Writing, Learning and Social Media (2)

Analysis of language both written and verbal, allows us to see into the motivations, expectations and often the assumptions of our readers and interlocutors. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton are economists and over the last decade have been developing an area of economics which they called Identity Economics. "When we examine people's decisions from the perspective of their identities and social norms, we get answers to many different economic questions. Who people are and how they think of themselves is key to the decisions that they make. Their identities and norms are basic motivations. We call this approach identity economics." (Ref)

One of the most important considerations in thinking about the language we use is that embedded in what we say and what we write are numerous assumptions about who we are and what we think is important, valuable and also essential to communicate. Our identities define not only how we speak and with what emphasis, but our identities also clearly impact the very subtle nuances of intention and expectation. In other words, language counts and in ways that are not that visible and clear. 

Dialogue is the heart of language. What is often not acknowledged is that ambiguity is also crucial to the way we speak and how we write. Most of what we say in conversation is contingent, waiting in suspended animation for a response. We are never sure that the language we use actually matches what others hear. And, more often than not, there is no match, just an approximation.

I bring up these nuances in our use of language because the enterprise of teaching and learning is integrated with all and more of these composite elements. Take the activity of lecturing as an example. To speak to a large number of people is to engage in one of the most complex of human activities. Aside from the many different people who make up an audience, the dynamics of lecturing, expounding, speaking are determined in large part by a set of variables that are not in the control of the speaker. These variables range from the background of the people listening, to their personal state of mind at the time of the lecture to the state of mind of the lecturer. A good speaker can overcome these variables and bring an audience close to him or her. But most lecturers are profoundly challenged by the flux and flow of the audiences they address. So, they invest in the form and content of what they are saying, subjecting language to a set of constraints that may make communication even more difficult.

Akerlof and Kranton focus on the behavioral constraints produced by identity. They cannot however, dig more deeply into what motivates people who make choices of varying sorts depending on circumstance and position. Our modes of communication resist the simplicity of what behavior tells us about motivations and identity. They make the same mistake as many teachers which is to presume that we can read backwards from how individuals represent themselves to the reasons why they act in certain ways. Teachers know how difficult that is because their students rarely duplicate the intentions of the teacher. The challenge of teaching is how to navigate through this rather labyrinthine  and sometimes impenetrable challenge of language and understanding. (Part Three will delve into this issue in a more expansive fashion.)