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Genres, Boundaries, and Away We Go_Mindmap


For this week’s update of the mindmap, I added in two nodes, “Genre” and “Genre Boundaries,” and from there added in four quotes by Miller, Popham, and Bazerman. From these four quotes, I started finding connections between the quotes I had chosen in earlier readings. My first choice was from that of Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action” in regards to a kind of “principle of selection”:

“Because a classification sorts items on the basis of some set of similarities, the principle used for selecting similarities can tell us much about classification. A classification of discourse will be rhetorically sound if it contributes to an understanding of how discourse works—that is, if it reflects the rhetorical experience of the people who create and interpret the discourse. As Northrop Frye remarks, ‘The study of genres has to be founded on the study of convention.’ A useful principle of classification for discourse, then, should have some basis in the conventions of rhetorical practice, including the ways actual rhetors and audiences have of comprehending the discourse they use” (Miller, “Genre as Social Action” 152)

This idea of “selecting similarities” reminds me of Foucault’s “principle of exclusion” in that choices have to be made, but explores how are those objects, ideas, threads of  thoughts chosen? Why are certain objects privileged over others? The choices that we make tend to follow some degree of sameness, even if the criteria are unspoken or loosely conveyed. I also connected this quote to the contention between Bitzer and Vatz’s articles with the idea of when a rhetorical situation occurs and how much responsibility is placed on the rhetor for deciding which situation was important enough to become a rhetorical situation. As well, this quote from Miller and a quote Bazerman’s “Speech Acts”–“The analytical approach of this chapter [Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People”] relies on a series of concepts: social facts, speech acts, genres, genre systems, and activity systems. These concepts suggest how people using text create new realities of meaning, relation, and knowledge” (309)– had me connecting with Vatz’s comment: ”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). The three quotes connect in how they take a nod towards actual people using rhetoric in different discourses, not just theoretical approaches.

As I connected those thoughts together, I began to think about how the readings we had done previously were forming a foundation for the readings about genre that we have started doing now. It was helpful that Miller especially seemed to build her argument off of Bitzer, so that I could see how later scholars were moving older arguments forward with them. One such instance is when Miller builds upon Bitzer’s discussion of how “comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses” pointed in the direction of “genre studies” without using the word “genre”—“Thus, inaugurals, eulogies, courtroom speeches, and the like have conventional forms because they arise in situations with similar structures and elements and because rhetors respond in similar ways, having learned from precedent what is appropriate and what effects their actions are likely to have on other people” (Miller, “Genre as Social Action” 153). The conversation between Miller’s text and Popham’s went a long way in helping me to understand the idea of genres in regards to rhetorical situations, especially in revealing to me just how wide the variety of rhetorical genres there can be (like medical forms) and how fluid the boundaries between the genres can be.

What really interested me, and is something I want to explore further in my mindmap if I can, is Popham’s inclusion of Foucault observation of the relationships between disciplines: “As Foucault (1975/1979) pointed out, relationships between disciplines are frequently characterized by competition, tension, and hierarchies. Although we often think of disciplines as coresiding peacefully across campuses, in which disciplinary experts agreeably respect and support each other, such a utopian picture obviously cannot be widespread. Moreover, if we accept the theory that disciplines experience tension in their relationships with each other, tensions that can be better understood by looking at the disciplines involved, we may begin to explain why certain tensions exist within our society” (Popham 279). What I find fascinating is that each discipline uses rhetoric and rhetorical genres that both differ widely and overlap, and yet the disciplines still have greater tension among them. Popham’s example of the medical forms as a “boundary genre,” or a text that acts as a kind of boderlands among the rhetoric of the three disciplines of business, science, and medicine was great because it showed a concrete example of how rhetoric plays out on a mundane level, which served as a contrast to me over Vatz’s rhetorical situation and the example of Winston Churchill.

As we are currently reading Clay Spinuzzi’s book Tracing Genres, I think having the nodes “Genre” and “Genre Boundary” are going to be very useful in mapping out the way later works tackle the concepts of genre and the use of rhetoric.

For Every Boundary, There Must Be Music:

Reading Notes: Miller, Bazerman & Popham walk into this blog…

I appreciate the opportunity this week to reengage with Miller’s work on genre in “Genre as Social Action” and then to see those ideas carried forward into “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.” I encountered Miller last semester in an historical review of EDNA-based textbooks in composition studies. Miller’s ideas on the social aspects of genre—rather than the formal or structural aspects I’d learned as an undergraduate and graduate student—opened my eyes to modern composition theory.

