and Communities of
ANN M. JOHNS
Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict,
and Diversity.” Text, Role, and Context: Developing Academic Literacies. Cambridge, New
York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 51â€”70. Print.
Framing the Reading
Ann Johns, like the other scholars whose work you have read so far in this chapter, is a
well-known linguistâ€”in fact, she coedited a journal with John Swales from 1985 to 1993.
While she was at San Diego State University, Johns directed the American Language
Institute, the Writing across the Curriculum Program, the Freshman Success Program, and
the Center for Teaching and Learning, and she still found time to research and write
twenty-three articles, twenty-two book chapters, and four books (including Genre in the
Classroom  and Text, Role, and Context, from which the following reading is taken).
Since retiring from San Diego State, Johns continues to write articles and consult around
Think of Johns’s text as the extension of an ongoing conversation in this chapter. When
John Swales defined discourse community, he noted in passing that participating in a
discourse community did not necessarily require joining it, but he did not pursue the idea
of conflict within communities any further. James Gee does not help much with this
problem because he argues that people from nondominant home Discourses can only join
dominant Discourses through mushfake. This is where Ann Johns steps in. She published
well after both Swales and Gee, so she had time to think through
some of the issues they were considering and then extend the
conversation by really delving into the problem of conflict within
When talking about conflicts related to discourse
communities, Johns focuses primarily on academic discourse
communities. She talks about some of the “expected”
conventions of discourse in the academy (what she calls “uniting
forces”) and then describes sources of contention. Johns brings
up issues of rebellion against discourse community conventions, change
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities Practice
within conventions of communities, the relationship of identity to discourse
community membership, and the problems of authority and control over
acceptable community discourse. As always, the reading will be easier for you if
you can try to relate what the author describes to your own experiences or to
things you have witnessed or read about elsewhere.
Getting Ready to Read
Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:
If you’ve read other articles in this chapter already, make a list of the
difficulties or problems you’ve had with the concept of discourse communities
so far. What have you not understood, what has not made sense, or what
questions have you been left with?
Write a note to yourself on this question: What does the idea of membership
mean to you? When you hear that word, what do you associate it with? What
memories of it do you have? Do you often use it or hear it?
As you read, consider the following questions:
What does it mean to have authority in relation to texts and discourse
How does trying to become a member of a discourse community impact your
sense of selfâ€”do you feel your “self” being compressed or pressured, or
How are discourse communities related to identity?
If there is one thing that most of [the discourse community definitions] have in
common, it is an idea of language [and genres] as a basis for sharing and
holding in common: shared expectations, shared participation, commonly (or
communicably) held ways of expressing. Like audience, discourse community
entails assumptions about conformity and convention (Rafoth, 1990, p. 140).
What is needed for descriptive adequacy may not be so much a search for the
conventions of language use in a particular group, but a search for the varieties
of language use that work both with and against conformity, and accurately
reflect the interplay of identity and power relationships (Rafoth, 1990, p. 144).
A second important concept in the discussion of socioliteracies is discourse
community. Because this term is abstract, complex, and contested,i I will
approach it by attempting to answer a few of the questions that are raised in the
literature, those that seem most appropriate to teaching and learning in academic
i. Some of the contested issues and questions are: “How are communities defined?” (Rufoth, 1990);
“Do discourse communities even exist?” (Prior, 1994); “Are they global or local or both?”
(Kiltingsworth, 1992); “What is the relationship between discourse communities and genres?”
(Swales, 1988b. 1990).
500 Chapter 4
1. Why do individuals join social and professional communities? What
appear to be the relationships between communities and their genres?
2. Are there levels of community? In particular, can we hypothesize a general
academic community or language?
3. What are some of the forces that make communities complex and
varied? What forces work against “shared participation and shared ways
of expressing?” (Rafoth, 1990, p. 140).
I have used the term discourse communities because this appears to be the
most common term in the literature. However, communities of practice, a related
concept, is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for academic contexts
(see Brown & Duguid, 1995; Lave & Wenger, 1991), In the term discourse
communities, the focus is on texts and language, the genres and lexis that enable
members throughout the world to maintain their goals, regulate their
membership, and communicate efficiently with one another. Swales (1990, pp.
24â€”27) lists six defining characteristics of a discourse community:
1. [It has] a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
2. [It has] mechanisms of intercommunication among its members (such as
newsletters or journals).
3. [It] utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative
furtherance of its aims.
4. [It] uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and
5. In addition to owning genres, [it] has acquired some specific lexis.
6. [It has] a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant
content and discoursal expertise.
The term communities of practice refers to genres and lexis, but especially to
many practices and values that hold communities together or separate them from
one another. Lave and Wenger, in discussing students’ enculturation into
academic communities, have this to say about communities of practice:
As students begin to engage with the discipline, as they move from exposure to
experience, they begin to understand that the different communities on campus
are quite distinct, that apparently common terms have different meanings,
apparently shared tools have different uses, apparently related objects have
different interpretations. . . . As they work in a particular community, they start
to understand both its particularities and what joining takes, how these involve
language, practice, culture and a conceptual universe, not just mountains of
facts (1991, p. 13).
Thus, communities of practice are seen as complex collections of individuals
who share genres, language, values, concepts, and “ways of being” (Geertz,
1983), often distinct from those held by other communities.
In order to introduce students to these visions of community, it is useful to
take them outside the academic realm to something more familiar, the
recreational and avocational communities to which they, or their families,
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities Practice
belong. Thus I begin with a discussion of nonacademic communities before
proceeding to issues of academic communities and membership.
Communities and Membership
Social, Political, and Recreational Communities
People are born, or taken involuntarily by their families and cultures, into some
communities of practice. These first culture communities may be religious, tribal,
social, or economic, and they may be central to an individual’s daily life experiences.
