Archive | genre tracing RSS feed for this section

Mindmap Doused with Network Societies


Mindmap updated_April 13

Mindmap updated_April 13

So it begins. Rise of the Network Society Theory by Manuel Castells, and it all wraps up into the mindmap. How to connect a theory that is so vast, encompassing economics, technology, culture, societal growth, metropolitan regions, global relations, historical pathways? Castells’ theory, at least what I read in volume 1 (the other two volumes were not assigned), had a lot of traces of Actor-Network Theory, Ecology Theory, Hardware/Software Theory, and Genre Tracing Theory. There were probably others, especially since Foucault is that which is always found to be underlying theoretical works we have read since our introduction to him, but these four theories made the most sense for me to connect to Network Societies for the frame of my mindmap.

Now that we have the overarching (though consciously limited) connections out of the way between Castells’ mega-theory and previously dealt with theories, let’s see what nodes I’ve made.

First node: “The most important characteristic of this accelerated process of global urbanization is that we are seeing the emergence of a new spatial form that I call the metropolitan region, to indicate that it is metropolitan though it is not a metropolitan area, because usually there are several metropolitan areas included in this spatial unit. The metropolitan region arises from two intertwined processes: extended decentralization from big cities to adjacent areas and interconnection of pre-existing towns whose territories become integrated by new communication capabilities…It is a new form because it includes in the same spatial unit both urbanized areas and agricultural land, open space and highly dense residential areas: there are multiple cities in a discontinuous countryside. It is a multicentered metropolis that does not correspond to the traditional separation between central cities and their suburbs…Sometimes, as in the European metropolitan regions, but also in California or New York/New Jersey, these centers are pre-existing cities incorporated in the metropolitan region by fast railway and motorway transportation networks, supplemented with advanced telecommunication networks and computer networks. Sometimes the central city is still the urban core, as in London, Paris, or Barcelona. But often there are no clearly dominant urban centers” (Castells xxxiii). I linked this quote with one from Latour regarding “the question of the social,” with social actors defining and redefining the movements. Networks of people, businesses, cultures, and social groups, along with the objects and technologies they employ to function, are the actors in ANT, but the groups within which they move and act and trace are part of a lager network that is part of an even larger network, with the layers extending out into the global society.

Second node: “the network enterprise makes the material the culture of the informational, global economy: it transforms signals into commodities by processing knowledge” (Castells 188). I chose this quote because it reminds me of the ways that Cloud Computer, hardware/software, Foucault’s archives, Latour’s conversations about technology and objects are helping to transform what are the material goods of our globally interlaced, informational economy. Goods are still being sold, but information tends to have a higher price.

Final node: “the shift from industrialism to informationalism is not the historical equivalent of the transition from agricultural to industrial economics, and cannot be equated to the emergence of the service economy. There are informational agriculture, informational manufacturing, and informational service activities that produce and distribute on the basis of information and knowledge embodied in the work process by the increasing power of information technologies. What has changed is not the kind of activities humankind is engaged in, but its technological ability to use as a direct productive force what distinguishes our species as a biological oddity: its superior capacity to process symbols…The informational economy is global. A global economy is an historically new reality, distinct from a world economy…A global economy is something different: it is an economy with the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale” (Castells 101). I linked this quote with Foucault’s concepts of “History of Ideas” and the dangers to the historian being too complacent by that which has been written in history books. I made the strongest connection here and chose this quote specifically because it was a new way of seeing how different societal economies do not just end. Instead, they continue folding back into the newer movements going on. Agriculture never ends because people always need food. Industry never ends because people want (and, usually, need) things. History is not linear, even within movements towards societal restructurings. It also showed that the network of society is founded on many things, and different types of economies create the foundation upon which people work and live, even when certain types are maginalized, pushed out of view except to be viewed with nostalgia (reminds me of the truck commercials with farmers).

It’s Another Day, Another Week

Once Upon A Time: Telling our Metacognition Stories (Padawan Style)

Mind Map for 25 Feb: Story telling — long has this been a means of relaying vital cultural history and identity, as well as serving as the first-ever training regimen for molding the minds of young and old alike. … Continue reading

I’ll Just Spinuzzi My Way On Through_Mindmap




This week I focused on Clay Spinuzzi’s book, Tracing Genres, when adding nodes to my mindmap. For this round, I added four new nodes with connections out from three of them. The node I left relatively unconnected for now contained definitions for the three levels of analysis that Spinuzzi sets up: macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. The reason I left it unconnected here is that I want to create a separate Popplet that has major nodes with each of those levels and connections to examples and quotes that embody each level. I thought about doing that connection here, but my mindmap is getting more than a little complex.

One of the first quotes I chose is in regards what genes are and, in a way, what they are not: ”Genres are not simply text types;  they are culturally and historically grounded ways of ‘seeing and conceptualizing reality’… Genres are not discrete artifacts, but traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts, traditions that make their way into the artifact as a ‘form-shaping ideology’” (Spinuzzi 41). This quote reminded me a lot of Bitzer’s consideration of rhetoric as a “mode of altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (3). I thought this was really interesting because I had never really thought of genres as “culturally and historically grounded” and, when I did, it was only in passing and only as related to the Greeks with their apologies. It makes sense that as cultures change, rhetoric will take on different forms that are reshaped around people’s needs. It seems like genres are a way for us to impose order on the chaos of discourse, a way for us to see reality within boundaries or to define what we see as reality. Again, I am reminded of the medical forms analyzed by Popham. Those forms are not necessary to human survival in any way, but we give them meaning by imposing societal value on them; they become a discourse between us, our doctors, our insurance companies, and any others who are part of the process. As we are filling out the forms, we define ourselves as patients and allow others to see us as the same as well as bits of data. The political discourse around elections also seems to be its own kind of genre. As candidates go for whatever position, they and their supporters produce commercials, pamphlets, signs, and advertisements as a to define themselves as a political and public figure, reshaping themselves to fit images they believe would be most beneficial in gaining votes. Ballots also function as artifacts in the political genre and, when we vote, we are defining ourselves as voters and as citizens, but also allow us to see us as statistics (part of a majority or a minority), supporters or opponents, and so on. We don’t need politicians and politics for our basic survival, but we agree, more or less as a collective, that society would not function without such frameworks in place.

