Sometimes, It’s Us: Examining the Power in Discourse by Dr. Katy Jaekel

I have always been the type of person who loves language.  I have always loved words, phrases, the latest slang, and even body language.  I find it fascinating how we make ourselves known to our world through our communications.  While I struggle at times with language, specifically around aspects of gender (I am a non-normative gender expressing lesbian), I still love how we are able to thoughtfully craft ourselves by playing with language and words and that these linguistic markers can describe something valuable about us.  This love has no doubt led me through my academic career focusing on language and social justice issues in and out of the classroom.

My passion for language is so strong that I try very hard to share it with my students.  It is this love of language, and my passion for social justice, that ultimately led to my research and teaching interests.  While getting my doctorate, I ran a university-wide diversity program that focused on teaching students how to communicate about diversity and how to actualize social justice on their college campus.  My job was to oversee course facilitators of the program and equip them with tools so that they could help students engage in dialogue about topics around race, gender, sexuality, and religion.

This program was an important one.  While it was somewhat flawed (these topics should be ingrained into every course, not simply in a stand alone one), I did believe in the materials we gave students, the learning outcomes we had, and the work we were doing.  The campus did need the course, too.  A predominantly white university, there was much unrest in regards to racial tensions.  Each year, I feel we improved our curriculum.  While there was always room for growth, I did believe in what we were doing.

During this time, I found myself fascinated with forms of resistance I witnessed from the students.  At this relatively conservative institution, students often resisted learning about white privilege, acceptance to the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized identities.  The resistance from the students was so strong, talking and thinking about resistance became my life.  Fellow instructors would complain about the resistance they experienced in their courses.  Resistance, for us, was frustrating.  It was bothersome.

While resistance to social justice is nothing new, I found that my views on resistance changed drastically during my time coordinating the program. What I recognized is that, honestly, of course students resist these issues.  They are taught to resist these issues.  The hegemonic rules and regulations of institutions mediate how we produce and engage in discourse.  The “problem,” if there is one, was not the students, nor was it the course facilitators.  The problem was the administration; the problem was, as hard as it was for me to recognize, us.  We did not use their resistance as a tool to better understand power hierarchies.

While there are many types of linguistic and non-verbal forms of resistance, I have found two primary ways surface in the classroom.  The first is what I call blatant resistance where students outright condemn any effort of social justice.  We, as educators, often focus on this form because it is the easiest to spot.  It is the language students use in class, in their papers, and in their everyday lives that calls people “fags,” “dykes,” (these comments are meant in the pejorative and not signifiers of identity) or the phrase that “homos are going to hell.”  Certainly, these comments are troubling.  And certainly, these comments should be addressed.  Yet, most educators (hopefully) address these forms of resistance.  It has been my experience that these comments, at least when issued in the classroom, are addressed to some extent.

The second form of resistance, one that surfaces far more often, is discursive resistance.  I argue here that we should be examining the discursive forms of resistance just as much as we do the blatant because they are far more widespread and damaging, in part because these comments go unaddressed.  I feel social justice educators should shift more of their focus on these discursive comments and use them as a tool to teach about institutional power.

To begin, I am defining discursive resistance based on the Foucauldian (1982) definition of discursive formation.  According to Foucault, discourse has a larger meaning than simply one person saying something.  Rather, discursive formation recognizes that the discourse is mediated by the institution where it is uttered; it is mediated by institutional rules, institutional power hierarchies, and institutional control.  Thus, when discursive formations are uttered, they are indicative of how that discourse was formed: it is a marker of a certain meaning that was influenced by a certain power structure.  In the end, this discursive formation becomes power and serves as a regulating tool.  Essentially, then, the discourse, which is mediated by the institution, serves to (re)produce power inequities.

For example, when a white, middle-class male student indicated that he was “fine with gays so long as they don’t throw it up in everyone’s faces,” this form of discursive resistance was uttered as a form of a regulation tool to normalize those around him.  While he writes that he is “fine with gay people,” he immediately follows that up with a qualifier: he is only fine with it so long as it is not “in everyone’s face.”  This statement indicates that he is fine with those who identify as gay, as long as they do not indicate that they identify as such.

This is a form of resistance that I find frightening for two primary reasons.  First, this form of resistance is troubling because it has been my experience that course facilitators that I have supervised feel less willing to call this student out because, after all, he did indicate that he was “fine with gays.”  Honestly, sometimes instructors that I spoke with felt that being “fine with gays” was half the battle.  Secondly, I find this type of resistance concerning because the program administration, myself included, did not equip our course facilitators with tools to get the student to recognize that his discourse was mediated by a larger Discourse around normalization and power.  This student had the power, socially and institutionally, to utter something like this and attempt to normalize the “gays.”  This, in turn, created a situation where the dominant student, whose discourse was mediated by the larger institution, used his privilege to (re)produce hegemonic power by attempting to make “gays” not be “in everyone’s face,” thus silencing or making invisible a community.

The program administration did not give the course facilitators, or the students for that matter, any guidance or tools regarding how to identify discursive forms of resistance, let alone any information on issues around discourse.  In our fervor to promote social justice, we simply did not address how, institutionally, power and privilege were mediating students’ discourse, their language, and their notions about race, gender, sexuality, and other social identities.  Personally, when I began running the program, I had no knowledge about any of these issues surrounding how discourses are made, produced, and subsequently (re)produced, nor did any of my colleagues helping me with the program.  I recognize now that we should have focused more on these issues when training the course facilitators, and we should have included something to that effect in the students’ curriculum, too.  We should have taught students and facilitators about how our discourse can serve to (re)produce power inequities, even in a social justice course.

A few years ago, I had a terrific mentor and professor who often taught about the importance of failing.  He felt that we all had to fail at sometime or another.  He felt that it was even productive to fail because learning comes from failure.  And so, I hope that this failing allows us all to learn to use these spaces for analysis and reflection upon resistance.  If we are serious about challenging systems of power, we must first start with our own discourse and the discourse of our students.  I hope this realization allows for all of us to recognize that our language, our discourse does not occur in a vacuum, rather, it is mediated by the institutions and systems that in which we are embedded.  And that it is not the students’ fault.  Sometimes, it is ours.

Dr. Katy Jaekel is a lecturer for the Department of English at Iowa State University.  She is currently working on a project that uses Systemic Functional Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis to examine ways in which power is (re)produced through discourse.  She and her partner, Carrie, have a very cute fluffy dog and three wonderful cats.

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