Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics

James Paul Gee’s influential introduction to a special issue of The Journal of Education remains fresh and vibrant more than twenty years after the piece was first published (1989). I noticed this time through how willing Gee was to distance himself and his work from print-based literacies, which might explain why he turned his attention to video games in education shortly after writing this piece.  He defines literacy as “the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse” (486), and a secondary Discourse is a socially validated way of “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combination” (484), which in turn is distinct from the primary Discourse we pick up in our socially-economically influenced homes.  Our Primary discourses can never be liberating; we must learn a Secondary Discourse in order to be able to critique our Primary Discourse, Gee says, although we can also use our Primary Discourses to critique the Secondary Discourses we pick up.

This essay has significantly influenced the way I teach writing, but I was still a bit surprised to learn how much of what I do comes from this piece. Gee recommends teaching metaknowledge (writing about writing!) because metaknowledge is “liberation and power, because it lead to the ability to manipulate, to analyze, to resist while advancing” (490).  He also notes at various points, however, that we can not easily teach Secondary Discourses in the classroom because they constitute so much more than just learning rules; these Discourses embody social structures. Gee dropped a bomb I didn’t remember, “Beyond changing the social structure, is there much hope? No, there is not. So we better get on about the process of changing the social structure.  Now whose job is that? I would say, people who have been allotted the job of teaching Discourses” (489).  That likely means most of us.  Teaching writing, teaching Discourse, should lead to a life of challenging and changing the social structure.

These ideas could really help me with my literacy narrative, version 2011.  In the past four years, I’ve become more and more acquainted with refugee families in Fargo, and Gee’s concepts of primary and secondary discourses illuminate many of their educational struggles.  Some, of course, never get past Primary Discourses–they acquire a little bit of English, but no specialized Secondary Discourses, and remain largely outside the American social class system, other than being on the lowest rung of the ladder, very much outsiders.  Kids who enter the schooling system at a young age can fair well, can learn the school Discourses, but might feel more tension with Primary Discourses than kids whose families are fully integrated into the social class system of Fargo.  Kids who join the system late might make some good progress, but will ascend to the level of “mushfake,” resistance, and metaknowledge at best.  Even (or maybe especially) those who only earn a college degree in Fargo might have the credentials of a professional, but they have accents, literal and metaphorical; they are without networks of influence, and they have not picked up all the right “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combination[s].” Seeing their encounters with the education system has hightened my metaknowledge of literacy acquisition, and motivates me to try to change the social structure in any small way I can.

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