Russ Hunt

Process vs. Genre:
Australian-Rules Martial Arts in Language Education

[as published in Inkshed 8:2 (March 1984), 14-18.]

Any English teacher visiting Australia in the late eighties will notice almost immediately -- just after the eucalyptus trees, the dead wallabies along the road, and the fact that as the sun rises, it's going up at an angle to the left, toward the north -- that there's a sense of apocalypse about English teaching at all levels there. Arguments -- in print, at conferences, and over coffee -- are conducted in strident and often passionately personal tones. Something depends on who wins: things are changing, and texts, curricula and even jobs hang in the balance.

Some of the specific subjects of these arguments, of course, are familiar: in North America we're used to hearing debates about explicit and direct instruction vs. discovery learning, about product vs. process models of instruction and evaluation, about literature-based vs. basal reader-based reading programmes, about "functional" literacy vs. a more "real" literacy, about literacy for a sophisticated elite vs. literacy designed to include the working classes and the unemployed classes, immigrants and minorities, women and blacks and dyslexics and hockey (in Australia, read "footy") players. But there's a different issue at centre stage in Australia. We've heard very little of it in North America, but it's one which causes tempers to flare around the hors d'oeuvre table at receptions and brings people stalking out of staffroom coffee breaks to explode in the hall.

As always, when tempers run high and tenure is at stake, positions become extreme. In caricature, the opposing sides are these:

(a) In this corner, the reigning champion, wearing warm fuzzy trunks, hailing from Canada, New Zealand and the American midwest, the Donald Graves / Ken Goodman / Frank Smith / Progressive Whole Language school. It argues that expressive writing rather than fill-in-the-blank exercises should dominate the curriculum, that pieces of writing should not be treated and evaluated as rootless texts, dissociated from their writers, but rather should be seen as one stage in a long process, and understood, taught, and evaluated as parts of that process. Readers, it insists, are meaning makers who use texts to make their own meanings. As teachers our concern should be for the individual's own growth rather than for arbitrary external standards and criteria.

(b) In this corner, the challenger, from Sydney University, wearing full body armor, the systemic linguistics / power genre school. It argues that the child-centred softheadedness of the reigning champ has disempowered and confused teachers and, by allowing minority and lower class students the "freedom" to continue making the bad choices their backgrounds have conditioned them to make, has perpetuated the schools' discrimination against the powerless. It asserts that children need to be firmly guided in their reading and especially their writing, that they need explicitly to be taught the characteristics of the various genres whose control will help' them gain power in our society.

This doesn't immediately sound like a debate which has much relevance to the situation in North America. It obviously in some ways reflects a reaction against what many (not always partisans of the systemic linguistics school) contend has been an overenthusiastic and uncritical embracing of whole language principles by Australian departments of education and school administrators (and at least a few teachers). Now such an embrace has not occurred (putting it mildly) in North America, even in Canada, even in Winnipeg or Nova Scotia.

If you agreed that Whole Language in Australia had "gone too far" (I emphatically don't) you perhaps might see the need for some such "stiffening" or "structuring" of its basic ideas. But, as Ken Goodman (Goodman, Shannon, Freeman and Murphy, 1988) and Allan Cole (1988) have made clear, Canadian education, and even more that of the United States, are still in the paralyzing grip of the basal reader industry. A "back to the basics" reaction would be just as premature today as it ever was; if "basics" are what Frank Smith (1986) calls "drill 'n' kill," we've never left them.

Why, then, do I suggest that anyone in North America should be interested in all this? The question is answered most elegantly by a little book published by the Centre for Studies in Literary Education at Deakin University (Reid, 1987), in which not only are the two antithetical positions neatly outlined (by principals representing each corner), but an elegant and important synthesis proposed -- one which has, I think, immediate and serious implications for teaching anywhere, under any circumstances.

