This chapter discusses theories and methods for thinking about how language works in the world, with an emphasis on teachers’ discourses and identities. It includes definitions of discourse, Discourse, and identity drawing on the work of James Paul Gee, as well as a review of two studies on preservice and inservice teachers’ discourses and identities. It also introduces critical discourse analysis as a theory and method for analyzing discourse. Further, it provides ways for preservice teachers to engage in critical identity work through the study of discourses.
After reading this chapter, readers will be able to
- define discourse and Discourse;
- identify how Discourses relate to identities;
- consider the Discourses they enact, or act as;
- discuss some research findings on teachers’ discourses and identities;
- define critical discourse analysis as a theory and research method;
- consider ways to study their own discourses and identities;
- engage in critical identity work.
In the most literal sense, James Paul Gee, a Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, defined discourse, with a little d, as stretches of oral or written language-in-use. He defined Discourse, with a big D, as distinctive ways of using discourse, that is, speaking/listening and/or reading/writing coupled with ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, and believing (Gee, 2011). Gee’s definition of Discourse is a theory that explains how language works in society. His theory of Discourse is grounded in social and cultural views of literacy. Social and cultural views of literacy suggest that context, history, culture, discourse, power, and beliefs influence teachers, literacy, and instruction.
You may be wondering why such seemingly complex terms such as discourse and Discourse are important for teachers to understand. Research suggests that teachers’ discourses, or language, can contribute to uneven expectations for students in schools, such as when teachers use language that favors students more like themselves. It also suggests that when teachers examine their own discourses, they may better understand who they are as teachers and how their Discourses (ways of speaking, listening, reading, and/or writing integrated with ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, and believing), might lead to inequity in the classroom. As teachers think about and work against such Discourses, they can provide fair learning opportunities for all students in schools (Comber & Kamler, 2004; Hall, Johnson, Juzwik, Wortham, & Mosley, 2010). Gee (2012) also asserted that as individuals become knowledgeable about theories of Discourses, individuals have an “obligation” to reflect on Discourses (p. 216). Thus, as you prepare to assume roles in schools, it is important to understand how your Discourses influence interactions with students and colleagues, as well as influence your instructional decisions. In this chapter, you will be provided with ways to consider the Discourses that you bring to your teaching self.
All individuals use “little d” discourses, or language-in-use, to be recognized, or identified, by others as certain kinds of people (e.g., teacher, bird watcher, doctor). Gee (2000) defined identity as, “The ‘kind of person’ one is recognized as ‘being’ at a given time and place” (p. 99). People enact, or act as, multiple identities and Discourses, ways of speaking, listening, reading, and/or writing coupled with ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, and believing, that depend on the context that they are in at any given time and place. For example, one can be a teacher and bird watcher, but the language that person uses to be identified as a teacher may be different than the language the person uses as a bird watcher.
Individuals also enact identities through language by comparing or contrasting others’ identities to the identities they wish to enact. For example, as you think about yourself as a teacher, you may compare or contrast yourself to “good” and “bad” teachers you had during your academic career. When you think of good teachers who taught you in the past, you might even think of them as influential to your identity as a teacher, and you may hope to emulate their positive attributes. Teachers sometimes even compare and contrast themselves to students. Gee (2011) said, “For example the ‘Special Ed’ teacher needs ‘Special Ed’ (‘SPED’) students and talks about and acts in regard to students in such a way as to create and sustain this identity as well” (p. 109). So all individuals need other people to enact their identities because they measure their identities against others (e.g., good and bad teachers and students).
In addition, there can be conflicts among individuals’ multiple Discourses and identities because they do not always represent consistent and compatible values. Gee (2012) referred to competing Discourses as “tension” or “conflict” (p. 175). Tensions or conflicts among competing Discourses can be the source of struggle and resistance when individuals bring other Discourses to their day-to-day interactions. For instance, he suggested that the values of many school-based Discourses treat certain students as “other,” which means students are sometimes treated differently because of their race, class, gender, or sexuality (Gee, 2012, p. 4).
