Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Speech Genres, Writing Genres,
School Genres and Computer Genres

 [As published in Learning and Teaching Genre, ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.]

When I tell many of my colleagues that for a number of years now I've been intensely engaged by the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, it is usually the case that they respond by inquiring about ideas such as his notions of Carnival or heteroglossia -- focusing, that is, on the implications that have been drawn from his work for literary criticism and theory. I often find it virtually impossible to make clear how radically different the Bakhtin I am engaged with is. Occasionally, in fact, the conversation has proceeded for some time as though there were actually two different people named Bakhtin (in point of fact, of course, it's not at all clear that Bakhtin himself was the single or even main author of all the writings attributed to him, and we may indeed be talking about a collective here.) At any rate, if there are two Bakhtins, I'm interested in the other one.

The Bakhtin I'm interested in is not the one who is primarily known as a theorist of literature and the author of the studies of the novel and Dostoyevski. He's the one who is a theorist of the ways in which language and languaging are social. He is the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and (especially) of the essays collected in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. This Bakhtin is the one who tells us that it is the utterance -- not the phoneme, the word, the sentence or the text -- that is the basic unit of analysis for understanding language (oral or written). He defines the utterance as any instance of language in use, bounded by a change of speakers -- one utterance ends, another is a response to it, and still another is a response in turn. He tells us that the utterance is always created and formed and shaped as a response to a previous utterance or utterances, and that it is always created and formed and shaped in anticipation of a responding utterance. He tells us that no piece of language is final, finished, polished and perfect; he insists that all language is occasional, provisional, incomplete, open. Language is an unending dialogic web of cross-connected utterances and responses, each piece of writing or speaking, each utterance, depending on its occasion and context for its very existence, for its comprehensibility. The meaning of an utterance, he says, is connected not to diction and syntax, but to dialogue, occasion, intention or "speech will," relation. The same string of signifiers, he reminds us, can mean absolutely different things when uttered in different situations. "As an utterance," he says, "(or part of an utterance) no one sentence, even if it has only one word, can ever be repeated: it is always a new utterance (even if it is a quotation)" (Speech Genres 108). Our speech, he is often quoted as saying, is filled to overflowing with the words of others -- and the phrases and sentences and discourses and texts of others, as well.

Bakhtin's view implies, for me at least, a large-scale change in the way we think about the status of texts. In large part because of his work, I take with increasing seriousness the idea that language is inherently dialogic and inextricable from its contexts of use, and thus move farther from the structuralist position (most influentially expressed in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure) that there is what Raymond Williams (1977, 37) terms an "'always-given' language system." I move toward understanding it as what Bakhtin calls "continuing speech activity between real individuals who are in some continuing social relationship" (as quoted by Bialostosky, 1989: 220). It seems more and more clear that talking about the properties of texts is like talking about the properties of reflections on water -- they clearly do have properties, but we are forced to be more and more circumspect about what we call properties and what we must acknowledge to be products of the viewer's angle of sight, the objects reflected, and the wind on the water.

Instances of language, then, cannot be understood in the abstract or out of their contexts of use. On this view, traditional views of language really study something other than human language. For example, the linguistic theory that is most influential on contemporary literary theory, that of Saussure, privileges what Saussure called langue -- the permanent, underlying structure of language -- over what he called parole -- the day-to-day, contingent instances of language in use. Bakhtin's position suggests that such an approach substitutes an elegant, artificial crystalline abstraction for the ebb and flow and life and confusion of human language.

Even more important, Bakhtin's work implies that the sentence or phrase or word -- or text -- inevitably becomes a different utterance when moved from one context of use to another. Thus, clearly, observations about it in one context (that of literary or linguistic study, for example) cannot be transferred back to the original context. We are never not engaged with an instance of language, we can never be only observers of it.

These are, I think, radical views. They are often heard as rendering the study of language and its uses impossible. They are often assimilated to the sort of destabilizing of language we associate with the Saussurean tradition, with the view that the semiotic relation between the sign and what it signifies is arbitrary and thus slippery and untrustworthy.

