Sunday, April 27, 2008

What's the Problem With Academic Discourse? A Review of Literature

Juliet MonBeck

The goal of Composition Studies has historically been a contested one, characterized by a lack of consensus in not only naming a goal but also in the methodologies that have been put in place in order to achieve a goal if it did exist. Ostensibly, the main goal could be defined in simple terms, such as “to teach students to write.” However, both the simplicity and applicability of this goal are complicated by details like who is being taught, what texts students are being taught to write, and how that process is accomplished. Most scholars agree that teaching students to write successfully in post-secondary academic settings requires the use of an “academic discourse,” or the possession of “academic literacy.” Therefore, it would seem a simple matter of teaching students the conventions of academic discourse and giving them enough practice so these conventions could be sufficiently internalized in order to give all students the essential tools they would need to succeed at the university level. Once again, the problem is not as simple as it appears. The conventions of academic discourse are those of Standard English, particularly Standard Written English, and these conventions continually evolve from the practices of the dominant culture. What happens when members of non-dominant cultures (and social classes) are asked to adopt and internalize the discourse conventions of the academy? In this situation the educator must ask herself not only how to teach the conventions of academic discourse but, also, is it politically, ethically, and morally viable to go about doing so? And, if teaching academic discourse is discarded on ethical grounds, are whole groups of people being further marginalized by having their voices silenced within the academy and also by denying them the social and intellectual mobility that is the promise of higher education? The problem that seems inherent in the political ramifications of the process of enculturation into academic discourse has been tackled by many scholars in the hope that it can be reconciled.

What's the Problem?
The modern teacher of composition has a classroom full of students with diverse identities and it is her job to enable all of these diverse individuals to be able to understand and use academic discourse in order to be able to successfully move on to higher education. The problem lies in the fact that students who are members of dominant culture are privileged in that the rules of their own speech and discourse communities share virtually identical linguistic rules, shared norms, and rules as to the “appropriacy of utterances” as academic discourse while other students' speech and discourse communities are at a far greater remove from the conventions of academic discourse (Bizzell, “Foundationalism...” 48-49; Swales 23). Therefore, students who are at a cultural and linguistic remove from academic discourse must first learn, and be able to use fluently, the conventions that differ from their individual experience. In order for a teacher to be successful at this goal it is essential to ask how one acquires knowledge of academic discourse and its genres. To briefly and succinctly sum up the vast theoretical work and research on this subject is to say that a student must acquire enough background knowledge of general academic discourse in order to enter more specific discourse communities as a novice and to progress along a continuum toward expert status, within those communities' genres, in a process characterized by assimilation, imitation, enculturation, and internalization (Bawarshi; Bizzel, “Foundationalism...”; Carter; Pare; Swales). The terms used to describe the process are so connotatively loaded when applied to identity that it is easy to see why it is easy to come the conclusion that “[m]astery of the socially privileged academic discourse may indeed threaten students with cultural assimilation and the loss of their native discourses” (46).

How the field of Rhetoric and Composition, as well as Education, address this problem of assimilation, loss, and equity of opportunity within the educational system are as diverse as the students the problem addresses. The disparity of approaches to the problem, however, are mostly theoretical and, as of yet, have little impact on the pedagogy of actual teachers or the experiences of actual students (Fernstein 39). Perhaps the reason that so little of the theoretical work done on the subject reaches practice is that there seem to be three different ways that the problem is approached. First, that the problem being addressed is the wrong problem to be focusing on. Second, that there is no problem, or if there is now, the problem will work itself out in predictable ways. And, third, that the problem is indeed as it has been outlined in this introduction but, the solutions for the problem are varied and somewhat nebulous.