Um, haha, now that my tangent is over. The second quote I chose is one of my favorites: “Mirel argues that no matter how fine the grain, ‘knowing and learning take place in a dynamic system of people, practices, artifacts, communities, and institutional structures,’ and that such dynamic systems always coconstitute even the finest grain of human activity” (Spinuzzi 29). I like this because knowledge is communal and continual. Human activity is what creates history, literature, mathematics, music, visual arts, and other subjects, and then that knowledge moves forward (and sometimes gets left behind) to be presented to  younger generations who will imitate, react against, or build upon with other activities. I liked this quote with two quotes by Vatz – ”To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157) and ”If…you view meaning as a consequence of rhetorical creation, your paramount concern will be how and by whom symbols create the reality to which people react” (158). I chose these two quotes because the idea of symbols and linguistic depictions are learned and emerge out of the collective knowledge. Meaning for us with events and rhetoric comes out of what we know and can identify. Hmm that sounded to abstract. What I mean is that I can recognize the meaning of something or learn the meaning of something by identifying it based on what I already know. For example, with the politicians I mentioned in the paragraph above. I can recognize and make meaning from their rhetorical choices because I know enough about the political system of the U.S. for their promises, their accusations against other candidates or the current system, and their proposals to make sense. These politicians and my understanding of them do not exist in a vacuum.

For the last quote I connected outwards, I chose two and combined them in a single node: “We can talk about genres mingling, merging, splitting, disintegrating, and being repurposed. Genre provides a way of lending dimension to the genetic aspects of given artifacts–to make connections among discrete artifacts that, on the surface, may bear little resemblance to each other” and “The genre embodies a galaxy of assumptions, strategies, and ideological orientations that the individual speaker may not recognize. It represents others’ ‘thinking out’ of problems whose dialogue has been preserved in genre” (Spinuzzi 42 and 43). I linked these two quotes to ones from Bitzer, Vatz, and Foucault, though I need to go back and link it to Popham as well. I could discuss why I chose Bitzer and Vatz, but I am instead going to use this space to talk about the quote I linked it to from Foucault, his enunciative level of formation in relation to the statement and the sentence. I’m paying more attention to this particular link because I am not sure if the connection is correct and wanted to unpack my own thinking. Foucault describes statements as “linked rather to a ‘referential’ that is made up…of laws of possibility, rules of existence for the objects that are named, designated, or described within it, and for the relations that are affirmed or denied in it. The referential of the statement forms the place, the condition, the field of emergence, the authority to differentiate between individuals or objects, states of things and relations that are brought into play by the statement itself; it defines the possibilities of appearance and delimitation of that which gives meaning to the sentence, a value of truth to the proposition” (91).  I feel like these statements are what composes “others’ ‘thinking out’” in the genre galaxy that Spinuzzi mentions and is that genres lend dimension to as they mingle and merge and split and disintegrate and even as they are repurposed. When a person constructs a statement, they may not recognize the possibilities, rules, and relations that are embedded within the referential of the statement, and this same thing seems to happen when a person puts forth a text (like a novel) and cannot completely see all of the different genre types that may be associated with his/her work.

To Soothe One’s Mind, Add a Violin:

Mindmap #5: Operationalizing Theories

In this week’s mindmap, I started thinking about big-picture issues, like operationalization and agency.

Mindmap visualization

Mindmap #5: Added Genre Tracing, Locus of Agency, and Operationalization (Popplet)

Theorized vs. Operationalized

In terms of operationalization, I added nodes for Theorized and Operationalized, relating to each of the theories we’ve discussed to date. I found Hardware/Network descriptions matched Genre Tracing as operationalized, while the other theories were, as the name implies, largely theorized. Assessment Theory from my reading of Crow in DWAE made the cut as both operationalized and theorized, too. Foucault I labeled purely theorized, while Rhetorical Theories and Genre Theories offered traces of operationalization, if not quite to the extent of Spinuzzi’s Genre Tracing. Hardware and Network descriptions give us very little of the theorized; they are all about the operationalized.

Locus of Agency

Regarding agency, I add Spinuzzi’s genre tracing as a theory and visualized it, in part, in terms of locus of agency. Centripetal impulses for change have as their locus of agency central authorities, while centrifugal impulses for change have as their locus of agency individual workers (p. 20). Central authority originates and controls the official activity system, so I termed the locus of agency the Activity/Creator Node; local workers originate unofficial workarounds at the operations level, so I terms this locus of agency the Operations/Worker Node. I started the process of applying locus of agency to Crow’s assessment theory, where I proposed that the composition to be assessed falls squarely in the operations/worker node of an assessment network, with the assessment itself (and the surveillant assemblage of assessed assignments) managed and controlled at the activity/creator mode. I’d like to spend a little more time thinking about how locus of agency might be more broadly applicable to these various theorists we’re reading, so I anticipate reworking the mindmap design with this in mind as part of my next update.

