Umbrella or Bridge

the underside of a bold red umbrella

The Scenario

First, I should explain the situation in which the need to re-imagine the role of discourse community was first identified. As you may know, the University of Central Florida adopted the Writing-about-Writing curriculum full scale several years ago. In that time, we have had opportunity to see trends in student performance in their end-of-semester portfolios. We have also recognized trends in teaching styles, identifying some assignments that teachers believe are more successful or directly targeted toward our expected course outcomes. By comparing teacher preferences and expectations with student performance on their portfolios, we have identified a specific weakness in our traditional essay assignment related to discourse communities.

The student learning outcomes of our first-semester composition course recently underwent revision, but at the risk of oversimplifying for clarity in this presentation, we now expect the following out of our students: flexibility in their writing process, strategies for responding to rhetorical situations, skills for reading complex texts (such as journal articles with an intended audience they are not a member of), and an understanding of how conventions, lexia, and genres are situated within discourse communities. That last point is perhaps unfair, as it presents four significant composition concepts as though they are one simple task for students to accomplish. Indeed, the complexity and difficulty of managing the interrelations of those concepts can be daunting for first-year students. Not only do these concepts help define our field’s understanding of the writing process, but they also directly oppose the writing experiences of most high school students in this state.

Thanks mostly to the role of standardized testing in secondary education, much of the writing students do in their high school English classes is transactional in nature, created to show the student’s competency with a specific artificial, test-derived form of writing that only exists within the realm of standardized testing. Students are asked to construct formulaic writing for an unknown audience and having no true purpose in their composition. Passing a test is the ultimate goal of the writing, yet the standard by which passing is determined seems completely artificial while being simultaneously incredibly high-stakes. Students do their writing so that it can be submitted to a vaguely defined unknown entity and have judgment passed against it, never to see it again or have the opportunity to revise and improve it. When else in life will students face the same scenarios in their writing?

When they enter our first-year composition courses and we begin to discuss the purposeful use of specific genres to achieve social action, they are understandably baffled and occasionally resistant to the idea. When most student writing done in high school is done for statistical purposes, rather than for genuine actionable goals, it is hardly surprising that when we ask students to analyze the purposes of a given genre, they struggle. It could almost be said that, before and during our class in which we ask students to study the genuine use of writing to achieve a specific goal, little if any of their academic writing to that point has been genuine or purposeful.

That not-inconsequential culture shock forms the context in which our first year composition course connects with our students. Within that context, our teachers have typically worked with three assignments that help students adapt to our writing situation: a paper on the writing process (typically an autoethnography, which Bob Mohrenne will discuss in another conference session), a rhetorical analysis (which Nichole Stack will discuss in her conference talk), and a paper on discourse communities (which Katie-Beth Curtis will discuss in hers). Many of our instructors use a discourse community ethnography as their major assignment for this unit, asking students to identify a discourse community, analyze its characteristics, and studied the use of language and text within that community through direct observation and possibly interviews. However, program assessment showed us that things didn’t always go as planned with the assignment.

The Problems

I don’t know about you, but when I teach the same assignment year after year, student responses to that assignment begin to grow a little stale over time. Perhaps my teaching becomes less spontaneous and more routine, and that lack of inspiration is reflected in student work. Or perhaps when I read a paper and think I may have seen it before, perhaps I really have. Regardless of the cause, the tedium of grading repetitive or redundant student responses to the same writing prompt can wear on anyone. I could only read so many versions of a student’s shocking discovery that the menu at an Olive Garden was a genre of intercommunication for the restaurant’s employees before wanting to slap John Swales (for introducing the idea first place) and Tony Mirabelli (for writing about the wait staff at Italian restaurants). I needed a break from students trying to convince me that their workplace was a discourse community.

During a program assessment portfolio grading session a few semesters ago, a more significant problem became apparent: students across the department consistently failed to meet our expectations for the assignment. They would get so wrapped up in proving that their workplace was a discourse community that they would fail to go any further with it, making no conclusions about the significance of the interactions among actors in the scenario and generally finding it unnecessary to complete any ethnographic research beyond taking a sample genre from their workplace to analyze. It became clear that our department needed a better strategy for getting students to do more with the discourse community ethnography than they were currently doing. Because it was a consistent problem across a variety of instructors and a number of semesters, we believe our approach to — or familiarity with — the assignment may have led to the disappointing results.

