According to Wikipedia, the term discourse community

was first used by sociolinguist Martin Nystrand in 1982, and further developed by American linguist John Swales. Writing about the acquisition of academic writing styles of those who are learning English as an additional language, Swales presents six defining characteristics:

A discourse community:
  1. has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
  4. utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. in addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis.
  6. has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

James Porter defined the discourse community as: “a local and temporary constraining system, defined by a body of texts (or more generally, practices) that are unified by a common focus. A discourse community is a textual system with stated and unstated conventions, a vital history, mechanisms for wielding power, institutional hierarchies, vested interests, and so on.”

In effect, a discourse community is a group of people who not only share a particular form of communication but are also shaped as a group by that particular form of communication. The students in a class form a discourse community, as do the members of a group on facebook.

Consequently, discourse communities are everywhere. One such community that I’m a part of is my department, hereafter referred to as the “departmental community.” For many of us, our belonging to the departmental community is the primary structuring force in our relationship — I don’t see them or communicate with them outside of this community. But there are also smaller discourse communities within larger ones. There is, for example, a network of “younger” faculty within my department (subsequently referred to as the “new community,” one that includes many (most?) of the people hired within the past decade or so, that also forms a discourse community.

The new community often gets together for drinks after department meetings or for other social events. We share a common vision of our department, of what it is and what it should be.

It’s obvious that not everyone in the department is part of the new community. As the Wikipedia article suggests, the boundaries of such communities tend to be indeterminate and porous. This community is no exception. Some members of the department are kind of part of it and kind of not; some are at its center, and others are somewhere in between.

But there are clearly some members of the department who are not part of the new discourse community. And that’s where friction occurs. While the department as a whole forms a community, the new discourse community is cohesive enough to exert a great deal of influence over most of the department’s decisions and activities. This isn’t a malevolent or even a self-conscious influence; it simply is the way things are — our common goals, experience, and vision often bring us together into a semi-coherent group. There are other discourse communities even within this smaller one. PJ and I have a closer circle of friends that we canvas with (I’ll call us the “thirty-something community,” though age is only tangential and only partially correct); our department chair has various communities that he consults as part of his administration of the department. Our chair consults members of the thirty-something community from time to time, but we’re not really part of the inner nucleus of decision makers, though we hover around that nucleus’s margins on a frequently basis.

There are other discourse communities in our department: the creative writers, the rhet/comp people, the Americanists, the administrators, the second-wave feminists, the tenured faculty, etc. One of these groups is definitely not a part of the new community and feels this separateness as a definite slight and exclusion. Most of the time I believe that this is unfortunate — they are a potential resource that the department sometimes undervalues. And I realize that I can’t really identify with their discourse community and that community’s position in the department — I definitely don’t share their experiences and I often don’t share their opinions. We’re simply different kinds of people with different experiences and values. That doesn’t make me right and them wrong. It just means that there are times in which conflict, tension, and friction are inevitable.

This week has been one of those times. It’s been a week in which some members of the new community have been accused of exerting unfair hegemonic control over the department and in which some members of one of the smaller communities have been accused of trying to sabotage some of our colleagues’ careers. Little of this has made its way into public meetings. Some of it has been stated anonymously in various semi-private forums and some of it has been discussed in various smaller communities, the new one, the administrative one, and (I’m sure) others.

Maybe some of the these accusations will make their way into department meetings. Probably they won’t. I know that conflict is inevitable when you have different communities with different visions, ideas, and goals interacting. I also very much feel the fact that the boundaries of such communities are intangible and porous. My own allegiances and commitments shift from time to time, depending on the issue. I don’t know how all of this tension will play out. Maybe it will continue to bubble beneath the surface or maybe it will explode. On the whole, I love the departmental community to which I belong. I sincerely hope that this tension does not permanently fracture it.

I worry that discourse communities will eventually form rigid alliances lined up against one another. If this happens, then those of us who float among several communities at once may have to chose one community over another. That choice may be complicated, but it will not necessary be difficult. We can only operate with the communities we feel we have something in common with. If discourse communities contribute to an institutionalized way of thinking, then I already know which community most shapes and determines my ways of thinking. (Somehow all of this reminds me that Foucault is the truth — but that’s a post for another day!)

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