Trust in a System

Speaking of the next update, in my last post, Mindmap #4: Drawing Some Genre Lines, I concluded by suggesting I might include trust in the mindmap. I considered how and where to incorporate trust, but I think I found locus of agency a more complex way of addressing issues of trust. Nodes in a network system — or perhaps more accurately an activity system, according to Spinuzzi — can be placed on a continuum between centripetal and centrifugal impulses. Nodes more closely aligned to centripetal impulses are likely to trust centralized agency, while nodes more closely aligned to centrifugal impulses are likely to trust localized agency. In an assessment system, for example, students are likely to align more closely with aspects of the system that offer localized agency, like the freedom to define or envision audience, mode, and other aspects of the rhetorical situation. Administrators are likely to align more closely with aspects of the system that offer centralized agency, like developing consistent rubrics for use in assessments across the system or incorporating a single interface for posting assignments. Teachers are going to be found somewhere in the middle, advocating for localized treatments of rhetorical situation while implementing (or adapting) centralized assessment tools. Students will more likely trust teachers who adapt centralized assessment tools to their localized rhetorical situations; students will less likely trust teachers who implement centralized assessment tools without localized workarounds. Administrators will more likely trust teachers who implement centralized assessment tools without localized workarounds; administrators will less likely trust teachers who adapt centralized assessment tools to their localized rhetorical situations.

Trust becomes the result of a differentiated relationship between impulse and locus of agency. When impulse (on a continuum from centripetal to centrifugal) leans toward centralization, systemic locus of agency is more trusted. When impulse leans toward localization, operational locus of agency is more trusted. I hope to work through this emerging understanding of trust and agency as I continue developing the visualization.

[Killbot Assembly Line: Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user pasukaru76]

MindMap: 18 Feb.

Mind Map: This last week’s introduction to Spinuzzi created all sorts of unifying connections to the Popplet! And yet… The trouble is, I have been thinking that now is the time to integrate a 3-D element.  I had been … Continue reading

It’s More than a Little Spinuzzi

Dr Clay Spinuzzi. Image hosted on Flickr
Dr Clay Spinuzzi. Image hosted on Flickr

“Mirel argues that no matter how fine the grain, ‘knowing and learning take place in a dynamic system of people, practices, artifacts, communities, and institutional structures,’ and that such dynamic systems coconstitute even the finest grains of human activity” (29)

Welcome to the wide world Spinuzzi and genre tracing. This text was a great deal more straightforward than I thought a text would be with a title like Tracing Genres through Organizations (it surprised me as much as how easy it was to understand Susan Popham’s article on medical forms as genre boundaries). The analogy of the heroes, tyrants, and victims made me laugh, but it also highlighted the stereotypical roles designers, systems, and users are believed to play in the workflow of organizations. Spinuzzi’s aim for the book is to break down the traditional idea that workers are victims of the information design set in the workplace and that the system designers are heroic as they swoop down to save the day, even when the workers themselves have come up with innovative “workarounds” or solutions to localized problems. Instead, Spinuzzi offers up the idea (and the methods, methodology, and case studies to back up his claims) that through genre tracing in organizations, workers will be able to reclaim their sense of agency within the organizations they work as designers, researchers, and other scholars will come to recognize that the workers have been “saving themselves” with their localized solutions.

"Superman Handbook" for the common man, superpowers not included. Image hosted on i09.

“Superman Handbook” for the common man, superpowers not included. Image hosted on i09.

Spinuzzi does seem quite taken with the analogy he puts forth, and it is not hard to see how the analogy works so well. I have heard more than enough people (myself included) complain about information systems we have to work with that we believe are too complicated, archaic, simplistic, etc for us to be able to do our jobs well. Instead, we come up with ways to work around the technology, sometimes to complement the system, and other times to just get away from having to use the system altogether. If we look to Spinuzzi’s text to explain our tendencies to come up with alternatives to the official system, we are, in effect, rescuing ourselves from “victimhood.” But, I am talking in the abstract here. One example in his book that I really liked was that of the police officer Barbara who, as he describes in the Introduction’s epigraph, was using her own, more informal, system of data collection “for locating and analyzing traffic accidents in a particular area” (1). While it seems outdated to use a physical map to mark out locations where accidents can happen (especially since the book was written in 2003 and technology has come a long way, though online maps can also be cumbersome), it does seem that Barbara’s method of using Post-It Notes to alleviate her dependence on an unwieldy map  was rather ingenious. His tracing of the evolution of accident data collection in “Chapter 3: Tracing Genres across Developmental Eras” was very interesting as it looked at how the information design altered and modified to adapt to new technologies, even if Post-It Notes could still end up being an efficient way to manage information.

Visual Ethnography

Post-It Notes are used in many fields, disciplines, and situations. They may seem old-school, but such notes are portable and people can physically rearrange them without having to use a cursor or share a document across multiple computers. Image hosted on Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

In order to better understand Spinuzzi’s ideas regarding genre tracing, I found it helpful to map out the three levels of scope that he talks about at length in the second chapter (I uploaded an image of the chart he uses as an example). While I am familiar with microscopic and macroscopic, it was the first time I had encountered the term “mesoscopic.” The word has a strange feel to it, reminding me more an archaeological course than something about information design. So, in honor of this new word of mine, I give you his distinctions between levels:

  1. Macroscopic, also known as the organization or contextual layer — “Kuutti and Bannon prefer to call this layer the ‘contextual’ layer because it reaches beyond organizations to the cultural-historical activity in which those organizations are involved. It involves ways workers, work communities, cultures, and societies understand, structure, collaborate on, and execute their evolving cooperative enterprises” (Spinuzzi 31-32).
  2. Mesoscopic — “is that of goal-oriented action – the tasks in which people are consciously engaged. Actions fulfill certain goals or localized objects as part of the general activity…Leont’ev concludes that these actions constitute human activity – ‘human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions’ (p. 64)-but at the same time these individual actions are not explicable except in the context of the activity. Field studies that focus on the mesoscopic level of action tend to examine how individuals or small groups execute routine tasks with specific tools” (Spinuzzi 33). Another interesting quote that helped me to understand this new word came at the end of his section on mesoscopic: “A field study that functions at the mesoscopic level, such as Muller’s, focuses not on the work activity but on the local goals that users set for themselves and the tools and actions they use to accomplish those goals within a cultural-historical context. These goals, tools, and actions are often seen as the crux of usability problem” (34).
  3. Microscopic – it is the level “of moment-by-moment operations…which are the minute practices, reflexes, and habits on which workers draw as they carry out their labor. These operations respond to conditions –that is, specific configurations of the work environment. An operation is the mode of performing an act: an unconscious step in carrying out an action within certain conditions” (Spinuzzi 34).
"Three levels of scope." Chart taken from Clay Spinuzzi's book Tracing Genres through Organizations.
“Three levels of scope.” Chart taken from Clay Spinuzzi’s book Tracing Genres through Organizations.

