Discourse Communities!

Hi everyone.  We haven’t been doing much on the website– but now we’re back– after a VERY WILD weekend.  For this week’s virtual meeting, please read “Understanding Discourse Communities”  and then post a response to it on this website.  I believe you are all members of this site, but if you are having trouble posting, do let me know.

Respond to the article in any way you’d like: what did you take away from it, learn from it, find difficult, disagree with, think you could use in your teaching, feel you could do without, have questions about etc… If you like, respond with the units for the 1121 model courses (all of which are designed around discourse communities in mind.) Please write this response by Thursday, Nov 12.

By Sunday, Nov 15, please respond to at least two of your peers’ posts– again, however you’d like.  I just would like us to continue this conversation.  (For the record– I’m making this purposely open-ended for our PD, but if I were teaching, say, Freshman Comp, I would give more rigid guidelines for responding, generally)

On Monday, Nov 16, we will meet again on the Zoom, and will be joined by Robert Leston, who will be talking to us about “mentor texts.”  In order to prepare for this conversation, please take a look at this NYT article on mentor texts.

You may also want to look at this compendium of mentor texts, which is less COVID focused. It is an extremely useful resource!


25 thoughts on “Discourse Communities!

  1. Lisa Cole

    I really enjoy how Melzer’s uses his beginners’ music group analogy to explain Swales’ concept of a discourse community. I am interested in using Melzer’s “Activities” under the “Teacher Resources for Understanding Discourse Communities” in teaching the idea of genre because yesterday, I had a student in my ENG 1101 course ask me what a genre is after I had explained it in a Zoom session and further clarified it on the Announcements page over a month ago. The article gives me new ways to explain and help students define genres as well as the discourse communities they come from, connecting it with the social function or activity of their particular discourse communities whether the community is professional, personal, or private.

    1. kalbany

      Hi Lisa,
      Like you, I thought he did a good job at explaining discourse communities and I felt that the more I read the article, the more I got from it. It is written in such a way that it stimulates thinking and it could be because of the amazing detail he goes into coupled with the contemplation and insight into his thoughts and feelings. He really doesn’t hold back. I particularly loved his questions and I believe there are a myriad ways we can approach discourse communities.

  2. Steve Rosenstein

    The article made me realize that it would be helpful to point out to students that they’re already part of discourse communities, whether or not they’re aware of it. That if they play sports, have hobbies, are around other people with similar goals, whether it be for learning, achievement, or diversion from the stresses of a pandemic, and have accepted modes of communication, they are part of discourse communities. It seems to me that an awareness of the efficient/effective genres in which they communicate can help them understand the strengths and weaknesses of the genres through which they’re communicating in other communities where they might not be as passionately engaged.

    That said, a question – are social media sites like Facebook and twitter discourse communities?

    1. Professor McDonnell

      The concept of discourse communities is new to me. As someone who has almost started PhD programs multiple times, resisted, but stayed within academia in the somewhat stuck role of adjunct, I am reckoning with my ambivalence about academia. In this case, it is why the word “discourse” is necessary. Also, while I’m on the subject of things I’m feeling ambivalent about, I found myself predisposed to not feel sympathetic to a guy named Dan writing about his guitar hero experiences and etc. I am hoping to soften as we roll in a new regime.
      That said, I am a writing teacher, so I appreciate the need to apply the word discourse to community, (though I do think it is an interesting exercise to look at this essay (chapter?) and take out the word, see how it functions by just using the word community. Certainly, any community, (our own, my yoga classes, my activist friends, my queer friends, my poetry friends, my daughter’s soccer friends, etc,) has their own language and rules in certain ways. ‘

    2. Professor McDonnell

      The concept of discourse communities is new to me. As someone who has almost started PhD programs multiple times, resisted, but stayed within academia in the somewhat stuck role of adjunct, I am reckoning with my ambivalence about academia. In this case, it is why the word “discourse” is necessary. Also, while I’m on the subject of things I’m feeling ambivalent about, I found myself predisposed to not feel sympathetic to a guy named Dan writing about his guitar hero experiences and etc. I am hoping to soften as we roll in a new regime.
      That said, I am a writing teacher, so I appreciate the need to apply the word discourse to community, (though I do think it is an interesting exercise to look at this essay (chapter?) and take out the word, see how it functions by just using the word community. Certainly, any community, (our own, my yoga classes, my activist friends, my queer friends, my poetry friends, my daughter’s soccer friends, etc,) has their own language and rules in certain ways.

      I guess I think the important factor here is community, and especially now, when so much of our communing happens virtually, it is important to recognize the importance of establishing what connects us and keeps us connected, linguistically or otherwise. I do think a classroom forms a kind of community with a certain language. I have felt some semblance of that in one of my classes at CIty Tech, (because the students actually show up for the zooms) but less so in another. I like the idea of giving this to students as an empowering tool for them to work with.

      1. Adrienne

        Hi Caitlin,
        That’s interesting that you said that your class developed its own sort of discourse community with its own language. It’s a sign that you clearly bond well with your students and make an effort to foster a sense of community. While Zoom sessions have definitely not lead to that level of bonding for me, I perhaps could see this to some extent with my in-person classes before the pandemic. Some of my students in the past would bring in their own quirks, cultures, and discourse communities and their own references and these would eventually becoming an established part of the class’s vernacular such as using meme specific terminology and words from other languages and cultures.

      2. Carrie Hall Post author

        Caitlin, the word “discourse” isn’t necessary, any more than the word “ambivalent” is necessary– meaning there are always going to be synonyms. But the concept of the discourse community, which runs through all of 1121 is particularly useful, because it helps students think of where they are coming from as speakers/ writers and how they are framing things to their audience.

    3. Professor McDonnell

      I am interested in this question about social media, especially as these platforms have established communities that have promoted false beliefs and served to further divide the nation even as they connected individuals. I think this is an important consideration.

      1. Mária Cipriani

        As someone who started a PhD program, and finished it only to find it was in the “wrong” discipline to be hired to teach writing (“…but there was not Comp/Rhet PhD….!”) your ambivalence is understandable. Yet we teach writing, and the power of words. I also teach how to be a college student–articulating the things that first-generation college “kids” may not be aware of, trying to make the path less mysterious, if nothing else.

        I am excited to have this phrase “discourse community” to introduce to my students–along with the ideas implied by it. To invite them to think of all the communities in which they take part, and the languages of each one, will be an interesting (and educational, for me) activity next semester.

    4. Lisa Cole

      Steve –
      I’d argue that Twitter and Facebook are existential communities that exist in an imaginary world, kind of like Bitcoin. The problem with identifying social media sites as discourse communities is that everyone isn’t there for the same reason. Some people on Facebook or Twitter may be close friends, and others may be celebrities you’ll never actually meet during your lifetime. Some people are on these media sites for social issues, some professional, some personal, and occasionally, it’s someone you let into your private world, who actually knows your identity, and knows you. To me, it’s this type of person who creates a discourse community, helping me to figure out and identify who I am, where I am at this point in my life. These people may be lifelong members of a community I grow with, or simply transient people who help me spotlight a certain point in my life experience. This is what I think students need to know, and as you suggest, it will help them identify, discover, expand, and decide on which communities they function in and for what reasons. Writing about the experience, solidifies it, taking it from oral tradition into memory, which can be retained or discarded with the introduction of new events in one’s life.

    5. Adrienne

      I definitely agree with the idea of social media having its own discourse community and being its own genre. For the Gen Zers who create and post memes and Tik Tok videos there is an entire specific lexicon as well as style rules that must be followed in order for a creator to have their material accepted and embraced by the community. There are specific references relevant to this world that probably most of us would not entirely understand. This reminds me of a very endearing student I used to have who was really into the world of online memes and Reddit posts. He would often use this vernacular in class during discussions. I remember him exclaiming, “That was a bruh moment!” He then explained to me that this meant that that had been a surprising moment for him. He would also send memes to the entire class that encompassed the general feelings at certain points in the semester. He even sent in a meme along with his final research paper that he felt related to his topic. With this in mind, I was thinking that a possible genre for the students could be to communicate the ideas of their research paper could be a series of memes or something like a Tik Tok video.

