CCCC 2006 in Review
I eagerly anticipated attending this session as it had two of, whom I consider, the most cutting-edge genre scholars, Anis Bawarshi (Genres and the Invention of the Writer, 2003) and Amy Devitt (Writing Genres, 2004). Unfortunately, I arrived late at this panel session after waiting 15 minutes for the elevators on the 18th Floor of the Palmer House. (I heard from another attendee that job candidates experienced similar frustration (or panic?) over the elevators when MLA was held at the Palmer House.) When I arrived at the meeting room, the session was so packed-a congregation of listeners was assembled body to body at the back of the room-that I could barely squeeze open the door.
The panel also included Mary Jo Reiff, who presented on the change of the genre of public petition, and Angela Jones, who presented on student emails to their instructor. While both Reiff's and Jones' presentations were very interesting and provided excellent examples for Devitt's theory on antecedent genres, I am not going to review these last two papers in the session. These last two presentations deserve attention in their own right, but I simply don't have the energy-perhaps I'll come back to them later.
(I was able to get a copy of Anis Bawarshi's paper to make up for missing the first ten minutes of his presentation. Thus, my review will come primarily from his written paper rather than from his oral presentation.)
Bawarshi started the panel with a theoretical look at "uptake," which he describes as "the spaces between genres." He states:
"The spaces between genres, we will argue, are as significant as the genres themselves for what they can tell us about how meaning relations are constructed and reproduced; for how genres coordinate social action in consequential and powerful ways; for how people negotiate between antecedent and new genres, and for how people resist and transform genres."
This look at uptake and the use of antecedent genres signals a new area in genre studies that is currently emerging, expanding on what genre scholars already know about how genres work. What is yet to be studied in more depth (and breadth) is how genre knowledge and uptake influence how one writes-which is different from how a genre itself influences how we write that same genre. What Bawarshi and Devitt, I believe, are trying to get at is what Devitt calls "the context of situation" (2004) and the influences outside of the target genre that influence how one comes to a new writing task.
"When we use familiar genres or encounter new ones, we bring other parts of our discursive resources to bear on them, including knowledge of prior genres. In short, our discursive resources inform to some extent our encounters with genres, and thus function as dispositions that guide our complex, often unconscious, transactions between genres." (emphasis added)
I like Bawarshi's use of the word "disposition" to describe how knowledge of prior genres affect how writers approach a new writing task-whether that be a new genre or a known one. "Disposition" can mean not only a temperament or inclination, but also the disposing of something. And I think genre knowledge works in the same way; that is, knowledge of prior genres, what Devitt refers to as antecedent genres, do affect (1) one's attitude or temperament towards a particular writing task-how one feels and what one believes about what should be done, how it should be done, what tone or subject position the author should take, etc., (2) what one is inclined to do for the given writing task, and (3) what one considers "impossible" for the given writing task, that is, what one disposes of from his or her pool of knowledge of prior genres (what I like to call our "bag of tricks").
Bawarshi further describes uptake as "the ideological transactions that configure, normalize, and activate meaning relations within and between systems of genres" and "learned recognitions of significance that […] become habitual." For me, these definitions are key in understanding not only what uptake is but also why it is so important for the way we think about our students' writing. If uptake is an "ideological transaction" that indicates to students what response is required, or it is a "learned recognition" of what is significant, then we now have a way to capitalize on students' prior genre knowledge-to make connections between what they recognize as significant-and also explicitly teach students about "appropriate" academic uptakes.
I would caution educators, however, in focusing too much on teaching new uptakes without spending enough time on making connections with students' previously "learned recognitions." Bawarshi states:
"[U]ptake knowledge is often tacitly acquired, ideologically consequential, deeply remembered, and difficult to unlearn. And because they help provide a sense of coherence, uptakes have a way of smoothing over the experience of conflict by normalizing relations between genre[s] in ways that are culturally legitimating, which is why we can become attached to them, in quite durable ways." (emphasis added)
Here I see a particularly strong reason why we need to study students' antecedent genres and uptake: Knowledge is "ideologically consequential" and "culturally legitimating" and, especially for students of non-mainstream cultures, adding knowledge that is potentially conflicting with their prior knowledge can be an epistemologically violent experience. We may, if even temporarily, be upsetting our students' "sense of coherence" in ways that will have significant ramifications.
Bawarshi, however, ends his presentation on a positive note, suggesting that uptake can be a site of "intervention" and that students can utilize alternative uptakes "to make strategic use of various discourses that reflect their various histories and experiences." While I agree that the study of uptake has the potential to allow for alternative responses and hybrid genres that may better our students' discursive needs, I would like to see next studies on how such alternative responses are received (or dismissed as failed genres).
Devitt starts her presentation with a brief overview of her recent work on how genres interact. I'm not going to recap it here, but if you're interested, I strongly recommend checking out her book Writing Genres (Southern Illinois UP, 2004)-and no, she didn't ask me to plug her book.
