Nerd girls and academia

Blog ยป Nerd girls and academia

Posted on 13 Mar 2013 01:54

Johns approaches her research on discourse communities and communities of practice as, presumably, an insider; the choice she makes to study academic communities is motivated mostly by the broader implications of such communities, including the type of "functional literacy" enforced across all of academia by these particular discourses and practices, as well as the system of induction into said communities through which all outsiders must proceed in order to be considered practitioners. She does her actual fact-finding by comparing previous texts on academic communities, looking for similarities and shared criteria for, in this case, academic prose, and also refers to her own experiences with the writing department at her university, and the hierarchical structures of administration therein. Her conclusions consist of a compilation of lists, generally in the form of defining criteria; she also draws a series of sweeping conclusions about academia and academic standards of literacy, using examples (such as one regarding culture clash in terms of valued traits, such as curiosity as opposed to adherence to policy) to illustrate her points.

Bucholtz picks her particular community - that of nerds, and more specifically "nerd girls" - as what seems like an academic experiment; she notes that while social structure is often incorporated into linguistic theory (and therefore the communicative aspects of discourse and practice communities), linguistic theory and the associated aspects of speech communities are much harder to apply to sociolinguistic theory, not least because of a lack of precedent. She specifically stresses that this is in part due to constant shortcomings in the definition of what, precisely, a speech community is; without that fairly solid (if general) and commonly agreed-upon foundation, it is particularly difficult to make even the most general observations, and especially to draw the connections to social theory in general that such a reversal would require. While Johns is interested in laying down general groundwork that is unlikely to be disputed, presumably to enable further, more specific research, Bucholtz seems to be more interested in boldly going, so to speak, without that same certainty, but certainly with the same intent to further discussion and theory alike.

Both Bucholtz and Johns draw from precedent, particularly previously written papers, which is to be expected, in the sort of higher-level discourse Johns herself refers to; while Johns relies more on generalities, Bucholtz studies a specific subset of a social group in a given high school. She includes snippets of dialogue which she analyzes in detail, from both a linguistic and social perspective, and having done so then makes more general observations. Johns is more concerned with sweeping statements, a wide focus, if you will, while Bucholtz focuses very narrowly on specific mannerisms and affectations, and then uses them to illustrate wider phenomena.

I'm personally fonder of Bucholtz' method, particularly because of its selective focus on specificity; I'm more comfortable extrapolating general trends from small sample sizes with specific, explicit data, rather than drawing grandiose conclusions and then looking for the examples to back them up. On the other hand, one thing Johns does in particular that I feel is rather constricting is her lists of criteria; I feel that trying to pin down a definition in concrete terms is self-defeating, as Bucholtz notes in her discussion of what, precisely, a speech community is. While this is most likely not good technique from an academic standpoint, I would rather define something in more abstract terms - in the spirit rather than the letter - and therefore leave it open to, admittedly, misinterpretation, but more importantly redefinition and evolution as well. This is clearly a personal choice in terms of how one wishes to state conclusions drawn from one's research, but a distinction I feel is worth noting and keeping in mind when considering how to analyze gathered data.

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