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The Limits of the Apprenticeship Models in WAC/WID Research

David R. Russell, Iowa State University (

One of the most significant developments in writing research over the last twelve years has been the large number of naturalistic studies of writing in the disciplines (college-level) and in the professions (non-academic writing) (see my review, Russell, MCA, 1997). A number of these are based on the metaphor of apprenticeship, most recently the theory of 'cognitive apprenticeship' drawn from research in situated cognition (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The learning and teaching of students in schools or colleges, as well as workers in non-academic settings, is compared to the learning and teaching of apprentices in pre- or early-industrial societies, who learned on the job while doing progressively more complex and central tasks, under the watchful eye of a master or expert. A central advantage of the apprentice metaphors is that it allows us focus on actions and motives that the official school curriculum and traditional theories of education (and their metaphors of "banking" or "transmission") find it difficult do discussthe "hidden curriculum" that many have studied (e.g., Henry, 1963; Holt, 1964).

Yet metaphors of apprenticeship--drawn from earlier versions of capitalism--are, I would argue, severely limited in their capacity to explain the ways newcomers learn new genres in late capitalist work environments, to theorize, in other words, the relation between formal schooling and industrial society. I want to suggest here three basic ways that theories based on the apprentice metaphor are limited.

(1) They have great difficulty accounting for the effects of formal education, which was not an important part of apprentice training but clearly is a central part of preparation for work environments nowand a deep though tacit influence on workplace writing practices.

(2) They have great difficulty accounting for the highly intertextual environment of late capitalist work environments, where extensive filing systems, document cycling, and multi-media communication continually problematize the dyadic master/apprentice relationship. And

(3) They have great difficulty accounting for the dialectical contradictions that arise when late capitalist institutions hire newcomers ('apprentices') with greater expertise in certain areas (e.g., computers) than the old-timers ('masters'). Such mutual learningspecifically encouraged by some institutionsis impossible to explain using traditional apprenticeship models that do not take into account complex division of labor (and cognition).

Let's examine these three limitations one by one in light of recent research. Then I'll suggest a different metaphor that preserves the most useful aspects of the apprentice metaphor while taking into account the vastly different educational relations in late modern or "postmodern" societies.

(1) First, unlike most apprentices in earlier stages of capitalism, the vast majority of US workers--and of course students--have had the experience of formal education, which mediates their encounter with practices beyond school--and of course with further levels of schooling as well. Sometimes the effects of these mediations are obvious. When students in Freedman et al's studies of college seniors in internships and practicums, for example, began working outside formal schooling, they often carried expectations into the worksite that impeded their ability to learn and write new genres. They wrote in ways they had learned to write in school, both in terms of formal features and processes and motives, which interfered with their learning new genres and processes of writing.

At a deeper level, apprentice metaphors applied to formal schooling break down in terms of the nature of late modern education and specialization. It would be extremely difficult--and indeed undesirable to most of us, I expect--for specialization (and with it social selection or career choice) to be as early and as final as it was in the days when children and young adults were apprenticed to a master and not given a "general" education. Indeed, most nations, including our own, have moved toward later and later specialization and sorting, hoping that students will be exposed to a wide variety of possible career and life paths before being required to invest themselves fully in an apprenticeship in one of them. First-year composition is of course a dramatic example. Students are exposed to many genres, drawn from many academic fields and wider social practices, rather than focusing on the writing of one. Brief exposure to the writing or social practice of the kind common in formal education is potentially very useful (I encourage my composition students to meet people in a field, read what they write, visit them, etc., as part of their processes of writing)but it is emphatically NOT apprenticeship, except in the loosest metaphorical sense.

As Aviva Feedman and her collaborators have found in studies of interns and new employees, and Prior, Blakeslee, and others found in his studies of graduate students, late specialization means that students may still be shopping for a career, a life-path, even in graduate school or their first years on the job. Thus many students and new employees do not see themselves as apprentices. And this profoundly affects they ways the write and learn to write, in terms of their motives.