An example of tensions or conflicts of competing Discourses was presented in a study by Hyland (2009) that I will first introduce and then describe in more detail in the next section of this chapter. Hyland’s (2009) study illuminated the challenges one White, female, fourth grade teacher faced while attempting to build relationships across culture and race with her African American students. The teacher’s Discourses suggested she wanted students to feel important, capable, valued, and empowered, and she structured learning tasks in her classroom accordingly. The teacher’s Discourses, however, conflicted with the dominant Discourses of others in the school. Other teachers were reported to attribute their “dysfunctional” classrooms to negative assumptions about students and their families (Hyland, 2009, p. 105). Such competing Discourses made it hard for the teacher to reconcile dominant messages about her students’ African American culture.
Typically, individuals do not consider their Discourses. It is almost as if Discourses are unconscious. For this reason, people are not always critical about what counts as “normal” ways to think, feel, and behave as teachers, bird watchers, or doctors, for example. In this regard, Discourses can be dangerous because they relate to who has power in society and have ways of valuing what is “normal” or “good” in ways that “stack the deck” in favor of certain “kinds of people” (Gee, 2012, p. 165). In spite of creating a classroom environment where students were valued and empowered, Hyland (2009) found that the Discourses of the teacher discussed above hindered her relationships with her students’ families because she positioned students’ lives as abnormal compared to her own.
It is important for individuals, particularly if you are or will be a teacher, to become aware of your many Discourses because they will influence your interactions with others, students and colleagues alike. Going forward, consider the Discourses you enact so others recognize you as a certain kind of person. You may consider yourself a child, a parent, a student, a kind of professional, and so forth. How do you speak, listen, read, write, act, interact, value, feel, dress, think, and believe according to these identities? For example, this author’s Discourses differ depending on whether I am with my children at story time at the local library or at the university asserting myself as a professor. Depending on the context, I enact different Discourses so others recognize me as a certain kind of person (e.g., mother, professor) or to indicate my belonging to various social groups.
Some of the research on teachers’ discourses shows that teachers draw on what is called “deficit” Discourses. Deficit Discourses are ways of using language that suggest some individuals or certain groups in society are failing or deficient, and these are the Discourses that are important to think about and work against in order to provide more equitable opportunities for all students in schools. A good example of deficit thinking in action is presented by Hyland (2009), who followed the early career of a fourth grade, White, female teacher introduced earlier. Hyland gathered data over a two-year period, from sources such as observations, interviews, notes from informal conversations (sometimes in the form of emails), and entries from the teacher’s journal. Hyland studied these data sources for evidence of culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant pedagogy is a practice of teaching that embraces students’ backgrounds and makes connections between students’ home and school lives while being aware of and critiquing the oppressive relationships between students’ backgrounds and dominant culture (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 1999). For more discussion about culturally-based pedagogies, please see Chapter 12.
Recall that in Hyland (2009), the White fourth grade teacher’s language suggested she valued her students’ culture, but she struggled to recognize differences between her life and her students’ lives. The teacher talked about students’ families and lives as if they were deficient. For instance, the teacher suggested that students’ language use was deficient and that parents did not read to their children at home. Viewing students and their families in this way made it difficult for the teacher to make connections to the community. Hyland concluded that it is important for teachers to be able to recognize and critique deficit Discourses that are present in schools and society in order to be culturally relevant teachers.