Academic communities, on the other hand, are selected and voluntary, at least after
compulsory education. Therefore, this chapter will concentrate on communities that
are chosen, the groups with which people maintain ties because of their interests,
their politics, or their professions. Individuals are often members of a variety of
communities outside academic life: social and interest groups with which they have
chosen to affiliate. These community affiliations vary in terms of individual depth of
interest, belief, and commitment. Individual involvement may become stronger or
weaker over time as circumstances and interests change.
Nonacademic communities of interest, like “homely” genres, can provide a
useful starting point for student discussion. In presenting communities of this type,
Swales uses the example of the Hong Kong Study Circle (HKSC),1
of which he is a paying member, whose Why do individuals join social
purposes are to “foster interest in and and professional communities?
knowledge of the stamps of Hong Kong”
(1990, p. 27). He was once quite
Are there levels of community?
active in this community, dialoging fre- What are some of the forces that
quently with other members through make communities complex and
HKSC publications. 2 However, at this varied?
point in his life, he has other interests (birds and butterflies), and so he is now an
inactive member of HKSC. His commitments of time and energy have been
Members of my family are also affiliated with several types of communities. We
are members of cultural organizations, such as the local art museum and the theater
companies. We receive these communities’ publications, and we attend some of their
functions, but we do not consider ourselves to be active. We also belong to a variety
of communities with political aims. My mother, for example, is a member of the
powerful lobbying group, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
The several million members pay their dues because of their interests in maintaining
government-sponsored retirement (Social Security) and health benefits (Medicare),
both of which are promoted by AARP lobbyists in the U.S. Congress. The AARP
magazine, Modern Maturity, is a powerful organ of the association, carefully crafted
1 Note that most communities use abbreviations for their names and often for their publications. All
community members recognize these abbreviations, of course.
2 These written interactions are impossible for the noninitiated to understand, might point out.
502 Chapter 4
to forward the group’s aims. Through this publication, members are urged to write to
their elected representatives about legislation, and they are also informed about
which members of Congress are “friends of the retired.” However, members are
offered more than politics: Articles in the magazine discuss keeping healthy while
aging, remaining beautiful, traveling cheaply, and using the Internet. AARP
members also receive discounts on prescription drugs, tours, and other benefit.3
Recently, my husband has become very active in a recreational discourse
community, the international community of cyclists.4 He reads publications such as
Bicycling (“World’s No. 1 Road and Mountain Bike Magazine”) each month for
advice about better cyclist health (“Instead of Pasta, Eat This!” )5 equipment to buy,
and international cycling tours. Like most other communities, cycling has experts,
some of whom write articles for the magazines to which he subscribes, using a
register that is mysterious to the uninitiated: â€œunified gear triangle”; “metal matrix
composite.” Cyclists share values (good health, travel interests), special knowledge,
vocabulary, and genres, but they do not necessarily share political or social views, as
my husband discovered when conversing with other cyclists on a group trip. In
publications for cyclists, we can find genres that we recognize by name but with
community-related content: editorials, letters to the editor, short articles on new
products, articles of interest to readers (on health and safety, for example),
advertisements appealing to readers, and essay/commentaries. If we examine
magazines published for other interest groups, we can find texts from many of the
As this discussion indicates, individuals often affiliate with several communities
at the same time, with varying levels of involvement and interest. People may join a
group because they agree politically, because they want to socialize, or because they
are interested in a particular sport or pastime. The depth of an individual’s
commitment can, and often does, change over time. As members come and go, the
genres and practices continue to evolve, reflecting and promoting the active
members’ aims, interests, and controversies.
Studying the genres of nonacademic communities, particularly those with
which students are familiar, helps them to grasp the complexity of text production
and processing and the importance of understanding the group practices, lexis,
values, and controversies that influence the construction of texts.
Discourse communities can also be professional; every major profession has its
organizations, its practices, its textual conventions, and its genres. Active
community members also carry on informal exchanges: at conferences, through
3 When asked my mother to drop her AARP membership because of a political stand the organization took,
she said, “I can’t, Ann. I get too good a deal on my medicines through my membership.”
4 Those of us who are outsiders call them “gearheads.” Often, terms are applied to insiders by community
5 Brill, D. (1994, November). What’s free of fat and cholesterol costs 4 cents per serving, and has more carbo
than pasta? Rice! Bicycling, pp. 86â€”87.
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities Practice
email interest groups, in memos, in hallway discussions at the office, in
laboratories and elsewhere, the results of which may be woven intertextually into
public, published texts. However, it is the written genres of communities that are
accessible to outsiders for analysis. We need only to ask professionals about their
texts in order to collect an array of interesting examples. One of the most
thoroughly studied professional communities is the law. In his Analysing Genre:
Language Use in Professional Settings (1993), Bhatia discusses at some length
his continuing research into legal communities that use English and other
languages (pp. 101â€”143). He identifies the various genres of the legal
profession: their purposes, contexts, and the form and content that appear to be
conventional. He also contrasts these genres as they are realized in texts from
However, there are many other professional discourse communities whose
genres can be investigated, particularly when students are interested in
enculturation. For example, students might study musicians who devote their lives
to pursuing their art but who also use written texts to dialogue with others in their
profession. To learn more about these communities, I Interviewed a bassoonist in
our city orchestra. 6 Along with those who play oboe, English horn, and
contrabassoon, this musician subscribes to the major publication of the double-reed
community, The International Double Reed Society Journal. Though he has
specialized, double-reed interests, he reports that he and many other musicians also
have general professional aims and values that link them to musicians in a much
broader community. He argues that all practicing musicians within the Western
tradition7 share knowledge; there is a common core of language and values within
this larger community. Whether they are guitarists, pianists, rock musicians, or
bassoonists, musicians in the West seem to agree, for example, that the strongest
and most basic musical intervals are 5-1 and 4-1, and that other chord intervals are
weaker. They share a basic linguistic register and an understanding of chords and
notation. Without this sharing, considerable negotiation would have to take place
before they could play music together. As in other professions, these musicians have
a base of expertise, values, and expectations that they use to facilitate
communication. Thus, though a musician’s first allegiance may be to his or her own
musical tradition (jazz) or instrument (the bassoon), he or she will still share a great
deal with other expert musiciansâ€”and much of this sharing is accomplished through
What can we conclude from this section about individual affiliations with
discourse communities? First, many people have chosen to be members of
one or a variety of communities, groups with whom they share social,
political, professional, or recreational interests. These communities use
written discourses that enable members to keep in touch with each other,
carry on discussions, explores controversies, and advance their aims; the
genres are their vehicles for communication. These genres are not, in all
6 | would like to thank Arian Fast of the San Diego Symphony for these community insights.
