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

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.

Towards a shared ALL praxis of reading student writing

I find myself constantly returning to the thought that Academic Language & Learning support seems to be drifting further and further away from any sustained attention to language itself or to the language problems students face in grappling with academic discourse and its protocols.

In relation to language, ALL seems to have settled on attending to the two extremes of the spectrum of issues students are juggling: generic structure as the shape of a larger textual units, detailed conventions ruling citation and punctuation; and a  micro-grammar of such matters as tense and articles. What is missing from this three-fold optic is any attention to the actual movement, rhetoric, flow and patterning of both wording and meaning at a more intermediate plane. Language has been sidelined as a key element in the progress of students by the institutional, social and cognitive features of students, features that are more accessible to data collection. In fact I don’t think it unfair to claim that there has been a fairly systematic erasure of language as a key medium for addressing and redressing the academic progress of students. (And when language is considered, it is often with a quite simplistic or reductionist framing.)

I am encouraged by the scattered but still weak signs pointing towards a renewed interest in matters of style and invention, that is, a renewal of what was the dominant focus of the field prior to the disruptive intrusion of ‘Theory’ in the 80s. Thirty years later, having had time to engage with, digest and learn from the theoretical concepts and dispositifs of philosophical and social critically reflection, surely we can once again take up a renewed, reinflected and richer engagement with language issues facing students. To me it seems time to fumble our way towards a more shared toolkit of ways to attend to, make visible, proffer advice, and demonstrate practical tools/ resources for students to explore and deploy in writing or re-writing academic text.

In short, what we need now is to develop a pedagogic stylistics, a rhetoric of academic discourse that can function as both diagnostic and praxis.

Preliminary thoughts on Halliday and semiotics

Trying to understand Halliday’s motivation for the concept of Instantiation has impressed on me the realisation that the very concept arises from Semiotics as a research paradigm. The very idea of assigning the identity and meaning of actual items on the basis of their relationship to a paradigm of virtual possible entities, that is, the relationship between meaning potential (system) and instance (actual), is perhaps the key move in semiotic structuralism. It is the move that severs the relationship between meaning and world, thereby insisting that signs must be defined, not by reference to objects, referents, fact or situations, but relationally to each other. Thus language, as a privileged example of a semiotic system, can be exhaustively described and explained purely on its own terms, without any reference to its actual uses in social life.

It is important to point out that what is at issue here is not the claim that the identity and meaning of a sign or linguistic item is not self-transparent and is determined by a context or background, by something outside of itself as it were. This contextualism is shared across many accounts of language. For example, Heidegger would say: ‘what it is that makes something what it is resides outside itself, not inherent in it’; actually he would would have phrased that as: ‘the essence of something lies outside itself’. Similarly, the shift from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein was a matter of no longer insisting that the identity of names or basic propositions was grounded in their transparent relationship to atomic entities and facts, but rather rested on the unfolding of the varied and fuzzy contextual situations of social life. Thus the meaning of a term is a function of what ‘language game’ it is implicated in, and the language game a function of what ‘forms of life’ it is enacting.

So, the move to a context to account for meaning and identity is common to both semiotics and what we might call the more anthropological or praxis accounts of meaning and language by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The point of difference between the two approaches lies in the character of the respective contexts they nominate. For semiotics and systems theory, context is a relational constellation or assemblage of other virtual possible meanings, meanings that could potentially have been selected in a speech act but were not, whereas for the praxis paradigm, the context is actual ‘worldly’ social situation in which the language is figuring, and the situation itself embodies and expresses deeper socio-historical themes, imperatives and motifs.

If this sketch is even half right, what instantly springs to mind is that a deep gambit on Halliday’s part is a ‘both-and’ attempt to retain and reconcile these two competing paradigms: European semiotic structuralism and Anglo-American anthropology, as he himself phrases the difference. The global vector of Instantiation – patterns of agnation – indexes the former paradigm; the global vector of Stratification, especially its encompassing of ‘the eco-social environment’ mobilises the latter.

I picture Halliday as a Kafkaesque tight-rope artist precariously balancing on the wobbly shoulders of two giant paradigms within linguistics – the systemic and the functional.  This is to attend to the name of his linguistics – SFL: systemic functional linguistics – and note that although it presents as a nominal group functioning as a proper name, a name in which the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘functional’ are set peacefully alongside each other, in fact it may represent more an aspiration, a balancing act, than naming an actual finalised stable entity or accomplished reconciliation of the two paradigms in play.

I end this post with a number of questions for follow-up:

  • What to think about structuralism and its (continuing) role in SFL?
  • How does Halliday try to stitch together such two disparate paradigms as structuralist semiotics and praxis anthropologies?
  • What was the motive for attempting this, and how did it relate to the structural-functionalism of British anthropology at the time?
  • Was this effort simply a result of a dual interest in the Marxist oriented study of language by the Prague school and various Russian schools on the one hand, and the ethnographic functionalist anthropology of Malinowski and the American ethnographers on the other?
  • How did the shifts of British anthropology such as Mary Douglas, Evan-Prichard and of continental Marxists such as Gramsci & Althusser away from a simple, perhaps reductive, materialist and functionalists account of ‘species being’ and ‘society’ impact on the SFL account of the ‘social context’ or ‘social system’ or ‘meaning potential of the social system’?

Defining Academic writing

Notes towards a critique of Genre Theory

When I think about defining academic writing, it is easy to shift too quickly to thinking in terms of SFL grammatics, and to define it in terms of features like grammatical metaphor, abstraction, technicality, etc. Or in terms of the genres deployed in assignments such as essays, reports, etc.

But this ignores the ‘rhetorical situation’ contexting academic writing.

I do not believe that the SFL notion of genre captures what is happening in academic writing. It’s notion of ‘institutional purpose’ is too thin, and there has been no real effort to thicken it up over the years – despite using phrases like ‘configuration of meanings’.

There are two issues: one, thickening the description of the institutional scene; and, secondly, acknowledging that educators are focused on the individual text and what it signifies about the understanding of the student author.

Re one: Genre theory has no category ‘above’ genre with which to describe the institutional context and its history of language games

Re two: Genre theory focuses on types, the generic case, not the unique or individual case.