vendredi 5 août 2011

Introduction to discourse analysis

During my last three years of primary school, I had the opportunity to attend three week-long "enrichment mini-courses" given at Carleton University in Ottawa. These courses were offered only to a select few students (usually the ones with top grades). They covered a range of topics: the first year, I took a course on International Relations and Politics that unfortunately left me as clueless as I was when I started (I was 12 years old). The second time around, I took a course on English linguistics that I loved. But my third mini-course, about English literature, was SUCH an eye-opening experience for me! It was given by an M.A. student (I so wish I remembered his name and could track him down!) and it was my first introduction to discourse analysis*.

I have been reading voraciously since I was about 7 years old. (I could read before then--apparently from the time I was 4 years old, reading newspaper articles and ingredient listings on cans of food to prove it to my aunts and uncles--but only discovered reading for pleasure, on my own, in Grade 2.) But until this mini-course, I had never looked for hidden meanings in what I read; I had never even given much thought to the authors of the books: who they were, where they were from; what their background was, how that could have influenced what happened in the novel; and what messages the author was consciously or unconsciously trying to transmit through the novel. I remember being blown away by the realization that books could be used as vehicles for authors' ideas. Not so surprising now, is it? But at the time I really was amazed by that realization. I suppose I just thought of books as entertaining objects that took me away to far off worlds, giving me experiences I could never have in real life... who had created this experience for me--or why, or when!--didn't really cross my mind.

During that week, we studied many authors, not all of whom I remember, but I do know we discussed C.S. Lewis and George Lucas (in fact, we watched all three episodes of Star Wars during class time -- an easy way for the M.A. student to fill up teaching time, now that I think about it!). I also remember the instructor asking us about the books we were currently reading: I said I was reading a book by John Grisham, and he explained why those types of "mass market" books weren't studied in university. (Maybe that's where my interest in "classic literature" stemmed from?) It was the first time I learned to ask questions while I was reading: "What are they really saying? Do all people believe this? What else could have been said? How can they even think that way?" I realized that the words we use are never neutral.

*Discourse analysis is a way of seeing words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political context. I learned the actual term ("discourse analysis") only about ten years after the mini-course -- in one of my M.A. seminars!

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