December 28, 2009
I ended 2009 with two adventures—one in Russia and the other in Serbia. Two different trips, two different countries, two different organizing milieus—connected in our collective histories with each other and with Vygotsky.
I spent a week in Moscow and its surrounds, mostly at the 10th Annual Vygotsky Memorial Conference, organized by psychologist Elena Kravtsova of the Vygotsky Institute of Psychology at the Russia State University for the Humanities and aided immeasurably by Dot Robbins. For many years, Elena has been implementing the ideas of her grandfather Lev Vygotsky in creative and significant ways in schools and university training, along with her husband Gennady Kravtsov. (They were featured at a conference on Vygotsky and Culture that I and the late Leslie Williams of Teachers College Columbia University convened in 1997; a chapter in my book, Schools for Growth, is devoted to one aspect of their work, based on first-hand experience in the late 90s.)
The conference offered a lot: a chance to experience first-hand several voices of Russian non-classical/Vygotskian psychology; the fun and challenge of leading a performatory workshop for more than 100 Russian university students with my dear colleague Carrie Lobman; the privilege of delivering a plenary address with the incomparable translation of another dear colleague Elina Lampert-Shepel; being reunited with Gita Vygodskaya after after nearly a decade (in addition to being together in Moscow and parts of Europe a few times, I and the Institute hosted Gita’s first ever visit to the US in the mid-1990s); and walking, talking with and learning from many of the other participants.
What I offered was a “Vygotsky without truth” — by which I meant the work of the Institute and its broader performance and development community. I shared some of the theory/practice of truthless therapy and truthless developmental learning in and outside of schools, where it has come from, and how I understand it to be a worthwhile pursuit in the current social-cultural-political climate.
I think that the talk was challenging. For one thing, it didn’t do what many talks (not just at this conference but in most academic and intellectual contexts) do, which is to focus on what Vygotsky meant by something he wrote and make the argument for the correctness of that interpretation (“the truth”). I actually love following the train of thought of such speakers and authors and admire their smarts. It’s just not what I chose—or choose—to do. For another, putting “Vygotsky” and “therapy” together in the same sentence was completely new to the majority of the audience and, understandably, it took awhile for them to wrap their heads around it. It was fascinating and gratifying to me that it was the Russian psychologists who caught a glimpse of the newness and potential of our social therapeutic approach to emotionality and were the most eager to pursue the topic. The conversation continues!
I returned home for about two weeks and then traveled to Serbia, something I’ve been doing nearly every year since 1998. I go at the invitation of Zdravo da Ste (“Hi Neighbor”) to participate in their annual meeting. Zdravo da Ste is a unique organization initiated by volunteer developmental psychologists in 1992 originally to provide support to refugees—its work is Vygotskian based and delightfully focused on play, creativity and performance in all of their programs. Each year, guests like myself create a panel discussion and lead workshops on the theme chosen by the organization (this year it was play and development). Others who have become regular participants are Volker Bunzendahl (Denmark), Lina Kostarova-Unkovska (Macedonia), Paul Murray (UK and Serbia), Thomas Sorensen (Denmark), and Leif Strandberg (Sweden)—we were joined this year by Tim Prentki (UK). We’re an odd lot—academically trained (and somewhat academically located, on the fringe) practitioners and researchers who persist in creating environments for play, and who love to theorize about it too.
At the annual meeting (which took place in Golubac, a village in northeast Serbia) and again in Belgrade, Zdravo da Ste hosted a book launch for the Serbian edition of Let’s Develop! A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth, by Fred Newman (Institute co-founder, colleague, friend and mentor). A popular seller in English since 1994, the translation and publication came about through the efforts of Zdravo da Ste psychologists (Vesna Ognjenovic and Bojana Skorc in particular), along with publisher Dragan Stojkovic and MOSTART.
Thus completed a year of travels, rich with new performances for me and others in our modest efforts to help the world develop. Here are some slides of some of the people and places I visited and people I worked and played with. It is great privilege to be building these relationships with colleagues who playfully and passionately resist “the tyranny of the normal.”