7 Knowledge is also shared with musicians from other parts of the world, of course. However, some of the
specific examples used here apply to the Western musical tradition.
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities Practice 504
Figure l: Levels of Community.
cases, sophisticated or intellectual, literary or high-browed. They are, instead,
representative of the values, needs, and practices of the community that produces
them. Community membership may be concentrated or diluted; it may be central to a
person’s life or peripheral. Important for the discussion that follows is the
juxtaposition of generalized and specialized languages and practices among these
groups. Musicians, lawyers, athletes, and physicians, for example, may share certain
values, language, and texts with others within their larger community, though their
first allegiance is to their specializations. Figure 1 illustrates this general/specific
relationship in communities.
In the case of physicians, for example, there is a general community and a set of
values and concepts with which most may identify because they have all had a shared
basic education before beginning their specializations. There are publications,
documents, concepts, language, and values that all physicians can, and often do, share.
The same can be said of academics, as is shown in the figure. There may be some
general academic discourses,8 language, values, and concepts that most academics
share. Thus faculty often identify themselves with a college or university and its
8 For example, The Chronicle of Higher Education and several pedagogical publications are directed to a generai
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice 505
language and values, as well as with the more specialized areas of interest for which
they have been prepared.
This broad academic identification presents major problems for scholars and
literacy practitioners, for although it is argued that disciplines are different (see
Bartholomae, 1985; Belcher & Braine, 1995; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Carson
et al., 1992; Lave & Wenger, 1991, among others), many faculty believe that there
is a general academic English as well as a general set of critical thinking skills and
strategies for approaching texts.
Because this belief in a general, shared academic language is strong and universal,
the next section of this chapter is devoted to this topic.
What motivates this section more than anything else is its usefulness as a starting point
in the exploration of academic literacies and its accessibility to students at various
levels of instruction who need to become more aware of the interaction of roles, texts,
and contexts in academic communities. Many literacy faculty have mixed classes of
students from a number of disciplines or students just beginning to consider what it
means to be an academic reader and writer. For these students, and even for some of
the more advanced, a discussion of what are considered to be general academic
languages and textual practices is a good place to start their analysesâ€”although not a
good place to finish.
In the previous section it was noted that professionals may affiliate at various levels
of specificity within their discourse communities. They often share language,
knowledge, and values with a large, fairly heterogeneous group, though their first
allegiances may be with a specialized group within this broader “club.” This comment
can apply to individuals in academic communities as well. Faculty have their own
discipline-specific allegiances (to biology, chemistry, sociology, engineering);
nonetheless, many believe that there are basic, generalizable linguistic, textual, and
rhetorical rules for the entire academic community that can apply.
Discipline-specific faculty who teach novices at the undergraduate level, and some
who teach graduate students as well, sometimes complain that their students “do not
write like academics” or “cannot comprehend” academic prose, arguing that these are
general abilities that we should be teaching. The discussion that follows acknowledges
their complaints and sets the stage for discussions of more specific academic issues
and pedagogies in later chapters.
Language, Texts, and Values
This section on academic textual practices draws principally from three sources:
“Reflections on Academic Discourse” (Elbow, 1991); Words and Lives: The
Anthropologist as Author (Geertz, 1988); and The Scribal Society: An Essay on
Literacy and Schooling in the Information Age (Purves, 1990) (see also Dudley
506 Chapter 4
Evans, 1995). Elbow and Purves are well-known composition theorists from
different theoretical camps who were cited in Chapter I. Geertz, an anthropologist,
has studied academic communities and their genres for many years. All three of
these experts live in the United States, and this may affect their views; however, in
many universities in the world in which English is employed, these beliefs about
general text features are also shared, except perhaps in literature and some of the
humanities disciplines. Following is a composite of the arguments made by the three
academics about the nature, values, and practices in general expository academic
prose, including some commentary on each topic.
1. Texts must be explicit. Writers should select their vocabulary carefully and
use it wisely. In some cases, such as with certain noun compounds, paraphrase is
impossible because specialized academic vocabulary must be used. Citation must
be constructed carefully. Data analysis should be described and discussed
explicitly. The methodology should be stated so clearly that it is replicable.
Ambiguity in argumentation should be avoided.
Comment. Faculty often complain that students are “careless” in their use of
vocabulary, in their citation practices, and in their argumentation and use of data.
Because many literacy classes value the personal essay and because many readings
in literacy classes are in story form or are adapted or specially written for these
classes, students are not exposed to the exactness of some academic prose. One of
our responsibilities in developing socioliterate practices is to expose students to
authentic academic texts and to analyze these texts for their specificity.
2. Topic and argument should he prerevealed in the introduction. Purves says
that experienced academics, particularly when writing certain kinds of texts, should
“select a single aspect of [a] subject and announce [their] theses and purposes as
soon as possible” (1990, p. 12).
Comment. Finding the argument in a reading and noticing how data, examples,
or narration are used to support this argument are essential academic abilities that
are praised by faculty from many disciplines. In like manner, understanding and
presenting a clear argument that is appropriate to a genre are writing skills that
appear high on faculty wish lists for students, particularly for those who come from
diverse rhetorical traditions (see Connor, 1987). Most faculty require that
arguments and purposes appear early, generally in an introduction. One of the
discipline-specific faculty with whom I work tells her students not to “spend much
time clearing their throats.” She wants them to get right down to the argument.”
