Broken arm semiotics, part II: Plaster cast, rheme, interpretant

…it has never been in my power to study anything, — mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, gravitation, thermodynamics, optics, chemistry, comparative anatomy, astronomy, psychology, phonetics, economic, the history of science, whist, men and women, wine, metrology, except as a study of semeiotic. (C. S. Peirce, in a letter to Lady Welby, 1908)

First, a medical update: I’m not wearing the brace any more, I’ve got most of my range of movement back, and I’m expecting to start physical therapy early- to mid-August. Still can’t ride my bike, though.

In response to my last post, a reader* writes in:

I think you forgot one thing in your thoughts regarding your brace–ambiguity. If it were a classic cast, people would know that you have a broken arm. If it were a splint, it would be assumed that you have a sprain. Both of these are temporary and traditional. But your brace does not reveal the same info. It could be permanent, or not orthopedic or you could be a transitioning bionic person. So, I am guessing that some people you meet, don’t know how to react to your “presentation.”

This is a really good point that I’d like to explore at more length. Read more ›

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A linguistic anthropologist breaks his arm: Indexical order of an elbow brace

It’s been a week since this crash happened, which is more than enough time for my nerd brain to kick in and start treating my experience as an ad-hoc research field site. (Actually, this happened pretty much right away, as I was sitting in the emergency room waiting area, watching myself “doing being-the-patient” and thinking about how my medical case was being processed by the institution. Ethnography: can’t stop, won’t stop.) So much has happened over the week, which I’m considering as a participant-observation experience of being a person with a (temporary) disability, but the specific data point that I’m pulling out for analysis here is the brace that I’ve been wearing on my elbow since Monday. What does it mean that I’m walking around with this piece of hardware on my arm?

The doctor said not to straighten my elbow

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If I have data from one classroom, how can I talk about race?

A lot of social science treats race (I prefer the term “ethnicity,” because it highlights the sociocultural rather than biological nature of it) as an independent variable, a category that people are born into, and that to some extent determines the character of their experiences. This is most explicit in quantitative sociology and policy analysis, where you look at some kind of outcome — test scores, say — and see how ethnicity comes out in a statistical model. Does your dependent variable correlate better with ethnicity, compared to socioeconomic status or whatever else you’ve measured? (That is, is it “more about race” or “more about class”?) Is the correlation statistically significant, or is there a good chance that it might be just coincidence?

As an ethnographer, not only am I asking different questions, but I’m approaching the whole project in a different way. The scale I’m looking at is not big-data correlation but the lived experiences of particular human beings, and on that scale, ethnicity is messy and can mean a variety of things at different times and places. It’s complicated. In my own case, sure, I’m white all the time, but when is it useful to say that I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m white? And I’m not working-class, so can you say that what makes me white is (by definition) something I have in common with people who identify as white and working-class, or is mine a different kind of whiteness? Who can answer these questions better, me or an outside researcher studying me? And couldn’t there be times when I’d define my ethnicity in a different way? If in a particular moment I think it’s important to note that I’m Jewish, does that count as ethnicity? (Are ethnicity and religion distinct categories?)

The ethnographic approach, as I practice it, is to stay agnostic about these things as much as possible, and let the analysis be guided by what happens in the field. My dissertation proposal mentions ethnicity just once, in an overview of different ways people define identity, so it was never my intention to look at ethnicity specifically. But people ask me about it when I tell them what I’m researching, and sometimes the data does take you there.

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“So what are you going to do with that?” A dream job proposal in honor of #beyondprof

I’m soon to graduate with my PhD, but I’m not on the academic job market. You might be wondering about the same question that this book is asking:

So what are you going to do with that?

So in the spirit of the currently ongoing Beyond the Professoriate virtual conference (#beyondprof on Twitter), here’s one thing I’d love to do. It’s a role I see for myself in K–12 education that builds on my teaching experience, as well as the knowledge of ethnography and other qualitative research methods that I’ve gained through my doctoral coursework and research.

I believe research and professional development can be transformative, if they’re used as tools by teachers, for teachers.

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About the NPR News piece “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding The Achievement Gap”

After reading this piece on the NPR website, as well as the research article it reports on, I felt I had to write to the ombudsman. The text of my letter follows.

Dear Ombudsman:

In the story “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding the Achievement Gap” on last week’s All Things Considered, I was disappointed not to hear a response to Bruce Fuller from an expert on bilingual and multicultural education. Including this perspective would have highlighted two significant problems with the piece: first, that Dr. Fuller’s research is framed in a highly anglocentric way, and second, that some of the claims he made on the radio are not supported by his research. Read more ›

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Situated learning or indoctrination?

Lately I’ve been emailing with Bryan Meyer (@doingmath) about theories of learning and where you draw the line between learning and indoctrination. Bryan is a math educator, researcher, and radical constructivist, so when I was writing about students undergoing a process of socialization — which entails “becoming like” senior members of the community — he pushed back on this. He asked whether education can be considered to lead students to “become” something without necessarily “becoming like” their teacher or some other model. I asked what he meant, and he suggested I look at this article by Rochelle Gutierrez (PDF). Here’s my response:

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Semiotics and the development of number sense

What is a number, really? Or to put it another way: think of the lights on a traffic light, the segments of the circle in the Mercedes-Benz logo, the beats in one measure of a waltz rhythm, the way Julius Caesar divided up Gaul, the colors on the U.S. flag, a three-liter bottle of Coca-Cola – what do these things have in common? Philosophers have claimed that there is a Platonic essence of “three-ness” that exists in all of these instances, and math educators look for children to develop a “number sense” that allows them to recognize it in all its different manifestations. But what if this is looking at it backward? What if “three,” as a concept, begins in our direct experience of the world? I’m going to talk through this line of reasoning, drawing on previous research on the development of number sense in children, and thinking it out using the semiotic theory of C. S. Peirce.

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