Harris, “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing”

Harris, Joseph. “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing.” CCC 40.1 (Feb. 1989): 11-22. (12 pages)

Harris’ aim is to take a more critical look at the role of community in the study of writing, as the title suggests. As he notes, writing theorists have embraced community to help explain how writing does not happen in a vacuum: writers write as members of communities “whose beliefs, concerns, and practices both instigate and constrain, at lieast in part, the sorts of things we can say” (12). However, he also suggests that the field’s use of community, as a guiding term, is not yet clearly defined.

He begins by defining how others have come to understand community. Community has often been associated as a “nicer, friendlier, fuzzier version” of other kinds of groupings of people (state, nation, society, etc). However, in the context of student writing, community is often invoked to refer to a powerful community of those in the know. For example, he discusses Bartholomae’s inventing the university: students are continuously re/inventing something that has already been invented by “the discourse of our community” (Bartholomae 134 cited in Harris 13). In this way, “learning to write, then, gets defined both as the forming of an aggressive and critical stance towards a number of discourses, and as a more simple entry into a discourse of single community” (14).

Harris also questions what binds these academic kinds of communities: he considers the differences between interpretive community (Fish) and speech community. Interpretive community refers to a “dispersed network of individuals who share certain habits of mind” but may not necessarily be bound by physical groupings. Speech communities typically refers to a group of speakers “living in a particular space and time” (14). While some imagine academic communities as something like speech communities where members can be located, but rather, referring to Swales’ definition of discourse community, academic communities are those that are held together by “an affinity of beliefs and purposes, consensus” (15). In this way, “in place of physical nearness we are given like-mindedness” (15). Still more, Porter considers discourse community in the context of intertextuality: “a literate community can be defined through the clusters of allusions and references that its members share. In such a view, community becomes little more than a metaphor, a shorthand label for a hermetic weave of texts and citations” (15).

Turning his attention to student writers and pedagogy, he challenges the model of education where students cross the border form one community of discourse to another “taking on a new sort of language” (16). Harris concedes that such a model has its benefits: it enables us to argue that a students poor writing ability may not be a sign of unintelligence, but of their socialization into the new discourse community. And also, it enabled us to think about the teacher’s role to persuade rather than to inform. However, Harris believes that effective pedagogy would foster a move “not simply from one discourse to another but towards a ‘hesitant and tenuous relationship to both [students’ ‘common’ discourses and the ‘academic’ ones of their teachers]” (17). He continues, “As Williams again has suggested, one does not step cleanly and wholly from one community to another, but is caught instead in an always changing mix of dominant, residual, and emerging discourses…it might prove useful (and accurate) to view our task as adding to or complicating their uses of language” (17). Harris goes further to argue that students have already, to some degree, been socialized and shaped by their experiences in school, thus already have a degree of academic language. In this way, the classroom is made up of many overlapping and conflicting discourse; “we are all at once both insiders and outsiders” (19). The goal of writing education, then, is to reposition students to critically reflect upon the discourse they are already within. And more, “one does not need consensus to have community. Matters of accident, necessity, and convience hold groups together as wel” (20).

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