I want to introduce you to a unique activist-scholar community that played an especially important role in my development. It’s the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (also known as LCHC or, simply, the Lab). Housed at the University of California San Diego since 1979, the Lab is a community of interdisciplinary scholars who share an interest in the study of human mind in its cultural and historical contexts, and who seek to resolve theoretical and methodological problems associated with scholarly approaches that place culture and activity at the center of attempts to understand human nature, with a particular focus on the sources of, and solutions to, problems of social inequality.
About five years ago,Michael Cole, the founder of LCHC, approached me and several others former Lab members to collectively tell the LCHC story. It’s not completed yet (and might never be), but the story in process is available to read. We call it The Story of LCHC – An Unfinished Polyphonic Autobiography. And it begins like this:
” This’wikinarrative’ website is an effort to tell the long story of a research organization, LCHC, through a diversity of voices. These voices belong to the scholars, students, and researchers who helped to establish the lab in the early 1970’s as well as those who contributed to it at various points during the last half century. We emphasize that this project is still in progress. Our autobiographical account brings us only up to the mid 1990’s. From time to time as life allows, we will continue our re-collection of the past even as we create a future.”
In addition to the detailed history of the Lab, the website contains separate pages for those of us who wrote the story, as well as dozens of people who called LCHC home, whether they were involved for decades or a few months.
I created my page on the LCHC Unfinished Polyphonic Autobiography site in 2012. The story I tell there is as unfinished as the Lab’s story. But it does describe an important piece of my scholar-activist journey, one that I stick by nearly five years later. I hope you enjoy it!
My Story @ LCHC
I came to Rockefeller University and LCHC in the fall 1976 from Lois Bloom’s lab at Teachers College Columbia University. I had just completed (but not yet defended) my PhD dissertation (in developmental psychology and psycholinguistics) on the development of the expression of causal relations in/by 2-3 year olds. It was a naturalistic, longitudinal study of the relationship between thinking and speaking, and to some extent a critique of Piagetian genetic epistemology, with an ever so slight bow to Vygotsky’s more social-cultural understanding. I had been involved in the ongoing Bloom lab project for several years, yielding 4-5 co-authored data-driven published studies putting forth the beginnings of a methodology for the study of child language that was (in LCHC language) ecologically valid.
Prior to the Bloom lab, I had begun a PhD program in linguistics at Brown, where involvement in the new edition of DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English) sent me into the field (rural Rhode Island!), and a fellowship to teach English to foreign graduate students sent me into a tizzy of improvisation. Both piqued my interest in how to study/understand language as a human social activity and began to shape my skepticism toward mainstream social science methods. I transferred to Columbia’s linguistics department in 1969 when faced with the choices of moving to NYC, La Jolla or Champaign-Urbana (due to job offers from psychology departments to my then-husband Don Hood), NYC was a no brainer.But iIt turned out that Columbia’s linguistics department was not for me—at the time, child language was not considered a legitimate object of study. I switched to psychology and then developmental psychology in a search to find people and a place with similar interests to mine. But within linguistics at Columbia, I was introduced to Chomsky’s formalism, Diver’s odd behavioral structuralism, and Labov, and learned that there are many ways to look and that how you look shapes what you see!
I also taught high school English for a year between college and grad school in Smithfield RI, which was white working-class rural at the time. I mention it because discovering that many of the students had never even been to Providence, much less Boston, had a huge impact on me, and probably has something to do with my commitment to the All Stars Project’s work and my belief in what Kwame Appiah calls cosmopolitanism and its role in ongoing development.
I suppose all this can be framed in terms of questions I brought to LCHC, like the following:
- can we study the activities of living social beings without distorting these activities;
- how can we can come to understand/discover what language (e.g., speaking”how, when, why, with and for whom) is and what it does in the world;
- how do human beings become language users and makers and how come some do it with ease and others with varying levels of difficulty;
- what’s the relationship, if any, between doing language well and being smart;
- if language is not the mirror of thought, what is the relationship between the two;
- why don’t I buy into existing theories of human development and are there other theories I don’t know about;
- why do kids get turned off to schooling when they are so eager to learn.
I was at the Lab from 1976-79 and worked almost exclusively on what became known as “ecological validity” and the Manhattan Country School project, with Mike, Ray McDermott and Ken Trauppman. The lasting learnings from those years include:
- an understanding of the laboratory as an invalid methodology and the conundrum that this presents;
- the socio-cultural situatedness of learning and development;
- the contemporary potential of Vygotsky’s work;
- the politics (both petty and not) of psychology and the social sciences;
- the creativity that comes from cross-fertilizing disciplines.
The overarching moral-political issue the Lab highlighted for me was the responsibility that psychology and the other social sciences have for perpetuating racism and poverty and their negative impacts on people’s lives, and the challenges that those of us who work to overturn this.
