Smashing the Gates of Academic Discourse: Part 1

Can you just show them the databases?  This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot as an instruction librarian.

I’ve thought about it, and the answer is no.  I cannot just show them the databases.

Entering the Databases

Figure 1: An uncertain student encounters the magnitude of academic discourse through a library database.

I cannot “just” show them the databases because there are so many layers of destruction inherent in my process of pointing, clicking, and narrating.  I am not demonstrating how students can find a scholarly article, I am demonstrating how profoundly students are marginalized from academic knowledge production.  I am not identifying aspects of peer review, I am silencing all non-academic voices–including the students’.  I am not modeling good search strategies, I am erasing myself as a teacher.

Databases embody the exclusionary nature of academic discourse.  Students are on the outside, in search boxes, using natural language that the database most likely won’t understand.  On the inside of the databases are millions of articles written by experts.  Undergraduates cannot even begin to fathom their own ideas and writing being on the inside of a database.  With search boxes and keywords as their only entry point, they are left to slog through vast amounts of information.  The information they need is troublesome to locate because of language–both the language used to describe the articles themselves, and the academic insider language (jargon + argumentative structure) in which the articles are written.

The database demo–just showing them the databases–has bothered me for the entire time I’ve been a librarian.  Lately I’ve been using James Gee’s ideas about Discourses to understand my angst.  Basically, Gee says that we all receive at least one primary Discourse naturally as we grow up through socialization in the home and a peer group.  This is our original sense of identity.  From there, we can acquire secondary Discourses throughout our lives.  There are many types of secondary Discourses, but what I’m addressing here are school-based academic Discourses.  In higher education there are many different academic Discourses, usually based in disciplines, but there are also Discourses based in theoretical approaches that can be applied across disciplines.

Here is Gee’s helpful definition of what a Discourse (primary or secondary) entails:

Discourse definition

Figure 2: Gee’s definition of a Discourse.

Discourses are not just ways of thinking, they are ways of existing.  Our Discourses define our social position and allow (or deny) us social power.

Here is a look at primary discourses (acquired through enculturation) as opposed to secondary discourses (usually taught through overt instruction, but only acquired fluently through apprenticeship):

Primary vs. Secondary Discourse

Figure 3: Primary and Secondary Discourses

So let’s break down some of the issues:

1) Socioeconomic Status:  Gee says that students from middle class homes have primary Discourses that “resonate with the practices of schools.”  Discussing Gee in terms of critical information literacy, James Elmborg says that these students are “socially preselected for academic success” (194).  Middle and upper class students are more able to acquire school-based dominant Discourses that value Standard English, text-based forms of writing, and information/knowledge that can be quantified and tested.  Elmborg points out that “academic discourse is unnatural for everyone, but it is less natural for some than for others” (196).  All students are on the margins when they’re trying to participate in an academic Discourse by using databases to do research, reading academic journal articles, and writing in traditional argumentative forms.  But students whose primary discourses “resonate” with academic Discourse (and have been resonating with various school-based Discourses from kindergarten through senior year of high school) are certainly better prepared.

2) Overt Instruction vs. Enculturation/Apprenticeship:  Most school-based dominant secondary Discourses are taught through overt instruction as opposed to being naturally acquired through apprenticeship.  Gee gives an excellent example of what this division looks like, using his field of linguistics as an example: “Ironically, while you can overtly teach someone linguistics, a body of knowledge, you can’t teach them to be a linguist, that is, to use a Discourse.  The most you can do is let them practice being a linguist with you.”  The phrasing Gee uses here and elsewhere makes clear that outsiders to a discourse can only gain entry when insiders invite them in.  He says that we only acquire fluency in a Discourse “to the extent that we are given access to these institutions and are allowed apprenticeships within them” (527, emphasis mine).

Elmborg says that when teachers rely on overt instruction (comparable to Freire’s idea of the banking method), “they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right” (194).  The overt instruction model actively bars students from entry to academic Discourse because it requires their passivity.  The only way to help students become fluent is to offer them guidance and space as they practice and create.

3) Conflicts between Discourses: Gee says that there is almost always conflict between a person’s Discourses, and that this tension “can deter acquisition of one or the other or both of the conflicting Discourses.”  Discourse conflicts tend to be greater for students whose class, race, gender, and/or sexuality is/are outside of traditional social power structures.  Conflict can occur between primary and secondary Discourses, but it can also occur between two secondary Discourses.  Gee gives the example of a feminist academic feeling conflict between feminist Discourse and traditional literary crticism (528).

