Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teaching Technical Writing Post 3: "Rethinking Genre from a Sociocognitive Perspective" by Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin (or) Stop Me if You've Heard this One Before.

You probably already know what I’m going to say in this post. More importantly, you know, roughly, how I’m going to say it. It will open with a bit of hemming and hawing; a semi-informal introduction that outlines both the content of my post in brief and transitions neatly into the meat of my response. In the following paragraphs there will be reference to, and brief discussion of, the salient points from the reading concluding with an attempt to connect these points to other readings, and to larger issues surrounding my chosen discipline.

Your ability to predict, and thus better interact with, my writing, is due to familiarity with the genre that I am writing in. The semi-formal, online reading response has its own set of conventions, moves, and rules to guide what can be said and how I can say it. It is an evolution of the formal academic essay that evolved in response to technological changes and the interactions between older forms and newer possibilities. According to Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin in “Rethinking Genre from a Sociocognitive Perspective” genres, the “media through which scholars and scientists communicate with their peers” (284) are “inherently dynamic rhetorical structures that can be manipulated according to the conditions of use” (285). Genres, they argue, are not static, inflexible rules, but rather a set of ever-shifting conventions that locate, define, and redefine particular modes of communication.

The problem, according to Berkenkotter and Huckin, is that traditionally, genres have been approached from a limited perspective, focusing solely on the features of texts rather than the “users” of genre as a technology. “Although such an approach enables one to make generalizations…it does not enable us to determine anything about the ways in which genre is embedded in the communicative activities of the members of a discipline” (284) Similar to Johnson’s user-centered method of interacting with technological artifacts, genre (arguably a technology itself) also needs to be studied as an ongoing, flexible interaction between users and technology in order to examine how one shapes the other.

Basing their own arguments on Bakhtin and Vygotsky, Berkenkotter and Huckin define five principles of genre that locate it among the “situated” or “everyday cognition” of its users (285). These five principles, dynamism, situatedness, form and content, duality of structure, and community ownership, essentially all define genre as recurring forms of communication that develop in response to rhetorical situations  (287). “This knowledge, rather than being explicitly taught, is transmitted through enculturation” of developing participants in a discourse community (289). Primary genres are “embedded in the milieu in which they occur” while Secondary genres are “organized cultural communication” that must be deliberately learned.
To be able to use a genre effectively, learners must have “social knowledge” of their community, which includes an awareness of what is or is not appropriate within the rules of their field, and how best to use them to accomplish specific rhetorical ends. 

These conventions typically focus on wording, structure, and topic, but, I would argue, also include visual rhetoric and modes of presentation. For instance, Kramer and Bernhardt’s article “Teaching Text Design” shows how font and spacing can convey certain ideas to certain audiences: “The threat of [font styles] is that novice designers sometimes end up producing texts that look like ransom notes. A careful book designer decides on a specific use of each type style” (259). Similarly, medium can influence how a genre is perceived, as shown by Lisa Ann Jackson, who describes how simply transferring the conventions of printed memos to intranet hypertext can result in “lengthy pages through which to scroll and sometimes even unnecessary and cumbersome graphic representations of text…when print documents are merely  ‘posted’ to an intranet, there is no value added to the only document, and often the print document is easier to use, a fact that compels users to revert to previously learned methods of performing their work” (270).

Ultimately, Berkenkotter and Huckin argue that a genre is both dictated by the needs of its community, and shaped by them. They write that “our use of rhetorical genres is both constitutive of social structure…and generative as situated, artful practice” (300). Technology, and the features associated with it, (like, for example, the readability and accessibility of blogs leading to less formal reading responses) lead to an evolution in the features of specific genres and subgenres. To demonstrate that one belongs to a discourse community, an author must both demonstrate awareness of generic conventions, but also know when to experiment with them to respond to the changing needs of a rhetorical situation. “To be fully effective…genres must be flexible and dynamic, capable of modification according to the rhetorical exigencies of the situation. At the same time, though, they must be stable enough to capture those aspects of situations that tend to recur” (304).

Regarding classroom practice, this article connects to Aviva Freedman and Christine Adam’s essay “Learning to Write Professionally”.  They write that, in the university, students are able to learn the conventions of professional genres as “facilitated performers”, guided by mentors for the purpose of learning the rules in their “pure” state (322). However, “the workplace operates as a community of practice whose tasks are focused on material or discursive outcomes” (323). Spinuzzi argues that we best serve our students when teaching them to “learn how to learn genres” (346), but given how quickly technology changes, and how quickly genres and subgenres change to match it, this seems like a difficult task.

My question, then, relates to the impact of technology on genre: If teachers are unable to work with every modality that a student will need to engage with when they arrive in the workplace, how can we effectively teach them to introduce themselves into, and then follow, the ever-evolving generic landscape that Berkenkotter and Huckin describe? Is it even possible for us to teach them “how to learn” well enough that they’ll be able to produce new content as their field demands? Furthermore, if genre conventions include visual and modal elements, how can we, as specialists in words, effectively prepare them? 

1 comment:

  1. Part way into your first paragraph, I found myself thinking: yes, I do know how you're going to respond largely because I know you and I've see you blog before. Which, then, made me wonder: how much of my expectations are based on genre, and how much on my knowledge of you, and is the former a genre issue? Hmm.