Teaching Starter: An Introduction to Discourse Analysis

Maybe it’s just me, but from the time I was an undergraduate student in religious student (the early 2000s) to the start of my teaching career (the early 2010s), I’ve noticed increased pedagogical interest in method. Discussions of method aren’t as ubiquitous as theory, I don’t think, but it’s something to which instructors are giving attention.

One could point to the increasingly commonplace “theory and method” conjunction of this, but I’m more so thinking about teacher-scholars who approach method as the way scholars put theory to work–the work of testing, application, measurement. Of course this work also helps us to refine and qualify our best theories.

My penchant for backward course design impresses the need to consider method more and more. I’m asking myself what kind of work do I want students to be able to do by course’s end. How will they know what they know?

So for this teaching starter, I thought I’d share an activity I use in class to introduce discourse analysis to undergraduate students. Simply put, discourse analysis or DA is an umbrella term for analyzing social-psychological effects (intentions and interpretations) of a media product. There’s a lot of literature out there on discourse analysis in the human sciences, but I agree with Tenzan Eagll’s forest-for-the-trees approach to DA pedagogy. I want students to be able to examine discourse as expression with effect.

Though I am personally a fan of discourse theory and all the insights that come with it, I don’t think it is necessary for us to turn students into lovers of Barthes and Foucault to get them to think critically about the various discourses and analytical categories being used in the field, and it is the latter capacity that will have a real impact upon their research.”

Tenzan Eaghll, “Teaching Discourse as a Practical Tool,” Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Teaching, February 4, 2018.

Thanks to the support over on Instagram, I thought I’d share an activity I’ve used in my introduction and theory & method courses as a teaching starter.

The assignment works best after students have identified a topic or issue of interest (e.g. a curiosity, research question, course theme). Here’s a modified version of the handout that I give to them.

An Introduction to Discourse Analysis

  1. Find a source that speaks to either your project’s topic or issue. Expressions of insider conversations related to your discourse are what you’re looking for in terms of data. Media may very but the steps here generally presume word-based expressions that students will actually read (e.g. a newspaper article).
  2. Outline the argument and its rhetorical moves for the source of discourse you intend to analyze. [Note: I produce a Get to the Point Introduction and ACE Paragraph Breakdown for this, but you can use whatever technique you prefer.]
  3. Name 10 or more keywords central to the discourse.
  4. Note trends related to those keywords and other expressions around them. Group, categorize, classify this data in 5 or so nodes.
  5. Go back and examine the discourse looking for things you may have missed and things on which you may elaborate on in light of what you’ve already found.
  6. Critically reflect on your findings, addressing the following questions in as great of detail as possible:
  • What effect does this stuff make on my topic, issue, and beyond?
  • What are the stakes of these expressions?
  • Who is speaking?
  • Who isn’t speaking?
  • Who is being spoken for?
  • Who is silenced?
  1. Make a list of questions you now have as a result of your study.
  2. Make a list of hunches you have related to your research question and your findings.
  3. Jot down where you want to go next in your research.

You can tailor this activity to fit a variety of course settings. If you teach online, make a video of you prompting the instructions and have students pause to do each step. If you have a brick and mortar class, this activity could be an entire class session or leave part of it for homework.

I will say that this activity works best when students have familiarized themselves with the selected article. Otherwise, reading time will bog down the activity. I like to end this activity with small group discussion. Students get a kick out of seeing not only what others arrived at, but also how they did so. If you can get them there, then you’ve just introduced method. Good times!

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods

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