On the Origin of Genres by Natural Selection:

Inventing Genres Online

A proposal for the Second International Symposium on Genre:
Literature and Literacy
Simon Fraser University
Vancouver, January 1998  

In recent decades, the study of discourse genres as social action has steadily displaced more traditional views of genre as more or less arbitrarily fixed forms, such as the formal essay, the sonnet, the scientific article or the contract.  The idea that any consistent pattern of response to a recurrent rhetorical situation might constitute a genre has turned the attention of scholars and researchers to more organic and dynamic -- perhaps even ecological -- ways of thinking about the concept of genre.

Adopting such an ecological model inevitably leads us to attend more focally to the principles underlying change and development and less to the fixed defining markers of individual genres.  Further, it provides more in the way of concepts we can use as tools in understanding learning and development than did the traditional formalist study of genre.  Paying attention to the way in which genres arise out of social transactions leads us to think of them as Darwin invited us to think of species -- as transient events rather than permanent Platonic Forms -- and to consider the processes by which they come into being, develop, and expire.

New and recurring rhetorical situations afford us a laboratory in which we can watch these processes occur.  Just such a situation is afforded by the kind of writing that happens in classrooms using strategies such as improvisational, dialogic and situationally embedded writing -- for example, "inkshedding" -- where the rhetorical situation of the writing is new to students. It is especially true in cases where this writing is mediated by computer networks, making audience and rhetorical situation more salient for less experienced writers.

Examining texts produced in such situations by communities of learning writers, noting the development of specific generic markers like forms of address, conventional organizational markers, ranges of diction choice, and so forth, we can begin to build models of how genres are invented by and develop among social groups over time.

In this presentation I will describe such a situation (a network-mediated class discussion), introduce a wide sample of writing from students in response to it, and invite the audience to participate with me in observing developing patterns of discourse -- tracing, in other words, the origin of genres.

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