This week’s reading, “When Students Want to Stand Out: Discourse Moves in Online Classroom Discussion That Reflect Students’ Needs for Distinctiveness” by Li-Tang Yu et al., is cementing my appreciation for discourse analysis as a methodology. The study sought to discover how students’ desire to be “unique” affects their participation in online class discussions. The authors describe each student’s contributions in detail, explaining which students initiated discussions, “killed” threads, made social vs. cognitive comments, etc. Ultimately, the researchers found “no relationship between need for uniqueness and amount of contribution to the discussion.” (Yu et al. 9).
I genuinely enjoyed reading this article. Admittedly, a lot of the academic theories about different types of identity and “uniqueness-seeking needs” went over my head, but after taking and teaching online classes both pre- and mid-pandemic, I definitely understand the dynamics of an online discussion board. The authors demonstrate their understanding of these dynamics through thorough, detailed descriptions of each student’s contributions.
These descriptions turn the participants into a cast of stereotypical classroom characters that remind me of people I’ve taken classes with previously. I could picture Nelson, whose comments are described as “dogmatic or monologic” (5), as that one guy who takes the class way too seriously and ends up mansplaining things in a pompous and overly academic tone. (I’m not the only one who’s had classes with a Nelson before, right?) I could also picture Dee, who made many “playful” comments and used emoticons, as a bubbly cheerleader who applauds other students’ ideas and boosts their self esteem (8).
Not only do the authors clearly describe all of the unique contributions to the online discussions, but they also analyze the discourse moves in students’ comments. Yu et al. coded the comments into social or cognitive categories, such as “straightforward information exchange,” “discussion of complexity,” and “agreement or appreciation” (5). Honestly, the process of coding all of that data seems like it would be a fun intellectual challenge, and part of me wants to change the methodology for my thesis from phenomenology to discourse analysis so I can meticulously scan my own data line by line to find out what “discourse moves” my participants make.
Really, the only thing stopping me from pursuing discourse analysis in my own research is that I’m still struggling to understand its practicality for the field of education. At the end of this study, Yu et al. ultimately conclude that “need for uniqueness” doesn’t affect how engaged students are in the discussion or how much they enjoy the course. So, what’s the point? The study didn’t discover anything new. I guess you could argue that negative results are still results because they can disprove assumptions, but I can’t say I ever assumed that “need for uniqueness” would have any effect on student engagement, so I’m not sure why there needed to be a study about it.
I enjoyed reading this article because, as someone studying English Writing and teaching Spanish, I’m obviously pretty interested in language and discourse. But I can’t see how this study is useful beyond being a sort of interesting read. What could a teacher realistically do with this information in practice? This study (and the methodology in general) feels very academic and far removed from everyday practice to me. I want the practical implications of my own research to be immediately apparent, so as much as I like discourse analysis, I’ll be sticking with phenomenology for my thesis.