#CWCon from Afar: Gee’s Affinity Spaces & Situated Learning Interrogated

I have been following Computers & Writing Conference this week on Twitter at the #cwcon hashtag. Among the most livetweeted talks was James Paul Gee’s keynote, “Writing in the Age of the Maker Movement.” Gee, famous for research on gaming and literacy, spoke broadly about teaching writing from a situated learning perspective. In his talk, he emphasized the need for “goal-based action” in learning to write, where students see writing as a way of “doing” something. He advocated learning situated in “affinity spaces,” where a group coalesces over a “common endeavor” (Gee, 2003, p. 192). I have Storified the livetweeting of the talk here.

Before I respond to the talk, I want state a caveat: I wasn’t there. I am relying on livetweeting, and therefore my comprehension and interpretation of Gee’s talk is limited by the points that were livetweeted. I could have missed points in his argument, which would then skew my interpretation in an erroneous direction. I apologize in advance if I misinterpreted Gee.

I want to respond to a few key claims livetweeted, so I’ve selected the first tweets I could find in the #cwcon stream that documented each of these claims. I have embedded them below.

I absolutely agree. Graham & Perin (2007) confirmed a similar claim in their meta-analyis of 142 writing studies (grades 4-12), where they found that students achieve more in writing when they have “reachable goals for the writing they are to complete” (p. 4). Based on this evidence, it seems that goals should be embedded in any theory of writing or writing pedagogy. When we expect students to produce a text, we need to give them a goal not only of what the writing should look like but also what the writing should accomplish. One writing approach that does this exceptionally well is genre theory and pedagogy. Martin & Rose (2008), from the Sydney school, include “goal-based action” as part of their definition of genre; for them, genres are “staged, goal-oriented, social processes.” When students learn genres from this perspective, they are learning the way that writing and language can be used to accomplish action in a social context. Furthermore, if students do not see the goal of a composition, how can they know if they have achieved or accomplished anything in their writing? So, goals are critical for metacognition as well.

Gee then makes a case that schools are currently not addressing this need for “goal-based action.” He begins by explaining that the school culture currently is designed to make people feel dumb.

Gee’s argument here stems from situated learning theory, famously articulated by Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1989), which asserts that schools teach writing (and other subjects) in a decontextualized fashion, which makes the goals of such writing murky. “What exactly is the point of a research paper, anyhow?” students may wonder. I can understand how students get frustrated and start to feel “stupid” when school seems to lack a meaningful context. As a pre-service teacher, I was always afraid of the moment my students asked: “Why do I need to learn this?” I sometimes feel that I still do not have an adequate explanation for some things–teaching meter in poetry, for example, which is still a part of education standards for K-12. From teacher lore, I have surmised that the go-to, nebulous rationale for students learning complex concepts and skills that seem useless outside school: “It teaches critical thinking.” This I infer to mean that it will transfer one day in ways we cannot understand right now. Unfortunately, this does not seem an adequate answer for students who want a concrete meaningful context for their learning. So Gee raises an important point about problems with some current ways schooling is done.

I do want to interrogate Gee’s critique here, though, because I think its pedagogical and curricular implications are important.

Gee seems to be advocating an “affinity spaces” curriculum approach where students study and learn how to take action to accomplish a common goal within a group through their writing. In the case of games, the common goal is enjoyment and improvement at the game. Gee cites a number of other gaming groups, like Yu-Gi-Oh, that represent “affinity spaces.” But in the case of school, it is less clear to me what exactly affinity spaces should be like.

This statement–which, on Twitter, is documented with a number of different paraphrases–puzzled me. What is “school” in the game metaphor? Is it a game? Or is it the manual for the game? And if the latter, what’s the game? Is the game the discipline to which we are giving the students the manual? Or is the discipline and disciplinary knowledge, which may be abstract and decontextualized, the manual for the game? If the latter, then is the game the field of work in which the discipline applies?

