Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From "Discourse in Activity and Activity as Discourse"

"[L]ook at the following transcript from a science classroom taken from Lemke (1990):"

Transcript 1: Carbon

  1. Teacher: Ron?
  2. Ron: Boron?
  3. Teacher: That would be—That’d have uh . . . seven electrons. So you’d have to have one here, one here, one here, one here, one here . . . one here—Who said it? You?
  4. Student: Carbon.
  5. Teacher: What’s—
  6. Students: Carbon! Carbon!
  7.  Teacher: Carbon. Carbon. Here. Six electrons. And they can be anywhere within those—confining—orbitals. This is also from the notes from before. The term orbital refers to the average region transversed [sic] by an electron. Electrons occupy orbitals that may differ in size, shape, or orientation. That’s—that’s from the other class, we might as well use it for review. (pp. 17–18, 20)

"Lemke explained that this is a conversation between a teacher standing at the blackboard on which a chalk Atomic Orbital Diagram is drawn. As the teacher talks, he gestures at the diagram and a periodic table hung on the wall. The drawing and table are more than mere props of the teacher’s and students’ dialogue, and they are more than mnemonic devices for the students. At the least, they serve as part of preparing contexts (Lemke, 1990) within which particular questions and statements make sense. When students miss these preparations, they might not even understand what is expected of them as interlocutors, much less the science content of the talk (Lemke, 1990). In terms of our discussion, the students are expected not only to learn to talk about atoms and their orbitals in the correct way, but also to recognize and use such diagrams and tables in the correct ways as well to perform adequate identities as science students. Because science talk is a gateway to further education as well as career choices, such simple routines as this one are important as apprenticeship activities. When we employ turn taking as the unit of analysis and fail to include any description of the activity that co-occurs with the talk and contextualizes it as part of the transcript, some parts of the talk become virtually meaningless to the analyst (i.e., pointing out electrons—“one here” or referring to the diagram “that’s from the other class”). If we are interested in how the mediational means (like diagrams), talk, and activity work together as a distributed system, with how both talk and action shape each other over the course of an activity, and thus with how people learn to use the linguistic and nonlinguistic stuff that makes up Discourse, then we need a different kind of transcript."

Rowe, S. (2001). Discourse in activity and activity as discourse. An introduction to critical discourse analysis in education / edited by Rebecca Rogers.

Unimportant and Unimpressive? Really?!?

"...So what? Big fat deal. What's so great about long-held and politically powerful communities of practice anyway?..."

Brava. Spoken like a true humanities scholar.

Having had a true "near miss" (at times regrettably so à la Paul Simon) as a scholar of Old French Literature (with a postmodern lens, no less) and working in technology-enhanced language learning as a discipline, I feel at times like a humanities scholar trapped in a social sciences degree program, at times a social scientist trapped in the humanities. (cliché)Some of my best friends are humanities scholars(/cliché), others are social scientists. So when posts like this arise, I am truly torn. I don't know whether to cheer "w00t!" or shove a spoon down my throat à la Frank Zappa. I feel like I need to defend the humanities to my social science friends, and make my humanities friends aware of the plight some social scientists face as they strive to achieve the sugar-plum-fairy-and-gumdrops world the humanities scholars will for them…now.

Social science / Ed. folks (of which I consider myself an adoptee): 

Humanities scholars really do love you. They're not "normally combative" or "obnoxious" (well, within their own ranks, they might be, but that's another post). You have taken philosophy and critical theory from which "their disciplines" are the "fount" and you have crafted qualitative tools to rival the quantitative tools of some of your colleagues, tools that both ask and answer questions that those quantitative tools cannot. 

Never forget this one thing, though: try as they might, most humanities scholars are never fully able to escape the discourse of hubris in which they marinate, lodged within those ivory-tower fact, one might say that "the system" encourages it...the longer you are steeped in it, the more likely it is to become reified in your own scholarly activity, and the more likely you are to have your name memorialized on some obscure page of the MLA Website. Or perhaps to roam the halls of some ivy-covered building, with a throng of young acolytes hailing you as the next Stanley Fish. All I'm saying is "don't hate the speaker, hate the discourse!"

