Reflective notes (Oct 2015) on SFL, Genre Theory & Pedagogy

– My interest in Genre theory and genre pedagogy (as in SFL in general) has always been from the angle of teacher-based pedagogy, not re a theory of genres or of literary studies or theory of texts or writing studies or new literacies, etc

– ie my interest is in terms of appliability; but cf Gadamer’s notion of ‘application’ as key element in fruitful/true understanding/transformation of the Sache game

– I reject that theory should govern praxis (cf Bourdieu)

– the theoretical map of linguists is always in deficit in relation to the practical exigencies of the pedagogic encounter and game; this is not to say that it is completely useless or unhelpful. It is a guide-rail, but not a criteria of pedagogic judgement that somehow surpasses the rigour, accuracy or authority of practicing educators. To think that it comprises a superior insight or basis for evaluation and assessment of student written work in the disciplines is to fall into the scholastic illusion that Bourdieu correctly excoriates.

I’m afraid many SFL-ers seem to lean this way, especially in recent times when perhaps despairing at the lack of willing up-take of their work by educators. SFL-ers have now moved as it were from the academic theoretical field of linguistics/ discourse analysis into the practical field of the classroom itself. In the past, they saw themselves as developing ‘appliable theory’, that is, ideas and concepts that education practitioners would recognise as enhancing and clarifying their pedagogies and be keen to adopt and adapt to their classroom practice.

Even Halliday in some key statements insists on the deficiencies of judgements that are not based on a grammatics, a science of language centred on lexico-grammar. However more typically, he allows that ‘insiders’ to a Discourse or World possess more intuitive understandings of what is being said and meant, and positions his linguistics as an effort to descriptively model or map these intuitions, not question or substitute for them.

Even so, I would insist that, given its commitment to constructing a meta-discursive science of language, there is a standing temptation within SFL when approaching the scene of application to assume that its categories are already sufficient and in fact superior to the intuitive capacities of the participants. It is at this point that it is then liable, tempting, to ally itself with encompassing institutions such as bureaucracies and governments bent on formulating overarching categories and criteria of judgement. In this way SFL embarks, wittingly or unwittingly, on a path of substituting its technical metalanguage and terms into the disciplinary pedagogic field, not as a helpful gloss, clarification or distillation, but as a substitution for the vagueness and deficiencies of the existing ways of speaking in the field, as a rectification of the language which also entails a rejection of its habitus and existing forms of transmission and negotiation. In short, the substitution of a theoretical meta-language for the existing historically evolved language of the discipline. In my view, this is damaging; not enlightening. Inevitably, it simplifies what is at stake in the discipline and in engaging learners with it, stakes that reside in the very instability and ambiguities of its languages, key vocabularies and forms of discursive interchange and performance.

Placing Genre on a continuum of Instantiation between the cultural order and the instance is to some extent a slight of hand;

– genre as ‘typical actual’ is perfectly suited as object for a research project, but not for the singularity of a teacher in a classroom of diverse students

– genre as ‘typical actual’ is perfectly suited to be substituted as the goal of education for an abstracted assessment framework that tries to generalise across, and thus withdraw from, the specificities of the range of particular ‘second nature’ disciplines of knowing, understanding, comportment, and capacities cultivated within  secondary schools and universities, especially humanities oriented disciplines

– humanities oriented disciplines are intent on ‘drawing out’ the deeper, more subjective interpretative response from students as individuals in their writing thereby ‘applying’ the game to themselves and figuring a more unique inflection of comportment and habitus; not requiring an instantiation of the objective ’correct/true’ answer stated in terms of impersonal reasoning; or the repetition of the ‘appropriate’ or ‘accepted taste’.

– genre as typical actual is perfectly aligned with the kind of entities needed for research fostering evidence based on Big Data, so fits neatly as an institutional resource and element into the administration of education, especially in the neoliberal variant which requires clear, measurable assessment performances and assessment frameworks in order to structure, fine-tune and discipline the market of privatised, competing educational sites over which it exercises it governance.

