Combatting Otherness: Navigating Belonging with Freshmen

A chameleon—or is it a student?—asks how it might help us.

Freshman Isolation

I’ve been teaching freshmen for 17 years now. The first ten of those were in high school; more recent years were in post-secondary. Freshmen are a delightful group of students to teach. They come to our schools full of expectations and hope mixed in with a bit of trepidation over the novelty of it all. When students enter a four-year institution, particularly a college away from home, they face the prospect of significant isolation. Our students leave familiar friends, family, and neighbors. Living on what had previously been foreign territory, students struggle to assimilate into the culture of their new home. As freshmen, students work (mostly outside the classroom) to develop a sense of identity and struggle against social pressures emphasizing difference. Students form social groups, join on-campus organizations, establish workplace relations, and build connections in classes. Each scenario presents new challenges and the prospect of social failure leading to further isolation. In short, freshman year can be a seemingly endless barrage of demands to fit in.

But these challenges have something important in common: These scenarios expect students to join a community, to learn how members of that community are expected to act. That process of adopt the ways of knowing used by the group—what James Paul Gee called the writing-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations unique to each Discourse community—is a process students repeat endlessly throughout their freshman year. It can be exhausting, sure, but it’s a process that successful students need to master.

Natural Chameleons

Enter first-year writing. In addition to providing yet another environment into which students need to find a place, these courses offer a unique opportunity to step back or “go meta” and analyze what happens in these situations and help students intentionally navigate group membership. Our course content can provide an opportunity for students to evaluate expectations for joining groups and building rapport and reputations—skills applicable to both writing and socializing. For students who already come equipped with these skills—the chameleons who can navigate social groups with ease—studying group memberships and dynamics can help them understand what they do each day, adding meta-awareness that can make their actions more informed and/or deliberate. For students who aren’t particularly adept at navigating social groups, additional attention to group membership provides needed insights and a survival strategy. Because most of today’s students enter college with a career path in mind, navigating group membership can also be considered a soft skill enhancing employability, providing experience learning about the professional community they wish to join.

The professional or vocational focus students often bring to their studies can be problematic in the academic sphere when many courses and disciplines exist for the love of learning, knowing, or understanding, while students often worry more about doing (and getting paid for it). One popular curriculum used in First-Year Composition courses (FYC) presses this issue more directly than others. In courses structured around the Writing About Writing (Downs & Wardle, 2007 & 2010) approach, students are asked to learn writing studies as a discipline, with FYC courses serving the same disciplinary role as Biology 101 or Macroeconomics: Providing a foundation for students to learn how to think within the discipline—to learn to become apprentices. This curriculum has earned criticism for its theory-driven focus, almost expecting that every student would become a writing major. (In defense of WAW, I’d point out that every student would benefit from majoring in writing for their major, but I digress.) Complaints levied against WAW often focus on the difficulty of course texts and the emphasis on theory-based content, rather than pragmatic, experiential work. The curriculum is often seen as catering to schools with graduate programs in rhetoric and composition.

But a simple shift in focus can turn a theory-based approach into a very practical solution for students—even those not destined for grad school—and a means of connecting composition with “real life” and the process of acclimating to university life. It’s a matter of using FYC as an opportunity for students to explore their own majors and use the process of assimilation into a major as a subject of study that is both content-relevant and personally beneficial.

Role of Discourse Community

While I worked at the University of Central Florida, I was on a task force to conceptualize the role of Discourse Communities in the WAW curriculum. We quickly came to see it as the backbone of the whole course, supporting the two other major units.

The concept of discourse communities forms a central structure of material around which students develop several critical understandings about writing scholarship and rhetorical analysis. In this standard unit, students explore how writing works within groups—how people use writing to collectively or collaboratively get things done, and how, through writing, they express their value systems and beliefs. To do this, students need to examine groups and group membership from the perspective of a rhetorician, looking at how language shapes (and possibly interferes with) inclusion and group membership.

Suggestion: Study Your Future Discourse Community

Having students choose to analyze the discourse community they want to join but are not yet fully a part of—their major—writing studies becomes personally relevant, and their assignments become opportunities to learn about their career path. This approach has the advantage of showing students that the work of writing studies has real-world benefits, and it leverages the supportive, failure-welcoming environment of a classroom to give students an opportunity to explore, experiment, and discover on their own. When this process is successful, students are empowered to take control of their own assimilation process, and they start investigating their major before they are invested in it, since students often don’t take courses in their major until junior year. By using discourse communities as a bridge, FYC courses can connect feelings, social identity, and analysis into one cohesive and personally meaningful exploration.

For the Discourse Community unit, students first get an overview of the concept using articles by James Paul Gee (Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction, 1989) and John Swales (The Concept of Discourse Community, 1990). For the latter, students choose a group they consider to be a Discourse community and, using the characteristics established by Swales, show how it qualifies. For this initial assignment, students are more comfortable using a familiar group so they can use their insider knowledge to support their claims. Students often select groups that are immediately relevant and meaningful to them—the Greek organization they are pledging, a high school club that got them through school, a new job they’re balancing with their coursework. The personal connection helps students feel invested in their work, and it shows them that the theories of writing studies apply to their lives. It also uses familiarity within their Discourse community to build confidence with the new course concepts—their learning focuses on identifying the characteristics of Discourse communities in general because they are already intimately familiar with the group they are analyzing.

Flipping that confidence on its head for the subsequent assignments draws serious attention to the novelty of unfamiliar Discourse communities. By asking students to analyze groups they are not yet a part of, we get students to operate in a liminal space as they work to better understand the details of Discourse community identity. If students spend too much time studying a familiar group, they begin to make assumptions and take for granted the operation and value system inherent in that community. By studying a group they are not a member of, they more easily adopt a curious, analytical stance. They also see the uncertainty and complexity that comes with group membership—they evaluate their intimidation as they experience it.

