Yesterday I transcribed my interview with a non-math major. As I was working on it, it struck me that she played a lot of different roles in the course of explaining what it’s like for her to study math. She acted out conversations between herself and her professor, herself and her tutor, and even a sort of idealized teaching session in which “eventually there should be a way where you just understand it”:
I mean it might make sense to you that A equals B, but to someone else it’s, well I don’t I don’t understand, and then you could show oh well if you look here, this why it equals this. Wait I don’t get that either. And you could just do it in different ways and eventually there should be a way where you just understand it or that person’s just like whatever, I got it, it equals, ok.
So in this few seconds of talk, she takes on both teacher and student voices to lay out a hypothetical teaching/learning scenario and to make the point that different students require different kinds of explanations. This language structure is commonly known as “reported speech,” because the words that she’s speaking are not meant to be part of the here-and-now conversation between her and me, but to represent speech that took place on another occasion. But this example shows really clearly why “reported” is perhaps not the best word for it. Although the dialogue she performs between a hypothetical teacher and student is typical of a common interactional scenario, this particular dialogue never actually took place. She’s not narrating past events, she’s constructing possible or generic versions of events, and when she plays these roles, it’s not for the purpose of “reporting” but to give an example. Deborah Tannen uses the term “constructed dialogue” rather than “reported speech,” which seems a better way to characterize what’s going on here. A lot of what this participant does in the interview is to position herself in various ways to explain why she doesn’t understand math. She talks about her professor, who (in another bit of constructed dialogue) tells her she’s “not studying in the right way,” but doesn’t explain what the right way is. In the piece we’re looking at here, she offers a vision of what her professor should do, and while she acknowledges that even then she might not understand (“that person’s just like whatever”), at least she would have a chance.