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Common Language & Discourse Community

shared by jeaune on August 18, 2014

Activity Summary:

Students engage in a visual and oral activity that showcases the importance of common language, local idioms, cultural context, clarity in one-way communication.

Instructions:

Before the development of a common medical language, every country, region, city, and doctor would have different terms for body parts and diseases. Observation was a primary method of gathering evidence; however, the scientific community had much difficulty sharing knowledge. And we, as (developing) members of a modern scientific discourse community, have a difficult time understanding the 1860s medical discourse community–our modern values, concepts, culture, traditions, style of communication, and level of scientific understanding all get in the way.  As Nuland writes in The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis, a course textbook,

No wonder that the concept of contagion was so often misunderstood, and the word itself used in connotations that added to the uncertainties. And no wonder also that in reviewing the events of these times, a modern reader is so easily thrown into a quandary in trying to interpret small shadings that differentiate one usage from another.  Specificity of meaning would come to this and other areas of medical theory only when science itself became more specific and a consistent vocabulary could be developed . (61)

Effective communication means understanding the audience and their needs, the purpose of communication, and the context in which the communication will be received, and then tailoring the message to meet these criteria.  Different discourse communities have different language and genre guidelines that influence not only the way the communication is delivered, but actually influence meaning.

Miller, Caroly. 2004. “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing” 15-23. Teaching Technical Communication. Critical Issues for the Classroom. Ed. James M. Dubinsky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nuland, Sherwin. 2004. The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. New York: Norton.

 

Students engage in a visual and oral activity that showcases the importance of common language, local idioms, cultural context, clarity in one-way communication.

Materials to prepare ahead of time:

Prepare a template for yourself of 8 different paper shapes that are all the same color (ex. Long skinny rectangle, long fat rectangle, rhombus, little square, small rhombus, large acute triangle, small isosceles triangle, circle. Shoot for some irregular shapes like a rhombus.) Each student will need one set of the shapes.  Package them individually in ziplock bags.

The activity:

After reviewing the activity’s context with my students, I do the following:

  1. Announce: We are going to do an exercise that will test your ability to communicate to a specific community, in a specific context, for a specific purpose.
  2. Ask students to find a partner and hand out one bag of shapes to each students.
  3. Students need to sit with their backs to each other so they cannot see what the other person is doing, but they are able to hear what their partner is saying.
  4. Ask student 1 to take out his/her shapes and arrange them as they choose, so all of the shapes are touching each other in some way.
  5. Next student 1 needs to use, clear, concise language and in order to communicate to student 2 how to arrange his/her blocks so that thy match student 1’s arrangement. Only students one may speak. Student 2 is not permitted to ask questions. They goal is to have both arrangements look the same. (the importance of clarity in one-way communication!)
  6. After the majority of the class has finished, find out with a show of hands how many groups were able to complete the task successfully (Probably quite a few of them will be able to do it). What were some of the primary challenges with communication?
  7. Now ask the pairs to switch communicators.  Again, students will be sitting with their backs to each other, but his time student 2 will be giving instructions to student 1.  However, there is a catch.  This time we will be taking away a shared language.  The communicator is unable to say shape names or numbers (Probably useful to write a list of off-limit words on the board: circle, rectangle, square, rhombus, parallelogram, triangle, isosceles, block, cube, equilateral, scalene, obtuse, acute, no numbers including angles or degrees). If partners accidentally say an off-limit word, they must rearrange and start over again.
  8. After the majority of the class has finished, find out how many partners complete the task successfully—this is exceedingly more difficult.  What were some of the challenges with accurate communication this time around? How did the lack of a shared language contribute to communication problems? What were the strategies that you used to overcome these problems? Could these strategies cause complicating problems?

Discussion (This context should be adapted to fit the class, but this is what I do)

Nuland talks about some of the challenges with medicine during the 1850’s. Observation was a primary method of gathering evidence; however, the scientific community had much difficulty sharing knowledge.  What would the implications be of a lack of shared language in a given field? Carolyn Miller, a professor of rhetoric says that to engage in any type of communication is to “participate in a community; to write well is to understand the conditions of one’s own participation—the concepts, values, traditions, and style which permit identification with that community and determine the success or failure of communication” (Miller 22). In what way do you think that communicating scientific knowledge makes you a participant in that community? How would you define the concepts, values, traditions and style of the scientific community?