I prefer, however, to associate them with the semiotic tradition that goes back to Charles Sanders Peirce and the American pragmaticist movement (cf., for example, Peirce, 1940, 1966; Dewey, 1938, 1946; Mead, 1934; Rorty, 1980, 1982) and the related work of Kenneth Burke (e.g. 1963), and to suggest that in fact what a Bakhtinian view offers us is not a language that is indeterminate and unusable, but one that allows us to do the only thing that is centrally important to all of us: to participate in the conversation of humankind. Bakhtin's insistence that language is never final, never decontextualizable, always in use, is like Peirce's insistence that semiosis is a social, not a logical, process, and that its function is to allow us to forge agreements about the world and our role in it that allow us to get things done.

Such a view of language has powerful implications for the concept of genre. The consequences are suggested most directly in the essay "The Problem of Speech Genres," and perhaps especially in the very title, in the concept that the kinds of language, like the other elements of language we have traditionally considered, should be brought down out of the realm of ideas and put back into the realm of practice (speech) in order to be understood. It is almost equally important that, as with his other reversals of our traditional ways of understanding language, Bakhtin begins with speech rather than writing, with parole rather than langue, with the contingent and context-bound rather than the clear and stable, and makes spoken, conversational language the norm in terms of which other kinds of language can be understood (it is almost as an aside that he notes that "everything we have said here also pertains to written and read speech, with the appropriate adjustments and additions" (1986: 69).

I'm thinking here, however, primarily as a practitioner, rather than a theoretician. For the past ten years at least my work as a teacher has been most centrally an attempt to break down the conceptual barriers separating speech from writing and listening from reading, and to bring to bear on written language the insights about learning and use that we are offered by researchers on spoken language -- particularly the branch of the sociolinguistics of language which studies the rules under which speakers exchange utterances, the patterns which arise out of those exchanges, and thus the ways in which speech genres arise in conversation. Bakhtin's parenthetical invocation of written language into his discussion of speech I take as an invitation to think about my teaching of written language, and the situations that support that teaching in my classrooms -- and, as well, about my and Douglas Vipond's research on the reading of literature (Hunt and Vipond, 1985, 1986, 1992; Vipond and Hunt, 1984, 1988; Vipond, Hunt, Jewett and Reither, 1990) -- as though the analogies between written and oral language were powerful and illuminating (for a different, compelling argument that this is the case, see Deborah Brandt, 1990).

Among the implications of accepting such an invitation is that I have been forced to revise my view, drawn from traditional literary training, which said that genres were external, fixed forms, which (like language itself, in that view) we "acquire" by importing models and examples from outside, more or less consciously. That view suggested that we learn a new genre (the sonnet, for instance, or the term paper or the personal letter), by encountering a number of instances of the form, discovering (or being told) what its "rules" are, internalizing that abstract definition, and using it as an algorhythm to generate new examples. Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, grouped into an octave and a sestet, rhymed in an elaborate pattern. Or: state a thesis, acknowledge objects through a literature review, marshal evidence and arguments, conclude. Knowing that sort of thing, I once comfortably assumed, enabled me to understand Shakespeare's or Donne's sonnets, or read a research paper, and gave me the basic tools to write my own. As with Saussure's view of langue, what was central was that more or less conscious move from instances up to structural generalization and then back down to instances. The "instances" were mainly important as examples of a pre-existing ("always-given") form which somehow became internalized, as a set of rules or principles for generating the given form. This is of course also reminiscent of Chomsky's (1957) characterization of a language as a set of rules for generating sentences.

As Richard Rorty (1982) says about a slightly different issue, the question of whether those forms actually exist in some absolute sense is one about which you wouldn't expect there to be many interesting opinions -- but the question about how they're learned is an interesting one indeed. One powerful way to think of it is this: a genre is invoked or invented (reinvented) as a response to a social situation, a response made by someone who wants to create an utterance that will make what Bakhtin (1986) calls her "speech will") a part of the social situation and thus participate in a dialogue; they are invented by people participating in more or less stable social situations and so the forms they continually invent exhibit stable characteristics. But as the work of Aviva Freedman (1992) shows, very complexly defined genres such as the sort of writing done in law school are regularly learned without any direct or focal attention to the genre itself or its rules; rather, she makes clear, they are invented in situations where the context richly supports engagement.

