Literacy, Discourse and First Year Writing

Page in Development


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 join a conversation about the best ways to teach and learn college writing by exploring the implications of linguist James Paul Gee’s theory of “Big D” Discourse for the teaching and learning of writing.  You will also consider criticisms of his ideas. 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 weigh in on a heated debate about the right ways to teach first-year college students to 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 competing ideas about literacy, Discourse, and the needs and abilities of first year college students determine what should happen in first year writing classrooms.
  • Work with specific passages drawn from the articles by Gee, Delpit, Teller and Warner, and at least one of Prose or Miller and Jurecic.
  • Briefly and appropriately introduce the argument between Teller and Warner, as well as the ideas in Gee’s text 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 Delpit, Prose or Miller and Jurecic in a similar fashion, but probably not in the introduction, and probably not until after you have arrived a driving question for your essay.
  • Use Barclay’s formula to make concrete connections among Teller, Warner, Gee, Delpit and/or Prose, and Miller and Jurecic.
  • Use TRIAC to frame at least five well-framed quotations, making sure to explain how they help support ideas or claims that you are developing.  Consult They Say/I Say: “The Art of Summary” and “The Art of Quotation” (especially “Framing Quotations” section).
  • Remember, by the end of the paper, you’re trying to draw conclusions about the best ways to teach and learn college writing.

Questions You Might Consider

  • First year college writers are in the midst of acquiring one or more new secondary Discourse(s).  How do Teller and Warner think about first-year college writers and the written Discourses they’re trying to perform in their writing classrooms. In discussing 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” (546).  How do Teller and Warner variously interpret first-year college writers emerging fluency in academic Discourse?  What would Gee or Delpit say to one or the other of them about their interpretation of first-year student writing?
  • 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” (547). How does the effort it takes to acquire a “status discourse” pose problems for first-year students seeking to acquire social goods through the acquisition of a dominant Discourse?  How do different types of first-year students (including first-generation college students, students of color, or second-language learners) “face and overcome” the problems associated with adopting a Dominant Secondary Discourse that may conflict or be in tension with their Primary Discourse?  What do such students gain from this tension that students who are children of college graduates, perhaps, do not?  Both Teller and Warner speak about a generic first-year writing student.  How might their ideas benefit from considering the different kinds of challenges different kinds of first-year students face as they try to acquire the Discourse of academic writing?
  • In “Are We Teaching Composition Wrong?,” Teller writes: “My job is not to save my students from cultural impoverishment.  It is to teach them how to express themselves effectively in writing….. As much as I want to teach my students to love justice, be passionate about politics, and to think deeply about the future of humanity, they are not legitimate outcomes of a writing course.”  Responding to Teller, Warner writes “I couldn’t agree more with the purpose of the course being to teach students how to express themselves effectively in writing.  But I believe there’s a different route to achieving that goal, and the first step is to stop viewing students as ‘culturally impoverished’….  It’s true, that when it comes to ‘academic culture,’ students are largely without a clue because of lack of exposure…. [But], students know stuff…. If I want them to engage critically, if I want them to research deeply, if I want the to revise so their arguments are understood, I must allow them to write about their domains of knowledge.”  In his second theorem, Gee writes that “Primary Discourses, no matter whose they are, can never really be liberating literacies” (10). What would Teller or Warner think about Gee’s statement?  Does Delpit agree with Gee?  To what degree is it possible for students to hold on to the say-doing-being-valuing-believing of their Primary Discourses, while simultaneously working to acquire fluency in a Dominant Secondary Discourse?  By what mechanisms does that happen?  Can a student’s Primary Discourse be liberating in the context of first-year writing?  If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Gee writes about the unexpected benefits of membership in a Non-dominant Discourse (8).  To what degree do students in a writing class find themselves unexpectedly enlisted in a Non-dominant Discourses?  For what reasons?  Teller and Warner both seem to be teaching students who may experience their apprenticeship into Academic Discourse as difficult, abstract, and, partially, arbitrary.  In the context of the University, where Academic Discourse is Dominant, and fluency in Academic Discourse brings social goods, how might students benefit from participating in a Non-Dominant Discourse?  At the university, who are the masters of the Dominant Discourse?  What relationships do students have with the masters of the Dominant Discourses?  What would Delpit say about the risks and benefits students are balancing by performing a Non-dominant Discourse at the University?