Shannon Carter, Assistant Professor of English
of the Writing Center and the Basic Writing Program
Basic Writing at A&M-Commerce
Before reading the following essay, read yourself:
Speculate for a moment. Have you ever heard the term “community of practice”
before? If so, in what context? If not, what do you think a “community of
practice” might be?
What does the term “community” make you think of?
3. What might that have to do
with literacy in and/or beyond school?
What’s a Community of Practice?
Learning to read
and write for college is not really about memorizing rules. Instead, it’s about
understanding and being able to emulate the rules that constitute literate
behavior within a particular group—often called a “discourse community.” What
is a discourse community? In her collection of previously published essays Academic Discourse and Critical
Consciousness (1992), Patricia Bizzell defines a
“discourse community as a group of people who share certain language using
practices.” She continues: “These practices can be seen as conventionalized in
two ways. Stylistic conventions regulate social interactions both within the
group and in its dealings with outsiders. . . . Also,
canonical knowledge regulates world views of group members and how they interpret
experience” (222). Discourse communities then regulate not only how one should interact within the
associated social spaces (stylistic conventions) but what the subject of such interactions can profitably be (canonical
knowledge). For our purposes, however, “communities of practice” seem more
appropriate than “discourse communities” because the former stresses literacy
as an activity rather than a state of
being (via membership or ability to meet universal standards).
practice” are relations of people who have in common a “shared competence and
mutual interest in a given practice” (Choi 143), be
that repairing Xerox machines (see Orr 1996 and Brown and Duguid
1991), recovering from alcoholism (see Lave and Wenger, 1990), writing as a college
student in a history class, or countless other activities in which a person may
be involved. The concept first emerged in Lave and Wenger study of the ways in
which various communities of practice teach newcomers the practices valued and
reproduced in those communities (midwives, meat cutters, tailors, and
recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous). According to Lave and Wenger, a
“community of practice is a set of relations among persons, activity, and world
over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of
practice.” The term “impl[ies]
participation in an activity system about which participants share
understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their
lives and for their communities” (98).
My brother is a
musician and a video game enthusiast; thus, his literate practices cover
multiple communities of practice, such as (1) an electronic music community, which includes the user-guide for his
keyboard and other music equipment, the software designer’s explanation about
the functions of the programs he purchased to compose and produce his music,
the ad copy for this merchandize, the forums he frequents to discuss current
electronic music and share clips, and so on; (2) a video game community which includes the others involved in his
experiences with multi-player games like Everquest II and Warcraft, the various documents users produce to
assist other players (“Frequently Asked Questions,” “Walkthroughs,” “Cheats”), and
so on. The list is almost infinite.
Another way to
think of a “community of practice” is in terms of what James Paul Gee calls
in an affinity group can recognize others as more or less “insiders” to the
group. They may not see many people in the group face-to-face, but when they
interact with someone on the Internet or read something about the domain, they
can recognize certain ways of thinking, writing, valuing, and believing as well
as the typical sorts of social practices associated with a given semiotic
domain. This is to view the domain externally. (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About
Literacy and Learning, 27)
other words, according to Gee, literate members of a particular affinity group
(read “community of practice”) can identify one another in ways non-members
cannot. Only other highly literate connoisseurs of wine, for example, know the
difference between a person who understands wine and a person who is merely
faking it. Unless the difference is very obvious (perhaps the “faker” is trying
to pass off Strawberry Hill or Blue Nun as “fine” wine), I can’t tell
because I am not a member of that affinity group. Only those who are can
identify those who are not.
