Mechanisms for Entering a Discourse

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Close your eyes for a moment. Are they closed? Good. Now imagine your younger brother or sister, or your child or niece/nephew. Recall when they began learning how to walk. When they started learning, they needed help, correct?

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They may have fallen a few times, or bumped their heads, but they kept trying. Eventually they could walk alone, so you (their parent) bought them shoes. Why did you buy them shoes? Because it was part of the Discourse of walking. The term Discourse, coined by James Paul Gee, is

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

You could tell the baby was a healthy human, because he was walking on two feet. Because he was walking he now began to look the part with shoes. Eventually he started talking like a human, and then began eating “big people” food. Eventually, when the baby reaches the age of 24, he is a well developed human, therefore he has mastered the Discourse of being a person. Being a master of a Discourse means that you know all there is to know about a specific subject or skill. There are a few different tools people use to master a Discourse, some being easier than others. One way is to pretend you have already mastered the Discourse. Another is to simply stand in a way that makes you seem powerful. Some other mechanisms include body language, mushfake, apprenticeship, and tiny tweaks.


Through watching and practicing what other people in a particular Discourse do, one can gain the skills to enter the Discourse. Paul James Gee, the author of Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics, suggests that apprenticeship can provide mechanisms for entering a Discourse. As Gee puts it, “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction…, but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse”(7). The essence of Gee’s statement is that one must watch and then copy what masters of the specific Discourse are doing in order to become masters of the Discourse themselves. Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist who has done many experiments and research about how people judge and influence each other. In her 2012 TED talk, she shares a personal connection with Gee’s idea that apprenticeship can help someone enter a Discourse. When she was in graduate school, she had a mentor of her own. It was the day before she had to give her very first speech and Amy was so nervous she thought she might just drop out. So she called her mentor that night and her mentor’s response was,

“You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you’re staying”(Cuddy 17:02).

Now the intentions of this comment were not to scare her into staying in grad school, but to give her confidence. In the end, not only did Cuddy complete that talk, but she went on to give bigger speeches and lectures and she even became a mentor to someone else. She was able to use what she learned to teach someone else. When one is an apprentice, he is learning, from a mentor of the specific Discourse, how the Discourse works.

When you are an apprentice you try your best to do what is asked of you, but that isn’t always easy. Cuddy, as we will see later, knew that from, again, person experience. Through all the adversity she faced, she credits her success to this line:

”Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize”(Cuddy 19:14).

Her idea is that you can pretend to be someone or something else, put on a different costume, and eventually you will become that person or thing.

Becoming a Master with Body Language

Cuddy was able to “fake” herself to success. However, there comes a point when you must convert that fakeness into realness. In other words, you have to change who you are inside and out. Body language is a vital part of mastering a Discourse. If one can’t look and act the part, one can not enter the Discourse. Gee provides the following example, “I enter my neighborhood bar and say to my drinking buddy, as I sit down, “Gime a match, wouldya?” while placing a napkin on the bar stool to avoid getting my newly pressed designer jeans dirty” (5). Here he has said the correct thing, but recall that a Discourse involves “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations”(Gee 6). In order to prove he is a part of that Discourse his actions should reflect his words- he should have worn dirty jeans in the first place. In fact, Amy Cuddy conducted an entire study to observe the effects of body language. She tried to prove that if a person stood in a confident, high-power, position, they would gain the confidence that concurred with that pose. As the study went, people came in and they had to stand in either a high-power pose or a low-power pose for two minutes. In the end they found that the ones who stood in a high-power pose for two minutes were more apt to gamble and have higher testosterone and lower cortisol, whereas it was the opposite with the low-power poses.

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From this came more reason to believe that:

“our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes…”(Cuddy 15:35).

Cuddy’s point is that anyone can change how they act by changing their body position and anyone can change their body position by how they act. Cuddy is surely right because you can make yourself feel insignificant if you slouch, touch your neck, and sit in the corner.

You can also make yourself feel like an alpha when you put your hands on your hips, put your chest up, and sit in the front of the room. Therefore, if you constantly walk around seeming like you know what you are doing, you may be taken for someone who sincerely does know what they are doing. All that being said, recall that you must eventually truly become that alpha figure.

Power posing is one small change someone can make to move past the “pretender” stage of a Discourse. Constantly acting while in that high-power pose will change your overall confidence level. Amy Cuddy hits the nail on the head when she suggests that “Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes”(19:33). The essence of Cuddy’s theory is that slow small steps can change who you are. A similar idea comes from Gee when he explains mush fake, that is- to

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

In other words, use the knowledge and tools learned from primary and secondary Discourses to gain access to a desired Discourse. The concepts mushfake and tiny tweaks can be easily forgotten about. Nevertheless they are highly important tools we use to make it through any given day. They mold us into who we become, or in Gee terms, what our Discourses are.

Are You Really in the Discourse?

No matter what kind of Discourse you master, or what kind of mechanisms you use to enter that Discourse, your mastery can be tested by conflict. Cuddy doesn’t touch on this much but Gee makes clear his opinion. Gee argues that,

“when such conflict or tension exists, it can deter acquisition of one or the other or both of the conflicting Discourses, or, at least, affect the fluency of the mastered Discourse…”(8).

The essence of Gee’s argument is that if you aren’t confident in your Discourse, you may not actually be fluent in the Discourse, you are just pretending.

Pretending is actually a tool Amy Cuddy suggests using to enter a Discourse. However, instead of the term “pretending” she uses “fake it till you make it” which was discussed in a previous paragraph. As a reminder, fake it till you become it is an idea that you can pretend to be, for example, a “popular” girl in school until you actually become a popular girl. So, how could one test their popularity? Well, according to Gee, you could sit yourself in an AP Calculus class with other stereotypical popular girls. If you were to do much better than anyone else in the AP Calculus class, you probably aren’t (stereotypically) a master of the popularity Discourse. Your primary Discourse is probably along the lines of a nerd, whereas your secondary Discourse is popularity.

Please note- this is not serious advice.

According to Gee, a primary Discourse is “the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others”(7). It is who you are at your core. Therefore, a secondary Discourse is any other socialization there afterwards. So whether you are a gardener training to be a Doctor or a singer desiring to be skier you can prove your fluency through tension and conflict in your secondary Discourse.

When it comes to Discourses, Gee believes that

“You are either in it or you’re not. Discourses are connected with displays of an identity; failing to fully display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don’t have that identity, that at best you’re a pretender or a beginner”(9–10).

With Everything Said and Done…

With everything that I have read from Gee and Cuddy, I believe there is one thing they are missing. Although I agree with all their mechanisms like power-posing, mushfaking, tiny tweaks, fake it till you become it, apprenticeship and so on, I can not concede to the idea that those tools will always be enough. Even if one were to use everyone of these mechanisms, they still may not ever enter a desired Discourse. You see, I believe that there are always restrictions.

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Take, for example, presidential candidates. There may be two perfect candidates, but they can’t both be the President of the United States. Likewise, not everyone can be in any given Discourse. Despite your parents and teachers saying that you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it, that’s not always true. One may not be smart enough, pretty enough, or perhaps there are just too many in the population. Although Cuddy does not say so directly, she apparently assumes that one can stand in a certain way and be successful. She organizes this experiment where people come in for a stressful job interview, and before they go into the interview they stand in either a high-power pose or a low-power pose. At the end, the employers say which people they would hire, and they all end up being the people who stood in a high-power pose. At the end, she says, “People are bringing their true selves, basically”(Cuddy 13:21). She gives the credit to high-power pose allowing them to be themselves. While she doesn’t touch on it directly, this experiment assumes that if they stand in a certain position, or fake who they are, they will get hired. However, there may not be enough employers to hire each deserving employee.

Gee says it too when he writes about the child who flipped through a book making up his own story. He says, “It is a key device in the creation of a group of elites who appear to demonstrate quick and effortless mastery of dominant secondary Discourses, by “talent” or “native ability,” when, in fact, they have simply practiced aspects of them longer”(Gee 15). In other words, Gee believes that this child will master the Discourse of reading much quicker. While I believe it is important for children to practice reading at an early age, I can’t agree that this will cause the child to be a good reader.

Just because this child can open a book and say words, does not necessarily mean he will master the Discourse of reading really quickly. Rather it shows that he can copy someone else. As a matter of fact, this child may not be a good reader because he has dyslexia. There are no givens in life. When one uses the mechanisms taught through Gee and Cuddy’s pieces, they are only assistants to your God-given abilities.

Therefore, I suggest to you that entering a Discourse is no simple task. One must first know about the Discourse, and desire to know more. One must then learn and do as others who have already mastered the Discourse. This idea of mastering a Discourse is much more than just learning a new job. A Discourse is who you are as a person, whether it’s in public or in private. A Discourse is a skill, such as cooking or skiing. In order to become a good cook, he must practice, watch cooking shows, read cookbooks, wear an apron, and create edible food. When a cook goes out to eat, he is thinking of how it was prepared, and perhaps converse with the cook after his meal. Cuddy and Gee provide a few tools, like power-posing, or mushfaking, as guides for entering a Discourse.

Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. Literacy, Discourses, and Linguistics: Introduction. London: Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5–17. Print

Cuddy, Amy. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. TEDGlobal 2012. Edinburgh. June 2012. Lecture. October 2012.