Sunday, May 1, 2011

Too Professorial

For all of the expected political-carnival reasons and more, Obama's White House Correspondents' Dinner opening remarks offers quite the epideictic flurry: what a week. Sure, I found it funny, but by the end I was thinking more along the lines of speech-type and classification, asking, in effect, What was that? Strange, patriotic mash-up video with pulsing birth certificate to open, more birther-fringe comedic jabs, a Lion King rickroll, a parenthetical clarification to the Fox News table, and then direct riffing on The Donald and his election aspirations (essentially, a roast!), then a groaner, the swipe at NPR's funding solidity, a spoof movie trailer about delivery, teleprompters, and keeping to script (riffing on VP Biden), and then a stark switch-up, an honorific to journalists, and a somber tribute to military personal and those affected by the tragic tornadoes in Alabama and the SE U.S. It adds up insofar as it happened in an uninterrupted 20 minutes, but it also displays a degree of variability and rhetorical versatility (even if it was scripted, maybe especially because it was scripted) that I found, well, noticeable. How, then, to classify such a moment?

And how does the sum of it shift shortly thereafter when Obama left upon news of the NATO air strike that killed Kadafi's 29-year-old son, Saif?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Genre Sirc-umvention

We have evolved a very limited notion of academic writing (or any genre, really).  Our texts are conventional in every sense of the word; they write themselves. They are almost wholly determined by the texts that have gone before; a radical break from the conventions of a form or genre (and I'm not speaking here about the academic convention of the smug, sanctioned transgression, e.g. Jane Tompkins) would perplex--how is that history writing?  what community group would need that for its newsletter?  how is that going to help you get a job? A Happenings spirit would begin at the point of Elbow's "life is long and college is short" queasiness with academic writing ("Reflections on Academic Discourse" 136). (10)

A-la Geoff Sirc's English Composition as a Happening.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Geisler on Mental Models

Here, just some old notes on genre from the plane ride to Albuquerque last week.  Clearly, they were written at the choppy altitude of 6,000 feet or thereabouts.

Cheryl Geisler's chapter, "Toward a Sociocognitive Model of Literacy," presents the study of four writers (two experts and two novices) who are charged with producing an academic essay on the ethics of paternalism.  Centrally, Geisler sets out to complicate overlap of academic discourse and conversational models of literacy; she argues that the expert writers (who notably are performing in their primary disciplinary area: philosophy) are more adept than novices at "producing positions" that are better attuned to "specialized contexts."  Geisler advances her claim after referring to Langer and introducing the familiar axes of social and cognitive (which are admittedly too easily split):

"In particular, [the results of my study] suggest that experts at advanced philosophical argument use acts of reading and writing to construct and act upon socially configured mental models.  The presence of such mental models, I will argue, indicates that a purely conversational model of literacy may be missing the point of why individuals propose and maintain written interaction in the first place" (171).

Geisler draws on Scribner and Cole's literacy model and Heritage's conversation model to establish the framework for her hybrid model--a both-and of everyday conversational dynamics and what I will call logo-buffered cognitive activity.  Geisler explains that "researchers in cognitive science now generally believe that knowledge representations in the form of mental models play a central role in defining expertise (Glaser; Johnson-Laird)" (173).  These models are akin to "'mental maps' with which we plan shopping trips and give visitors directions" (173). 

To study the activity of the four writers, she applied three data-gathering methods: 1. speak-aloud protocols, 2. complete collections of produced text, and 3. interviews.  Geisler found that the participants followed relatively similar procedures; their reading and writing sequences, time-on-task and related activity were similar. Distinctive, however, were the experts' attention to authorship.  Both experts engaged the texts as authored and developed well-positioned critiques thereafter.  The novice writers, on the other hand, either forwarded a writer-centered perspective on the idea of paternalism or established two parallel tracks (i.e. "Here's what I think; Here's what they think.").  As a way of explaining what she means with "socially configured mental models," Geisler discusses the differences between turn-taking in conversation and reader-writer dialogism in literacy practices; the activity structure involved in writing includes a different moderation of "reflecting and organizing" (183).  In an echo of her earlier claim, Geisler concludes with an offering of the more nuanced hybrid model; she works through a characterization of expertise "as the construction and manipulation of special socially configured mental models" (184). 

