And I thought genre was flexible…or is it?

Carolyn R. Miller’s article, Genre as Social Action highlight important arguments from many well-known Composition theorists on the issue of Genre and the rhetorical situation. The conversation I found most intriguing deals with genre and being linked to human action. Another element that is stressed is how reoccurrence is demonstrated as a social act compared to a materialist point of view. “In order to understand occurrence, it is necessary to reject the materialist” (156).

Miller is implying the rhetorical situation and genre are both human habits. In this argument, she takes a more cognitive approach to the situation of genre by linking it with human interaction. She mentions our “stock of knowledge” and how people learn and comprehend information through interaction and in turn, become familiarized with the patterns of the information in which they learn. Form these patters, reoccurrence spawns and creates a cycle that is repeated through the learning process, hence, reoccurrence. Once information begins to reoccur, the person then becomes familiar with the pattern.

While relating this to genre and learning genre through rhetorical situations, it leaves one to think, where is the room for creativity in a rigid and formalistic structure on how to compose, departmentalize, and categorize genres? Why and how do people categorize genres as they do?

Having demonstrated and assigned various genres in the classroom, I can relate when Miller mentions genres can become repetitive… from a grading point of view. I find it ironic that the definition of genre according to the text taught in my class, Writing Today by Johnson- Sheehan, genre is defined as being flexible (36). But the definition of genre through Miller’s article in a rhetorical sense is to ‘classify’ (155). How can one place genre within specific parameters while maintaining ones own authenticity and creativity without bending the constraints of the genre and rhetorical situation? Is there a method for this? Or, if one veers outside the imaginative lines of genre, what happens next?


A Genre Praxis Project Gone Viral

Sometimes one begins to experiment in a formal field of study without prior awareness of the field existing. While I suppose I knew “genre pedagogy” existed prior to reading Amy J. Devitt’s chapter, I had not read anything related (though I had certainly intuited some approaches as a student in our program). Interestingly, then, an assignment I used last year in my Religion and Popular Culture course connects with several ways Devitt describes the field. At other points, however, my instincts took me in directions not suggested by Devitt’s take on genre pedagogy.

Called the “Praxis Project: Let’s Go Viral” assignment, the assignment in short, read as such:

Your task: attempt to make something, related to religion and popular culture, actually go viral. The digital platform(s) is up to you. The method is yours to determine. The hits are yours to measure. The challenge is yours to accept.

Students formed groups and worked in teams to accomplish the task. To some extent (but not enough), I scaffolded the assignment with some work throughout the semester. I also directed class discussion, research, and experimentation related to virality. For instance, the assignment sheet read, in part:

Stipulations for this project:

1.  That we study together what, in the area of religion and popular cultures, goes viral this semester.

2.  That we analyze together the notion of virality.

3.  That students conduct individual and group research into virality.

4.  That, reflecting this research, we agree on terms of group project that attempt to make something go viral.

5.  That these viral projects launch approximately April…

In some ways, I seem to have stumbled upon critical genre awareness pedagogy. In their textbook, Reiff, Bawarshi, and Dewitt guide students to engage in genre by (152, authors in bold, Adam in italics):

Collect samples of the genre / I did this by facilitating student discussions of samples of virality in small groups.

Identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used / My students did not complete a formal rhetorical analysis, though discussion of cultural factors were common.

Identify and describe patterns in the genre’s features / We worked on this approach in small groups that reported to the class.

Analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context / In a sense, this step is where the Praxis Project began. Further, its final step included a section on “analysis and connections.”

Later in the teaching genre critique section, Devitt writes, “Calling students’ attention to hybrid, blurred, or emerging genres can help students gain a critical stance towards genres more fully normalized” (155). While I did not have the language to put it this way on the assignment sheet, this notion indeed informed the assignment design. As, by definition, instances of viral writing on the Internet are always newly emerging in some sense, I believe studying examples of religion and popular culture going viral help students critique other forms as well.

At least two shortcomings of the viral praxis project become clear when using the genre pedagogy chapter as a reflection tool. First, I did not support enough reflection, analysis, and critique concerning the question of genre. As a class, we looked at what goes viral on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. But the genre often differed. We considered videos, blog posts, polls, pictures, selfies, and others. We tended to describe the genre of “that which goes viral” rather than doing careful work on the specificity or sub-genres of the viral postings.

Second, Devitt suggests, “Teaching the etiquette of a particular genre involved teaching the context, time and place, audience’s expectations, and strategies for working within the genre” (148). While the course covered some of these considerations, much of the emphasis was on the experimentation, risk, and invention required of making something go viral. In other words, I perhaps moved too quickly from genre analysis to application. In all, however, I continue to be drawn to genre pedagogy as a helpful took for both analysis and invention.

Questions for consideration

  • What is the right balance between acquiring knowledge of genres, analyzing genre, and applying or experimenting with new forms?
  • When it comes to new media, what are some distinctions between genre and sub-genres? Are all listicles made equal?
  • Group work may be particularly well-suited for genre study. What are the benefits and drawbacks of group-based pedagogy for genre study?

