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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.