3.5 Discourse and critique

Stein’s work described in section 4 draws on Street’s conception of literacy as a social practice and inherently ideological, as discussed in section 2.2. Street (1995) argues that the way people learn literacy is always imbued with power relations and is part of an ideology, that is a system of values, beliefs and social practices connected with a particular dominant social group. An important strand within language studies has been the development of a group of approaches to analysing ideological aspects of language, and teaching students how to do this, variously referred to as critical literacy, critical language study or critical discourse analysis. These approaches all address the following questions:

  1. In what ways do texts (spoken or written) convey particular ideological messages?
  2. How do texts position people in certain ways and what resources do people have to resist such positionings?
  3. How do wider social processes shape the language we use and the meanings we take from it?

Academic writing itself often entails particular risks, sacrifices and investments in relation to the kind of person students feel they are, and the kind of person they want to become. As discussed in section 2, there is a growing body of research in academic literacy/ies, which documents the particular practices and discourses required for students working at this level, and the models of knowledge and learning that underpin these. In research with eight mature students doing undergraduate degrees at a British university, Ivanič (1998) analysed in detail the traces of different discourses within their essays and explored, in interviews with her students, the reasons behind their particular choices of language. She found that students felt they ‘owned’ parts of the essays more than others. Some choices, to include a formal academic phrase, refer to a writer, use a quotation or adopt a particular evaluative stance (for instance giving evidence of familiarity with existing theory rather than critically examining it), were taken from a sense of ‘playing the game’, or producing what they felt the tutor who marked the essay would value. At other times students felt they were able to express their own ideas and beliefs more directly – often at the end of an essay, by which time they had worked out a position for themselves through the writing.

While Kamberelis and Scott’s (1992) research showed how younger students drew on the voices of people around them in their writing, Ivanič’s shows how her students were able to explain where they had picked up particular words, syntactic structures, argumentation strategies or structuring devices, from their reading, lectures, tutorials, discussion with other students and sources outside the university altogether. Some pieces of language were appropriated because the student had been interested and excited by an idea or a writer, and some because the student felt they were appropriate for the discourse within their discipline and would be positively valued by staff evaluating the essay. It was sometimes difficult to knit language from these heterogeneous sources together, and to negotiate the tricky boundaries between quotation, paraphrase and plagiarism. As Ivanič puts it: ‘Complex negotiations of identity lie beneath the surface of what may appear at first glance to be ‘‘inadequate’’ academic writing’ (1998, p. 343). Students were not always comfortable with the academic ‘selves’ they were required to produce through academic writing. Applied courses often involved the further complexity of having to juggle between two different discourses and ‘selves’ within the one piece of writing which would be assessed both by an academic and a professional tutor. Ivanič gives the example of an essay by a student doing a social work degree where she switches between the vocabulary and grammatical structures of a social work report and that of an academic essay, and between the identities of trainee social worker and applied social science student.

Ivanič believes that teachers need to give more attention to the ways in which students are struggling with different discourses and different kinds of selves within their writing. Using the term ‘subject position’ to mean ‘assigned identity as a certain type of person’, she summarises the ways in which writing constitutes a ‘representation of the self’ as follows:

  • Writing is a particularly salient form for the negotiation of identities, because written text is deliberate, potentially permanent and used as evidence for many social purposes (such as judging academic achievement).
  • Negotiating a ‘discoursal self’ is an integral part of the writing process: there is no such thing as ‘impersonal writing’.
  • Writers create an impression of themselves – a discoursal self – through the discourse choices they make as they write, which aligns them with socially available subject positions.
  • The relations of power, interests, beliefs and practices in institutional settings enable and constrain people’s possibilities for self-hood as they write.
  • Some discourses are more powerful and/or more highly valued than others, and people are under pressure to participate in them through adopting them in their writing.
  • In spite of these powerful shaping social forces, individual writers participate in the construction of their discoursal identities through selection (mainly subconscious) among the subject positions they feel socially mandated, willing, or daring enough to occupy.
  • Writers bring an ‘autobiographical self’ to an act of writing. This is shaped by their life-histories and the social groups with which they identify. Different social groups have differential access to the subject positions inscribed in discourses. In this way, writers’ autobiographical selves are very varied, and do not have equal social status.
  • A writer’s autobiographical self influences the discoursal self they construct for themselves in a specific piece of writing, and leads them to own or disown aspects of it.
  • When people enter what is for them a new social context such as higher education, they are likely to find that its discourses and practices support identities which differ from those they bring with them.
  • Both writers’ sense of themselves (autobiographical self), and the impression they convey of themselves in writing (discoursal self) are normally multiple and subject to change over time.
  • Every time people write, they reaffirm or contest the patterns of privileging among subject positions which are sustained by the relations of power in the institution within which they are writing.
  • The reader–writer relationship is a crucial element in all this: the discoursal self which writers construct will depend on how they weigh their readers up, and their power relationship with them.
  • The effect of writers’ alignments on the community as a whole will depend on ‘uptake’ by readers.
  • Writers can accommodate to or resist the pressure to conform to readers’ expectations.
Ivanič, 1998, pp. 32–3

Activity 7 Autobiographical and discoursal selves

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Choose one of your Open University assignments and consider any ways in which your ‘autobiographical self’ influenced the discoursal self you constructed.

  1. Are there particular parts of the assignment which you feel you ‘own’ more than others?
  2. How constraining or enabling do you find the discourse which you feel is expected in the assignment?
  3. Which specific voices or more general discourses are you reproducing in your writing? By ‘specific voices’ we mean that you can identify specific sources, such as people, written texts, films; by ‘more general discourses’ we mean that you can identify particular ways of representing the world, such as a feminist discourse, a medical discourse, etc.

3.4 Voices, diversity and intertextuality

3.6 English as a second language and identity