3.4 Voices, diversity and intertextuality

The studies discussed thus far in section 3 have begun to build up a picture of the ways in which individual and group identity are both expressed and also constructed through dialogue. In this sense, then, identity is not fixed and unitary. Different kinds of identities may be tried out, and negotiated, in different contexts, within different discourse communities and communities of practice. There is also often a sense of struggle, as people try to create a sense of themselves against dominant forms and institutional expectations. In this part we look at research which draws on the ideas of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his associates in what has been called the Bakhtin circle, who conceptualise language itself as a site of struggle. Bakhtinian ideas have made a key contribution to post-structuralist notions of discourse, and its relationship with identity. We shall briefly explain three of the key ideas in the Bakhtin/Vološinov writings and then discuss how these have been used within educational research. (While there is some controversy about whether works published under Vološinov’s name were in fact written by Bakhtin, we shall refer to the works by their published authorship.)

First, Bakhtin sees language as involving a constant, dynamic tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Centripetal forces produce authoritative discourses which are relatively fixed and inflexible in meaning, for example established bodies of knowledge and religious orthodoxies. They are associated with political centralisation and a unified cultural ‘canon’. These forces, however, are always interpenetrated by centrifugal forces leading to the diversification of language, and the fragmentation of cultural and political institutions. At their most extreme, these centrifugal forces are associated with what Bakhtin calls ‘inwardly persuasive discourse’ which accompanies everyday experience and is intensely interactive and contemporaneous. Finding a voice implies taking up a particular ideological position within the struggle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. In school, this struggle is often played out between the centripetal forces of the school institutional authority and the official curriculum, and the centrifugal forces of personal and community experience and the day-to-day concerns of the students.

Sola and Bennett (1985), in their study of Puerto Rican students on a junior high school programme in East Harlem, found that the students struggled between the centripetal instructional school discourse with its fixed curriculum goals and knowledge, and the more interactive, contemporaneous discourse of their local community. School discourse for these students was closely associated with the dominant societal forces which were responsible for the political and economic marginalisation of their own families. Entering into the official discourse was therefore not a neutral act. It could mean participating in the very practices which marginalised their own community and its discourse. Sola and Bennett show how the teaching style in three different classrooms in the junior high school offered different opportunities for the legitimation of students’ own discourse and elicited quite different models of student participation. Only in one classroom did the teacher manage to both legitimate the students’ own discourse and also accomplish educational goals. She did this through building community discourse styles into her classroom teaching, thus harnessing both centripetal and centrifugal forces. The broader struggle between dominant and minority group discourses and the students’ struggle to find their own individual voice were intimately connected.

The second key Bakhtinian idea is the concept of heteroglossia. Bakhtin argues that when we speak we use words which are already saturated with ideological meaning, in relation to the centripetal and centrifugal forces described above. Words have associations with particular genres and discourses and are, as he puts it, overpopulated with other people’s intentions. There is a continual struggle between the nuances and associations which words bring with them and the speaker’s own intended meaning. Thus the students in Sola and Bennett’s study struggled to use school discourse in a way which did not mean they were denying their own community identity. Bakhtin uses the term ‘heteroglossia’ to describe this many-voiced quality of language. He describes the struggle for voice as follows:

language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is always half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with [their] own intentions, [their] own accent, when [they] appropriate the word, adapting it to their own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language ... but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.

Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 293–4

While this quotation suggests that in one sense all speech for Bakhtin involves using other people’s voices, he was particularly interested in how speakers marked the ways in which they took on and reproduced other people’s discourse more specifically, for instance through various kinds of reported speech. Bakhtin and Vološinov argue that the ways in which reported discourse is framed by the reporting speaker is centrally important to its meaning in the reporting context. (We shall be exploring this idea more fully in the next reading.)