Accepting Bakhtin's proviso that what he says about speech applies as well to writing, it seems to me at least a defensible position, or one worth testing out, that literacy learning, like oral language learning, is in large measure the social invention of speech genres (there is a strong parallel here with Halliday's description of the ontogenesis of language in Learning How to Mean and with his ideas about the functional forms of language). It also seems to me a reasonable hypothesis that, as in the development of oral language, it is authentic engagement in dialogue that is the most powerful promoter of such learning. (By "authentic dialogue," here and elsewhere, I mean exchanges of language in which each party's intention is to infer the other party's intentions, as manifested in language, and respond to them: I mean to exclude situations in which the language is used as an example of language, or otherwise directly attended to in ways which marginalize or "bracket out" speakers' pragmatic intentions.)

Such a hypothesis is consistent with what I see in educational situations. Looking at typical classroom and institutional contexts for writing, it seems clear that there is in most situations in schools and universities virtually no opportunity for written language to serve as the medium for direct and authentic dialogue.

There is an apparent inconsistency between that statement and the statement that all language is dialogic. I would suggest that the problem is this. Consider, as I recently did, an essay on the topic "current efforts to create life by artificial means are/are not beneficial to human society." This essay was written on assignment by a student with no particular interest in the subject and with the sole aim of demonstrating the ability to invent or find, and marshal, arguments. It was read by a teacher with no particular interest in the subject, and with the avowed intention of assessing the mechanical fluency of the student's language and deciding whether she had successfully fulfilled the formal and stated requirements of the genre "persuasive essay." That teacher had no intention to "respond," in the Bakhtinian sense of an instrumental response (nor, indeed, is there any practical possibility that she could respond in that way).

The transaction constituted by that writing and that reading may be a dialogue. But it is a very peculiar and asymmetrical sort of dialogue. It is neither direct nor authentic. In that situation, it could only be by explicit instruction that a student could learn to name the elements of that genre, and there are no resources to enable her to deploy them -- unless, of course, she already had the ability to create for herself in her imagination a speaker and a responder and a transaction between them. It does not seem surprising that few students in such situations learn to deploy that genre effectively, even with extensive explicit instruction. The discourse was neither created by the student nor understood by the teacher as an utterance; rather, it was bracketed, set aside, considered, evaluated. Anne Freadman, describing a similar phenomenon in French classes, has observed that in such classes any instance of language inevitably becomes "an example of French" (1988). It is not, I believe, by exchanging examples that we invent our genres; it is by engaging in dialogue, whether in writing or in speech.

As a practitioner, as I have said, my intention is to render permeable the barriers between spoken and written discourse. My central means of achieving this is to create situations in which written language can serve as a medium for authentic dialogue, can be created and understood as utterance.

In recent years I have adopted a method of teaching, called "collaborative investigation," which is being developed at my university. I will not describe it in detail here (for elaboration, see Reither, 1988, 1990; Reither and Vipond, 1989; Hunt, 1989, 1991; Hunt, Parkhill, Reither and Vipond, 1988), but I need to say that it employs two fundamental and related strategies which have the consequence of creating situations in which students use written language in dialogic ways and are put in the position of having to invent new genres of language for these new situations.

One of these strategies is called "inkshedding" (the word is originally, I believe, from Carlyle, and is analogous to "bloodshed" rather than to "woodshed" or "watershed"). I owe the word to my colleague Jim Reither, who came up with it in the early stages of the development of the concept. Briefly, it entails informal or impromptu writing that is immediately read and used and responded to by others, and then discarded. A typical inkshedding situation might occur as a response to a conference paper -- the audience might immediately write for a few minutes, then read a half-dozen other participants' writing, and then move to oral discussion based on the reading. The writing might then be thrown away. Or the participants might, as they were reading, have marked sections worth consideration by the whole group; those sections might then be transcribed, photocopied, and distributed. There are many variants of this process, but all share at least one characteristic: they afford using written language in dialogic ways. What is immediately relevant is that over the near decade in which this strategy has been in use at St. Thomas and at various conferences (including the annual Inkshed conference, now in its ninth year), I have observed colleagues and students jointly inventing, and reinventing, a new written genre, the "inkshed," with a unique set of common characteristics and expectations (which have never, to my knowledge, been explicitly described).

The other typical strategy doesn't have a name, but it involves various forms of collaboration in writing, through the medium of writing. Collaborative writing is often considered to be restricted to joint authorship, but as the recent work of Karen Burke LeFevre (1987), Jim Reither and Doug Vipond (1989), and Anthony Pare (1992), among others, has shown, collaboration extends across the text to include its readers in collaborative (and dialogic) relations. "Writing," in Reither and Vipond's phrase, "is collaboration," just as, in Bakhtin's, language is dialogue.

