Fake It… Or Just Learn It

How To Enter A Discourse

Tim Dube
Tim Dube
Dec 7, 2015 · 6 min read

So, What Is Discourse?

Everyone in the world partakes in at least one Discourse, whether they realize it or not. What is a Discourse? According to Professor James Paul Gee of Arizona State University,

“Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes” (Gee 6).

Differentiating Discourse: Primary v Secondary

There are two different categories of Discourse, and the first kind is called a primary Discourse. Gee says a primary Discourse is acquired from,“early life in the home and peer group…and is the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others”(Gee 7). All children learn their primary discourse in their formative years, and I was no exception. In our childhood’s my cousin and I had a vivid imaginations. Any blankets lying on the living room couch could instantly be transformed into the capes of Batman and Superman. We spent some serious time wandering around our houses wearing blankets and we slowly developed the mentalities that these heroes possessed. One might say that we eventually got so good at impersonating the comic book characters, that we transitioned into them. I became Batman. I am Batman! This acting, creativity and imagination is something we still have whenever we hang out together. It is our primary Discourse.

The other kind of Discourse that Gee names is called secondary Discourses. He gives churches, schools and businesses as some examples (Gee 8). Like a primary Discourse, secondary Discourses need to learned. Unfortunately, if someone wants to join a new Discourse they cannot simply become proficient in it; our primary Discourse acts as a roadblock because we will always be tempted to draw from it, similar to how knowing the mechanics of a baseball swing can ruin someone’s attempts to learn the mechanics of a golf swing. The way that I see it, is that there are many different aspects of a Discourse, and there are several steps that people must take before a new Discourse can be mastered. However, there are also multiple ways to enter a discourse.

The Door Into Discourse… Mushfaking

One way of transitioning into a Discourse is through pretending, or acting if you will. Gee mentions in his writing, “mushfake,” which he says is ,

“a term from prison culture, as making “do with something less when the real thing is not available”” (Gee 13).

A good illustration of “mushfake” that Gee gives in his writings is when he describes how, “prison inmates make hats from underwear to protect their hair from lice” (Gee 13). Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and a professor at Harvard Business School, brings up a concept very similar to “mushfake” in her TED talk that she gave in Edinburgh, Scotland, back in 2012.

“Fake it ’til you make it,”

is what Cuddy states. She then goes on to explain that she once had a particular MBA student who had a miniscule presence in the classroom, and was on the border of failing for the semester. Cuddy encouraged the student to at least act confident and ask a question in class the following day. Cuddy told the student if she faked the confidence, she might eventually find herself truly confident. The next day the student listened to Cuddy’s advice and surprised the entire class with her now great presence (Cuddy 18:07).

A month later the student came back and said Cuddy’s advice had worked (Cuddy 19:14). In both Gee’s and Cuddy’s example people are trapped in scenarios where they do not possess genuine objects or state of mind, but they find success anyways because they are convincing enough at acting otherwise. If you are convincing enough at acting like you are in a Discourse, you will eventually find yourself actually in it.

Apprenticeship…The Other Door In

Another way to enter a Discourse that Gee mentions is apprenticeship, the act of being taught something by someone else. You can be taught by a member in a certain Discourse how to become a member as well. Cuddy herself indirectly mentions apprenticeship in her TED talk because she sort of went through one to become a professor. When she graduated college she took a position at Princeton and had to give a twenty minute talk to twenty students. She lost confidence and went back to her advisor saying she did not believe that she was not capable of doing it, and that she was quitting. Her advisor however, told her that she had placed her faith in her, and that there was no way she was walking out the door. Cuddy did end up succeeding and even went on to grad school (Cuddy 17:02). Even though Cuddy is a remarkable woman, she would not have been able to succeed without the help of a mentor. As Gee says,

“you can’t be let into the game after missing the apprenticeship and be expected to have a fair shot at playing it” (Gee 10).

When your mentor believes in you and feels you are ready, that is when you go from an apprentice to a member of a Discourse.

Of Course Body Language Matters!

Correct body language is something you need whether you are attempting to enter a Discourse through acting or apprenticeship, and it is a BIG factor. Cuddy talks about body language in her TED talk, noting its importance and the role that it plays in people’s lives. Cuddy says, “So a handshake, or the lack of a handshake, can have us talking for weeks and weeks and weeks.” (Cuddy 1:58) This quote is supported by an example that Gee gives in his writing about the how significant body language is. Gee gives the example of a man walking into a neighborhood bar with a rougher setting, probably one many bikers would attend. The man walks in and says,

“Gime a match, wouldya?”

just like all the other bikers at the bar would ask. The man then proceeds to place a napkin on his barstool so as to not ruin his newly pressed designer jeans (Gee 5). The man is not using the Discourse that everyone else at the bar is using. Even though the man gets all of his speech correct he fails to produce the proper body language for the setting. As a result the people at the bar instantly recognize that the man is not a member of their Discourse. Just like Cuddy says shortly after her earlier quote in the paragraph,

“… we make sweeping judgments and inferences from body language.”

The professors illustrate that the second you screw up on body language in a particular setting you will be judged and outcasted by others because of the messages that your body language is showing, even if you are doing it unknowingly.

Whether you choose to enter a Discourse through acting/pretending or apprenticeship, and even if you have mastered the body language that the Discourse requires, there is one final piece that connects all of the dots. Time is the missing link, the key ingredient. It does not matter if you have all of the ingredients that is needed to make a strawberry cake. Even after you have made the batter and obtained the desired frosting, you still need to wait for the cake to finish baking in the oven. Don’t bother setting the timer to the oven though. When the cake is done you will sense it. You will know when you have been accepted into the Discourse.

Works Cited

Cuddy, Amy. “Your body language shapes who you are.” TEDGlobal. Ted.com, Edinburgh,

Scotland 2012. Transcript. 30 September 2015

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education

Volume 171. Number 1 (1989): 5–17. Article

Literacy & Discourse

Windows on the many literate practices college students bring to campus.

Tim Dube

Written by

Tim Dube

Literacy & Discourse

Windows on the many literate practices college students bring to campus.

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