(2) A second limitation of the apprenticeship metaphor is that it has great difficulty accounting for the highly intertextual environment of late capitalist work environments, where extensive filing systems, document cycling, and multi-media communication continually problematize the dyadic master/apprentice relationship. Late modern or "postmodern" work environments bring together people from a range of professional fields and social practices. Work--and writing--are widely distributed within large organizations (or small organizations interacting with other organizations). A network of specialized written genres mediates, intertextually, the work of people widely separated in space and often time. (To illustrate my point, simply look in your wallet and trace the intertextual relations and social practices you are linked to by the text (and numbers) on those cards other documents in your wallet).

Increasingly, workers must be able to communicate with those outside their specific social practice, the limited world of the apprenticeship, and critically, flexibly respond to and write a range of genres. Moreover, these genres are rapidly changing as new practices evolve, mediated by rapid changes in technologymost dramatically communications technology. School knowledge is often encapsulated or commodified or blackboxed (choose your metaphor) so that it that can be "transmitted" or "banked". Hence the apprentice metaphor can help us see beyond the commodification or encapsulation of knowledge to the human activities it mediates actively. But traditional apprentice learning was also, in its own way, encapsulated in the social practices of a discrete community, the cobbler, the machinist, the weaver, and so on, whose relations with other social practices were much more regularized and stabilized than they are today. Apprentice metaphors must be radically expanded to the point where they look less like an apprenticeship and more like an expanding network of dynamic social processes mediated by increasingly complex systems of written genres, connected intertextually in interlocking social practices. Flexibility, reflectivity, and critique are necessary, not simply an uncritical socialization into a single social practice. Paré's studies of new social workers in hospital and legal settings shows how difficult it is for both insiders and outsiders, masters and apprentices, if you will, to negotiate textually the complex power relations involved in a recommendation to a judge or the social worker's contribution to a chart read by doctors and insurance companies.

(3) This brings us to a third and final limitation of apprentice models. The master-apprentice relationship is increasingly complicated by the elaborated distributed networks of late or post-modern social practices. It's sometimes devilishly hard to tell the masters from the apprentices, as knowledge comes to be distributed and redistributed in these networks. For example, a number of studies (e.g., Smart, 1997; Freedman & Artemeva) found that older employees often look to new employees to learn essential practices, particularly with computer technology. The young teach the old. Indeed, organizations often deliberately recruit young employees with new ideas and techniques fresh out of college (or even interns still in college) in order to bring fresh techniques to an organization. They sometimes look to higher education to provide innovation, in management, training, research, and, yes, communication technology and practice. What is encapsulated or commodified or banked as school knowledge in academic settings may be unpacked in nonacademic settings and used to mediate dynamic networks of practice in institutions beyond school. The apprentice metaphor fails rather miserably to theorize these developments.

Given these three limitations of the apprentice metaphor, what other metaphors might help us theorize and guide students' experience of writing between school and society? Yrjo Engestrom, following Davidov and the Russian Activity Theorists, proposes metaphors of learning by expanding in multiple, interlocking networks of practice. Students learn by expanding their involvement with various social practices, critiquing them as they go. Learning to write is not so much an apprenticeship but a complex set of expanding involvements mediated by writing various genres. Social practices today are less and less discrete. They are mediated by larger and more elaborated networks of genres, which only temporarily regularize or stabilize-for-now work practices, including written genres, because the various interlocking social practices embody contradictions, differences in direction, motives, purposes, values. When students or beginning professionals encounter some stabilized or encapsulated knowledge or process, they can critically unpack it, discovering and remaking it as they trace its origin and use into the networks it mediates. Textbook knowledge and commodified writing practices have their uses, their histories, which can be followedbut which also can be changed, potentially, through the agency of people with diverse motives and objects interacting together, collaboratively and conflictually. As Engestrom puts it, this approach "is based on facing the current contradictions and draws strength from their joint analysis" (1991, p. 257).

The metaphor of expansion allows us to retain the heart of the apprentice metaphorwe can still focus on actions and motives largely ignored the official school curriculum and traditional theories of education (metaphors of "banking" or "transmission"). But the learning-by-expanding metaphor allows us to see the value as well as the limitations of the commodification or encapsulation of school learning. One asks with one's students, expansively: How did this knowledge or practice come to be? Who uses it? Who benefits from itand is exploited by it? How can it be changed and who would benefitand be exploitedby the change in the context of some application in a network of activity?

