Speaking The Subject: A Discourse Analysis Of Undergraduate Seminar Practice

Goddard, Sharon (2003). Speaking The Subject: A Discourse Analysis Of Undergraduate Seminar Practice. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000c0d1


This dissertation explores talk in an undergraduate seminar context. Research design was informed by an interpretive, ethnomethodological approach to understanding talk as a situated activity. A series of student-led seminars were audio recorded; students and staff were interviewed and post-seminar group debriefing sessions were held. The data was subsequently transcribed and analysed using a functional systemic linguistics and discourse analysis approach. Analysis identified structural and linguistic elements of seminar talk and links between language, identity, power and status was explored through an analysis of the discursive processes at work in the seminar events.An heuristic model of the seminar as a socio-pedagogic space, a site of hegemonic struggle, was used to aid concept development.

A number of issues emerged within an interpretative framework of the cognitive, interpersonal and textual elements of seminar talk. In the analysis of the textual meta-function of seminars, how complexity is achieved and how conversational moves are patterned, seminars appear to constitute a hybrid talk variety, a highly unusual textual form in which participants need to learn how to participate.

Tensions were found between the social and the cognitive elements of seminars. Student participants tend to use the seminar to achieve social effects, identifying and maintaining interpersonal relationships. The collaborative discourse strategies they employ constrain other opportunities for achieving educational outcomes. The learning which does take place is more likely to be related to personal and skills development than to learning about the academic subject. Students deployed a range of heteroglossic discursive strategies to practice their skills in forming ideas, marshalling evidence and constructing argument. The discursive practices of seminar events foreground tensions between socially situated identities.

The research identifies a number of areas for improving practice including: enhanced specification of seminar processes and outcomes; embedding opportunities for preparation and critical reflection; teaching the subject of communication and foregrounding understandings of the discursive practices at work in seminars so as to empower individual learners.

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