Thursday, April 07, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Bazerman & Little, Tardy, Miller, Bracewell & Witte)

Originally posted: Thu, 07 Apr 2005 02:35:37

I'm going through a backlog of PDFs that I've downloaded over the last several months, trying to catch up on my article readings in my spare time. The following articles had some interesting things to say about genre and/or mediated activity.

Charles Bazerman, Joseph Little, and Teri Chavkin. "The Production of Information for Genred Activity Spaces"

Bazerman et al. are interested in genre as linking and regulating activities as well as shaping the texts that are used in such activities. As they say near the beginning of the article,

genre provides a middle space for approaching production and understanding of text -- between the immediate local knowledge of specific conditions of production and reception and an abstract world of symbols existing apart from any use and apart from any organized relation to readers. Texts mediate human activity at a distance and help enlist and align people to larger social institutions and practices, and text genres provide means of recognizing social relations, obligations, and interactions embodied within communications. Because they can create joint attention and alignment, genres are one of the key mechanisms that people have used to create and to maintain larger forms of social organization. But genres also shape the substantive material that is represented within the bounded space of the text -- the meanings, information, and knowledge. (p.456)

To explore this understanding further, they examine environmental impact statements (EIS) and how a perceived social need for information creates the genre. "This genre creates a space that prompts the production of certain kinds of information to populate that space and creates a place for the display of that information" (p.457). Genre, they add, "crystallizes motives and compulsions to create a local habitation for the information to be lodged and recognized within" (p.460). Of course, the EIS doesn't function alone; it is situated within a system of genres and the system collectively helps to bind together the activity -- or, frequently, the set of activities. The EIS, for instance, is an information-gathering genre that provides one way to link together different entities. And that brings us to our next article:

Christine M. Tardy - "A Genre System View of the Funding of Academic Research."

Here, the genre is that of grant proposals, "a high-stakes genre" that "does not exist in isolation but as part of a complex reticulation of genres that interact to form a genre system" (p.7). Like Bazerman et al., Tardy emphasizes the function of this genre as part of a larger set of genres, and one that in turn comprises several genres. "Knowledge of a genre system may differ in important ways from knowledge of an isolated genre" (p.7).

Tardy also takes a stab at discussing genres as linkages across activities -- although she uses "social groupings" and "discourse communities" (p.10, 23), which really don't do as satisfactory a job of describing or emphasizing the directedness of activity. At any rate, she sees "grant proposals as social actions situated within multiple social groupings" (p.10) and reminds us that "Not only do genres operate within multiple communities, but they often coexist with other genres that operate within different communities" (p.10). The genres of proposal writing connect different activities (p.12). And although the PI works through the grant-writing process, he or she interacts with several individuals at local and national levels" (p.23).

Overall, this article was really useful for understanding grant writing, particularly for the NSF.

Carolyn Miller - "Expertise and agency: Transformations of ethos in human-computer interaction."

Miller's article is a very different animal. Miller applies the classic rhetorical term "ethos" to two models of human-computer interaction, and in doing so, teases out differences between two sorts of ethos: Aristotelian and Ciceronian. First a general definition: Ethos is "an accustomed place, haunt, or abode; the sense of variation by location would thus seem more fundamental than any normative virtue" (p.198). Miller wants to use ethos descriptively to explore community and communal character. So, interestingly, she applies it to two modes of human-computer interaction: "the rhetoric of machine control and the rhetoric of computational subjectivity"; her examples are

expert systems and intelligent agents, two technologies in which the role of ethos is foregrounded. Both expert systems and intelligent agents blur the boundaries between human and machine, creating 'hybrids' (in Latour's term) or 'cyborgs' (in Haraway's). Such human-computer hybrids transfer to the computer some aspects of human character and require some adaptation by a human interactant, creating a 'system,' or dwelling place, where both must abide. The question whether ethos belongs to the computational system or to the humans who design, use, and value it becomes a strategic ambiguity. (p.199)

"The two cases," she argues, "illustrate a fundamental instability in the concept of ethos itself, as in the first case it allies itself strongly with logos and in the second with pathos" (p.199).

In Aristotelian rhetoric, ethos stands in for expertise; it is essentially rational. Expert systems appropriate this Aristotelian ethos, incorporating and demonstrating expertise (p.204).

Intelligent agents incorporate a Ciceronian ethos: "Ethos needs its association with pathos, more in some situations than in others, just as it needs its association with logos, in order that goodwill not be dismissed as foolish and trustworthiness as naive." And "Intelligent agents, then, have adopted an ethos of sympathy, an ethos strongly allied for pathos, and it is for this reason that we can understand their rhetoric as a form of 'cyborg discourse'" (p.211).

