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first project

'A word is a microcosm of human consciousness'

This is the closing sentence of the first book by the Russian developmental psychologist L.S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) to be translated for a western audience in 1962 under the title Thought and Language by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. It resonates with the notion expressed in the classical proverb: 'Starting with a grain of sand one can conjure up the Universe'.

Today, the technology that supports the World-Wide-Web makes it possible to attempt to actualise the sentiments of this notion in support of educational goals. A link or a node in the Internet provides potential access to a Universe of informational resources. At this point there is no established wisdom as to how the Web might be best put to educational use. There is doubtless no single way that is appropriate to all disciplines or purposes.

The processes whereby people can jointly work together to construct new institutions, and often 'institutions' that could not have their form specified before those joint actions that result in their constitution have been engaged in, is a binding interest of members of this Faculty. We are thus proposing an 'experiment', and inviting people to collaborate with us in constructing an educational resource.

We approach this task with few preconceptions. We are not attempting to translate any preconceived notions of what a University is to this new medium (others are already involved in this). Rather, we are interested in seeing how a notion might act as a seed to enable the development of a set of linked resources that is both rich and anarchic at the same time; a set of resources that is focussed, yet sufficiently unstructured to allow students to set their own agendas for their own education.

How might one begin such a task?

Following Vygotsky's closing sentence, we have chosen a word as our 'seed', and the word is


Why this word?

Embarrassment is a common experience (or is it? Is it universally experienced or culturally and historically relative?). It is an experience that bridges the perennial question of the mind-body relation, for it is a phenomenon that requires a certain implicit mindful or cognitive grasp of social conventions and one's place within them (otherwise one could never detect having breached them so as to feel embarrassed), and which has clear bodily signs associated with it. To understand embarrassment requires an elucidation of a myriad of notions: identity, development, culture, history and human biology among them. We are thus putting out an invitation to collaborate in developing resources that are initially structured by the associations that embarrassment possesses. We believe that this project provides a potentially fertile focus for a number of graduate classes to put their energies into work assessed for their traditional qualifications.

  • Can a compilation of 'vignettes' of embarrassing situations be compiled by a class studying self, identity and the modern or Victorian novel?

  • Can a graduate class in politics develop materials on the relation between political theory and the nature of social identity that might inform or resonate with a project on cross-cultural communication conducted towards a degree in communication or cultural studies?

  • Are there any theoreticians out there who can provide an analysis of the relation of embarrassment to Foucault's account of the establishment of 'the Gaze' and 'normative judgement'?

  • Is there a class pursuing a degree in history that is taking the history of interpersonal relations as its focus?

  • Is there a group of primatologists concentrating on elucidating the 'theory of mind' that informs the social behaviour of the higher primates who could comment on whether apes can blush?

  • And what is the physiology of embarrassment?

    These questions are by no means exhaustive in outlining a project that has its manifesto rooted in the quote we have chosen to summarize our intentions. Nor have we addressed the question of how such work could be translated into a resource. But the structural possibilities of this electronic medium allow for a creativity of development that is almost unparalleled. We invite discussion and the like via the mailing gizmo appended here.

    But, of course, we realize that it might be rather embarrassing to even consider becoming involved....

    Rom Harre, Oxford University and Georgetown University
    Andrew Lock, Massey University

    Comments to A.J.Lock@massey.ac.nz
    Department of Psychology, Massey University , New Zealand
    URL: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~ALock
    last changed Wednesday, 4 October 1995

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