Thursday, January 08, 2004

(Reading roundup: Russell, Bazerman, Freedman and Smart, Spinuzzi on Genre Assemblages)

Originally posted: Thu, 08 Jan 2004 09:22:09

Well, someone always has to be a troublemaker. In my last post, I put together a nice neat taxonomy of frameworks for studying genre assemblages. But something was bothering me, so I went back and looked at some more papers. And lo and behold, there seems to be considerable slippage in the genre systems framework. Some papers describe genre systems pretty much as I have. But some, most notably David Russell's 1997 piece "Rethinking Genre in School and Society," drive much closer to the notion of genre ecologies that I have forwarded: it looks at dialectical relationships among genres (although I try not to use the term dialectical -- I'm still trying to sort out the whole dialectics vs. dialogics distinction that Bakhtin draws); it recognizes informal as well as formal genres; and it doesn't attempt to put genres in a sequential order. Truth be told, I think Bazerman tacks closer to this conception in his later work as well, and perhaps the more limiting description of genre systems in his 1994 piece comes from not fully recognizing and drawing the distinctions that later became more obvious in contrast with the important groundlaying work he has done. (Does that make sense?)

I note other points of slippage as well. For instance, at about the time I was coining the term genre ecology in my own unpublished work, Freedman and Smart published the article ?Navigating the Currents of Economic Policy? (1997) in which they used the same term in print. Despite their different origins, the two conceptions draw on the same body of work and are similar enough that they can be discussed under the same heading.

In Freedman and Smart's article, they base the notion of genre ecology on Edwin Hutchins' notion of a tool ecology (1995). And like Hutchins, they use the term to refer to a symmetrical understanding of artifacts informed by distruibted cognition. The important point to note here is that when Freedman and Smart describe genre ecologies, they refer to them as "systems of genre." Again, the distinction between the two frameworks hadn't been made yet, leading me to believe that they didn't see a particularly strong distinction. Again, I think that distinction has become more important over time.

But let's push further into this article and into some of my own to explore the notion of genre ecology a bit further. "Genres interrelate with each other in intricate, interweaving webs. These webs delicately trace routes and networks already in place," Freedman and Smart explain (p.240). In these webs or overlapping layers, genres do not necessarily have a sequential relationship, not do they necessarily overlap in the sense that Orlikowski and Yates (1994) describe. Rather, they can be connected and used in rather different ways; the emphasis is on dynamism and adaptability to exigencies. In this framework, genres are not simply performed or communicated, they represent the "thinking out" of a community as it cyclically performs an activity. They represent distributed cognition in the sense that cognitive work is spread among the genres and the artifacts that belong to them, and opportunistic connections among those genres are historically made, cemented through practice, yet dynamic enough that new genres can be imported or can evolve to meet new contingencies.

These themes continue in later work on genre ecologies. In Spinuzzi and Zachry's article "Genre ecologies: An open-system approach to understanding and constructing documentation" (2000), the authors stress contingency, or the opportunistic coordinations that people and activities make among genres (p.173); decentralization, or the "distribution of usability, design, and intention across the ecology of genres" ? a notion directly influenced by work in distributed cognition (p.174); and stability, or "the tendency of users to make the interconnections between the genres they use conventional and official" (p.175) ? a sort of "dynamic equilibrium" reached within the genre ecology. Since genres are contingent on each other, the success of any given genre depends on its interconnections with other genres and how those genres jointly mediate a given activity.

That last point is important: rather than focusing on communication, as the other three frameworks have done, the genre ecology framework focuses on mediation. In Tracing Genres through Organizations (2003), I describe this emphasis on mediation: "Mediated actions are not just a detour from unmediated actions, a different set of goal-directed steps leading to the same outcome. Rather, mediating artifacts qualitatively change the entire activity in which workers engage" (p.38). A given genre mediates an activity, but it does not do so alone; it works in conjunction with the entire ecology of genres available. I call this compound mediation (p.47). As I demonstrate in the book and elsewhere, genre ecologies are constantly importing, hybridizing, and evolving genres (and occasionally discarding them), and these dynamic changes in a genre ecology tend to change the entire activity. Yet that dynamism is counterbalanced by a relative stability, particularly in more mature activities: genres in an ecology "have developed relatively stable connections or coordinations with other genres" (p.48).

(Careful readers will note the strong similarities between what I'm talking about and how Russell describes genre systems in his 1997 piece. He was my dissertation chair, after all. But I think there are differences too. I think there's a stronger emphasis on contingency and decentralization in my work.)

It's not an accident that in many of the quotes above, the agent is "genre" or "genre ecologies" rather than human beings. Genre ecologies are grounded in theories of distributed cognition, particularly activity theory, and consequently emphasize genres as collective achievements that act just as much as they are acted upon. Whereas the other frameworks are firmly asymmetrical, emphasizing a human being's control over, performance of, and communication through genres, the genre ecology framework is more symmetrical, replacing the notions of performance and communication with the notion of mediation. Mediating artifacts, as I state in the quote above, change the entire activity ? whether they communicate between people (as in memos, email, and presentations) or whether they are privately used to mediate one's own actions (as in checklists, handwritten notes, and even highly arranged stacks of paper). This symmetrical, mediated, interconnected approach brings into question the sequential, communication-focused understanding of genre assemblages that we see in the other frameworks, and it also tends to highlight idiosyncratic, unofficial, often invisible genres. In that sense, genre ecologies are somewhat similar to the notion of "datacloud" that Johndan Johnson-Eilola has advanced (2001).

Anyway, I'm going to continue working on this. The problem with writing a framework essay (which is what I'm doing) is that the edges are blurry. Framework essays impose boundaries and black-box theoretical tools, which is important work, but let's not pretend that it's simply descriptive. Right?

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