Recently, I had a chance to spend a day with teachers of writing at the University of Texas at Arlington (thank you Justin Lerberg!). I came away impressed with how carefully they have designed their writing assignment sequences for their first and second writing courses and how seriously they were about continuing to analyze and interrogate their assignments and other parts of their curriculum. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s my strong opinion that the unexamined curriculum/assignment sequence is not worth teaching.
The first assignment in the first course sequence calls for a discourse community analysis, and they have developed a detailed (four and a half pages!) assignment sheet that guides students through thinking about invention, arrangement, style, and some logistical considerations. They begin by defining discourse community as “a group of people who share common interest, goals, values, assumptions, knowledge of a topic, and . . . discursive patterns, i.e. specialized vocabulary, speech genres, and ways of communicating.” They follow with examples of discourse communities, from fans of a particular sports team to military vets, avid gamers, followers of a TV show or film series, etc.
The major purpose of this assignment, they say is “to demystify the process of entering an academic discourse community . . . and to reflect on and analyze the discursive skills you mastered as an insider in a discourse community.” As they pursue this assignment, of course, first-year college students are also entering, whether they are aware of it or not, the academic discourse community of their particular university. A lot has been written about this process (think of David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” or, even earlier, Tom Huckin, Carol Berkenkotter, and John Ackerman’s “Conventions, Conversation, and the Writer” – and later articles that asked whether entering the discourse communities these articles describe was a form of manipulation rather than liberation), which I won’t rehearse here and which the UTA students don’t necessarily need to know about. But putting this assignment in the context of this strand of scholarly investigation would be helpful for those teaching it. Indeed, ongoing examination of and work on assignments demands this kind of rhetorical contextualizing—it keeps us honest!
I also wonder if an assignment like this one can go at least a good way toward helping students not only identify their major discourse communities and describe how they became “insiders” in the communities, but also to examine the assumptions and values (most often unstated) of the communities. Where are they coming from, literally and figuratively? What kinds of people do they include—and exclude—and why? What other groups’ values are furthered by this community and how clearly are they articulated? Adding this layer of analysis would, I think, further enable the critical thinking this assignment asks for.
Finally, I wonder if in preparation for this assignment, it might be profitable to lead the class in trying to analyze a discourse community they don’t belong to—so that they may be more open and able to examine it with a tough critical eye. If so, that experience might help them bring the same critical skills to how they became members of their own discourse communities.
Thanks again to colleagues at UTA for such an invigorating visit and thought-provoking discussion of assignments!
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