– the privileging of written text was likely a matter of its ease of access as research data. However, this meant ignoring its subordination to speech as performing the true work of education and instantial, in-real time, formative evaluation of student discourse as the primary site of education. Subtly, the notion that writing was the goal and site of education was substituted for classroom conversation and activities. To my eyes, it now seems a taken-for-granted feature of much SFL doxa that the point and goal of education is to be able to write texts that ‘repeat’ the doctrinal content of Disciplines, and that writing is the best – most public, most visible, most equitable – place in which students must perform their ‘knowledge’ of the doxa of the different disciplines they are learning. Thus, being able to represent the doxa of a discipline in writing a discipline shows cognitive mastery of that discipline. I agree that writing is one site, a site with special virtues for revealing students understanding of a discipline, but this is only ‘visible’ to the trained eye of disciplinary pedagogues. It is not visible when reduced to the (primarily structural) features comprising current SFL accounts of genre, nor is it a substitute for or improvement on the interplay of in-real-time dialogic responsive teacher/student speech.

– insofar as genre theory posits a ‘kind of textual product’ ie a text conforming to the features of a genre, as the object and goal of education, this also aligns with the objectivist, measurability needs of the bureaucracy.

– by contrast I would say that there are two functions of written texts – one, a formative ‘trial/ordeal’ – which creates intense pressure on students to find more determinate and coherent ways of articulating their ideas than demanded by speech or internalised self-talk/thinking; secondly, to provide a visible sign/record for the teacher of how students have gone about/managed this in order to provide an ‘object’ (text as record) around which to structure follow-up pedagogic interchanges between teacher and student (formative evaluation); only then after a few rounds of this, should the teacher give an assessment based on professional disciplinary judgement of its success in Darstellung-ing the topography of the Discipline in relation to the specific topoi/issue set as focal; not just by examining conformity to a genre.

– focusing on written text is misleading in that, in good pedagogy, a huge amount of oral dialogic work has preceded any writing, especially writing intended as a summative formal record of student capacity for understanding. As Halliday has insisted, conversation and dialogic speech is far more attuned to the intensive interactive demands of exploring, reworking and articulating the intricacies of reasoning, compared with the more prosaic, cool monologic attunement of written text to the demands of causal explanation, definition and classification.

Sidenote: the separation of ALL and discipline teachers is disastrous: ALL focuses on genre only, thus very superficial; discipline teachers blithely unaware of the writerly issues students are facing.

Solution: We need a serious rhetoric of emergence and staging of disclosure of and positioning  within a discursive space of reasoning; one that is worked through as trans-axis operative across all strata and delicacy. (Should go back and re-look at Hoey re his work on cohesion; Martin’s simple terms of repeated, assumed, transformed text reference are too abstracted – need detailed specification for each discourse and issue/topoi/Sache. Need to follow the threads and movement forward of both disclosure and positioning as a persuasive performance that both shapes the liniments of the audiences by adducing their doxa, and rejecting other doxa. Lemke’s Thematics was also on the right path! Also check Mohan again. And Silverstein et al on indexicality

My assumption: Simply setting out the system of resources, like Jim, even if helpful, is not enough. We need to say why this choice and not those other possibles, and what meanings/effects/doxas it mobilises or foregrounds. Cf Butt on foregrounding as 21st century science of language.

– we need to produce accounts of parole, individual performances


– in short, there are deep cryptotypical alignments between SFL as an appliable science of language and the dispositifs and institutional systems of modern governance, both bureaucratic or neoliberal. Both share the enlightenment dream of rationalising praxis through the discovery and application of scientific knowledge. This is despite the conscious intentions and efforts of SFL to align itself with progressive movements seeking social justice, political equality, cultural recognition and economically decent lives. SFL is deeply attuned to both bureaucratic and computational applications, and both have been embraced, often framed within naive exclamations of seemingly-innocent expressions of anticipated utopian effects of pursuing these ventures.

– I would insist, by contrast, that it is the individual student text as a Darstellung (performance, manifestation, presentation, enactment, realisation, expression, index, Token) of their investment, understanding and positioning in reference to a Discipline bent on cultivation a ‘second nature’ that is the true ‘object of study’ and judgement for practicing disciplinary educators and ALL. It is not the text in its own right; as an instance of a genre; or as an object in relation to structures, cohesion, etc. It is ‘what shines through the text’; the text is a Token manifesting a Value(s) assembled from many Tokens manifesting many values. The text is judged in terms of whether it can forge a unitary self-consistent Subject in face of the many competing possible subject positions; whether this Subject position enables the mobilisation of insight, coverage, evaluation, selection re. the Sache (facts, arguments, concepts, paradigms, intertexts, Lemke’s thematics)

– NB difference between Darstellung as instantial re-presentation; vs the representation of object domain in science. This = understanding vs knowledge as goal of Education which shifts the role of writing.