The Task Force

With the problem identified, it was time to find a solution. Our department established a task force of three interested teachers whose job it was to critically evaluate our traditional discourse community ethnography and identify areas of weakness and opportunities for development or improvement. We were tasked with creating a different way of approaching discourse communities within the structure of our existing course, and the fundamental problem we wanted to avoid was having students identify that a particular group of people met Swales’ characteristics of a discourse community and then do nothing else. We set out to create a way for students to work through discourse communities that would make it impossible for students to believe that the goal of the unit was a process of identification, checklist from Swales in hand.

During our first meeting, we set an additional goal for ourselves to create sample assignment sheets and assessment criteria that teachers could take from us and implement in their classes. While that process of deliberation and creation proved far more challenging than we had anticipated, it also allowed us to better understand the core principles of our curriculum and approach. Although th
e task force officially disbanded once we shared the approach we had developed, I applied our ideas to the course I taught last semester, completing the assignment sheets for use in my classes. I will share those assignments with you at the end of this presentation. Overall, we found the new approach to discourse communities to be helpful, but the process of identifying assessment criteria was certainly the least-appreciated component of the process.

The Solution

Before I get ahead of myself, let me introduce the solution we developed. We looked at the existing course sequence (which some of our teachers teach in the reverse order), with the discourse-community unit in the middle, and decided that what most of our students do with their ethnographies—work to prove their chosen communities meet the qualifying requirements set out by Swales in their textbook—is actually a simple exercise that should take far less than the three-week block traditionally allocated for discourse-community study. We asked what our assignments would look like if we made a very short assignment designed to do nothing more than “get it out of their systems.” We created a “Discourse Communities Characteristics” assignment designed to take only about a week or so to complete, shortly after students are introduced to the Swales reading in their texts. We believe that, by directly addressing the characteristics in one assignment, students would understand that their other work should move beyond the process of labeling and do more to show their understanding of the nature of discourse communities.

We chose to continue with the idea of shorter assignments designed to target a specific element of discourse-community theory. This lead to the creation of a four-assignment mini-sequence devoted specifically to the discourse community unit. We agreed that the one student learning outcome about the elements of discourse communities was indeed too much to have students achieve within a single assignment, but the individual components of that course outcome were much more manageable if approached individually. Therefore, we created four mini assignments that worked to help students work through each concept very explicitly. We used a “Multidimensional Definitions” assignment from Scott Launier that highlights lexia by having students identify a specialized word used in a specific community that has significant and nuanced meaning within the community that may not be obvious to those outside the group. (For instance, within the context of this conference, I can use the word “literacy” to represent a very complex understanding of interactions among readers, writers, and texts that varies based on situation and purpose. However, to the layperson, “literacy” means simply “the ability to read and write.”) We then highlighted discourse conventions by having students document the six characteristics of discourse communities set forth by John Swales within the community of their choosing. From there, we recommended the “Analysis of Science Accommodation” assignment found in the teachers’ addition of the Writing about Writing textbook, serving as a brief and approachable introduction to rhetorical analysis as well as a hands-on exploration of the negotiation of authority in various circumstances. Finally, once students had spent time working with the language and texts of certain communities, we ask them to perform a simple genre analysis using samples collected from the community they had been studying in earlier assignments.

Breaking the discourse communities unit into smaller assignments makes each element seem far more approachable. But it had the somewhat questionable side effect of making the discourse communities unit a much more significant section of the course overall than was previously typical. The way we envisioned the course timing, students would spend one week on the characteristics assignment and two weeks a piece on the other three, creating a total of seven weeks for the discourse community unit out of a fifteen week semester. The moment we first wrote that on a piece of paper for brainstorming we began chuckling, hearing the objections of our peers: “seven weeks? Are you nuts? The writing about writing curriculum is admittedly difficult, and students benefit from extra time to struggle with their ideas and revise their work. By dedicating so much time to discourse communities, we could easily be eating into time that students would need to complete the other units, particularly the rhetorical analysis, which students often find the most challenging of the semester. However, we believe that more deliberately working through the concept of discourse communities would provide students a richer base understanding to bring to their studies of rhetorical analysis and ultimately help that unit work more smoothly and require less time.

