Choose a discourse community that has made an impact on you or one that interests you and explore its goals and characteristics. Then choose a particular point of interest within that discourse community to consider in more detail. Focus on and gather data from a specific discourse community in order to examine how the primary and minor genres of that community mediate discourse, create and reinforce particular identities and values, and create authority for particular individuals. Write a description of the community, analyzing its motives and tools, and then reflect on what you have learned from doing so. Describe the discourse community and explore the particular point of interest (or research question) that you want to focus on. Use the data you collect to make and support your claims.
Data Collection: To begin this project, you’ll need to select a discourse community to analyze. You’ll probably find this easiest to do with a discourse community you actually have some experience with, but you can also do this project with less familiar communities. Be careful to select a discourse community where you can get unfettered access to examples of its genres and participants. This might be a church group, sorority, family, profession, classroom, club, football team, gaming community, dorm floor, etc. Just ensure that the discourse community holds a personal interest for you and that you have access to its members and its texts. Once you’ve chosen a discourse community to focus on, then you can begin to clarify your intentions.
Next, determine what data you need to collect. Begin by compiling a catalog of all the genres that a given participant in a discourse community writes and reads, then conduct any additional research necessary to fully understand how the genres are used. As you do your research, consider what your catalogue implies about:
• What the common texts in this discourse community are;
• What someone participating in this discourse community needs to know in order to read and write these texts;
• What the work of this discourse seems to be;
• What this discourse community’s values and priorities seem to be; and
• What knowledge, abilities, and skills one would need to acquire and hone in order to be successful in this discourse community.
Keeping these questions in mind will help you determine what data you need to collect to fully understand the discourse community you are studying:
• You will need to collect some texts that the participants commonly read, write, or use in various ways. Collect anything people in that community read or write (their genres)—even very short things like forms, sketches, notes, IMs, and text messages.
• You will likely need to interview several members of that discourse community and ask them about their discourse, purposes, conventions, texts, and so on. Record and transcribe the interviews if you can. You might ask questions like: How long have you been a participant in the community? Why are you involved? How did you learn to use the language of the community? How do you communicate with other people (on your team, at your restaurant, etc.)?
o You may choose to conduct text-based interviews with some of the community participants in order to ask them about the texts they use. For example, you might ask why they organize the texts as they do, why they use certain phrases or tones instead of others, who writes the texts, who reads them, and so on. Refer to the section “Stimulated Elicitation Interviewing” on page 513 of Writing about Writing.
• You will also need to set up several opportunities to observe the community members in action, either through observation, shadowing, or in some cases, participant-observation. (For example, if you are a member of the football team, you might participate as you normally do but then take frequent breaks to jot down notes about what you see. What are they doing? What kinds of things do they say? What do they write? How do you know who is “in” and who is “out”?) Keep some material record of your observation, perhaps with photos, videos, or sketches.
• You may want to administer a survey, either physical or electronic, of the community members. As you consider what particular questions you might ask on your survey, use the WIDE study as an example, and feel free to brainstorm other questions, especially if you decide to look at areas different than those studies already do. For example, if you replicate the WIDE (p. 724) study closely, you’ll be asking your chosen community of writers about:
o The kinds of writing experiences that motivate them
o The kinds of writing they do most frequently
o The kinds of writing experience and instruction they have had
o The technologies that mediate writing
But you could also expand the areas you look at, or focus in more tightly on particular aspects.
In recent years, it’s become reasonably easy to build and distribute surveys electronically, using Web applications such as SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. (You can google “online survey software” for a range of options.) Different apps let you have different numbers of questions and respondents in their free versions, and use different pricing structures if you want to inexpensively step up the number of either. So, look around some in selecting software.
Remember this advice: Be clear about why you are engaging in this research, and outline clearly for yourself what questions you hope to answer by engaging in it. Make a list of all the data you plan to collect, including texts, interviews, observations, etc., and where and how you will get this data.
Data Analysis:Once you have collected all your data, try analyzing the data you collect using the six characteristics of Swale’s discourse community (p. 220):
• What are the shared goals of the community? Why does the group exist? What does it do?
• What mechanisms do members use to communicate with each other (meetings, phone calls, e-mail, text messages, newsletters, reports evaluation forms, etc.)?