Studies on preservice teachers’ identities show that teachers experience conflicts between the Discourses they bring to their work and their teacher identities. Preservice denotes the time before teachers have finished their education and have started teaching. Such studies show that teachers bring multiple Discourses to their work with students and colleagues, and that exploring their Discourses can provide them with a greater understanding about who they are as teachers in ways that may keep them from giving up during their career. In one study, Alsup (2006) examined the narratives, or stories, of six White, female, preservice English teachers for five semesters. Alsup’s data sources included interviews during which the preservice teachers told stories about experiences, memories, and tensions they felt as they were becoming teachers. Her other data sources included the preservice teachers’ lesson plans, philosophy statements, and literacy autobiographies. Alsup studied the teachers’ discourses, focusing on their ideas, issues, experiences, and feelings. She observed tension in their narratives between their “student” and “teacher” selves, between their personal beliefs and what they were learning about their future work, and between ways of thinking about teaching at the university versus practical applications. Alsup noticed teachers were often expected to conform to a narrowly defined identity corresponding to what they observed and understood as characteristics of good teachers. As one example, good teachers know how to engage and manage students. Managing students, as a primary goal, can be associated with deficit Discourses that suggest students are not capable of thinking critically, participating in a classroom community, or managing themselves. Alsup found, however, that those who allowed themselves to experience tensions between the personal and professional were more likely to pursue jobs as teachers and remain teachers. These teachers remained true to their personal ideals, and they enacted politically active teacher identities. Alsup concluded that in order for preservice teachers to be successful in transitioning into their careers, they require guidance and support from their teacher educators to explore their identities and discourses.
Critical Discourse Analysis
As you read in the previous sections, Gee’s views of discourse and Discourse are theories about how language works in the world. All people use discourses, or language-in-use, to enact their identities and indicate their belonging to social groups. What individuals say and write, or the discourses they use, shape and are shaped by their ways of seeing themselves and how they want to be recognized by others as certain kinds of people. Gee (2012) provided an example of an encounter of contrasting identities that shows what individuals say and do is how they will be recognized as certain kinds of people. Gee asked us to imagine him, a professor, driving his motorcycle to a “biker bar.” Picture the professor as he enters the bar and sits next to a burly, leather-jacket wearing man with many tattoos. He says to the man, “May I please have a match for my cigarette?” Even though Gee’s (2012) language is grammatically correct, he described his words as “wrong” (p. 2). He suggested it might have been more appropriate to say something like, “Gotta match?” Gee (2012) asked us to imagine he used the right words, but picture him carefully wiping off the bar stool with a napkin as to not get his neatly ironed designer jeans dirty. This shows that individuals enact identities not only through language, what they say and how they say it, but also through what they do. In Gee’s case, his words and ways of being marked his belonging (or not) to certain social groups. Ideas about how language works in the world are important to understand as this chapter moves to another theory and method for analyzing discourses called critical discourse analysis.
Critical discourse analysis is, again, a theory about language that helps explain how language works in society, and its roots date back to a French scholar named Michel Foucault. Foucault proposed that language is not simply words, rather it represents knowledge and power (Rogers, Malancharuvil-Berkes, Mosley, Hui, & Joseph, 2005). His ideas about language were important because they were among the first to help people think about how discourses contribute to social inequality, and more specifically, about who does and does not have power in society. Scholars such as Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999), Gee (1999), and Rogers (2004) continue to develop theories about language and power. While scholars’ theories may vary a bit, those that draw on critical discourse analysis in their work, and are referred to as critical discourse analysts, generally share some ideas about how language works. Critical discourse analysts assume that history, power, and context influence the language that individuals use. This means that words are deeper than the surface of the text. Language is rooted in history, laden with power, and influenced by the context in which it is used. Critical discourse analysts also agree that some people are more privileged than others (Rogers et al., 2005).You may notice critical discourse analysis and big “D” Discourse, discussed earlier, are both theories that contribute insights about how language works in the world.
Critical discourse analysis is not only a theory but also a method used in research to analyze people’s language. Data consist of everyday oral and/or written language and is sometimes referred to as text. As discussed in Chapter 1, texts include a wide range of ways people communicate that are not limited to only printed documents. Researchers use many different approaches to critical discourse analysis in such disciplines as social policy, social work, linguistics, and education to study how language works. There is not a right or wrong way to do discourse analysis. With a number of approaches of critical discourse analysis at scholars’ dispense, some debate on whether there should be a more standardized approach to critical discourse analysis. A standardized approach may offer greater consistency across research; however, the cost is that it may take away researchers’ abilities to make decisions about what approach to critical discourse analysis may best address their research questions.