It was from that assertion that we developed the contrasting metaphors for the role of discourse community in a Writing about Writing classroom: the umbrella and the bridge. Because genres are used within discourse communities to further the goal of discourse communities using the language of discourse communities, that one concept becomes nearly all-inclusive within the curriculum. We could use the umbrella metaphor of discourse communities to show students how important it is for them to understand the workings of writing within those communities. On the other hand, many of us have for some time viewed the rhetorical analysis assignment as the pinnacle of our first semester composition course, requiring more sophistication, analysis, and intellectual resources from our students than any other assignment. We were not quite ready to relinquish the title of “most important unit of study” to discourse communities. Viewing rhetorical analysis as the ultimate achievement of our first semester composition course elicited the second metaphor of a bridge: discourse communities served to bring students from their own writing processes all the way to understanding how other authors use specific writing processes and conventions to achieve their goals when writing for a specific purpose. Discourse communities form the connection between the familiar and the challenging.

The Assignments

Once we identified the mini-units that would constitute the discourse community component of our courses, we wanted to agree on an approach to assessment. Each of the assignments we chose, with the exception of the new characteristics assignment, came from a major paper one of us had already used in our classes. The trouble was, in each case, that major paper served more purposes, and therefore had more complex assessment, than our proposed implementation required. In order to emphasize the “one skill at a time” approach to the discourse community unit, we wanted assessment tools that reflected a more targeted focus. For years, I have been a torchbearer for assessment rubrics, including them on assignment sheets for every major paper I assigned in first-year composition now and in high school English classes previously. Because all three members of this task force enthusiastically supported using rubrics to clarify expectations and facilitate efficient grading, we were up against a challenge. Each of our assignments was originally designed to assess various aspects of student writing, but now they had to be reduced to a single element of course content. We wanted to ensure that our assessment rubrics allowed students to see exactly what was expected of them, help students work toward achieving better-than-passing scores, and set the standard of “meeting expectations” as a C on the rubric.

The first assignment, “Multidimensional Definitions“, asks students to understand specialized language in its use in academic conversations. To reflect that targeted goal, we used a single-column rubric reminiscent of the levels of the traditional Bloom’s taxonomy. In order to adequately demonstrate competence, a student simply needs to explain the differences between generic and specialized definitions of the same term. In order to earn a B, students need to illustrate how the specialized definition enhances the meaning of a particular passage or conversation, and in order to earn an A, students evaluate how the use of that term shows evidence of knowledge construction within that discourse community.

The assignment we created for the characteristics mini-unit asks students simply to understand what a discourse community is based on the characteristics presented by John Swales. Providing examples of those characteristics within a chosen community shows sufficient competence. A student earns a B grade by illustrating a hierarchy of those characteristics within the group; a grade of A comes from evaluating how the group uses those characteristics to create a sense of group identity. In essence, if a student can show that the characteristics presented by John Swales helped define the group they are studying, we are sure the student has a clear understanding of the elements of discourse communities.

The unit on authority sounds complicated and expects a good deal of analysis out of students, but the procedure for completing the assignment can be sufficiently straightforward that students need only deal with the cognitive load of analyzing how authority is expressed in different articles about the same topic. In our instruction sheet, students are directed to the science section of the NPR website to find a general-audience source of science news. Those articles often cite the specific journal from which their information is derived, and articles on the website often provide direct links to the journal article in question. Students need only choose a topic of interest, and the work of finding two sources on the topic quickly becomes a non-issue. By examining their sources and explaining how styles of citation, quoting, and establishing authority can be seen in the text, students demonstrate sufficient understanding of the principles. For B work, students must illustrate how citation and authority can be seen as an act of negotiation between writer and reader. For an A, students evaluate how the authority they see established in each article is appropriate given the needs and nature of the audience.

For the genre analysis assignment, we refer students to a checklist provided by Devitt, Bawarshi, and Reiff which provides a series of questions that students can answer to help understand and analyze the work of a specific genre. The basic expectation of this assignment is that a student will be able to explain the scene in which the genre is used. If the student can use multiple genre samples to illustrate intertextuality, that earns a grade of B. And for a grade of A, students must evaluate how the genre is used by the discourse community “in the communicative furtherance of its aims” (Swales).

As you can see, our expectations for assessment are designed to be as straightforward as possible while still providing opportunity for students to differentiate themselves from their peers by producing work that goes beyond the expected thinking for the assignment. We intentionally kept the rubrics minimalistic, focusing on the specific element of discourse communities we are interested in for each mini-unit. Each assignment is designed as an opportunity for students to explore new ideas and learn new concepts without being restricted by a concern for formatting, clarity, or other admittedly important elements of writing. For these assignments, our assessment priority is strictly student understanding. In this way, students understand the importance of thinking through and applying their knowledge of discourse communities, and teachers can focus their assessment on the specific goals of each assignment.