Genre–A Theory or a Recipe?

“From day to day, year to year comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses.” The comparable responses or recurring forms, become a tradition which then” tends to function as constraints upon any new response in the form.” Thus, inaugurals, eulogies, courtroom speeches and the like have conventional forms because they arise in situations with similar structures and elements and because rhetor responds in similar ways, having learned from precedent what is appropriate and what effects their actions are likely to have on their people. (Italics are mine. Miller 152)

This quote from Miller invokes two related responses:

1: The dialogic nature of genres. Genres are dialogic because they are not isolated pieces of writing created in vacuum. They are rhetorical responses to situations that demand the response in a particular manner. Genre’s consideration of the audience makes it dialogic. Instead of being a one-way act of speaking, they originate as a “response” like an answer to a question. Their dependence on previous responses in similar situations resonates with Bakhtin’s idea of “intertextutality.”

2: Structural Stability of genres. Genres are stable because they function under “constraints” called “tradition” and “convention.” Their very existence depends on their structural stability.

Question: Similarity of situation, of response and of assumptions of the effect on the reader sound like the ingredients of a recipe called genre. If the rhetor/writer has to work with these ingredients, where is the room for originality/creativity?

Responsibility and Respect in Audience/Reader Awareness

Two words stood out to me in Ede and Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition and Pedagogy”: responsibility and respect.

Early on the in their argument, the authors address ethical responsibilities and consequences, noting that to prioritize audience “in its extreme form becomes pandering to the crowd, tend[ing] to undervalue the responsibility a writer has to a subject” (82, emphasis mine).

The albeit brief (but I think quite necessary) discussion about the troublesome overemphasis on unethical audience promising in marketing (82) sets a tone for responsibility for the rest of the essay.

A writer needs to be aware of her audience; however, that awareness should not lead to irresponsibility with the subject at hand.

Additionally, I felt that Ede and Lunsford respectfully ended their essay with describing their “audience thought process” to their audience: “As we read and reread their [authors to whom they are responding] analyses and developed our responses to them, we felt a responsibility to try to understand their formulations as fully as possible, to play fair with their ideas, to make our own efforts continue to meet their high standards” (91, emphasis mine).

Reading as a writer and (perhaps more importantly) as a writer/teacher, I appreciated their documentation and analysis of their “audience thought process” in writing this essay. They “pulled back the curtain” to show how they applied their ideas directly to something that every one in their audience (Or readership? Readers? What would Ong say? Readers.) had read—unless, of course, a reader only skipped to the end: the very essay itself.

As a teacher, I give my students examples of different writing genres and often talk through them; however, perhaps this would be an excellent strategy to employ: a written (so students can revisit the comments unlike in class) analysis of the thought process that went into the writing.

However, this strategy only works if teachers are writing beside their students and are willing to actively “pull back the curtain” of their own writing process. This conjures up the idea of mentors as a way to access discourse communities a la Gee.

This can be a scary prospect, but specific and concrete examples of the thought process itself can be ever-so-enlightening for students. We are not simply teaching an end product, but a way of approaching situations that call for writing, situations that are ever-changing. One cannot respectfully and responsibly simply teach a model of a genre; one must model (as a mentor) sustainable strategies, and understanding the complexities of audience is one aspect of that process.

A question semi-unrelated to the previous content, but it intrigues me:

Both Ong and Ede and Lunsford use the metaphor of a recipe. While Ong observes, “Nashe gives a foretaste of other trial-and-error procedures by which recipes were to be developed for the reader of the narrative prose works we now call novels. Such recipes were being worked out in other languages, too […]” (68).

While Ede and Lunsford note, “One of the factors that makes writing so difficult, as we know, is that we have no recipes: each rhetorical situation is unique and thus requires the writer, catalyzed and guided by a strong sense of purpose, to reanalyze and reinvent solutions” (87).

Recipe seems to be used in Ong as genre conventions, while Ede and Lunsford are reacting against a set-form of writing. What benefits and limitations are there to using “recipe” as a metaphor that conjures up cooking?

CCC Poster Pages (Key concepts explained!)

I wish I had remembered these earlier, but it’s certainly a better-late-than-never moment. CCC has poster pages on key concepts in the field. They provide nice, pithy definitions that may prove helpful as you write your synthesis exams and as you try to make the concepts of composition (and rhetoric) theory your own. Here’s one on rhetorical situation:

And one on audience:

There are many more.

Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Walter Ong’s “The Audience is Always a Fiction” chronicles the “relationship, of the so-called ‘audience’ to writing as such, to the situation that inscribed communication establishes and to the roles that readers as readers are consequently called on to play” by referencing works by Hemingway, Sidney, Chaucer, Lyly, Nashe, and many other notable writers to illustrate how each negotiates a relationship with his intended audience through varying degrees of authorial distance (55). Ong uses these examples to support his claim that a writer must “make his readers up, fictionalize them” (59). Each of these instances substantiates his expanded claim that audiences must also fictionalize themselves, assume their (collective but individual) roles in the “game of literacy…to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read” (60). This dual exchange of fictionalized identities is necessary because the writer and reader do not benefit from the traditional “two-way” communication of oral narrative, in which “a real audience controls the narrator’s behavior immediately” (66). As both work at communication from isolated positions, each must be cast into and accept an assigned role in order for writing and reading acts to bear fruitful (70).