Approaches to critical discourse analysis vary in their use of text and content analysis. Some approaches focus more on text analysis. These approaches require a close focus on the study of word selection and use of grammar. Text analysis may include noticing word choice, tone, turn-taking, and body language. A researcher may pay close attention to certain words that a speaker or writer chooses, to the ways a speaker emphasizes words in his or her talk, or to how a speaker situates his or her body (e.g., arms crossed, eye rolling, etc.). Other approaches may focus less on the details of the text and more on the content, which involves the study of the larger ideas, issues, and themes in individuals’ discourses brought about by their backgrounds beliefs, values, and ideas thought to be true. A researcher may pay close attention to the content of a speaker or writer’s discourse that may reveal his or her ideas about race, class, and gender. For example, when teachers at urban schools use language that reveals the belief that parents do not care about their children’s education, this content would be noted by the researcher. An important part of content analysis, then, is finding the links between individuals’ discourses and the larger societal context in order to make connections to the history and power that language represents.
Critical discourse analysis attempts to move beyond a description and interpretation of language to an explanation of how language works in the world (Rogers et al., 2005). Scholars purposely choose to use this research method to study identity because it allows them to examine how individuals make sense of themselves and their world. It ties together individuals’ language to what they meant, intended, or sought to accomplish (Gee, 2011). Together, text and content analysis can guide the study of the ways individuals enact socially recognizable Discourses and identities.
If you find yourself intrigued by the theories and methods discussed in this chapter, you may want to read How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit. In this text, Gee (2011) provides 27 tools for analyzing discourse. Gee’s methods help teachers and researchers to build layers of meaning about context by asking questions that relate to the text and content or meanings “hidden” in discourses. Using a sampling of Gee’s tools for discourse analysis in Table 1, review the snippet of transcribed data in Table 2.
What can you discern from the individual’s discourse, or language-in-use? What do these tools help you to figure out about how this person identifies and the Discourses this person draws on in doing so? Also note, it will be helpful to review the transcription coding system in Table 3. This system of recording is helpful because it attempts to capture all of the details in text as indications of how people see themselves and their ideas.
|Tool||Question||In Other Words|
|Deixis||“Ask how deictics are being used to tie what is said to context and to make assumptions about what listeners already know or can figure out” (p. 10).||How does the speaker use deictics or pointing words, words whose reference must be determined from context (e.g., I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, here/there, this/that, now/then, yesterday/today)? What can you infer about the context based on what was said? What does the speaker assume you know?|
|Subject||“Ask why speakers have chosen the subject/topics they have and what they are saying about the subject. Ask if and how they could have made another choice of subject and why they did not” (p. 19)?||Why did the speaker choose to talk about these subjects (e.g., person, place, thing, or idea)? Could the speaker have talked about these subjects in any other way? Why might the speaker have organized his/her talk this way?|
|Fill In||“What knowledge, assumptions, and inferences do listeners have to bring to bear in order for this communication to be clear and understandable and received in the way the speaker intended it” (p. 12)?||What information do you need to clarify what the speaker said? What do you have to infer from what the speaker said?|
|Identity||“Ask what socially recognizable identity or identities the speaker is trying to enact or to get others to recognize. . . . Ask, too, how the speaker is positioning others, what identities the speaker is ‘inviting’ them to take up” (p. 110).||What identities (e.g., teacher, birdwatcher) does the speaker enact? How does the speaker talk about other people’s identities? How does the speaker position others’ identities compared to his or her own identities?|
|Big “D” Discourse||“Ask how the person is using language, as well as ways of acting, interacting, believing, valuing, dressing, and using various objects, tools, and technologies in certain sorts of environments to enact a specific socially recognizable identity and engage in one or more socially recognizable activities” (p. 181).||What ways of using language, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, dressing, and using various objects does the speaker enact to be identified as a certain kind of person? What actions, interactions, values, beliefs, and objects, tools, and technologies are associated with that identity? (There are multiple identities, too.)|