    6. Carrie Hall Post author

      This is a fascinating thread. Steve– Facebook is not a discourse community, but it definitely contains discourse communities. I am in a group of seltzer enthusiasts (really) and we have developed our own weird language for talking about different types of seltzer, we’ve met in person, we talk about new releases, etc… (so there’s a lexicon, an in-group, etc). Facebook itself is just a technology, though.

  3. Adrienne

    I think that the concept of discourse communities can be very helpful to students when they are trying to navigate between writing assignments for different classes. I suspect that some students believe that there is just one right way to write an essay/writing centered assignment for their classes and that there is one easy fit all template or formula that will cover everything in college. For example, for students coming out of remedial writing courses in CUNY and especially CUNY Start they are taught a template to memorize to pass the CATW (CUNY just recently ended its reliance on this test). Later when they take 1101 or 1121 and other writing centered courses they are flabbergasted to learn that they cannot just get away with writing a four paragraph essay that does not analyze the text they are responding to. I have also had students do things like recycle their sociology papers for literature centered courses, and they do not understand why a paper for one course will not fulfill the requirements for the course in a different subject, or why every class doesn’t just use APA formatting for the assigned papers.
    I see this trouble of switching between genres also with students who are already working full time and who have learned to write in the particular discourse of their current professional field. Sometimes when talking to students who are prone to writing in short sentence fragments I learn that they developed this writing style on the job, and that they work in administrative jobs in the medical field or as case workers for the city where short sometimes incomplete sentences are part of the writing style required for the memos, forms, and paperwork that they have to routinely fill out.
    As a student I also would sometimes have trouble writing in different genres and for different discourse communities. After completing studies in literature and creative writing at the University of Minnesota I thought it would be a good idea to apply to the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. However, taking classes solely in journalism proved to be too big of a jump for someone enmeshed in fiction and creative nonfiction courses. The short, bland writing of my news reporting classes was something my creatively inclined mind could not easily adapt to. I remember my news reporting professor telling me, “Good writing is like a clear pane of glass with no discernable style whatsoever.” My brain had to quickly learn to stop being descriptive and detailed, something my previous studies had encouraged me to do. Later when I returned to graduate studies in literature, after studying and writing professionally in the journalism field, my mind had to relearn the components of an academic essay. I found that a large part of learning to adapt to writing in one style is to expose oneself to examples of writing from within that genre until your mind can naturally shift to that orientation.

  4. Anthony Eid

    Welp, I wrote something out yesterday, but I forgot to hit post comment. My apologies.

    I believe discourse communities allow for students to understand writing in academia in a more positive way. When I taught discourse communities in the past, I expressed to student technically right now we are in one in this (once in-person) classroom. These aren’t rules of writing to follow I am stating. They are suggestions created in the past by the community that can, and more than likely, will shift. Discourse communities can shift and change based upon the things happening within them. This usually made my students feel a bit more in charge of their academic destinies. Sometimes, it may feel as if they are being guided uncontrollably down a path they aren’t willing to take. However, having the understanding that discourse communities must be entered into, which they have done by entering academia, and that they are guiding their own path made them feel a bit more confident and aware of their agency as students. It also helps them to understand that I am also within this community with them, and as such equally tied to the community’s suggestions that they are.

    1. kalbany

      Hi Anthony,
      I was particularly impressed by the issue you bring up when you say “they [students] are being guided uncontrollably down a path they aren’t willing to take” and a few lines down “they are guiding their own path.” As an instructor, my major concern has been dealing with students who approach assignments as a chore. Even after I explain to them that writing is a process and it doesn’t end with one draft, I still get work that is not edited enough or the writer approaches it as a math problem: write an introduction, develop ideas to some extent, conclude and it’s done. I agree that once they see why knowing more about their own discourse community is important to them, it is no longer a chore. They actually take pride in their work.

