Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reading :: Psychology in the Soviet Union

Psychology in the Soviet Union
Edited by Brian Simon

I've provided a link to a used copy on Amazon, but this 1957 collection comes to me through UT's library. It resulted from a 1955 trip that "a small party of teachers and educationalists" (presumably British, although this was not clear) took to the USSR at the invitation of the Academy of Educational Sciences (p.vii). Based on this interest, Soviet psychologists assembled a series of essays to help familiarize Western educators with the psychological precepts on which Soviet pedagogy was founded. The authors included some names that will be familiar to readers of this blog: Elkonin. Zaporozhets, Luria, Leontiev, Menchinskaya, Galperin, and Rubinstein.

The collection is a nicely preserved time capsule of Soviet psychology just after the death of Stalin in 1953. During this time, Soviet psychologists suddenly began publishing monographs and other publications. The characteristics of the Stalinist mode of publication were still there—including ritual cites of Soviet great men—but we also see how activity theory concepts were mobilized in some of these publications.

Rather than looking comprehensively across the chapters, let's just pick out a few.

"Introduction" (Brian Simon)
The introduction is essentially a primer for Western audiences by the Western editor. Although we don't really see any surprises here, it's worth noting that the precept on which activity theory is founded makes a showing here:
Consciousness and speech, it is argued, are prepared for in the animal world but arise uniquely in man with the development of social forms of life based on labour. Labour, a qualitatively new activity, gives rise to a qualitatively new characteristic of the mind—the conscious reflection of objective reality. This new characteristic corresponds to the needs and conditions of the new form of social life. As the labour process becomes more complex and society develops, therefore, this new characteristic also develops and comes to take a predominant position; whereas, by contrast, other characteristics which were predominant in the animal world cease to develop and sink into the background. It is a process of internal contradiction, between the new and the old, taking place in dependence upon the conditions of life. (p.6).
if consciousness is inseparably connected with activity and changes with changes in the form of activity, then it follows that (1) mental processes can be investigated objectively, as they are manifested in activity, (2) changes in the form of activity can influence changes in the organization of mental processes. (p.7). 
Simon then lists "the general principles informing Soviet psychology," including

  • "Mental processes are properties of the brain..."
  • "Consciousness is a reflection of the objective world..."
  • "Neural-mental activity is conditioned by the form of existence ... and changes with changes in the form of existence."
  • "Consciousness is formed in practical activity and revealed in the course of activity." (p.8)
In a footnote, Simon references the Pedology decree. Excitingly, he tells us that it is "printed in full in Soviet Psychiatry (1950)"—I've been looking for this text. Unfortunately UT's library doesn't appear to have it, but maybe I can get a copy through interlibrary loan.

"The physiology of higher nervous activity and child psychology" (Elkonin)
Although I wasn't particularly interested in this chapter, I did want to note that Elkonin works two salutary references into the first paragraph. The first is to the Pedology Decree, which he says "exposed the pseudo-scientific conception that a child's destiny is fatally determined by heredity and an unchangeable environment" (p.47). The other is to Pavlov (also p.47). 

Out of the 20 Soviet-authored chapters and Luria's appendix—which is another article—Pavlov is referenced in the first page of 9 of these; Marx and Lenin get one mention each. This distribution reflects the fact that Pavlov was still dominant in the mid-1950s, but would be displaced by Leontiev's activity theory by the mid-1960s

"The role of language in the formation of temporary connections" (Luria)
Luria does not directly cite Pavlov in the first page, but does refer to Pavlov's "second signal system" on the first page (p.115). More interesting to me is that on the next page, he connects this second signal system to the function of language in self-regulation, saying that "attention was first directed to this question in the 1920's"—and using a footnote to clarify this use of passive voice, attributing this work to "L.S. Vygotsky and his collaborators" (p.116). In a few paragraphs, Luria covers: children using self-talk (externalization) during problem solving in "practical activity" such as modeling plasticine or tracing a drawing); the role of speech in "the mediated, specifically human, form of regulation of action"; the development of speech from "communication" with others to the organization of one's own experience and regulation of one's own actions (p.116); and the process of internalizing speech, in which "full, overt speech, therefore, gradually becomes transformed into contracted, internal speech" (p.117). Luria has economically summarized Thought and Language for us. 

He also claims that connections formed with the aid of verbal systems are longer lasting than those reinforced in animals (p.121)—of a piece with Vygotsky's differentiation between mediated and unmediated memory as well as the distinction that he and Vygotsky made between humans and animals elsewhere

"The formation of associative connections: An experimental investigation (Leontiev and Rozonava)
In this chapter, Leontiev and Rozonava investigate how people form associations. Like Luria, they draw on Pavlov's second signal system for framing the study (p.164-5). But, like Luria, they seem to be actually grounding the work in the 1920s-30s work of the Vygotsky Circle—specifically, Leontiev's study of mediated memory. The authors performed their experiments with 160 adult subjects (p.166). 