At the same time as I joined the Lab I met Fred Newman, a philosopher turned community activist and creator/practitioner/trainer of a radical (in both the political and scientific-methodological senses) form of therapy, social therapy. Fred’s critique of psychology had different intellectual origins from mine and other Lab members, and added a new and lasting dimension to my thinking. The similarities and differences between what he and his group were doing in trying to create a new psychology as part of community activism and what we at the Lab were trying to do excited me. I began working with Newman simultaneous with working at the Lab. It was an opportunity to participate in a socio-cultural experiment that was community-based and not reliant on organized funding sources (e.g., government or corporate funding or university affiliation) for its existence, which meant that creating its financial base was simultaneously a community-building activity.
Over the years, Newman, I, Lenora Fulani (who I met at the Lab and who joined our work around 1980) and many others created the East Side Institute, the Social Therapy centers around the country, the All Stars Project, Independent Voting.org (and other organizations that came and went). From the beginning, we believed that developing new conceptual frameworks, methodologies and practices required the simultaneous building of a fully participatory community and that these two tasks required an independent location, that is, one free of institutional ties to university, government, corporation or foundation. We later realized that this was an applicaation of what Vygotsky refferred to as the search for method, i.e., simultaneosuly, “tool-and-result.”
I’ve been a key person in this socio-cultural experiment since 1976. Although I’ve been involved in all of its varied activities, most of my work emanates from the East Side Institute, which Newman and I founded in the 1980s, and from my affiliation with the All Stars Project, which Fulani and Newman founded. The Institute is a small non-profit organization dedicated to new approaches to human development, learning, therapeutics and community building. Our staff is comprised of volunteer professionals and interns, and our faculty is all volunteer. Our modest funding comes from a few hundred individuals. This independent location allows the Institute to be inclusive, to bring together people who do not ordinarily come together, and to do other things that would not be possible in a traditionally funded institution, e.g., accept people from all over the world into our programs without prerequisites or requirements; train nonprofessionals and professionals together; collaborate freely and with no strings attached; and act on research and program initiatives with a minimum of bureaucracy. This has been particularly important for psychology, social work and education professionals frustrated by their work in traditional institutions who come to us for a learning experience that is not acquisitional or evaluative, and a community that is not disciplinarily bounded.
Somewhere in the 1990s, we began to refer to our location/activity as “the development community” because it had grown substantially and was open to anyone who wanted to participate in building it/fostering human development. And because what we were/are doing in the areas of psychology, psychotherapy, education, politics and culture was/is relevant to academics, yet was/is created outside of outside of academic institutions, I continuously bring our activities to academia and vice versa. This has always involved engaging some key questions and the challenge of finding academics willing to engage them with me! Institutional location matters. It raises questions about disciplinary and institutional boundaries and their impact on the production and dissemination of ideas: Where do they come from and how are they produced? How free is the intellectual marketplace? Does crossing its borders, as the Institute and I do, exacerbate them or begin to dissolve them? Social psychologist Ken Gergen places the Institute’s work as outside what he calls “the tyranny of the normal”—the patterns of expectations, obligations and swift sanctions within the core of most disciplines;” it is, to him, a place where it is possible to “risk innovation.” Gergen’s characterization seems apt to me. It raises some issues that I see as continuous with and at the same time extensions of the Lab’s discoveries, insights, successes and failures.
For example, if social therapy groups are effective zones of emotional development, what are the implications for the institution of psychotherapy that the practice has been developed and flourishes outside psychology’s professional and methodological borders? Could such a practice, in which people grow emotionally through engaging in the collective activity of breaking down psychology’s methodological dualisms, be taught within academia and implemented widely in clinics? Could our work be helpful to those academics and practitioners who are fighting an uphill battle trying to change the medical model of therapeutic treatment? If not, what methodological and political issues does this raise for all of us?
And, if successful approaches to developing children (including their developing as successful learners) are being implemented outside of schools and independent of university think tanks, what does that say about the current organization of educational research? If performing on stage helps children and youth perform in life, shouldn’t educators take a long hard look at their cognitive bias? Could the performatory and improvisational method of the All Stars and the Institute replace the behavior management approach taught in schools of education (and the methods of teaching teachers as well)? If segregating children into age or “ability” groups is shown to be socially, cognitively and emotionally detrimental, what does school reform mean? And if the All Stars youth programs have effected a unique kind of partnership with business leaders to support the development of inner city youth, what are the implications for philanthropy and educational research funding?