those literate members are “reading” in order to distinguish other literate
members from those attempting to behave as members is what Gee refers to as the
“external design grammar.” That is, “the principles and patterns in terms of
what one can recognize as what is and is not acceptable or typical social
practice and identity in response to the affinity group associated with a
semiotic domain.” According to Gee, “you know, consciously or unconsciously,
the external design grammar of [a particular] semiotic domain” if you answer
“yes” to questions like these:
you know what counts as thinking, acting, interacting, and valuing like someone
who is into “modernist architecture” [or wine or first-person-shooter games or
web design or neuroscience]? Can you recognize the sorts of identities people take
on when they are in their domain? Can you recognize what counts as valued
social practices to the members of the affinity group associated with the
semiotic domain of modernist architecture [or wine or first-person shooter
games or web design or surfing or neuroscience] and what counts as behaving
appropriately in these social practices? (30)
am reminded of a high school classmate of mine who successfully adopted three
very different identities in as many years--a new one for each year he was in
high school: 10th grade he was “punk” (with quite an impressive Mohawk,
sometimes green, sometimes blue); in 11th-grade he became a surfer; his senior
year he transformed into what we called back then a “kicker,” a cowboy of
sorts. Each year he’d “hang out” with the appropriate friends (affinity
group/community of practice), wear the appropriate clothing, and even change
his body language to fit the group. Even the way he spoke changed: from
“hardcore” as a punk (as in, “That’s f***king hardcore, man!”) to “bra” as a
surfer (for “brother,” perhaps, as in “What’s up,
bra’? Heard the surf report this morning! Let’s cut”) to “fixin’”
as a kicker (“I’m fixin’ ta’
git outta here”). Each
identity shift was seamless--at least it appeared to be. In other words, Mike
had developed high levels of rhetorical dexterity. He wasn’t an outsider in any
group he chose to join, at least not that I could see. However while his move
into a new group each fall looked seamless, it couldn’t have been entirely so
because these groups certainly did not bear much crossover (conflicting
literacies at the core value systems shaping each subgroup).
Mike was able to read and embody not only the “external design grammar” of each
group, but also what Gee calls the “internal design grammar.” “Internal design
grammar” refers to the “principles and patterns in terms of what one can
recognize what is and is not acceptable or typical content in a semiotic
domain” (or “community of practice”). Knowledge of the “internal design
grammar” of a particular community of practice can be confirmed when one can
answer “yes” to these questions: “Do you know what counts as a modernist piece
of architecture” (or fine wine or a “choice” ocean wave, etc.)? “What sorts of
buildings count as typical or atypical of modernist architecture?” What sorts
of music counts as typical or atypical punk? What sorts of wines (from which
regions) are wine connoisseurs likely to find most valuable (or least) and for
what reasons? “Do you understand what counts and what doesn’t count as a
possible piece of content in theoretical linguistics?” in composition studies? In neuroscience?
“internal design grammar” involved in Mike’s various identity shifts is a bit
harder for me to determine, especially given my own lack of literacy in these
semiotic domains. However, we may assume that as a surfer he not only had to
know how to surf, but how to dress,
walk, talk, and perform like a surfer (the external design grammar); he also
had to know and appreciate the music that surfers typically listen to (and
why), the films they were likely to see, the equipment (and brand names) they
were likely to find most valuable for their various surfing activities, and so
on (the internal design grammar--the content). As a punk, he would also need to
know what sorts of music was typically considered most valuable to members of
this affinity group (and why), the films most typical of this semiotic domain
(community of practice), the short history of punk rock music and the key
players, the philosophical principles (of anarchy, etc) underlying the punk
rock movement, and other similar content.
least from a distance, it seemed that Mike had developed a productive knowledge
of the internal and external design grammars making up these various cliques--so
much so that he was able to move from punk to surf to cowboy rather swiftly and
without incident. He seemed to know, instinctively, how to recognize the points of contact and dissonance among these different groups;
music (punk, country), clothing (combat boots, cowboy boots), hair style, and
language drew these groups together and kept these groups apart. Mike knew how
to tell the difference and take advantage of the similarities.
