INKSHED XXIII May 6, 2006

Natasha -- Crossing contexts: A study of novices' trajectories in learning engineering genres

I guess my primary concern here is about the finer-grained elements of this process. It really sounds to me as though everything depends on the prior knowledge, abilities and dispositions of the learners. I can't help wondering if the ones who were successful would not have been successful in the absence of the instruction. This is, of course, always the teacher's self-defeating stance: the successes would here have succeeded without me. What was it that happened for Sami, Rebecca, etc. to tip the balance here and give them the ability -- and disposition -- to acquire the genre. I suspect that there's an underlying base of knowledge and inclination that over-rides the effect of instructions. I really want to know more about the borderline case, Rebecca. -- Russ

I can see that the field's specialized vocabulary is an acquired thing -- and that tailoring rhetorical strategies to the unique situation in which an engineering student finds himself/herself a special process.

I feel like cheering when I hear of evidence that learners do in fact, transfer genre understanding from one context to another. The argument that they don't (or can't) the "worlds apart" view, seems to me to rest on an overly limited sense of the social processes involved in writing (Response: but not for everyone), despite that view's avowed focus on those processes. Socialization never stops or ends, after all. -- Brock

I'd like to know more about how novice engineers demonstrated control and creativity over workplace genres and what criteria you used to support this finding. -- Geoff

The conclusions here really speak to the ways that genre theory can be developed. I am especially struck by the ways that Bourdieu's noting of cultural, etc. capital really works with genre theory and bring a richness and depth.

I'm pleased that Natasha's study demonstrates what most writing form teachers have known for years -- our students both bring genre knowledge to the classroom and take it away. This study clarifies what we've seen anecdotally for years -- it's very exciting.

We know that often is true, but it isn't necessarily true and there are many examples of people who do exactly what Natasha documents, using cultural capital and the resources to move between context and genres -- and even re-invest them! -- Roger

Your use of genre theory, the way you tease it out into sets of interacting, accessible elements, and your suggestion, through the studies, about how these ingredients may coalesce after they've been "cooked" are all compelling. (Question: what do you think about "engaged learning" theory? Does this come into play for motivating students?) We need to give students more flexibility about course configurations and learning contexts; as teachers, we need support in handling those options. And finally, as academics, we need to lose our vestigial prejudices about universities being "better than" workplaces. -- Amanda

Consider: If writing is not stabilized -- or -- if it is fixed (i.e. sonnet) -- then -- is it not part of a genre?

The deictic nature of genre, I suppose from your research appears to be restrained or framed or held in stasis by the social interaction of new and (still) former members of the genre community members. The knowledge of genre is base don the familiarity with its components.

I was struck by the notion of relevant capital to the success of these students and the fact that this can be altered in Rebecca's case during the time she is enjoyed in the course -- but can't be changed for Moe. How explicit is the process for Rebecca? And how powerful is the goal for each of these students who -- in the beginning -- lacked appropriate skills/background., etc. Is it ever possible to change someone's goals?

It would be interesting to know more about those who don't grasp it.

I am curious about what the other particular genre knowledge ingredients are which are also necessary for future success. What factors are missing when students have difficulty moving from the academic to the professional world?

I'm somewhat interested in the notion of transferability across context. I think it is possible -- depending on how well something is understood and the ability with which it is used could transfer -- but the knowledge, skill and confidence (control?) must be at a fairly high level. Lower level control cannot, it seems to me, transfer without a conscious agenda (on the part of students and/or teachers and/or employers). Transfer doesn't
"just happen". -- Stan

I am very pleased to see your clearly articulated list of factors influencing an individual's success in learning genres. It helps me understand the complexity -- especially considering that these factors do not function in isolation of one another. -- Pat S.

So much of Natasha's exploration resonates with my own observations of transitional writing students. What her work affirms for me is the critical but limited role that genre instruction plays in genre acquisition -- we can ready our students to varying degrees, and then they must have the rhetorical maturity to recognize those kairotic moments when engaged in work place writing tasks -- this proactive, strategic resourcefulness is not always very predictable. One important skill in this regard is identifying and mining the knowledge of mentors in the workplace.

A fascinating question for teachers of professional writing within the academy is how to provide the kind of cultural context and capital that complements rhetorical genre strategies. This "cultural capital," as Natasha called it, is difficult to define, to measure, to determine and certainly varies a great deal profession to profession.