August 3rd, 2015

Using a Discourse-Community-Knowledge Framework to Design Writing Assignments


student at library

The educational benefits of writing are undeniable. Challenging students to write about our disciplines for diverse purposes and audiences deepens learning and promotes critical thinking. And so we put a great deal of effort into creating writing assignments that do not merely ask students to report back to us the content we have “delivered,” but instead require them to explore course content and address a target audience that has specific needs.

It can be difficult to succinctly convey the complexity of a quality writing assignment to students. Sometimes the more we know about the value of writing, the longer our assignment handouts grow. We want those handouts to be resources that students can turn to when they are working on their papers in the middle of the night. And so we stuff the handouts full of instructions, timelines, and warnings. If we get unsatisfactory student work the first time around, then we expand our handouts and use bold or even ALL CAPS. A colleague of mine who teaches psychology complained last semester that she gave her students a carefully developed writing assignment and explained every page in class, but they immediately peppered her with questions. I think faculty at many institutions, in a variety of disciplines, have similar experiences.

Anne Beaufort, in two influential books, proposed a framework for writing expertise that I have found helpful when creating writing assignments. Beaufort first described the framework in Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work, and developed it further in College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. In both books, she conducted close ethnographic studies of individual writers working to develop writing expertise in unfamiliar discourse communities. Analysis of her copious data led her to conclude that expert writers possess deep knowledge of the discourse communities they occupy. She also concluded that expert writers’ discourse-community knowledge takes four forms: subject-matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and process knowledge.

I have found Beaufort’s framework valuable when it comes to assignment design, as have other faculty at my institution. The way to get students to understand a writing assignment is to foster a sense of expertise (and the accompanying confidence) by giving them the knowledge they need. The first step is situating the writing assignment in a discourse community. At the graduate level, we can situate assignments near the center of a disciplinary discourse community. At the undergraduate level, it is best to let students begin at the margins of academic discourse communities and progress closer to the center as they advance toward graduation.

The discourse community primarily influences the premise of an assignment, or what experts in writing call the rhetorical situation. Beaufort’s four components of discourse-community knowledge provide a way to describe complex writing situations and assignment details (without resorting to over-emphatic proscription). It is a simple matter of presenting our assignments in terms of four kinds of knowledge:

  • Subject-Matter Knowledge is the writer’s grasp of the information that is necessary for completing the assignment. It may be existing knowledge or knowledge newly gained through research, observation, reading, reflection, or imagination. It is “what you’ll write about.”
  • Genre Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the type of document he or she must write and its features (structure, content, length, tone, format, etc.) as well as its limitations. Genre may be very specific (e.g., lab report for an introductory chemistry course or brief reflection on simulation exercise). It is “what you’ll write.”
  • Rhetorical Knowledge is the writer’s awareness of the target audience(s) for the writing, the audience’s motives or purposes for reading the document, and the relationship between reader and writer. It is “who you’ll write for.”
  • Process Knowledge is the writer’s knowledge of how to go about writing a particular document. While complex writing generally requires planning, drafting, feedback, revision, and editing, the specifics of the writing process vary from document to document. It is “how you’ll write.”

In my experience, faculty often do address all four kinds of knowledge in their writing assignment handouts. However, they tend to emphasize process, writing as much of the handout as possible in the form of chronological instructions. Also, certain kinds of knowledge get less attention than others. It is not uncommon, for example, for a professor to say very little about audience (rhetorical knowledge), assuming that students will easily understand a rather complex rhetorical situation in which the primary audience is hypothetical and the professor is a secondary reader whose role is to evaluate. With Beaufort’s four-part framework for discourse-community knowledge (which is one way of defining a writer’s expertise), faculty can make sure their assignments cover all of the bases. My psychology colleague used this framework to revise the writing assignment that had caused her students to bombard her with questions. The day after she presented the revised handout to her students, she told me, “It was almost spooky—no one had any questions.”

Sample frameworks:
First-year writing assignment (Angus Woodward). Open PDF »
Developmental psychology writing assignment (Dr. Susan Brigman). Open PDF »

Beaufort, Anne. (2007). College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. (1999). Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work. New York: Teachers College Press. Print.

Angus Woodward is the Director of College Writing Programs at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge.