Some trouble with discourses: What conflicts between subjects and ethnographers tell us about what students don't/won't/can't say

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Embedded within Beth Roy's (1994) ethnography, Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict, is an exploration of methods for studying how individuals remember and reconstruct contested, emotionally charged events. Roy suggests that close attention to subjects' patterns for remembering and reporting can help ethnographers understand the discourses which individuals, groups, and cultures use to construct the "realities" they report. Roy's work is not unique in using what subjects say and do to theorize culture; what is unusual is that Roy does not focus on discovering what is verifiable or true in her subjects' accounts. Rather, she focuses on what and how they remember. Through analyzing the discourses which produced both the (unverified) accounts and the processes for recollection Roy is able to infer information about the unstated relationships, assumptions, values, and beliefs which drive the conflicts she is studying. This essay uses a version of Roy's method to theorize a conflict central to teaching composition: The often unconscious difficulties students encounter as they struggle to represent themselves in standard academic discourses. Language researchers tell us that identities are generated through discourse; they also tell us that discourse is political and that when talk places us outside dominant discourses, we are judged as "wrong," "abnormal," or otherwise unacceptable. "Each Discourse protects itself by demanding from its adherents performances which act as though its ways of being, thinking, acting, talking, writing, reading, and valuing are right, natural, obvious, the way good and intelligent and normal people behave" (Gee 1996, 190-91). Taken together, these observations predict the landscape of difficulties encountered by students as they move from home discourses to standard academic discourses. Because writing is implicitly bound to conceptions of self, changing the way one writes generally challenges the self engendered by the discourse marked for "correction" (Smitherman 2000). As a result, even when speakers of "nontraditional" Englishes consciously contemplate what is gained and what is lost through the use of academic discourses, making the changes necessary to produce "good" writing can engender intense, internal conflicts (DiPardo 2001). These conflicts are highly personal and generally remain embedded in individual psychology and identity development (Herrington and Curtis 2000). At the same time, so long as these conflicts remain covert, they will be poorly understood, and student development as academic writers will be vexed by resistance and failure which may feel baffling both to students and to teachers. Because psychological processes cannot be directly observed, the details of what, why, and how of students negotiate discourse change must be inferred. One approach to making accurate inferences about student processes would be to assume that individuals faced with structurally similar conflicts will respond in ways similar to students negotiating discourse change. If researchers select observable, interpersonal interactions with strong, rich parallels to the representational difficulties faced by students, the analysis of these overt processes could suggest-by analogy-patterns for students' internal, inarticulate processes. In this essay I analyze conflicts associated with student moves from marginalized, home discourses to standard academic discourses through an analogy to patterns through which ethnographic subjects resist, evade, and appropriate the discourses ethnographers use to represent them. Specifically, I draw from work by Richard Handler (1993), Dona Davies (1993), and myself (2001) to provide a detailed account of how subjects challenge, revise, and evade representations set forward by ethnographers. Using methods suggested by Roy, I then develop an analysis of student reactions to being "taught" standard academic discourses. I conclude by considering how further study of ethnographic work, including reflective and methodological studies, might suggest possibilities for valuing and supporting student use of home discourses as they build a relationship to academic writing. © 2006 Utah State University Press. All rights reserved.

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Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education

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