“Big D” Discourse Assignment

The ability to integrate your ideas with the ideas of others is a hallmark characteristic of academic thinking and writing. Why? Because we think better when we think along with – or in opposition to – other thinkers. In one sense of the word, to “integrate” ideas in writing means to mix them together on the page. This mixing occurs when you summarize, paraphrase, quote, and comment on the words and ideas of other writers’ in a piece of your own. Experienced writers do this mixing with the aims of being more persuasive, considering another viewpoint, or drawing on the explanatory power of someone else’s ideas to make their own observations.

To “integrate” ideas also means to assimilate them – to make them part of your conceptual equipment for making sense of the world or other ideas. To assimilate – and be assimilated by – ideas is to change and be changed by them through the process of working with them to make them fit your needs.

The Assignment

Write an essay in which you explore the implications of linguist James Paul Gee’s theory of “Big D” Discourse, consider criticisms of his ideas, and decide what you think by testing his theory of Big D Discourse in that great social simulation lab of the cinema. Recommended length: 1250-1500 words or more.

James Paul Gee, photo credit: PBS

James Paul Gee, photo credit: PBS

Assignment Goals: Practice: integrating your ideas with the ideas of others; summary, paraphrase, and direct quotation; using signal phrases, parenthetical citation and works cited; annotating texts and using writing-to-learn strategies to improve comprehension.

This assignment asks you to a) learn, explain and evaluate a somewhat complex theory of literacy, which goes beyond reading and writing, b) consider the views of critics of the theory in forming your own view of the theory, and c) attempt to use it – or a modified version of it – to analyze scenes in recent films d) with the goal of drawing some conclusions about the unexpected ways literacy shapes human lives beyond our abilities to read and write.

Be sure to:
Lisa Delpit, photo credit: Center for Urban Schooling, University of Toronto

Lisa Delpit, photo credit: Center for Urban Schooling, University of Toronto

  • Be clear about your perspective or point of view on the unexpected ways literacy shapes our lives beyond our abilities to read and write.
  • Go beyond the gist: Work with specific passages drawn from both Gee’s and Delpit’s articles, and specific scenes drawn from one of the films we’re using as a simulation of human behavior.
  • Briefly and appropriately introduce Gee’s and Delpit’s texts in a way that sets up your project for this paper.  This does not require an extended summary.  Rather, it requires a brief ‘introduction’ or background and focused engagement with key concepts or ideas you work with in the paper.  You’ll also need to introduce your film in a similar fashion, but probably not in the introduction, and probably not until after you have arrived a driving question for your essay.  You’ll also need to explain that you’re using films to stand in as a simulation for human behavior, and address any concerns using films in this way might raise for your reader.
  • Use Barclay’s formula to make concrete connections among Gee, Delpit, Miller and Jurecic and your chosen film.
  • Use TRIAC or Barclay’s formula to frame at least five quotations, making sure to explain how they help support ideas or claims that you are developing.
  • Remember, by the end of the paper, you’re trying to draw conclusions about the unexpected ways literacies shape human lives, not just the way they shaped your characters’ lives in the film. So you’ll need to make a move near the end in which you make a small claim about to what degree what we’ve learned about characters can (or can’t) be applied to real people.
Possible Approaches to This Project
  • Many of the films on our list feature characters in the midst of acquiring a new secondary Discourse.  Many are comically inept at the Discourses they’re trying to perform. In his first theorem, Gee writes that “the lack of fluency [in a discourse] may very well mark you as a pretender to the social role instantiated in the Discourse” (10).  Delpit agrees with Gee that “status is maintained because dominant groups in a society apply frequent ‘tests’ of fluency in the dominant discourses, often focused on its most superficial aspects – grammar, style, mechanics – so as to exclude from full participation those not born to power” (Delpit 546).  What would Gee and Delpit say about social risks or costs associated of your character’s lack of fluency in the secondary Discourse?  How does your character deal with those risks as he or she develops fluency in the discourse? To what degree does Gee’s concept of “mushfake” provide counter-balancing benefits to people not-yet-fluent in the Discourse?
  • Delpit criticizes Gee’s assertion that “women and minorities …, when they seek to acquire status discourses, may be faced with adopting values that deny their primary identities,” writing that “there are many individuals who have faced and overcome the problems that such a conflict might cause” (Delpit 547). How does the effort it takes to acquire a “status discourse” pose problems for characters seeking to acquire social goods through the acquisition of a dominant Discourse?  How do characters “face and overcome” the problems?
  • In his second theorem, Gee writes that “Primary Discourses, no matter whose they are, can never really be liberating literacies” (10). Does Delpit agree?  To what degree is it possible for characters to hold on to the say-doing-being-valuing-believing of their Primary Discourses?  By what mechanisms does that happen?  Why do (or don’t) these characters value their Primary Discourses? Can Primary Discourses be liberating?  If so, how?
  • Gee writes about the unexpected benefits of membership in a Non-dominant Discourse (8).  To what degree do characters in your film participate in Non-dominant Discourses?  For what reasons?  What relationships do they have with characters fluent in Dominant Discourses?  What would Delpit say about the risks and benefits your character is balancing by performing a Non-dominant Discourse?

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