After reading chapter two and sorting out how the three levels work (independently and in relation to one another), it took some time to process, but the idea that what happens on one level affects the others made sense, even though Spinuzzi points out that designers are constantly addressing local problems by designing universal solutions and that they “do not examine how to relate these macroscopic and microscopic levels” (Spinuzzi 29). His choice of a sociocultural approach through genre tracing made more sense after he pointed out that “sociocultural theorists and researchers argue that relationships among activities, actions and operations coconstitute each other…work activities constitute goal-directed actions, which in turn constitute habitual operations — but operations can reciprocally structure goals and actions and shape activities” (28-29). There seems to be a ripple effect from each level, where the structure, or even an element, of one cannot be changed without the others being impacted.

Everyone should have a "Heroine Handbook" when taking down their own tyrannically designed information system. Image hosted on i09.

Everyone should have a “Heroine Handbook” when taking down their own tyrannically designed information system. Image hosted on i09.

Vocabulary through Key Terms:

Genre Tracing  – is a sociocultural theory based in activity theory and genre theory that “draws on established methods that have been used with those theories…[and] provides a way to highlight users’ experiences with official and unofficial genres and to compare them across communities or workplaces” (22). Spinuzzi describes genre tracing as “dialogic” as it “draws on the metaphor of dialogue to examine how people interact with complex institutions, disciplines or communities; how they solve problems and disseminate solutions; and how their conversations and problem solving are instantiated in artifacts” (22)

Fieldwork-to-Formalization methodology“examples include contextual design…; the research stage of joint application…; client-led design…; and user-centered information design,” and the methods are “meant to guide system design through the stages of gathering data from customers, modeling and interpreting that information, and designing and implementing systems based on that information…they bridge field studies (including naturalistic work observations, unstructured interviews, and analysis of artifacts used in the work) and information design through models of through categorical and sequential descriptions of the work” (Spinuzzi 11). These methods “tend to be centripetal: they tend to normalize behavior and tools to produce centrally controlled, official solutions” 21)

Method vs Methodology – method is “a way of investigating phenomena” and a methodology is “the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method” (Spinuzzi 7)

User-centered design - “combine(s) a humanistic mission of advocating for the audience for the audience, new empirical approaches to the ancient art of audience analysis, and strong framework for translating audience insights into design suggestions”  and is “founded on social constructionist thought, which is ‘based on the concept that reality is mutable, that there are no certain truths, and that knowledge is constructed through communally created knowledge and action’…[and] technology ‘can be interpreted and reinterpreted depending on the people involved, the context or situation in which it is designed, developed, or deployed, and the historical moment it resides within’” (Spinuzzi 5 and 8)

Victimhood – “is conceived as coming from barriers to doing their jobs efficiently, and freedom consequently come through a process in which their is increasingly managed, regularized, and rationalized” (Spinuzzi 13)

Functional Empowerment  vs Democratic Empowerment functional empowerment allows workers to be “empowered to perform their tasks in a prescribed manner” whereas democratic empowerment is where workers “have a decision-making role in how their organization operates and how technology fits into their jobs” (Spinuzzi 13)

Normative Solution  – “a tool or set of work practices that, once codified and optimized, can functionally empower the worker-victims” (Spinuzzi 19)


Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

For the Man Who Tweets from the Bus:

Spinuzzi Reading Notes

No More Heroes Please: The Problem With User-Centered Approaches

Since we just finished reading Bazerman and Miller’s discussions of genre theory, I can’t help but view Spinuzzi’s argument in favor of genre tracing through the lens of rhetorical motivation (as opposed to exigency, which is reactionary) (Miller 155). Spinuzzi focuses a good deal of effort spends a lot of effort early on in the text on explaining his motivation for developing genre tracing: the way in which rhetoric and technical communication view user-centered design as heroic work focused on rescuing the victimized worker. Genre tracing, according to Spinuzzi is the study of workplace genres and innovations “in sociocultural terms, to scrutinize their genealogies, explore the contingencies that explore them, and plot their trajectories within the activities they mediate” (x).  While user-centered design is based on social constructivism and claims to utilize the worker as codesigner (8-9), fieldwork in user-centered design does not allow for worker agency and does not allow for local exigencies (19). This is a very strong justification for the development of a theory that does truly utilize worker agency. Fieldwork attempts to turn a centrifugal (informal) workplace communication into a centripetal communication that is refined by the designer (21). The problem with this is that formalization replaces quick, changeable solutions with static ones that are not as flexible to changing workplace contexts (21).

The Designer as Hero: An Example of Paternalistic User-Centered Design

I think that this video is very illustrative of the way in which designers see themselves as heroes of those who need their design expertise. Who could be more in need of help than people institutionalized after a psychotic break? This designer, Aga Szóstek, talks about her role in developing a lamp that helps regulating the breathing of psychiatric patients by encouraging them to undertake a relaxing pattern of breathing. The patient testing the lamp was not satisfied with the lamp designs because the lamp was meant to impose a breathing pattern on the patient, and the patient was not able to manipulate the lamp or input data into the lamp. The patient was not satisfied with the design because the lamp didn’t listen to her. When the designers finally came up with a design where the lamp replicated the patients breathing before gradually beginning to impose the breathing pattern on the patient, the patient was satisfied. It made me think of the way in which the heroic designer often strips the worker of his or her agency. The patient using the lamp was not able to exercise agency with the design, but simply had the design imposed upon her, until the designers altered the design to allow the patient more leeway in the operation of the lamp.

