Comments at ISLS 2023 Presidential Session – Reexamining Core Constructs in the Learning Sciences: Building Bridges to Sustain our Community

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Tanner Vea. I want to thank Joshua and Jasmine for inviting me to be part of this panel of people I admire very much, and I also want to thank the local organizing committee and volunteers for a wonderful conference. 

I have a memory from about a decade ago, riding in a car with my doctoral advisor, Shelley Goldman, on our way back from data generation in the field with families, when she asked me about what I was becoming interested in. I had recently read an article by Jim Greeno, and I remember saying to her, “I want to be a learning theorist.” It was an absolutely precocious thing to say as an early-stage doctoral student. But now, I am very grateful to this generative and generous community for being a community where that could become true. 

I was completely inspired by the insights of situativity theory—the insistence against atomizing the human individual apart from their context, and the idea that “bodies of knowledge” do not exist in some abstract sense apart from their contexts of meaningful use. That people participate in the practices of their communities, and in doing so construct and negotiate meaning and become certain kinds of people.

When I began conducting ethnographic research with animal rights activists in the San Francisco Bay Area, I quickly saw that emotion was an important aspect of how they learned to become valued members of their community. Their emotional responses to more-than-human suffering shaped their ideas about what moral ends are good and what tactics are right. Reciprocally, their ideas about how a just future could be reached also shaped how they practiced emotion. I came to expand situativity theory to emotion as well. Rather than seeing an emotion as an internal, natural, and universal state, I theorized emotion as a social process that led to what I call emotional configurations—a set of meaningful relationships between feeling, conceptual sensemaking, and practice in communities.

For me, taking up a situative approach to emotion also reveals insights about situativity itself. Because how emotion is practiced is shaped by ideology, norms, and power relations, we need to attend to how it feels to learn and become valued members of our communities. The ways we feel are important indications of what is good, right, and beautiful. If we care about seeking justice, we need to understand how emotion shapes our political horizons—helping to structure what futures we can imagine and how we decide to fight for them. People in social movements already know this. They know how to elicit feelings and structure them into configurations with ideas and practices that will help us reach the futures we are dreaming of.

More recently, I have been conducting research with social movement organizers from a range of movement organizations in Philadephia, Pennsylvania. In this work, the focus is on human justice projects—food security, workers’ rights, safe communities—not just more policing. In our conversations, their stories are marked by the pain of relationships among comrades that fell apart in the long grind of organizing for justice, the loss of mentors who have died or have been killed, and the burnout from trying campaign after campaign that often didn’t work out the way they wanted. And now, they see in the rapid fascist ascendance in the US the evidence of just how much ground has been lost in recent decades. We are asking, what kinds of relations between people will support us to overcome these massive challenges? How will we feel when we are in right relations with one another? What kinds of material infrastructures and collective practices will support the relations we need?

This is critical because fascism is about ideas. It is about the ideas of extreme hierarchy and dehumanization, among others. But fascist propaganda is also about emotion. Fascist violence is about fear and submission. Fascists have learned it can also feel good to put others beneath their boots. And we cannot debate our way out of fascism. There is no amount of reasoned conversation that will stop its march. Reason has left the building. 

There is value in listening to each other in trusted community, to maintain our relations, to enable the work we need to do together. But it is also important to know the limits of trusting in ideas and discourse alone. When it comes to designing the learning that will guide us out of the gathering storm, we need to remember that ideas alone will not do it. In fact, situativity and its expansions teach us that ideas never were alone to begin with. Ideas were always connected to feeling, and to the practices of building power for what we know is good and right and beautiful.