In these particular cases, the collaborative dialogue occurs as part of the process of collaborative investigation. Let me make this process concrete by describing one example, as it occurred in an actual course. I do something like this in all my courses; it so happens that this one is an undergraduate seminar in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature, enrolling thirteen students, which makes it rather atypical, but I work toward essentially similar writing and learning situations in whatever I teach.

Let me begin the description with the negatives. The course has no common text, no lectures, and no formal essays or examination. I do not grade or comment on the students' writing. There are no formal seminars (oral presentations by students).

What does happen, then? The course begins with my handing everyone a long, written introduction to the course, and giving everyone time to read it silently. I also hand out, as I do at the beginning of most sessions, a document headed "In Class Today." Last September 10, that document said, in part:

As you'll discover, one of my central beliefs as a teacher is that reading and writing are powerful tools, and ones we don't use as often as we might. One of the ways in which that belief is acted out in my teaching is that I write a lot, ask you to read it, and expect you to write a lot and expect others (including me, sometimes) to read it. But I don't expect that the writing is going to be used in the way most educational writing is used -- that is, as a basis for evaluating the writer (can she write? does she know what she's supposed to know?). I expect it's going to be used the way you'll use most of these handouts -- to see what I have to say, and respond to it in some meaningful way (by doing what it asks, or arguing that what it asks doesn't make sense, for example).
That handout also asked everyone to write about the eighteenth century for ten or fifteen minutes. What the document said was this:
. . . the second part of the class will involve everyone writing about the literature of the eighteenth century, reading each other's writing, and generating responses and questions. This is a way of ascertaining the sorts of things we all know, and need to know, about the period, about its literature, and about literary study, and generating some issues and concerns that we're going to be addressing over the first few weeks.
During that class session, we generated a set of questions about the eighteenth century. At the end of class, we had divided them into questions which no one expected could be answered, questions which could only be answered after a good deal of study and learning, and questions which might be answered by a group of two or three students who spent some time in the library over the next week. I divided the class into groups, the groups picked a question of the third kind (they included questions on comedy in the period, on changes between this period and the seventeenth century, on what an ode was and on who were important playwrights at the time), and we were off. Next week, each group had completed a draft of a report and keyed it into the computer network through which we share most of our work. (This network is based in a small basement lab with five PCs networked together and connected to the slightly larger university lab.) Printed copies were distributed and in class we inkshedded about those, exchanged and read them, and generated further questions for each of the groups, who went back to the library to elaborate or revise their reports.

In the meantime, we began a running conversation on the electronic bulletin board set up on the computer network. Everyone was required to log on and read the board -- and contribute something -- each week. The contributions have varied from Merry Christmas messages and complaints about the heat in the computer lab to an extended, multi-voiced discussion of whether Moll Flanders should be regarded as primarily the author of her own fate or a victim of society. Everyone was also required to touch base with me once a week through the (more private) electronic mail system. Letters there have varied from "nothing to report this week" to long exchanges about the reasons why some people find it harder to participate in oral discussions than in written ones (that one, in fact, expanded into a bulletin board discussion).

Between that fall and the succeeding March, according to a rough count, the thirteen students in this course generated more than 40,000 words on the bulletin board and more than 30,000 words in electronic notes to me. How much they may have generated in notes to each other I have no way of knowing, but it is considerable. Even without that, the total works out to a bit over 5000 words per student.

Beyond that, of course, there was a great deal of in-class inkshedding, question generating, commenting on other people's reports, questioning them, and so forth, which I have no way of counting or tracking.

And perhaps most important there was all the electronic writing done in the more formal context of written reports to the rest of the class, and comments on those reports by their readers. Although the mechanics of this have varied as the course (and our familiarity with the computer network) developed, the last cycle of reports, all of which had to do with some facet of the class's reading of various texts of Pope and Johnson, were handled this way. Questions and issues were discussed (in part through in- and out-of-class inksheddings) and then proposed individually, in files in a common directory on the network. Each person in the class was invited to read the questions posed by all the others and add comments and suggestions to the individual files. As the comments accumulated, the authors read them; in some cases these led to modifications of the questions, and in some the authors were offered strategies for finding answers; in most there was a good deal of comment suggesting that others were interested in the questions. Over the next week or so, as the authors began finding answers to their questions, they began putting drafts into the same file, immediately following the sets of questions and comments. As the drafts lengthened, others read them and added comments on, and questions and suggestions about, the drafts in the same files, following the drafts. As authors checked back on the responses to their work, they regularly edited and changed the drafts in response to their audience's questions. Comments on the bulletin board suggested that this was, from most of the students' point of view, the most successful way of managing this collaborative form of writing we had yet tried.