I think these questions lead to a more fundamental question of an affinity space approach: What should be the object of affinity in the affinity space? Must it be a game? Could “school culture” be an affinity space? Could “academia” be an affinity space? Could we see the liberal arts as an affinity group whose object of affinity is knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

I hesitate to answer these questions because I’m not quite sure I understand where Gee really comes down on the matter and [full disclosure] I have not read broadly in Gee’s work (just a book he edited). I imagine I may have a clearer understanding if I considered school in light of Gee’s rather lengthy criteria for an affinity space. But for the moment, I want to respond with two things that complicate an affinity space approach, as I currently understand it from the livetweeting. I also want to complicate the situated learning perspective, which I utilize in my own courses, more broadly:

  1. First-Year Composition programs often have a mandate to teach students how to produce academic writing in the college setting. If this is the case, following Gee’s metaphor, then it seems the game, or object of affinity, should be school and the goal of FYC might be to teach students how to “play” the “school game.” And since part of the “school game” involves writing research papers, response papers, and essay tests, it makes sense to learn how to play the “school game” by writing research papers, response papers, and essay tests. But what is the goal, then? What’s the object of the game? My current thinking is that the goals of the aforementioned FYC papers should assume the goals of similar papers in academia. That is, the goal of each paper would depend on the goals of the genre as it is used in the academy (genre theory helps here). But broadly, the goals of the papers should assume the goals of academic writing in general, including the goal of producing generalizable knowledge for knowledge’s sake and improving and advancing a particular field of work or study. Whether students have or can cultivate affinities for these goals is another question; but these do seem to be objects of the school game.
  2. We have little experimental evidence that situated learning spontaneously transfers in school settings, much less outside of school. Hendricks’ (2001) study of 194 seventh graders revealed that students who engaged in “situated learning” acquire a better understanding of a concept than those who did not. However, “the results of this study do not support the claim made by situated cognitionists that situated learning results in robust knowledge that is transferable to real-life situations” (p. 308). In the transfer task, only two students (both from the situated learning group) transferred their knowledge from the previous instruction to the transfer task. This means that while situated learning models can help students learn more, we still do not have evidence for the transfer efficacy of situated learning. Hendricks rightly notes: “Broad, spontaneous transfer is the goal of education. The purpose of instruction is not to prepare students to pass a test on covered material, but to prepare students to use what has been learned in a useful and meaningful way outside of school” (309). This especially applies to the some programs’ goals for FYC to prepare students broadly for transferring their FYC knowledge to writing in the academy and later in life. While Gee’s situated learning may show results in the FYC classroom, any claims to transferability seem more doubtful at the moment. Admittedly, there were some methodological problems in Hendricks’ study, which she addressed in her limitations section. This fact suggests caution should be taken in making claims about transferability of situated learning; the jury is still out.

I want to thank all those who livetweeted Gee’s keynote and other talks, and a special thanks and shout-out to fellow Purdue graduate students who presented & livetweeted at Computers & Writing: @voleuseCK & @adamstrantz. Because I am in an Education program, it takes a little more effort for me to keep up with Rhetoric and Composition (you’ll note all of my citations in this blog are from Ed sources). Twitter has been a productive resource for me to keep up with the field, and I am indebted to all the scholars who Tweet and share their knowledge with the Twitter community.

CORRECTION: The book I linked to was not edited by Gee; he did write the Forward and his work heavily influenced the research presented in it.



  1. Hi Michael,
    I was at the talk, and your summary of tweets and questions are extremely helpful. Here’s a bit more context, from my memory of things, on the getting the manual and not playing the game. This extended from Gee’s analysis of YuGiOh cards, which offer a specialized and complex language. He noted that 5 – 7 years can read these cards and understand them perfectly well. He then described how when he first got into playing some video games, he started by reading the manual. He didn’t say this, but it sounds left over the practice of reading directions for a board game one is new to before starting. Anyway, he had a manual for a video game and got so many pages into before he gave up. The manual was frustrating and incomprehensible, referring to things that were abstractions because no real. However, when he ditched the manual and just started playing the game, things became clearer through play. After being in the game a few hours, the manual was then useful, as a reference as needed.