In the first experiment, the authors lay out a 4x4 grid of rings. Each ring had a small circular card with a word written on it. They did not change the order of the cards. All were four-letter words (not in the Western profane sense) printed in similar type (p.167). The room was dark except for the illumination of one card at a time, for two seconds, in the same order. The subject had to read each word as it was illuminated. Depending on the series, the subject was asked to do one of three things with the cards:
  • Series I: Remove cards that the experimenter illuminated with a pointer.
  • Series II: Remove cards beginning with the letter S.
  • Series III: Determine which letter most frequently came first in the words shown. 
Afterwards, the subject and experimenter chatted about unrelated things for about 15 minutes. Then the subject was asked specific questions about the cards, such as: What were the initial letters on the words of the cards? (p.168). The results: Series I people couldn't answer the questions or even remember the words; Series II people could remember letter S words (and even where they were), but couldn't answer other questions; Series III people could remember the first letters of all the words, but couldn't remember many of the words themselves (p.169). 

I'll skip the rest of the experiments in this chapter. My point is that this chapter seems very similar in concern and method to Leontiev's earlier work, described in Vygotsky & Luria.

"The nature and formation of human psychic properties" (Leontiev)
This article is more theoretical. It was delivered at a 1954 conference. For me, the salient part is that Leontiev—referencing "an investigation ... carried out by the writer as early as 1930"—describes how actions based on external objects are internalized as mental processes (e.g., a child counts first by pointing, then eventually without pointing). Similarly, he discusses the process of external speech becoming internalized as internal speech (p.230). Leontiev concludes that "Investigation of the laws governing the formation of psychic properties serves a great practical aim: the fullest possible development of the capabilities of every individual. Soviet psychologists see this as one of their most important tasks" (p.232). Is this the remains of Vygotsky's "peak" psychology?

Appendix I: "Psychopathological research in the USSR" (Luria)
As with his previous chapter in this book, Luria refers to Vygotsky on the second page. Unlike that chapter, here he names Vygotsky in the text rather than a footnote and spends a few paragraphs discussing Vygotsky's biography and focus. "He took as his starting point the notion that psychic activity develops in the process of reflecting the external environment, and that this reflection is mediated through language" (p.280).

Note that, as with Leontiev's "The nature and formation of human psychic properties," the term "reflect" is worked in. This term doesn't adequately describe what Vygotsky was trying to express, I think. But it has the virtue of superficially tying Vygotskian theory to Lenin's claim that the mind reflects objective reality. In her 1937 broadside against Vygotsky, Rudneva charged that Vygotsky "regards the whole of man's mental activity not in the light of Lenin's theory of reflection ... but as an idealist, immanent ... process taking place independent of social-class relations and independent of people's productive activity" (pp.76-77). Vygotsky was dead by that time, but Luria and Leontiev scrambled to reconfigure their work to blunt these and similar criticisms. 

Overall, as I said, this collection is more of a time capsule than a valuable collection for thinking through Soviet psychology. But as a time capsule, it's quite useful. If you're interested in how activity theory developed, check it out. 

Writing :: IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication special issue on entrepreneurship communication

Spinuzzi, C. (2016). Special issue on entrepreneurship communication. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 59(4). 

Funny story. A couple of years ago, I had a great idea. The professional communication journals had not really concentrated on the question of how entrepreneurs communicate, but based on my literature review for a related project, I thought that enough work was being done to sustain at least a couple of special issues.

So I thought: How about this?

(1) Put together a special issue on entrepreneurship communication for journal A.

(2) Use it to drum up interest for entrepreneurship projects in conference B.

(3) From there, cultivate entries for a special issue on the rhetoric of entrepreneurship for journal C.

What I liked about this scheme was that it would quickly generate a relatively coherent body of scholarship rapidly. I knew that people were already interested in entrepreneurship, but the three events would provide exigence, i.e., get people to prioritize their entrepreneurship projects and get them to begin citing each other.

The plan didn't quite work. I thought I could build in 18-24 months between (1) and (3). But that long timeframe was not optimal for the journals. Instead, things unfolded in this order:

October 2016: (2)— IEEE Procomm 2016
December 2016: (1)—this special issue
July 2017: (3)—an upcoming special issue in JBTC

Nevertheless, I'm really pleased by how things turned out. The IEEE special issue has been out since December, and it constitutes a strong set of articles. I wrote the introduction, of course, which draws on my previous literature reviews from articles I've published. It also characterizes the articles in the special issue. Given the focus of the special issue, I specifically framed this work in terms of communication (not rhetoric) and grouped the articles in terms of the genres they addressed.

Since I was editing both issues at the same time, I wrote the special issue introductions at the same time. This allowed me to make sure they had different focuses, drew on significantly different sources, and drew a clean separation between entrepreneurship communication and the rhetoric of entrepreneurship.