Devitt's presentation provided preliminary results from her study of antecedent genres and their influence on student writing at the FYC level. As a nice (and timely) follow up to her theoretical exploration of the spaces between genres, Devitt studied the choices students made in their FYC class. Her research questions were "What genres do first-year students in my own writing course already know when they arrive at my class? And how do those students use their known genres when writing new genres for my class?"
Devitt starts with a premise that is obvious but bears reminding-that "students do not arrive in our classrooms genre-free." All students enter our classrooms with prior knowledge of genres that they use-and sometimes use effectively!-in other areas of their lives. These are the antecedent genres that our students use to negotiate, approximate, imitate the new genres we want them to write. Before I describe Devitt's study as presented, I would like to preface with her conclusions:
(1) "people do not write in a genre vacuum and do not try to create new genre-free texts but instead always write from within their known genres; and
(2) "people work to adapt the genres that appear to them closest in situation to the new writing task rather than adapting the genres they most enjoy or at which they feel most proficient."
Now, while even Devitt says that these results "might seem reasonable or even predictable," I want to remind educators, myself included, of those moments when we throw up our hands in despair over a "bad" student paper. There are times, I admit, when I really don't know what possessed a student to write such a response to a given writing task. What Devitt reminds us is that our student are indeed working from prior knowledge and there is a reason why students write the things they do. I'll come back to the awe-inspiring power of these conclusions later. For now, back to the study.
The study consisted of a questionnaire in which students were asked to report what genres they remembered writing in high school and outside of school, which they enjoyed the most and least, and the final drafts of each paper the students wrote for Devitt's FYC class. The papers were analyzed for features of antecedent genres, whether the genres were reported or not. Devitt concedes that the use of textual features to identify antecedent genres in student writing is problematic, and I will be curious to see what she or others come up with to address this in any further or future study.
"The fact that the least favored genres still appeared commonly in students' new drafts […] supports that the genres they have learned are serving as antecedent genres rather than just as substitutes for the new genres. That is, it indicates that they are drawing from genres they judge to be helpful […] rather than just desperately trying on whatever they already know."
"These antecedent genres also appear in new texts not in full but in parts, with bits and pieces of the antecedent genre visible in the new text. Students may be assessing the similarity of rhetorical situations between the known and the new genres and making decisions about how to adapt the known genre to the new situation, or they may be acting less consciously but merely grounding themselves in what they know in the face of a new and difficult task."
Devitt provided evidence from two student papers to illustrate these conclusions. The first student "Nathan" did not report knowing or writing traditional thesis-support papers or the five-paragraph theme, and yet Devitt found that in his open-ended writing sample, "Nathan" used "an inverted pyramid introduction and a thesis statement followed by two supportive personal experience paragraphs." Devitt reported that this type of response-the use of a closely related antecedent genre-was most common in her class, even though it was often the least favored by students.
However, Devitt also provided evidence from another student "Mason" who instead tended to rely on one, favored genre: the personal narrative. In this case, "Mason" used the personal narrative for his first two analytical papers and in the third retained the use of chronological order, although he did include more appropriate features such as thesis and evidence.
Devitt concludes her presentation with the assertion that when"faced with writing a new kind of text, people try to adapt elements of known genres with similar rhetorical situations" and that our students "do not simply impose a familiar genre on an inappropriate task; they select an appropriate antecedent to serve as a foundation from which to learn new approaches." Devitt further asserts that antecedent genres are important to understanding how genres interact and that this understanding can "help writers bridge the familiar and the unfamiliar."
I look forward to hearing more from Devitt (and/or her research assistant Heather Bastian) on the results and conclusions from this study. I am particularly curious about the answers to questions such as these: What elements of the rhetorical situation are most compelling to our students (or any writer)? Are their some situations in which certain elements become more compelling? For example, in Devitt's study of her class, is it more of a determining factor that these papers were written in the context of school-and so the students tried to draw from school genres? If the topic were something perceived by some students as a non-school issue, would we see non-school genred features in our students writing? If a student were from a non-mainstream cultural background, would we see more cultural-specific features in their writing for our classes?
These questions that I pose speak to what I called earlier "the awe-inspiring conclusions" about how students write new genres. What strikes me is the clear evidence that students are making choices (consciously or unconsciously) about their writing and what is "appropriate" for a given writing task. And, again, I know this sounds like common sense, however, let's not forget those moments when we throw up our hands (or pull out our hair). Even students who make "poor" or "inappropriate" choices that end up in failed genres-even they have a reason for responding in the way they did. What I find so awe-inspiring about this notion is that studying antecedent genres and uptake-in all their ideological and cultural spheres in- and outside the classroom-has the potential to make connections for students who come from backgrounds that might be ideologically or culturally in conflict with that of the academy. Understanding how the spaces between genres work may be the most promising way to providing opportunities for our marginalized student should they want to take them.
—Meredith J. Lee
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.