We must be aware, however, that the pressure to reveal topic, purposes, and
argumentation early in a written text may be a culture-specific value and apply
only to certain kinds of texts within specific communities. There is considerable
discussion in the contrastive rhetoric and World Englishes literature about the
motivations for text organization and content and the necessity (or lack thereof) for
prerevealing information. Local cultures and first languages, as well as academic
disciplines, can influence how and where arguments appear.
3. Writers should provide “maps ” or “signposts ” for the readers
throughout 26 the texts, telling the readers where they have been in the text
and where they are going. By using a variety of tactics, writers can assist
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice 507
readers in predicting and summarizing texts and in understanding the
relationships among topics and arguments. Most of these tactics fall under the
Comment. Metadiscourse is defined in the following way:
It is writing about reading and writing. When we communicate, we use
metadiscourse to name rhetorical actions: explain, show, argue, claim, deny,
suggest, add, expand, summarize; to name the part of our discourse, first,
secondâ€¦in conclusion; to reveal logical connections, thereforeâ€¦if soâ€¦ to guide
our readers, Consider the matter of (Williams, 1989, p. 28).
Literacy textbooks for both reading and writing often emphasize the
understanding and use of metadiscourse in texts. However, it is important to note
that language and culture can have considerable influence on the ways in which
metadiscourse is used. For example, in countries with homogeneous cultures,
academic written English may have fewer metadiscoursal features (Mauranen,
1993) than in heterogeneous, “writer-responsible” cultures (see Hinds,
1987) such as the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. As in the case of all
texts, academic discourses are influenced by the cultures and communities in
which they are found, often in very complicated ways.
4. The language of texts should create a distance between the writer and the text
to give the appearance of objectivity. Geertz (1988) speaks of academic, expository
prose as “author-evacuated”; the author’s personal voice is not clearly in evidence,
because the first person pronoun is absent and arguments are muted. He compares
author-evacuated prose with the “author-saturated” prose of many literary works, in
which individual voice pervades. As mentioned earlier, this “author-evacuation” is
particularly evident in pedagogical genres, such as the textbook. One way to create
the evacuated style is to use the passive, a common rhetorical choice for the
sciences, but there are other ways as well.
Comment. Discipline-specific faculty sometimes tell us that students are unable
to write “objectively” or to comprehend “objective” prose.9 These students have not
mastered the ability to clothe their argumentation in a particular register, to give it
the kind of objective overlay that is valued in academic circles. When I asked one of
my first-year university students to tell the class what he had learned about
academic English, he said: “We can’t use ‘I’ anymore. We have to pretend that we’re
not there in the text.” In many cases, he is right. Literacy teachers need to help
students to analyze texts for their author evacuated style, and to discuss the
particular grammatical and lexical choices that are made to achieve the appearance
of objectivity and distance.
5. Texts should maintain a “rubber-gloved” quality of voice and register. They
must show a kind of reluctance to touch one’s meanings with one’s naked fingers
(Elbow, 1991, p. 145).
9 â€œObjectiveâ€ appears in quotation marks because, though academic writing may have the
appearance of being objective, all texts are biased.
508 Chapter 4
Comment. For some academic contexts, writers appear to remove themselves
emotionally and personally from the texts, to hold their texts at arms’ length
(metaphorically). The examination of texts in which this ” rubber-gloved quality” is
evident will provide for students some of the language to achieve these ends. What
can students discover? Many academic writers abjure the use of emotional words,
such as wonderful and disgusting; they hide behind syntax and ” objective”
6. Writers should take a guarded stance, especially when presenting
argumentation and results. Hedging through the use of modals (may, might) and
other forms (It is possible thatâ€¦) is perhaps the most common way to be guarded.
Comment. Hedging appears to be central to some academic discourses,
particularly those that report research. In a study of two science articles on the same
topic published for two different audiences, Fahenstock (1986) found that the article
written for experts in the field was replete with hedges (â€œappear to hydrolize,â€
â€œsuggesting that animal foodâ€), as scientists carefully reported their findings to their
peers. However, the article written for laypersons was filled with â€œfacts,â€ much like
those in the textbooks described in Chapter 3. For these and other erasons, we need
to introduce ways in which genre, context, readers, and communities affect
7. Texts should display a vision of reality shared by members of the particular
discourse community to which the text is addressed (or the particular faculty
member who made the assignment).
Comment. This may be the most difficult of the general academic requirements,
for views of reality are often implicit, unacknowledged by the faculty themselves
and are not revealed to students. Perhaps I can show how this “reality vision” is so
difficult to uncover by discussing my research on course syllabi. I have been
interviewing faculty for several years about the goals for their classes, goals that are
generally stated in what is called a syllabus in the United States, but might be called
a class framework or schedule of assignments in other countries. These studies
indicated that most faculty tend to list as goals for the course the various topics that
will be studied. The focus is exclusively on content. They do not list the particular
views of the world that they want students to embrace, or the understandings that
they want to encourage. In a class on “Women in the Humanities,” for example, the
instructor listed topics to be covered in her syllabus, but she did not tell the students
that she wanted them to analyze images of women in cultures in order to see how
these images shape various cultural contexts. In a geography class, the instructor
listed topics to be covered, but he did not tell his students about his goals for
analysis and synthesis of texts. Why are the critical-thinking goals and disciplinary
values hidden by most faculty? I don’t know. Perhaps instructors believe that
students should intuit the values, practices, and genres required in the course; or the
faculty have difficulty explicitly stating goals that are not related to content.
Certainly content is the most commonly discussed issue at disciplinespecific (DS)
curriculum meetings, and this may influence faculty choices. In a later chapter I will
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice 509
discuss one of the questionnaires that I use to elicit from faculty the “views of
reality” or “ways of being” that my students and I would like to see stated explicitly
in the syllabi.
In contrast to DS faculty, we literacy faculty are often most interested in
processes and understandings, in developing students metacognition and
metalanguagesâ€”and these interests are often reflected in our syllabi.