The book, slender as it is (124 pages), manages not only to convey a respectable picture of the state of the debate, but also to suggest something of its vehemence. Reid, in his introduction, is about as testy as I've heard a referee get in such situations, in turn rebuking each side for hanging on in the clinches, hitting below the belt, etc. (He comments, for example, that Wayne Sawyer and Ken Watson, in the "Process" corner, "take a stand on an orthodoxy" in a way that allows their own paper to resemble the ones they attack; or that Jim Martin, Frances Christie, and Joan Rothery are rather "harsh" in attacking John Dixon for not including examples of student writing in his paper.) A reader who simply proceeds through the first six papers will come out with a fairly clear notion of what all the fuss is about -- and will also see, I think, why Reid might have become impatient. The contributors (besides those I've mentioned, Frances Christie and Gunther Kress for the systematic linguistic position) cross swords on such issues as the status of fixed genres (such as reports) in school curricula (are there, for instance, "a small number" of such genres?) and the role of direct instruction in language learning (it might be argued on the one hand that genres will be learned-discovered -- by students who are allowed freedom to explore language, or on the other that it is necessary to layout generic requirements for student writing so that students can make informed choices among the limited number of alternatives available).

Let me offer one specific example of the sort of debate that occurs. Sawyer and Watson observe that one argument of their opponents is that "there is too much emphasis on narrative forms in primary school and that this is poor preparation for working in expository modes in secondary school, especially since such modes are characterized by an impersonal, neutral tone not provided for in most primary school narrative" (46), and contend that such a view ignores the evidence that language is a developmental continuum, and that the children learn when "allowed to use their own language rather than forced to conform to the particular language conventions of specific subject areas" (47). Martin, Christie, and Rothery, on the other hand, cite Christie's demonstration that "the most important factor controlling what children write is not their stage of development, but rather the way in which the teacher sets up the writing context" (63), and contend, with Kress, that to leave the learning of more sophisticated forms to chance and the children is "to ask those least able to do so to carry that burden" (44). Thus the question is not really whether children should learn to write in adult ways, but whether they can be "trusted" to do so in the absence of a specific theory about what constitutes those "ways" -- and a conscious instructional plan to create particular generic occasions.

All this is available elsewhere and in greater detail for those interested (as Reid points out, this book provides in its lists of references a basic bibliographical guide to the dispute, a sort of program to take along to the match), and, as I have said, is in detail only glancingly relevant to current debates in education in North America. (I should make clear that I consider this unfortunate: it's the sort of thing we ought to be arguing about, rather than endlessly belabouring questions of testing, evaluation and accountability.)

What makes the book particularly worth considering (and what made it exciting reading for me) is the way the last essay, by Anne Freadman of the University of Queensland, takes the two sides, tosses them up in the air and juggles them for a moment, and produces an entirely new position, one which I think might well make a difference to anyone teaching language at any level. In "Anyone for Tennis?" Freadman argues that it's a mistake to think of genres (both sides seem to do this) as categories of objects, like, say, species of trees, and shows why it's much more accurate, and more productive, to think of genre as a game, "consisting, minimally, of two texts in a dialogical relation" (97). Further, she points out that a game isn't equivalent to the rules that delimit it; it's what we do when we've accepted those rules and when we're acting inside the social conditions (what she calls the "ceremonies") which frame and enable the game. The "shots" which make up the game of tennis aren't equivalent to, or prescribed by, the rules of the game. The rules, she points out, aren't a recipe for shot-making, and no shot can exist as such without its proper, dialogic response, ("uptake," as it would be called in speech-act theory). We know the game is tennis because there are shots (recognizable as such because of the frame of the rules) being exchanged; in the same way, we recognize a genre because of the kinds of texts being exchanged. But by themselves, outside the context of the dialogue, the texts cannot (any more than the shots) have the qualities which define the genre. You can't play tennis with a wall; you can't have poetry when your reader is "receiving, but not returning, the ball, quite possibly caressing, it, and asking for the video replay immediately" to "contemplate in tranquillity the way it came" (93).

