Genderlect and Participation in the College English Classroom

Article excerpt

This study focused on the concept of genderlect, a term popularized by linguist Deborah Tannen to represent dialects specific to gender and to demystify traditional communication struggles between the sexes, helping to bridge the linguistic gap between women and men. We conducted this small-scale pilot study to explore the occurrence in today's college classroom of one specific characteristic: student participation. Using observations and surveys in two upper-level college English courses, we investigated male and female students' participation habits as well as their attitudes toward their participation. We concluded that males, at least in this class setting, tend to dominate class discussion. We suggest continued research to explore participation in relation to gender in various classroom settings yet caution teachers to avoid trying to apply traditional notions of genderlect to class-participation patterns.

Rivalry between men and women has been a source of entertainment in American culture for decades, and perceived differences in language play a part. Colloquial phrases such as "men are from Mars, women are from Venus," taken from John Gray's 1990s book, reflect popular notions of the battle of the sexes, a war supposedly fought on countless fronts, from spouses in divorce courts or counseling to advocates for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) rights. However, recent developments in sociolingistics and gender studies address the blurring of the traditional male-female binary. Awareness, questioning, and new conceptualizations of language behavior challenge supposed gender stereotypes. The growing acceptance of spectrums of sexuality and the continuing deconstruction of gender roles requires those interested in language behavior, and specifically in classroom discourse, to avoid looking at male and female speech in simplistic or binary ways. As more complex theoretical formulations of genderlect emerge, it remains to be seen whether the common notion of males and females in linguistic conflict will persist in the public arena.

In the realm of language and communication, many nonlinguists perceive men and women as representing different speech habits, almost as if from different planets. A cartoon by Dan Piraro (January 29, 2007) illustrated how comedy highlights such disputes. In the cartoon, a caveman returns home to say to a cavewoman kneeling over items on the ground, "What woman have?" The cavewoman cunningly replies, "While you were hunting, I was gathering - parts of speech. Here, try a pronoun." Piraros work is not only witty but a reminder that the popular notion of differences between the speech of men and women are as rock solid as the stone age.

In her book That's Not What I Meant! ( 1986), linguistics professor, author, and researcher Deborah Tannen asserted, "Male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication. Culture is simply a network of habits and patterns gleaned from past experience, and women and men have différent past experiences" (p. 125). Boys and girls, Tannen said, "grow up in different worlds, even if they grow up in the same house. And as adults they travel in different worlds, reinforcing patterns established in childhood" (p. 125). Tannen popularized the term genderlect to represent dialects specific to gender. Placing men and women in different worlds speaking different dialects suggests a bleak outlook, though Taimens purpose has been to demystify traditional communication struggles between the sexes, helping to bridge the linguistic gap between men and women. Deemed marriagesavers in some reviews, two of Taimens best-selling books about genderlect - You Just Don't Understand (1990)a?? That's Not What I Meant! (1986) - focused on illuminating male-female conversation, particularly as it affects the dynamics of relationships. Although Tannens expositions on genderlect have helped men and women consider and address possible differences in their communication, and her studies are cited in some linguistics textbooks (e. …