Choosing not to move with the Lab to UCSD in 1979, I took a faculty position at Empire State College, the “non-traditional” part of SUNY and was there until 1997. This proved invaluable in allowing me to experiment with creative, collective and performatory organizations of learning environments, something that my short stint as a high school teacher and the ecological validity work had shown were desperately needed. It also provided me with a legitimate (if not prestigious) academic location from which to continue to perform as an academic. My published work during the early Empire State College years continued to examine language and language development, although with a more political and philosophical critique than previously (e.g., 1982, Growing up explained: Vygotskians look at the language of causality; 1982, The politics of autism: A socio-historical view; 1985, Pragmatism and dialectical materialism in language development), and began to articulate the Vygotskian practice my colleagues and I were creating therapeutically through Newman’s social therapy (e.g., 1979, The Practice of Method) and educationally through the establishment of the Barbara Taylor School (e.g., 1989, Developing poor and minority children as leaders with the Barbara Taylor School Educational Model). I also published, in 1990, Lev and let Lev: An interview on the life and works of Lev Vygotsky (with David Bakhurst, Guillermo Blanck, Mariane Hedegaard, David Joravsky, Christine LaCerva, Siebren Miedema, Luis Moll, and Jim Wertsch) in Practice, The Magazine of Psychology and Political Economy, an Institute journal from 1983-1991.
Over the years my work became increasingly multi-faceted—focusing on advancing/understanding social therapy through my Vygotskian and Fred’s Wittgensteinian lens, transforming the Harlem-based Barbara Taylor School into an unorthodox Vygotskian laboratory, building ties with alternative educators and postmodern, humanistic and critical psychologists nationally and internationally, and “discovering” performance as a powerfully developmental form of play (and vice versa) at all ages—all the while doing grassroots organizing in the poor communities.
When we began what is now the All Stars Project in 1983, it was as a response to welfare mothers in NYC we were organizing, who asked us to give their kids something to do. We asked the kids what they wanted to do and they said, “Have a talent show.” So we did, in a Bronx church basement. And we organized young people and adults to put on another. And another. We launched the All Stars Talent Show Network around the City. We set up a non-profit and went door to door and stood on street corners to raise money for it. At the time, we billed it as “an anti-violence program where kids did something positive for their community.” It grew. We saw how powerful performing on stage was for the kids and their families and how it moved the adult supporters. We saw kids building their organization and growing from it. We saw our message that you can perform not just on stage but in life become a reality. We realized the program was a development progra in which kids were performing their development with each other, with adults, with their families and community.
Other All Stars youth programs were launched, and partnerships with business leaders (of varied political persuasions) and performance artists flourished, all around the activity of performance on and off stage being a developmental experience. The All Stars currently works with 10,000 young people yearly in NYC, Newark NJ, San Francisco and Chicago (with a 2010 launch in Uganda and several other countries in beginning stages of development). 2013 is a year of growth for the All Stars, with the opening of a state of the art center in Newark’s downtown arts district, complete with the country’s first Institute for Afterschool Development, and a center in Dallas due to open in the fall.
Off the official academic radar in its early decades, the All Stars is increasingly known to academics and policy makers, who find the longevity and success of both its youth development model and its ability to raise private funding (currently over $7 million yearly) harder and harder to ignore. In the last few years, All Stars’ founders Fulani and Newman and President and CEO Gabrielle Kurlander have issued white papers addressing the education crisis in America, essays that directly challenge the “achievement gap” framing of the issue (2010, Achievement Gap or Development Gap?) and put forth the provocation that if we all (kids, teachers, parents and other adults) pretended that underachieving kids were good learners they would become so (2011, Let’s Pretend). Fulani’s latest (2013) is The Development Line: Helping the Poor to Grow—A Special Report on Solving the Poverty Crisis in America.
LCHC’s insistence on the unit of analysis being “the person-environment interface” and its budding realization of Vygotsky’s dialectical methodology for studying/producing ongoing human development and learning informed all that Newman, Fulani and I have done. The interplay of our interventions/organizing activity and our theorizing were (and remain), in some ways, a continuation of grappling with issues expressed in different terms at RU: how the dominant understandings of the relationship between development and learning, language and thought, cognition and emotion, work and play, and individual and group are played out in the lives of people, with tragically nondevelopmental consequences for them and the world.
In 1991 Valerie Walkerdine (who I met at LCHC when she was a visiting scholar) asked Newman and me to write a book on Vygotsky for Routledge’s Critical Psychology series she was co-editor of. Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist came out in 1993, the first of three books Newman and I would co-author over a five year period. Revolutionary Scientist was unique in several ways. It presented Vygotsky as a Marxist methodologist, both locating him in his historical period and delineating how his life and writings have been a catalyst for a contemporary revolutionary, practical-critical, psychology. It highlighted Vygotsky’s unconventional view of how development and learning are related and, in doing so, brought human development into prominence. It introduced important linkages between Vygotsky’s views on thinking and speaking and those of Wittgenstein, drawing implications for language acquisition and language learning. And it drew attention to Vygotsky’s understanding of the role of play in child development, and expanded on the significance of play throughout the lifespan. In these ways, this classic text presented a more expansive Vygotsky than previously understood. In 2013, the book is being reissued as a Psychology Press Classic Edition in Psychology, with a new introduction.