‘in reference to a Discipline’ allows wider scope in the footing of the student; it does not have to be all ‘inside’ as it were; it will be both ‘inside’ and contaminated, meta- or outside at the same time. There will be all kinds of traces, ghosts, worlds-to-come visible in the text. These are not different in order from the internal references – they also rest on traces, ghosts, and worlds-to-come, absolutist dreams, etc.

‘in reference to a Discipline’ allows for syncretism: for layers of earlier/other discourses/worlds being Darstellung within the same text; cf Derrida – every text trips over itself, reveals at the margins its inability to form a unified Subject or unified account of the intelligibility of the Object.

Two pictures of Communication and Language

Communication is not two minds communicating information (about mental, conceptual or worldly referents). It is not agent/sayer standing over separate from the listener/passive. It is an event/action/activity/happening in the world. A happening of (Medial) conversation which is the playing out of differences in the on-going living of our lives together as socio-historical-biological-material-embrained-embodied-emoted (en-habitus-ed) beings.  In play in this happening is not just two minds/agents, but two minds, plus the event of discourse itself, the Sache, the genre, institutions, narratives, heteroglossic pulls and plays, power, conceptual systems, etc (at all points on the SFL instantiation cline). All of these are stakes in play, at risk, being played and playing, both agent and affected, with no participant as the predetermined winner (‘in the last instance’). That is, it is an open, truly multi-level-ed, historical event. [Note to self: Need to gloss this further with Silverstein et al on indexicality of context – to separate it from rigid theoreticist ‘systems’, ‘structures’, ‘paradigms’, etc.]

OK, there are of course pressures, tendencies, assumptions, ground-rules, rules of the game, conventions, norms, habits, expectations, goals, interests, power, etc in play. There may even be a ‘typical actual’ to use Firth’s term, but the typical cannot be taken for granted. There is always the possibility of contingency, variation, contamination, misunderstanding, mis-plays, acquiescence or resistance, high emotions, recklessness, (affects), as well as peculiarities, particularities of circumstance which intervene, mask, skew, tip, hide or tilt the unfolding ensemble of play.

In short, in these language games of communication there is always a place for interpretation, phronetic judgment, cunning, tact, emotional cathexis (cf semantic weight -Butt; semantic density – Maton), misrecognition, mistakes, mis-readings, ethico-aesthetic-emotional reactions. Read more of this post

Arendt a la Taminieux

Arendt’s account of politics is contaminated by its mimetic relation to her mentor Heidegger’s account of politics. When engaging with a locutor, there is always a region of underlying agreement assumed in order to form a ground on which to engage. In this way, even the most diametrically opposed and hating interlocutors invariably take for granted more than they disagree on. Moreover, the more they engage in dispute, the more similar they come to resemble one another. That is, the taken-for-granted world or imaginary or ‘for-the-sakes-of’ grounding their views and arguments tend to align more and more. In this way, the dispute moves towards being a more local dispute against a shared Background, rather than a dispute between different Backgrounds. This is why unionists can jump the table; and why major political parties come to exude a managerialist ethos; and why Trotskyists can mutate into rabid neo-cons.

To me it seems that the key move in Arendt’s difference with Heidegger is to unpick the way Heidegger too quickly mashes together the world of practice and activity consigning it to the realm of ‘the Same’ and then contrasting this with the higher vocation of authentic Dasein as a philosophical engagement with its own unique factical finitude and death.

Structurally Arendt mimics these relations but reverses their valence.  Read more of this post

Musing – what is it?

But what exactly is ‘musing’ and what is its point? Why do it? What is its meaning, its outcome, its point?

Musing is mulling over something that you cannot get clear on, that you cannot pigeon-hole or slot into a definite place. Musing is thinking. Musing is being drawn back to turning something over and over in your mind trying to bring together all the different angles and dimensions so that it settles into a coherent unity. Musing is being caught up in a mystery, conflicting or contradictory intuitions or thoughts. Musing is circling round and round, like the proverbial moth, trying to find a point of rest or resolution.

It is important at this point to make clear that musing cannot be resolved by knowledge. Musing is not a search for knowledge; it is a search for coherence, for insight, illumination, for a metaphor. Read more of this post

Difference between analytic philosophy & continental philosophy 


If my experience of Anglo analytic philosophy is of a practice obsessed with the effort to formulate absolutely transparent propositions and their logical linkages or de-linkages bent on forming implacable movement towards unassailable conclusions, what about Continental philosophy? What has my experience of immersing myself in continental philosophy revealed?