Two amendments to the hybrid model: 1. "advanced literacy practices are embedded in different social contexts than those of standard conversations" (185) and 2. the incorporation of mental models, which "both move away from everyday practice and remain rooted there" (186).  And there's discussion of the configurative force of shared mental models (are they really shared?  how shared are they?): "These mental models create, in effect, a new plane of intersubjective knowledge, a third dimension of culturally shared abstractions" (187). 

Looser still:  What are mental models, anyway?  Are they more than metaphors?  Are socially configurative mental models the same as genres?  And where does consciousness figure in? IOW, must we be conscious of the configurative force of the mental model (its intrusion on our activity)?  In the planning of a shopping trip or the giving of directions to a visitor--take I81 North, exit 23, three rights), the directions and positions are materially distinctive.  The roads and laws allow only so many possibilities.  Different for models?   And finally, Bawarshi would have us teach a composition course attendant to genre awareness; to what degree are socially configured mental models beneath awareness (i.e. the unconscientization in everyday activity? sub-limin(al)ography?  We can perform skillfully without pausing to give conscious attention to the generic pre-configurations of the texts we write, yes?).

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Genre Theory II

For yesterday's genre theory session we looked at the first chapter from Amy Devitt's book, Writing Genres, and the first and third chapters from Paul Prior's book, Writing/Disciplinarity (both of which have searchable copy at Google Print).  Devitt gracefully works genre into an interactive model between individuals (at a basic level); social structures, genre, and groups (at an intermediary level) and context of culture, context of genre and context of situation (at an ultimate level).  It's meant to simplify a complex set of relationships, I think, and as a model it does well to give a graphic alternative to some fairly heady stuff.  But I'm still a bit murky on the role genre plays in scaling between the lived, everyday activity (often communicative, often recurrent--as in, not another grocery list) and the higher/broader orders.  Genre, given to patterns of activity, would ask of us to point to evidence of the relationship between the broader abstract levels and the more ornate, idiosyncratic actions of individuals.  Forgive me though; I'm the one who's murky (shall I explain in a supplem-entry?).  Better to read Devitt first-hand than to take this as a solid handle on her project.

But I will say this:  Devitt presents genre as something that, in places, met up nicely with frame or framing. One in the same?  At another point, I was thinking that genre--if defined by its actants (ordinary folk rather than some higher elite)--challenges us with a problem of naming.  Who names genres?  Is the genre named suddenly afforded the possibility of recurring?  In other words, is an un-named recurrent activity outside the realm of genre or, as Prior thoughtfully tabs it, genrification?  Note that my fondness for genrification is purely spell-check serendipity: it's sub: gentrification.  Mm-hmm.  Something to it?  

Still confounding: I'm stuck on a question of the role genre plays in producing a situation.  Devitt suggests near the end of the chapter that the which-came-first paradox (the chicken or the text) between situation and genre is mixed with (though not solved by) a double-action.  Genre and situation are co-constitutive, "so tightly interwoven as to be interlocked" (22).  Following this logic, genre doesn't respond to a situation, nor does it enter only after the fact.  So it's neither deterministically a priori nor a clear consequence.  In another sense, "[g]enres are already always existing" (28).  Clear?  It's just that it seems a difficult move to go from the tight interlock between situation and genre and also to go for the always already.  At moments like these, I tend to defer to a less optimistic view of genre; I want to defer to a stance that prefers vocabulary of diffusion and pattern.  I'm not settled on the degree to which these distinctions are semantic, which leads me to question the extent to which knowledge of genre as genre shapes activity.  But then as I turn to working on something for prospective publication, does genre help (as Devitt says it does)?  Most definitely.

I found Paul Prior's first chapter, "Resituating the Discourse Community," especially point-on in its working through a sequence of Saussure, Ricouer and Bakhtin to present a range of thinking from structuralism to sociohistoricism as they, in turn (a turn taken up in the beginning of c. 3), apply to "discourse community."  In sociohistoric orientations we find more resistance to systematic, mechanistic treatments of form; and while this is useful for interrogating the genre-as-bucket metaphor, it also aligns Prior with much of the development of theories of genre in Miller, Bawarshi and Devitt.  In mentioning "indexical socialization," Prior cites Ochs (1988)--just something to look up later.  Genre as indexical socialization?  Perhaps not, but the idea that disiplinarity revolves around a kind of indexical socialization is interesting, even if it draws on a slightly different notion of activity patterns than genre theory looks at. 

