her imperviousness to discomfort, her genuine desire to work for the common good, and the high quality of her ideas.

When not abroad, Peg brought her extensive educational background to the weekly Lab seminars where she participated in the writing of monographs and articles, some of which bore only the name of LCHC where her name, along with that of all the contributors, is to be found only in a footnote.

Each of these general projects required a team effort and a good deal of time every week; Peg far outworked the rest of us. In an unofficial capacity, she supported the work of the administrative staff of LCHC, who she imbued with her own work ethic and social commitments. She was quick to master the use of lap top computers for communication and early-on devised hybrid communicative practices that required “portage” from private to public computer networks in the days before the internet.

These individual moments in Peg’s time at LCHC, even when taken together, provide only symptoms of the kinds of experiences that made Peg Griffin such an unusual and valued colleague. Anyone who worked with her soon understood that she was a force to be reckoned with. She was, so far as I can tell, indifferent to institutional expectations and always willing to find clever ways to work around Institutional rules in order to reconcile the different regulatory regimes of the University, the community organizations within which we worked, and the need to deliver on our obligations as researchers to both institutions and their children whose welfare was our common goal.

Peg was fearless in undertaking projects that I know for certain I would not dare to try if left to my own devices, like when owing to an unexpected change in our ability to observe children struggling to learn to read in their classrooms, Peg proposed that we set up our own mini-school in the afterschool hours for children whom the teachers identified as failing readers. It was her assurance that she could create a successful afterschool curriculum where we could accomplish the basic goals of the existing project that drew me in. As head mistress, Peg, along with me, a graduate assistant, and a few undergraduate students opened “Field College” following the Christmas vacation.

What ensued was a dynamic, noisy, set of activities that engaged the kids in small group reading activities that were versions of ingenious reading tasks adapted from the work of leading reading scholars at the time such as Ann Brown, Anne Marie Palincsar and Carol Chomsky. Thanks to Peg’s prior teaching experience and the presence of the undergraduates, who displayed remarkable skills as strategically placed participant observers who helped to create the activities and astute observers of their interactions with the children, the Field College as experiment quickly evolved into a more or less orderly set of theoretically guided reading practices. By the end of the intense data analysis and writing at the end of grant period, the agenda for the coming decades of LCHC research had come into view. Characteristically, Peg’s central role in the project was publicly visible in a publication authored by LCHC, where her name appears around G in the alphabet.

In recent years I heard from Peg only intermittently. She spent several productive years working with Susan Burns and Catherine Snow on a series of publications focused on the teaching and learning to read and write where the traces of our years of collaborative research could be found. We all followed her adventures in during the ascendency of Trump. From time to time, Peg and I would exchange brief notes, a few words, perhaps about how our kids are making their ways through. And then she was gone. No time to give her a hug and say thank you for so many years of fun, playing grownups among children.

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