|Elizabeth: Um (.) ((Smacks lips)) um while you are talking about your family, how do you identify culturally and ethnically?|
|Jessica: ((Smacks lips)) Um (.) White, Caucasian, is that what you mean like ((laughingly))? Yeah. I mean my=my mom’s mom ((taps on table)) is from the Ukraine. And my mom’s dad ((taps on table twice)) is from (.) like he’s=his family came from England but they came over a while ago. So he’s=my grandpa’s like third or fourth generation. But my mom=and my mom’s grandma was first generation here from the Ukraine. So (.) that was always a little bit of our culture. Like at Christmas time my mom, would always, as we were walking in the door like tell us how to say Merry Christmas in the=in Ukrainian. I couldn’t remember it for the life of me, now still. Um and my dad’s family is Irish and English=or Irish and Italian, (.) but I mean for the most part it was just White ((taps on table)) middle class, you know, values and home life, and the typical you know.|
|(…)||Pause for seconds|
|BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS||Loud volume; yelling|
|((double parentheses))||Gestures (e.g., nods, smiles, laughs, points, claps, etc.)|
|(parentheses )||Different pronunciation|
|SMALL CAPS||Rapid rate of speech|
|/ /||Phonetic spelling (IPA)|
Exploring Your Discourses and Identities
One way to explore your discourses and identities is through critical identity work. Critical identity work uses critical discourse analysis to examine relationships among teachers, students, and power and privilege in schools. As outlined by Vetter, Schieble, and Meacham (2012), the first step is to video record five- to 10-minute segments of your teaching (e.g., mini-lessons, small group work with students, or your facilitation of a discussion). You may repeat this process a few times throughout a semester. Next, transcribe the recording, which means listen to and watch the recording and make a written (typed) copy of what you hear and see. With your transcription in hand, use the set of guiding questions in Table 4 to engage in discourse analysis. To conclude, write a reflection that describes how your classroom interactions did or did not relate to the kind of teacher you hoped to be. This kind of critical identity work may guide you to align your teacher identity and your classroom practice because it will bring attention to how your identity influences your practice.
Another exercise to try is to create an identity discourse map (Alsup, 2006). With your peers, list aspects of popular culture and historical events that have been important in your lifetime. Think about the messages you received from society during these events that relate to race, class, gender, and sexuality. For instance, the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri was a significant event from which many have taken away messages about race (“Tracking the Events,” 2014). Then, independently, write about messages you may have taken from personal, family, or home discourses related to religion, ethnicity, race, geography, family, class, and sexuality. Conclude by writing about how all of these things may affect your views on teaching and learning. Your instructor may decide whether you will share all or parts of your conclusions with your peers.
The identity discourse map could be a useful resource as you study your discourses, identities, and literacy autobiography through a critical lens. Literacy teacher educators often use a literacy autobiography assignment to prompt you to examine your own history and learning experiences. If you have not done so already, write a literacy autobiography using the set of guiding questions in Table 5.
Upon writing your literacy autobiography, revisit it and read it more critically. Reflect on how your literacy autobiography is shaped by political, cultural, racial, economical, and historical times. Perhaps you noted some of these on your identity map above. Further, respond to the questions, “In what ways do our literate autobiographies shape the types of literacy environments we construct for the students we work with? What connections can you make between your narrative and the narratives of the children you work with?” (Rogers & Wetzel, 2014, p. 53).
Alsup (2006) also suggested an activity entitled “What is your pedagogy?” First, brainstorm definitions to the words “personal” and “pedagogy.” Then answer the following questions: What are their definitions? How do they intersect? How do they conflict? Write a one- to two-page statement about personal pedagogy and how the personal and professional may be integrated. The activity may help you disrupt the divisions of public and private or personal and professional often associated with teaching. As noted in a previous section of this chapter, Alsup (2006) found that the teachers who grappled with personal and professional aspects of their identities were more likely to pursue and maintain jobs as teachers. This activity should also guide you to be able to explain your background and what aspects of your Discourses you bring to your work as a teacher.
