Genre theory: a critique

The Sydney Genre School (SGS) conflates two distinct theoretical lines of investigation. One is a matter of educational linguistics investigating the role of language in learning. The other is the study of language in social life generally, as-it-were in extra-curricula social life. For SGS, there is a synergy between these because both realms – education and social life at large – are constituted by genres, ‘gatherings of meaning into relatively stabilised practices’. In fact, the relationship between genres in the two realms seems to be posited as quite transparent – or at least potentially transparent if an SGS curriculum were to be implemented.

Assumed identity of genre between school and social life

Whereas van Leeuwen has emphasised that the ‘recontextualisation of a practice from one social region to another is fundamentally an act of colonisation in which the coloniser imposes its own imperatives and constraints on the initial practice, SGS has (to my knowledge) never really studied the difference between genres ‘in the wild’ and educational genres that have been stylised and streamlined to function as scenes of testing and assessment. (Note: I have not included ‘learning’ in this listing of the roles of writing in education because in general teaching and learning are engaged through dialogue, listening and reading – not through writing. This is at odds with the ‘writing to learn’ movement. I will say more at another time about some ways that I think that writing does or could figure as a scene of learning, not just assessment.)

In general, SGS is too complacent in assuming that schooled genres and wild genres are identical, and that as a result learning to write a school genre means that one will be able to write wild genres. If this claim by SGS is not true, it is quite fatal to SGS pedagogy. It would mean that even if it were true that social life can be fundamentally framed as a collection of genres, and even if there were (recontextualised) school genres with the same name, the fact that a student could enact an instance of a school genre would not warrant that they could perform the corresponding genre in the wild. In fact, having learnt the school genre may be be disabling. To the extent that the school genre has been streamlined and stylised, it is liable to cause a student to misread the rhetorical exigencies of the discursive context by moving too quickly to fit the ‘possible arguments (Aristotle)’ into the straightjacket of the schooled genre.

In rhetorical terms, instead of beginning with a serious investigation of the possible arguments involved in the situation – called inventio – the student is tempted to rush toward the shape or structuring of their own text (called dispositio) and allow that to overly-influence their engagement with the arguments. For the record, rhetoric has two main general strategies for studying the possible arguments, possibilities for engaging persuasively in a discursive situation: what is called topics; and what is called status theory. The former is framed as a series of questions that can be asked, questions which enable one to create or formulate things to say – the series still used by journalists (who what when where why what for) is just one eg. Status theory which unlike topics only survives in shadowy form in legal discourse, is concerned with identifying the kinds of  issues at risk in a dispute in such a way as to arrange them in order of seriousness or centrality, and moreover depending on the kind of issue to construct an order (different for prosecutor and defence) for raising each issue so as to win the argument. Status theory was thus a highly technical art that evolved over many centuries to deal with forensic discourse – needed by the endless litigation and potential for litigation in both Greek and Roman political life.

In rhetoric it was always clear that the ‘art’ of rhetoric was a training, a series of exercises – modelled on the training and gymnasium exercises engaged in by athletes, soldiers and fighters in preparation for ‘the real thing’. The tasks set were often fantastically complicated and paradoxical than anything that could be met in ordinary life precisely in order to suppress taken-for granted common sense responses and stimulate more creative responses. That is, verisimilitude or correspondence between schooled genres and their counterparts in the wild was not a criterion for the validity or productivity of an educational activity. However, in SGS this clear demarcation between school and worldly social life has been effaced and an implicit understanding has developed that there is an underlying identity between school and wild genres, that an essentialist genre is instantiated in both regions – school and social life at large.

Rhetoric possesses two terms for characterising the capacity to create a rhetorically appropriate discourse. One is ‘decorum’; the other is ‘kairos’. The first emphasises appropriateness to the generic occasion, to the …


About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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