  5. kalbany

    What I got from Melzer’s article is that the whole idea of discourse communities is so broad and encompassing, while at the same time being so compartmentalizing. I like the anecdote of the guitar as most teenagers are into music and they can understand and relate to it probably better than anything else. I could. I’ve found that you can never go wrong with music, dance or cartoons. There is something about the performance and the performative act or showing that is very catchy. I’m always looking for ways to break the concept down to the students without sounding too academic and I thought Dan Melzer was successful in achieving that. I particularly like the questions he ends the article with. They could be used for reflection, or group work. An activity that I used in my composition course this summer was to split students according to their majors and ask them to collectively make a list of the genres that they would need to write in their field of study or as professionals. A possible assignment could be to use three of the questions that Melzer lists and have students use their knowledge of their discourse communities to respond to them. I think you can potentially build a whole curriculum around discourse communities. Also, this topic is very amenable to team work. It helps students see the value of writing beyond the academic setting.

    1. Lisa Cole

      Katie –
      What is consistent in your responses is that you want the students to not only enjoy the work they do for the course, but also the alternative realities of dealing with cultural communities through their lives, many of which, as you posit, will be “beyond the academic setting.” The fact is that discourse communities help students to realize the various communities they belong to, and by writing about them, performance, visuals (such as cartoons or graphic novels), film and music (and perhaps recipes, certainly styles of dress) allow all of us to locate ourselves at different flashpoints in our lives. Sometimes these are necessary for reflection and meditation, and sometimes they need to be created and destroyed to get rid of the demons that only allow us to live in the past or the future, and never appreciate and realize our community we experience in the now.

    2. Carrie Hall Post author

      Katie– the whole 1121 curriculum is more or less based around discourse communities for the reasons you describe. And I think it’s a great idea to have it based on the fields they are going into. I would love to see more of these types of assignments!

  6. Mária Cipriani

    Sorry I’m late to this “party”! I admit I started writing this on the day it was due, but found a response difficult to write. Not by way of excuse, but rather by way of conundrum (and time poverty) please let me explain: I have been reading and thinking about Melzer’s essay in relation to another sent around by Robert (via Lily) back in August: “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice” (https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice) published by CCC. The latter article has been haunting me all semester as I work within the new ENG1101 course format. Like my students, I had read the term “discourse communities” now and again and glossed over it with minimal understanding, sometimes due to lack of time or attention, now due to COVID stressors. Thus, I had not really thought about the idea of discourse communities as a response to my main semester-long conundrum: how to articulate my thoughts about “This Ain’t Another Statement!”

    As a child of parents neither of whose first language is English (but both of whom went to college), I am aware of the requirement of being able to “do” the “academic-speak” (grammatically correctly and without an accent) to be taken at all seriously within the academic environment. I am sure that, even if I were to enter into the discourse community that wrote that article, I could not do it authentically–or be met with any sort of credibility–the way Melzer entered the guitar playing community. I might be seen as disrespectful, or condescending, neither of which I would intend, but how to avoid such an appearance? How to articulate the conundrum?

    One of my primary goals teaching first-generation first-year college freshmen at City Tech has been to provide a model (and guidance) about how to enter the general academic discourse community–but does that contradict Black linguistic justice? I admit, all this semester, I have felt in my minimalist correcting, that I have been doing students a disservice–doesn’t any uncorrected sentence imply to the student that the sentence is correct? I am working within the new course, appreciating the scaffolding, mentor texts, and skill building, while thinking about discourse communities and Black linguistic justice–if we do not show our students how to enter this meta-community (the (2000+-year-old, Euro-patriarchal) Academy), who will? I fully believe that there is a way for our students to join the club (“you may always speak with an accent, but you do not have to write with an accent”), if they are given the keys. Asking them to figure out the (“mechanics of writing”) keys for themselves seems too much to ask–particularly when text-speak, auto-(in)correct, and general hearing loss make the words less and less discernible (e.g., many students do not hear a distinction between “man” and “men” and therefore, because of lack of reading, do not distinguish the written singular from the plural).

    How do we invite our students to join the Academic Club, our discourse community? Can we do it and also meet the demands for Black linguistic justice? Can we do it without creating linguistic segregation?

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