4) Relationship between Discourse* and Literac*: Ah,  literacy is a fraught word in the library world.  Gee says: “I define “literacy” as the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse” (529, emphasis original).  He goes on to say that “literacy is always plural” since there are multiple secondary Discourses (I see resonance with metaliteracy here, but that is another discussion for another time).  He says that a literacy–a fluency in a Discourse–can be a liberating literacy if it can help a student critique another literacy.  One literacy/Discourse can provide a framework for metacognition about troubling aspects of another literacy/Discourse, giving a student “a set of meta-words, meta-values, meta-beliefs” with which to conduct a critique.  To use the example above, a student fluent in both feminist academic Discourse and literary academic Discourse could use feminist language and theoretical approaches to critique the canonization of white male authors or the detached, argumentative style of literary analysis.  In this way, a Discourse conflict can be productive.

So here is one challenge: beginning undergraduates usually take classes in a variety of disciplines simultaneously, which means they are always grappling with multiple Discourses.  They are not necessarily provided with any kind of official guidance for seeing connections between the content of their classes.  They are probably experiencing most of the Discourses through overt instruction in 100 and 200 level classes, where they fail to become fluent.  As they get to junior and senior levels (or often earlier), they are encouraged/required to select a major, and they take upper level classes in a single discipline where they are more likely to be allowed apprenticeships that help them become fluent.  Subject faculty support this model of single Discourse fluency because they need students to populate their classes and prove their department’s worth to the administration (and, to be more kind, because they love their work and want to guide the students who will carry it on).

Librarians are in a position to advocate for liberating literacies–the cultivation of multiple fluencies and a metacognitive, critical stance toward academic knowledge production.  We can help students make their Discourse conflicts productive.  More on this later.

5) Maintaining Power through Gatekeeping: As insiders who are fluent in one or more academic Discourses, many subject faculty (and librarians) engage in practices that marginalize students and prevent them from becoming fluent in academic Discourse.  If I were to give a generous reading of this situation, I would say that we are reproducing the way that we learned.  We think that struggle and suffering will make students stronger because that is what worked for us.  A darker reading is that we get a kick out of wielding power over students.  And a middle of the road, perhaps most accurate reading is that both of the above readings are true to an extent, but we refuse to reflect on the problematic nature of this dynamic.

Whatever our motivation, we are engaging in gatekeeping.  Gee explains gatekeeping as a way that dominant groups maintain their power.  He says these groups “apply rather constant “tests” of the fluency of the dominant Discourses in which their power is symbolized.  These tests take on two functions: they are tests of “natives” or, at least, “fluent users” of the Discourse, and they are gates to exclude “non-natives” (people whose very conflicts with dominant Discourses show they were not, in fact, “born” to them)” (528).

The examples of tests or gates in academic Discourse are many–undergraduate curricula that rely on Standard English, canonical texts, and traditional argumentative forms of research; the monetary and emotional expense of graduate school; an academic job market that doesn’t have nearly enough room for all qualified candidates; a peer-reviewed and paywalled system of publication; and ultimately, the tenure system.  Here is a helpful diagram of the gatekeeping processes of academic Discourse:

Gatekeeping mechanisms

Figure 4: Gatekeeping in Academic Discourse

With those ideas in mind, let’s return to databases.  See the brown gate to the traditional undergraduate curriculum in the graphic above?  It’s constructed of many different pieces of wood–Standard English, text-based and argumentative writing forms, Friere’s banking method–and databases, which represent the controll -ed/-ing nature of academic knowledge production.   When students are given traditional research assignments, they are put in a place to confront the gate, rather than to step back and conceptualize the hegemonic system of academic knowledge production as a whole.  Elmborg says that “[Information literacy] involves the comprehension of an entire system of thought and the ways that information flows in that system. Ultimately, it also involves the capacity to critically evaluate the system itself” (196).

Searching databases for scholarly journal articles without conceptualizing the system as a whole reinforces students’ marginalization from academic Discourse; their position at gates of the academy.  This position can actually be a hopeful and promising one, but when students have unsuccessful experiences trying to enter again and again, they are likely to stop trying, and to simply fake their way through.

When librarians submit to subject faculty requests to “just show them the databases” over and over again, we are guarding the gates.  When we refuse to advocate for ourselves as “real” educators and position ourselves as service providers who will do whatever subject faculty ask, we are failing students.  Elmborg asks a question that has been rolling around in my head since I entered the profession: “Should librarians “serve” the academy by teaching its literacy skills unquestioningly, or should librarians participate in the critical reflection undertaken by “educators,” a reflection that leads us to challenge, if necessary, the politics of academic exclusion, and to participate in the creation of new and better academic models?” (197).  I must refuse to simply serve.

