In “Knowing Where You Are: Genre,” chapter 2 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman argues that genres emerge out an established set of practices and conventions that develop over time in response to situations and sets of activities. Or, to put it more precisely, genres “embody understandings of situations, relationships, stances, moods, strategies, appropriate resources, goals and many other elements that define the activity and shape means of accomplishment” (24). Understanding the situationality and activity from which a genre emerges is important for at least two reasons, both of which help us to make sense of a piece of writing:
- As Bazerman notes at the start of the chapter, unlike face-to-face dialogue, writing can circulate through time and across space. That is, writing can come to us not out of context but without anyone to whom we might ask to explain the context we need to make sense of the writing (21-23).
- Genres provide a frame for us to understand the situationality and activity system addressed by or in need of addressing as we read and write texts (32-34). These frames help us interpret moves made in a piece of writing and help us understand the kinds of moves we need to make in a piece of writing. As Bazerman explains, because genres come with established forms and conventions that emerged out of specific purposes addressing specific situations, if we understand the genre in which we need to write then we already have a strong sense of what our writing needs to do and how it needs to do it (24).
One of the most important concepts in this chapter is the idea that written texts exist within activity systems. As Bazerman explains, an activity systems “are historically emerged networks of people and artifacts (such as buildings, machines, and products as well as texts and files) that carry out typified kinds of work and other activities over extended periods, and that have developed ways of coordinating the work and attention of participants in ways that become familiar to all participants” (25).
To help explain this idea, Bazerman turns to the example of a classroom. Different kinds of schools and different kinds of subjects and disciplines are going to have different kinds of classrooms in which different kinds of activities take place. The overarching goal of each, presumably, is to enable learning just as the overarching goal of a written text is to communicate, but the conventions, practices, methods, interactions, tools, resources, etc. will differ from classroom to classroom and from genre to genre.
For instance, no one expects musical performance class to meet in a seminar room with the students sitting around a table and discussing ideas, likewise no one would expect an organic chemistry lab to regularly meet on an auditorium stage and work with musical instruments.
Because the purpose of writing is to communicate, texts exist within activity systems, and understanding the activity system in which a text is situated helps us make sense of how to read or write that text (27-29). In broad terms, we might think about different kinds of texts and their activity systems by comparing a National Science Foundation grant proposal, a student lab report, an essay for a philosophy class, a letter to the editor of the school newspaper, and a resume and cover letter used to apply for a job or internship. Each of these kinds of texts are produced for and circulate in very different systems and the work they seek to do and how they go about doing it are quite different.
While the activity systems in which a NSF proposal, a lab report, a school essay, etc. are all quite different from each, we can also talk about differences between closely related activity systems and how those differences produce different kinds of texts. For example, let us consider the lab report. As you’ll read next week in The MIT Guide‘s chapter on reports, a student lab report differs from the report of a professional researcher in some significant ways. While both are supposed to be a report of an experiment, and while both should address the methodology as well as draw conclusions and offer interpretations, the student’s lab report and the professional researcher’s lab report serve different functions and exist within different activity systems. A student lab report exists within the activity system of school, its circulation is one designed for evaluation within the educational context, and its focus is on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted. A professional researcher’s lab report, on the other hand, exists within the activity system of research, its circulation is one designed for evaluation by peer researchers and to share new discoveries and knowledge, and its focus in not on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted but instead focus on the results of the experiment.
Genres Emerge from Activity Systems
Because activity systems develop their own sets of practices in response to specific situations, within activity systems texts used to communicate in response to specific situations and needs tend to follow certain practices and conventions that have developed over time, and we call these established practices and conventions genres. (To put this another way, Bazerman notes that genres emerge because “communications tend to flow within activity systems in typical pathways, at typical moments, in typical forms, to enact typical intentions, carrying out familiar acts” (29).) While most of us are used to thinking of genres just as an established set of conventions (“categories of textual forms”), Bazerman argues that they are more than that. They are, he suggests, “simultaneously categories of textual forms, forms of social interaction, and forms of cognitive recognition and shaping of motive and thought” (29).
We can think of genres as forms of social interaction because different genres exist to perform different kinds of work in response to different social situations. For instance, while the purpose of all proposals is to convince someone that there is a problem or need that can be addressed by taking a certain action, an informal proposal shared with the officers of your sorority or fraternity suggesting a way to resolve a conflict exists involves a very different kind of social context and engagement than an NSF grant proposal or a conference presentation proposal. So too a request for money directed toward your parents via a text message and a request for a business loan in the form of a business proposal.
We can think of genres as forms of cognitive recognition because, as noted above, they help us frame our understanding of the purpose and context form which the text emerged or to which we need to write a text. The defined characteristics of genres and the activity systems from which they emerge of help us think about and evaluate what a text does or must do and how well it does it. In short, because genres emerge in response to specific needs within specific contexts, we can use the conventions of a genre can help us understand the rhetorical situation and task before us as we work within that genre as a reader and as a writer.