Into a Discourse


James Gee and Amy Cuddy use academic works to explain the complicated world of Discourse. This is a being, doing, saying, believing, and valuing something in a group.

To be accepted into today’s social world, it is required to be fluent in many groups or Discourses. Discourses, as defined by Gee, 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 7).

When a person is part of a Discourse they are encompassed by it, and they are aware of others attempting to enter. However, as Gee points out, it is impossible to get “into” a Discourse. It is not something you “get into” rather you become it.

This is evident with Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about how one is perceived by others and how you become something you practice being. The entrance into a Discourse is not an entrance, it is becoming something else, a transformation of a sort. The start of which is a primary Discourse.

Primary Discourse:

One becomes a Discourse by having a place in part of a Discourse, before the entrance is solidified. What is meant by this is to be a Discourse, one must have certain values and beliefs among other things such as what is said and done that match the Discourse one is attempting to enter.

A primary Discourse is what everything is based around. “Further, aspects and pieces of the primary Discourse become a “carrier” or “foundation” for Discourses acquired later in life”(Gee 8). This states that our first Discourse shapes what Discourses we enter later in life.

Certain primary Discourses allow easier access to secondary Discourses due to a value or belief already in a primary Discourse.

For example, if a family goes to church every Sunday, because of their beliefs, it would be easy for a member of the family to entire a secondary Discourse within the church.

The Tree of Discourse:

Discourse is much like a tree. It starts with the roots in a family and how they act and what they value, as children we watch our parents or other “mentors” and copy what they do.

We do become similar to our family, but as we are exposed to new ideas and new “mentors” we become unique. That gives the basis to grow and branch out.

However one must still, in part, have a foot in a door before they enter a discourse or even have the desire to enter a Discourse. In general, people do not usually go from being apart of a family who does not value motorcycles in some way to being part of “Hells Angel’s”.

A person’s roots are established when they are a child for the most part. As to everything there are exceptions. One of which is Cuddy herself. As a gifted child, she had a high IQ and, I assume, she was headed to be part of the highly intellectual group of people.

In her talk she describes a terrible car accident, after which her IQ drops two standard deviations. Cuddy then proceeds to prove those who doubted her wrong.

She came back from the accident and worked hard to become the Discourse she wanted. The story she told is an example of not only becoming a Discourse, but also how when one sets their mind to it, they can change into the person they want to be.

Secondary Discourse:

Bouncing off of the idea that a primary Discourse is your foundation, one would be able to tweak or expand off of an aspect of their primary Discourse to be part of a secondary Discourse. “Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes”(Cuddy 19:33).

During the first years of schooling children connect with peers that are similar to themselves, this allows the children’s primary Discourse to affect others.

They see how if they both value playing with dolls they can have the ability to tweak how they play to include others. This small change is the building block for many Discourses to come.

When they use that as a connection they become friends, they start to form a secondary Discourse combining all their primary Discourses to compromise and create a new one. If someone tries to enter this Discourse the little girls will look to see if they fit with them, and if not they will not be accepted to the group.

If a family always plays dolls with their little girls, she is more likely to play dolls with other little girls at school.

If a family always plays sports with their little girl, she is more likely to play sports at school.

With this being said, a child who only ever played sports and never touched a doll would have a hard time making being part of the Discourse that only plays dolls and visa versa. This sets the basis for the first secondary Discourses we are a part of.

This is not to say it is impossible to enter a Discourse you are not a part of; in fact it is possible to find another way into a Discourse using something other than values.

If the girls who play with dolls want to play baseball at recess, they must have part of this Discourse already.

So if at home the same family who plays with dolls all the time also has an athletic father who believes play sports is fun, the girl may be able to fake being a part of this Discourse by mimicking what her father does.


Another necessary tool is one called “filtering”, “a process whereby aspects of the language, attitudes, values, and other elements of certain types of secondary Discourse are filtered into primary Discourse”(Gee 15).

This may be the most important key to understanding becoming a Discourse. The way to enter a Discourse is by pulling from part of a primary Discourse.

When attempting to become part of something someone not originally a part of, they draw on knowledge gained from other places (i.e the little girl knows her father plays baseball).

Transferring what they already know to what they hope to be a part of is how they enter such Discourse. This could eventually gain her entrance to the Discourse of baseball.

Cuddy says, “…our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior”(15:35). By faking for a long period of time the little girl is changing what her body is doing, eventually changing how she thinks and her behavior.


This would allow her entrance into a Discourse she is not a part of. Another way of becoming a Discourse would be to follow in the footsteps of someone else.

“Discourses are not mastered by over instruction…but by enculturation into social practices…with people who have already mastered the Discourse.”(Gee 7).

To be fully engulfed in a Discourse one will need a mentor. As seen in Cuddy’s stories, it seems she may have been unsuccessful in achieving her goals if not for her advisor.

For Cuddy she offered a foot in the door of the Discourse Cuddy desired.

Her mentor allowed her to go to Princeton for graduate school. She, of course, felt like she did not belong there.

At one point she told her advisor she was going to quit.

Much like a good advisor she told her she was not going to quit, and instead, told her exactly how to become that Discourse, she would fake it.

Throughout his paper, Gee has an idea, he says “you are either in it or you’re not”. I disagree with him on this point.

As shown by Cuddy’s story of faking her way into the scholarly world here is a limbo in between being in it or not.

However, the only person who know about the limbo is the person in it and the person helping them through it, or the mentor. The rest of the Discourse is unaware of the transition to them, one is in the Discourse or not.

The transition is evident in Cuddy’s story of her car accident. When her IQ dropped she was told she would be unable to bounce back from her loss.

She proved them wrong by working hard and becoming the Discourse, again. Cuddy was assisted by someone who was in the Discourse to achieve her goals.

Eventually, she became part of the Discourse without even knowing it at some point she made the jump from out of it, into it. This shows how it is possible to enter a Discourse.


In part, the transition is caused by an adaption some people have called “metaknowledge”. This “can make “maladapted” students smarter than “adapted” ones”(Gee 13).

The ability to fake adaptation is superior to being able to adapt to the environment around us. Those who are well adapted will have a hard time making an abnormal situation work due to the fact they have never had to find a way to make it work, known as mushfake, or the ability to fake something using what one already has.

Maladapted people have a harder time with fully adapting, but are able to fake it until they do. This skill comes only with the need to have it. When Cuddy’s IQ dropped, she needed the skill to better herself.

She developed this over time and with the help of those around her. This is an important tool for entering secondary Discourses.

The point of entering a Discourse is to be a part of something one believes will better themselves or are interested in. Being able to do this naturally is what Gee would call “elite”.

He talks about how “a group of elites who appear to demonstrate quick and effortless mastery of dominant secondary Discourses [a secondary Discourse bringing you money or prestige], by “talent” or “native ability”, when, in fact, they have simply practiced aspects of them longer” (Gee 15).

This is how one enters Discourses with ease and is how one becomes fluent in many Discourse which is the ultimate form of being “elite”. By having a mentor, drawing from metaknowledge, and using filtering becoming a Discourse proves to be a doable task.

Becoming a Discourse is a complicated process, involving extensive knowledge on the subject and its beliefs, values, and attitudes. It is hard to do, but not impossible, infact it is necessary to aid in the betterment of life.

Works Cited

Gee, James. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5–17. Print.

Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Talk. Edinburgh, Scotland. June 2012. Speech. 30 Aug. 2015.