Exploring Discourse Communities: A First-Year Writing Exercise

discourse community

Linguist John Swales defines discourse community as groups that have common goals or purposes, and use communication to achieve those goals. For students of writing, the concept of discourse community is an important distinction that would help them to better identify their audience, context, communicative methods, and goals.

Today, my students got out of the classroom into various communal spaces to observe and evaluate the effectiveness of communications used to achieve the discourse goals within those specific communities. I called this exercise the Discourse Community Profile Project.

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In groups of three to five, students first identified a physical discourse community on the University of Minnesota (UMN) Twin Cities campus or nearby areas. Then, they sought out elements of discourse used in the observed community, including the creator(s) of discourse, the audience, identifiable communicative artifacts, as well as the intended goals of the communicative methods observed. Based on the observed interactions between these elements, and the analysis of rhetorical appeals in the communicative artifacts, students evaluated the effectiveness of discourse and wrote a statement of effectiveness collectively.

Among some communities that students visited today include:

  • UMN ROTC (Reserved Officers’ Training Corps) base
  • Starbucks coffee shop
  • UMN Recreation Center
  • UMN Institute of Mathematics & Its Applications
  • UMN Wrestling Team training ground

After a 45-minute out-of-class exploration, students reconvened and shared their findings with their peers. They showcased some of the communicative artifacts and interactions, and discussed the importance of using appropriate appeals for a specific audience.

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This praxis exercise seems to have created an awareness in students about the practicality of discourse community and how writing plays out in achieving the communicative goals of a given community.

This exercise also provides a segue for the discussions of writing conventions and grammatical “correctness.” For instructors who are interested in assigning a similar exercise in their classes, here’s the worksheet for the discourse community profile project.

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