Discourse Community Assignments


Project 3: Discourse Community Ethnography

English 3840J - Writing, Reading, and Rhetoric in the ProfessionsLength Requirements

Important Dates

Project Proposal: 300-500 words

Reflective Essay: 500-700 words

Essay: 2100-2500 words, (7-9 pp)

Mar. 26: Project Proposals dueApr. 4: Project 3 drafts due

Apr. 9: Final draft due


In the first article we read for the course, Anne Beaufort stressed the importance of gaining genreknowledge and local knowledge to be a successful writer in the workplace. In your second project for the class, you examined an analyzed one or more genres in your field and read articleson theories of genre to begin attaining genre knowledge in your field. This third project is meantto help you understand and study the local knowledge necessary to be a successful writer in your field by looking at your profession through the lens of discourse community theory. In a sense,

we're “zooming out” here in order for you to get a sense of the lager community of your 


For project 3 I’m asking you to do a

discourse community ethnography

of your intended profession or field. Beaufort, as well as Devitt, Bawarshi, and Reiff have already introduced usto the concepts of discourse community and ethnography. The readings for this unit willchallenge you to examine the concept of a discourse community and the importance of localknowledge further, as well as what is important in doing ethnographic research and someexamples of some ethnographic studies of professional communities. As in the genre analysis,you'll want to pay close attention to these readings as you'll be expected to do some synthesis inthe final essay you produce.While your last project focused on particular genres in your profession, for this project you will

 be considering your profession’s community as a whole. This might include not only the texts

used and written within the community and how they shape and are shaped by the community, but also the particular language, assumptions, values, and ideologies, involved in participating inand becoming a member of that professional discourse community. Ethnography, as the study of social groups, allows us to go beyond the text on the page to see writing (and any form of communication) as thoroughly embedded in social and material circumstance. Furthermore, the

concept of “discourse community” allows us to see that norms, genres, and values of the

community are always operating on and influencing the writing we do in those communities.This project provides the opportunity to do additional primary research in your field or  profession to find out more about how writing works in that community. Keep in mind that many

of the insights you have already gained (in previous assignments) regarding the “community” o

f your profession might be good starting places for research and invention as you begin this project. These insights may even help you create a foundation on which to base your project.

The educational benefits of writing are undeniable. Challenging students to write about our disciplines for diverse purposes and audiences deepens learning and promotes critical thinking. And so we put a great deal of effort into creating writing assignments that do not merely ask students to report back to us the content we have “delivered,” but instead require them to explore course content and address a target audience that has specific needs.

It can be difficult to succinctly convey the complexity of a quality writing assignment to students. Sometimes the more we know about the value of writing, the longer our assignment handouts grow. We want those handouts to be resources that students can turn to when they are working on their papers in the middle of the night. And so we stuff the handouts full of instructions, timelines, and warnings. If we get unsatisfactory student work the first time around, then we expand our handouts and use bold or even ALL CAPS. A colleague of mine who teaches psychology complained last semester that she gave her students a carefully developed writing assignment and explained every page in class, but they immediately peppered her with questions. I think faculty at many institutions, in a variety of disciplines, have similar experiences.

Anne Beaufort, in two influential books, proposed a framework for writing expertise that I have found helpful when creating writing assignments. Beaufort first described the framework in Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work, and developed it further in College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. In both books, she conducted close ethnographic studies of individual writers working to develop writing expertise in unfamiliar discourse communities. Analysis of her copious data led her to conclude that expert writers possess deep knowledge of the discourse communities they occupy. She also concluded that expert writers’ discourse-community knowledge takes four forms: subject-matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and process knowledge.

I have found Beaufort’s framework valuable when it comes to assignment design, as have other faculty at my institution. The way to get students to understand a writing assignment is to foster a sense of expertise (and the accompanying confidence) by giving them the knowledge they need. The first step is situating the writing assignment in a discourse community. At the graduate level, we can situate assignments near the center of a disciplinary discourse community. At the undergraduate level, it is best to let students begin at the margins of academic discourse communities and progress closer to the center as they advance toward graduation.

The discourse community primarily influences the premise of an assignment, or what experts in writing call the rhetorical situation. Beaufort’s four components of discourse-community knowledge provide a way to describe complex writing situations and assignment details (without resorting to over-emphatic proscription). It is a simple matter of presenting our assignments in terms of four kinds of knowledge:

  • Subject-Matter Knowledge is the writer’s grasp of the information that is necessary for completing the assignment. It may be existing knowledge or knowledge newly gained through research, observation, reading, reflection, or imagination. It is “what you’ll write about.”
  • Genre Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the type of document he or she must write and its features (structure, content, length, tone, format, etc.) as well as its limitations. Genre may be very specific (e.g., lab report for an introductory chemistry course or brief reflection on simulation exercise). It is “what you’ll write.”
  • Rhetorical Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the target audience(s) for the writing, the audience’s motives or purposes for reading the document, and the relationship between reader and writer. It is “who you’ll write for.”
  • Process Knowledge is the writer’s knowledge of how to go about writing a particular document. While complex writing generally requires planning, drafting, feedback, revision, and editing, the specifics of the writing process vary from document to document. It is “how you’ll write.”

In my experience, faculty often do address all four kinds of knowledge in their writing assignment handouts. However, they tend to emphasize process, writing as much of the handout as possible in the form of chronological instructions. Also, certain kinds of knowledge get less attention than others. It is not uncommon, for example, for a professor to say very little about audience (rhetorical knowledge), assuming that students will easily understand a rather complex rhetorical situation in which the primary audience is hypothetical and the professor is a secondary reader whose role is to evaluate. With Beaufort’s four-part framework for discourse-community knowledge (which is one way of defining a writer’s expertise), faculty can make sure their assignments cover all of the bases. My psychology colleague used this framework to revise the writing assignment that had caused her students to bombard her with questions. The day after she presented the revised handout to her students, she told me, “It was almost spooky—no one had any questions.”

Sample frameworks:
First-year writing assignment (Angus Woodward). Open PDF »
Developmental psychology writing assignment (Dr. Susan Brigman). Open PDF »

Beaufort, Anne. (2007). College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. (1999). Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work. New York: Teachers College Press. Print.

Angus Woodward is the Director of College Writing Programs at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge.

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Tagged with college writing assignments, designing effective writing assignments, writing assignments

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