Scientific Discourse Analysis
James Gee’s use of Discourse in his “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” is explained as a “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” (6).
Science falls into this idea of Discourse nicely. As a highly sought after, career focused Discourse, exploring what it takes to enter the this for a college student is a task many students do unknowingly.
Within a Discourse one is “either in it or you’re not” (Gee 9). This idea is one used seen in Christina Haas’ “Learning to Read Biology” throughout which she follows a college student named Eliza through her four years of college.
Her purpose was to track her rhetorical development, and see how it applies to common students. The transition from seeing texts as “discrete, highly explicit, even ‘timeless’ entities” (Haas 45) to understanding the “rhetorical fame” which “helps readers account for the motives underlying textual acts and their outcomes” (Haas 48) is a step into the Discourse of science.
Using tools of the field such as the IMRaD Cheat Sheet provided by Carnegie Mellon University, the combinations Gee highlights become clear. As Haas follows Eliza through her years, she marks stages of the journey helping us understand the transition and values that come with being in the Discourse of a biologist.
Through this analysis, the values, beliefs, and actions that define the science Discourse will be seen through the IMRaD cheat sheet, Haas, and Gee.
Being a Biologist:
As Eliza switches from a high school setting to a college setting, she has an idea about what a biologist is. However, she will not truly understand what it means to be a biologist until deep into her studies.
The ideas of Haas’ “rhetorical frame” can be highlighted throughout her analysis of Eliza. To understand what is happening with this Discourse one must understand that “text(s) may draw upon, extend, or refute a myriad of other texts, whether those texts are directly cited or not” (Haas 48).
This is what those, such as Eliza, must learn to be in the Discourse of science. “Metaknowledge” can explain the first steps into the Discourse, “rhetorical frame” is one way to understand this. It is a base knowledge of the subject, in this case science.
Knowing that all texts in science are connected gives this basic thoughts. Without this, one would have a hard time with the entrance into the Discourse. Gee explains this as “classroom discussion…can lead to metaknowldge” (9), Eliza’s first two years of college gives her this knowledge, as well as a base for an important tool in the scientific Discourse…the scientific paper.
One must understanding what is happening with a scientific paper one must first understand that “constructing a rhetorical frame (which) includes authors, readers, motives, relationships and contexts” (Haas 48).
The IMRaD paper is broken into four sections, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. This is important to communicate thoughts of scientists in a way others understand.
Each of these sections provides vital information for scientists or others looking at their work. The introduction provides purpose for the paper, methods explain what one did, the results show what the outcome of the experiment was, and the discussion connects the paper to the world, other scientists, and what the results mean.
Through the method section of a scientific paper, one highlights what happened during the experiment. This category allows the reader, understand what happened to produce an outcome.
Different readers do this for different reasons, replication for the purpose of exploiting what the scientist did wrong or for further explanations pull the community together after a publication. Haas states that “textbooks and journal articles (are) seen in a certain historical context” (66).
To be in the Discourse of science, one must understand that science is always changing. Being able to challenge each other as well as build off each other is what leads to scientific breakthroughs and is part of being in the Discourse of science.
When stepping into the Discourse for the first time it is easy to read a textbook and think it is fact. Eliza, in her journey into the Discourse, notes that “by the time a textbook is written it’s out of date”. This is a wise actualization, it would be impossible to rewrite a text book every time something changes.
This knowledge shows who is in the scientific Discourse, and who is not. Science is based on scientific data and ideas brought forth by other scientists, this motivates science forward into new discoveries.
Apprenticeship is perhaps the most important step in entering a Discourse. Gee says,”you can overtly teach someone linguistics, a body of knowledge, you can’t teach them to be a linguist” (7).
With Eliza, and others attempting to enter the Discourse of science, they are taught the “body of knowledge” in their first few years of college. They are going through the motions, or learning the basics but not necessarily practicing the Discourse.
The work study job in the lab helped Eliza move into the idea that she is “reading this (a text) to get an idea of how to set up my own report” (Haas 64). She now sees why other scientists work matters to her.
As a future biologist she begins to see authors of textbooks and papers as scientists doing similar work to her, with the same values and goals in mind.
She “exhibited a much greater awareness of the contexts surrounding the texts she read” (Haas 65). “Rhetorical frame” is exactly what she is discovering. By working alongside someone in the Discourse (Shelly), Eliza has someone to watch and practice with.