Genre as Social Action (Miller)

In “Genre as Social Action” this time around, I found Miller’s ideas on hierarchical levels of discourse more interesting, likely because network hierarchy is in the forefront of my thoughts after last week’s mindmap exercise. Miller identifies form as “metadata” for substance that offers instruction on how the symbolic representation is to be perceived; as a result, “form and substance thus bear a hierarchical relationship to one another” (p. 159). Continuing the hierarchical structure of genre, Miller references Toulmin to argue that context, too, is hierarchical; the result is that “form, substance, and context [are] relative, not absolute; they occur at many levels on a hierarchy of meaning” (p. 159). But not only do these aspects of discourse operate in hierarchical relationship to one another; they also take on different functions at different hierarchical levels: “Thus, form at one level becomes as aspect of substance at a higher level level… although it is still analyzable as form at the lower level” (p. 160). Miller addresses the implications of these hierarchical relationships among “particular features of this understanding of genre” (p. 163): First, genre is fluid and active; it acquires meaning from situation and social context. Second, genre is interpreted using rules. Third, genre is distinct from form. Fourth, genre can serve as the substance of forms at higher levels in hierarchies. Fifth, genre is a rhetorical means for mediating private intent and social exigence (p. 163).

Application to Network

Whiteboard capture - XML

Jamming on XML: CC licensed image from flickr user Paul Downey

Miller’s closing implications relate directly to networks. The interplay among form, substance, and context in discourse enables genre to exist in fluid forms and in hierarchical relationships. If a work in a genre is a network node, its relationship with other works in the genre are governed by the interaction of form, substance, and context. The genre itself can be considered a network node in a network consisting of cultural life; the genre becomes substance to the form of cultural life. I see this similar to the analogy to which I continually return of the web page to the subdomain to the domain. Page, subdomain and domain each act as node and network as the context, form, and substance relate differently to one another.

Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre (Miller)

In “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre,” Miller connects culture and community to genre in terms of “the general social function being served” (p. 69) by each. Miller claims that rhetorical communities are built on contradiction and contention, “inclusion of sameness and difference, of us and them, of centripetal and centrifugal impulses” (p. 74). As a result, rhetoric “requires both agreement and dissent, sharing understandings and novelty, enthymematic premises and contested claims, identification and division” (p. 74). To this potentially explosive community, Miller applies three forces that rhetorically “keep a virtual community from flying apart (or dissipating)” (p. 74). The first is genre, the second is analogy, and the third is narrative (pp. 74-75).

Application to Network

In this article I found the active nature of the network embedded in the contentious relationships that build virtual rhetorical communities. To these contentious relationships are applied frameworks that enable the networks to function within certain parameters: genre (to provide a contextual, localized structure for nodes), analogy (to provide language that explains difficult-to-explain relationships in more familiar metaphorical terms), and narrative (providing ways to tell the story of the relationships among nodes). These frameworks are flexible and fluid and enable organic growth and dynamic development.

Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions (Bazerman)

Monocycle patent - drawing

Monocycle Patent: CC licensed image from flickr user Michael Neubert

Where Miller applies genre to rhetorical communities, Bazerman in “Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions” goes a step further to create “a complex web of interrelated genres where each participant makes a recognizable act or move in some recognizable genre, which then may be followed by a certain range of appropriate generic responses by others” (p. 97). Using analysis of patent applications as his object of study, Bazerman introduces the concept of a system of genres—“interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings” (like a patent application).

Application to Network

If genres are networks, as suggested by Miller, then genre systems are networks of genres; put another way, genre systems turn genre networks into nodes. This conclusion is consistent with Miller’s conclusion that genres function as nodes in rhetorical communities. It’s also consistent with my understanding of the functions of websites within larger and smaller networks—the website functions itself as a network, but it also functions as a node in the larger network of the internet (or other higher level hierarchies). And there’s the return of that term “hierarchies”—networks appear to be inherently hierarchical depending on their contexts.

Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems (Bazerman)

Bazerman follows up his work on genre systems in “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems” by returning to a clearer understanding of social action, more specific than Miller’s articulation. Bazerman suggests that we can “reach a deeper understanding of genres if we understand them as psycho-social recognition phenomena that are parts of processes of socially organized activities…. They are social facts about the kinds of speech acts people can make and the ways they can make them.” (p. 317, emphasis original). Considered as ways people try to understand one another, genre becomes a means by which we construct our experiences. Bazerman theorizes genre sets as “the collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce” (p. 318), texts that others in a similar role would likely produce and understand as well. Using this understanding of genre sets, Bazerman returns to genre system with this more nuanced definition: “a Genre System is comprised of the several genre sets of people working together in an organized way, plus the patterned relations in the production, flow, and use of these documents” (p. 318, emphasis original).

Application to Network

Bazerman concludes that a genre system is itself part of an activity system, and analyzing both a genre system and an activity system results in “a focus on what people are doing and how texts help people do it, rather than on texts as ends themselves” (p. 319). Activity systems include genre systems as nodes in its network; genre systems include genre sets as nodes in its network; genre sets include genres as nodes in its network; genres include texts as nodes in its network, and so on. Networks exist in hierarchies and change status, from network to node and back again, depending on hierarchical context.

Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business (Popham)

Medical form image

The Cancer Form: CC licensed image from flickr user Mike Krigsman

Susan L. Popham takes our understandings of genre and activity from Miller and Bazerman and applies them directly to a fascinating object of study: medical forms used in health care practices. She recognizes forms operating as genres in medical practices, but she theorizes the existence of boundary genres, “genres functioning as boundary objects… [that] actively participate in interprofessional struggles about hierarchies, dominance, and values, helping to create, mediate, and store tensions” (p. 283). The tension that Miller (1994) found in rhetorical community Popham finds in boundary genres; these boundary genres enable, even embody, tensions among professions and disciplines. The result of her study reveals the lack of agency that medicine and science have in the medical profession; both disciplines are distilled in the business genre forms that ultimately control the fiscal viability of the practice (p. 296).

Application to Network

Popham’s definition of boundary genres represents network-in-action, actively participating in hierarchical struggles among rhetorical texts, among genres, even among disciplines and professions. Here the genres are struggling among themselves for agency. This struggle gets presented in the OOS of medical practice forms, but the network implications to struggles among disciplines in the English studies supradiscipline are clear. A close analysis of our texts will help us identify our genres, determine our boundary objects, theorize boundary genres, and identify the specific activities that represent the struggles among genres—and therefore among the disciplines and professions they represent.


Once again, I find myself blown away by new ways of seeing discourse in terms of networks. The results are making me rethink, or think more carefully and intentionally, about grading texts, assigning texts, assessing portfolios, and writing my own texts. As I consider the course syllabus as genre, I recognize my tendency to allow the generic form to limit the activity of the text. As I require my students to collect and share portfolio objects in Google Drive, I recognize the lack of careful consideration I gave to the implications of surveillant assemblage. As I consider my textbook, Everything’s An Argument, I’m both drawn to the simplicity of the title and concerned about its willingness to place all texts into a single genre system. These are real issues that affect real students whose agency I should seek to protect. These real students have real abilities and dis-abilities, and I should seek to customize and differentiate instruction to their skills and needs. They are real texts that I should seek to read carefully and respond to with care and attention.

And Then There’s Reggie Watts

Reggie Watts bends boundaries and mixes music, speech, and comedic genres. I think Watts is a boundary genre embodiment.


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.

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.

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

[Plane-blog: CC licensed image from flickr user mutatdjellyfish]

Am I in The Digital Humanities?

I’m reading a series in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the digital humanities, and it’s sparked this question: assuming I intend to focus on technology and new media in my doctoral program, will my scholarship be considered “digital humanities”? To me, “digital humanities” suggests more visual presentation and analysis of data rather than traditional scholarship applied to digital projects. I think. Truth is, I’m not sure. I’m quite interested in incorporating digital media into my scholarship, but I’m not sure whether I’ll actually create digital projects in my scholarship.

I’m hoping to begin answering this question a little more clearly while and after taking my “Theories of Networks” class this semester. Our study will include a theoretical foundation for understanding networks along with a technological perspective. My professional work as web manager is all about using technology in networked environments. I had not imagined I’d find some aspect of scholarship that matched my professional work, but I’m discovering there are areas of overlap. What those areas of overlap may be remains unclear.

I’m curious to see how using the disciplinary tools of English studies can be applied to technology networks. I’m curious about how networks can be studied theoretically. I’m curious how critical approaches can contribute to understanding networks, and how network theory can contribute to understanding culture and texts. And whether networks themselves can be studied as text, or whether networks are more like tools for creating texts that are to be analyzed.