It is difficult in a few pages to give any flavour of the discussion in these files, and I didn't move fast enough to save the original drafts, so as I read through the files it isn't clear how the comments on first drafts affected subsequent modifications, but let me pull a few examples out of one such file. It's the one which began with this question, from Darice (all the names but mine have been changed):

My question has to do with Pope's repulsiveness both physically and personality wise as I feel his ability to write satiric literature may be connected (simply because I'm sure since he is described as looking like a toad that he knew that people found him repulsive and therefore promoted this repulsiveness in his personality, which ultimately led to an ingenious ability to compose satiric literature as a way to overcome the public's view of him). I may be way off, but I feel that this may be the case as Russ explained in class that Pope used to get very irate if someone had said his parents had been poor and also that not many people who knew Pope liked him. If I'm unable to get any information upon this connection between his physical and personality repulsive character which may have influenced his poetic ability, then I thought I might just pursue the reasons behind his physical deformity. Any suggestions? What do you think: a dead path or possibility? I realize this is not a question orientated specifically to historical background, but more a background on Pope (Russ is this o.k.)?
 Some of the comments on this question included the following:
Darice: This sounds interesting. It's nice to get another side of things -- a background, or at least some kind of sense of this sort of thing. --Gwen

There are arguments about some of these issues (different biographers have different views). One way to focus it would be to present some views of it, specifically ascribed to the authors; it's certain a question worth asking. -- Russ

Darice, I didn't pick up on the fact that Pope wasn't a `very handsome' fella, or as you say "repulsive"! I think you might have to look at Biographies etc to see what his background was like and family life which might have influenced his personality, but, (not to discourage) I think it would be difficult to determine that someone's physical appearance affected their personality. -Greta

Darice, I just read something that described when Pope developed his disease and the pain it caused him. The book relates that as a young man Pope was first stricken with the disease and was convinced he was dying. He even went so far as to write letters of goodbye to his friends. Perhaps the constant expectance of death influenced his nasty attitudes and helped sharpen his satrical tongue. Tamara

I just read something else about him too: a description of him at fourteen: "He is small and pale, fragile, and already not quite straight in the back . . . , but he has a frighteningly sensitive face, large wondering eyes, and an enchanting voice which will earn him the name of `the little nightingale'". I don't know if this is relevant to what you are doing, but I thought it might be nice to hear a pleasant description of the poor guy. Tamara

Pope was often described in quite attractive terms by his friends, often quite similar to what you found, Tamara. (Who is that, by the way?) -- Russ

I took the quote from Bonamy Dobree's book Alexander Pope, published in 1952. Tamara

In response to those questions, Darice produced an 850 word report on Pope's early life, drawn primarily from George Sherburn's and John Russo's books. Her report included passages like this (just to give you a sense of the tone):
. . . Since they were Catholics at a time when England's religion was protestant, the Pope's were forced by antipapist legislation to move often, which prompted Mr. Pope to retire from his successful linen business. There is little known of Pope as a child, except that he experienced several traumatic experiences. Although Pope was not physically deformed as a child, his half sister, Mrs. Rackett informed Pope's biographer, Mr. Spence that when he was between the age of three and five "a wild cow that was driven by the place where he was filling a little cart with stones struck at him with her horns, tore off his hat which was tied under the chin, wounded him in the throat, beat him down, and trampled over him" (Russo, p.27). Further Pope studied under four priests, one of which was said to have whipped and ill-used him for writing a satire (isn't that ironic!).
Most of the comments on the report were appreciative; a few raised further questions.
Darice, I enjoyed this report very much; it was an interesting way to look at Pope and his work. However, I think you may have overlooked something of relative importance: what can explain his friends' kind attitudes towards him? Surely, he must have had some attractive qualities. For instance, his voice was quite enchanting--could that have affected his ability to create such rhythmic, lyrical verses? Perhaps not, but I do think his positive attributes should also be explored. Tamara