We should remember an old adage: the point of greatest strength is also the point of greatest weakness. Thus for anglo analytic philosophy the concentration on clarity and logic is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, it means that their writing is clear and compelling, but on the other hand it is nit-picking and reductive: any gestures towards larger claims or illuminating metaphors or passionate speech are frowned on and denigrated. Analytic philosophy is thought, spoken and written in the most literal prose possible, in logical symbols even better; and thus draws a strong boundary between itself and any thinking/discourse/writing that is figurative, rhetorical, imaginative, emotional, expansive, or in any way ‘excessive’: this is the realm of literature and fiction.

So, what is my experience of continental philosophy? The first thing that stands out is that it cannot be read analytically—in the way I was taught to read in analytic philosophy. Perhaps I could put the difference like this: although continental philosophy can seem to be stringing propositions together in logical fashion to form an argument, in fact it is doing something different: it is bringing a range of considerations, metaphors, thoughts and ideas together in order to form a picture of things as a whole—not a concluding statement about some thing specifically. Continental philosophy is focused on trying to convey a sense of the whole; if you like, the whole of who we are, where we are, and possibly why we are. Thus continental philosophy is concerned with, if you like, the meaning of life, whereas analytic philosophy has narrowed down its interest to the meaning of propositions and their logical relations with other propositions. Analytic philosophy is not interested in projecting a sense of the whole—of reality, of the world, of history, or language, of culture, of our lives, of our hopes or desires. But these are precisely what interests continental philosophy.

This means that even the style of writing is different. Continental philosophy is trying to help the reader form a sense or feeling for the whole. This means its writing is more flowery, more rhetorical, more metaphorical, is more poetic, has more twists and turns, more jokes and irony, and is more playful—in short, is less driven by logic. The injunction underlying continental philosophy is: You must change the way you see things; use your reading of this text as a help to do this’. This contrasts with the injunction underpinning analytic philosophy which is: ‘You must follow this line of reasoning to its final conclusion with absolute attention; this will safe you from getting silly or grandiose ideas’. One focuses on the ‘meta’, the other on the ‘micro’.

OK, so far so good. But now this neat opposition between nit-picking logic and grandiose gestures must be complicated. For in another sense continental philosophy is also opposed to grandiose gestures too. What I mean by this is that historically in philosophy, grandiose gestures took the form of philosophical systems. That is, what was gestured at was a structure of strict concepts – just like the concepts that analytic philosophy is dedicated to refining and burnishing. These conceptual structures are what has been called metaphysics. That is, they are the underlying structure of reality, of everything, of us, of knowledge, of morality, of politics, of life.

Analytic Philosophy as a dead-end

Rhetoric is not only concerned with the how of what we say, but also with the what. That is, it is just as concerned with how we work out what to say, how we find and follow ideas or thoughts as with how we shape them to create a convincing speech or text.

So, I will begin with some reflections on my own ways of finding what to say.

I was trained in philosophy, analytic philosophy, a discipline that was obsessed with logical reasoning. The idea was that you would begin with one thought or proposition and then realise that that logically led to another one, and then on to a further one, and so on until you reached the final concluding thought or proposition. Each link in the chain of thoughts was a logical necessity, a deductive relation. There could be no jumps or gaps between the thoughts. Those trained in philosophy will immediately associate this description with three things: the practice of reasoning formulated by Descartes; the flow of ideas in philosophy articles or books; and the aggressive search by reading or listening philosophers for any jumps or gaps or ‘holes’ in the necessary flow of propositions.

This game of finding the hole in an argument was an intellectual game I threw myself into with relish when young. Read more of this post

Emergence of New Rhetoric

Insofar as the revival of rhetoric under the auspices of a theory of argumentation is a renewal of the Aristotelian emphasis on inventio, on the discovery of the persuasives in relation to a matter or case in question, then I am all in favour of this theoretical and pedagogic effort. It constitutes a way for those regions – Germany, France, Holland, England – where rhetoric had been reduced to the stylistic study of rhetorical figures in literature and oratory, to renew a more substantive rhetoric, a rhetoric concerned not just with style, figures and elocutio, but with also with logos, inventio and persuasive argument.

For both Perelman and for Toulmin, this renewal of argumentation was enacted via a return and reworking of Aristotle. However, it is important to note that it did not involve a renewal of contact with Cicero, Quintilian or Isocrates. That is, what is being renewed is a quite narrow understanding of richness of ancient rhetoric. Read more of this post

Appliable pedagogy

I have always been suspicious of the idea of ‘appliable theory’ (but cf Halliday’s clarification re difference between ‘appliable’ and ‘application’/‘applicable’ (in The Influence of Marxism’).