In conclusion, let me say that my ongoing research review of some qualitative studies of writing using various theoretical models using Vygotskian activity theory as its frame (Bazerman 1994; Berkenkotter & Huckin 1994; Engestrom 1987; Russell 1995) suggests that the apprentice model has contributed much to our understanding of writing and learning to write. However, this activity theory analysis suggests that analyzing writing as a mediational tool for historically-conditioned, dialectically structured social practices mediated in part by writing, such as academic disciplines and workplace writing, suggest a more powerful lens than apprentice models for viewing the mutual appropriation of discursive practices. I would suggest at metaphors of learning by expanding into dialectically structured networks of activity theory may prove more helpful both to researchers and WAC program participants, and composition teachers as they try to make the best use of the growing literature in the field.

Selected Bibliography

Activity Theory

Bakhurst, D. (1991). Consciousness and revolution in Soviet philosophy. From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. New York: Cambridge U P.

Bazerman, Charles. (1994). Systems of genres and the enactment of social intentions. In A. Freedman & P. Medway (Eds.) Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 79-101). London: Taylor & Francis.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P.

Davidov, V. V. (1988). Problems of developmental teaching: The experience of theoretical and experimental psychological research. Parts 1-3. Soviet Education, 30 (8-10).

Davidov, V. V. (1990). Types of generalization in instruction: Logical and psychological prelims in the structuring of school curricula. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Engeström, Yrjö. Learning by Expanding: An Activity Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy, 1987. (hard to find, but worth it)

Engeström, Yrjö. "Non Scolae Sed Vitae Discimus: Toward Overcoming the Encapsulation of School Learning." Learning and Instruction 1 (1991): 243-59.

Russell, D. R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis," Written Communication 14 (1997): 504-554.

Empirical Studies of Writing that Problematize Apprentice Models

For a review of workplace and educational studies using activity theory and genre theory see:
Russell, D. R. (1997). "Writing and Genre in Higher Education and Workplaces: A Review of Studies That Use Cultural-Historical Activity Theory," Mind, Culture, and Activity 4 (1997): 224-237.

Anson, C. M., and Forsberg, L. (1990). Moving beyond the academic community: Transitional stages in professional writing. Written Communication 7, 200-31.

Berkenkotter, C. & Huckin, T. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: Cognition/culture/power. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Blakeslee, A. M. (1997). Activity, context, interaction, and authority: Learning to write scientific papers in situ. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 11, 125-169.

Burnett, R. E. "'Some People Weren't Able to Contribute Anything But Their Technical Knowledge': The Anatomy of a Dysfunctional Team." Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology. Ed. Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996. 123-156.

Christie, F. & Martin, J. R. (1997). Genres and institutions. London: Cassell.

Diaz, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P., & Paré, A. (in press). Writing in academic and workplace contexts: Affordances and constraints. Mawah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Diaz, Patrick X., and Anthony Paré (Eds.) Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Freedman, A., & Smart, G. Navigating the current of economic policy: Written genres and the distribution of cognitive work at a financial institution. Mind, Culture, and Activity 4 (1997): 238-258 .

Johns, L. C. (1989). The file cabinet has a sex life: Insights of a professional writing consultant. In Worlds of writing: Teaching and learning in discourse communities of work. Ed. Carolyn Matalene. New York: Random House.

MacKinnon, J. (1993). Becoming a rhetor: Developing writing ability in a mature, writing-intensive organization. In Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1993. 41-55.

Paré, Anthony. "Discourse Regulations and the Production of Knowledge." In Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1993. 111-123.

Prior, P. (in press). Writing/disciplinarity: A sociohistoric account of literate activity in the academy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schryer, C. F. (1994). The lab vs. the clinic: Sites of competing genres. In Freedman & Medway, eds. Genre and the new rhetoric. 105-124.

Winsor, D. (1990a). How companies affect the writing of young engineers: Two case studies. IEEE Transactions on professional communication, 33, 124-129.

Winsor, D. (1990b). Joining the engineering community: How do novices write to learn like engineers? Technical Communication, 37, 171-17?2. (engineering)

Winsor, D. (1996). Writing like an engineer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Other Studies Referred To

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1991.

Holt, J. (1964). How children fail. New York: Pitman.

Henre, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: Vintage Books.