Addressing the Wrong Problem?
The vast majority of the work in Composition addressing the problem of academic discourse and identity is addressed toward the differences that exist in students' academic and nonacademic lives with the emphasis on the differences in meaning making with regard to “language practices, rhetorical traditions, worldviews, and ideologies” (Soliday 402). The field of Composition has asserted that diversity and difference can be addressed by transforming ideas about diversity into “institutionally transformative pedagogy” within which students can “position themselves in ways that don't violate their own cultural integrity” (Soliday 402). However, the problem of meaning making and identity may not be the most pressing issue (or even one of the most pressing issues) in the struggle of non-dominant students to be successful both in the use of academic discourse and higher education in general. Mary Soliday argues that it is social class rather than linguistic or cultural diversity that effectively keeps non-dominant students from succeeding (in the same numbers as their dominant peers) in the world of higher education. She argues that the struggle of working-class students does not have to involve dissonance between identities but rather that hours worked outside of school, family obligations, lack of immersion and continuity in the educational process, and lack of money for supplies and tuition are functionally the barriers to success (403-409). “In other words, we don't affirm a student's inability to buy a computer or textbooks in the same way as that we affirm that student's street slang as a creative, oppositional use of language” (Soliday 404). Furthermore, the effort to develop pedagogies that only respect and affirm the diversity of language and epistemologies will do little to combat the problem because there is no real evidence that changing the way in which language is used or received in academic discourse will do anything to change the essentially selective functions of higher education (and academic discourse) that serve to maintain class distinctions.

Perhaps another way in which the wrong problem is being addressed when focusing on the linguistic and epistemological struggles of identity in students primarily is that the field of Rhetoric and Composition does not itself practice what it preaches. The aforementioned lack of goal in the field has resulted in a multitude of different approaches, theories, philosophies, and so on that all exist within one field (Anson 246-7). As the importance of the field is being recognized in colleges and universities, this dissonance has made itself known in the “disciplinary persona” of the field.

"...[M]uch writing in the field of composition tries desperately to sound scholarly. Because the field maintains so many bond to other disciplines, we end up wearing discursive hats [...] The more insecure we feel, the more we gravitate toward discourse that alienates in order to seem inclusive, that invites people to understand itself while closing the door on those who do not already belong. Scholarly discourse is often unapproachable. [...] People write to sound important, to give themselves legitimacy.Ironically, the frustration of potential new members reading unnecessarily complex or academic discourse may well have its source in the anxieties of the writers themselves who, a bit farther along, still feel less than affiliated." (Anson 259)

Seen in this light, how can a discipline that purports to aim at allowing inclusion of identity and diversity of voice within education be effective at solving this problem when itself embodies the very problem it is battling. An argument could be made that the reason why theories of writing don't seem to materialize in practice is because the discipline that is doing the theorizing does not seem to value the importance of the findings in its own practice. Therefore, the problem of academic discourse seems to be addressing in a hypocritical way. In other words, it should be theoretically acceptable to allow for diversity of identity and voice for education in general, but this diversity is not of enough importance, or perhaps is not seen as intellectually rigorous enough, to be allowed in the field of Rhetoric and Composition. This illuminates a secondary problem as well. If most of the work of teaching, the actual work of pedagogy, is performed by graduate students and high school teachers who are not members of the field, and may feel alienated and “less than affiliated” themselves by the field's discourse, how is the theoretical work ever supposed to be translated into practice? This leads to the conclusion that perhaps the field should be addressing the problem within the discipline before making definitive statements or theories about how everyone else should address the problem.

Problem? What Problem?
Another approach to the problem of academic discourse and identity is to assert that while there currently is a problem, that there are sufficient ways to deal with the problem already in motion and that through the gradual passing of time the problems will be resolved. One way of framing the issue in this way is to assert that, yes, cultural hegemony and academic discourse are bound up together but this should not be a problem (Clifford 396). The reason this is not a problem is because of the way that hegemony and power are related.

"Since power is also decentered in our culture, finding its energy in properly socialized subjects, the most ambitious undertaking is not to storm the hegemonic barricades. Instead we should do the intellectual work we know best: helping students to read and write and think in ways that both resist domination and exploitation and encourage self-consciousness about who they are and can be in the social world." (Clifford 397)

In this model, the use of academic discourse in the way that students “read and write and think” will enable them to resist cultural hegemony and open up possibilities for a changed future. Therefore, academic discourse becomes the tool through which students are capable of resisting the assimilation and loss associated with academic discourse.

