My contention throughout this book has been that, in order to become better researchers and writers, we need to know not only the “how’s” of these two activities but also the “why’s.” In other words, it is not sufficient to acquire practical skills of research and writing. It is also necessary to understand why you do what you do as you research and what results you can expect to achieve as a results of your research. And this is where rhetorical theory comes in.
Writing and reading are interactive, social processes. Ideas presented in written texts are born as a result of long and intense dialog between authors and others interested in the same topic or issue. Gone is the image of the medieval scholar and thinker sitting alone in his turret, surrounded by his books and scientific instruments as the primary maker and advancer of knowledge. Instead, the knowledge-making process in modern society is a collaborative, effort to which many parties contribute. Knowledge is not a product of individual thinking, but of collective work, and many people contribute to its creation.
Academic and professional readers and writers function within groups known as discourse communities. The word “discourse” means the language that a group uses to talk what interests its members. For example, as a student, you belong to the community of your academic discipline. Together with other members of your academic discipline’s intellectual community, you read the same literature, discuss and write about the same subjects, and are interested in solving the same problems. The language or discourse used by you and your fellow-intellectuals in professional conversations (both oral and written) is discipline-specific. This explains, among other things, why the texts you read and write in different academic disciplines are often radically different from one another and even why they are often evaluated differently.
To examine your place in discourse communities, complete "Writing Activity 6A: Analyzing Intellectual and Discourse Communities" in the "Writing Activities" section of this chapter.
The term community does not necessarily mean that all members of these intellectual and discourse groups agree on everything. Nor does it mean that they have to be geographically close to one another to form such a community. Quite the opposite is often true. Debates and discussions among scientists and other academics who see things differently allows knowledge to advance. These debates in discussions are taking place in professional books, journals, and other publications, as well as at professional meetings.
Rhetorical analysis is a key skill in critically examining sources. Complete "Writing Activity 6B: Rhetorical Analysis of Academic Texts" in the "Writing Activities" section of this chapter.