The term “community” indicates a similarity, a likeness, and a sense of being one. When a group is identified as having common ways of thinking, behaving, and communicating, it can be considered a discourse community. More specifically, James Porter defines it as “individuals bound by a common interest who communicate through approved channels and whose discourse is regulated”. By defining a discourse community in this way, he incorporates the elements of regulation and approval into the notion of unity and likeness. Being part of a discourse community means that there are certain approved ways of doing things and of sharing ideas. To be part of this community means understanding what these ways are, and for the most part, abiding by them in order to gain membership.
What are some of these discourse communities to which we belong? One’s family—immediate and extended—are examples of discourse communities. We write email, text, tweet, post entries, write family newsletters, hold family meetings, or plan reunions and gatherings via spreadsheets. There are certain ways we behave that meet expectations within the family, and defying those norms results in problematic situations for the group as well as the individual. We also share a common vocabulary with our families which make possible for shared stories and recollections. Other discourse communities? Parent-teacher organizations, church groups, volunteer organizations, professional organizations, craft groups, tennis leagues—among a few. Members of these groups communicate with each other and with other groups in order to further the purpose of the community. To do so effectively, what is expressed and how members express these ideas, whether spoken or written—must be aligned with the conventions existing in the group.
For several years, I helped put together the school newsletter for my K-4 school community, and as part of that editorial board, I remained mindful of the group’s standards—what is acceptable to include and what is not, how best to present news, when to distribute the newsletter, how to request for interviews, etc. To stray from these conventions would mean a loss of readership and support or worse yet, social isolation from members of the community.
A discourse community works to regulate what and how something is written or spoken. At the same time, changes can also be introduced to these existing standards so long as the member is deemed “qualified “to do so (Porter). When we finally shifted from paper newsletters to online only, I was grateful to other qualified members who supported my suggestion. At that point, the change was seen as valid, and as such was accepted by the discourse community. Yet, if I had presented that same suggestion maybe a few years prior—when I might not have been seen as “properly socialized” to the discourse community (Porter), then the change may have been seen as unacceptable and invalid. The newsletter would not have gone paperless.
We all belong to one or more discourse communities (this class, English 503, being one of those!). In this academic discourse community, we write and go about our work in prescribed ways in order to further our purpose of learning from and interacting with each other. A discourse community puts forth certain demands as it regulates content and process of written communication. Because of this, certain tensions and conflicts may arise, and a community, in spite of the commonality that exists, will allow for this as well. We face conflicting demands of the work expected from us as graduate students versus our personal timetables, ways of thinking, and styles of writing. To proceed and uphold the norms and ethos of the discourse community, there is a need to negotiate these conflicting demands. Because we want to be successful ENG 503 students—the identity we are constructing as we are “socialized” into the discipline—we work to fulfill the demands of the course alongside other endeavors that fill our time. We commit and participate actively to “produce competent, useful discourse within that community” (Porter).
I am part of another academic discourse community—that of the community college where I teach and coach writing. As part of that community, I produce syllabi, assignment sheets, quizzes, reflection prompts, session reports, portfolio assessments, rubrics and feedback, as well as email for both students and colleagues. This academic discourse community, along with most others, maintains a clear set of standards and benchmarks to regulate membership. Faculty and high achieving students are considered qualified members of the group, socialized into its language practices and norms of communication. Being such, faculty and proficient students feel they belong to the college community. This strengthens their identity as successful members, and in turn, motivates them to participate even more actively.
Predictably, successful students complete their programs and transfer to 4-year institutions or begin their careers. However, not everyone experiences this socialization process. Large numbers of students feel they do not belong to the college discourse community. They end up alienated and isolated, and eventually give up membership all together. These students do not return and fail to complete their programs. Students who arrive at my developmental classes run a higher risk of experiencing this alienation. Because of a complex set of factors, it is difficult for them to adapt readily to the communication and language practices of the college. While difficult, it is not impossible however. As an instructor and a socialized member of this discourse community, how do I respond to this situation? How do I balance the demand of the community to regulate discourse, with the responsibility to socialize its newest members? Which role do I prioritize? There are no easy answers to this.
College completion rates as correlated with remedial coursework load
Students who find it a challenge to incorporate the standards of discourse in college often enter the community confused about or unaware of the “rules” governing it. Prior years of schooling may not have equipped them with the resources to be aware, let alone understand and apply these unspoken rules of successfully navigating work in college. As an instructor and a writing coach, I have to opportunity to engage in conversations that slowly make what is unknown, known—ways of writing and explaining that are considered valid and acceptable in a college discourse community and how it might apply to their ways of writing at the moment. These conversations aim to help the students connect their current language practices—perhaps accepted in other fora like Facebook or family conversations—to expected language practices in the college community. It does not invalidate what they know or what they do; instead, it works to get them situated within the discourse community they hope to join. It seeks to balance the task of regulating with the work of inclusion. While at times frustrating and usually challenging, the work remains worthwhile. Discourse communities thrive when membership is broad and inclusive—membership from both teachers and students. New ideas and ways of doing things breathe life into the community, and in doing so, keep thinking fresh.
Collins, M. L. (2013). Strengthening State Policies to Advance Postsecondary Success and Careers. Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from http://www.jff.org/initiatives/postsecondary-state-policy
Porter, J. (1986). Intertextuality and the discourse community. Retrieved from https://bblearn.nau.edu/bbcswebdav