Making the Visible Invisible

There are a few books I’ve read and reread over the course of my life. I’ve probably read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury five times. I’ve read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman at least four times. I can’t really remember how many times I’ve read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m sure it’s more than six. Just thinking about that book makes me want to reread it again. I’ll have to add it to my summer reading list.

Some people reading that last paragraph may wonder why anyone would want to read a book more than once. To me, I find that the circumstances of my life influences how I read and interpret the text. Some parts that stood out to me decades ago don’t resonate the same way. As I navigate my sixth decade on this planet (!), I’m realizing that I don’t read or see things the same way as when I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure my reading and literacy colleagues would say that’s how it’s supposed to work. Something like “the reader makes meaning of the text.” And while I’m reading the same text over and over, I’m making different meaning because I’m a different person and a different reader. But I’m diverging a good bit from the point of this post.

So, I reread Situated Cognition: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger last week. My colleague, Scott McDonald, and I are doing a series of learning theory discussions on our podcast (Science in Between) and we both agreed to reread the book prior to our discussion. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s where the concept of “communities of practice” took root. The authors present an in-depth look at how people are apprenticed into different communities of practices in different cultures. To solidify their perspectives, they share ethnographic studies of Yucatec midwives and Vai and Gola tailors. They draw on research studying naval quartermasters, butchers, and nondrinking alcoholics. While the book is small, it is dense with examples and thought-provoking ideas.

I first read the book almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was a high school science teacher and I remember reflecting on the types of practices I was structuring in my classes. While the authors intentionally avoid discussing formal classroom education, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but think about my teaching strategies and their “legitimacy.” Since then, I’ve read the book at least three more times prior to reading it last week.

Rather than drive to campus to grab my dog-eared and annotated copy, I downloaded a digital copy of the text and read it on a tablet. In a way, this was a fresh view of the text since I couldn’t see my notes from previous reads. As expected, different things stood out to me this time. Since I now do a lot more work with mentoring new faculty, parts from the text that address supporting newcomers and enculturating them into the community definitely stood out. But a section late in the book was the part that really made me think, especially about this online learning world that we’ve all navigated for the last fifteen months. On page 103, Lave and Wenger write:

A window’s invisibility is what makes it a window, that is, an object through which the world outside becomes visible. The very fact, however, that so many things can be seen through it makes the window itself highly visible, that is, very salient in a room, when compared to, say, a solid wall. Invisibility of mediating technologies is necessary for allowing focus on, and thus supporting visibility of, the sub­ject matter. Conversely, visibility of the significance of the technology is necessary for allowing its unproblematic – in­visible – use.”

I know that might be pretty esoteric stuff, so let me provide some context. We’ve had a lot of students who have struggled with online learning this year for a lot of different reasons. While larger societal issues are definitely at play, I think some of the student struggles can also be attributed to the technologies we use and how we use them. As teachers, we’ve navigated this pandemic by using “mediating technologies” like learning management systems (Canvas, D2L, Schoology, etc.) and synchronous tools (Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.). But did those tools always allow for “unproblematic, invisible use” for students to access content? Or did the tools unintentionally act more like a “solid wall” and limit the “visibility of the subject matter?” It’s hard to know for sure.

I’m reminded of a post I wrote in February 2020, almost a month before the pandemic hit. In the post, I discussed “the worst video game ever” and how it offered us a lens to inform the design of our online spaces. At the time, I wrote that we needed to “reduce that entropy” that may disorient online students. But I think Lave and Wenger offers us a better target for which we should strive: invisibility. Let’s work to design and use our “mediating technologies” so that act as invisible windows, helping students see without themselves being seen.

References:

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

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