College: Arts and Letters
Dept.: English       
Course English 522: Rhetoric in Professional Communities (Writing in Education, Government, and Business)
Credit: 3 hours
Instructor: John Rothfork  
Office: Babbitt Academic Annex 324 (no physical office hours due to Covid)
Phone: 928.523.0559
Please use the message tool in BBLearn, which will archive our mail
Prerequisites: graduate status


   Course Description:



"Different discourse communities have different styles, & to write successfully in these discourse communities you must know what these different styles are & how to use them to your advantage" (Dan Jones, Technical Writing Style, 259. This is the text we use in eng502: Advanced Technical Writing).

Writing is not simply writing. Context dictates how we write. Writing for self-expression is not the same as writing to meet audience or reader needs in the workplace. This course will help you recognize & define contexts, audiences, & “discourse communities.”

Even though it may not be a conscious recognition, you have in mind a context or an audience when you write a document. You write to your instructor or to peers in a journal submission or to an unknown official at an agency. In each case, the context or situation influences your document design, style, organization, & rhetorical strategy. Becoming more conscious of this audience analysis process can make your documents more effective or successful.

A discourse community is simply a group of people who communicate with each other, often in an institutional setting or in a profession. In this course, we are interested in professional or employment situations where everyone speaks & writes English, has recourse to the same dictionaries & grammar, & produce professional or workplace documents. To succeed in any profession, you must be accepted as one of the group. You are accepted as a community member when you can perform the techniques (Foucault) or methods that characterize the group. You become a community member when you know the jargon & methods of communication & when you are familiar with the the paradigm (Kuhn) that provides meaning, identity, & purpose for the group.

In this course we wish to explore how rhetorical strategies are properties of discourse communities & how they influence writers & readers. You address an audience with whom you share values, methods, and experiences. Providing an occasion for you to write, a discourse community acts as a kind of co-author. The organization of a community determines:

  • who speaks (or writes)
  • when they speak
  • how they speak (casually, formally, etc.)
  • what tone they use
  • how long they speak
  • to whom they speak
  • what they can say
  • why they speak

Because little of this is explicitly defined, it is important to recognize & analyze discourse communities in order to navigate among them & to write effective documents in both your professional community & in addressing those in a different community. You will read theory (mostly by Michel Foucault), work through case studies on a team, & read about how communities rhetorically define themselves & set rules for the struggle to gain & retain power.

I am aware that many students find Foucault difficult to read. Nonetheless, Foucault is undoubtedly the most influential rhetorician of the last century & the postmodern methods he illustrates have transformed the understanding & practice of virtually every profession, including tech writing.

Course Structure & Texts:


The course has three components or focal concerns:

Component   Text
Theory Foucault, Michel.  The Archeology of Knowledge.  Pantheon: isbn 0-394-71106-8.
Team Work Peterson, Gary.  Communicating in Organizations.  Allyn Bacon: isbn 0-205-29589-4.
Application Jones, Rodney H. & Christopher A. Hafner.  Understanding Digital Literacies.  2012
Routledge: isbn 978-0-415-67315.
Publishers Web support for the text


1. Theory:  Michel Foucault is one of the prominent thinkers who defined the theory of the social construction of reality.  The Archeology of Knowledge presents his theoretical understanding of how writing and communication are shaped by discourse community contexts or environments.

"Hey, are you talking to me?"  Do you remember Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver?  Deniro's character was a loner, someone isolated even though he drives a New York City taxi. He studies his passengers in the rear-view mirror. In his bare room the taxi driver pathetically performs social rituals before the mirror. They are pathetic because his speech & body language have no audience. Because they are not addressed to another person, they cannot serve to involve the taxi driver in a community. Speech is always directed to someone. It anticipates or expects a response. 

Speaking addresses someone. Even to talk to yourself, you  imagine that you are two people. To talk to your dog, you imagine that he understands at least your tone. What I say depends on responses I can anticipate. To speak, I have to be involved in communication with people I know because I have spoken with them. They do not have to be close friends, but I must broadly know how they are likely to act in the discourse community or business or profession that we share. Communication is never one-way or simply self-expression in a vacuum.

Speaking not only anticipates a response, it is shaped by an anticipated response.

This is not to say that I know exactly what someone will say in response to what I say.  But I have to be able to expect a range of possibilities or responses to carry on a dialogue. For example, I can expect my respondent to maintain the thread or to talk about the same subject. I have some expectations about the length of response & about what data might be relevant. To compose my message, I have to be somehow inside the mind of the other person in advance of her speaking, and she must be inside my mind or to care about the subject we are discussing. To formulate communication, I must have another person already in mind. We know these things from years of communication in various discourse communities. Prof/tech writing crosses a lot of discourse community boundaries. This is why audience analysis is a major concern in professional & technical writing. Too often, tech writing offers a "data dump" without a recognition of what the data means for those who read our reports.

The practical implications for effective communications are significant. Speakers & writers frequently ignore the interactive nature of communication, relying on their institutional authority to create reader interest. The institutional authority possessed by your boss insures that you will read her memo, but it does not insure that the memo is well written, intelligible, or effective.