I’ve read the first three articles for the class, and I’ll admit that i’m not sure how it all fits together. Classes start next week, and I’m eager to get started.

Reflections on the First Semester

The time lag between this post and the previous post is roughly proportional to my level of stress and busy-ness over that same period. As long as the time was between posts, so was I stressed and busy. The first semester of my PhD studies has drawn to a close—I submitted my two exam question responses last night—and the last meeting of the research process class I team teach starts in less than an hour. We’re simply returning final, graded papers to the students tonight. As a result, I have time to post and reflect on what the first semester has taught me.

First and foremost, I can do this! I am capable of doctoral level scholarship. That’s a relief. I doubted myself from time to time this semester (and I’m sure I will do so again in future semesters), but I pulled myself through my doubt and found ways to succeed. Now that the semester is finished, I’m wondering what I’m going to read next, and how I can keep up with scholarship over the Christmas break. I really enjoyed reading scholarship these past three months, and I don’t want to stop just because a class is finished. I think that’s probably a good thing for a scholar.

Second, I’ve discovered that scholarship is a way of life. After the first week or so of reading shock, I’ve enjoyed, even relished, the opportunity to read meaningful scholarship. To be honest, I had kind of quit on reading any literature, so I think I was seeking something more. Not that literature is “less”—I just wasn’t into it anymore. When it comes to recreational reading, I’m a binge and fast kind of reader. I’ll read several books in a row, quickly, voraciously, then fast from reading for months at a time. Reading scholarship, on the other hand, has been a challenge, but it’s also been “filling,” to extend the eating metaphor. What recreational reading had not been doing for me, scholarly reading has done. I’m eager to read journal articles (and I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence), and I’m not intimidated by ridiculous sounding titles that are written for keyword searches, not for creativity. I love literature and won’t stop reading recreationally—but I understand that, at this moment, I need and want to focus on reading a steady diet of scholarship. I’m probably still in the honeymoon stage with hundreds of thousands of pages to read in the future, but for now, I’m enjoying the sense that scholarship means something more than boredom and drudgery.

Third, I’ve learned more about teaching composition than at any other time in my teaching career. I’ve found reasons for my frustration with our research process class, and I’ve discovered why we’ve shifted out of an isolated research writing class in our new curriculum. I’ve learned to appreciate those texts with titles like Everything’s An Argument and They Say, I Say that teach writing from a genre and context/audience perspective rather than using EDNA or models of exposition. I’ve recognized that I’ve been trapped in outmoded theoretical positions, and I’ve found what those (not so new anymore) updated theories recommend about how writing should be taught. I’ve come to understand the value of multi-modal, multimedia composition and design as a way of extending the composition classroom into the professional world. And I’ve finally figured out the real goal of the composition class—to teach students to write in response to a composition assignment within a specific context to a particular audience using the proper medium, mode, or genre. I’ve been a decent writing teacher, but I believe I am going to become a stellar writing teacher if I can develop pedagogical strategies to complement my theoretical discoveries.

Fourth, I’ve discovered that the English department and discipline that I imagined was exactly that—imaginary. The real department is a mess, and the real discipline is in crisis. It’s taken me the second half of the semester to come to terms with those realities, but the end result for me is a sense of peace. I’m no longer mourning the loss of the English department and discipline of my dreams; it never really existed anywhere outside my head. English studies is in disarray as a perfectly natural function of the evolution of a 19th century discipline entering into the 21st century. What counts is my own perspective and place in this discipline; ironically, it’s the death of that imagined discipline that has freed me to start exploring a space outside literature and cultural studies. I believe that I will focus in technology and new media studies, and I think that I will have a secondary focus in rhetoric and composition studies. I will give up literature, literary studies, cultural studies, and critical theory in favor of technology and new media studies. I will base my study in a strong theoretical foundation, but I will ultimately develop a research project that connects my professional and academic interests. I’m not sure how to do that, but I confess that I could not see a way toward any such connection at the start of this term. I can now see ways to make this connection.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Peter Shanks]

The Discipline is Dead. Long Live the Discipline

English studies no longer exists. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn after half a semester of PhD coursework. Too bad I’m getting a PhD in English.