Genre Tracing Theory

Spinuzzi points out that one of the central problems with user-centered design fieldwork is that it tends to look at one central cause of workplace problems at one level: macroscopic (the activity; underlying structure), the mesoscopic (actions), and the microscopic (operational level) (27). Spinuzzi explains that the problem with focusing on only one level of scope, as in fieldwork-to-formal user-centered design research, is that it ignores the user perspective and experience, may not allow for the creation of texts that empower workers, and may not allow for “sustainable solutions” (28). In contrast, “sociocultural theory points to an integrated-scope approach that no such lines between the observed person or thing and the context, or between operations on one side and activities and actions on the other” (28). By using activity theories approach to studying the macroscopic level, the mesocscopic level, and the microscopic level as a separate parts of one activity system (36). Spinuzzi says that, “in every sphere of activity, collaborators use instruments to transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” (37). Mediating artifact, or instruments used in achieving the goal of the activity, “qualitatively change the entire activity in which workers engage” (38). Spinuzzi explains that the artifacts used for mediation “bear the material traces of an ongoing activity, represent problem solving in that activity, and thus tend to stabilize the activity in which they are used” (39). He explains that genres also serve a mediatory role in the activity system, but they are more than simply tools: “they emerge from cultural-historical activity and represent, reflect, stabilize, and help constitute that activity” (41). Spinuzzi explains that genres, though they are temporarily stable social constructs, change as activities change, but they also provide a memory of the past (42-43). Spinuzzi details the way in which genres are present in the varying levels of an activity system, as well as the role that genres play within those levels. Because we can study genres at all levels, the study of genre within activity systems allows for “an integrated-scope understanding of genre” (47). Since genres operate on several levels in an activity system, and an activity system may contain numerous genres to mediate the work of the activity system, Spinuzzi suggests that we should use “genre tracing” to identify “insights into how much ecologies of genres jointly mediate the workers’ operations, actions, and activities” (49). To address the complexity of genre system, Spinuzzi proposes using a methodology that he calls genre tracing, which explores “those innovations to find out what they might teach us about the messiness of work, the agency of workers, and the ways the workers themselves can better be supported in continuing to develop innovations” (51). Genre theory, according to Spinuzzi, “attempts to integrate levels of scope by tracing a sociocultural unit of analysis—genre—across three levels” (51).

Spinuzzi says that the methodology of genre theory includes:
• Data collection based on an integrated-scope examination of genres, their mediational relationships, and the destabilization involved in them (51). Methods include: Contextual design, participatory design, ethnography, ethnomethodology, customer partnering, and joint application design (51).
• Data analysis is done across all levels. Collected data is analyzed by “tracing a developmental history by examining how genres have been adopted, developed, changed, and hybridized over time in response to the activity’s contingencies” (53). This can be done through the use of activity system diagrams, genre ecology diagrams, videocoding databases, and CDB tables (53-56).
Spinuzzi does describe limitations of genre theory: it is time consuming, it requires trained researchers, it requires a significant commitment from involved parties, and it can be data heavy (56).

The final three chapters of the text apply Spinuzzi’s methodology to study “the activity of traffic accident and analysis in the state of Iowa” (57). From these studies, he finds that the relationships between genres in an activity system develop over time and genres are adapted to help mediate other genres (Chapter 3). He discovers why destabilizations occur and they ways in which workers develop innovations to deal with these destabilizations (Chapter 4). He discovers the impacts that centripetal formularization of genres by introducing new complications to an activity system and that workers may have to develop centrifugal innovations (Chapter 5). Finally, Spinuzzi explores the way in which genre tracing can be used to create a new method of design that allows workers to play a larger role in the development of innovations while still benefiting from the expertise of designers.

The EPR as Mediating Genre in the WAPS: Destabilization Across Activity System Levels

As I was reading about the levels of genre within the activity system and the ways in which genre destabilization in one level of the system will “necessarily coconstitute destabilization at the other levels of scope,” it occurred to me that I have recently observed the destabilization of an activity system (Air Force promotions) caused by problems with the Enlisted Performance Report (EPR), the genre used to mediate evaluation of enlisted military personnel in the Air Force (47). The EPR is an instrument used by Non-Commissioned Officers to facilitate the evaluation of lower-ranking personnel. I believe that the promotional system (WAPS) could be called macroscopic, while the EPR is a mesocopic text meant to evaluate military member’s overall performance at the microscopic level.

Enlisted Performance Report:

AF Form 910. Air Force EPR.

AF Form 910. Air Force EPR. 1st Page.