2. Case Studies: The book, Communicating in Organizations, is a collection of case studies. You will analyze some of these cases as a member of a team. As the responsibility for making reports rotates among members of the team, you will have an opportunity to make a report on behalf of your team.


"I hate teams!" Me too. Academic scholarship remains an individual competition. The reason we want some experience with teams in this course is that:

  • Team production is the norm in industry. Unless you write for a mom/pop small business where you are the only tech writer/editor, professional & technical writers invariably work on teams even when you offer your services as a consultant or free-lance writer.
  • The team process gives you a feel for working on corporate documents that are not exclusively under your control (single-author documents), which is also the norm in industry. As a prof/tech writer, documents are not yours; you are paid to work on documents that belong to the company or agency.
  • Collaboration via the Net with people you have never physically met is also a common industry practice.  

When the team gels to become a real team, it can be the best part of the class. In any case, we are involved with teams in the course to gain experience in team methods. The expectation in industry includes the expectation to produce superior products partly through beta testing by team members.

3. Application:  Understanding Digital Literacies:  This book is something of a reference that offers definitions & explanations of many online or electronic media terms, practices, & culture. It is, however, written as a text addressed to undergraduate & graduate students (so it says on the back cover). The "Activities" in the book invite our critical thinking & response.


The course paper should assess the writing of a specific discourse community. This will probably be a Website. Your analysis will identify professional values, characteristic rhetorical patterns, & institutional behavior & expectations. Do not simply describe what you find on Web pages. The easiest places to look for such documents are institutions you are already involved with (schools, hospitals, etc.). However, this can also be a bad choice if you are an advocate for the goals of the community. Zealots typically have no rhetorical distance or sensitivity for an audience who doesn't share your ardor. Look for such things as mission statements, objectives, standards or methods, disclaimers, product support, manuals, FAQs, and even such documents as forms to be filled in.
The framework or critical stance for this study is internal to the organization. You are primarily assessing coherence &/or tacit messages (subtexts) of the discourse community rather than critiquing its stated goals or methods. Your primary concern is how rhetorical processes are performed.  Do not repeat the message or simply describe the Website structure. Do not advocate for the community or agency. Do not simply focus on an agency's goal statements. An analysis should determine:
  • The purpose of the page (document).
  • How the material seeks to accomplish the purpose.
  • What's wrong with it (how it could be better done).


The paper is due with unit 07. For more on the paper, see this page.

For example, visit The Nature Conservancy.  Read through the site looking for a unifying or overarching metaphor, message, &/or image. When I did this, I identified 2 things: an emphasis on quantifying things (money, acres of land, members, etc.) & an unexpected non-confrontational invitation to ranchers, the timber industry, & others who are usually branded as the enemies of naturalists. Their money is as good as anyone else's & they tend to have more of it. Once I have identified such features, I would further analyze the site to see how these are unpacked or used on various pages. What I am looking for is how a rhetorical strategy is developed.  Obviously The Nature Conservancy is not interested in selling virtue or virtuous identity like The Sierra Club. The Conservancy focuses on quantifiable results (money to buy land). In contrast, the Sierra Club focuses on the message that buying a membership or embarking on one of their pricey pilgrimages makes you virtuous. The Club (a suggestive name) also focuses on political action. It always provides email addresses for the politicians it frequently talks about. Instead of religion, The Nature Conservancy models itself on a business model. It takes money to do their business rather than virtue or even political power. Consequently they court an affluent business audience. Note the emphasis on estate bequests rather than $25/yr. memberships.

Consider how a community defines itself negatively by implying (or occasionally explicitly identifying) counter-communities that it opposes. How central is such negative definition to the community you study? How precisely does the community identify its enemy or opposite? What methods do they use or traits do they focus on to make a contrast? How effective are these? You should ask why they say what they say as often as examining how they say it or illustrate it.

This is a analytic paper, not a descriptive exercise. The scale for the paper is 5-6 pages (1,250-1,500 words), exclusive of illustrative material, which may be offered as links or urls.

Assignments: Each lesson assignment has several components. Click on COURSE LESSONS from the course homepage or Learning Modules from the nav bar on the left. Follow the sequence, beginning with Unit 01 (or the current lesson number). You should see a page that says "What to do" for each unit. Follow the directions on the page to complete the assignments for the lessons. If anything isn't clear, email me to ask for clarification. There are 10 lessons in the course. Use the calendar tool to find specific dates for assignments.




 Your final letter grade will be calculated from the percentage you scored of the total of all points available from all assignments in the course using this scale:
     A: 90% or above
     B: 80% -- 89%
     C: 65% --79%

Submission Deadlines:

This is not a self-paced course, nor a tutorial.  You should be involved in each unit discussion when it is scheduledWatch the calendar. I will not accept material from lessons two units prior to the one we are studying. If the calendar says we are working on unit 5, I will accept late work from units 4, but not earlier. The grade for work submitted a week late is reduced by 10%. Work submitted more than two weeks late is not accepted.