Saturday, April 12, 2008

Genre & Activity Theory for the Composition Classroom

Amanda Wright

For this research project, the field of study consists of two important current theories in the discipline of rhetoric and composition, genre theory and activity theory. The purpose in studying these theories is to develop a continuing understanding of both their complexity and their synthesis for future application to the teaching of writing. Other teachers who are interested in connecting their students to the genres of both the academic and professional “real worlds” will be interested in this research. Although I initially gathered many sources on the potential application of these theories in the classroom, it became apparent that a focus on the theory would be necessary as a foundation for future study. However, I did include one textbook which utilizes genre theory to teach writing, a demonstration of the synthesizing power of the theory. I collected scholarly sources only, including articles from scholarly journals as well as books in the field of rhetoric and composition studies. Because the study of writing through these theories is a relatively new subsystem of the discipline, my earliest source dates to 1994.

Bazerman, Charles. “Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions.” Genre and the new Rhetoric (Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education). Freedman, Aviva and Peter Medway, eds. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994: 79-101. Univ. of Dayton Roesch Library, Dayton OH.
This article, by Charles Bazerman of University of California Santa Barbara, who has published frequently and influentially on the subject over the last twenty years, was written in attempt to synthesize what was known at the time about intertextuality, genre sets, and speech acts (and writing as interpreted through the lens of speech action). Bazerman, who was studying the work of Edison at the time, discussed his ideas through the examples of patents and U.S. patent law. Importantly, he theorized that genres and genre sets extended into genre systems. However, he touched on this only briefly at the end of the article, and it might have been lost in the complexity of his application of John Searle’s and others’ theories of speech acts to writing, except that I had read the Russell articles prior to reading this and knew to look for it. Although it is apparent that Bazerman was thinking through some important aspects of the theory and drawing on his wealth of knowledge from a variety of disciplines, this early article proved difficult and will require more reads to clearly comprehend the transfer and development of his ideas, and to clearly discern their place in the theory. Further, he cites internally only very sparsely (the article was written in APA format), and the copy on his website contains a significant number of typos.

Devitt, Amy, Mary Jo Reiff, and Anis Bawarshi. Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004.
This textbook, created by Anis Bawarshi, Associate Professor at University of Washington, Mary Jo Reiff, Associate Professor at University of TennesseeKnoxville, and Amy Devitt, Professor, University of Kansas, provides genre theory as a tool to teach writing in a college composition course. It is separated into three parts. Part I relates to “Writing in Scenes [activity systems], [rhetorical] Situations, and Genres” and lays a foundation of rhetoric in writing. Parts II and III deal with writing in academic and other “real-world” settings respectively. Through a multitude of examples, guided questions, and directed (and contextualized) writing assignments, this text repeatedly analyzes and synthesizes each of its topics. The first writing project is an ethnography of a “Scene” of the students’ choice, and all activities include a rubric of questions which address the rhetorical context, appropriateness of genre chosen, etc. This textbook is carefully constructed and the course it presents seems almost ideal. Even a teacher who is not well-versed in genre theory could use this text to moderate success.

Russell, David. “The Kind-ness of Genre: An Activity Theory Analysis of High School Teachers’ Perception of Genre in a Portfolio Assessment Across the Curriculum.” Coe, Richard et al, eds. The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. 225-242.
In this chapter, David Russell, Professor at Iowa State University, applied activity theory to his recordings of a multidisciplinary team of high school educators in Kentucky as they assessed student portfolios. This ethnography gives sufficient background on the system of assessment in Kentucky as well as a brief explanation of Russell’s synthesis of genre theory and activity theory. In the chapter, he submits that the teachers must assess the students’ writing through the lenses of three genres: as the state assessment it actually presents, as a genre in the teachers’ own classes, and as rhetorical action in the world beyond high school. He observes that the teachers experience difficulties discerning breadth, or range of genres allowed, and depth, or extent to which those genres in the students writing potentially act in the real world. Finally, the conclusion is that the most valuable aspect of the portfolio genres and the genre of the portfolio assessment itself is in continued connections to other activity systems—in potential futures where students’ writing becomes part of the greater world.

