Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 14:08:53 -0600 From: Charlotte Brammer Subject: Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and Literacy Events
AUTHORS: Bloome, David; Carter, Stephanie Power; Christian, Beth Morton; Otto, Sheila; Shuart-Faris, Nora TITLE: Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and Literacy Events SUBTITLE: A Microethnographic Perspective PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2004
Charlotte Brammer, Department of Communication Studies, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, USA
As the title suggests, this monograph presents discourse analyses of language use in classrooms from a microethnographic perspective. The authors' purpose is to demonstrate a complex and recursive approach that "combines attention to how people use language and other systems of communication in constructing language and literacy events in classrooms with attention to social, cultural, and political processes"(p. xv) and to do so reflectively, bringing theory to apply as it enriches the discussion and description of the literacy event rather than using theory to shape, bound, or otherwise determine the discussion and description. In the disparity between the microcosm of the classroom and the macrocosm of the diverse theoretical fields, researchers can use their "imaginations" to create frames for viewing the complete research situation, meaning not only to see research subjects but also to assess the behaviors and motives of themselves as researchers and as members of a larger field of research(ers). The result is a lucid account of not only how theory informs practice but also how practice can inform theory that will be useful for graduate students as well as experienced researchers interested in applied linguistics.
The 244-page text begins with a foreword by Brian V. Street who commends the authors for "demonstrat[ing] that it is not a matter of posing the 'local' against the 'global,' the 'micro' against the 'macro' but of understanding the relationships between them, as meanings are built in their encounter" (p. xi). After a brief introduction, the authors launch into the first of five chapters devoted to analyzing and describing classroom language in use. In the first chapter, "A Microethnographic Approach to the Discourse Analysis of Classroom Language and Literacy Events," as in each subsequent chapter, the authors are deliberate in locating their approach within existing schools of thought, notably sociolinguistic ethnography, while emphasizing their theoretical frames, especially acknowledging their belief that individuals have the "potential of agency" even in the most unlikely situations: "People...create and re-create the worlds in which they live; purposefully struggle with each other over meaning, action, material, and social relationships; resist the imposition of unwanted control; and fashion alternative ways of living their lives that eschew given structures and strictures" (p. 4). This description of individuals seems similar to the authors' notion of how researchers should exercise agency in selecting differing, even opposing, heuristics for addressing various research questions or foci. In this first chapter, as they do throughout the text, the authors (1) favor the micro over the macro, at least in part because of their privileging of context, and (2) question language use and motives of researchers as well as the researched.
In Chapter 2, "A Microethnographic Approach to the Discourse Analysis of Cultural Practices in Classroom Language and Literacy Events," the authors explain that literacy events or practices can only be assessed and described from the microcosm of the classroom because they are "after thick description in motion," meaning they want extensive, rich detail in order to better understand the contextual aspects and influences. In their words, "what actually happens in any particular classroom with regard to literacy practices cannot be predetermined." Part of the explanation for this is the importance of "levels" within the communicative event (p. 68). This is demonstrated with a careful and multi-pronged analysis of 175 lines of transcript from a seventh grade language arts classroom. In their analysis, the authors identify both surface and underlying levels of language use, from surface level of informing to the sub-level of challenging. Their insightful coding of the classroom discussion is convincing testimony to their position that from the intimacy of the classroom, researchers can more fully appreciate the multiplicity of how language is used and how literacy events are orchestrated by teachers and students.
Similar to the preceding chapter's examination of cultural practices, chapter 3 scrutinizes social identities within the classroom. After reiterating their belief in individual agency, the authors seek to "illustrate how a recursive process can identify new questions and issues to explore and how it can lead to reinterpretations of data" (p. 102). The construction of social identities are influenced by social, cultural, and political events and beliefs beyond the classroom, by the school's administration, the community, parents, the state, etc., and by ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, etc. These identities are also shaped by the classroom's socio-political environment (teacher's pet, class rank, etc.), and social identities are also shaped in the moment-by-moment events of the classroom. The authors conclude that a microethnographic approach to discourse analysis of social identity in classroom language and literacy events requires "documentation and description of the social construction of social identities from how people act and react to each other," which the authors provide in their rich description of how students struggle to keep and re-define their social identities in interactions with each other and with their teacher.
A key component of social identity is power, and in chapter 4, the authors concentrate on how theoretical constructs of power as product, power as process, and power as caring relations affect discourse analysis of classroom language and literacy events. While employing each of these notions of power in their explication of additional classroom transcripts, the authors emphasize that one definition of power is not inherently better or worse than another, but rather they posit that by acknowledging each way of framing power, researchers can develop more robust descriptions of how power influences language and literacy events within the classroom. As the authors point out, if researchers focus too much on turn taking, topic initiation, and interruptions, important aspects of power may not be readily visible. For example, sometimes turn taking and topic initiation are affected by the particular phase or part of the lesson. If the teacher is introducing a new topic or assignment, he or she may hold the floor longer and may not yield to off-topic comments. During a brainstorming activity, the teacher may say little if anything, yielding the floor almost entirely to the students, breaking in only to maintain focus and appropriate classroom behavior. These and similar contextual cues must be considered when assessing power relations in classroom literacy events.
Chapter 5 serves as the text's summary in which the authors reassert their call for researchers to be more conscientious of the local and to adopt a dialogic approach when applying theory to ethnographic research. Research perspectives should be particularly germane to that specific research project, "to a specific purpose at a specific time and place" (p. 241, original in italics).
The authors go to great lengths to situate their writing within current research on classroom literacy and ethnography. The bibliography is substantial, some ten pages, and reflects solid grounding in major theorists from Foucault to Freire, from ethnographers such as Ochs, Gee, Heath and Street, and from rhetoricians such as Bazerman and Toulmin. While I would like to see the authors include some reference to work in composition studies in their discussions of classroom interaction and constructions of power, perhaps A. Ball, L. Delpit, and V. Villaneuva, they certainly are not the first to overlook the contributions from this body of scholars. This criticism aside, the authors bring rich examples of classroom interaction and provide multiple ways of analyzing what transpires in the classroom. The transcripts are delightful, and the interpretations are insightful. The patterned development of each chapter helps the authors to reiterate their argument for recursive and situated application of theoretical constructs, and by demonstrating how such a situated application works with a variety of topics, the authors create a text that could serve as an example for many graduate students.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Brammer is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Howard College of Arts and Sciences, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, USA. Her research interests include writing pedagogy, technical and professional communication, and sociolinguistics.