Sunday, April 27, 2008

Analysis, Synthesis, and Application: Activity Theory, Genre Theory, and Teaching Writing

Mandy Wright

The study of genre theory within Rhetoric and Composition is a relatively new branch of study, which is informed, fittingly, by work in several other disciplines. This information among disciplines is fitting because genre explains language interactions in terms of intertextuality, adoption, and change within and among the groups who utilize genres to serve a variety of social exigences. Since the arrival of genre on the comp scene, it has been amended through absorption several other theoretical concepts. Notable among recent applications is the connection of genre theory to activity theory in a continuing attempt to refine genre’s universality and its utility in studying human language interactions, including (and especially for this discipline) writing. Research in the field of Rhetoric and Composition in the past twenty years which has addressed genre theory, and especially that which has applied activity theory to it in use, has generally made a series of similar, although not necessarily sequential, moves. Each of these moves is characterized what I will call interelucidation: the example or analyzed material enriches the understanding of activity theory or genre theory, while activity theory and/or genre theory is used to analyze or explain the example. Thus even in defining, these two theories are continually synthetic. The three major moves are to explain or develop genre theory, to synthesize activity theory with genre theory, and to apply the synthetic theory. Applications of these theories not only elucidate both the theory and the subjects of analysis, but promote suggestions for the teaching of writing.

Move One: Development of Genre Theory in Rhetoric and Composition
First, the research defines genre theory, frequently adding new vocabulary and/or a new perspective (Bazerman; Devitt et al 7; Russell “Rethinking” 505; Wardle “Cross-Disciplinary”). One example is Bazerman’s synthesis of theories of speech genres, action, and intertextuality. Charles Bazerman refers to speech acts, aligns a theory of written genres-as-actions with theories of Searle, and points out difficulties which ensue as a result of the differences between speech and written genres with regard to both extemporaneity and “polysemiousness.” His perspective, drawing on research in several fields, reveals that because utterances can be both interpreted and act in a variety of ways, an extension of Devitt’s genre sets (“Generalizing” 580) must be conceptualized to account for their (i.e. genre sets’) involvement in broader human contexts. Though this example does not discuss in depth the theories outside of rhetoric and composition upon which it is drawn, it will suffice for this discussion to say that in this example, as in others of defining genre, the theorist often draws on (an)other field(s) for vocabulary or perspective. In using his own examples to illustrate how genre is delineated, Bazerman also synthesizes the definition of genre with his own examples. His definitions and new uses of theory from other fields also help him to bring together the genre systems that he defines.

Move Two: Synthesis of Activity Theory with Genre
Another move is to, with varying amounts of explanation of activity theory as well as varying levels of justification, synthesize activity theory with genre theory (Kain and Wardle 114; Russell “Activity Theory” and “Rethinking”; Wardle “Cross-Disciplinary” and “’Mutt Genres’” 4). For example, David Russell draws on Bazerman but then also submits that the cultural-historical activity theory of Vygotsky provides an ideal framework for analysis of how genres work in sets and systems. Russell and others identify an interpretation of activity theory that draws on Vygotsky via Leont’ev, Y. Engestrom, and Cole and Engestrom (Dias 16; Devitt et al 10; Kain and Wardle 120; Russell “Activity Theory” 53, to name a few). Again, 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. By applying activity theory along with genre theory to the study of those human interactions which involve writing, these researchers obtain the ability to discuss disparate acts, genres, and groups as unified by functioning within the human endeavor (Dias 16; Kain and Wardle 121; Russell “Activity Theory” 53; “Rethinking” 508; Wardle “Cross-Disciplinary”).

Move Three: Applications of Activity and Genre
Once both activity theory and genre theory are delineated and synthesized, and important vocabulary and concepts are introduced, the objective of the research may be fulfilled. There are several ways in which the research utilizes these two theories; in application the synthesis of genre and activity with what is used to analyze becomes apparent. However, some distinctions may be made of application of genre and activity theory as follows:
•Activity theory and genre theory are used to analyze the “real world,” for our purposes to include the disciplines of the university.
•Activity theory and genre theory are used to analyze the world of school.
•Analyzed activities are used to describe or forge innovative explanations of genre and/or activity theories.
•Activity theory and genre theory are shown to unify false dichotomies seemingly inherent in analyzed situations.
•Genre and/or activity theory is used to suggest pedagogy for teachers of writing.
Again, in performing any one of these actions, the discussion frequently performs other actions either simultaneously or as an end result. One typical action is to compare the genres and activity systems of the “real world” to those of school, wherein the analysis may reveal some false dichotomies (such at that between content and form) of school genres. The activities and genres of school and the real world are used to explain activity and genre theories, both submitting new findings and illustrating that suggested dichotomies are synthesized. Finally, this entire analysis is used to suggest at least to minimal extant a pedagogy for teachers of writing which utilizes this knowledge to unify school and workplace genres and activities. This series of maneuvers generally describes several past and recent articles on this topic (Dias; Kain and Wardle; Russell “Activity Theory” and “Rethinking”; Wardle “Cross-Disciplinary”). Indeed, even discussions of genre which have not included activity theory have still used examples to synthesize dichotomies, explain genre itself, and/or suggest pedagogy (Bawarshi; Carter; Devitt). Through these discussions the potential of genre and activity theories for the teaching of writing becomes clear.

Though the discussion of genre and application of activity theory to this discussion is a relatively young branch of a relatively young discipline, a few pioneers have begun to suggest ways in which the synthesis may continue to inform both research and pedagogy. The conversation thus far has focused primarily of first-year or general education writing courses, writing across the university, and writing in workplaces. Though much remains to be discovered about these systems and their intersections, both the analysis and pedagogical application of these theories to secondary education and the transfer of knowledge from high school to the university or workplace is thus far scarce (see Russell “’Kind-ness’” for one exception).

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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