Lisa Ede and Andrea Lundsford call Ong’s theory of audience invention “audience invoked” and question Ong’s comprehensive application of writer-reader relationships as fictionalized constructs, claiming it oversimplifies “the potential range and diversity of both oral and written communication situations” (83). While I certainly agree that a writer must imagine an audience and it seems reasonable that to do so effectively a writer must also compose with that “fictional” audience in mind—incidentally, this is a common technique embedded in Creative Writing curriculum—I, too, question the generalizability and transferability of Ong’s theory, its practicality as a teaching methodology.

An advocate of Ong’s insights into writing as a technology and a tool that separates writer, reader, and product, I do have my reservations about the application of “fictionalizing” an audience as it applies to online instructional practice, particularly as it relates to freshman composition students. For one, Ong’s examples are all experienced writers whose works are published. Analyzing published works reputed as literature already implies an author with a mature understanding of audiences. I’m not sure the fictionalizing process as Ong describes it is transferable to the composition classroom broadly and especially not the online composition classroom specifically. Many students in freshman composition courses do not yet possess the degree of nuanced understanding required to effectively enact Ong’s fictionalization process.

Another of my reservations considers Ong’s theory as it relates to modalities of instruction. The online environment is a problematizing space that, perhaps, too readily fictionalizes its participants in ways that confuse and complicate the writer-reader relationship. For example, the internet constitutes what Marc Auge calls a non-place, which he describes, among other things, as a space “in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but ‘moral entities’ or institutions” (78). From this ideological perspective, I posit that students working in such spaces develop a sense of non-audience. Such an audience would not need much consideration. The author of these “texts” that form the communication directives of non-places need only provide the script of use that regulates, prohibits, informs, and labels (77-78). The result of such unidirectional communication is not a useful fictionalization of audience but a treatment of audience as passive, static, and uniform.

Incorporating this additional theoretical lens as a complicating agent, I ask the following questions:

Q1: What happens to the rules of “the game of literacy” in a space designed for transient communication practices?

Q2: If the audience is a fiction, how does the writer know how to conceptualize it? Is this exercise supposed to be intuitive? Will one, two, ten peer reviewers correctly represent the collective reader?

Q3: Does the internet assist or counteract the efforts of a writer to fictionalize its audience?

These questions aside, Ong’s theory does provide a rationale for offering additional and more overt instruction of writer-audience awareness in the composition classroom. An instructor operationalizing Ong’s theory might focus on teaching students the purpose behind and desired outcome of addressing fictional audiences. In online writing courses, the instructor of audience as fiction may emphasize appropriate approaches to fictionalization as it relates to situation and context.

Ong continues to challenge my theories about writing in technologized spaces and my understanding of the relationships between writers and readers.

Reference (Not in CT)

Auge, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.

I Feel Constrained: Justin Atwell and a History of Bad Title-Writing

One of Grant-Davie’s major critiques of Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation” in “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” is that it is noticeably vague. He defines them as “persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (8). He compares them to Aristotle’s “artistic” and “inartistic” proofs. Grant-Davie argues that this definition is limited and offers his own interpretation: “I refer to the kind that support a rhetor’s case as positive constraints, or assets, and those that might hinder it as negative constraints, or liabilities” (272) In addition, Grant-Davie believes that many positive constraints (artistic proofs in this case) exist within the rhetor. As such, he “excludes” the rhetor, banishing her from the Land of Constituents to her own private island of Rhetopia (my apologies to Booth for the plagiarism).

Though I believe Grant-Davie’s distinction between positive and negative constraints is a wise and necessary one, I disagree with the valuation of rhetor as its own constituent category. In Bitzer’s original depiction, I kind of enjoyed the fact that the rhetor seemed like an afterthought: “When the orator, invited by situation, enters it and creates and presents discourse, then both he and his speech are additional constituents” (8). To Ibtissem’s point about winning arguments, it seems to me that much of the misconception that rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric is all about winning arguments stems from the fact that we place too much emphasis on the rhetor. From the Progymnasmata to Process Theory to many present day pedagogies, it seems the rhetor is foregrounded, and Grant-Davies does it again. While the rhetor is important, I think it’s important to idle a moment and think more about the other involved “constituents” involved in any given situation For example, see Foss and Griffin’s “Invitational Rhetoric”–a delightful piece of feminist rhetoric that never really gained any traction, which is a gol’ dern shame IMHO.

Q1: What about the “unimportant” conversations of daily life? Do those not exist in a rhetorical situation? Bitzer made me think they did. Grant-Davie made me think they did not.

Q2: How do we see rhetorical situations as related to Discourse Communities? I’m thinking specifically about Grant-Davie’s baseball game on 270.