Nothing Never Happens


21 March 2016

by Rose Hendricks

Students in Dr. Renner’s COGS 102B: Cognitive Ethnography class spent the 10-week winter quarter tuning their cognitoscopes: they learned to see the simplest of activities through expert lenses and to appreciate the complexity involved in all cognitive accomplishments. Armed with an understanding that cognition is distributed across time, space, people, and objects, the students set out to collect various forms of data, including interviews, photos, and video. The projects required them to discover cultural models, culturally-learned underlying assumptions that everyone knows that everyone knows; examine relationships between form and function in creating meaning; and explore the way that information from multiple modalities is coordinated to give rise to a cognitive outcome.

In lieu of a final exam, some students presented projects they had worked on throughout the quarter, demonstrating the incredible variety of circumstances in which they observed fascinating cognition in the wild, in their everyday lives. In a conversation with a peer, Vianey Perez uncovered the cultural model that humans’ intent distinguishes music from noise. She pointed out comments that her interviewee, a composer, made to demonstrate this model and emphasized evidence for the role of human intent in making music -- things like, “I always go for melodies that are going to stop you in your tracks” and “an emotion that I wanna emulate in the form of, in the form of music.” When Shelley Yi interviewed a friend about advice she would give to her siblings, Shelley identified a cultural model of being a first-born: there is an assumption that you will look out for your younger siblings, often helping to teach them the social, moral, and work values that your culture has instilled in you. In an in-depth conversation of different video games, Emily Tao learned that players’ experiences and their sense of community with the other players in the game emerge out of their interactions with the game world and with each other within the game world, a model that can be helpful to future video game designers. Harry Wrench demonstrated that a single word, “energy,” can have many different meanings, from the physics definition of doing work, to the idea of vitality, to a sense of atmosphere and vibe. These projects showed us that regardless of the conversation topic, cultural models guide much of what we say (and even more of what we don’t say -- because we don’t need to say it).

Photo: Ming-Ray Liao: Joint-Action to Create Humor, Both Good and Bad Annotations show the importance of joint attention on an object for the construction of humor.

Photo: Ming-Ray Liao: Joint-Action to Create Humor, Both Good and Bad. Annotations show the importance of joint attention on an object for the construction of humor.

Throughout the quarter, we learned that cognitive richness can be observed in linguistic data alone, but that in collecting even richer data, in the form photos and video, we could observe different kinds of complexity. Michael Zhong demonstrated, in painstaking detail, the cognition involved when a person grabs a water bottle off her desk and places it in her backpack. Ming-Ray Liao annotated video stills to show us that even a seemingly-mundane environment, a supermarket, can become an opportunity for humor, thanks to joint attention and cultural understandings of what is funny. Video stills also allowed us to observe the expert-novice dynamic at work when one friend was teaching another to garden as they attempted to harvest carrots.

Photos: Wesley Ma: Garden Vision.

Photos: Wesley Ma: Garden Vision.

Many students used diagrams to show the complexity in the cognition they observed. Alex Tran demonstrated that we are entrenched in a cultural model of what it means to be successful. Traditional life success comes from success in both work experience and education, each of which are comprised of many underlying assumptions about how they are attained. Arazue Moghtaderi-zadeh had a conversation with a friend about coming out as gay during high school, and depicted the embeddedness of the contexts and language that structure our understanding of the topic. 

Image: Alex Tran: Success: One key at a time           Image: Arazue Moghtaderi-zadeh: Cognition in the Closet.

Left: Alex Tran: Success: One key at a time. Right: Arazue Moghtaderi-zadeh: Cognition in the Closet.

Many of the students who developed their professional vision will be putting these skills to work next quarter as they undertake 102C: Cognitive Design Studio. They’ll become deeply familiar with real-world design challenges facing different organizations and individuals at UCSD and in the San Diego community. After articulating the problems, they’ll work to generate and test solutions to see how the theoretical background and skills they’ve developed so far can help them make tangible process in the world.

Related tags: cognitive ethnography, COGS 102B, undergraduate courses