[Following,] for example, are the student goals for a first-year University writing
class developed by a committee from my university’s Department of Rhetoric and
a. To use writing to clarify and improve your understanding of issues and
b. To respond in writing to the thinking of others and to explore and account
for your own responses
c. To read analytically and critically, making active usc of what you read in
d. To understand the relationships between discourse structure and the
question at issue in a piece of writing, and to select appropriate structures
at the sentence and discourse levels
e. To monitor your writing for the grammar and usage conventions
appropriate to each writing situation
f. To use textual material as a framework for understanding and writing about
other texts, data or experiences
No matter what kind of class is being taught, faculty need to discuss critical thinking and
reading and writing goals frequently with students. They need to review why students are
given assignments, showing how these tasks relate to course concepts and student literacy
8. Academic texts should display a set of social and authority relations; they should
show the writerâ€™s understanding of the roles they play within the text or context. 11
Comment. Most students have had very little practice in recognizing the language of
social roles within academic contexts, although their experience with language and social
roles outside the classroom is often quite rich. Some students cannot recognize when they are
being talked down to in textbooks, and they cannot write in a language that shows their roles
vis-Ã -vis the topics studied or the faculty they are addressing. These difficulties are
particularly evident among ESL/EFL students; however, they are also found among many
other students whose exposure to academic language has been minimal. One reason for
discussing social roles as they relate to texts from a genre, whether they be â€œhomelyâ€
discourses or professional texts, is to heighten studentsâ€™ awareness of the interaction of
language, roles, and contexts so that they can read and write with more sophistication.
10 Quandahl, E. (1995). Rhetoric and writing studies 100: A list of goals. Unpublished paper, San
Diego State University, San Diego, CA. 11 When I showed this point to Virginia Guleff, a graduate student, she said, â€œSo students have to
know their place!â€ Perhaps we should put it this way: They need to know different registers in order to
play different rules. The more people use these registers, the more effective they can become and, not
incidentally, the more power they can have over the situation in which they are reading or writing.
9. Academic texts should acknowledge the complex and important nature of
intertextuality, the exploitation of other texts without resorting to plagiarism.
Students need to practice reformulation and reconstruction of information so that they
do not just repeat other texts by “knowledge telling” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989)
but rather use these texts inventively for their purposes (called “knowledge
transforming”; Bereiter & Scarclamalia, 1989).
Comment. Carson (1993), in a large study of the intellectual demands on 4T
undergraduate students, found that drawing from and integrating textual sources
were two of the major challenges students face in attaining academic literacy.
And no wonder. Widdowson (1993, p. 27) notes that
When people make excessive and ‘unacknowledged use of [another’s text], and
are found out, we call it plagiarism. When people are astute in their stitching of
textual patchwork, we call it creativity. It is not easy to tell the difference. . . If
a text is always in some degree a conglomerate of others, how independent can
its meaning be?
Drawing from sources and citing them appropriately is the most obvious and
most commonly discussed aspect of intertextuality. As a result, Swales and
Feak (1994) claim that citation may be the defining feature of academic
discourses. However, there are other, more subtle and varied borrowings from
past discourses, for, as Widdowson notes, “Any particular text is produced or
interpreted in reference to a previous knowledge of other texts” (1993, p. 27).
10. Texts should comply with the genre requirements of the community or
Comment. This, of course, is another difficult challenge for students. As
mentioned earlier, pedagogical genres are often loosely named and casually
described by DS faculty. It is difficult to identify the conventions of a student
research paper, an essay examination response, or other pedagogical genres
because, in fact, these vary considerably from class to class. Yet DS faculty
expect students to understand these distinctions and to read and write
appropriately for their own classes. My students and I often ask faculty: “What
is a good critique for your class?” or “What is a good term paper?” We request
several student-written models and, if possible, interview the faculty member
about their assigned texts and tasks.
This section has outlined what may be some general rules for academic
literacy, most of which are refined within each discipline and classroom.
Although it would be difficult to defend several of these beliefs because of the
wide range of academic discourses and practices, listing and discussing these
factors can prepare students for an examination of how texts are socially
constructed and whether some of the points made here are applicable to specific
Of course, we also need to expose students to texts that contradict these rules for
academic discourse. We should examine literary genres, which break most of the
rules listed. We should look at specialized texts that have alternative requirements
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Cornmunities of Practice 511
for register. In any of our pedagogical conversations, the objective should not be to
discover truths but to explore how social and cultural forces may influence texts in
Community Conflicts and Diversity
So far, the discussion of communities and their genres has focused on the
uniting forces, particularly the language, practices, values, and genres that
groups may share. It has been suggested that people can join communities at
will and remain affiliated at levels of their own choosing. For a number of
reasons, this is not entirely accurate. In some cases people are excluded from
communities because they lack social standing, talent, or money, or because
they live in the wrong part of town. In other cases, community membership
requires a long initiatory process, and even then there is no guarantee of
success. Many students work for years toward their doctoral degrees, for
example, only to find that there are no faculty positions available to them or
that their approach to research will not lead to advancement.
Even after individuals are fully initiated, many factors can separate them. Members
of communities rebel, opposing community leaders or attempting to change the rules
of the game and, by extension, the content and argumentation in the texts from shared
genres. If the rebellion is successful, the rules may be changed or a new group may be
formed with a different set of values and aims. There may even be a theoretical
paradigm shift in the discipline. In academic communities, rebellion may result in the
creation of a new unit or department, separate from the old community, as has been the
case recently in my own university. 12 Even without open rebellion, there is constant
dialogue and argument within communities as members thrash out their differences
and juggle for power and identity, promoting their own content, argumentation, and
approaches to research.
Although much could be said about factors that affect communities outside
the academic realm, the following discussion will focus on a few of the rich
and complex factors that give academic communities their character.
12 San Diego State’s new Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies is composed of composition
instructors who asked to leave the Department of English, as well as of faculty from the previously
independent Academic Skills Center.
