Tensions in Defining Discourse Communities

The idea of a defined Discourse Community is a relatively new one in the realm of writing studies. In 1989, James Paul Gee defined Discourses (which he is sure to emphasize has a capital D, differing from the everyday noun “discourse,” meaning simply to converse), as ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes” (Gee 484). However, just a year later, John Swales attempted to narrow this definition and more wholly define Discourse communities, setting up six features that must all be present in order for a group to be considered a true discourse community.

One of the requirements set up by Swales is that all Discourse communities have their own genres. Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff,  added their own findings to the conversation, working to clarify the idea of genre, which they initially define as “typified ways of interacting within recurring situations” (Bawarshi and Reiff 3). In his 1986 “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae takes the idea of genre to look specifically at academic writing and academia as a discourse community, taking on theatrical language and insinuating that students are essentially performing a role when they learn to write academically, an idea that is quite contrary to Gee’s, which suggest that you cannot fake your way in a discourse community.

In order to better understand and define genre and discourse communities, answering these questions for myself, I observed a community of which I am a part that also meets the parameters set up by the researchers mentioned above. When thinking about which of my communities that might qualify, my mind instantly went to theatre because it is easily and outwardly observed and is something that fit, at least in my mind, easily into the categories established by theses scholars. The theatre class that I observed definitely seemed to fit Sawles’ ideas about primary and secondary discourses. My theatre classroom discourse community is most definitely a secondary discourse community, one that is “acquire[d] fluently to the extent that we are given access to these institutions” (Gee 485).

The theatre class I chose to observe also seemed to meet the six requirements set up in Swale’s supposedly more detailed definition of a discourse community. For example, the theatre class has an agreed upon set of goals, most broadly to better ourselves as performers and learn tools to help us both on and off stage; however, we also all possess certain personal goals that we share with the group and are therefore held accountable for by others in the class. There are also methods of intercommunication among us students, its members, the second of Swales’ demands of a Discourse community. We make use of technology, like our camino site and our emails, in addition to the materials that we read, in order to connect us both in and out of the classroom. A theatre class also most definitely fits Swales’ idea that a “discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback” (Swales 472). One of the best methods to improve oneself in acting is to perform and then be open to constructive criticisms and alternate interpretations of a work. In fact, we have set up certain proper modes of both giving and receiving constructive criticisms, which are unique to our classroom and that an outsider would not know how to participate in. We also share certain lexis; for example, somewhat outside of the theater may not understand terms such as “upstage,” “backstory,” “beats,” and “wings,” especially not in the way a theatre person uses them. My theatre class also meets the discourse community criterion of having a “threshold of members,” as there is a registered number of students and a dedicated professor, all of whom have different experiences and areas of expertise.

However, as I began to write, and further analyze what I observed in my class, I began to discover some tensions, among my own exploration, about these defining characteristics of a discourse community. Swales identifies that a discourse community has “specific lexis” (473), which I completely agree with, because there are most definitely terms that someone in a theatre-related discourse community knows and shares. However, most of these terms are ones that I learned far before I joined the particular discourse community of that individual class. And we have never discussed them, because they are considered to be common knowledge in the world of theatre. Yet someone who has been in the class the whole quarter may not know the meaning of these terms because we have an assumption that they already know them. So this brought up another round of questions to be answered. Am I am able to function easily in theatre classes with students that have been at university for years because I was already a part of this discourse community since I had learned its terms and genres in my childhood? If so, is the theater community, then, really just one, large Discourse Community?

However, the idea of an academic discourse being one large Discourse Community has, according to Swale, already been proven to be untrue, as he makes clear in the  “Cafe Owner Problem.” Just possessing a certain job or title does not automatically make you a part of a discourse community, because not everyone is directly in contact with each other, one of Swales’ requirements. However, based on my new observations, I think that I somewhat disagree with this idea. I think that perhaps Swales’ narrow parameters of a discourse community may need to change in light of the development of new technology. The internet has completely revolutionized the way that we think of communication. To use a theatre example, I believe that I am part of a worldwide theatre Discourse community because we all share terms and genres, we have common public goals as artists, and we interact with each other and give feedback constantly. Swales might argue that is incorrect because there is no way for me to actively participate in such a broad community; yet, that is exactly what I do. If I hear about a groundbreaking production in Europe for example, I can go on youtube and watch a video of that show. I can also look up the email of the artistic staff or find them on Facebook to ask them questions or provide feedback. I can also share that video with all of my peers on Facebook or Twitter and get their opinions as well. With the internet, the idea of defining a discourse community only becomes more complicated.

I also struggled greatly with applying, to my own Discourse Community, the idea that one cannot be partially assimilated into a Discourse Community. Gee asserts this, saying “someone cannot engage in a Discourse in less than a fully fluent manner” (487). On the surface level, this makes sense, for as a student I am not fully assimilated into the Discourse Community of my subject’s scholars, However, can we really apply Gee’s point to academia? For who would logically argue that the university discourse community does not include its students? Yet, we know students and professors have different languages and genres in which they feel comfortable, and often students are expected to do exactly what Gee calls impossible: join the academic Discourse community without first learning about how to do that. David Bartholomae references this exact idea in his article, saying “all writers, in order to write, must imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’” (10).  So, I suggest, that in order to resolve these tensions among two points, we need to look at the Discourse of academia as divided into separate discourse communities within itself, such as that of students and professors. For it is true that I could be nothing but fully assimilated into either of these. If I take classes, I am a part of the theatre student Discourse community at my university. If I were to teach a class, I am a part of the professors’ Discourse Community.  I can’t be only partially a student or professor. However, they are all still united in their genres and goals.

The final tension that developed in my exploration of Discourse communities and genres, is the fact that defining genres seems to impose limits on Discourse communities and their rhetorical situations. Assigning certain genres to certain communities and rhetorical situations limits the creative, truth-filled ideas that might come from writing. Our class discussion of writing as a process was something that I really related to and appreciated, especially as a creative writer and future teacher. However, as Bawarshi and Reiff mention briefly in their essay, “Genre-based approach reverts to a product-centered approach, and the writing process becomes a series of increasingly accurate attempts to replicate an ideal text rather than an engaged understanding of how writing and writers work within a complex work” (Bawarshi and Asari 7). Swales addresses this idea somewhat as well, although maybe unintentionally, saying that Discourse communities have certain “discoursal expectations” (472) and that they “own genres” (473). However, don’t many communities share genres? For example, one could argue that the genre of a theatre-related Discourse community is a script; but does a script belong solely to my theatre class? Does it even belong solely to the larger theatre discourse community? Of course not. Scripts are invaluable to film communities and English communities as well. If the theatre community doesn’t have genre that is uniquely their own, then does that make them no longer a discourse community? I would argue that it does not.

Overall, I think that we have to make sure that, in our efforts to provide clarity and definition to the terms “genre” and “discourse community,” that we don’t alienate the obvious, ultimately making it even more difficult to understand. Perhaps returning to the more basic definitions of a discourse community, as communities of people who talk about a certain discourse, taking the two words exactly as they were meant, would give us the most clarity of all by resolving the tensions of somewhat clashing, more detailed definitions.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 4-23.

Bawarshi, Anis S., and Mary Jo Reiff. “Genre.” Introduction. Gnre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy, 2010.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education, 1989, pp. 5-17.

Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis; English in the Academic and Research Setting, Boston, Cambridge UP, 1990, pp. 21-32.