Critiquing representation : the case of an academic literacy course in an engineering faculty in a South African university.
What does it mean to be academically literate? Responses to this question have led to an explosion of research in the field of applied linguistics, yet the diversity of definitions proposed in the literature for the concept of literacy per se indicate that it continues to defy consensus. Literacy, and specifically by extension academic literacy, must thus be recognised as a contested field, with different meanings for different people and inevitable tensions between those taking positions on or affected by its practical implications. Accepting its contested status, this study sought to explore student representations of academic literacy, academic staff representations of academic literacy and associated academic staff representations of students insofar as these touch on specific concerns of academic literacy in an engineering faculty. The purpose of this exploration was to determine how these representations permeate academic practice and inform pedagogical practice and attitudes to learning. This led to the research thesis, that dominant discourses produce certain practices which can lead to social exclusion/inclusion of students. Such a thesis, allows for an examination of institutional practices of teaching and learning. To do this, I employed a multidisciplinary approach drawn from applied linguistics, sociology and philosophy. Consequently, I drew on theories from James Paul Gee, Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein and Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger to understand the socio-cultural context where representation occurs. An understanding of these discourses and epistemologies also necessitated an approach that probed participants‘ versions of reality. Consequently, this research was premised within a Critical Realist ontology whose central tenet is the recognition of tripartite framework of reality. Within this framework, reality is comprised of the domains of the real, actual and the empirical. The domain of the empirical relates to perceptions of experiences, while the actual is concerned with events that produce these experiences. The real is the domain of generative mechanisms, which if activated, produce the events and experiences in the other domains. Data was collected to correspond to these domains, with critical focus on the analysis of underlying mechanisms which reproduce social reality. To establish how the real relates to the other domains, Fairclough‘s critical discourse analysis was adopted.