The Cost of Affiliation
If students want to become affiliated with academic discourse communities, or even
if they want to succeed in school, they may have to make considerable sacrifices. To
become active academic participants, they sometimes must make major trade-offs that
can create personal and social distance between them and their families and
communities. Students are asked to modify their language to fit that of the academic
classroom or discipline They often must drop, or at least diminish in importance, their
affiliations to their home cultures in order to take on the values, language, and genres
of their disciplinary culture. The literature is full of stories of the students who must
make choices between their communities and academic lives (see, for example, Rose’s
Lives on the Boundary, 1989). In an account of his experiences, Richard Rodriguez
(1982, p. 56), a child of Mexican immigrant parents, wrote the following:
What I am about to say to you has ‘taken me more than twenty years to admit:
a primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget
that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I had enjoyed
before becoming a student… If because of my schooling, I had grown
culturally separated from my parents, my education has finally given me ways
of speaking and caring about that fact.
Here Rodriguez is discussing his entire schooling experience; however, as
students advance in schools and universities, they may be confronted with
even more wrenching conflicts between their home and academic cultures and
languages. In her story of a Hispanic graduate student in a Ph.D. sociology
program in the United States, Casanave (1992) tells how the tension between
this student’s personal values and language and her chosen department’s
insistence on its own scientific language and genres finally drove her from her
new academic community. When she could no longer explain her work in
sociology in everyday language to the people of her primary communities (her
family and her clients), the student decided to leave the graduate program. The
faculty viewed her stance as rebellious, an open refusal to take on academic
community values. By the time she left, it had become obvious to all
concerned that the faculty were unable, or unwilling, to bend or to adapt some
of their disciplinary rules to accommodate this student’s interests, vocation,
A graduate student from Japan faced other kinds of affiliation conflicts when
attempting to become a successful student in a North American linguistics
program (Benson, 1996). This student brought from her home university certain
social expectations: about faculty roles, about her role as a student, and about
what is involved in the production of texts. She believed, for example, that the
faculty should provide her with models of what was expected in her papers; she
felt that they should determine her research topics and hypotheses. This had been
the case in her university in Japan, and she had considerable difficulty
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice
understanding why the American faculty did not conform to the practices of her
She tried to follow her professors’ instructions with great care, but they chastised her
for “lacking ideas.” In her view, the faculty were being irresponsible; however, some
faculty viewed her as passive, unimaginative, and dependent. What she and many other
students have found is that gaining affiliation in graduate education means much more
than understanding the registers of academic language.
These examples are intended to show that full involvement or affiliation in
academic discourse communities requires major cultural and linguistic tradeoffs
from many students. Faculty expect them to accept the texts, roles, and contexts
of the discipline, but acceptance requires much more sacrifice and change than
the faculty may imagine. In our literacy classes, we can assist academic students
in discussing the kinds of problems they encounter when attempting to resolve
these conflicts. However, we can also assist our faculty colleagues, who often
are unaware of their students’ plight, through workshops, student presentations,
and suggestions for reading.
Issues of Authority
What happens after a person has become an academic initiate, after he or she has
completed the degree, published, and been advanced? There are still community issues
to contend with, one of which relates to authority, Bakhtin (1986, p. 88) noted that “in
each epoch, in each social circle, in each small world of family, friends, acquaintances
and comrades in which a human being grows and lives, there are always authoritative
utterances that set the tone.”
In academic circles, these “authoritative utterances” are made by journal or e-mail
interest-group editors, by conference program planners, and by others. At the local
level, this authority can be held by department chairs or by chairs of important
committees. Prior (1994, p. 522) speaks of these academically powerful people as “an
elite group that imposes its language, beliefs and values on others through control of
journals, academic appointments, curricula, student examinations, research findings
and so on.” It is important to note that Prior extends his discussion beyond authority
over colleagues to broad authority over students through curricula and examinations.
This type of pedagogical authority is very important, as all students know, so it will be
In many countries, provincial and national examinations drive the curricula, and
theoretical and practical control over these examinations means authority over what
students are taught. In the People’s Republic of China, for example, important general
English language examinations have been based for years on word frequency counts
developed in several language centers throughout the country. Each “band,” or
proficiency level on the examination, is determined by “the most common 1,000
words, the most common 2,000 words,” and so on. 13 Although features of language
such as grammar are tested in these examinations, it is a theory about vocabulary,
based on word frequency, that is central. It is not surprising, then, that most Chinese
students believe that vocabulary is the key to literacy, particularly the understanding of
“exact” meanings of words. When I have worked with teachers in China, I have
frequently been asked questions such as “What is the exact meaning of the term
‘discourse’? What does ‘theory’ mean?” These teachers requested a single definition,
something I was often unable to provide.
The centralized power over important examinations in China, over the TOEFL and
graduate entrance examinations in the United States, and over the British Council
Examinations in other parts of the world gives considerable authority within
communities to certain test developers and examiners. This authority permits little
pedagogical latitude to teachers preparing students for these “gate-keeping”
examinations. As practitioners, we can use test preparation pedagogies, or we can
critique these examinations (Raimes, 1990), as we should; but we cannot institute
large-scale change until we gain control and authority over the examination system.
With students at all academic levels, we practitioners should raise the issues of
authority, status, and control over community utterances in literacy classes. About
their own social groups, we can ask: “Who has status in your clubs and why? Who
has status in your ethnic or geographical communities and why? How do they exert
control over people, over utterances, and over publications? ” When referring to
academic situations and authority, we. can ask: “Who wrote this textbook? What are
the authors’ affiliations? Are they prestigious? How does the language of the textbook
demonstrate the author’s authority over the material and over the students who read
the volume?” We can also ask: “Who writes your important examinations? What are
their values?” Or we can ask: “Who has status in your academic classrooms? Which
students have author- ity and why?” And finally, we might ask: “How can you gain
authority in the classroom or over texts?”
