Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Report: Social Linguistics and Literacies by James Paul Gee

The idea of Writing Across the Disciplines/Writing Across the Curriculum has been around for a while.  What I want is a Reading Across the Disciplines/Curriculum.  What I want is a course titled something like "Foundational Readings for Looking at the World and the Stuff We do in the World Through All Kinds of Different Perspectives 101."  Or, you know, something like that.

Because, having read James Paul Gee's Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, I'm convinced I've found the foundational book for understanding what's important about literacy studies and the work people do in literacy studies.  What's important about literacy studies and the work people do in literacy studies, ye ask?  Well, everything.  According to Gee, the way we understand the world and ourselves and ourselves in the world is through literate activity.  That is, the world is made up of literacies.  And I imagine every discipline has the book that makes this argument in its own way.  Physics says the world is made up quarks and/or strings and/or Higgs boson particles.  Chemistry says the world is made up of chemical reactions--at least that's what Walter White says (by the way, did anybody know about this  Philosophy says the world is made up of (?).  Biology says cells. Physical education says push-ups (or possibly proper stretching (the jury's still out on that one)).  And fashion merchandising says, for this season at least, pencil skirts.

My point is: different disciplines offer different ways of understanding the world.  The argument in my discipline (which is Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice (otherwise known as Rhetoric & Composition (otherwise known as Writing Studies (otherwise known as That Class I Had To Take My Freshman Year Where My Teacher Made Me Read "The Yellow Wallpaper" For Some Reason And Write An Essay About What The Color Yellow Symbolized And I Got A 'D' Because Apparently Sparknotes Isn't A 'Credible Source'))) is that our understanding of the world both shapes and is shaped by how we talk about it.  If I had to pick one book to explain that point of view to people outside the discipline it would be Social Linguistics and Literacies.  Here's why:

1.  It's incredibly readable.  I wrote in an earlier post how my freshman students really took to an essay by Gee (pronounced like "gee-whiz!" by the way) we read for class.  I had them read it alongside an article by John Swales about discourse communities that I don't think any of them made it through because it is denser than dense.  We're talking thick.  Gee's, on the other hand, read like a conversation with a smart, funny guy--which, I imagine, Gee is.  Swales and Gee are discussing, with a few differences, the same idea, but in very different ways.

2.  It is vast in scope.  It's kind of jauntily all over the place, but not in a hard-to-follow or schizophrenic sort of way.  When we move from a close reading of warning labels on aspirin bottles to what it means to be "a real Indian" to a stanzaic representation of a young girl's show-and-tell presentation at school Gee makes it seem like the most natural progression of subjects.  It's a pretty crazy pastiche of a book, really.

3.  Gee's two conceptual principles regarding ethical discourse are fantastic.  He argues that when you debate any argument for long enough you will end up at "rock bottom," which is the foundation on which all arguments are made and cannot be argued any further.  For example, a devout religious person's arguments are likely to begin and end with "Because God says so.  That's why."  A physicist might say something like, "Because the Big Bang said so.  That's why."  Gee, in a nice act of full disclosure, begins his book by laying out his foundation on his two conceptual principles regarding ethical human discourse:   
“That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as 'goods') is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it."
 “One always has the ethical obligation to explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and non-primary when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.” 
When the conversation gets to this point, for Gee the argument has "run out."  As far as tautologies go, I think these are pretty good.

The big ideas here as I see them are as such:  If we want to understand language as it is used in social contexts, we have to understand capital-"D" Discourses as ways of being in the world.  In this sense, discursive acts are correct not only according their content but also how they are presented/performed.  Gee gives the example of a guy walking into a biker bar and asking some burly dude, "May I please have a match for my cigarette?"  He's asked the question in a grammatically correct way, but he's still incorrect because he didn't ask it in the Discursively correct way, which includes not only what he says, but how he says it, what he's wearing when he says it, how he's sitting/standing when he says it, and a lot of other things that make him a member of the biker bar Discourse.  I think that American comedy for the past however-long has been based on Discourse confusion (see, for example, every episode of Saturday Night Live ever)--somebody doesn't know how to act in a certain situation according to the rules of the Discourse that has defined and is defined by those rules.  It's funny!

And it brings me to the second big idea, which is that literacy is fluency in a secondary Discourse.  Most everyone is born into a primary Discourse--it's the way of being in the world that one learns at home from one's family.  Then one goes to school and one's mind is blown by all the new Discourse rules one has to learn and all the other ones' Discourse rules they learned at home.  And from that moment on one has to become many different ones to fit many different Discourses.  If one is able to perform a secondary Discourse fluently--that is, one is recognized as a full-fledged member of that Discourse by others--one can consider oneself literate in that Discourse.  The recognition part is important, though.  As Gee puts it in perfectly Gee-like fashion: "We need other people to be anything."  Sometimes things like skin-color or gender will get in the way of being recognized as the member of a particular Discourse, so one will always be not exactly fluent.  This is sad, but it explains a lot and gives us a useful way of talking about these important things.

I'd be curious if anyone reading this blog has any other foundational books that they'd suggest for the class that I think should probably exist.  As of tomorrow, I'm officially on winter break.  I've got a lot of readings already planned, but I might could squeeze in one or two more.

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