Finally, I was able to back-cite from the JBTC introduction to the contents of the IEEE special issue, which turned out to be a really useful move, since up to now, the topic of entrepreneurship has not been discussed in a coherent body of literature in writing studies. (It has of course been covered ably in individual books and articles.)

Overall, this was a good experience. I'll pull out just one thing for consideration in writing projects: maintaining coherence.

Newer scholars begin at the level of the paper or article. The challenge is to sustain a coherent argument across 10-50 pages. For this work, they draw on the genre of the research article, which provides cues and set moves for maintaining coherence across that argument.

Those scholars eventually have to write a dissertation, in which they must sustain a coherent argument across several chapters. This challenge is at a higher level of difficulty, but the genre of the dissertation provides considerable structure for addressing it, as does the mentorship of the dissertation committee.

Once a scholar gets her first job as assistant professor, she must sustain a coherent set of arguments across a set of publications (this is called a "career trajectory"). This set of publications may need to include a book. Here, the new scholar receives much less support, since she is working across a set of genres rather than in a specific one, and since mentorship of assistant professors is spotty. The endpoint is usually tenure. (One way of maintaining coherence is through self-citations.)

At least by the time of tenure, and likely sooner, the scholar has to begin a new major project. That project has to be distinct from the previous one, but still must maintain some coherence (that is, the scholar still needs to articulate a trajectory). This means more publications on a different case, method, or concern, but still drawing from previous work. At places like UT, it means a second book.

By the time the professor gets promoted to full—which is where I am—she needs to think in terms of larger groups of publications. That means developing lines of coherence that could be followed by others in the field, across larger fields of coherence (e.g., special issues, conferences, one's own articles and books).

That's where things get really interesting. And potentially useful.

Writing :: "I think you should explore the kinky market"

Spinuzzi, C. (2017, in press). "'I Think You Should Explore the Kinky Market': How Entrepreneurs Develop Value Propositions as Emergent Objects of Activity Networks." Mind, Culture and Activity

The link above goes to my reprint. I should have about 25 reprints left, so if you are one of the first 25 to click on it, you'll get a free copy courtesy Taylor & Francis. Otherwise you'll see the abstract, and you'll be able to either purchase it, find it in your library, or order it through interlibrary loan.

In my series on writing, I've highlighted the process of putting together these publications rather than their content. I'll continue that tradition here. Although you should (of course!) read and cite the article, here I'll focus on the question of how I put it together.

The empirical project. Longtime readers will recognize the empirical project as one that I've been addressing for a while: How innovators learn to be entrepreneurs. That project led to several publications, culminating in a recent Written Communication article, in which I use actor-network theory's concept of interessement to discuss how innovators attempted to maintain both strategic and tactical coherence in their different materials related to the pitch.

Although I think the WC piece does a good job of overviewing the pitch's development, the project also nicely illustrates challenges that activity theory faces as it attempts to deal with rhetoric. That led me to apply some work I've done elsewhere.

The theoretical project. At CCCC 2016, I delivered a short presentation titled "What's Wrong with CHAT?" (i.e., cultural-historical activity theory). That presentation was updated and workshopped in August for the Dartmouth Conference, and a version is slated as a book chapter. There, I point out four issues in applying CHAT to writing studies; three of these issues are relevant to CHAT more generally.

The current project. So, by September, I had both a theoretical case for describing CHAT limitations and an empirical case for illustrating them. With this base, the paper came together quickly. I knocked together a first draft by late October, sent it in to MCA by early November, and received comments by mid-January.

The reviewer comments were generally positive, but pointed out some issues to be resolved as well as some claims and tone issues that would not have been received well by MCA readers. Since the claims weren't central to my argument, I had no problem backing off of them (leave that battle for another day), and I was glad to fix the tone issues. I sent the revision back in 12 days and received an acceptance within two weeks-- which I think might be a record for me.

Lessons. Honestly, this story illustrates how years of work can result in what seem to be rapid publications. As noted above, it took about 3.5 months from beginning the article to getting it accepted, which seems incredibly short. But that article resulted from years of empirical and theoretical work, the results of which provided plenty of resources for putting together publications.

Contrast that with the article I'm currently writing, which is dragging on and on. The reason is that although I have a broad argument, I'm having to do a lot of historical research to fill in--and test--the argument. Whereas I could work on the "Kinky Market" paper in odd moments, this one takes hours of uninterrupted work. And that work is closer to what newer scholars must do: dissertation students, assistant professors. It takes time to build up resources.

And that's where I want to leave this. If you're a grad student or assistant professor, you may be wondering: When will it get easier to write articles? Why do they take so long for me to write? At the beginning of a project -- and therefore at the beginning of a career, when you only have one or two projects on which to draw -- you develop resources and write articles concurrently. Later in the project, the resources are there and the articles can proceed more rapidly. My best suggestion is to map out the next 3-5 years, anticipate which resources you'll develop, then identify articles that you can build on top of them. The landscape will shift from year to year, but perhaps not as much as you might think.