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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Dias et al. – Worlds Apart and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts

Dias, Patrick, et al. Worlds Apart :Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print. Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Society.

In this text, the authors explored how writing functioned in academic and workplace contexts in order to determine the correlation between academic writing instruction and workplace writing preparation. The study began in 1992 and one goal of the study was to identify commonalities and differences between writing in academic and workplace settings. They selected four matching university and professional settings: public administration courses and Federal government institutions, management courses and corresponding work settings, architecture courses and a firm of architects, social work courses and social work agencies. The different pairs represented different genres of writing.The researchers used a multiple case study approach to study writers and writing across both academic and workplace settings. They stated that they chose case study in order to ensure that participants’ perspective were an integral part of the study.
The Data-gathering activities consisted of:
  1. Inventorying the genres in each domain
  2. Document tracking
  3. Conducting Reading protocols of designated readers
  4. Ethnographic observation of writers involved in tasks of composing
  5. Interviews
  6. Participant validation (12-13)
For data analyses researchers utilized textual analyses of the writing collected , analyses of oral discourse surrounding production of texts using categories based of systematic linguistics, and sociolinguistic analyses of production and reception of texts within the acts of speaking, reading, and writing occurred (13-14).
Two main questions they attempted to answer were:
  • How do university writing practices relate to writing in the workplace?
  • In what sense and to what extend is writing in university a preparation for writing in the workplace? (15)
Concerns emerging from the research:
  • What changes need to be made in university teaching practices in order to exploit more fully the potential of writing as a tool for learning, and to prepare students to enter more easily into workplace writing practices?
  • Can universities prepare students to write for work?
  • What workplace practices inhibit the full development and use of writing for productive work? What practices support the use of writing to promote workplace goals?

The researchers used a combination of several theoretical frameworks that emphasize the situated nature of writing, including: Genre Studies, Activity Theory (AT), Situated Learning within Communities of Practice (COP), Distributed Cognition, and Semiotic Theory.

Genre studies helped the authors to frame written discourse as “regularized, but not fixed; fluid, flexible, and dynamic; emerging and evolving in exigence and action; reflecting and incorporating social needs, demands, and structures; and responsive to social interpretations and reinterpretations of necessarily shifting, complex experiences” (23).
In this study, language, and writing in particular, are understood as mediating tools:
“Language as mediational means or tool is not a mere neutral conduit; it also puts its own mark on mediated action. Thus, in our case the genres that constitute the mediating communicative means of a community may affect thinking by constraining the sort of thought that can be expressed (and by creating a need to have certain kinds of thoughts in order to fulfill the requirements of the genre). And in general we concur with his insistence on regarding agent, means, and actions as integrally bound and irreducible.” (36)
The authors argued that it is fair to expect academic institutions to prepare students for workplace writing, but that in order to do so, we must acknowledge that there are differences in the act of writing in academic and workplace settings.
“Because with few exceptions writing is a medium deployed in both worlds, such preparation is not an unreasonable expectation. And it is precisely such an expectation that makes acting, the second term in our title, critical. Writing is acting; but in Activity Theory terms, writing at work and writing at school constitute two very different activities, one primarily epistemic and oriented to accomplishing the work of schooling, and the other primarily an instrumental and often economic activity, and oriented accordingly toward accomplishing the work of an organization. In that light, one activity, writing in school, is not necessarily preparation for successfully undertaking the other activity, writing at work.” (223)
These differences can be seen in  real ways, such as through the types of feedback given in response to writing in both contexts: “What seem radically different are the other sorts of consideration that inform the supervisor’s commentary. Whereas the professor’s sense of what is necessary and appropriate derives from ‘the literature,’ or from the curriculum, or from a sense of what is currently valued in the written transactions of the discipline, the intertext on which the supervisor draws is more varied and more diffuse” (225).
While functional literacies are portable in the transition from university to workplace, rhetorical literacy is necessary for the transition from the university to work: “Certainly, skills related to portable tools: computer-related skills, including key boarding, word-processing, and spreadsheet skills, language fluency, abilities related to using and designing forms, charts, and other kinds of graphic displays. Oral skills and the social skills valued in group work ought to carry over as well. Again, we meed to remind ourselves that such skills will be modified in transition; for instance, an individual’s fluency will be severely retarded in the workplace if he or she lack rhetorical savvy” (232).
Based on their study, the authors argued that in order for academic writing instruction to translate into workplace writing success, several aspects of workplace writing should be incorporated into academic writing instruction.

“It seems reasonable that the embededness of writing in workplace practices ought to be replicated in school settings as well, if it isn’t for the fact that the process of education does often operate on a model of detaching skills and practices from their workaday settings in order to teach them effectively. Such encapsulation (Engestrom, 1991) of knowledge and skills is quite likely a deterrent rather than an aid to learning to write… If there is one major, obvious-seeming way in which educational courses might prepare people better for the demands of writing at work, it is through constituting the class as a working group with some degree of complexity, continuity, and interdependency of joint activity. Such arrangements will go some way toward realizing the far richer communicative relations that contextualize writing in the workplace.” (235)