What Freadman does, in general, is to apply to the notion of the "kinds" of writing the same sorts of questions which semiotics have applied to the notion of a "linguistic system," and. with the same result: the supposed "objects" (words, sentences, meanings, genres) with which we began vanish, and what we're left with is what Saussure called a system of differences. But she goes further, I think, and shows that it isn't "merely" a system of differences, nor merely arbitrary and indeterminate. Like Pierce, who offers the same alternative to Saussurean semiotics (and with whose work she is familiar), she argues that we do indeed, as it happens, actually succeed in playing tennis: the shots don't dissolve into unending self-reference or indeterminacy: But only, she implies, when we do play it, not when we contemplate or analyze it. For me, the most powerful use of the tennis analogy is her assertion that you can only pretend to play in the classroom, and that won't work: "the use of simulation techniques in the ceremonial frame of 'straight' classroom practice subverts the simulated game: its stakes are no longer at stake; the stakes of playing are those of the usual work-for-marks-and-teacher's-feedback game" (98).

What this suggests is that the whole question -- do we (a) "teach" genres and help students "practice" them, or do we (b) hold the faith that they'll learn them by engaging in the writing process in the classroom -- is misplaced. Neither can work without authentic experiences of genres, but genres can't exist in the classroom. It is not linguistic forms which constitute genre; it is the "place" in which the text is situated, the conventions with which we surround it and with which it surrounds itself, and the uptake which it entails -- if, she stresses, "the 'receiver' is positioned in the right game" (121) -- which determine its mode of existence.

"Learning to write," she says, "is learning to appropriate and occupy a place in relation to other texts, learning to ensure that the other chap will play the appropriate game with you, and learning to secure a useful uptake: the rules for playing, the rules of play, and the tricks of the trade." And thus the real question is whether we can ever create in our classrooms games in which the real stakes really are at stake. If we can, we can hope that students will learn to handle the rules and the tricks; if we can't, I think it makes little difference whether we have them memorize the rule book or wait for them to invent the game themselves. This idea, it seems to me, has relevance which goes well beyond the debate currently under way in Australia. It suggests another reason to take very seriously the sort of writing represented by inkshedding (Parkhill, 1988) and the sort of teaching represented by collaborative investigation (Hunt, Parkhill, Reither and Vipond, 1988; Reither and Vipond, in press; Hunt, 1987). To offer our students a situation in which their writing counts for something that matters to them, in which it's read for what it says rather than to be evaluated, in which writing and reading have authentic social consequences -- in which their shots are part of an authentic game -- is to offer them a chance to learn the rules and the tricks of what is arguably the most important game our society has to offer.


Goodman, K. S., P. Shannon, Y. Freeman, and S. Murphy. Report Card on Basal Readers. Katonah, New York: R. C. Owen, 1988.

Hunt, Russell A. "A Decade of Change: A Correspondence on Theory and Teaching." Reading-Canada-Lecture 5:3 (Fall 1987), 148-153.

Hunt, Russell A., Thomas Parkhill, James A. Reither, and Douglas Vipond. "Writing Under the Curriculum: Learning to Write by Using Writing to Teach." Panel Presentation, Conference on College Composition and Communication, St. Louis, Missouri, March 1988.

Luke, Allan. Literacy, Textbooks and Ideology: Postwar Literacy Instruction and the Mythology of Dick and Jane. London/Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1988.

Parkhill, Thom. Collaboration. "Inkshedding in Religion Studies: Underwriting Collaboration." Inkshed 7:4 (September 1988), 1-4.

Reid, Ian, ed. The Place of Genre in Learning: Current Debates. [Typereader Publications, No.1]. Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Center for Studies in Literary Education, 1987.

Reither, James A., and Douglas Vipond. Writing as Collaboration. MS submitted for publication, 1988.

Smith, Frank. Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. New York: Arbor House, 1986.

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