Throughout a discussion of authority relationships, we need to talk about
communities, language, and genres: how texts and spoken discourses are used to
gain and perpetuate authority. We can assist students to analyze authoritative
texts, including those of other students, and to critique authority relationships. Our
students need to become more aware of these factors affecting their academic
lives before they can hope to produce and comprehend texts that command
authority within academic contexts.
13 “Most common” appears in quotation marks because what is most common (other than function words)
is very difficult to determine. These lists are influenced by the type of language data that is entered into
the computer for the word count: whether it is written or spoken, its register etc. If data are varied, other
vocabulary become common.
At one point in my career, I attempted to develop low proficiency English for Business textbooks for
adults using a famous publisher’s list of most common words. I failed because the data used to establish
the frequency lists were taken from children’s books. The common words in children’s language and those
most common in business language are considerably different (Johns, 1985).
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice
Conventions and Anticonventionalism
There are many other push and pull factors in academic communities, factors that
create dialogue, conflict, and change. Communities evolve constantly, though
established community members may attempt to maintain their power and keep the
new initiates in line through control over language and genres. A student or a young
faculty member can be punished for major transgressions from the norm, for
attempting to move away from what the more established, initiated members expect.
In order to receive a good grade (or be published), writers often must work within
the rules. Understanding these rules, even if they are to be broken, appears to be
As individuals within an academic community become more established and
famous, they can become more anticonventional, in both their texts and their
lives. Three famous rule breakers come to mind, though there are others. Stephen
J. Gould, a biologist, has written a series of literate essays for the general public,
principally about evolution, that look considerably different from the scientific
journal article. Gould has broken his generic traditions to “go public” because he
already has tenure at Harvard, he likes to write essays, and he enjoys addressing a
public audience (see Gould, 1985). Deborah Tannen, an applied linguist, has also
“gone public,” publishing “pop books” about communication between men and
women that are best-sellers in the United States (see Tannen, 1986, 1994). She
continues to write relatively conventional articles in journals, but she also writes
often for the layperson. Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, refuses to be
pigeonholed in terms of topic, argumentation, or genre. Using his own
disciplinary approaches, he writes texts on academic cultures as well as the
â€œexoticâ€ ones that are typical to anthropologists (see Geertz, 1988). Gould,
Tannen, and Geertz have established themselves within their disciplines. Now
famous, they can afford to defy community conventions as they write in their
Rule breaking is a minefield for many students, however. They first need to
understand some of the basic conventions, concepts, and values of a communityâ€™s
genres. Learning and using academic conventions is not easy, for many students
receive little or no instruction. To compound the problems, students need
constantly to revise their theories of genres and genre conventions (see
Bartholomae, 1985). Some graduate students, for example, often express
confusion about conventions, anticonventions, and the breaking of rules, for
faculty advice appears to be idiosyncratic, based not on community conventions
but on personal taste. Some faculty thesis advisers, particularly in the humanities,
require a careful review of the literature and accept nothing else; others may insist
on â€œoriginalâ€14 work without a literature review. For some advisers there is a
â€œcookie cutterâ€ macrostructure that all papers must follow; others may prefer a
more free-flowing, experimental text. Graduate students complain that
discovering or breaking these implicit rules requires much research and many
visits to faculty offices, as well as many drafts of their thesis chapters (see
Schneider & Fujishima, 1995).
14 Since I am arguing here that all texts rely on other texts, I put â€œoriginalâ€ in quotation marks.
It should be clear from this discussion that we cannot tell students “truths” about
texts or community practices. However, we can heighten student awareness of generic
conventions, and we can assist students in formulating questions that can be addressed
to faculty. In our literacy classes, we are developing researchers, not dogmatists,
students who explore ideas and literacies rather than seek simple answers.
Dialogue and Critique
In any thriving academic community, there is constant dialogue: disagreements
among members about approaches to research, about argumentation, about topics for
study, and about theory. The journal Science acknowledges this and accepts two types
of letters to the editor to enable writers to carry out informal dialogues. In other
journals, sections are set aside for short interchanges between two writers who hold
opposing views (see the Journal of Second Language Writing, for example). Most
journals carry critiques of new volumes in book review sections, and many published
articles are in dialogue with other texts. Academic communities encourage variety and
critique (within limits), because that is how they evolve and grow.
Most professional academics know the rules for dialogue: what topics are currently
“hot,” how to discuss these topics in ways appropriate for the readers of their genres,
how far they can go from the current norms, and what they can use (data, narratives,
nonlinear texts) to support their arguments. Some professionals who understand the
rules can also break them with impunity. They can push the boundaries because they
know where the discipline has been and where it may be going, and how to use their
authority, and the authority of others, to make their arguments. In a volume on
academic expertise, Geisler (1994) comments that there are three “worlds” with which
expert academics must be familiar before they can join, or contravene, a disciplinary
dialogue: the “domain content World” of logically related concepts and content; the
“narrated world” of everyday experience; and the “abstract world” of authorial
conversation. Academic experts must manipulate these worlds in order to produce texts
that can be in dialogue or conflict with, yet appropriate to, the communities they are
This discussion has suggested that communities and their genres are useful to study
not only because they can share conventions, values, and histories but because they
are evolving: through affiliation of new, different members; through changes in
authority; through anticonventionalism, dialogue, and critique. Students know these
things about their own communities; we need to draw from this knowledge to begin to
explore unfamiliar academic communities and their genres.
This chapter has addressed some of the social and cultural factors that influence
texts, factors that are closely related to community membership. Although there is
much debate in the literature about the nature of discourse communities and
communities of practice, it can be said with some certainty that community affiliations
are very real to individual academic faculty. Faculty refer to themselves as “chemists,
engineers.” “historians,” or “applied linguists”; they read texts from community genres
with great interest or join in heated debates with their peers over the Internet. They
ANN M. JOHNS Discourse and Communities of Practice
sometimes recognize that the language, values, and genres of their communities (or
specializations) may differ from those of another academic community, though this is
not always the case. At a promotions committee made up of faculty from sixteen
departments in which I took part, a member of the quantitative group in the
Geography Department said of a humanities text, “We shouldn’t accept an article for
promotion without statistics.” And we all laughed, nervously.
