Carnegie Mellon University

Making a Difference with Difference: A Study of Mutual Situated Meaning Construction through Intercultural Interpretation and Inquiry

Author: Jennifer D. Flach
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1999

One of the current problems in rhetorical studies, especially when dealing with educational settings, involves finding a way to see and understand the meanings we make in interactions with other people. This dissertation presents a study addressing this problem within the context of the Community Literacy Center, a community/university collaborative where inner-city teen writers and college-age mentors work together to write, to build problem-solving skills, and to engage in inquiries around issues important to both the writers and the mentors. This dissertation is an inquiry into the problem of how we can encounter and try to understand another person's reality as we are involved in genuinely shared activities with them. Building on constructivist theories of meaning making, this inquiry addresses three questions:
1) What are the central features of mutually constructed situated meanings formed in intercultural interpretations?
2) What are the central strategic moves encouraged by the rival readings activity as an educational tool?
3) How can students transfer strategic moves for intercultural interpretation and mutual situated meaning making from a small, structured activity to a new, much more open-ended activity?

The study involves eight mentors and seven writers who engaged in an intercultural interpretation through a rival reading activity; during the activity, participants read a text, each described the meaning of the text and tried to understand the other's meanings through a series of questions about the characters in the text and similarities or differences between the text and the participants; life experiences. The rival readings were taped, transcribed and analyzed resulting in a descriptive framework made up of five central features of mutually constructed situated meanings. From within that framework, we identified eight strategic moves we could see the mentors and writers making in the rival readings activity. Finally, through three case studies, we were able to see how mentors and writers transferred those strategic moves to a more open-ended inquiry session.

Findings from the analysis of the rival readings transcripts of all of the participants as well as the inquiry session and interview transcripts of the three case study students indicate that the strategic moves encouraged as part of the rival readings activity had a powerful effect on the ways mentors and writers made meaning together in the rival readings activity as well as in the more open-ended inquiry sessions. The case studies showed striking differences in the eventual usefulness of the inquiry sessions between mentors who did or did not transfer some of the more difficult strategic moves.