The third Bakhtinian idea which has strongly influenced language studies is his argument for a ‘dialogical’ model of communication. Bakhtin sees meanings as emerging not from an individual utterance, but, sometimes provisionally and ambiguously, through the position of the utterance within a particular chain of communication. The utterance is itself a response, explicit or implicit, to other utterances, either in the current conversation or in the past. And every utterance is always shaped in anticipation of its own possible responses in the future. The shape and meaning of an utterance is thus dialogically orientated in two directions, towards the past and towards the future. Specific words and phrases may also invoke links with other conversations, or with particular discourses. There is therefore another layer of intertextual connections which contribute to the nuances of meaning in the utterance. Finally, that utterance only has meaning through the ‘electric spark’ when the speaker and listener connect. In understanding the theme, or situated meaning, of another person’s utterance (or a more extensive text), Vološinov suggests that the listener orientates himself to it, locating it in relation to their own inner consciousness.

For each word of the utterance that we are in the process of understanding, we, as it were, lay down a set of our own answering words ... In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realised only in the process of active, responsive, understanding ... It is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together.

Vološinov, 1986, p. 102

In this sense, an explanation by a teacher only acquires meaning through the process of students’ ‘active, responsive, understanding’. Vološinov suggested that this dialogic process is internalised into thought, as one thought creates meaning through answering another. The notion of the ‘electric spark’ of understanding can also be extended to the activity of reading.

Intertextuality, that is, a relation invoked explicitly or implicitly between one text (spoken, written, visual or multimodal) and another, has long been of interest to literary theorists and researchers in the media. Media texts such as film, television and advertisements have provided obvious rich sites for the analysis of intertextual play (e.g. Cook, 1992; Meinhof and Smith, 2000). Intertextuality is now increasingly seen as an intrinsic part of meaning-making in discourse more generally.

A number of researchers have been interested in the evaluative functions of reported discourse in students’ writing, which can also be seen as a judicious (or less judicious) weaving together of voices from different sources. Kamberelis and Scott (1992) applied Bakhtinian ideas about voice in their longitudinal study of children’s writing in an inner-city elementary school in Detroit. The school served a mainly African-American neighbourhood and Kamberelis and Scott’s research on children’s writing was linked to work with the teacher to develop a writing programme. This involved children reading and writing about themselves, their families, their community and their cultural history. The programme aimed, like the teacher reported by Sola and Bennett (1985) from their research in East Harlem, to enable students to bring their own community voices and discourse into the classroom. Kamberelis and Scott were particularly interested in the kinds of voices which the nine to ten-year-olds reproduced in their writing, how they managed these voices and what these patterns of heteroglossia revealed about the children’s developing sense of identity. The research involved classroom observation and interviews with the children, which informed the analysis of their writing. Kamberelis and Scott (1992) give two examples of writing by fourth grade students to illustrate their findings. We shall look in detail at one of these examples.

Activity 5 Identifying voices in written work (1)

Timing: Allow up to 30 minutes

Read the piece of writing by Lisa, ‘Living in the Black Life’, and consider any points where you feel she might be reproducing other people’s voices. What makes you identify these particular points? Kamberelis and Scott set out the writing in numbered lines to clarify their analysis.

Living in the Black Life [by Lisa]

  1. It’s nice living in the Black life.
  2. I haven’t been harmed in Detroit.
  3. Back then Black was treated bad and beaten and spat at.
  4. But right now it is better.
  5. and I am happy that I am living in the Black life.
  6. Some people don’t like living in the Black life.
  7. Back then White people hated Blacks
  8. But now White people really like Blacks.
  9. We communicate with each other,
  10. but it is a wonderful life that my life being Black.
  11. And I don’t hate for being Black and other Blacks shouldn’t hate being Black.
  12. They should be happy who they are.
  13. And no matter what Whites do to Blacks we are good people still.
  14. So love who you are don’t hate yourself,
  15. and thank God for making you a person.
  16. So that living in the Black life it don’t matter if you White or Black, just know who you are.
Kamberelis and Scott, 1992, p.378

You may have felt that there were a number of places where Lisa seemed to be taking up a particular voice, with its associated value position. We think this was happening at lines 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, either because she was reporting something she could not have known directly (7), seems to be reporting a generalisation she has heard (8, 9) or seems to be quoting homilies (13, 14, 15).