---. “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis. Written Communication 14. 1997. 504-554.
In this article, David Russell addresses a gap he perceives between his interpretation of cultural-historical activity theory and the theory of genre systems as proposed by Charles Bazerman in 1994. Here he offers the activity system itself as a unit of analysis to bring together the macro- and micro-levels of human interaction, and discusses at great length and with a number of concrete examples some ways in which his approach accounts for stability and change in individuals and in systems, as well as for the learning of writing itself. From here, he proceeds to the middle ground between the micro-level and the macro-level, an intermediate cell biology classroom. The cell biology classroom becomes the illustration of how his approach extends through numerous systems to the research university and beyond, again accounting for individuals and groups, stability and change. This illustrates quite thoroughly that his synthesis provides a better unit of analysis, accounts for groups between the macro- and the micro, and relates texts to interactions.

---. “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum, 1995. 51-77.
In a chapter of a book edited by Joseph Petraglia, Russell begins with a four-part critique first year composition courses posed by Albert Kitzhaber in 1960. Russell’s rendition of the critique is as follows: there is a lack of consensus on content, a lack of intellectual rigor compared to other first year courses, the aims are too ambitious, and there does not seem to be a way to improve upon these problems—therefore the class should be transfigured. Russell utilizes activity theory to analyze and synthesize each aspect of Kitzhaber’s argument, which at times reads circularly—but also proceeds to suggest two specific ways to transfigure the course. Prior to the analysis, the text provides a discussion of activity theory, and then proceeds to apply it. Russell’s suggestions are to extend writing across the disciplines and change the first year composition course into an introduction to rhetoric in language, based in the research and writing of the social disciplines and described as a liberal arts course.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Can Cross-Disciplinary Links Help Us Teach ‘Academic Discourse’ in FYC?” Across The Disciplines 2 (27 July 2004). Univ. of Dayton Roesch Library, Dayton OH. 27 March 2008 In this article, ElizabethWardle, Assistant Professor, at University of Dayton continues the discussion of the motives of first year composition, extending on her research for “Mutt Genres.” Here, she focuses on the supposed collaboration between disciplines in composition classes, performing a cultural-historical activity analysis of the linked learning communities in the same Midwestern university. This discussion includes, interestingly, some defense of why she chose to apply activity theory. The text proceeds to defining—citing Engestrom, and then relating the contradictions, constraints, and psychological double binds experienced by the teachers and some students of the courses. To wit: teachers’ own (unofficial) motives conflict with the program’s official ones, the teachers have students write about topics in their disciplines rather than in the genres of their disciplines, and teachers (citing Bourdieu) “mis-recognize” English genres as general ones of writing. She is led to repeat the suggestion that either the goals or the delegation of teaching FYC should be altered to improve the situation.

---. “’Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?” College Composition and Communication (Forthcoming).
In this article, Wardle uses activity analysis of the first year composition (FYC) program at a Midwestern university to show that the goals of FYC do not align with the goals of other activity systems within the university. Wardle begins with a look at genre, concluding this section with the statement that all classroom genres, including those of are, citing Petraglia, “pseudotransactional” (5). She begins the account of her research by questioning what general knowledge can be taught in FYC that will transfer to the university, and what pedagogies must be used to facilitate that transfer. The investigation was conducted through interviews, focus groups, and surveys administered to teachers and students of both regular composition courses and courses linked to specific majors—and Wardle uses activity theory to analyze the problems inherent in both approaches. One of these problems is the pseudotransactional or “Mutt” genres of the FYC classroom. Here, the text returns to the initial questions, and Wardle proposes a completely new goal for the FYC course: to teach about writing through use of texts in the discipline, as part of a general education requirement, much as other survey courses introduce students to their disciplines. She concludes with a call for the academy to seriously consider this un/orthodox proposal.

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