Two Sides of the Same Coin
Using James Gee to Analyze the Scientific Discourse
Science is a Discourse
“saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combination”
When one imagines a scientist, a person who shuts himself off to the world to perform science may come to mind. Despite this image, science relies on communication between scientists. In fact, science can be classified as a Discourse — a “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combination” (Gee 6). Discourses include all the information to practice a certain social role. To analyse Discourses, Gee defined seven building tasks,
“significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge” (Fiano 66).
By analyzing a Discourse, one can understand the intricacies of it and possibly discover a new fact about Discourses. The “IMRaD Cheat Sheet” and “Written Communication” are two artifacts from the scientific Discourse. The “IMRaD Cheat Sheet” was created by Carnegie Mellon University. It details the structure of a scientific paper including what information goes in each section. “Written Communication” is a paper by Christina Haas that analyses a college student’s growth in her ability to read scientific artifacts as she progresses through college. The college student, Eliza, is a biology major that shows significant improvement in her reading once she gains a work study in a lab. From these artifacts we can see that a scientist takes on two roles in one Discourse: the researcher and the reader. Each role has specific practices that set them apart and yet act as complementary pieces.
The role of the researcher is to both experiment and write. Both of these roles have practices that the researcher must enact. Gee describes the building task “practices” as “the practice (activity) or practices (activities) that are relevant in a context and how they are being enacted” (qtd. Fiano 67). Practices are what members of the Discourse do.
Because the IMRaD Cheat Sheet describes how a researcher should set up their scientific paper, it reveals several practices. One practice shown in the IMRaD Cheat Sheet is organization. It has researchers arrange their papers into five sections: abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Within each section, researchers must write certain aspects of their experiments.
Another practice revealed by the IMRaD Cheat Sheet is to persuade others that the research is important. Authors must “discuss the current state of research in [their] field, expose a “gap” or problem in the field, and then explain why [their] present research is a timely and necessary solution to that gap” (“IMRaD Cheat Sheet” 1) in their introduction. This practice also shows a value in the scientific Discourse. It appears that certain knowledge can be more pertinent than others in the scientific Discourse and so they value relevant knowledge.
Connections Between Papers
By stating “discuss the current state of research in [their] field” (IMRaD Cheat Sheet 1) another practice of researchers is revealed. The practice is that of researchers linking their papers to other scientific papers. This link between texts can be classified as Gee’s building task “connections.” This building task is concerned with the interrelatedness of a Discourse. As mentioned before, the researcher must reveal a problem or missing information in their field so their paper will be relevant to the scientific community. To do this, the author needs to make a connection to other people’s research. Another connection is made when the researcher connects to other people’s work in the discussion section of the paper,
“They connect these findings to other research… They discuss flaws in the current study… They use these flaws as reasons to suggest additional, future research” (IMRaD Cheat Sheet 1).
Authors must not only connect to other research but also provide a chance for other authors to connect to their paper in the future. This way, science can progress in a cohesive manner, and researchers don’t have to learn everything on their own, rather they can rely on other research to allow them to produce new findings.
Readers also have practices they must follow.
In Eliza’s development, she realizes that authors are also researchers, “she attributed motives to these authors, seeing them as making choices as researchers” (Haas 65). Eliza’s realization shows a practice of the reader: “rhetorical reading.” Rhetorical reading is when a reader implements a rhetorical frame which is
“a model or representation of discourse situations… that helps readers account for the motives underlying textual acts and their outcomes” (Haas 47–48).
Eliza’s realization made her consider the author’s motives and situation, thus she was using a rhetorical frame to read. By practicing rhetorical reading, a reader can think critically about the paper and possibly uncover biases that make the research null. Rhetorical reading also allows the reader to decide if the research is important to science. Eliza comments that a virus that has already extensively been researched is “like a beaten horse- they’ve studied it too much” (Haas 65). Here again, Eliza is using a rhetorical frame because she is considering the context of the research and concluding that the research is unnecessary.
Another practice of the reader is to understand the connections between texts. As discussed before, researchers need to explain why their research is important by discussing previous research. Eliza realizes this connection in her senior year,
“she also exhibited a greater awareness of the intertextual nature of discourse; texts were not isolated, but linked… she now examined how particular sets of articles used and represented the claims of their sources” (Haas 66).
By understanding the connections between texts, the reader can decide if the authors are using their sources correctly. The researcher might be using an outdated paper to support his findings or the researcher might be misinterpreting a paper’s contents. Both cases might leave the researcher’s paper baseless and thus unimportant in the scientific community.
Relationship Between Researcher and Reader
“authors create texts and readers read texts in a complex of social relationships”
The interaction between readers and authors in the scientific Discourse is what Gee would classify as “relationships.” This building task describes how people in the Discourse interact with other people. In “Written Communication,” Haas describes the relationship between researchers and readers. She states “authors create texts and readers read texts in a complex of social relationships” (44). Aspects of these relationships include the reader’s understanding of the author’s motives.
Reader to Author
Readers must ask themselves why the author chose to write the text. If readers fail to consider this, then they might miss understanding biases the author might have that will alter their text. By doing this, the readers are the ones who decide if the researcher’s paper is important to the scientific community.
Author to Reader
Authors must too hold a relationship with the reader. Several parts of the IMRaD Cheat Sheet signal this relationship. As mentioned previously, researchers must include why their research is necessary. The IMRaD Cheat Sheet chooses words that acknowledge the reader, “begin by explaining to your readers what problem you researched and why the research is necessary” (1). By referring to the readers, the sheet makes the researcher consider them. The researchers are not only providing evidence for why their research is important. They are convincing their readers. The IMRaD Cheat Sheet also shows that the relationship is also focused on relaying the information to the reader efficiently. We can reach this conclusion by considering how organized the IMRaD Cheat Sheet requires the scientific paper to be. Moreover, it explicitly states a way the researcher needs to write for the reader’s convenience, “summarize the main findings of the study. This allows readers to skip to the beginning of the discussion section and understand the main ‘news’ in the report” (2). This relationship of efficiency allows information to reach many people despite the overwhelming amount of information available.
The scientific Discourse is much more than separate scientist conducting research, it is a community of researchers sharing information and readers analyzing it to add to the greater pool of knowledge. It is important to remember that a scientist is both a reader and researcher. Each identity is taken on to either add knowledge (researcher) or receive and judge knowledge (reader). Both roles are necessary to the scientific Discourse. Without the role of researcher, no knowledge could be added. Without the role of the reader, any knowledge would be added to the pool without scrutiny and thus many false reports would pass as truth.