The completed EPR includes a numerical score for the overall performance of the Aire Force member. The highest score possible is 5. A score of 3 in meant to be assigned to personnel who meets acceptable criteria. A score of 5 was originally intended for top performers, the best of the best. The EPR score is calculated into formula used to decide who will be promoted to the next rank as part of the Weighted Airman Promotion System. Other factors that are used as part of WAPS include scores on “promotional fitness exams,” time in service, time in grade, and awards and decorations. As well as being used to gauge promotability, the EPR is also important to future career growth. Competitive special duty assignments are important to career progression, but it is nearly impossible to be considered for selection in special duty assignments when the servicemember earned less than 5 on an EPR. The stakes are high, and the perception is that earning a score of less than a 5 can be a career killer. This is why “current Enlisted Performance Report ratings are often inflated. Roughly 80 percent of enlisted airmen receiving the top score of 5, Cody [Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force] said, which renders the rating system effectively useless” (Losey). From extensive conversations with my spouse, who has been writing EPRs since 2007 as a Non-Commissioned Officer (a rater) and who has been teaching leaderships skills (including writing EPRs as a Professional Military Educator, I understand that , while in theory the 5 should be reserved for the top performers, it is actually more difficult to rate an airman lower than a 5 than it is to rate a 5 because squadron leadership must approve EPR ratings, and raters must provide sufficient proof that the airman in question deserves to be rated lower. EPRs with low ratings are often kicked back to the rater for reevaulation or further evidence, which usually must come in the form of a paper-work trail (including Letters of Counseling and Letters of Reprimand). Lack of a paper-work trails suggests that the airman is doing his or her job effectively. Because the results of the EPR evaluation system are skewed by over-inflation of scores, and because of the pressure to earn a 5, both the macroscopic and microscopic levels of the promotional activity system are skewed. At the macro-level, promotions are effected by inflated EPRs. Because time in grade and time in service are calculated into the overall promotion score, along with the EPR score, the inflation of scores may cause high-quality, lower-ranking personnel will be passed up for promotion over those who have been serving longer, even if the person serving longer is actually mediocre. During the fall of 2013, the Air Force conducted a mock selection board for MSgt. to see how such a system would compare to the current system of promoting MSgts. The results showed that, “10 percent of the airmen not selected for promotion to master sergeant would get promoted by a board process, and another 10 percent of airmen selected for promotion would not advance if they had to go before a board” (Schogol and Losey). At the microscopic level, the determination for a 5 can distract the military member from actual duties in effort to check boxes off on the EPR. Volunteer activities and education are criteria in the determination of an EPR score. Those who ignore their daily operational duties to check boxes off of their EPRs are often referred to as “professional box checkers”. Ignoring day-to-day duties can have a negative impact on others who share the workplace and responsibilities. Because of the disruption caused by the inflation of the EPR, the Air Force plans to discontinue the use of the numerical EPR score and institute a written performance evaluation. Applying the foundational concepts of genre tracing theory to the EPR has helped me understand how disruption in one level of the system causes problems in other areas.

Terms/Key Ideas

macroscopic level – cultural-historical; unconscious level;

mesoscopic level – driven by goal-directed action; workers are consciously engaged in this level; involves the execution of tasks with tools

microscopic level – moment-by-moment operations; performed unconsciously after operationalization is learned

Artifact of genre – collaborators use tools to transform objects with specific goals in mind

intergrated reserach scope - examining all three levels: activity, actions, and operation to understand how they interact, coconstitute each other, and how innovations at one level impact these levels

coconstitution – the intertwined nature of the three levels of scope

compound mediation – “the ways that workers coordinate sets of artifacts to help get their jobs down” (48).

Works Cited

Losey, Stephen. “New EPR Could Drop Number Ratings.” N. p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Losey, Stephen, and Stephen Schogol. “Promoting the best: Tech sgts. may have to impress a board to advances.” N. p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Vol. 1. Mit Press, 2003.

“User-centered Design: Aga Szóstek at TEDxWarsaw.” 16 May 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Reading Notes: Spinuzzi

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. Spinuzzi’s work is a practical application of theory, and as such serves as a fulcrum of sorts on which many of our previous theorists … Continue reading

Reading Notes: A New Spinuzzi on Genre


This is a book about operationalizing understandings of genre. Spinuzzi is interested in practical, user-friendly applications of genre theory and activity theory in professional contexts. He introduces genre tracing as a methodology “for studying these ephemeral, invisible, ubiquitous innovations” (p. x) — workplace innovations, practical solutions to work-a-day problems that arise in an organization. He pits genre tracing methodology against what he calls “fieldwork-to-formalization methods” of information design: centralized, idealized methods he critiques for the way they pair “abstract work models” with “divergent local practices” to develop user-centered designs (p. 11). His goal is to develop organization-wide methods for information design that enable individual users to customize workflows and tasks in order to accomplish specific, localized objectives. Spinuzzi offers genre tracing as the methodology that can accomplish this goals, and three chapters of the text are devoted to an operationalized example of the methodology using traffic accident data recorded by the Iowa Department of Transportation. (Check out the current status of ALAS: SAVER - Safety, Analysis, Visualization and Exploration Resource & CMAT - Crash Mapping Analysis Tool.)

Scope and Context

Genre tracing is based on activity theory and genre theory. Its methods study “the dynamic tension of centripetal and centrifugal impulses” (p. 22) of workplace information design.

  • Centripetal impulses are centralized, generalized, official, and static methods and outcomes of information design, while centrifugal impulses are decentralized, localized, unofficial, and dynamic methods and outcomes of information design.
  • Centripetal forces generate official versions of information design that are expected to be followed in workflow development and management in localized offices, while centrifugal forces generate unofficial workarounds to generalized design that does not work effectively or efficiently in specific localized environments.

Spinuzzi claims that “genre tracing provides a way to highlight users’ experience with official and unofficial genres and to compare them across communities and workplaces” (p. 22). I visualized the relationship between centripetal and centrifugal impulses on a continuum, including Bakhtin’s (1981, 1986) ideas on centripetal impulses metaphorically drawing things inward and centrifugal impulses metaphorically flying away toward chaos.

Communication impulse visualization (diagram)

Google Drawing visualization of the communication continuum presented in Spinnuzi (2003, 20)

The central concern of Spinuzzi’s text and method is to avoid the pitfalls of “designer-as-rescuer” assumptions made in fieldwork-to-formalization user-centered design methods. Spinuzzi frames workers as innovators who develop genre- and hierarchy-crossing methods for solving problems of centralized information design. Spinuzzi develops an integrated research scope for examining localized workplace innovations in terms of three “layers”: activity, actions, and operations (p. 27). This integrated scope examines genre operations that coconstitute “cultural activities and goal-directed actions” (p. 27). This scope does not treat individual layers as a singular focus (a downfall he finds among most user-centered design methods, (p. 30)), but as “integrative perspectives” following concepts introduced by activity theorists Kari Kuutti and Liam Bannon (1991, 1993), among others (p. 29). Spinuzzi uses the terms macroscopic, microscopic, and mesoscopic to describe these three integrative layers that work together to coconstitute activity and actions (pp. 31-36). The macroscopic layer focuses on organizational activity systems (p. 31). The mesoscopic layer focuses on “the detailed tool-mediated structure of work” (p. 33), often related to how small groups and individuals execute routine tasks with specific tools. And the microscopic level focuses on operationalized actions, operations that “begin as conscious, goal-directed actions that are then operationalized or made automatic” (p. 34).

