The Politics of Public Discourse: Discourse, Identity and African-Americans in Science Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This review examines twenty years of research (1985 to 2005) on African-American students in science education. This analysis identified three types of research studies on African-Americans. First, a series of studies provided status reports of African-American students' performance in science. Second, a series of studies highlighted cultural discontinuities that existed between African-American students and the culture of science classrooms. A third series of studies called for the identification of cultural continuities that exist between African-American students' culture and science. The results of this review implicated scholars' failure to thoroughly explore the relationship between students' language, identity, and their influence on science learning. This review concludes with an analysis of how scholarship on African-Americans in science would benefit from incorporating a theoretical perspective that values the influence of African-American students' language practices on science learning.

The Verbal Advantage

Amid the barrage of negative commentaries regarding the status of education, there is good news. The good news is that those without the verbal skills associated with educational achievement can purchase the verbal advantage needed to obtain intellectual privilege. This insight came in the form of a commercial from Verbal Advantage^sup (TM)1^, a company that offers vocabulary training for those who have the desire to improve their verbal repertoire. They provide a not so subtle implication for language use, by suggesting that those who use more sophisticated words will eventually achieve an image of intelligence. Ultimately, they make the profound argument that acquiring an advanced use of words can change your image and thus, provide you a Verbal Advantage.

Can this be true? Can our intelligence and sophistication be measured through our vocabulary? If one can use the evidence of words to judge sophistication and intelligence, then could the use of particular words signal intelligence and sophistication? Could I engage in the game of attempting to appear less intelligent or less sophisticated by selecting the appropriate combination of words? Could I carefully use my words to sound like a particular type of person, simply by selecting the correct set of words? This idea is far from novel and exists at the very edge of our conscious awareness. However, I was impressed that a company would be savvy enough to market and provide consumers with the promise of sophistication and the appearance of intelligence by merely teaching them to use words in a skillful manner.

Challenged with these ideas, I felt compelled to visit their website where I encountered this statement:

It is our mission to make certain you have the very best tools available in this millennium of Internet communication and digital dialogue. We understand that no matter what the medium, the message always needs words; used correctly, and with clarity and style.2

This excerpt from their mission statement struck a cord with me. I was particularly intrigued with the idea that language has two components that lead to the acquisition of a verbal advantage: clarity and style.

The notion that clarity is key to helping individuals achieve a communicative advantage, is based on a theoretical assumption that the speaker and listener share a common understanding. Clarity is connected with two aspects of interpretation. First, the speaker selects signals that she assumes represent the idea. Second, the listener determines what the speaker intended to communicate. When both the speaker and the listener arrive at the same conceptual understanding, clarity is achieved.

The style aspect of the communication process extends the notion of clarity by suggesting that the speaker can choose from several ways to communicate the same idea. Baugh's (2001) work on variation explores this phenomenon by noting how the selections of particular genres are more privileged than others. …