Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Terri Ulmer

Chapter 2 | Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches

Mediated Discourse as an Approach to Understanding Disciplinary Development

Writing occupies a central role in disciplinary development. Prior (1998) asserted that writing

is learning is socialization is social formation, that literate activity is not only a process whereby texts are produced, exchanged, and used, but also part of a continuous sociohistoric process in which persons, artifacts, practices, institutions, and communities are being formed and reformed. (p. 139)

Given its intense focus on discourse and the work it does in the world, mediated discourse theory offers a productive lens for understanding disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization.

Conceptually, mediated discourse theory also offers the sort of perspective that Prior (2003) argued is essential for realizing a more fully historical approach to disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization. Mediated discourse theory’s attention to the concrete historical trajectories traced by persons and practices and the heterogeneities those pathways produce offers a fully-realized dialogic perspective of mediated action in the world. By locating discursive action and practice both in the here-and-now of the unfolding present and along lengthy material, concrete trajectories in the world that reach from past into present and project forward to near and distant futures, mediated discourse theory unanchors action and practice from any single focal disciplinary world and maps them into more extensive histories that reach across other sites of engagement and across representational media.

Attention to histories across engagements also highlights the profoundly heterogeneous array of practices that are mediating action at any historical moment, some local and some spun off from other sites, and the potential synergies and tensions among those practices. Attention to histories across engagements also highlights the co-development of practices, persons, and social worlds.

Ultimately, a central strength of mediated discourse theory for viewing disciplinary development lies in the way it allows us to keep the richness and complexity of people’s histories with literate activity alive in our analyses of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization. A mediated discourse theory perspective does not reduce the richness and variety of people’s literate lifeworlds to only what is foregrounded by the dominant perspective offered up to us by a particular disciplinary world. It makes visible the histories of persons and practices in the world and the profound heterogeneities they generate. In short, rather than fixing disciplinary spaces, actions, texts, and people in an official territory, mediated discourse theory “seeks to keep all of this complexity alive in our analyses without presupposing which actions and which discourses are the relevant ones in any particular case under study” (Scollon, 2001a, p. 1).

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