Lit reviewing

Reading: Santagata, Rossella. 2004. “Are you joking or are you sleeping?” Cultural beliefs and practices in Italian and U.S. teachers’ mistake-handling strategies. Linguistics and Education 15.141-164.


From Nancy Baym on Twitter:

Retrofitting more lit review into a paper is always such a challenge. Come on flow, I need you now.

That’s funny, I thought. That’s exactly what I’m working on right now. I’m revisiting the math class project that I blogged about before, trying to punch it up so that hopefully it will one day be publishable. In its existing version, it was written as a seminar paper, where I could say things like this:

Much of the research into classroom discourse has focused on education as a process of socialization into academic discourse communities, often through studies of the science classroom … but less has been written about the process by which students are socialized into thinking, acting, and speaking mathematically

Allow me to translate that for you: I read a bunch of articles about science class, and then I wrote a paper about math class. When I say “less has been written,” what I mean is, “less has been read … by me,” but you (professor) understand that I only had a semester to pull this together, so it is what it is. Of course if this is ever going to see the light of day, then I need to show that I did my homework and can place my work in the context of other people’s research. And for this research thread, it’s particularly interesting because a lot of the best work on the language of math has been done not by linguists, but by math education researchers, which means that I have a whole new group of scholars to familiarize myself with.

So yes, as Nancy Baym wrote, it is a challenge. What I’m discovering is that it’s comparable to the challenge of doing original data collection and analysis. Meaghan is always making fun of me because a couple of weeks before the end of each semester, I become convinced that my project isn’t working and isn’t going to work. It goes like this:

Me: This isn’t going to work.

Her: Oh right, this must be April/November. Don’t worry, you’ll get over it.

Me: No, for real this time.

Her: Yeah, yeah.

I had never expected it to happen, but I went through a little of this in my lit reviewing just recently, as I was reading Santagata on the difference between how American and Italian middle school math teachers correct their students’ mistakes. I found her paper because I’m interested in the idea of socialization, which I’ve been defining more or less to be the process of learning to speak about a discipline — specifically, in this case, mathematics — in a way that marks you as a member of the in-group of people who belong to the discipline. It’s talking about math as mathematicians do (or perhaps as good math students do, which is not the same thing).

Santagata also writes about socialization, but she means something a bit different. Her work is about how students in elementary and middle school become part of a classroom community, and how they learn the appropriate ways of interacting. Specifically, she’s looking at error correction. When an American student gets something wrong, the teacher is likely to say something like, “That’s not a big deal, you got it partly right, but let’s see what you’re missing.” On the other hand, she quotes an Italian teacher who says, “How could you get that wrong? Are you joking or sleeping?” The take-away is that in an American classroom context, this response would be aggressive and humiliating — but in the Italian classroom, the American teacher’s response implies “I don’t think that you are able to get this right without my help.” It’s significant that the Italian teacher said “joking or sleeping,” not “stupid or lazy” — as Santagata shows, the students in the Italian schools take this sort of comment to mean, “I know that you’re capable of doing this right, if you apply yourself.” How do they know that’s what the teacher means? They’re socialized to it; it’s the school culture they’ve known since kindergarten.

This isn’t what I meant by socialization, though. Is my terminology all wrong? What am I talking about, really? Do I have to tear it all down and start again? Cue “this isn’t working.”

Thinking about it, though, Santagata’s view of socialization is related to what I’m doing. A key part of my own work is the idea that classroom culture and disciplinary norms are both at play in classroom discourse; in other words, math class participates simultaneously in the world of mathematics and the world of school. Santagata’s study focused on the school piece, but I’m hoping to bridge the two. I just need to balance her with other citations dealing more directly with the language of math and how it’s acquired.

So retrofitting the lit review is helping me to articulate what I’m doing more clearly, which is the whole point, I guess. I think that’s what’s so hard about it — I have a way of talking about my work, and it may not be the best way, but I’m used to it. Now is the time to get beyond it and learn the right way.

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