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Discourse communities

Double Consciousness, Discourse Communities & Civic Learning: Using Analytical Writing to Foresee a Better Detroit


Panoramic windows and twinkling jutes of mesmeric glimmers from the high rises and skyscrapers greet the gloomy darkness and give a hopeful, hazy feeling, like an alcoholic induced delirium. There is an uncanny quietness to each morning, today a neighbor is playing Frank Sinatra—I’m here in Detroit.

Recently I let go of my comfortable Harrison Township Apartment, a 5 minute walk away from the Metro Beach in a quiet suburban area for a loft in midtown. Wait, what was I thinking? Did I think this through enough? Did I make the right decision here?

In a somewhat utopic state of mind I check voice messages daily, hoping the voice on the other end is an administrator of at least one of the decent public schools— one without bars on the windows, metal detectors, or body builder type security guards. We’ve been wait listed for months, my son is tired of entrance tests and so am I. I do the math, over and over in my head, and again and again on paper as I contemplate the cost of private school for my 9-year old son. We thumb through the enormous list of must-see plays or urban focused recreational activities in the area. But, during the drive back to Harrison Township to drop my son off for school, and then back onto I-94 into the city, I think deeply of my own double consciousness and the importance of teaching students to be civically engaged through writing and action.

The American Dream is at the forefront of discourse community analysis. We seek to prepare students to write successfully in future academic courses and their professions while advocating civic engagement. When civic duties and upward mobility converge or conflict I question whether the American Dream is a suburban home, a career, a 46 inch flat screen television or Sam’s club membership. Is it the promise we give our student when we ask them to consider membership status, and the contextually of writing practices within various communities.

2 days ago, a friend of mine who stays in Detroit and has a sprawling library of books came home after teaching all day to discover she’d been robbed. The police never arrived at her door; the report was taken over the phone.

“I’m never living in Detroit ever again, this is it. I’ve reached my breaking point,” she stated in frustration.

“Well, did they steal any of your books I asked?”

“No, not at all, as a matter of fact they didn’t touch my bookshelves, they did take some expensive jewelry, the television, my computer.” she replied.

“Well, that sucks, I would have gone for the collector’s edition of Death of a Salesman, but that’s just me though.” She laughed.

Through the teaching of discourse communities, and my recent move to the city, I consider William Du Bois’s double-consciousness— “a two-ness, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” If we are to teach civically, we must also wrestle with the conflict between the American Dream, what students seek when they enter college as freshman and what I call acute ghetto-itis, a negative outlook on urban dwellings that derives from being victims of crime, fear, self-contempt, privilege, or a surface level understanding of how institutions and systems operate.

Given this huge push to get professionals like my friend back to the city for economic growth I question what one must sacrifice for change?— change that our generation may never see. What will living in Detroit teach my son who has spent most of his life sheltered from deep visible levels of human struggle? What will writing and exploring Detroit teach my students who are largely commuters? `

To answer these questions I turn to the writing that has been happening in my classroom. In this unit students are asked to analyze discourse communities in the city, and use that analysis to problem solve ways to improve the city through community organizations.

One student who uses James Gee when examining the organization “Greening of Detroit” writes:

According to James Gee a discourse community is any group with which you interact either for social or material purposes, and that you either possess some insider access to the group or not. You can attain access either through birth or through acquired expertise or status within the group. He also proposes that things like specialized jargon and style cues can act as gates of access to different discourse communities with varying levels of exclusivity.

An organization like the Greening of Detroit can act as different types of discourse communities to different people…

He goes on to state:

This contrasts with the mostly poor, mostly African-American population that the organization works with frequently. Sometimes these differences present obstacles to the goals of the group. One example is volunteers coming from wealthy suburbs with the perception that they are “giving a gift” to the citizens of Detroit, an admittedly condescending attitude. When viewed through the prism of James Gees concept of Discourse this becomes an interesting example because you can frame it as primarily a language problem. In this way something that before was a reflection of privilege and old prejudices can be viewed as miscommunication and can be remedied through language classes for lack of a better term.

Many students, like this one have decided to confront conflicts in volunteer work, others discuss homophobic rhetoric in Detroit churches by examining how genres are used to persuade and manipulate congregations. Some focus on the significance of religious practices to counter struggle and strivings in a post-industrial city, while others contemplate how privileged backgrounds construct a central identity kit that is used to categorize and exclude. Somewhere between my critical gaze of first year composition student drafts, I realize why I moved here. Why I’ve decided to not just work, but work, live, and serve in the city.

LaToya Faulk received her MA in Rhetoric and Writing Michigan State University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.

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