Shelly becomes a role model for others interested in entering the Discourse to follow. This is a key step, much like practicing to throw a ball in baseball, one must practice being a scientist.
Science is a unique field, everything they believe in and value is calculated and connected. It builds off new things learned, this motivates the reasons behind experiments as well as explaining the context of it.
Motives and contexts are both shown in the idea of the rhetorical frame Haas explains. Gee’s ideas of valuing and believing can be exploited in these areas.
The context of the writing (or purpose) is how it connects to other things, knowing texts are not “autonomous texts…without contextual support from author, reader, or culture” (Haas 45) is the first step in understanding the context of scientific writing.
This is to say that one must realize that all things in the scientific Discourse are connected and nothing stands by itself “autonomously”. Eliza works with this in her senior year where she realizes that science is a continuous entity.
It is changing all the time and because of this, everything is related to each other in a “rhetorical” way. Context drives the motives of texts. The values scientists have for furthering scientists give scientific meaning in context, or purpose. Their values drive experiments, and their experiments drive texts, these texts further science. For example, cancer is a huge problem facing the scientific world. A person may choose to experiment with cancer treatments for the purpose of expanding our knowledge on the subject to bring us one step closer to the cure.
In reading a scientific text this can be seen in the discussion portion of the paper. Here an author “connects these findings to other research…(and) state the implications of their findings for future policy or practice” (Carnegie Mellon University: IMRaD Cheat Sheet). The Discourse of science values advancement and they believe in changing our understanding of the world.
The Transition into the Discourse:
The transition from seeing texts as “discrete, highly explicit, even ‘timeless’ entities” (Haas 45) to understanding the “rhetorical fame”. This transition “helps readers account for the motives underlying textual acts and their outcomes” (Haas 48) is a step into the Discourse of science.
As Haas follows Eliza through her years, she marks stages of the journey helping us understand the transition into the Discourse of a biologist. Most notable of these stages comes in Eliza’s junior year.
She starts a new work study job in a biology lab where “a graduate student named Shelly, because an important mentor” (Haas 64). This served as a way into the Discourse of biology and could be considered an “apprenticeship into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (Gee 7).
Coupled with other ideas such as meta knowledge, this is an important step into the idea of getting in a Discourse. However, having these two things does not mean you are in the Discourse yet.
As one begins to see ideas in this Discourse as being connected one is in the final stages of entering the Discourse. Through the ideas of metaknowledge and apprenticeship one has gained the base knowledge as well as the actual experience.
This is a crucial step as throughout every Discourse there are “tests”. Gee describes them as “the fluency…in which their power is symbolized” (8). This is an example of the transition from being an outsider to the Discourse and being an insider.
Eliza knows of these tests, she understands that in order to be taken seriously as a scientist she must know what scientists know. She must also do what scientists do.
In her senior year she goes over many figures and tables, she says “most professors can read just by looking at figures and their legends” (Haas 66). This shows Eliza’s awareness of the practices of the Discourse, and also the importance of the IMRaD structure.
When one can read a paper by just looking at the results section, they may be considered in the Discourse. This is a “test”. She goes on to further understand that the scientists write to an audience.
This means they do not always just state the facts. Eliza goes on to state that “there’s a lot of hand waving” (Haas 66). This references her understanding of the text.
All those entering a Discourse must learn to pick through what is actually said in order to understand the actual content of the message. Among the last stages of entering the Discourse, this understanding of the actual message is the most important. The “tests” presented by the community, allow only those who have been through all of the steps to enter.
To be accepted into the scientific community, rather than just someone who studies science, means learning about and becoming part of a Discourse.
By the end of Haas’ study she believes Eliza has learned to “understand what they’re saying” (78) rather than just knowing general knowledge. Preparing ourselves to be part of a Discourse in college, brings forth a set of actions and values we must learn to become what we would like to be.
As one goes through the steps, metaknowledge, understanding “rhetorical frame”, and apprenticeship they learn the actions, values, and beliefs associated with the scientific Discourse.
Carnegie Mellon University, IMRaD Cheat Sheet. Print. 11 Nov. 2015
Gee, James. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1
(1989): 5–17. Print.
Haas, Christina. “Learning to Read Biology.” Written Communication 11.1 (1994): 43–78. Sage
Publications. Print. 10 Nov. 2015.