Writing as Social Action: genre analysis practice

In the past, I was surprised at how many of my students didn’t seem to “get” the rhetorical analysis assignment. Instead of analyzing the way Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” functions rhetorically, they often merely summarized King’s argument and meekly connected the main points to the usual ethos/pathos/logos triumvirate. And yet, while I was filling out the “genre analysis” chart  in preparation to write this response, I felt the same bewilderment — in other words, it took me a while before I switched from thinking about content to the rhetorical situations in which these course designs function as genres. This could be largely because of my literary training — organizational documents somehow fall below the radar, they respresent non-literary genres that, as Aviva Freedman’s and Peter Medway explain, are “taken-for-granted genres.” However, once I refocused and started looking at course designs as rhetorical documents produced with an aim to bring about social action, they became ideal candidates for such analysis. Moreover, the fact that each of them was written in a different context, in a different institutional setting, pointed to the flexibility and interaction that appears to be so integral in the North American School.

So how can we define a “course design” genre? Here are some similarities present in all three documents:

  • Formal features. All three documents are organized similarly and incorporate course structure, institutional context, theoretical rationale, and critical reflections sections. The tone is formal, but the language is accessible to non-specialized audiences. Specialized terminology is explained and supported with citations. Formally, they contain the features of proposal, manifesto, and research report.
  • Context. The courses are designed within an educational institution setting. Generally, this means a university or college, but specific context vary greatly because of the differences in departmental goals and student body (students whose native language is Spanish, students requiring but resisting remedial courses in an open-admission system, and more experienced writers who need to professionalize.
  • Pragmatic/social action. This section is related to context, since all three documents propose to achieve as specific goal related to the institutional and student needs. One course designs envisions the course as a “bridge” between preparatory and more advanced writing classes, another mentions retention of students as the course’s goal.
  • Rhetorical strategies. The writers draw authority from quoting well-known theorists and quoting directly from course evaluations conducted by students. The latter strategy gives the document a sort of transparency — the author has “nothing to hide” and shows willingness to adapt the course design in the future according to student feedback.
  • Semantic content. The content is roughly balanced between description of the course/context and assignments/reflection section. Rationale for including certain assignments and digital media occupies an important place in the document, implicitly providing evaluation criteria at the end of the term.
  • Fudging. This is just a hunch, an intuition, but reading these documents I got the sense that they contained a certain conscious element of equivocation. Pedagogical failures were neutralized because their transformative and learning value were critically analyzed. Negative student comments were always counterbalanced with the positive ones. Sometimes the language seemed to be hiding something — a lack of competence, inexperience. It seemed that certain things were said because the course design genre expected by the institution prescribed those responses. In other words, there were two contexts running side by side: institutional and formulaic.

In relationship to this week’s readings about genre and genre theory, I think what stands out the most in the course design genre is the author’s willingness to adapt the genre itself according to the success/failure of the course with their particular students. Course designs are flexible and interactive (they shape the learning but allow the students to shape them back) and they respond to specific contexts. That said, they are still limited by the formulaic expectations of the institutions they are created for, and have to contend with the goals of these larger institutional bodies.

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