James Paul Gee and Primary Discourse

What was your first home like? Who did you live with? What did the people you lived with believe? How did they spend their time? What do you think you inherited from those you lived with? Those questions and more, inspired by linguist James Paul Gee and his notion of primary Discourse, on this Sunday, January 15, 2023 edition of the Torg Stories podcast.

Click above for audio. We discuss James Paul Gee and his notion of primary Discourse.

What do I mean, primary Discourse?  In the courses I teach at Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, my students and I read James Paul Gee’s article, “Individual in Community.” In it, Gee writes the following about primary Discourse: 

  • “All of us, through our primary socialization early in life in the home and peer group, acquire (at least) one initial Discourse. This initial Discourse, which I call our primary Discourse, is the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others.”
  • Students in my courses spend time observing, researching, reading and writing about the Discourse of their choice. This is often their chosen major, a job they want to have, or a club or team they are a member of.
  • One of the first pieces students compose as a part of their course in my classes on on the subject of their primary Discourse. One’s primary Discourse can often impact the ease or difficulty with which a person enters secondary Discourses such as a school Discourse.
This page from my scrapbook shows the role sports played in what James Paul Gee would call my primary Discourse

Readers, what do you think so far? Comments? Questions? Complaints? Here are some of the prompts I use with my students, and the ones my sister Anne and I talked through on this episode. Some of my notes about my own primary Discourse are below each prompt:

  • Describe your first “home.” What person or people lived with you? What kind of structure was it? What location in the world? (Charleston, The South, Mexico, Australia, etc).
    • Hillcrest Drive Logansport, Indiana. Three of us. College grads. Teachers. Elementary and HS. Dad: basketball, golf, mushrooms, Church, literature textbooks. Mom: all the housework and cooking, teaching. CHURCH. Dad got baptized somewhere in their early. MIDWEST. HOMOGENOUS. 
  • Tell us about the person or people you lived with beliefs and values.
    • Be nice and helpful. Go to work no matter how you’re feeling. Work hard. Meet your responsibilities. Work with young people via teams. Mom volunteer. Valued competition. Wonder where mom was with sports before she got married? 
  • Describe the identities of the first people you lived with.
    • Dad: coach. English teacher. Golfer. Mushroom hunter. 
    • Mom: a wife and mom doing everything at home and that’s a valuable thing. Reader. Hoosiers and Bears fans. 
  • Describe your first family (and that family might not be blood relation) and how you interacted with them.
    • Mom and dad were always kind to me and interested in me. They were thinking about what they could do to support me. Mom was always playing games with us, whether board games in the house or 2v1 wiffle ball in the back yard. 
  • What would you say you “inherited” from those in your primary Discourse? Sure, maybe eye color but what about things like a temper or a love of horror movies or reading or a work ethic?
    • Inherit? Teaching English / writing. Playing, watching, coaching, and finally teaching basketball. Being a reader. Consuming the news from Dad. 
    • Anne- it seems like you are the most just wanting to stay home and not talk to people, or the most withdrawn from those of your childhood. Where do you think that comes from? Is your history loving self from dad? 
  • What did the people in your primary Discourse do? How did they spend most of their time and their free time if they had any? Jobs? Stay home with you? Struggle with mental health? Always working? Read books? Watch TV? Operate a home business? As you grew up in your first years being around them and whatever it was they were doing, it probably impacted the formation of your identity. Write about that if you can. 
  • What did the people in your primary Discourse believe? Maybe hard work? Maybe not much? Maybe a god? 
  • What were the interests of those you first lived with? 
  • What language/s were spoken in your first home? 
  • What did the people you first lived with know about? Did they have a formal education? Were they experts some other way than going to school? High school grads? College? Learned the family business? 
  • Did living in The South, or the Midwest or the Northeast or any other region (whether that be in the United States or some other part of the world) shape your first identity? Maybe you consider yourself Irish or African or a Southerner? 
  • Did having money or not having money or pursuing money or not worrying about money impact your primary Discourse?
    • My kids have a lot. Mom really said she felt guilty sometimes about what we couldn’t have. Later, like in middle school, I remember trying to pick out a first day of school fit and realizing I really only had 1 or two things I wanted to wear. BUT, I think especially in elementary, it seemed like most people probably had about what we had. I don’t remember noticing much of anything in the way of lacking something, but maybe because I had enough. 
    • Later in HS, I guess things like Guess jeans or what car I drove mattered. And I think we had above average more than half. It seems like clothes and things and say what kind of phone you have matter much more now, but maybe that’s as much bigger school (1200 here vs. 400 in Winamac),
The members of my sister Anne’s primary Discourse in front of a big pine tree in the front yard of our home on Hillcrest Drive in Logansport, Indiana. From left to right: our mom Sue, my sister Anne, me Bill, and our Dad Martin

Click here for a fun introductory YouTube video I use in my classes by John Scott called “Gee: What is Discourse.” There have been 107,000 likes and 908 thumbs up for John’s video!

  • Anne, if I offered to read and leave three full comments on anyone’s drafts of their primary Discourse, think anyone would take me up on it? What would I charge? $20? Maybe include the possibility that we’d read part of the essay on the pod?

Don’t forget next week, Sunday January 23, 2023, Dave Jackson’s book How to Monetize Your Podcast.

Thank you for checking out this page and the episode of the podcast. We appreciate you!