Classrooms tend to be theorized as serious spaces (Lensmire, 2011), and in them,
laughter represents an occasional break from learning or an off-task moment that disrupts
it altogether (Hansen, 2012). While a growing number of studies have re-imagined
critical literacy to include embodied reactions to texts, few have examined laughter in
critical classrooms as possible embodied and critical engagement. This study takes up
Using the theory and method of mediated discourse analysis (MDA) (Norris &
Jones, 2005; Scollon, 2001a), this work draws attention to laughter as young people
negotiated identities and texts in a critical classroom and explores, specifically, how three
male students from different races engaged in what they called “racist joking” during a
three-month collaboration on a documentary film about immigration. By focusing
analysis on moment-to-moment interactions, MDA seeks to explain the mediational
means (in this case, laughter) by which social actors carry out mediated actions (in this
case, race talk) within sites of engagement (Scollon, 2001a). Mediated actions are also
framed by a broader nexus of practice that includes the historical bodies of participants,
interaction order, and discourses at work within a social space (Scollon & Scollon, 2004).
In this way, MDA affords an analysis of moment-to-moment interactions embedded
within larger timescales and histories as it seeks to understand the production and
reproduction of social identities in interaction (Norris, 2011). The setting for this study was a high school English classroom focused on the
analysis and production of documentary film and other media. The urban, high-poverty
school had a racially and ethnically diverse student enrollment, with 90% students of
color. Data collection was grounded in ethnographic methods and included field notes,
audio and video recordings, interviews, student productions, and classroom artifacts.
Findings reveal that the young men became recognized as individuals who make
“racist jokes” and, by some, “racist” because of those jokes. Yet through the mediational
means of laughter, the boys brought attention to racism as they negotiated and critiqued
aspects of race produced around their film. The young men explored racist language
without being labeled racist in a serious way, because they already labeled themselves
racist in a humorous one. As a result, they created a discursive space to play with
changing forms of racism and resemioticize (Scollon & Scollon, 2004), or transform,
racist statements into signs of membership—all while collaborating on a film that sought
to counter the stereotypical contexts of their jokes.
By using mediated discourse analysis to better understand how laughter mediates
students’ race-related interactions and productions in critical classrooms, this study has
implications for how the lived experiences of young people, particularly those
marginalized in spaces of learning, may be at odds with a current vision of critical
literacy centered on critical response. This work underscores the need for educators and
researchers to pay attention to how youth are generating identities, meanings, and ways of knowing through laughter.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2013. Major: Education, curriculum and instruction. Advisor: Dr. Cynthia Lewis. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 227 pages, appendices A-D.
Tierney, Jessica Dockter.
“It wasn’t like we were serious”: laughter in the mediated action of race talk.
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