Lecture: Bazerman’s “When You Are”

While “Knowing Where You Are: Genre,” chapter 2 of Charles Bazerman’s A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, located texts within their activity systems, “When You Are” (chapter 3) examines texts through the lens of time.

We’ve already encountered the importance of time in the concept of kairos. As Losh et. al. explain 1)1. Losh, Elizabeth et. al. “Why Rhetoric?” Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 35-54., kairos refers to both the opportune time to engage in an act and due proportion or fitness of that act (48). In “When You Are,” Bazerman’s discussion of kairos focuses on the rightness of the moment (44). Kairos is not the only consideration of time Bazerman takes up in this chapter, however. Bazerman also considers time from the perspectives of how much time it takes us to write a text; the time constraints under which a text is read by its audience so that it is read hurriedly or slowly and carefully; reading texts from the past which, in essence, are texts from cultures foreign to us; and to imagine future audiences and the effects we wish to have on them.

At the start of the chapter, Bazerman argues that just as texts are situated within activity systems, they are also situated within time. He explains: “texts arise from historical moments in situations, are directed toward others located in historical moments, with specific intent to accomplish ends—influencing people and events within history” (43). One major effect this may have, Bazerman notes, is that we often come to texts from very different cultural contexts. In some cases, the text may seem strange and odd to us as much as any text rooted in a very different cultural context might. On the other hand, because we have different interests than the writer and the texts original audience, we might notice ideas or value texts ignored or unrecognized by its original audience (44).

Texts and Kairos

While making effective use of kairos is important for effective expression, it’s equally important to be able to locate a written text within its situated historical moment if we are to understand how the text works, why it does what it does, and how effective it may or may not have been. In this sense, we can think of kairos as both a heuristic for invention (figuring out how to situate our own writing effectively within its temporal context) and as a heuristic for evaluation (figuring out how effective it might have been in its given time for its given audience).

One element here of kairos is recognizing that activity systems often have temporal ebbs and flows or cycles of activity. As Bazerman nots, in the United States, April 15 is the day income taxes are due, and this establishes a set of practices and activities that are repeated each year (49). If you’re a comics fan, then you know that new issues come out on Wednesdays, which means that the cycle of writing and producing a monthly or weekly comic is tied to this schedule. Likewise, major grants that are awarded each year have their own annual deadlines, and the cycle of applying for and reviewing grant proposals is timed to this system, as are the production of guidelines. Similarly, large organizations establish annual budgets to govern the flow of money into and out of their organization. Understanding and working within these temporal ebbs and flows helps us navigate the activity system in which we wish to operate. For instance, it’s much easier to find funding for a new project if you propose in the months during which a new annual budget is being made than it would be to propose it a month after the start of a new fiscal year whose budget has already been drawn up.

Another element of kairos to consider here is constraints under which a text will be read. As Bazerman notes, many reference books are designed to be consulted at the time of need, and organizing a reference text in such a way that information is easy to find is not only valuable, it’s crucial for the effectiveness of that reference text. Or, to think about this in more concrete terms, consider (or imagine) the differences between a how-to guide for fixing household plumbing and a general introduction to household plumbing. While the general introduction might be organized into chapters discussing different systems and fixtures and how they all work together, a how-to-fix-it guide is going to be organized by project. Likewise, while diagrams in a general introduction might focus on introducing different systems, parts, and fixtures and how they relate to one another, the diagrams in a how-to-fix-it guide will focus on illustrating instructions and aiding in diagnosing problems. While both about household plumbing, the two books need to be designed quite differently because their intended audiences will consult those books under very different time constraints. Typically, we consult the general introduction at our leisure because we want to learn about household plumbing, and we consult the how-to-fix-it guide because we have a plumbing problem that needs addressing.

Texts in Their Temporal Sequence

Another temporal consideration when creating or analyzing texts is the place of a particular text within a larger sequence of texts. As texts exist within activity systems, they rarely exist on their own with no connections to texts that came before it or that came after it. Being able to place a text within its larger context of texts can help us better understand it or help us better prepare it. For example, proposals written in response to a request for proposals (RFP) or a job application packet written in response to a specific job ad need to address the criteria in the RFP or ad. Likewise, we will have a hard time understanding an email that reads “In response to your questions, yes, no, no, and I’ll know more once the project is done.” Without seeing the email to which this one responses, we don’t know what the questions were, and if the two correspondents have been communicating for some time, we might need to go back dozens of emails or more to know what “the project” is. In a similar fashion, when I teach first-year writing classes, I require students to submit all drafts of their projects as well as any pre-writing, peer-review feedback, etc. Seeing how a text developed over time helps me understand its current form, and it better helps me understand the kind of feedback that might be most useful for the student.

As Bazerman notes at the end of “When You Are,” knowing the when of a text within its activity system helps us understand how to make a text effective: “Every piece of writing is deeply embedded in some activity system, and the more deeply one understands that system and its rhythms, the more one can let the activity system help one produce the document—drawing on, being directed by, leaning against, and creatively resisting the ongoing welter of events, artifacts, resources, and personalities, to produce an emergent text that draws on the strengths of that system to be influential within it” (58).

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Losh, Elizabeth et. al. “Why Rhetoric?” Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 35-54.