Prior's work also gives us a nice synthesis of several Friends of Activity Theory; in a section subtitled "From Conduits to Communities to Persons: A Structuralist Network," he draws on Vygotsky, Wertsch, Bruner, Lave & Wenger to suggest the complicated nexus between the social and the cognitive, between which agency and multiplicity intercede.  Slowly and through heavily cited prose, he sets up a way of talking about "disciplines as open networks"; eventually, he says straight-out that he prefers the concept of "disciplinarity" to "discipline" because "disciplinarity evokes a process rather than a place or object" (26).  Perhaps more useful, however, is Prior's presentation of the possibilities in regarding disciplinary formations in network terms--preferring a more relational, networked model for disciplinarity to the more common "discourse community" frame. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Bawarshi, Genre and the Invention of the Writer

Anis Bawarshi develops a case for a genre-studies-based first-year writing curriculum.  In the courses teachers would introduce students to sampled genre sets from selected disciplines or professional fields (studying, in effect, lab reports as a genre, or other professional document types).  Students would analyze the genres, writing both in them and about them; hence, composition would have as its impetus a pragmatic extra-disciplinary awareness of the writing students will do in their major areas of study and, as well, bona fide content: writing itself (in all its forms, in and beyond the academy).  As Bawarshi's project builds an argument for this model, he reasons that a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of genre is one (though perhaps golden) ticket to composition's status as a discipline and might also serve us with a compelling justification for the first-year writing sequence.

I finished the book still feeling somewhat unsettled with the ecological metaphors Bawarshi develops early on.  With genre theory, Bawarshi enfolds LeFevre's "ecology of invention" and Bourdieu's "habitus" to set up what he calls--following his accounting of the "social turn" in composition--"rhetorical ecosystems" (8).   How are such systems constrained by institutional dynamics--the forces of power inscribed, for example, in the first-year writing course?  Bawarshi presents a wonderfully rich, interesting set of definitional twists to account for the correspondence between ecosystems and genres; he spells out clearly that he is "more interested in what happens once genres are in circulation" than how they come to exist (10).  My uneasiness with the ecological metaphor, which I should explain more fully, stems primarily from two issues:  1.  institutional forces, power dynamics and pressures (which must, inevitably, give greater weight to certain genres, yes?) and 2. the presumption that genre as the reproduced communication patterns or recurrent exigencies suspended between individuals and social collectives are sufficiently explicit that we might study them, teach them, organize them into sets, and so on.  Briefly, in his discussion of the syllabus, Bawarshi mentions Swales and occluded genres: "According to Swales, occluded genres are genres that operate behind the scenes and often out of more public sight, yet play a critical role in operationalizing the commitments and goals of a dominant genre, in this case, the syllabus" (119).  But might there be other, more elusive genres at work in the classroom?  What of these?  [Look to Swales, eh?]

What gives a genre its stability?  Bawarshi gives us this: "Genres--what Catherine Schryer defines as 'stabilized-for-now or stabilized-enough sites of social and ideological action' (1994, 108)--thus constitute typified rhetorical sites or habitations in which our social actions and commitments are made possible and meaningful as well as in which we are rhetorically socialized to perform (and potentially transform) these actions and commitments" (81-82).  I like Schryer's definition, detached though it is here from its immediate context (Bawarshi puts it in a section called "Genres as Rhetorical Ecosystems" (80)).  With "stabilized-for-now" and "stabilized-enough" we are challenged doubly: a genre could be fresh and fleeting; a genre must be qualified as a genre--it must be named.  "Stabilized-for-now" also complicates the concept of a tradition or at least exposes another problematic dimension in approaching genre with any consideration of its history, evolution, past-ness.

I'm short on time, but I want to go ahead and post a few more notes from Bawarshi--continue my plan to write through the reading for the summer course.  These are really floating bits--note-worthy, but sliding underneath any more inquisitive response from me:

  1. adopt-a-discipline (163):  This comes in the final chapter on the pedagogical implications of genre theory as Bawarshi entangles it with systems theory, situated cognition, ecologies of invention, and activity.  The idea is that FYW students would size up a discipline by examining various genres constituting disciplinary activity.  Seems to me that this, along with writing in the disciplines (WID) strands of Bawarshi's work might work better with final-year writing students, perhaps juniors or seniors who have more firmly committed to a particular field of study.  Lots of other issues with this, including whether it over-ambitiously emphasizes professionalization, etc.
  2. "genre game" (164): Hold this up to Anthony Giddens's stuff on 117-118.  Gaming tropes can be misleading.  Are they misleading in this case?  If we accept that it's possible for students to "game" genres, what other forms of extra-generic activity are they entering into and what interest might we find in it?
  3. list of B.'s examples (143): "PMHF [Patient Medical History Form], the social workers' assessment report, the resume, the course journal, the 'king's speech,' the greeting card, the syllabus, the writing prompt, and the student essay" (143). 
  4. "One way teachers can help students reposition themselves within such spheres of agency is to make genres analytically visible to students so that students can participate within and negotiate them more meaningfully and critically" (141).  Does this refer only to "loaded" genres--pre-existing, recognized, conventional?  Genre as...?
  5. choreographic force [of genre] (134): "[Yates and Orlikowski] describe how genre systems choreograph interactions among participants and activities chronologically (by way of measurable, quantifiable, 'objective' time) and kairotically (by way of constructing a sense of timeliness and opportunity in specific situations) within communities (2002, 108-10). In terms of chronos, the writing prompt assigns a specific time sequence for the production of the student essay, often delimiting what is due at what time and when" (134).  I understand the need for deadlines, but does this feature/attribute of genre suggest that it enforces artificial rates of production (given to institutional convene-iences)?
  6. coercive genre (120): "No doubt, the syllabus is a coercive genre, in the same way that all genres are coercive to some degree or another.  It establishes the situated rules of conduct students and teacher will be expected to meet, including penalties for disobeying them."  Yikes.  Genre as fear-maker and order-keeper.
  7. "Participants in one activity system, for instance, use some genres to communicate with participants in other activity systems, thereby forming intra- and intergenre system relations" (116).  How does this match up with what Miller gives us as both relational, hierarchic and virtual discourse communities.  Is the intra-/inter-genre system noted by Bawarshi oriented toward or within any particular one of Miller's classes?  Which one? The GC example (107) also defers to a hierarchical--nested genre systems, etc.
  8. Ref. to Bazerman's "humble genres" (106)  Genres of the everyday?  What makes a genre humble?  Does this mean that it's not officially recognized as a literary genre?  Also, what are the limits to the communicative social activity spheres genre might be used to characterize?  If writing is a "way of being in the world," so are other (non-textual, non-linguistic?) communicative interactions, including ones where the utterance is less neatly captured in an explicit form or artifact-ready medium--tacit knowledge, feeling, patterned social action that falls outside the production of a text?

On Genre

From Anthony Giddens, "Problems of Action and Structure." The Giddens Reader.:

"If interpretative sociologies are founded, as it were, upon an imperialism of the subject, functionalism and structuralism propose an imperialism of the social object. One of my principal ambitions in the formulation of structuration theory is to put an end to each of these empire-building endeavours.  The basic domain of study of the social sciences, according to the theory of structuration, is neither the experience of the individual actor, not the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices ordered across space and time" (89).

From Bakhtin, "The Problem of Speech Genres." Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.:

"We speak only in definite speech genres, that is, all our utterances have definite and relatively stable typical forms of construction of the whole" (78).

"If speech genres did not exist and we had not mastered them, if we had to originate them during speech process and construct each utterance at will for the first time, speech communication would be almost impossible" (79).

From Carolyn Miller, "Genre as Social Action" (1984):

"The genre classification I am advocating is, in effect, ethnomethodological: it seeks to explicate the knowledge that practice creates.  This approach insists that the 'de facto' genres, the types we have names for in everyday language, tell us something theoretically important about discourse."

"As a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality.  For the critic, genres can serve both as an index to cultural patterns and as tools for exploring the achievements of particular speakers and writers; for the student, genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community."

From Carolyn Miller, "Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre" (1994):

"The genre set represents a system of actions and interactions that have specific social locations and functions as well as repeated or recurrent value or function.  It adumbrates a relationship between material particulars, instantiations of a genre in individual acts, and systems of value and signification" (70).

From Anis Bawarshi, Genre and the Invention of the Writer (2003):

"Guided by an understanding of writing as social activity, composition scholarship has become less concerned with inquiring into generalizable cognitive processes and more concerned with inquiring into the localized, textured conditions in which cognition and social activities are organized" (5).

"As we write various texts, then, we rhetorically enact and reproduce the desires that prompted them.  This recursive process is what genre is.  And as we rhetorically enact and reproduce these desires, we also rhetorically enact, reproduce, and potentially resist and/or transform the social activities, the roles, and the relations that are embedded in these desires" (45).

