I got a 71% on my first paper in college.
I love to tell this story because it was a moment of both personal and academic growth for me. I had always been told I was a “good writer,” and the paper I turned in was confident, organized, and grammatically correct. So what gave?
The assignment was to write a rhetorical analysis of an essay on healthy diets, and I tackled it enthusiastically, explaining that the author had written a compelling argument and citing his most poetic quotes. My workshoppers, fellow First-Year Writing students, told me I had written a very good paper, and I also privately thought it sounded nice. I turned it in without anxiety, expecting the round 100% I’d grown used to in high school. I had checked the boxes and checked for typos. In the past, that had always been enough.
Then the grade came back.
I went to my professor’s office hours, biting back tears. I asked why I hadn’t even gotten 100% in the grammar portion of the rubric, and she pointed out almost with confusion that my grade in that area was still good and—the kicker—grammar was only 5% of the total grade anyway. I felt angry and cheated. I ranted to my friends.
And I started paying attention in class. The problem, I realized, was not with some phantom thing I had or didn’t have called “good writing.” The problem was that I had written a magazine article and not an academic paper. Humbled (okay, humiliated), I learned about the building blocks of academic papers: quotations in this genre were not supposed to be drive-by kitsch to spice up my own opinions, they were evidence. Typo-free sentences mattered far less than clear, compelling claims. There was a rhythm and order to academic writing that followed the logic of argument and not of flashy prose. I had a lot more to learn than I had expected.
There are several lessons I like to take from this story, besides a good laugh. First, I learned that “good writers” don’t actually exist. I put myself in the category of the “good writer” based on limited experiences in specific genres, and in labeling myself that way, I cut off any growth before it happened. Getting stuck in the good writer/bad writer binary prevented me from even listening in class! And doing that only hurt me, because if I had been listening from the beginning, I would have realized how little I knew.
Second, I learned a valuable academic lesson: discourse community matters. It’s easy to get caught up in small details like grammar and sentence structure, but at the end of the day what makes or breaks a piece of writing is what and how it communicates to its intended audience. My magazine article was not an effective way to communicate with an academic community that prioritizes research, evidence, and logic. It would be equally inappropriate to submit a thirty-page peer-reviewed study to Real Simple.
To look at the concept of discourse community in more depth, we can turn to writing scholars such as John Swales and Anne Beaufort.
Some Discourse on Discourse Community
What it is. On a basic level, discourse communities are communities drawn together by shared values. John Swales describes six main attributes: “a communality of interest,” “participatory mechanisms,” “information exchange,” “genre-specific discoursal expectations,” “a dynamic towards specialized language,” and “a critical mass of expertise.”¹
That sounds complicated, but let’s think about a concrete example: Wheaton College. At Wheaton,
- We are all drawn together because of a “communality of interest” in faith-based learning that will allow us to live meaningful lives as Christians.
- Our “participatory mechanisms” include rituals where we receive information and pursue this interest, such as class and chapel.
- “Information exchange” takes place whenever we’re working to further the goal of faith-based learning, not only in class and chapel but also through events and news on campus.
- We communicate in specific genres. For instance, we all know when the Billy Graham Hall parking lot has flooded because our “genre-specific discoursal expectations” dictate that we will receive both an email and a text message, beginning with the heading “WC ALERT,” that suggests that we move our cars.
- Our language is “specialized.” People outside our community don’t necessarily know what it means to get a “WC ALERT” or where the Billy Graham Hall is. They also don’t know what it means to have a CFA, the connotations of ringing the Blanchard bells, or why it’s such a big deal that you live in Smaber instead of Fischer. And they might not get that reference you made about Samson and the donkey jawbone.
- The “critical mass of expertise” that we gain from living, working, or studying around Wheaton allows us to interpret messages like these and communicate in other important genres on campus, from event posters to Instagram accounts like the Writing Center’s.
Many groups, from churches to sports teams to academic disciplines, fit the criteria of a discourse community, so it’s common for someone to be a part of several or many. The genres and language you use will vary by the goals and knowledge base of the community.
Why it matters. In her book College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction, Anne Beaufort emphasizes the importance of discourse communities in her theory of knowledge domains. Every writer draws from multiple bases of knowledge when writing, and Beaufort posits that the things we need to know when we write fall into five main categories:
- “Subject matter knowledge,” or the knowledge of what we are writing about;
- “Rhetorical knowledge,” or the knowledge of what rhetorical moves will persuade our audience;
- “Genre knowledge,” or the knowledge of the conventions that govern the kind of work we are creating;
- “Writing process knowledge,” or the knowledge of how a writer can actually get the words on the page; and
- “Discourse community knowledge.”
She illustrates this with a diagram of overlapping circles, which shows how all the knowledge domains interact with and influence each other. The most striking part of the diagram is the one circle that is different from the others. Instead of overlapping and interacting as the other domains do, the circle of discourse community knowledge actually surrounds all the other circles.
What this diagram indicates is the same thing I discovered in that fateful First-Year Writing class: none of the knowledge domains have meaning apart from their discourse communities. I had no idea who I was writing for when I drafted my C- paper, and so I did not know the important parts of my subject matter, what rhetorical moves would convince my audience, how to prioritize reading and listening in my writing process, or which genre conventions were nonnegotiable for academics. Without an understanding of my discourse community, I had no basis from which to write a meaningful academic paper.
Five years down the road, I am deeply grateful for that 71%. It was the wake-up call I needed to come out of my arrogant assumptions about myself as a writer and to begin humbly listening to the communities that surrounded me.
I know a lot more about writing now than I did as a freshman, but the most important thing I know is about my own limitations. I will never achieve some mythical status of “good writer” because writing always operates in community, and communities are always bigger than one person. If I listen humbly to the people around me, however, I can become a better writer. And isn’t that a more worthwhile goal?
- Ann Johns, who also writes on discourse communities, adds the element of conflict. For many people seeking to enter a discourse community, considerable sacrifices have to be made in order to enter; for instance, students of a minority may feel they are giving up cultural heritage if they make the choice to abide by reigning discourse community standards. While this extra note is beyond the scope of this post, it is important to recognize that power dynamics do exist in such communities, often to the detriment of those seeking to enter.
Johns, Ann M. “Discourse communities and communities of practice: membership, conflict, and diversity.” Text, role, and context: developing academic literacies (1997): 51-70.