"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 3, 2014

The word "Discourse", with a capital D

For this blog entry, my generative term is the word “Discourse,” with a capital “D”.  On page 103 in the Reading Works book (Chapter 3), Hunter states “Despite the hierarchical culture, The Urban Hotel embraced a uniform image, and ideal hotel culture, which it attempted to project to all guests.  To use Gee’s (1990, 1996) term, it was a “Discourse” created by carefully selected objects, arrangements of space, personal appearance, language, ways of interacting, values, attitudes and behavior, through which people display different kinds of identities.  Hunter elaborates further about the meaning of the word “Discourse” in footnote #3 at the bottom of the page.  In spite of the footnote, and noting that she uses this term throughout the chapter (my count is 37 times), I wanted to ensure I really understood the meaning of the term and from what I had read so far I was not satisfied with Hunter’s definition.  Additionally, I sensed the term belied something bigger.  Perhaps it is a term that has significance to the broader discipline of Literacy Studies?  So I wanted to know more.  Consequently, I had two questions I wanted answered. The first, “who is the Gee that Hunter is referring to?”  Second, “what is Gee’s definition of Discourse?”

According to the National Academy of Education membership roster (http://www.naeducation.org/NAED_080186.htm#Gee ) “James Paul Gee, is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in linguistics in 1975 from Stanford University and has published widely in linguistics and education.  His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the "New Literacy Studies", an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades.”

Satisfied that I now know “who” Gee is, I searched to find Gee’s definition for Discourse and was able to find it in his book “An Introduction to Disclosure Analysis: Theory and Method” (http://dualibra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/%5BJames_Paul_Gee%5D_An_Introduction_to_Discourse_Anal(BookFi.org).pdf On page 7 of the book, Gee defines Discourse as:
"The distinction between “Discourse” with a “big D” and “discourse” with a “little d” plays a role throughout this book. This distinction is meant to do this: we, as “applied linguists” or “sociolinguists,” are interested in how language is used “on site” to enact activities and identities. Such language-in-use, I will call “discourse” with a “little d.” But activities and identities are rarely ever enacted through language alone. To “pull off” being an “X” doing “Y” (e.g. a Los Angeles Latino street-gang member warning another gang member off his territory, or a laboratory physicist convincing colleagues that a particular graph supports her ideas, or, for that matter, a laboratory physicist warning another laboratory physicist off her research territory) it is not enough to get just the words “right,” though that is crucial. It is necessary, as well, to get one’s body, clothes, gestures, actions, interactions, ways with things, symbols, tools, technologies (be they guns or graphs), and values, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions “right,” as well, and all at the “right” places and times. When “little d” discourse (language-in-use) is melded integrally with non-language “stuff” to enact specific identities and activities, then, I say that “big D” Discourses are involved. We are all members of many, a great many, different Discourses, Discourses which often influence each other in positive and negative ways, and which sometimes breed with each other to create new hybrids."

Satisfied with both answers I now end my blog input.


  1. Thanks Bob. Great work! We will continue to wrestle with big-D Discourse in class, but this is a super primer!

  2. I liked the comment on all the "right" words, emotions, places, and times. When I think about it, it seems like so many things have to happen for even a simple literacy event to be success. I guess it helps explain all the miscommunication out there


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