Darice, I have been fascinated with the physical descriptions of Pope since reading about him. This report is very helpful in giving me a more vivid picture. Have you read Johnson's "From the Lives of Poets", the section on Pope? I read it for this week and I must say, it is a very informative piece. Not only does it talk about his works, but about his personal life too. It said that he "never took tea without a strategem" - his mind was always on the go. It also said he thought quite highly of himself. My question is , "did his brilliantly sharp mind and maybe, his somewhat conceited air have something to do with his physical deformities - was his mind compensating for something else? Something to think about and you should read it if you have not already - its really interesting. Barb

Darice, Isn't the nature of a wild cow to attack, regardless of one's physical appearance! Or should I have interpreted it as a joke? - But what a about his friends, I'm sure they didn't reject their sickly friend? Also it's sad that a man who so sparks our enjoyment and laughter, didn't himself. It is interesting that you seem to suggest without his illness, he wouldn't have produced such satire. - Greta

Some of the comments, like the one about the cow, were responded to in the version I now have (the first one is lost in the electrons, unfortunately, but suggested inadvertently that the cow trampled Pope because he was deformed).

That there is change occurring, and that it involves learning new genres, seems to me uncontrovertible. Near the end of term, in preparing for a conference presentation, I asked my students, if they had a chance, to look back over the writing they did for the course in the first few weeks, and at what they'd done more recently, and reflect on what differences they saw (with examples, if possible). Here's one example, chosen by Barb as typical of her writing in September:

Ultimately, the relationship between comedy and its audience cannot be measured because society is not homogenous in nature; there can be no absolute because there is no universal standard. About that sentence, Barb said:

I found my initial report to be very formal. I think we were trying to impress you, the professor, rather than our classmates because that is what we are used to doing. I think when we write essays we tend to try to aspire to academic heights and we try to sound as academic as possible. When we write for the benefit of our classmates, we know that they are at the same academic level, so we don't have to sound so professional. The writing in class is more friendly; more personal and less formal. I think, too, I am more relaxed in my writing because there isn't the pressure of a paper that is worth 40% of the mark. With this type of class, I am able to relax and this changes my writing style, I believe.
Here's the sentence she chose from her more recent writing.
From what I've read about the often diseased food at the time, I don't think I would have wanted to have eaten back then.
I do not want to contend that that second sentence necessarily represents "better" writing than the first. I am not arguing that it has a more authentic voice, that it's more concrete and personal and therefore more effective, or that the student has found a superior register in which she should now attempt to produce her papers for her other literature courses. I believe the first, more formal and abstract, kind of writing is as necessary and as useful as the second, and, further, that the only criteria that could possibly be used to judge which is "better" writing are functions of the site in which the composing occurs. What I would argue, and what I think the student is arguing, is that the second kind of writing is "better" in a situation where what she is doing is writing to engage and inform the other students in the class. Now, the first piece was written, as well, in just such a situation -- but it is clear, I think, that she hadn't yet begun to make the sorts of adjustment that are apparent when you contrast the two. Most important in this context, I want to suggest that what she was doing there was inventing a genre. (Whether the first sentence is a "good" instance of its genre, or the second of its, is another, separate question. Which is evidence of language learning is yet another.)

I should reiterate that both the genres she has written here -- and, as well, the genre represented by the note to me explaining her writing -- are examples of what Bakhtin calls "relatively stable and normative forms of the utterance" (1986: 81). They are not new; but she has invented them in response to a dialogic demand, in a context which provided rich support for such invention.

I think, as well, there is similar invention going on in other situations in this class. One place I find it most obvious is in the postings to the electronic bulletin board. It is widely noted among participants in email networks and bulletin boards that new forms of discourse are being invented to respond to the new social situation posed by informal written language which is almost as quickly interactive as face-to-face conversation, but which lacks the resources of voice tone, body language, shared environment, and so forth. New or newly elaborate devices have to be invented for such problems as referring to specific parts of someone else's utterance, for signalling irony, humour, anger, etc., for indicating or enacting addressivity (who one is responding to and to whom the posting is particularly addressed), for indicating closure on a topic or exchange. The genre (or genres) that are evolving in these situations are an extremely powerful example of the way in which parallel devices will develop quite separately from each other in response to the same social situation.

Here are the first three postings to the first strand I set up on the bulletin board (to start things off, I invited contributors to reflect on what had been going on during the first three or four weeks of the course).