I can only imagine that his rapid identity shifts were less simplistic than
they seemed. The boundaries between various high school cliques are rather
sharp and pronounced; the borders guarded rather openly; outsiders (fakes,
“posers”) identified quickly and conspicuously. Because the boundaries were so
clearly drawn, Mike knew when he had changed groups and so he was able to pick
up the appropriate lens (the philosophical principles and value sets by which
the affinity group functions) necessary for him to view those groups outside
the boundaries of his own as other members would.
identity shifts are much more problematic when we are dealing with moves from
home to school to church to work rather than from one high school clique to
another, especially when those moves are complicated by race, class, and all the
sociohistorical and material circumstances that
surround these identity shifts. Literacy is profoundly tied up with identity.
According to James Paul Gee, “semiotic domains encourage people new to them to
take on and play with new identities (51, emphasis mine). “By a semiotic domain,” Gee means, “any set
of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written
language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts,
etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings.” Examples of semiotic
biology, postmodern literary criticism, first-person-shooter video games,
high-fashion advertisements, Roman Catholic theology, modernist painting, mid-wifery, rap music, wine connoisseurshipBthrough a nearly endless, motley, and
ever changing list. (18)
keeping with the social function of language, then, Gee urges us to “think
first in terms of what I call semiotic domains and only then get to literacy in
the more traditional terms of print literacy (17). Thus, he continues,
we think first in terms of semiotic domains and not in terms of reading and
writing as traditionally conceived, we can say that people are (or are not)
literate (partially or fully) in a domain if they can recognize (the equivalent
of “reading”) and/or produce (the equivalent of “writing”) meanings in the
literate in “cellular biology . . . first-person-shooter video games,
high-fashion advertisements, Roman Catholic theology, modernist painting,” and
“wine connoisseurship,” for example, make up several different communities of
practice--communities that include other cellular biologists or players of
first-person-shooter games or connoisseurs of wine. Because I wish to emphasize
the social function of literacy, I hope you will continue to think of the people
involved in these various communities of practice rather than just the literate
strategies they employ; thus, developing new literacies in new communities of
practice means, as Gee explains, “taking on and playing with new identities.
. . . All learning in all semiotic domains requires identity work. It requires
taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the
new one (51, emphasis in original).
The wine connoisseur, then, who wishes to develop new literacies as
a cellular biologist must take on the identity of a cellular biologist. The person highly literate as a designer and consumer of
high-fashion advertisements who wishes to learn how to play
first-person-shooter games must take on the identity of the shooter. In
order to be taken seriously as a surfer by the other surfers around him, Mike
had to leave his punk persona behind and take on the identity of the surfer. At
times the new identity differs so little from the old one that learning these
new literacies is no more complicated than learning new strategies based on the
old ones. Other times the difference between the old identity and the new one
is so profound that one must discard the previous identity entirely in order to
adopt the new one and/or decide against learning the new literacy altogether.
In no small way, the communities of practice with which you most identity
determine the way you approach any literate act, and without developing
rhetorical dexterity--a meta-awareness of the points of contact and points of
dissonance between these two developing literacies--such associations make
learning new literacies improbable or at least so jarring that it is difficult
to pull through. That’s why we are asking you to dig into what you already know
very well, making use of these familiar literacies to learn new ones.
Now that you’ve read, what do you think?
These questions are intended to generate discussion based on
your reading of the short essay “What is a Community of Practice?” which
should also assist you in generating WA3.
- How can a high school
clique be a community of practice? What are the rules for discourse
within a high school clique? How do they vary from clique to clique? Who
writes these rules? Who enforces them?
- How can video games be
a community of practice? What are the rules for discourse within a video
game (and about video games)? Who writes these rules? Who enforces them?
- Choose two more
communities of practice from the essay and think about those in terms of
“rules”: What are the rules within this community of practice? Who
writes these rules? Who enforces them?
- Come up with two
communities of practice not mentioned in this essay.
- What might all this
have to do with writing and reading for school?
Bizzell, Patricia. Academic Discourses and Critical
Consciousness. U of Pittsburgh
Choi, Mina. “Communities of Practice: An Alternative Learning
Model for Knowledge Creation.” British Journal of Educational Technology. 37.1 (2006): 143-146.
Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About
Literacy and Learning.
Jean and Etienne Wenger. Situated
Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge UP, 1991.