The Application


So how did it work? While I have no quantitative data to document the changes I noticed, class discussions and student writing showed that my students were more adept with the concept of discourse community and the terminology we use in composition studies to discuss those communities. In classroom conversations, my students expressed confidence in understanding the relations among discourse communities, their language, and their genre use. Students did not seem intimidated by the concepts because we focused on only one per assignment, rather than asking students to negotiate a larger cognitive load to compose their papers. I am convinced my students understood that groups of people use specialized language in specific genres to achieve their collective goals. The previous year, when I taught the traditional discourse community ethnography, I was convinced my students knew what discourse communities were, but very few of them were able to connect or apply that knowledge to other elements of the course. Spreading the unit across multiple assignments might have given students the impression that discourse communities apply in a variety of scenarios.


By having several writing assignments for one unit of study, certain concepts and processes became familiar to the students. I noticed an interesting trend based on their reactions to their assignments: when students visit a specific concept multiple times, students accepted as review that helps strengthen their understanding of the concept. But when they use a process multiple times, they begin to resent the process recurrence as redundant; they feel it is a waste of their time. To illustrate how this applies to our revisions, let me revisit the new course sequence. While each of these assignments has a specific learning goal and a distinct purpose, similarities among the discourse community assignments made some duplication impossible to avoid.

Students found repetition of discourse community characteristics beneficial, enhancing their comfort with the concepts and ability to discuss the naturally. The characteristics assignment function exactly as we hoped it would: it allowed students to address the issue of identification while making the terms used in this discipline familiar to them. That familiarity carried across assignments. We began the discourse community unit with the multidimensional definitions assignment, asking students to identify a term that held specialized meaning. Most students used terms they were being introduced to in their general-education courses, and they were able to readily identify groups into which they do not yet fit. Then, when we began discussing discourse communities by name and reviewed the role of specialized language in forming group identity, students were able to draw from the experience of their previous paper to make the connection more authentic. Later, when I asked students to analyze a specific genre used by a discourse community, students had already discussed the existence of genres in an earlier assignment. These genre analysis assignment obviously asked students to go into greater detail in their thinking about the role of genre, and several students remark that they didn’t truly understand the genre work the first time through (when doing the characteristics paper). By revisiting concepts like lexis and genre, students were able to bolster their understanding and confidence.

On the other hand, when students repeated a process to create a new paper, many of them expressed confusion wondering why they needed to do something over again. In the case of the authority paper, students are asked to find reports on scientific discoveries in both trade journals and academic research journals. They then compared the expectations authors held of the readers and discussed why these discoveries will be reported so differently for their audiences, delineating the situational benefits of both presentations. When I later introduced the rhetorical analysis assignment, I had a great deal of difficulty explaining to students how a rhetorical analysis differed from the assignment they had already completed. I used the “Navigating Sources That Disagree” assignment — also available from the instructor’s guide in the Writing about Writing text – for the rhetorical analysis unit. In that assignment, students are asked to find three sources on the same subject and explore the nature and cause of differences in the authors’ treatment of the material. Because students had already explored differences in audience accommodation in their earlier assignment, many students were reluctant to draw on any other element of rhetoric in their final analyses. It seemed as though, when the process of constructing a paper is too similar to the process used in a previous assignment, students have difficulty distinguishing the two and adjusting the methods for the new expectations. That is different from the results of having the content of an assignment be similar to previous content, in which case students successfully adjusted their understanding of a concept through repetition.


One final concern about the new approach to discourse communities must be addressed: despite all our talk of writing being used by specific communities to achieve goals, rather than writing being transactional as it is in high school, each of the assignments we created for the discourse community unit is still essentially a document created for a teacher to prove understanding, rather than any attempt at creating genuine discourse or enacting any sort of action or change. With each paper, students submitted their work and hope that I have proved. When I returned their papers, they only revised because I asked them to, not because they were able to perceive any failure to achieve a goal. I would like to discover ways we could get students to write about discourse communities while enacting discourse communities and their practices. With such easy access to authentic audiences through social media, I am troubled by the artificial nature of the assignments my students completed last semester.

That caveat aside, I am convinced this revision to our discourse community unit was successful and that my students have a much better understanding of the interactional nature of discourse communities.

[Image used in title courtesy Microsoft. Slides from this presentation are also available.]