It is important to understand theories about language as a teacher because language can contribute to uneven expectations for students in schools. The social and cultural views of language and literacy presented in this chapter help explain that context, history, culture, discourse, power, and beliefs influence teachers’ interactions and inform decisions. Researchers suggested that sometimes teachers use deficit Discourses that position others that do not share their Discourses as deficient or lacking. Researchers also recognized that teachers bring multiple Discourses to their work that sometimes cause conflicts or tensions. Examining your discourses may lead you to provide more equitable opportunities in schools because such examination can bring attention to deficit Discourses that you may have otherwise never considered. In addition, understanding who you are and what Discourses you enact may help you align your identities and practices in ways that may serve you well throughout your career. Critical discourse analysis is a theory and method that can help you to study the text and content of your discourses to learn more about how your language is made up of knowledge and power. A number of other activities such as critical identity work, identity discourse mapping, and applying a critical lens to your work may also prove to be useful.
Questions and Activities
- Define discourse and Discourse. Explain how these definitions differ and why these differences are important to teaching.
- What does the theory of Discourse suggest about how language works?
- Explain how Discourses have to do with belonging or fitting in. How do they relate to identities?
- Consider the Discourses you enact so others recognize you as a certain kind of person. Discuss ways in which the way your Discourses might reflect your belonging to certain groups and not to others.
- What do research studies suggest about teachers’ Discourses and identities? Explain how findings from these studies provide insight into issues related to language and power.
- Define critical discourse analysis and discuss why teachers should be concerned about their own discourses.
- How can you go about studying your own discourses? How can this kind of study benefit you and your students?
- James Paul Gee: http://www.jamespaulgee.com/
- An Introduction to Critical Discourse Analysis in Education: http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415874298/
Alsup, J. (2006). Teacher identity discourses: Negotiating personal and professional spaces. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (1999). A movement against and beyond boundaries: Politically relevant teaching among African American teachers. Teachers College Record, 100(4), 702-723. doi:10.1111/0161-4681.00013
Chouliaraki, L., & Fairclough, N. (1999). Discourse in late modernity: Rethinking critical discourse analysis. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
Comber, B., & Kamler, B. (2004). Getting out of deficit: Pedagogies of reconnection. Teaching Education, 15(3), 293-310. doi:10.1080/1047621042000257225
Gee, J. P. (1999/2005). An introduction to discourse analysis theory and method. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gee, J. P. (2000). Identity as an analytical lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education, 25(1), 99-125. doi:10.2307/1167322
Gee, J. P. (2011). How to do discourse analysis: A toolkit. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hall, L. A., Johnson, A. S., Juzwik, M. M., Wortham, S. E. F., & Mosley, M. (2010). Teacher identity in the context of literacy teaching: Three explorations of classroom positioning and interaction in secondary schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 234-243. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2009.04.009
Hyland, N. E. (2009). One White teacher’s struggle for culturally relevant pedagogy: The problem of the community. The New Educator, 5, 95-112. doi:10.1080/1547688X.2009.10399567
Rogers, R. (Ed.). (2004). An introduction to critical discourse analysis in education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rogers, R., Malancharuvil-Berkes, E., Mosley, M., Hui, D., & Joseph, G. O. G. (2005). Critical discourse analysis in education: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 75(3), 365-416. doi:10.3102/00346543075003365
Rogers, R., & Wetzel, M. M. (2014). Designing critical literacy education through critical discourse analysis: Pedagogical and research tools for teacher researchers. New York, NY: Routledge.
Tannen, D. (1984/2005). Conversational style: Analyzing talk among friends. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tracking the events in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. (2014, November 24). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/11/09/us/10ferguson-michael-brown-shooting-grand-jury-darren-wilson.html
Vetter, A., Schieble, M., & Meacham, M. (2012). A critical framework for engaging preservice teachers’ identity work through video analysis. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.