Berkenkotter and Huckin – Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/ Culture/ Power

Berkenkotter, Carol, and Thomas N. Huckin. Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/ Culture/ Power. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1995. Print.

In Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/ Culture/ Power, the authors outline their theory of genre knowledge from a sociocognitive perspective and then further explicate how it works through several case studies featuring different forms of academic discourse, including scientific journal articles, academic conventions, and graduate school writing assignments.

The authors opened the text by stating the importance of Genre Studies to academic disciplines:

Genres are the media through which scholars and scientists communicate with their peers. Genres are intimately linked to a discipline’s methodology, and they package information in ways that conform to a discipline’s norms, values, and ideology. Understanding the genres of written communication in one’s field is, therefore, essential to professional success” (1).

Despite the importance of genre to all disciplines, including Composition and Rhetorical Studies, at the time, Berkenkotter and Huckin claimed that very little work informed by case research with insiders had been done regarding genre in rhetorical studies (2). Their research, based on eight years of rhetorical and linguistic analyses of case study data that foregrounded individual writers’ language-in-use, argued for the importance of focusing on the ways in which writers use genre knowledge (or fail to do so) as they engage in various disciplinary activities (i.e. negotiating revise and resubmits with reviewers, or judging conference proposals) (3). Their thesis was “that genres are inherently dynamic rhetorical structures that can be manipulated according to the conditions of use, and that genre knowledge is therefore best conceptualized as a form of situated cognition embedded in disciplinary activities. For writers to make things happen… they must know how to strategically utilize their understanding of genre” (3). In other words, genre knowledge for scholars (and everyone else) is an available means of persuasion.

Through their grounded, predominantly inductive approach they developed their theoretical framework consisting of the following five principles:

  • Dynamism – genres are dynamic rhetorical forms that develop from actors’ responses to recurring situations. Genres change over time in response to user’s sociocognitive needs
  • Situatedness – genres develop fromand are a part of user’s participation in communicative activities
  • Form and Content – genre knowledge embraces both form and content, including a sense of what content is appropriate based on the particular purpose, situation and time
  • Duality and Structure – as users draw on genre rules they both constitute social structures and reproduce them
  • Community Ownership – genre conventions signal a discourse community’s norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology (4).

Through the case studies presented in the text it s clear that at the same time genre knowledge can help users execute more rhetorical savvy and enact agency, its use can also reinforce rigid structures and perpetuate gatekeeping. This can serve as a hindrance to newcomers to a genre, such as doctoral students as evidenced in chapter 7, a case study on former Carnegie Mellon University’s Rhetoric program doctoral student John Ackerman (AKA “Nate”). While the study argued that over the course of several years of enculturation in the program Nate shifted from using genre conventions that identified him with his previous community and began to use those most suitable to his discipline, the study also highlighted tensions when individuals are faced with using academic discourse: “The linguistic analysis we did on Nate’s texts show clearly that he had difficulty switching from the one mode to the other. Although informal, expressive writing appears to help writers explore new ideas, it also may deter them from expressing these ideas in the highly explicit, cohesive, hierarchical style expected in formal expository prose” (142). The authors cited Chafe’s argument that in informal speech, writers also focused on their thoughts and feelings – this clearly went against the genre’s conventions. It is clear that in Nate’s example the issue was not a lack of clarity on his part, but one of genre violation on his part and gatekeeping on the part of his department, university, and perhaps discipline.

This issue of conformity to academic genres is addressed in chapter 8, as well, but from more-so with regard to the schooling of children. The authors use scholarship on teaching academic genres in the UK and Australia to question U.S. approaches. While acknowledging the power and privilege differentials between white and nonwhite students in the U.S. and abroad, their review of the literature showed a tentativeness with regard to a solution. They argued that the solution is not as simple as teaching genre knowledge in the classroom and cited Kress (1987, “Genres are cultural constructs, they are as culture determines. Challenging genres is therefore challenging culture” (159).

The concluded with a more comprehensive suggestion:

“It may be that a genre approach to the teaching of writing does not fit many language arts and composition teachers’ conception of their role, given their training, ideological loyalties, and professional allegiances. If this is the case, rethinking the training of language arts and composition teachers as well as the current curricula in language arts and university writing courses may be what is called for, should enough teachers and scholars see a need to bring about systemic, programmatic change.” (163) [Bold emphasis is mine]

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