Can you just show them the databases?  In structure it’s a question, but in reality it’s a command.  It is a closed gate in front of the classroom.  A non-affirmative response is necessarily an act of resistance, a first step to get over the gate.

Where do we go from no?

Librarians are in a potentially productive (dare I say potentially revolutionary) position as both insiders and outsiders to academic Discourses.  We are insiders in the sense that we’ve attained at least one advanced degree, we might be writing academic journal articles, and we have various levels of expertise in particular subject area Discourses (some in which we’re fluent, some in which we are able to fake it).  We are outsiders because we cannot be experts in all disciplines.  While we help students do research in all disciplines, we often do so by teaching concepts and relying on students to engage their disciplinary knowledge and vocabulary.  We are frequently in the position of grappling with pieces of information from discipline Discourses in which we are not fluent, and because of this, we are closer to students’ affective experiences of being intimidated by academic language and structure.  We are also oddballs in terms of categorization: sometimes tenure-track faculty, sometimes staff, but generally not considered teachers by The Powers that Be or by the subject faculty.

In my experience, librarians have a difficult time recognizing the power inherent in our insider/outsider position.  It is a kind of power that could allow us to subvert dismantle the traditional gatekeeping modes of power exercised by academic Discourse.  Because we are close to students’ lived, affective experiences with encountering academic Discourses as non-fluent outsiders, we are able to develop lesson plans and assignments that help students enter a Discourse confidently and critically.  Because we work with all disciplines and all levels of students, we see research and academic knowledge production on a broad scale, rather than being tied to one discipline.  This means we are in a good position to help students conceptualize the entire system of academic knowledge production–its processes, its gatekeeping mechanisms, and its potential.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.  One of the reasons it is so difficult to make any real changes in the way research is approached across the curriculum–across many academic Discourses–is because we as librarians are being kept at the gates.  That is what is happening when subject faculty make requests for database demos, or ask us to only take up 20 minutes of their class, or express surprise if we have faculty status.  We get excited when we have true collaboration with faculty because this is outside of the norm.  We are used to being treated as less than.  We are used to the silence of acquiescing.  We are the ultimate self-censors.

I believe that one of the main projects of information literacy in higher education can be expressed in Gee’s vision of fluent members of a Discourse inviting outsiders in by creating opportunities for guided practice.  Librarians are the perfect people to do the inviting, to help students conceptualize the system of academic knowledge production, to encourage them to be critical of this hegemonic structure, and to guide them as they use Discourses as liberating literacies.  But first we have to demand full entry for ourselves.

smash the gates

Figure 5: Librarians are in a unique position to help students conceptualize and critique academic Discourses. Librarians also have access rainbow-puking unicorns.


So how to smash the gates, first for ourselves and then for students?  How to respond to Elmborg’s call to “challenge the politics of academic exclusion and participate in the creation of new and better academic models?” I don’t have an easy answer, but I want to consider the act of smashing in two more posts:

1) The Rhetoric of Silence in Librarianship: In the library world, we often consider ourselves subversive.  We see potential in being clever but quiet, knowing our actions will go largely unnoticed by The Powers that Be because of our position as not-quite-insiders in the academy.  I’m all about subversion, but sometimes I think we excuse our silencing by calling it subversiveness.  So I want to apply Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetoric of Silence to my experience in the field of librarianship.  Glenn says: “When silence is our rhetorical choice, we can use it purposefully and productively–but when it is not our choice, but someone else’s for us, it can be insidious, particularly when someone else’s choice for us comes in the shape of institutional structure” (264).  Can we stop making excuses?  Can we combine a little subversiveness with a little smashing?

2) Human Databases:  When I started this I was actually trying to write a lesson plan post about a human database activity I did with English Comp students, but there was so much good stuff going on with Gee that it’s going to have to be a post unto itself.  I’ll address questions like: Can we ever be truly subversive in a one-shot, or are we always being silenced?  Can we help beginning undergraduates conceptualize the system of academic knowledge production in a one shot, or am I kidding myself?  Can the master’s tools ever dismantle the master’s house?  There will be a fair amount of rage but also a sprinkling of hope.

Works Cited, or, Two White Dudes Named James

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Gee, J. (2001). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy? In E. Cushman, E. Kintgen, B. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.) Literacy: A critical sourcebook (525-544).  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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