Spinuzzi’s theory builds on theories of genre as social, community action, as system and set, and as boundary and activity system presented by Bazerman (1994, 2004), Miller (1984, 1994), and Popham (2005) among others. He recognizes the important memory role genre plays in “traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts, traditions that make their way into the artifact as ‘form-shaping ideology’” (Spinuzzi 2003, 41). Regarding the practical, active role genres play, Spinuzzi notes that “people develop genres so that they can accomplish activities. As those activities change, the genres also change” (p. 42). Bakhtin (1981, 1986) contributes much to the sense of genre as “remembering” the past; this concept of genre plays an important role in identifying significant issues that keep workers from accomplishing their goals using the tools provided by central authorities (Spinuzzi 2003, 42).

At each level, Spinuzzi addresses the tension between centripetal and centrifugal impulses by seeking system destablizations. At the macroscopic, or activity, level, Spinuzzi seeks contradictions between genre connections. At the mesoscopic, or action, level, he seeks discoordination within genres, groups, and/or tools. At the microscopic, or operation, level, he seeks breakdown in operationalized actions (p. 55). The rest of the text is an extended, detailed demonstration of the genre tracing methodology in action.

Analysis and Application

Spinuzzi’s genre tracing methodology is a time-consuming affair that requires a great deal of field research and data analysis. However, the results are remarkable in that they identify specific, microscopic breakdowns in workflow and operationalized action that need to be addressed by information design. The resulting analysis suggests specific ways in which user innovations that overcome breakdowns can be implemented at the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels. The analysis provides a remarkably cogent analysis of genre contradictions that occur between GIS-centered and database-centered information designs, one that capitalizes on Bakhtin and others’ understanding of genre as encoded memory and tradition in addition to methods and innovation. And the closing chapter’s recommendation of open system design seems positively prophetic in its prediction of designs that enable, even encourage, user innovation and alteration — I created a Google Map mashup a couple of days ago using Google Maps Engine, a relatively new tool that encourages localized (centrifugal) solutions built on the framework of the centralized (centripetal) system.

I found the reading enlightening and engaging, so engaging that I might recommend that members of my own team read and contemplate at least some of the chapters. The book offered remarkably cogent summaries of difficult concepts, like genre, activity theory, Bakhtin, and more. Page 41 starts a section on genre that’s positively enlightening. Bakhtin gets summarized in meaningful and highly useful ways in these pages and earlier (starting on page 20) too. Activity theory gets this tidy definition: “Activity theory posits that in every sphere of activity, collaborators use instruments to transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” (p. 37). There are traces of Miller and Bazerman in genre as activity and genre as system, along with traces of Popham in boundary genres. This text deserves a second read and more carefully taken notes that are searchable and scannable.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin, Tex: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin, Tex: University of Minnesota Press.

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 79-104). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-67.

Miller, C. R. (1994). Rhetorical community: The cultural basis of genre. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 67-78). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Popham, S. L. (2005). Forms as boundary genres in medicine, science, and business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 279-303. doi:10.1177/1050651905275624

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[Tracing Apple Genres: Apple Evolution Product (updated 2009). Creative Commons image from Flickr user Oswaldo Rubio]

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 2/11/14

Thoughts on the Reading:

Melding English with Technology:

If the theme of last week for me was archive, then this week surely the theme has been critical making. Ever since reading the Zoetewey chapter of civic web sites, I have been thinking about the idea of scholars becoming increasingly engaged in the creation of technological products - a kind of "critical making", a term I encountered in a 2014 MLA conference CFW. I wrote about it here in my Mind Map and then again here in my discussion of my peers' annotations. Like I noted in the latter entry, it seems that the ideas with which we are most engaged are the ideas with which we see the most connections, so it is no surprise that my first connection this week is with critical making again.

Consider Spinuzzi's claim here:
"Lately, technical communicators have also sought to align their field more closely with informational design" (5).
In English Studies, we often are involved in communication; we deal with understanding and teaching rhetorical convention to aid in the communication of ideas and argument, traditionally in written forms. However, as the forms of communication are moving from paper to binary code, our discipline is having to incorporate knowledge from the informational design field.

An example of this is in our blog requirements for this course. We have format options that build upon the values of good information design. We take advantage of the digital space and add links, embedded images, and videos. We understand that information must be presented differently in these different spaces; people read and digest it differently. The form requires design elements that differ from the elements of form and style needed for successful academic essays. Our job as communicators of academic discourse must now envelope the tools of the information designer as we work and teach in digital space. Critical making requires the understanding of design as well as of content.

Implications of User vs. System Centered Design:

Spinuzzi explores the spectrum of design as it spans between user-centered and system-centered approaches. In the user-centered approach, the user is "empowered". The design is concerned with the needs of the users and their preferences for operation; however, these preferences may be at odds with the efficiency of the system or ease of production. A system-centered design would create a product without consideration of the users, leading to the their "dis-empowerment". He elaborates the idea with the notion of "democratic empowerment" and "functional empowerment" (13). The former being the power that comes from true user control over the design experience, the latter being only the limited powers given to the users from the system.

I saw in this description a resemblance to the emergence of the underground press movement. The media in the late 60s could be considered a form of system-centered design. The mainstream newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts held the control and the power over the content. Communities of users not finding in that content a reflection of their own values were disempowered and disenfranchised; they resorted to creating their own publications, a kind of "workaround" Spinuzzi discusses as user-created solutions to problems in their environment. The user-centered design of the UP movement publications provided democratic empowerment to the creators and readers where the functional empowerment of the mainstream media limited discourse and action to only that which it allowed. They were built on the idea that "knowledge [is] constructed through community created knowledge and action", the methodological foundation of user-centered design (Johnson qtd. in Spinuzzi 8).