The discourse (at least our localized permutation of it) goes something like this (I've "unproblematized" it some to hasten this along): 

We are Guardians (think Republic Book VII).Your "long-held and politically powerful communities of practice" are irrelevant. "Disciplinary quibbling" is futile. We wish to restructure your discipline(s) in a way that "refigures both educational practices and scholarly research". We will add our "more complicated relations" to your "reductive and/or incomplete methods and concepts". "Clamoring for disciplinary credibility" is futile. Your "rarefied and hegemonic" discourses are over. From this time forward, you will "assume that DA is a Science in its own right, as defined by practitioners in 'the field'".

Humanities folks (from which I consider myself an on-again, off-again expat): 

Social scientists envy you at times. What other discipline could pull off a session at  a medieval conference, perchance a dissertation, and a "shout out" in a popular biography around the topic of theorizing the male nipple? (we could argue about which discipline is really rarified, but to what end?). 

Some of us want to move in interesting and new directions, but are hampered by the hegemonic (or at least problematic) position that quantitative methods hold in many of our disciplines. We learn how to explain what we "do" in qualitative research in terms that quantitative methodologists (dare I can understand, because we like graduating and we like tenure. We envy the wide-eyed counter-hegemonic abandon of your manifesto, but if we actually went about "deconstructing received boundaries" and castigating the "incompatible systems" under which we are often compelled to operate, we would get our dissertations (or worse, our tenure dossiers) placed firmly back in our laps. These discussions are important to us, because they will take place over and over again and the friction between the boundaries helps us to understand how to position ourselves. We're glad you don't have this burden. We do.

Some of us want to move in interesting and new directions, but are not convinced that your privileged discourse isn't just trading one hegemony for another:

  •  We've been "quibbling" about what discourse is, what constitutes a legitimate "mode" of inquiry. We thought your vision was Gee's vision (that it is not enough to get just the words “right,” but also one’s body, clothes, gestures, actions, interactions,ways with things, symbols, tools, technologies and values, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions as well). Then we see this desire to conflate DA with Composition Studies, which, unmodified or undeveloped (or unexplained), invokes in most of us a discourse of privileging writing, which seems even more restrictive than rjmr at his most extreme moments. Not sure we're all interested in this avenue.
  • One of your own has been quite critical of the lens used here to position Composition Studies, which he characterizes as having "a lockstep, scholastic uniformity and, far from being comprehensible to the masses of teachers and students... seems calculated mainly to win prestige for composition theory by elevating it to the level of the most arcane (and now outmoded) literary theory; 'doing theory' now often has become a substitute for teaching writing, as it earlier became one for teaching literature."  We get privileging your own discourse (don't agree, just "get it") but reject the desire to maintain or expand a certain theoretical hegemony to the exclusion of our praxiological concerns in general, or to something that we get hung up on, like foundational nomenclature.
  • You speak of DA as if it were a monolith ("DA as a method and product of inquiry", "DA is a Science...based on its...adherence to common method") with "disciplinary best-practices establishment". So, which DA are we talking about? DASP? CDA? Foucauldian DA? CA? The various flavors of linguistic DA? Emerging subdisciplines? What is the common method? Is there even a "common" method in DASP (the one we are ostensibly focusing on), and will I ever use it in my discipline? Which discipline(s) get to establish this "common method" and these "best practices"? Why can't every discipline use every flavor of DA, develop their own common methods and best practices as they evolve? What happened to the interdisciplinarity you were espousing? Or better, are these the kinds of questions you were hoping to get to rather than the ones that are, apparently, not a "big fat deal"?

I couldn't agree more with the desideratum for the speedy arrival of the sugar-plum-fairy-and-gumdrops world...but the praxis of academe is not one of speed. Forced to live in and with the shadows of Plato's Cave,  I, for one, have considered our exchanges (both in class and online) to be anything but unimportant or unimpressive...quite the contrary. If there are some that wish to make that discussion a leitmotif for the course, who am I to say no?