An English department may exist as a political or organizational unit on some campuses, but it’s unclear to me that, at the graduate or higher level, there needs to be an English discipline. We discussed during last night’s class that cultural studies may be able to subsume what was once “English studies,” but the concept of an English studies program that focuses on literary analysis and criticism is dead.

We have need for rhetoric and composition studies to address undergraduate-level argumentation and academic discourse. We have need for cultural studies to push against hegemony and privileged positions, and to address and critique cultural artifacts and material production. We have need for English education, especially at the secondary and post-secondary level, to be sure high school and college graduates are taught to write from qualified instructors.

But beyond that – do we need critical theory as a separate discipline? Does literary criticism have any real place in the undergraduate or graduate classroom? I really don’t know anymore, and that’s a sad admission for me. I mourn the passing of English studies, but perhaps its death frees me to find a real focus for my studies.

A Crisis – One of Many?

During last Monday’s class, I shared that I felt I was in crisis. This is something I’ve felt since a particular professor spoke to the class. I don’t think the professor engendered the crisis, but the presentation’s unwillingness to leave the realm of theory—and my difficulty following what the professor had to say—resulted in a rising concern about my place in this field. Where is the field of my undergraduate days? And maybe more importantly, where is the field I fell in love with during those high school lunchtime sessions, studying Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” still among my favorite all-time poets and poems), Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and Shelley (“Ozymandias”) in preparation for taking the AP English examination?

I think it’s been replaced, at least in part, by a field that embraces the rhetoric of quilts and video games, that can’t quite decide whether creative writing is really a scholarly pursuit, and that considers itself to be in the midst of an existential crisis.

“Replaced,” of course, is hardly the right word. It’s evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective in the current debates) into the disjointed field of study found (or, increasingly, no longer found) on local college campuses.

I shared the following in a Facebook post to members of my class and PhD cohort this week in response to a series of questions about English as a discipline, and higher education as a “going concern,” shared by another member of the cohort.

I’m beginning to think I may not be the only one overwhelmed right now. S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y overwhelmed. Not by work, although there’s plenty of it. But by a sense of loss. Something happened to English on the way to my Ph.D., and I think I missed it or skipped it or found other things to consume me. But returning to the discipline is painful right now. I’m at a loss for words to explain it, but I will admit to viewing this particular post thread through that lens of loss. I need you all to keep me strong and focused because my discipline is lost and needs to be found.

In a later post, I expanded on this topic:

We are the troublemaking collectiv[ity], and we define the terms. But everything – EVERYTHING – exists in its context. As we earn our degrees and move into whatever jobs are available to PhDs in English studies, we get to spread our troublemaking gospel. We have to work within the contexts we’re given, but I don’t think any context is insurmountable. We will be agents of change, but our agency may be more becoming than being. We’ll push the revolution in little ways and in big ways within our contexts, but we will make trouble and things will change.

Here’s my prediction, informed as much by working in higher education support and instruction for 15 years as by my study of English. It’s surely worth the ink I’ve used.

Change is our constant, both in higher education and English studies. Whatever exists now – and I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what exists now, only that it’s not what it once was and it’s not what I thought it was – won’t exist in ten years. We’ll still have departments, I imagine, and we’ll still teach students, and I’m guessing we’ll still write things – but I think we’ll be conducting scholarship and reporting on it in different formats. We’ll be teaching students in different ways. We’ll teach, learn from, and write different texts. And I’m guessing we’ll apply theory at the same time we’re teaching scholarly creation (which might be on paper) and conducting discourse analyses of multimodal texts. We’ll have to be versed in some of everything. We’ll try or prefer to specialize, but our field will resemble some broad-based humanities effort more than it will resemble the English department of my undergraduate days. We’ll be expected to apply whatever specialty we’ve carved out to all English sub-disciplines.

When I shared my sense of crisis with the professor, I received what I should have predicted I would receive – exactly the same response I would have shared with me if I were the professor responding to a crisis: “That’s good. You’re supposed to be in crisis.” The professor continued that crisis is a part of this class – it’s intended to force new doctoral students to rethink everything about the discipline and about their decision to enter the discipline. It’s Rusty Wilson tearing down those theatre students in order to build them back up. It’s pedagogically designed to generate crisis.

And I found it strangely comforting.

And I get to tell my own students who are experiencing their own research crises exactly the same thing tonight.

I wonder if they’ll be comforted, too.

(Update: They did not appear to be.)

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Cory Doctorow.]