Unscientific Psychology and The End of Knowing explicate in more detail our critique of mainstream psychology, the Marxian, Wittgensteinian and Vygotskian contributions to our critique and practice (in Marx’s words, our “practical-critical activity”), and our growing postmodern interest and sentiment. These books helped spread our ideas internationally and lay the foundation for a series of international conferences, training programs and partnerships the Institute initiated in1997. But before then, we engaged with the Russian Vygotskians at Eureka (the first post-Soviet university from which Elina Lampert-Shepel comes), developed a close relationship with Gita Vygoskaya, Elena Kravtsova and Gennady Kravtsov and kept working to articulate our understanding of the importance of Vygotsky’s tool-and-result methodology, his discovery of “completion” and the implications of his brief writings on play to anyone who would listen. Our Barbara Taylor School”a twelve-year experiment in radical education, 1985-1997, failed as a viable enterprise but it was a hotbed of discovery about the above, brought us many interested visitors, and helped to establish me as a legitimate “Vygotskian” (among some). I wrote several articles and the book Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models about this work. Schools also looks at the Russian Golden Key School and the Sudbury Valley School alternative learning environments.
And performance? It entered our work from many directions: from Vygotsky’s insight that play is how/where/when the child is as if “a head taller;” from Newman beginning to write and direct plays and the improv comedy troupe he began; from leading performance workshops for non-performers as a social therapeutic experiment; from my looking at social therapy groups as the creating of ZPDs simultaneous with the creating of new emotionality; from our developing a street performance ensemble method of fundraising for the All Stars Project; from collaborative work with Ken Gergen and our mutual interest in developing what we termed performative psychology and bringing it into APA and other mainstream venues. Among my attempts to share this history, articulate the methodology and describe the practice are my 2009 book Vygotsky at Work and Play and the essay Performing a Life (Story).
By 1997 Newman and I were in rich dialogue not only with Gergen but also with others who were developing and/or articulating cultural and historical ways of understanding and studying human life, including Mary Gergen, John Shotter, Ian Parker, Erica Burman, Sheila McNamee and John Morss. We decided to host an international conference, which we called “Unscientific Psychology: Conversations with Other Voices.” About 200 people attended and joined us in what was part academic conference with lectures by each of the above (subsequently published as Postmodern Psychologies, Societal Practice and Political Life) and part improvisational performance of a play created out of participants’ “performances of their lives.” Unscientific Psychology was many things— an indication of interest in postmodern and cultural psychology from many corners of the world, an experiment in an alternative mode of playing with ideas and sharing work across disciplines and approaches, and a testing ground for the Institute’s approach to group creativity.
In 2001, we partnered again with Gergen to hold the first Performing the World (PTW) conference. In October 2012, the Institute and the All Stars Project hosted the seventh. Over the decade the use of performance, play, and the creative and expressive arts as a tool in social change, community-building and educational work has grown rapidly, and more and more practitioners and scholars are being won over from an instrumental view of performance to performance being how human beings develop and learn. PTW is both tool-and-result of this motion, a practical critique of mainstream social science, education, therapy and humanitarian work, and a needed support network and community for those doing this kind of work that is considered on the fringe.
My involvement in international organizing/learning/teaching also includes several international programs and activities I’ve launched that link scholars, practitioners, educators, artists and social change activists who have a performance/creativity/play bent. It’s a challenge and privilege to work with psychologists, community theatre people, grassroots activists and youth workers from China, India, Bangladesh, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Serbia, Brazil, Uganda, etc., many of whom work with the most marginalized and poor people, side by side Americans and Western Europeans. It’s this activity, more than any other I’m involved in day-to-day, in which practical-critical politics, philosophy and psychology are most fused. It’s also the most moving part of all my work, because it directly touches world poverty.
My most recent writings and academic activities involve speaking within and across disciplines and traditions: about the postmodernizing of Marxism to Marxists (e.g., 2003, All Power to the Developing; 2011, Fred Newman and the Practice of Method), what activity theory brings to postmodernism and vice versa (e.g., 2006, Activating Postmodernism), how philosophers of language and science are among the most rigorous of critical psychologists (e.g., 2011, Critical Psychology, Philosophy and Social Therapy), what outside of school practices tell us about learning in school, how therapy and theatre can create culture rather than merely replicate it, and the historical imperative of the shift to the performatory in all areas of human life.
Play, performance, group creativity, the insidiousness of boundaries, pain, suffering and massive underdevelopment, a belief in continuous developmental (revolutionary) activity, organizing environments for people (kids especially) to create more options for themselves for how to be in the world and change it …this is what brought me back to LCHC. And our individual and collective staying power.