An analysis of the linguistic realisation of agency in the narratives of students on an extended degree programme

Martin, Melissa (2019-04)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2019.


ENGLISH ABSTRACT: In the last decade there has been a proliferation of literature detailing the difficulties faced by first-year students as they navigate the transition to university. The increased diversity of the student population has led to a growing need to develop ways to meet the educational needs of the larger number of students entering higher education (HE) contexts. A consistent theme that weaves through the literature is that of deficit in dealing with diversity and difference. The research often documents the experiences of the students and their routes to access and participation in HE. Research conducted on foundation programmes, defined as the provisioning of modules, courses or other curricular elements to equip students with academic potential to successfully complete an HE qualification, has found that the students who do the programmes are conceptualised and constructed in deficit terms. The problem with the constructions are that they suggest the following issues: a difficulty on the students’ part to actively participate in university culture, that they are lacking in relevant skills and that they are unable to succeed in HEIs. It is thus due to these implied issues that the HE sector has a major issue to address: there is only one mainstream language (Lawrence 2000:1), meaning that language, literacies, and cultures that are different to that of the mainstream (more often than not, English) represent a deficiency on the part of the students who are unfamiliar with the mainstream. Within this deficit discourse, the students who are unable to master the mainstream discourses are labelled as “underprepared” and are often held accountable for not adopting the norms of the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). However, with the number of first-generation students’ arrival to university increasing, this mindset will pose new challenges for students and the institutions. A similar attitude is aimed at students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds as they pose a problem in HE, often referred to as being “not traditional”, and adding to the notion that anything other than the mainstream will cause problems. In the interim, the most devastating effect of this deficit discourse is that difference is replaced with deficit. There is another aspect of the problem that remains absent from the literature: the students themselves. Adjacent to the issue of deficiency that surrounds the students is the lack of focus on their agency. Therefore, there is a call to research issues of agency amongst students. One method through which this can be done is narrative analysis. One definition of narrative analysis is that it is a form of linguistic analysis that takes an individual’s personal experiences as the object of investigation. By drawing on narrative theory, using William Labov’s method of structural narrative analysis, as well as thematic analysis, the study attempts to bring forth the views of students on an extended degree programme (EDP). This analysis thus attempts to find out how students construct themselves, based on their lived experiences and reasoning for attending university. It also attempts to assess if their narratives align with dominant deficit discourses about foundation programmes and the students who are on the programmes. By detailing the students’ experiences prior to attending university and giving credence to those experiences, the analysis reveals that students’ narratives can offer insight into the way they view and construct themselves and the university. This then links to the concept of agency, a concept that is almost absent within the discourses that surround foundation programmes. Their voices, which can be viewed as their agency, has no foothold within literature. The research, through the analysis of students’ narratives in terms of structure, themes and linguistic devices, reveals the students as active agents, who actively make their own choices and decisions.

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