James Gee’s “Discourse”

What exactly is a Discourse?

There are many struggles in life in which we face head on until we find a way to combat it. One real struggle that everyone will face multiple times in their life is fitting in. An age old proverb states to be yourself and don’t let anyone change who you are. Another says that if someone doesn’t accept you for who you truly are, then move on.

However, sometimes it is not that easy and other precautions are needed. An example of one actually needed to fit in by altering their true self is in the workplace. An alteration of one’s behavior might be necessary when they are working for a promotion or simply to keep their job. Little things like different word choice or slang, physical actions, and even thoughts sometimes need to be altered to fit in.


In James Gee’s Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction, he writes of a term he coined called “Discourses” and how one is to adopt a new one. The way to add or assimilate yourself into more Discourses is to as @Amy Cuddy states in her TED Talk about how one can gain confidence: Your body language shapes who you are.

There are several mechanisms in which one can gain a new Discourse, however Gee contradicts himself. On the one hand, he argues that you are either in a Discourse or you are not. On the other hand, he also says that one can join a Discourse through apprenticeship If Cuddy is right that you can fake it ’til you become it, as I think she is then we need to reassess Gee’s view that you are either in it or you are not.. The way for one to get into a new Discourse is as Gee and Cuddy explains but it is difficult as Gee suggests.

Gee is right in explaining that everyone has a primary Discourse, one that we inherit from our parents and the society close to us.

“A Discourse is a sort of ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so to take on a particular role that others will recognize” (Gee 7).

In other words, one is born with certain attributes about their identity which is a part of who they are their whole life, but other Discourses can be adopted through apprenticeship or have yours just altered to fit in. This combination of “saying-doing-being-valuing-believing” (Gee 6) is what James Gee describes as a Discourse. This goes back to Gee describing Discourse as an identity kit, it’s everything you need to know and do to become a part of a specific Discourse. As we age, we tend to acquire secondary Discourses

“fluently to the extent we are given access to these institutions and are allowed apprenticeships within them” (Gee 8).

The more time we are given to learn a new secondary Discourse, the faster we will become fluent in them. For example, your Discourse with your family isn’t going to be the same as it is with your friends because you may have more vulgar language with your friends or it could be the other way around if your family is like that.


At the workplace, your Discourse may be a little more formal than it is at home. A common example of a secondary Discourse in action is prolific in the wide world of sports. Any sport has its own list of terms that a player knows and uses such as “turn two” for baseball. Of course there a several more for each sport and are just terms one adds to their vocabulary as they play. If a person who has never stepped foot on a court before and immediately participated in a practice with highly skilled players, they would be seen as a pretender or beginner as Gee would say.

Gee also writes that

“someone cannot engage in a Discourse in a less than fully fluent manner. You are either in it or you’re not” (9),

meaning that you cannot simply join a new Discourse which is interesting because how is one ever to pick up a new Discourse and fit in, how did anyone ever do that if this statement is true? This is where Gee’s views seem to contradict each other, hurting the point he makes about apprenticeship. On the other hand, despite Gee claiming one cannot add another Discourse, Cuddy sees participation as a successful way to get the ball rolling. She has watched students in a classroom setting really participate and communicate with non-verbals and the body language in which they present themselves:

“they get right into the middle of the room before class even starts, like they really want to occupy space” (Cuddy 5:24).

By getting big and taking up space, the students show signs of confidence which overall boost their participation, all just from sitting wider. She asks all of her students to try this. The strategy is “fake it ’til you become it” (Cuddy 18:14). By this she means speak like and act like the people of that Discourse and try your best to fit in until you don’t just fit in, but until this new Discourse is actually you. However, that also means setting yourself up for ridicule to be labeled as a beginner or pretender.

Pretending to be someone else — https://journeyintoyoursoul.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/why-are-you-trying-so-hard-to-fit-in-when-you-were-born-to-stand-out/

Being labeled as a beginner is not all as bad as one may think it is. As Gee contradicts himself by saying you’re either in a Discourse or you’re not, he then goes on to describe ways and strategies for one to get into a Discourse, mainly by the prison term: “mushfake.”

Mushfake is “making do with something less when the real thing is not available” (Gee 13).

For example, imagine you are watching your first live baseball game at the stadium and you know nothing about baseball but you are excited and want to participate in the chanting and yelling. You could mushfake by using chants or slogans from another sport or event, something you already know. This is applicable to the understanding of learning and obtaining new Discourses it’s just like Cuddy’s fake it ’til you become it. By mushfaking, one uses their so called meta-knowledge (basic knowledge of other Discourses) to try to fit in. Gee writes about meta-knowledge as

“exposure to another language…can cause you to become consciously aware of how your first language works” (12).

Meaning as you are around other Discourses, you add little bits and pieces to your own Discourse and it will eventually become a full on new secondary Discourse with time. One may use a couple terms and try to show that they have potential to fit in but as Gee writes, they will be seen as a beginner or pretender. Which shouldn’t be a problem but it may prolong the time it takes for you to fully be fluent in that Discourse and accepted.

Apprenticeship — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apprenticeship

Mushfake and meta-knowledge brings up the topic of apprenticeship that Gee writes to be the way to get into or add a new Discourse, despite saying you are either in a Discourse or not. Apprenticeships are how one gains a new secondary Discourse. An apprenticeship is basically learning from watching and participating like Cuddy states how one should join a Discourse. Just because one is enduring an apprenticeship it does not mean they are in that specific Discourse. As one is given access to these institutions, they go through stages about entering a new secondary Discourse. These stages include listening and participating as well as trying and acknowledging the fact that you are in fact the beginner. Apprenticeship is the sole possibility of how one enters a new Discourse, though it was explained by Gee who claims you are either in it or not.


The views of both Gee and Cuddy fit together like a puzzle and are in fact pretty similar in how to enter a Discourse. Cuddy’s idea of participation is the first step followed quickly by mushfake. Those two strategies work hand in hand because to participate you need to work with what you have and that involves your meta-knowledge. Using a general language might be enough to give you time and access within that certain institution without giving yourself off as so much of a beginner or pretender. Gee is correct in saying apprenticeship is how to get into a Discourse however he is wrong in saying that you are either in a Discourse or not. He’s wrong because his idea of apprenticeship states that you are in the learning stages of entering that new secondary Discourse. What Gee and Cuddy both lack explaining is the idea that one becomes so involved and fluent in a particular secondary Discourse, that it begins to affect their primary Discourse and may end up an aspect of their primary Discourse.

Works Cited

Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Conferences LLC.Edinburgh International Conference Center, Edinburgh. June 2012. Lecture. 30 Sep. 2015

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1(1989): 5–15. Print.