Date: 10/09/91 10:46
Topic: Reflections

In reflecting on what I've learned about the 18thc, I find that through research and class discussions that I'm able to see the 18thc as a time which is connected with our present time. Before this class, the 18thc didn't have much meaning to my life, it was just a period in history that I was learning about in order to complete the neccessary requirements for my honors degree. I guess that I reached this realization in last class when Russ suggested that the 18thc could be seen as the blueprint for today's society, as it marked the beginnings of things that are typical in our present society, such as $$$, companies, jobs, etc. It is this connection with present time that the 18thc becomes meaningful to me.

Date: 10/09/91 12:29
Topic: Reflections

Today when I was walking to school I started thinking about some of the things I've learned about the eighteenth century so far. I was amazed at the amount of things I came up with. I have a much broader understanding of what life was like and how people lived. I still think of frilly shirts and white wigs when I think of the eighteenth century, but if I had to write another blurb on what I know about the eighteenth century I'd be able to say ALOT more. You know, the range in this class is amazing--I'm picking up bits of information that perhaps I wouldn't put in a traditional English essay, but nonetheless are useful to me as a person, rather than as a student. 

Date: 10/10/91 11:48
Topic: Reflections

Over this past week, I have found myself learning more and more about the 18th century. By preparing and researching the reports I have learned a great deal, especially in my own group on 18th century Children's Literature. By doing this report I learned a vast amount of information on the subject. I also find that by picking a topic that is interesting to me, and then by going and researching it, that I learn alot more than if someone picked the topic for me (perhapas because it is a topic that I myself am interested in) Overall, this past week I must say that I have learned alot more about children's literature and about the 18th century in general, and I look forward to researching this week's report.

When I first read those, they seemed unremarkable to me. I noticed the formal and abstract language, of course: in the third, for instance, we find phrases like "learned a great deal," "a vast amount of information," "I myself," "I must say," "I look forward to." Whoever it is whose words Kathy's speech is overflowing with was without question an academic. But it did not become clear to me how much change was occurring until I went back and compared those early postings with, for example, some of the late-January argument about Moll Flanders that I've already referred to. It began this way: Besides the growing concreteness and specificity, what I am struck with here is the new consciousness of this medium as a device for forging and maintaining social relationships as well as carrying on an intellectual discussion. The casual and efficient references to the positions of others ("The question was originally brought up by Barb"), to other documents in the class ("When you consider Maria's report on employment for women"), the in-jokes ("for any Soc. people out there"), all suggest a context and relation between writer and readers very different from what is implied in those early messages. And by three or four weeks and a couple of dozen messages later we find this sort of thing: I could go on quoting from these discussions (remember, I have 40,000 words worth of them), but it seems to me more important to reflect on what they may mean from the point of view of an educational practitioner, and raise a couple of questions about what they mean from a more theoretical point of view.

There is an increasing consensus (at least among the educational writers and practitioners I have the most respect for) that the best sort of teaching is the kind that engages people in what Frank Smith (1983; see also Dixon and Stratta, 1984) calls "an enterprise" and then observes closely to see what they can do, what they actually do, what -- as Vygotsky (1962, 1986) insisted -- they can almost do, and can do with a little help from their friends; and then finds ways to promote learning that's specific to where each learner is and to where she needs to be. I think, in general, that's what's going on in classes conducted like the one I have described. And I think, as well, that a large part of what I see the students in courses like this learning can be described as new genres.

But it is not yet clear to me that in learning or inventing these new genres they are learning something that goes beyond the simple matter of knowing yet another isolated new genre (the bulletin board posting, the email letter, the question-response-question sequence involved in developing a research report, the various research reports, etc.). These might be interesting forms, and it might even be useful to know them at some point, but they are as subject to being rendered irrelevant or obsolete by circumstance as the "persuasive essay" or the essay exam question or the sonnet. I am not raising here the issue of the learning about the ostensible subject matter of the course -- in my case, the literature of the English Restoration and eighteenth century -- but rather wondering whether it is possible to find out whether learning these new written genres in this new context has consequences for their learning of further genres in the world beyond my classroom -- in learning the kinds of genres -- the kinds of literacies -- they'll be confronted with in some unimaginable future.

Bakhtin is well known for his resistance to closure, for his insistence that every utterance be conceived and treated as though it were provisional, open to response, as though it were dialogue rather than monologue. What I have uttered here has been at least conceived in that spirit, and I presume and hope it will be treated in that way.


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