November 25, 2005

The World's Changed But Our Theories Haven't

(A Requiem for the Baby Boom)

In discussing new times and new literacies, today’s lecture took up the crucial role played by new identities, affinity groups, and networks in the new capitalism. A discussion on the so-called Millennial Generation and their orientation to our new times and new literacies followed, developing the notion of "shape-shifting portfolio people,” a notion that also helps define the new workings of class.

Words and symbols we inherit from those around us fashion us as historically and socioculturally distinctive kinds of people. At the same time, how we use these words and symbols acts back on them to give them new powers and to help transform the world. To understand "new literacies" and "new times,” we need to think about people's interactions with the words, symbols, and themes with which that world confronts them

Sociocultural studies of literacy have argued that there are as many different "literacies" as there are socioculturally distinctive practices into which written language is incorporated. However, one family of literacy practices served, in the old capitalism, as the most significant gate to economic success and sociopolitical power. These were practices that incorporated "academic language." Academic language does not exist just in schools, it exists, as well, out in the world of disciplinary, professional, bureaucratic, official, and public sphere practices and institutions.

Modern consciousness is a viewpoint that holds that "higher intelligence" is epitomized by explicitness (i.e., low reliance on context), analytic skills, logical (deductive) thought, abstract definitions and generalizations, and sustained attention to or communication on a single topic.

As we saw yesterday:
Social languages are tied to socially-situated identities and activities. People can only see a new social language as a gain if they recognize and understand the sorts of socially-situated identities and activities that recruit the social language; if they value them or, at least, understand why they are valued; and if they believe they have real access to them or, at least have access to meaningful versions of them.

Thus, acquisition is heavily tied to identity issues. It is tied to the learner’s willingness and trust to leave the lifeworld and participate in another identity, one that, for everyone, represents a certain loss.

Failing to acquire academic language may still bar poor and minority children from power in society, but acquiring academic language (and showing affiliation with school and school-based practices and values) is now, at least, joined by other important centers of action.

To get at where some of these other centers of action are, we will need to turn to new literacies and new times. The new capitalism is all about multiple identities and enacting and recognizing socially-situated identities. Just as we educators are beginning to get a handle on the issues connected to poor and minority children acquiring the languages and identities connected to schooling, the new capitalist world is changing the nature of identities, and their connection to literacies and knowledge, at play in the world.

Much work in the new capitalism involves teams and collaboration, based on the idea that in a fast changing environment, where knowledge goes out of date rapidly and technological innovation is common, a team can behave smarter than any individual in it by pooling and distributing knowledge. Furthermore, in the new capitalism, work is more and more project based. A team comes together to carry out a project and when the project changes or is over, the team reassembles and many of its members move on to other projects in the same business or other ones. Security in the new capitalism, such as it is, is rooted not in jobs and wages, but in what Gee calls one's "portfolio". By one's portfolio he means the skills, achievements, and previous experiences that a person owns and that he or she can arrange and rearrange to sell him or herself for new opportunities in changed times.

There are three types of design that reap large rewards in the new capitalism: the ability to design new identities, affinity groups, and networks. These three types are all deeply inter-related. In turn, people who are adept at taking on new identities, interacting within affinity groups, and are well connected in networks will flourish.

One type of design typical in the new capitalism is the ability to design products, services, or experiences so that they create or take advantage of a specific identity connected to specific sorts of consumers. Businesses seek through the design of such identities to contract an ongoing relationship with the consumer in terms of which he or she can be sold ever newer variations on products and services or from which information can be leveraged for sale to other businesses. What is important is the identity and relationship that are associated with the product or service.

Affinity groups:
Affinity groups are increasingly important today, both in business and politics. An affinity group is a group wherein people form affiliations with each other, often at a distance (that is, not necessarily face-to-face, though face-to-face interactions can also be involved), primarily through shared practices or a common endeavor (which entails shared practices), and only secondarily through shared culture, gender, ethnicity, or face-to-face relationships.

Another crucial aspect of design in the new capitalism is networking people and organizations. Networking involves designing communicational links between people and organizations. It also crucially involves creating links between people and various sorts of tools and technologies. These tools and technologies not only help create the communicational links that constitute networks, they are themselves nodes in the network in which knowledge is stored and across which it is distributed.

There is a generation of children today who have lived their entire lives in the new capitalism. The so called Millenials.

The new capitalist literature calls for what Gee referred to as "shape-shifting portfolio people". Shape-shifting portfolio people are people who see themselves in entrepreneurial terms. They see themselves as free agents in charge of their own selves as if those selves were projects or businesses. They believe they must manage their own trajectories through building up a variety of skills, experiences, and achievements in terms of which they can define themselves as successful now and worthy of more success later. Their set of skills, experiences, and achievements, at any one time, constitutes their portfolio.

One important theme in the world in which Millennials are growing up is this: thanks to modern technology, young people today are often exposed outside of school to processes of learning that are deeper and richer than the forms of learning to which they are exposed in schools.

Further reading: James Gee, New Times and New Literacies:
Themes for a Changing World.

Posted by kris_r at November 25, 2005 06:13 PM
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