• What are the purposes of each of these mechanisms of communication (to improve performance, make money, grow better roses, share research, etc.)?
• Which of the above mechanisms of communication can be considered genres (textual responses to recurring situations that all group members recognize and understand)?
• What kinds of specialized language (lexis) do group members use in their conversation and in their genres? Name some examples—ESL, on the fly, 86, etc. What communicative function does this lexis serve? (e.g., why say “86” instead of “we are out of this”)?
• Who are the “old-timers” with expertise? Who are the newcomers with less expertise? How do newcomers learn the appropriate language, genres, knowledge of the group?
Next, use the activity system worksheet from Kain and Wardle (p. 262) and the questions from paragraph 16 of that article to sketch out the object, purpose, tools, community, division of labor, and rules for this discourse community. In particular, focus on the textual tools that this group uses in order to try to accomplish its common purposes. Work through the data that you collected in order to consider the motives of the community members, the genres (tools) that mediate their work, the rules (conventions) of the community, and so on. As you work through these, make notes about where in your data you found the answers. Was it from what interview subjects said? From the texts you examined? From what you saw while you observed?
The above will give you an overall picture of the discourse community. Now you want to focus in on what you’ve learned to find something that is especially interesting, confusing, or illuminating. You can use Swales and Wardle and Kain to assist you in this. In trying to determine what to focus on, you might ask yourself questions such as:
• Do community members agree on the motives and purposes of their discourse?
• Are there conflicts within the community? If so, what are they? Why do the conflicts occur? Do texts mediate these conflicts and make them worse in some way?
• Do any genres help the community work toward its goals especially effectively—or keep the community from working toward its goals? Why?
• Do some participants in the community have difficulty speaking and writing there? Why?
• Who has authority here? How is that authority demonstrated in written and oral language? Where does that authority come from?
• Are members of this community stereotyped in any way in regard to their literacy knowledge? If so, why?
• What sorts of values do the genres suggest that the community has?
Planning and Drafting: As you develop answers to some of these questions, start setting some priorities. Given all you have learned, what do you want to focus on in your paper? Do you want to write a research report that adds to the conversations that scholars have had about discourse communities and texts? Do you want to write an analysis of the discourse community that demonstrates why some genres are less effective than others in meeting the community’s goals? Do you want to write a reflection that considers what you’ve learned and what that means to you personally? Is there something interesting regarding goals of the community? Conflicts in the community? Lexis and mediating genres? Verbal and written evidence of authority/enculturation in the community? At this point you should stop and write a refined research question for yourself that you want to address in your paper. Now that you have observed and analyzed data, what question(s) would you like to explore in your paper? (Consult the articles by Wardle and McCarthy in Chapter 2 for examples of how you might do this [pp. 231 and 285]).
The text you write, and even how you go about planning and writing it, will depend on the answers to the previous questions. Consider the main claim you want to make and the evidence that you need to make that claim and the conventions of the genre you want to write, relevant to the audience you want to write for. Next, make a plan and start drafting. You might need to make an outline first, or you might just want to write down all of the ideas you have and then go back and try to organize it.
As you are writing a fairly formal research paper, your paper will likely have the following parts, or make the following moves (unless there’s a good reason not to):
• Begin with a very brief review of the topic: “We know X about this activity system” (cite others as appropriate).
• Name a niche (“But we don’t know Y” or “No one has looked at X”).
• Explain how you will occupy the niche.
• Describe your research methods.
• Discuss your findings in detail (Use Wardle and McCarthy as examples of how to do this—quote from your notes, your interview, the texts you collected, etc.)
• Include a works cited page.
. It should be prepared in MLA format.
What Makes It Good? Your assignment will be most successful if you’ve collected and analyzed data and explored the way that texts mediate discourse within a particular discourse community. The assignment asks you to show a clear understanding of what discourse communities are and to demonstrate your ability to analyze them carefully and thoughtfully. It also asks that you not simply list the features of your discourse community but also explore in some depth a particularly interesting aspect of that community. Since the assignment asks you to practice making the moves common to academic research articles, it should be organized, readable, fluent, and well edited. This text will be good if you learned to collect and analyze data, and then used that data to learn something new and share it in a manner that is engaging and appropriate for your audience and text type. Have you framed your claims and supported them? Do you cite sources where you need to? Do your readers know what your “so what?” is?
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