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.