To me, each new pedagogic site or context is wholly new. Rather than simply transferring pre-existing frameworks or practices or curricula, I prefer to try to begin with a blank slate and let the affordances and exigences of the place emerge in their own way. Thus, I do not like to begin a new pedagogic task with a preconceived palate or framing. Whereas Descartes insisted on beginning theory and thinking with a tabula rasa, I insist that that is how we should approach practice and action. We should begin with nothing formulated, but trust the interchange between our theoretically informed imagination, habitus and attunement to respond to the affordances, powers, capacities, blockages, possible openings of the pedagogic scene.

This contrasts with those who enter a new pedagogic situation with the mantle of ‘expert’ or ‘primary knower’. A stance like this cannot learn or listen: it is only by acknowledging that we don’t know and don’t even know what we don’t know, that it is possible to open up to learning from the new context. As Gadamer insists: Experience is learning that you what you currently think and habitually think is untrue.

My assumption is that any attempt to simply transfer a pedagogy from one context to another will fail. Stoically, one could gloss this by saying that you were using the new context as a test case, Popper style. However, in my experience those using this approach usually blame the context for not living up to their pedagogic scheme rather than acknowledging that it has revealed a deep flaw in their conceptual scheme. Those following this subsumptive style of acting invariably work a few small tweeks and then proceed to the next context and again try to impose their regime … again with little success. That is, they might justify their approach by arguing that it is an inductive methodology and that over time it will accumulate the features of a pedagogy that is generally applicable.

However, fundamentally this style of acting is subsumptive. It is based on a strong belief in the universality of concepts and their appliability-capacity to form, shape, dominate, and productively harness the messy conjunctures of social life to conform to the demands of the concept.

By contrast, my practice is (or was) governed by two principles: every context or instance is unique; practical success can only come from emptying your mind of preconceptions and attuning your sensibility to the meanings circulating and shaping a context or instance. This means that you are forced to reinvent your pedagogic practice from scratch: sometimes you find that you have created a wholly new pedagogy, sometimes you find that you have recreated a variation on an existing pedagogy. in either case, the emergence of the pedagogy is in response to a phenomenological encounter and entanglement with the realities of the situation within which you are hoping to form, or better, which you are hoping to shape into a form that constitutes a productive pedagogy.

Yet more ‘prefacing’ re. mode of address

My work is not directed towards positing a new specific concept of literacy to displace or replace existing accounts and definitions. Rather, my concern is to stitch literacy, its pedagogies and practices into a larger canvas, to discover and release threads and themes between literacy as a bounded field and the larger culture and worlds on which it rests. To show that literacy is part of a much larger picture and human enterprise, and that framing literacy as an expression or part of this larger praxis, a part that both draws on this whole for motives and motifs, in short for cultural sustenance and ethical resolve, while at the same time contributing its own energies and experience to the larger process. There is thus a two-way, dialectical, mutual enrichment in construing literacy in relation to this larger background.

By situating literacy within this larger context, I am not deconstructing or doing ideology critique on literacy. I am not showing it to be a mere symptom or expression of larger social or historical forces. Rather, I am hoping that filling in the details and scope of background ideas, values, practices and history lying in back of literacy will enlarge and strengthen the meaning of literacy pedagogy in the minds of its practitioners, that literacy will not seem a small almost paltry ‘basic (workplace) skill’, but entry into the rich veins of conversation and discourse of the whole diversity of humans and their worlds.

Literacy as moving towards participation in universes of discourse, not as a set of discrete, self-contained skills.

Reflections on Genre Theory

SFL (systemic functional linguistics) typically defines something by relating it to a range of contexts – contexts around it, below it, or above it, [notice there has not yet been much attention to ‘before’ or ‘after’]. However, in practice we find that the notion of genre is almost never explicated in terms of what is above it. In other words, generic categories tend to function as a meta-discourse within which other categories are located, but they themselves are not explicated through a further set of categories. In effect, this amounts to the banishment of history, philosophy, psychology, ideology critique, sociology, politics and so on as ways of articulating social meaning. This has the effect of presenting us with a brute positivity – ‘This is what narrative is and what it is for, and here is how you do it; now, let’s do it’.

The problem with this is that it obscures from view what we might call ‘the moment of enunciation‘. Read more of this post