    He compared the manual to a number of things, one of them being textbooks, which, depending upon the book and the discipline, can drip with facts but not with doing. And there are, in some courses and some books for those courses, that kind of parallel, where the book functions like the manual.

    In writing courses, however, the goal is to have students write — it’s a doing course, a goal oriented course. And if a teacher makes clearer for writers some things: audience and purpose, how the writing works and why it might be read, that can help move in the direction Gee urges. It’s a direction writing courses can go. Experiential and community service writing move into that direction. Collaborative projects in writing courses do. Affinity in a required course might be harder to come by, but it’s approachable with the right kinds of assignments.

    In my own education, I found affinity groups outside of course structures. So as an undergrad, I wrote on the school newspaper with people who cared about writing and editing, and we worked on that on our own. With some English majors, we formed our own discussion groups and met at a campus pub. Graduate school coursework is almost by definition an affinity group thing — such specialized subjects with fellow learners who geek on that kind of stuff — until one spins off on the lonely thesis or dissertation trail.

    So creating affinity spaces can happen. The other thing that can happen in writing courses, can be encouraged somewhat uniquely in them, is the idea that it’s ok to try and to fail, the kind of things that games promote, indeed require and which players don’t seem to mind. That’s what revision is for. See http://chronicle.com/article/Next-Time-Fail-Better/131790/ by Paula Krebs for more on that.

    Hope this helps. Again, thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nick. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you until now. I take all of your points–I got the gaming manual explanation from the livetweeting as well, but a thorough explanation here helped clarify things. The books, it seems, are the closest thing to the “manual.” I agree to a point that we can learn more through doing, although we do have experimental evidence that there is, in fact, a “time for telling.” Interestingly, that time happens after students have had time to experience some of the phenomenon being studied, as Gee rightly noted. But without a rhetoric text or instruction on writing models, we have no way to communicate with students about writing because we would have no metalanguage to do so. We end up using folk-writing terminology like “flow” and “clarity” and “tone” that cannot be used to diagnose issues in writing very accurately. It would be like a gamer saying, “Oh yeah, I moved my little guy around on the screen and waved the little stick thingy next to the green blob thingy. But I can’t get the big black square to move. What do I do?” Experiential learning needs to include discourse of writing–and, if possible, discourse community-specific lexis, genres, expectations, conventions, etc. I don’t know if you were suggesting that the manual isn’t needed in classes about “doing,” like FYC, or perhaps you were suggesting a very small manual denoting audience, purpose, and situation; but I think the manual needs a little more in order to be useful and accurate.

      The affinity space problem is difficult because most FYC programs ARE required and are charged to prepare students for writing in college. And for the majority of their time, students will be writing in their discipline. Thus the most common affinity space for the college student–and most immediate–is their major, as you demonstrated in the graduate school example. Each discipline has its own way of writing–a unique way they use language to construct the kinds of meanings possible in that discipline. I wish more colleges had learning communities, like Purdue does, where it is possible to study writing in a discipline IN an affinity space community. The problem, of course, is that not all FYC teachers are conversant in the discourse practices of disciplines outside of English. The proper instructors of writing in the discourse community of the discipline is the members of the discipline–chemistry professors should be teaching students how to writing in chemistry because they are the ones who have experience writing in chemistry. FYC instructors, by and large, do not have experience writing in chemistry. So the affinity space mismatch is a structural problem of the way FYC is set up in the U.S. One solution I’ve come up with so far is to treat the FYC class as a space for students to use rhetoric and writing models to study how people write in their discipline via ethnographic/case study methods. So they will become a member of a small discourse community related to their discipline and produce a report on how these people write. It’s one-off knowledge, but it’s the best FYC instructors can do–because none of us are qualified to judge the writing of disciplines of which we are not a part.

      To be sure, there is such a thing as academic writing in general, and in some sense the academy can be an affinity space–but it is less an affinity object than the major the students choose themselves and want to learn more about.

      I’ve gone and said more than I had planned! I appreciate you clarifying some the concerns I had about Gee and I think your points on collaboration, community service, and revision are all spot on. Thanks for responding. Wish I could have been there!

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