Thursday, December 21, 2006

Semiotic Domains + Affinity Groups = Discourse Communities

James Paul Gee's excellent book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning shows a clear way to explain discourse communities to students by helping them see that they already participate in/communicate in a variety of social groups which share interests, language, and expectations. Extrapolating from his work with gamers, we can apply the theory broadly to understand why students struggle to grasp audience for their academic papers. As Graff terms it, students are "clueless in academe" because instructors do not explicitly invite students to become members and learn the language. In fact, school obscures the semiotic domain. Academe as arcana. Probably used to be true. Graff uses the analogy of sports fans to show that students understand rhetoric and discourse communities, just not by those names. For example, members of this discourse community -- i.e. affinity groups in the semiotic domain of Major League Baseball -- can immediately converse anywhere on their shared interest: "What about them Cubs?" As instructors, we need a new metaphor to help students enter, especially in today's multimedia world. I imagine that as I get further into Gee's book, more ideas of how to make this clearer to students will arise.


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