In their analysis, Kamberelis and Scott suggest that Lisa takes on and orientates towards a number of specific voices. First, she told the researchers ‘I wanted people to know that it’s not like in the news’. Her writing therefore is a response to voices in the media portraying life for Black people in Detroit as violent, dangerous and oppressive. Second, Lisa told the researchers that the idea to say ‘it’s a wonderful life’ came from a film by Frank Capra where a man about to commit suicide is saved by an angel who tells him to like himself and go back to his family. And she told a peer editing group that her title was from a song she liked, ‘Back in the High Life again’ by Steve Winwood, which is about having a good life after some down times. These voices are reversioned in her title and line 10 to convey Lisa’s theme of a good life for Black people in the present after much suffering in the past.

Professor L, whom Kamberelis and Scott describe as a militant African-American historian, had spoken to Lisa’s class and told them that some Black people didn’t like themselves because of the way they had been beaten and treated as animals by white people in the past. Lisa uses the Professor’s voice to convey an opposing message about Black self-hatred as the result of this experience (lines 3, 7) and her rejection of this voice (11). She also mentioned learning about Black history from her sister-in-law, books about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, her teacher and her mother. Finally, she told the researchers that Jesse Jackson had preached on TV about the importance of thanking God you are alive whatever colour you are (a video of this speech had been shown to the class) and that her mother had told her you should love yourself whoever you are. These last two voices seem to be fairly directly reproduced in lines 13, 14 and 15.

Kamberelis and Scott suggest that Lisa stylises these other people’s voices, signalling her solidarity with them and also using their authoritative power to consolidate her own position of resistance to racism and injustice. In addition to her stylisation of particular voices and their associated ideologies (i.e. systems of values, beliefs and social practices), Kamberelis and Scott found that Lisa had appropriated the rhetorical framework used by Jesse Jackson, who on the TV programme presented an argument for Black pride and self-love and then strengthened this by counterposing it against the inverted position of Black self-hate. Lisa’s own counterposing of these two positions of love and hate, together with the opposition between the past and the present, gives her essay both textual and ideological power.

Kamberelis and Scott also present a less coherent piece of writing, ‘Guns’, by a boy, Anthony, which is reproduced below. In this essay they suggest that Anthony appears to move and sometimes flounder between the voices and anti-gun position of his teacher and members of his club, the voices of his grandparents and mother who support the limited use of handguns and the explicitly pro-handgun position of his older brothers and their friends. Anthony’s efforts to express his alignment and solidarity with all these different people results in a piece of writing which feels disappointed and incoherent. It reflects his struggle to construct his own identity, his ‘subjectivity’, in the context of different social relations and different political positionings within contradictory social networks. We return to the notion of ‘subjectivity’ and its importance in teaching and learning in section 3.5. The point to note here is the contradictory nature of voices in Anthony’s text; these are particularly noticeable in lines 10, 11, 12 and 13. Anthony can’t fully adopt the ideology of one group without rejecting another and seems to shift back and forth trying to find a position he can call his own, which won’t disrupt too many of his relationships and loyalties. This impasse is perhaps reflected in the way the piece ends with a question.

