Thursday, July 26, 2012

Writing :: Genre and generic labor

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Genre and generic labor. In C. Bazerman, C. Dean, J. Early, K. Lunsford, S. Null, P. Rogers, and A. Stansell (Eds.), International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Available at

This is the third in my ongoing series on writing publications. Unlike the first two, this one is in an open-access publication. So if you like, you can download the PDF right now, skim the publication, and come back.

All right? This is a somewhat unusual piece for me in that it's based on a previously published study, my 2010 Written Communication piece. As I was preparing for the 2011 Writing Research Across Borders conference, I had been thinking through several issues: (a) the readings I had recently done by Castells and others about labor and organization; (b) how those readings might interact with genre theory; and (c) how to deal with automated texts. To help me with these, I used an existing case rather than starting a new study. The exercise turned out to be fairly rewarding.

In fact, I ended up revamping and extending this presentation for the Genre 2012 conference. There, I told the audience that I was still flogging this study, published in 2010, for the same reason that many of us end up eating turkey sandwiches for a week after Christmas.

Anyway. Let's talk a bit about the argument and what's behind it.

The Gist and Development
The chapter, as I indicate above, is a think piece. As I looked back over my previous attempts to characterize genre, I notice that I tended to place them on a continuum, which might be characterized as official-unofficial or stable-flexible or etc. Others working within the tradition of North American genre theory have tended to do the same thing, largely because we're all drawing on Bakhtin.

But the problem with a continuum is that it only represents a single dimension. As I began reading works such as Castells' The Internet Galaxy, I began to realize that it addressed issues I had noticed in my studies but hadn't described well—specifically, issues involving handing off processes to texts. For instance, in my first book, I wrote quite a bit about how the traffic accident database ALAS automated texts and tasks that had previously been generated manually. But there and elsewhere, I had lumped in automation with the official-unofficial distinction. Castells' work—especially his distinction between self-programmable and generic labor—seemed to handle the issue more precisely.

So the next step was to figure out how to put these two insights into dialogue. To do this, I drew on the recent study as a thought experiment:

  • Could I synthesize them, layering the self-programmable/generic distinction over the unofficial/official one? Not really: they were getting at different things. 
  • Could I substitute one for the other? Again, not really. As I compared them, I realized that each provided different insights.
  • Could I treat them as two different distinctions, two "dimensions" along which I could characterize given genres? Why, yes, I could.
The result was Table 5 on p.500, which really helped me to figure out these distinctions and narrow down exactly what I was trying to say. Although this table comes late in the paper, it was really the germ from which the rest of the argument grew.

The Cycles
But I soon realized that characterizing genres along two dimensions, although a contribution, wasn't enough to anchor an argument. Theoretically, it didn't do enough. Practically—well, to be blunt, it didn't fill the pages. And let's face it, length is a motivating factor. (Although most of the time I feel  pressure in the opposite direction, having to edit down my work.) So, I thought, what can I do to fill this argument out a bit?

Fortunately, Bakhtin and Castells are both concerned with development, which is also a strong theme in my own work. So, once I disentangled these two dimensions of analysis, I began thinking through how they developed. And these became figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1, the official-unofficial piece, was easy. After all, I had written about the issue of genre development in my dissertation, although not with such brevity. So it didn't take too long to sketch a reasonable figure on butcher paper in my kitchen. (Lately I've found that when doing conceptual work, I tend to get more traction with big pieces of paper.)

And once I set up Figure 1, I had an easier time putting together Figure 2, based on Castells' work. Figure 2 is modeled after Figure 1, which limits its format and focuses the insights that it might provide. At the same time, it is based on all the sources in Table 4; I didn't just shoehorn my impressions into a ready, compatible format. At least, I don't think I did. See what you think.

The Process
As you might imagine, writing a theoretical piece like this one is different from writing up a study. The theoretical piece has to be
  • internally consistent, following consistent internal logic with consistent premises.
  • consistent with the literature, accountable to everything cited in the piece.
  • consistent with the examples, in this case, the Written Communication piece.
Putting it that way makes a theory piece seem very complex and difficult to manage. But in practice,  these different sorts of consistencies make a theoretical piece much easier to write. That's because they cross-check each other: they provide different sorts of limitations or boundaries that, together, describe the shape of the theoretical contribution. 

For that reason, this argument turned out to be very easy to put together. But that's because 
  • I consciously tried to establish consistencies across the different parts of the argument. 
  • I had a thorough knowledge of both sets of the literature—and I was also diligent about looking up and providing cites to establish the major points.
  • I had a well-suited extended example that I could use to double-check the results.
The Result
So that's the story with this piece. I'm fairly happy with it, although it's still a bit new and exploratory, and the line of thinking will undoubtedly develop further. But see what you think, and feel free to talk back in the comments.

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