Discourse Community and Writing

Writing on board

I am presenting the thoughts of Computer Science PhD student Yipeng Huang on the subject of discourse community. This text is part of Yipeng’s Final Writing Assignment in our Academic Writing Class at Columbia University. Thank you Yipeng!

“In the Academic Writing class, students wrote science stories that imitated articles published by the experts we admire, following their writing organization and style, even including their quirks in word choice. I would read my fellow students’ drafts and find the jargon hard to understand. I am weary of excusing unclear writing for the sake of imitating existing writing, because we must first ask two questions—Does everyone in the field indeed agree on the meaning of the text in question, when the words have evolving definitions? What good is it to enforce language barriers to distinguish insiders from outsiders of the field?

I admire academics that can explain advanced topics in plain language. They are the writers who inspire the public and educate newcomers to the field, and I suspect they are also adept at pitching their newest research to sponsors and reviewers, because not all of those readers are ever in the exact same field. The skills for writing for my discourse community and for a general audience should not be so different—even experts appreciate context and clear writing. Good science is accessible. Writing that captivates a broader audience than necessary is better than that which persuades too few.

Computer science as a field has the luxury of being relevant in the lives of most of the world population. But with that broad audience comes the hazards of folk science and distrust. We can defend against such dangers through plain, excellent writing, ensuring that the science is accessible to everyone interested. Elevating the quality of communication is crucial in science, and fields can either wither from neglecting this obligation or, by embracing the art, thrive.”

(The complete text can be found on Yipeng’s blog at http://yipenghuang.com/category/dedications/)