Guns [by Anthony]

  1. Guns are nothing to fool around with.
  2. Parents should hide guns away from children. Children shouldn’t play around with guns anyway.
  3. So I think guns is no good at all.
  4. Some people have guns in our neighborhood. We can do something about it. I will do my best and try my best to stop the guns in my neighborhood. I will guarantee you it will stop. It will stop! I promise you.
  5. It is a time to use guns.
  6. When you are a police officer it is OK to use guns.
  7. Guns do kill people but sometimes when some people are used to guns they are lucky and don’t get hurt.
  8. Some police get shot when they are on duty. That is so, so, so sad when they get shot on purpose.
  9. Why is guns bad to our children?
  10. Some people think guns are for safety.
  11. I think guns are for protection.
  12. Some people sell drugs to get guns.
  13. I think guns is just a piece of trash.
  14. But if it wasn’t for weapons people wouldn’t get killed.
  15. But some people ask for peace, but so you think they get it when they use guns?
  16. What do you think about it?
Kamberelis and Scott, 1992, pp.387-8

For Kamberelis and Scott, the writing of these children was not only about the development of literacy skills and the ability to present an argument, but also contributed to their exploration and development as particular kinds of people. ‘In the process of appropriating, transforming and resisting various voices, Lisa and Anthony were engaged in forging their own personal, social and political identities’ (1992, p. 377).

Activity 6 Identifying voices in written work (2)

Timing: Allow up to 3 hours

If you are currently teaching you may want to talk to a number of your students about a particular piece of their writing and track the various voices they may be appropriating or stylising. In what ways do these reflect important people and influential discourses in the student’s life?

Sola and Bennett’s (1985) study in East Harlem, Kamberelis and Scott’s (1992) research in Detroit, and Lillis’s (2001) study outlined in section 2.2.2, focus on students who may experience a disjunction between the influential discourses and ideologies in their home communities and those of the school or college. The teachers in the studies by Sola and Bennett and by Kamberelis and Scott endeavoured to bridge these differences, encouraging students to bring the voices of their community into the classroom. In the next reading another group of researchers working with teachers of bilingual Spanish/English speaking students argue that many learning contexts for students are multivoiced, changeable and conflictual. Rather than suppressing possible points of disruption, they suggest, hybridity and diversity should be harnessed to provide a rich context for teaching and learning.

Gutiérrez et al. (1999) refer to the ‘third space’ as having the potential within it for reconfiguring what counts as institutionally approved knowledge and language use, thus drawing on a fuller range of teacher and student resources than is possible in either the ‘official space’ or the ‘unofficial space’. This reconfiguring provides new possibilities for student positions and identities and, the researchers argue, enables some of them to engage more constructively with learning in a renegotiated classroom curriculum.

The idea of reconfiguring pedagogic spaces has also been taken up in other multi-ethnic and multilingual contexts. Stein (1998) describes an exercise within an inservice postgraduate teacher training course where the teachers, who came from various different language and ethnic backgrounds in South Africa, prepared small-group dramatic presentations based on their individual literacy histories. Stein defines a literacy history as an account of an individual’s relationship with different literacies from early childhood, including mainstream literacies and vernacular literacies (Barton, 1994).

Because many of the teachers come from backgrounds with rich oral traditions, events such as storytelling, singing and praising are a central part of their literacy history and students are encouraged to weave their individual histories together into a performance involving music, dance, costume, gesture and visual design as well as language. Stein reports that these performances provided very powerful experiences for the students involved. One included the acting out of the painful experience of one woman student who as a ten-year-old girl had to read and write intimate personal correspondence for the illiterate adults around her in a small rural village, and sometimes inform them of the death of their husband or son who had left home to work in the mines. The performances enabled students to interpret, rename and validate their own experience through a collaborative process which also provided a possibility, through the re-evaluation of their lives in relation to others and to much broader social and historical processes, of new definitions of self and identity.

Stein suggests that the multimodal nature of the drama – we focus in detail on multimodality in section 4 – set up powerful juxtapositions of images and memories which did not encourage students to obliterate the past, but rather to reconfigure it, and the present, to reveal new possibilities. Stein, like Gutiérrez et al., uses difference as a pedagogical tool and suggests that through the complex emotional, linguistic and cognitive associations evoked through the collaborative recovery of different literacy histories, individuals begin to understand links between their private histories and the wider social and political structures of their society.

3.3 Communities of practice

3.5 Discourse and critique