What Reddit Teaches Us

The primary thing that reddit offers teachers is a method of introducing embedded discourse in a way that is accessible for students. This method has the potential to facilitate learning transfer to academic contexts. Reddit parallels the one-community-of-many model we see in academia, but it offers a much simpler version of it—one that can be learned in a few weeks instead of four or more years of study. When students enter new subreddits, they are doing what we will be asking them to do when they leave first-year composition: to evaluate the discourse of a community such as their major or future vocation, to break down the discourse of that community, and to attempt to join the ongoing conversations happening in that community effectively. While the parallels between reddit and academia are not perfect, the similarities are close enough that students can make strong connections as they explore spaces, create content, and reflect on their experiences. We can use reddit as a kind of lab, a simpler way to explore the more complicated practice of entering a discipline.

In the assignment presented, students were able to investigate and analyze the discourse of a community. They were able to gather primary evidence and use it to support a claim about what the community values in “good” discourse. CJ, Jordan, and Clinton showed effective examples of this type of work in their projects. But the assignment itself was limiting the ways that those students and others in the class could view the discourse. In future assignments, allowing for dissent and competing views of what’s “valued” may be more beneficial to the students overall. It can allow them to see the ways in which real discourse communities are messy: values are not agreed upon, and they’re neither “homogenous and monolithic” (Reiff, 1996, p. 412) nor “authoritative and unified” (Prior, 1998, p. 4). Future versions of the assignment should allow for the murky, unclear, shifting views found in the “polyphony” (Harris, 1989, p. 17) of real discourse communities.

Of course, teaching students how to use discourse communities is not the only thing we can learn from using reddit. Reddit can also remind composition teachers of the embedded and living nature of discourse. When we teach writing in our classes, we often do it in decontextualized ways. We assign students so-called “mutt genres” (Wardle, 2009, p. 774). These are genres that mimic genres used in other contexts, but their purposes are vague and they are divorced from the context in which they are normally used. Allowing students to explore real genres that are being used within the context they are designed for can help students to understand the contextual nature of writing, of course, but this can also serve as a reminder that all the writing we all do and all the writing we teach exists within a space where it is designed to do something—where the writing does “work” for someone.

As teachers, we will see the different work that the writing does as students make posts and comments within their spaces. These posts will be very different because they are doing something different within each space. In one space a post might be used to get advice, in another it might be used to entertain, and in another it might be used to reflect. The students can see this too as they explore different spaces and offer advice about what is valued in their peers’ spaces. The students will be able to see how different users behave differently through their writing based on the expectations of the community that they are joining.

Ideally, both the students and teachers can even take this a step further. Together they can even see how new users can shape and expand the genres of the space. When a new user creates a post on reddit, she operates within the genres of the space, but she also changes them slightly as she brings in new ideas and new expectations. The genres change as new users join the space. Of course, this can happen very quickly on reddit. New users can post, and if their posts are valued by other uses, then the new content can shift the types of posts other users create. This can happen over the course of the single assignment from a first-year composition class such as the one described above. This can happen in academic and other discourse communities as well, but normally it happens much slower. The fact that it happens on reddit can serve as a reminder that discourse communities are living—that they are constantly being shaped and reshaped as new users join.

Reddit can teach us one method of helping students to join discourse communities, a method that mirrors joining academic discourse communities. It can also remind us of the lived discourse that we see every day in the university and in our personal lives. In can remind teachers that the genres we use are alive, do work, and can be changed. And it can remind both teachers and students that learning to join a discourse community is not about getting the right answers so much as asking the right questions.