Alan Zemel

Alan Zemel

Associate Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies
CV248.45 KB

PhD, Temple University

Alan Zemel

Undergraduate inquiries: [email protected] 

Research Interests

My research explores how participants engage in instruction, how they display learning’s work, and how they display having made a discovery. In particular, I am interested in analyzing the various communicative strategies and resources people use to display their knowledge, expertise and understanding in various healthcare contexts and other settings outside the conventional classroom. I examine the interactional methods people use to negotiate what is learnable in the instructional setting. Both the work of instruction and the work of learning are treated as mutually constitutive interactional phenomena. Data consist of audio and/or video recordings of talk-in-interaction, but also can include other forms of computer-mediated interactional data such as SMS messages and chat logs. In my work, I focus on how we work together to know the unknown, to speak of the unspoken, and to recognize the unrecognized.

Instructed action and Lebenswelt pairs in instructional interactions

This project explores the basic question: How do actors come to know that which they do not yet know? Extending the ethnomethodological and conversation analytic work of Charles Goodwin (2018) and Douglas Macbeth (2011), I work together with scholars from the University of Stockholm and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to explore the profoundly reflexive nature of action and the ways that instructional interactions are accomplished. A wide ranging collection of data, ranging from psychotherapy sessions, surgical training in the operating room and music lessons, is used to investigate the mutually informing nature of the interaction between instructors and instructees over the course of what they treat as a “lesson.” Instructees are not treated as passive recipients of knowledge but display themselves to be active participants in the formation of the lesson as it occurs. Thus, we examine in close detail the interactional work that occurs between instructors and instructors who mutually monitor, track, and adjust their participation in instructional interactions. In other words, by attending to the fact that lessons in face-to-face encounters are produced by both instructor and instructee on a moment-by-moment basis, we can locate how both instructors and instructees participate in and contribute to the instructional work underway. Preliminary results confirm that instructees do their lessons before they understand them and that understanding is an emergent accomplishment of ongoing participation in and performance of ‘learned’ matters.

Experience and recollection in interaction

This project, involving graduate students here at UAlbany, examines how actors engage in particular recall practices to formulate preservable features of their participation in what are purportedly prior occurrences. Most studies of recollection treat it as a psychological process. Other approaches consider how memory is a social and public matter in the ways that we constitute memorials, testimonial documents and the persistent materiality of our social world. The approach we take treats the formation of recollections as social actions performed by actors in the conduct of their lives. In our view, actors use particular embodied practices, including talk and engagement with documents, material and conceptual artifacts, the circumstances of interaction, etc., to display and account for their competencies and to account for and describe what their reported participation in what are represented as prior occurrences. Experience is thus (a) an achievement displayable in the competency to act in the moment and (b) the work of monitoring current participation in social action for its preservable, reportable, tellable features.

Psychological states as interactional phenomena

Discursive psychology examines psychological phenomena as publicly displayable psychological states. One area of interest we have pursued is how affect is displayed and what its interactional uses are. Based on this research, we use conversation analysis to examine psychological phenomena as actions. By displaying a psychological state to others in interaction, we are interested in specifying what responding actions such displays call for. We have seen that affect displays are one way of explicitly foregrounding misalignments regarding the moral organization of participation in social interaction. Additional work on memory and recall as interactional phenomena is underway.


I am using my experience (a) working on a DARPA funded research project that developed computation al models of conversational strategies and moves aimed at eliciting information from other participants in multi-party online conversations and (b) conducting research on text-based communication in interaction between reference librarians and library patrons to investigate the social organization of text-based interactions. Texting and talking are not equivalent domains of social interaction. The ways we interact via text are quite different from the ways we interact face-to-face. These differences are consequential for the ways we conduct ourselves in social interaction based on the media we use to communicate. Using ethnomethodological and conversation analytic approaches, I look at emergent social orders constituted by text exchanges and investigate the consequences of text-exchange for how we interact.