In sum,

The ethos of rational reliability and the ethos of sympathy are not only rhetorical strategies but also rhetorical modes of being, each with its own limitations. Each in its own way attempts to create a version of the closed world in which we might dwell by modeling a character who belongs there -- a set of judgments, a way of feeling, a mode of interacton. (p.213)

Smart! This seems to be a valuable and interesting way to apply the classical rhetorical tradition to computer-mediated activity. The last article, on the other hand, examines and critiques how more recent developments have been applied to workplace writing.

Robert J. Bracewell and Stephen P. Witte. "Tasks, ensembles, and activity: Linkages between text producton and situation of use in the workplace."

Bracewell and Witte launch a sharp critique of activity theory. They announce that they want to draw on constructs such as activity systems, ensemble activities, literacy events, and work events to elaborate "a more integrated and potentially generative framework to account for workplace literacy and its functions in professional settings" (p.512). They start with Vygotsky's "construct of practical, objective human activity," but they charge that "current elaborations of the activity triangle ... are insufficient to account adequately, from a psychological perspective, for much practical human activity in contemporary workplaces" (p.512).

To explore this problem, they begin by discussing activity theory. The expansion from sign-mediated actions to activity systems, they point out, yields a greater range of applicability. And the addition of contradiction to the activity system yields a dimension of dynamism. But the tradeoff is an "increased gap between the abstract characterization of these components and the appropriate application of these components to the material, situated, and time-bound specifics of activity" (p.516). In particular, they think the application of the activity triangle to all three levels of activity is problematic -- a "quick fix." (p.518). This quick fix ignores that there are two major differences between activity on one hand and action and operation on the other hand. (1) operations and actions entail "physiological and neurophysiological dimensions" that make them objective in one sense. (2) "Goals and conditions are manifested by people in material/symbolic representations which can be identified by others (including researchers) and are thus objective" in another sense. But activity is not objective in either sense; activity is inferred and thus runs the risk of being subjective. "Activity is, we think, perhaps better understood as something like a theoretical construct rather than as a phenomenological and, hence, objective category" (p.521).

In other words, activity is like gravity or intelligence -- theoretical abstractions that have accrued explanatory power and whose "existence is posited or hypothesized not because of their objective natures but because of their objective effects." "Activity might thus be viewed as a theoretical construct that functions to explain or account for in some way a collocation of human behaviors and behavior outcomes centered around some set of performance parameters." They claim that this distinction maps well to Vygotsky's differentiation of parts in a theory: general explanatory principle and objects of study (p.522).

(This seems similar to Latour's critique of Marxist theories in general and AT in particular as having to invent sociocultural structures to explain human activity.)

The authors propose a resolution:

First, the activity/motive construct should be viewed as one that elaborates the general explanatory principle of practical human activity which serves to define the domain of psychological theory. Second, the action/goal and operation/condition constructs should be viewed as objects of study which serve to realize the explanatory principle in the complexity and detail required to account for the range and specificity of practical human activity. (p.522)

So they dicuss two new constructs: the task and the ensemble. "We define the task as the set of goals and actions that implement these goals, which are developed in order to achieve a solution to a complex problem within a specific work context. And "We define the work ensemble as the smallest group of people who collectively use sign systems in conjunction with other tools and technologies to realize an appropriate solution to a complex problem within a specific work context" (p.528).

But then they get to their inspirations, which include Vygotsky and activity theory, but also task analysis (Newell and Simon), distributed cognition (Hutchins), and studies of scientific knowledge (Bijker), among others. What a mishmash. Sure, they all deal with "the interplay of the individual, material, and cultural" (p.529), but they conceive of these in rather different ways that are not easily reconciled. That's fine, I've done similar things -- but the fact that they don't mark or discuss the differences is surprising given the rigorous theoretical critique they executed earlier in the paper.

Back to these constructs:

The work ensemble has at least two advantages for investigating workplace literacy. One is objectivity. Ensembles form, evolve, and disband around activities that their purpose (and subsidiary tasks) mandate, organize, and terminate. Rather than being defined by the researcher, the ensemble is defined by the participants, their coordinate actions, and the mediational means used to represent the content with which the ensemble deals. The actions and representations are particularly identifiable through the discourse of the participants and actions that attend the discourse. Such discourse and actions specify both the tasks of the ensemble and the means of doing these tasks. (p.547).

And "A second and related advantage is the degree of theoretical saturation ... that can be achieved" (p.547).

Overall: the criticism of the activity system/level of activity scores, but I'm not convinced by the alternative constructs, nor by the objectivity test that they use. The interviews, observations, etc. are much easier to nail down at the operation and action levels, yes, but activity-level analysis relies on the same empirical data. Why do these stories give us adequate information about motives and goals but not objects?


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