Academics, and others, may belong to several communities and have in common
certain interests within each. Thus, faculty may have nothing in common with other
faculty in their disciplines but the discipline itself; their social, political, and other
interests can, and often do, vary widely. In one department, for example, musical
interests can be diverse. There may be country-western fans, opera fans, jazz
enthusiasts, and those whose only musical experiences consist of listening to the
national anthem at baseball games. Recreational interests may also differ. Among
faculty, there are motorcyclists and bicyclists, hikers and “couch potatoes,” football
fans and those who actually play the sport.
A complex of social, community-related factors influences the socioliteracies of
faculty and the students who are in their classes. As literacy practitioners, we need to
help our students examine these factors by bringing other faculty and students, and
their genres, into our classrooms, as well as drawing from our own students’ rich
Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. (V. W. Mc Gee, Trans.). C. Emerson & M. Holquist (Eds.).
Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bartholomae, D. (1985), Inventing the university. In M. Rose (Ed.), When a writer can’t write:
Studies in writer’s block and other composing process problems (pp. 134â€”165). New York: Guilford Press.
Belcher, D., & Braine, G. (Eds.). (1995). Academic writing in a second language: Essays on research and pedagogy.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Benson, K. (1996). How do students and faculty perceive graduate writing tasks? A case study of a Japanese student in
a graduate program in linguistics. Unpublished manuscript, San Diego State University.
Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1989). Intentional learning as a goal of instruction. In J. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning
(pp. 361â€”392). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communities. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bhatia, V. J. (1993). Analyzing genre: Language use in professional settings. London & New York: Longman.
Brill, D (1994, November). What’s free of fat and cholesterol, costs 4 cents per serving, and has more carbo than pasta? Rice!
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1995, July 26). Universities in the digital age. Xerox Palo Alto Paper. Palo Alto, CA: Xerox
Carson, J. G. (1993, April). Academic literacy demands of the undergraduate curriculum: Literacy activities integrating
skills. Paper presented at the International TESOL Conference, Atlanta, GA.
Carson, J. G., Chase, N., Gibson, S., & Hargrove, M. (1992). Literacy demands of the undergraduate curriculum. Reading
Research and Instruction, 31, 25â€”50.
Casanave, C. P. (1992). Cultural diversity and socialization: A case study of a Hispanic woman in a doctoral program in
Sociology. In D. Murray (Ed.), Diversity as a resource: Redefining cultural literacy (pp. 148â€”182). Arlington, VA:
Connor, U. (1987). Argumentative patterns in student essays: Cross-cultural differences. In U. Connor & R. B. Kaplan
(Eds.), Writing across languages: Analysis of L2 text (pp. 57â€”71). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Dudley-Evans, T. (1995). Common-core and specific approaches to teaching academic writing. In D. Belcher & G. Braine
(Eds.), Academic writing in a second language: Essays on research and pedagogy (pp. 293â€”312). Norwood, NJ:
Elbow, P. (1991). Reflections on academic discourse. College English, 53 (2), 135â€”115.
Fahenstock, J. (1986). Accommodating science. Written Communication, 3, 275â€”296.
Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge: Further essays ili interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
Geertz, C. (1988). Words and lives: The anthropologist as author. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Geisler, C. (1994). Literacy and expertise in the academy. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 1, 35â€”57.
Gould, S. J. (1985). The flamingo’s smile. New York: Norton.
Hinds, J. (1987). Reader versus writer responsibility: A new typology. In U. Connor & R. B. Kaplan (Eds.), Writing
across languages: An analysis of L2 texts (pp. 141â€”152). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Johns, A. M. (1985). The new authenticity and the preparation of commercial reading texts for lower-kevel ESP
students. CATESOL Occasional Papers, 11, 103-107.
Killingsworth, M. J. (1992). Discourse communitiesâ€”local and global. Rhetoric Review, 11, 110-122.
Lave, J. , & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge
Mauranen, A. (1993). Contrastive ESP rhetoric Metatext in FinnishÃ†nglish economic texts. English for Specific
Purposes, 12, 3â€”22,
Prior, P. (1994). Response, revision and disciplinarity: A microhistory of a dissertation prospectus in sociology.
Written Communication, 11, 483â€”533.
Purves, A. C. (1990). The scribal society: An essay on literacy and schooling in the information age. New York:
Raforh, B. A. (199()). The concept of discourse community: Descriptive and explanatory adequacy. In G. Kirsch
& D. H. Roen (Eds.), A sense of audience in written communication (pp. 140â€”152). Written Communication
Annual, Vol. 5. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Raimes, A. (1990). The TOEFL Test of Written English: Some causes for concern. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 427â€”
Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books.
Rose, M. (1989). Lives on the boundary: The struggles and achievements of America’s underprepared. New
York: Free Press.
Schneider, M., & Fujishima, N. K. (1995). When practice doesn’t make perfect: The case of a graduate ESL
student. In D. Belcher & G. Braine (Eds.), Academic writing in a second language: Essays on research &
pedagogy (pp. 3â€”22). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Swales, J. M. (1988b). Discourse communities, genres and English as an international language. World
Englishes, 7, 211-220.
Swales, J. M. (1990), Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. New York: Cambridge
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (1994). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Tannen, D. (1986). That’s not what I meant: How conversational style makes or breaks your relations with
others. New York: W. Morrow.
Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from 9â€”5: How women’s and men’s conversational styles affect who gets heard,
who gets credit, and what gets done at work. New York: W. Morrow.
Widdowson, H. G. (1993). The relevant conditions of language use and learning. In M. Krueger & F. Ryan
(Eds.), Language and content: Discipline- and content-based approaches to language study (pp. 27â€”36).
Lexington, NIA: D. C. Heath.
Williams, J. (1989). Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. (3rd. ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman