In “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity,” Ann M. Johns brings up the issue of “breaking the rules” and its importance within the academic community. Johns notes the various tenets of academic discourse claiming, “Texts should comply with the genre requirements of the community or classroom” (510). Given that Johns extends her argument of texts to discuss communities of practice, one could logically assume one must also comply with the general rules of etiquette and decorum in all academic interactions, textual and non-textual. Thus, we must teach students to be effective academic writers and dutiful academic citizens. Conversely, Johns also encourages instructors to “expose students to texts that contradict these rules for academic discourse” (510). I appreciate this idea greatly, but am left a little confused because it seems to imply that some rules need to be or should be broken, though Johns gives us little evidence as to which ones.

I believe part of Johns’ rule-breaking aspirations lie within the secretive, reclusive nature of academia. Johns relates a common story of graduate students realizing that “gaining affiliation in graduate education means more than understanding the registers of academic language” (512). For many, it means making sacrifices in other affiliations, including those with friends and family. Because of the stringent rules and elitist history of education, discussions of open access to education are relatively new and still somewhat controversial (which blows my mind). Change in access is also slow to develop because as Johns herself explains, rocking the boat can get young faculty members and other initiates in the academy in trouble (514). As such, change is slow by necessity. Johns encourages a rule-breaking (textual and non-textual), but it is a nuanced rule-breaking. I just want to know more about what that actually looks like in practice.

Q: When and how do we provide opportunities for students to “break the rules” so to speak (and please, for the love of God, don’t say, “remix”).

Q: On a more personal level citing the example from pg. 512, what is one to do when they begin to have difficulty explaining to his or her family and other affiliates just what it is that we “do” in academia?


3 thoughts on “RuLeBrEaKeRs

  1. Here is an unusual idea for rulebreaking — conform to learn the rules with unbelievable clarity, then short-circuit the system. I think this mentality is the programmer re-surfacing (an old discourse community of mine…). A programming language involves learning lots and lots of structures and commands and how alterations to any one part influences all other parts and how (impact change in software development register). After knowing those rules and “bumping” into their limits, a person starts to notice “work arounds” and “hacks” and other subtleties…

    But I also have in mind Jacqueline Royster’s discussion of authentic voice in Scene Three. I am speculating, but the pathway to chair of the CCCC involves knowing “rules” very well — but also being very smart after detecting those rules.

    Perhaps this response is lame, but in order to break the rules, doesn’t a person need to know them?


  2. Justin, I’d like to take a stab at addressing your second question. I think the transformation Johns references that alienates academic discourse community initiates from their families, from their “primary Discourse” to borrow Gee’s term, is linguistically, culturally, and intellectually complicated. It’s not only a matter of shifting registers or linguistic frameworks–such disconnection isn’t only about the words one uses to explain something; it’s also, and perhaps more accurately, a matter of altered thought patterns and worldviews. What is sacrificed, it seems to me, in the acquisition of the academic discourse and initiation into its community is the common, accepted, and required worldviews of the primary Discourse. When those things no longer align, when the values underlying the belief structures and the governing principles of the community lose their meaning, how can the initiate communicate? Do the initiate’s family members and community affiliates really want to know? Do these two communities need to intersect or can they co-exist independent of each other?


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