Chris's Midterm Project

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 00:27

Our English 21007 Class as a Discourse Community
Christopher Aebig


The goal of this research report was to determine if our English 21007 class functions as a discourse community as defined by John Swales. In my research I focused in on the role that the wiki, the online forum in which we post all of writing, plays in contributing to the group-centric aspects of a discourse community. I analyzed the genres of writing that appear on the wiki and concluded from my findings that the interactive nature of the wiki as well as its focus on public knowledge help contribute to the common group goal of helping each other improve our writing. Having established this I went on show how our class embodies each of Swales’s six fundamental characteristics of discourse communities. Every category was met, and thus I concluded that our class is in fact a discourse community.


A discourse community can be defined as a group of people that communicates in order to achieve a common goal. Upon seeing this broad definition, one might speculate as to what groups could possibly be considered discourse communities. Much research and speculation has been done in defining a discourse community, but my project will pay particularly close attention to the writing of John Swales on the topic of discourse communities. In his article “The Concept of Discourse Community”, Swales defines a discourse community as having six signature characteristics: A discourse community has a common set of public goals, mechanisms of intercommunication among its members, feedback mechanisms, specific genres and lexes, and a threshold level of membership with discourse expertise.

My project focuses on evaluating something near and dear to all of our hearts, our own English 21007 class, as a discourse community. More specifically, I will be focusing on one particular aspect of our class that distinguishes it from other English classes – the use of an online wikidot page. In this report I hope to show you that the use of the wikidot page turns our class from a place where one seeks to solely achieve a good grade into a place where we collaboratively work to achieve a common goal of learning and improving our writing.


My initial steps in determining if our class fits the definition of a discourse community involved looking at the types of writing that appear on the wiki and evaluating them with several questions in mind. I noticed that the three main sections under which genres of writing appeared were the announcement pages (class-by-class-schedule), the reflective annotated bibliography page, and blog, the second two being student produced. I then examined how the author and the designated audience of each particular piece of writing contributed to the style and purpose of the piece and ultimately to the discourse of the class. After doing this, I applied Swales’s six characteristics of discourse communities to my findings in order to show that the class, through the wiki, operates as a fully functional discourse community.


As I mentioned in the previous section, the three main areas in which writing is posted to wiki are the class-by-class-schedule, the reflective annotated bibliography, and the blog. The class-by-class-schedule is written by Andrew in order to communicate specific project goals and deadlines with the rest of the class. Thus, obviously the audience of the writing that appears here is directed toward the student members of the class. In order for a discourse community to achieve its common goals, those goals have to be laid out and explained in a clear and orderly manner. This is exactly the purpose of this section of the wiki page. It enables someone with discoursal expertise (Andrew) to facilitate the activities of the group so that the group as a whole will achieve its goal of improving their writing.

The reflective annotated bibliography, on the other hand, is written by student members of the class for other student members of the class. In this section of the wiki, students summarize and reflect upon the readings that we have done in class. When students write these entries, not only are they intending to enhance their own understanding of the documents, but they are also formatting their writing in a way that can be easily understood by their peers, as their audience is the rest of the class. It is through this kind of public display of knowledge and the idea of writing in order to enhance each other’s understanding that the class really begins to take on the feel of a community striving to learn something from one another rather than a bunch of people each trying to just get a high grade with little regard for the rest of the class.

The blog follows on a similar note. What I noticed about the blog is that the original intentions of the individual writers are usually to elaborate upon a topic that is relatively specific to them. However, unlike most English classes in which students submit papers never to be seen by anyone else, posting to the blog turns every written document into public knowledge so that other members of the class can learn from their posts and also offer them constructive feedback through the comment system of the wiki. It is this conversion from private to public knowledge on the wiki that makes our English class a functioning discourse community.


Using the findings that I have just recorded in the previous section I will now be able to show how our class fits all six categories of John Swales’s model of a discourse community.

1. Common Public Goals

Clearly it has already been established that the public goals of the class include improving one’s writing capabilities and learning from one another. This common goal is made even more apparent due to the existence of the reflective annotated bibliography page, for it is through this section of the wiki that we are able to help other members of the class enhance their understandings of particular documents that we read in class and thus help them to improve their writing. In addition, the existence of the comment feature on the blog gives us the opportunity to offer our classmates constructive criticism about their writing in order to help them improve. These are both testament to the fact that this is a public goal rather than a solitary, individual goal.

2. Mechanisms of Intercommunication Among Members

Intercommunication often happens during the actual classroom portion of the course. In class we are able to actively coordinate particular projects and deadlines and also discuss the current projects that we are undertaking with Andrew and the other members of our group in order to get a sense of if your project is going well or not.

3. Methods of Providing Feedback

This aspect is manifested on the wiki through the comment system. We are all able to comment on anyone else’s writing and provide him or her with feedback. In fact, the lateness policy of the class that entails commenting on the blog posts of two peers is actually quite beneficial for the class as a whole because it serves as a way of attaining feedback from certain members of the class. In addition, the peer review sessions that are held during class time also serve as a way to receive feedback from both Andrew and other members of class in an environment that is very conducive to doing so.

4. Use of Specific Genres

As you have seen from my discussion of the different types of writing that appear on the wiki, the class clearly utilizes several different genres of writing each with their own unique functions. Clearly a document that would appear under the class-by-class-schedule would serve a different purpose than a reflective annotated bibliography entry. Both of these genres of writing serve highly specialized purposes. Also, within the blog itself there are also several different genres that have been used, this analytical report that you are currently reading being one of them.

5. Use of Specific Lexis

As you have seen from the previous information, our class uses specific terminology that outsiders would not understand such as reflected annotated bibliography and writer-by-writer archive, reinforcing the idea that the class has developed terms for simplified communication for those with some degree of insider knowledge of the group.

6. Insiders and Outsiders

This criteria is the most difficult to provide with a concrete definition. Clearly there is a difference in the thresholds of membership between Andrew and the rest of the class. Andrew, being in charge of the curriculum of the class, clearly has the highest degree of membership in the class. However, Andrew’s leadership role does not entail a completely one-sided class dynamic. For example, when we are deciding upon the criteria for a particular project, Andrew always asks us our opinions and encourages us all to give feedback on the project proposal. Therefore it can be reasoned that we are all insiders in the class to some degree and that we all have the ability to learn something from one another.


According to Swales’s six characteristics, our class does indeed fit the definition of a discourse community. I feel that the wiki is one of the primary contributors to creating the group dynamic that is essential to the concept of a discourse community. As a recommendation to anyone who would consider teaching a class similar to this one, I would make sure to find a way to incorporate group-focused learning into the course using something similar to our wiki page, for it is through this kind of approach that the class will truly become a discourse community rather than a bunch of individual, solitary efforts.

Works Cited:

-Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community." Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990.(21-32). Print.

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