Image posted on

Interestingly, Spinuzzi continues to explore this dichotomy and explains that user-centered designs can tend toward the chaotic and unorganized while the system-centered designs tend to be inflexible (21). This is also applicable to the UP with many publications only lasting several weeks or months as different contributors' visions competed with one another. On the other hand, mainstream media publications now find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy as they are too large and inflexible to accommodate the users' shifting modes of information gathering.

The Mesoscopic Level and Bazerman

Spinuzzi defines three levels of genres: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. We are familiar with the "big-picture" and "small details" associated with the macro and micro levels, but the mesoscopic level is a new and unfamiliar idea. This mid-level is, for Spinuzzi, the level of activity. If the macro level is the abstract cultural ramifications of genre, and the micro level are the processes and operations employed by genres, then the mesoscopic level are "the tasks in which people are consciously engaged" (33). It is on the level that action takes places; it is the place where the user makes use of the microscopic level to engage in the activities needed to accumulate into the macroscopic level.

Spinuzzi also discusses Leont'ev's work in the context of the mesoscopic level. The importance of this level is grounded in the notion of small activities building toward significant human activities. Leont'ev explains, "Human activity does not exist except in the form of action of a chain of actions" (qtd. in Spinuzzi 33). All of human activity - no matter how revolutionary or impactful - is made up of many smaller actions. Is this a ground-breaking observation? Perhaps not, but it does remind us that large tasks (like earning a doctorate) can only be achieved through many small chains of action and individual activities (like writing a blog post).

But this idea also connects our thinking to Bazerman, who situates genres within a system of human activity as tools used to accomplish particular actions. I took the image I created on last week's blog post and added Spinuzzi's three levels, although there is room for debate over what we can consider as belonging to each level. Ultimately, I decided that social facts are the minute details that form the microscopic level, since Bazerman does not associate activity with the facts; they simply exist as truths. However, speech acts and the recognizable generic forms that they create are activities and do work in society thus making up the mesoscopic level. These actions can be viewed from above and organized into sets and systems as the macroscopic level.

Graphic depicting Bazerman's hierarchy of genre with Spinuzzi's genre levels 

Spinuzzi Aligns with Action-Focused Theories of Genre

Anyone reading this blog has probably noted an emphasis on and preference for aspects of English Studies that move beyond the boundaries of the ivory tower, so I enjoyed Spinuzzi's claims that genres function as social tools. He argues that genres are "traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts" (41) and function "in a mediatory role" (40). This mediatory role is reminiscent of Miller's assertion that genres mediate  or translate action between the mind and society (Miller 71).

However, Spinuzzi also emphasizes tradition, an addition to the kind of action-genre vision of Bazerman and Miller. Spinuzzi claims, "Genres are doubly-oriented: they are oriented toward history and addressivity" (42). The addressivity is the same idea Bazerman and Miller propose, the idea that genres do work by addressing particular issues. However, history adds a nuanced idea. Spinuzzi's history is a kind of "social memory" that stabilizes the way genres are interpreted, formed, and changed (43). Bazerman and Miller also argue that genre is a social construct, but they do not place any emphasis on tradition. By their definition, genres can be constructed anew at any moment, but Spinuzzi seems to posit that historicity is inextricable from genre production.

There is also a connection to Popham's boundary objects. He writes, "Any given genre is used to mediate activities in one or more activity systems" (48). Spinuzzi's genre can be utilized by different authors/designers for different purposes, which also reminds me of the alternative use criterion associated with the Zoetewey chapter. Genre boundaries are fluid and mutable, like network nodes that can have multiple and disparate connections.

Genre-tracing and Implications for Research:

Spinuzzi explains a method for conducting genre-tracing by collecting data from each of the thee levels explained above (52-71). He argues that contradictions occur at the macroscopic level, which are caused by discoordinations at the mesoscopic level that lead to breakdowns at the microscopic level. This type of analysis can be a powerful approach to understanding genre-related activity and lead to important ramification for the design of future activities (56).

I started to think about how I could apply this kind approach to my own study of the underground press. There is frustratingly little scholarship about the movement; although, there is a wealth of primary documents and several good examples of reflections and histories. I feel the need to seek out the theoretical underpinnings of the movement as justification for the movement's inclusion in academic discourse as something beyond a "hippie" thing, so Spinuzzi's method intrigues me with possibilities.

For example, one of the contradictions is whether underground press publications are alternative news or artistic expressions. There is tension between the often blended purposes of the publications. This can be traced to the discoordination at the individual papers with some titles focused on politics and editorials with others more concerned with satire and graphic elements. These discoordinations often resulted in breakdowns of the genre, the splintering of papers attempting to "reperceive and remanage genres" (71).

The tools for the application of this approach also suit the work I can do and have done: retrospective interviews and document analysis for example (52). This, along with Bazerman's method of genre investigation, are potentially strong avenues for exploration in my dissertation. I am intrigued to see how seeing the underground press as a genre could strengthen the movement's position in the discipline.

I plan to apply genre theory to my OoS, so that could be a fruitful exercise as a prelude to this further exploration of genre.

Works Cited:

Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People”. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. Taylor and Francis e-library, 2008. 309-340. Print.

Miller, Carolyn. “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre”. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Eds. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor and Francis, 1994. 23-42. Print.
Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Zoetewey, Meredith W., W. Michele Simmons, Jeffrey T. Grabill. "Assessing Civic Engagement: Responding to Online Spaces for Public Deliberation." Digital Writing Assessment & Evaluation. Eds. Heidi A McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State UP, 2013. Web. 3 Feb 2014.