The Assignments

Two activities really highlight the idea that joining a group is hard and requires assimilation of values, words, and forms of writing. First, we have students identify an example of lexia, the specialized language used within a Discourse community. This is challenging for members of a community to identify, as they have been so indoctrinated into the organization as to generally not realize their meaning of a term is specialized or enhanced. Quick examples I often provide include “guest” (as opposed to “customer”) for Disney theme parks, “code” or “bug” for computer science, and “market” for economics. In each case, the meaning of the word is fairly obvious, but the term takes on greater depth, complexity, and specificity within the context of that discipline. From writing studies, the word “literacy” works as a great example. Outside that community, “literacy” is defined in six words: “The ability to read and write.” But to a rhetorician, the word “literacy” is a loaded one, full of implications about functionality, perspective, and native understanding. In writing dictionaries, the definition of “literacy” can span two or three pages. Knowing the intricacies of a group’s lexis can unlock their assumptions and ways of thinking about the world. When students learn about the lexia of their major, they get insight into the learning they need to do to “become that major”.

Having students identify key lexia within Discourse communities they hope to join helps them see that a perspective shift is necessary to actually work as a member of that community. It also presents a fun meta-level learning challenge: They need to identify an example of the lexis of a Discourse community without using the words “lexis” or “Discourse” because those terms are themselves specialized vocabulary within the Discourse community of writing studies. Students need to remove themselves from my world so they can translate the concept into their world as they work to learn more about someone else’s world. Needless to say, the process gets messy and can sometimes completely fall to pieces. More on that frustration in a minute.

The next assignment students complete asks them to identify the enacted genres of the community. Students must physically acquire examples of those genres to analyze their functions within the Discourse community and show how the community uses those genres to achieve their shared goals. From my experience, this assignment makes vivid the epiphany of this unit of study. Students go from guessing haphazardly about types of writing (“I don’t know…I mean, they use email all the time”) to seeing the importance of a specific text (“So the patient’s chart is the piece of paper that everything else revolves around!”) very suddenly. It can be difficult getting students to identify these genres, as I am not a member of the Discourse communities they are examining, but it’s usually clear once they find it. For instance, my favorite this semester is a sports-business major who happens to love WWE wrestling. There isn’t an ounce of my personality that gives two flips about that form of entertainment, so I was hopeless. What texts do they use in overproduce body-slamming? Then the student showed samples of the scripts used by the performers. BINGO. He has a text that is deliberately created by insiders, used regularly by insiders, functions to hold the community together, and—bonus—is not just not talked about with outsiders, but is generally willfully believed to not exist. He took this group that he loves and got to look at it through the eyes of a rhetorician. Win-win solution, and it’s fun for me to see his conclusions.


I would be disingenuous to say these assignments work perfectly—or even smoothly—every time. After helping students work on these tasks for several years, I have seen a few frustrations that stand out more than others.

First, students working to learn about an unfamiliar Discourse community have to self-advocate and assert their own desire for information. Students who are accustomed to having materials provided to them (through textbooks, handouts, assigned readings, etc.) struggle to learn how to navigate meeting unfamiliar faculty, strike up conversations about more than just small talk, and persist when they struggle to get the results they need. This becomes an opportunity to emphasize student authority and personal responsibility, letting students know that they have the ability to control their own progress through their tasks. Shifting students’ mindsets from assignment-driven to goal-driven can be hard, especially for freshmen, but it helps them see that school work can have relevance outside the classroom.

Challenging interactions between students and other faculty are particularly troublesome while students are learning the vocabulary and concepts of the course. If students don’t have a good idea of what “genre” means within rhetoric and writing studies, they have a hard time explaining to others what they’re looking for. I’ve seen students getting frustrated when they email another instructor and say, “Can you give me an example of the lexis from your Discourse community?” The instructor then responds with confusion because the student doesn’t consider that their vocabulary is specialized. I’m of two minds with this problem. On the one hand, additional awareness among the faculty could help make these conversations run more smoothly. If our faculty knew the terminology, they would be more responsive to student requests. On the other hand, that additional familiarity would reduce students’ needs to experience the need to adapt their discourse for a new audience. I’m rather convinced that this frustration is beneficial to students (though I’m sympathetic to the frustrations expressed by my colleagues when they are exasperated by questions from confused students. I think I need to more directly address issues of interpersonal communication.

One last challenge: These activities expect students to be committed to their field. Those who are in school merely to get a degree because they’ve been told that’s what they’re supposed to do or those who are undeclared present themselves as less invested in these investigations than their peers who are enrolled because of an interest in a particular career. Because the explorations of Discourse communities are more important than the nature of the community itself, this situation is more of a distraction than an actual problem. When students start working on these tasks, they’re very assignment-driven in their mindsets, worried that their choice of community to analyze won’t be “right”. Clarifying the purposes and potential personal benefits of these assignments make them a much simpler “sell” to students and help shift authority for their decisions and process onto them.

Different Thinking

Overall, asking students to analyze the Discourse community of their major presents students with opportunities to bring course content into the real world, apply their analytical skills, build professional connections, and most importantly improve their understanding of the process of joining groups.

When I think of these assignments, I view them as content-centric, with rhetoric reaching out to connect their work. Students, I hope, come to view these tasks as self-interest-centric, holding their future as the actual point and purpose of the course. This perspective can improve buy-in and position writing studies as a tool that helps students unlock the mysteries of assimilating into new groups.

I see this unit as centering on the curriculum, but students can see it centering on them, their interests, and their futures. Their personal investment pays off, helping them learn about writing, themselves, their majors, and the process of navigating new groups.