Monday, May 30, 2005

Genre Theory I

I thought I'd drop in just a few brief notes from the summer course I'm taking: CCR760: Genre Theory in Academic Contexts.  My plan is to introduce similar entries over the next few weeks; I'll think of them, for now, as provisional and winding explorations through/around/between some of the key ideas playing out in the course. 

One of the first problems has been settling on a working definition of genre as it connects with writing.  On the first day of class (a week ago), we distinguished between the misnomer of genre as transparent, received and neutral classification taxonomies ("genre as bucket") and a--perhaps--more productive alternative: genre as social action (largely credited to Carolyn Miller's essays in 1984 and 1994).  With "social action," Miller suggests an understanding of genre as the fusion between content and form; in such fusions we are able to recognize patterns and types of recurrent exigence.  To varying degrees, the internalization of patterned rhetorical opportunity is always already involved in our action with language (writing, speech, etc.);  in genre theory, we are confronted with problems of how completely such internalizations have explicit, conscious bearing on rhetorical invention and how we respond (often by reproducing) to the configurative force of recognizable classes of communication.  Up to this point, we've read Miller's two essays, a chapter from Anthony Giddens ("Problems of Action and Structure") in which he works out some of the defining qualities of structuration, and Bakhtin, "The Problem of Speech Genres." 

For me, an initial framework for sizing up genre theory, for making sense of the "social action" model, comes from readings of Piaget, Vygotsky and related cognitive and social learning scholars who have adapted and extended their seminal work.  I'm definitely oversimplifying here, but the opening up of genre that moves it away from the preordained, top-down classification of texts (a canonical sort of table, etc.) to a more social variant in which the activity rather than the text-as-product gets typified leads me to a question of ratio between social and otherwise institutional or individual determinants--the inside-out flow and the outside-in flows of thought, language, speech, etc.  In other words, as I read some of the "social action" framings of genre, I feel a small bit of discomfort with the socially determined ordering of utterances into "relatively stable" classes.  It's a productive discomfort, I think, but I can't easily resolve the ratio.  Furthermore, structuration--"the structuring of structure" (Derida ctd. in Giddens)--keeps everything in motion.  So I suppose isolating a frozen ratio between determinants isn't altogether necessary.  In fairness, it's complicated, and although there is a considerable amount of attention to agency and to individual actors, I continue to have the impression that genre as "social action" tips in favor of outside-in or centripetal flows (a sort of social primacy, I guess, that I find too encompassing).  Of course, it's still more fluid, dynamic and enabling than the rigid top-down orderings it seeks to correct.  How much more fluid, dynamic and enabling?  Maybe later I'll play through the examples I can think of to illuminate this discomfort I'm describing so poorly; it ties in with folksonomies and also with attempts to organize blogging activity into definitive (or even usefully descriptive) classes, kinds, types.  Giddens and Miller both do something with hybrids, with blends, and so I need to look again at those sections, too.

In Thursday's sessions, the question came up: are weblogs a genre?  This question has bounced around in a few different channels; certainly some work, such as the Blog Research on Genre project, would guide us to an affirmative conclusion.  Of course weblogs are genre-lizable, genre-ously suited to classification.  But how do exigencies filter into the practice of blogging, and is what moves the blogger a relatively stable social compulsion?  It's not easy to be sure really.  When the question comes up, nonetheless, I want to know what a coordination (or mingling) of blogs and genre makes possible.  What does genre afford the practicing blogger? Or: From a grounded perspective in genre theory, what would change about what I do when I write an entry?

Here's a related question I want to carry forward into the next five weeks: If genre is social action (which encompasses language activity whether or not it directly, immediately communicates), what's not genre?  Where and under what conditions (and to whose great relief) does genre split into the individuated?

These are just a handful of the threads from my notes or from questions generated during class.  And I hope to continue blogging related pieces, sharing them here as a way to invite dialogue, write through my unfolding understanding of genre (I was thinking "genre as bucket" coming into the course; still unsure: genre as roadside telephone, genre as hegemony, genre as buoy, genre as social form-aldehyde), and tuck away a few notes that might spark me onto other connections later on.  For Thursday's session, we're looking at Anis Bawarshi's Genre and the Invention of the Writer.  I'm just more than halfway through it now; hope to have blog-ready notes by mid-week.