Another way of framing the discussion of academic discourse and identity is to assert that it is individuals who bring about change to academic discourse and its conventions and that this change is happening all the time (Bizzell, “The Intellectual Work...”; Delpit). Therefore, as diverse individuals are assimilated into the conventions of academic discourse, it will change (is changing) to allow for more diversity Lisa Delpit argues this point using several examples of successfully enculturated individuals in support of this point and recommending that teachers show explicitly how academic discourse has and is changing and how the individuals contributing to that discourse are diverse as well. Another set of examples used to support the hypothesis that the dissonance between identity and academic discourse will resolve itself is that of dominant (white male) authors using alternate modes of discourse in scholarly writing (Bizzel, “The Intellectual Work...”). In this situation, the assumption is that these “mixed” or alternate forms of discourse must still be carrying out the “intellectual work of the academy” in the same manner as traditional discourse, and that these alternate modes are generally accepted, or else dominant writers would not take the risk of engaging in them (Bizzell, “The Intellectual Work...” 74). No matter what measure is used to judge the changing nature of academic discourse the assumption remains the same; that the state of discourse in the academy will change as the demographics of the individuals at work in the academy change.

Houston, We Have a Problem, How Do We Fix It?
Many scholars do believe that the problem with academic discourse and identity exists as it was presented in the introduction to this paper. The assimilation and loss that is associated with the acquisition of academic discourse remains a question that elicits a common theme in way of a solution among these theorists. Most scholars, those that do not agree that the problem will fix itself, come to the conclusion that the only corrective to the problem is to make explicit the political act that occurs when teaching academic discourse and writing (Bizzell, “Foundationalism...”; Fernstein; Giroux). Unfortunately, the details of what making explicit the political act of teaching entails are a little vague and so is the desired effect that this shift will bring about. The emphasis on this explicit politicizing of writing usually comes at the end of an article exploring the effects of teaching academic discourse and, as of yet, has no real basis in widespread practice and is not emphasized at all in typical courses designed to teach teachers to teach.

One theory that does explicitly offer a concrete way to include making the political act explicit in the teaching of writing is Henry Giroux's “border pedagogies.” Giroux asserts that while the theoretical world has changed dramatically with the lens of postmodernism and the waning of modernism, pedagogy has essentially remained the same in classrooms. Border pedagogy is offered as a way of emphasizing (and making explicit) the “primacy of a politics in which teachers assert rather than retreat from pedagogies they utilize in dealing with the various differences represented by the students who come in to their classes” (61). The borders that are being addressed in Giroux's conception of pedagogy are the gaps between theory and practice, academic discourse and identity, and affirming diversity and intellectual rigor. Through the use of border pedagogy Giroux envisions a “radical democracy, or a place where the needs of those being taught outweigh those of scholars or institutions” (66).

The problem with academic discourse is not simply an issue of power, politics, and theory. It is also an issue of practice, pedagogy, and standards. In order to find a solution that actually mediates the apparent dichotomies between these two statements it is imperative that scholars look at the issue of diversity in more ways than just linguistic or epistemological difference to include the realities of class within their institutions. New ways of envisioning the use of academic discourse in the field of Rhetoric and Composition and the ways in which affiliation is either encouraged or discouraged within it need to be addressed so that the gap between theory and practice can be closed. However, the scholarship on the problematic nature of academic discourse and possible correctives to the process of enculturation do not seem to take these two issues very seriously, or at least with not as much vigor as issues of meaning-making. Furthermore, there is another major problem with the solutions to mediating the dissonance between identity and academic discourse that is not addressed. First, that the bureaucratic nature of educational systems in this country and federally mandated “standards” influence pedagogy more than theory. In other words, public opinion is important to the actual funding and even legality of pedagogy as it is practiced. And, if public opinion is that pedagogies that maintain class distinctions and embrace a modernist or foundationalist point-of-view in regard to standards and content are essential to producing successful citizens, than the implementation of a politicized, anti-foundationalist or postmodern pedagogy becomes more problematic than individual teachers can reasonably justify, especially if there are no ties to a common disciplinary or professional obligation to teach toward social transformation. In effect, Giroux and others are asking individual teachers to take a leap of faith and introduce explicitly political pedagogies into their classrooms, in the context of a world that generally believes that politics and education should be separate entities, with no support (or net) provided from either the professional or theoretical worlds as the only ethical way in which to mediate the problems with academic discourse and identity.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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