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Swales: Worlds of Genre, Metaphors of Genre

20080404174236-2296803258-e9e6d964b7-m.jpgNotes from a lecture by John Swales (U of Michigan) at the University of Zaragoza today. My occasional comments in red.

John M Swales: "Worlds of Genre – Metaphors of Genre"

Sunny Hyon ("Genre in three traditions: Implications for ESL", 1996) discussed three influential traditions in thought about genre:
1) the international ESP tradition
2) the North American Rhetoric Tradition (Bazerman, etc.)
3) Australian Systemic-Functional tradition (from Halliday). Halliday didn't really believe in genre as a category though.
According to a web posting by Carol Berkenkotter, "Hyon's categories have stuck" (2006).

I miss everywhere a joint discussion of literary conceptions of genre and linguistic/stylistic ones. Bakhtin is the most useful bridge, I guess.

Swales questions whether we still have these traditions, though. Views from recent books c. 2004 (Bhatia, Worlds of Written Discourse: A Genre-based view; Devitt, Writing Genres; Frow, Genre; Swales, Research Genres, 2004).

Bhatia: genre incorporates context apart from text: professional, institutional or disciplinary contexts.
Devitt: genre is a nexus between individual's actions and a socially defined context (situation, culture, genre…).
Frow moves from a systemic-functional perspective to speaking of performances of genre, rather than classes to which text belong: he follows Derrida stressing the margins and borders between genres.
Swales (Research Genres, 2004): genres as complex networks of various kinds, rather than individual resources.

There are some consolidating trends in genre theory:

1. Recognition of a balance between constraint and choice (genres constrain but also give you choices).
2. Genres take a local contextual coloring. (In different cultures, etc.). E.g. Brazilian research papers in linguistics offer "final considerations" instead of "conclusions" (which usefully leaves the door open to offering no conclusions).
3. Evolution due to exigency (e.g. increasing paperwork and monitorization makes administrative genres develop)
4. A nuanced genre consciousness keeps rising.

Definitions and metaphors of genre

Swales 1990's definition: "Genre is a class of communicative events that share some set of communicative purposes."

This definition seems to me a reaction against earlier formalist definitions: it is all function. But it is too one-sided and totalizing. A definition of genre should acknowledge there are several genres of genres.

Swales in 2004: "[genre definitions] fail to measure up to the Kantian imperative of being true in all possible worlds and all possible times: for another, the easy adoption of definitions can prevent us from seeing newly explored or newly emerging genres for what they are". His views now stress the co-dependence of genres and generic practices. The earlier definition isolated genres, now genres are seen as connected, embedded, co-dependent. E.g. a linguist's study of shopping lists as a genre found they are not so much a memo of what to buy as a way to prevent you from buying things not on the list. Indirectness everywhere, even in shopping lists.

There is a wide interest in genre definitions among information scientists and documentarians struggling with all the new digital genres.

Metaphors used to describe genres, and their potential uses:

- Frames of Social Action (Bazerman) ----> emphasis on genres as Guiding Principles.
Bazerman sees genres as frames for social action, guideposts used to explore the familiar, to create intelligible communicative action. Although sometimes the frame is not clear (e.g. statements of purpose when you apply for a PhD: ambiguous situation).

- Language Standards (Devitt ----> emphasis on genres as Conventional Expectations).
Genres provide constraint and choice. Matters of etiquette, netiquette, etc.

- Biological Species (Fischoff) ---->  genres seen as having Complex Historicities.
(E.g. the population pressure of academic presentations in conferences leads to the appearance of a new genre, the conference poster). New genres try to find their niche in the communicative world, e.g. in academic practices. Here the analogy with naturalists' practices in the study of biological species may be illustrative. Biologists are either splitters or lumpers. A "species" is a tricky concept in biology. Organisms may be split into two species or lumped together in one. Bird species, f.i. How many species of crossbills? There are Spanish, Scandinavian, Scottish varieties or populations. Therefore, there are 3 or one species, depending on whether you are a splitter or a lumper. DNA considerations are now the fashion, and they lead to splitting: in a few years the lumpers will be back. Likewise, genres are subdivided by splitters – e.g. distinguishing varieties of research articles: review articles, research articles proper, argumentative essays, etc.

- Families and Prototypes (Wittgenstein, Rosch) ----> emphasis on genres' Variable links to the Center.
Here we have discussions of central and peripheral exemplars, e.g. definitions of  "the 'standard' Ph.D. thesis". Unlike Malcolm Ashmore's thesis (1980s, U of Chicago)—an experimental thesis, dramatizing his supervisor, using various genres (an encyclopedia of the sociology of science, a fictional transcript of his own defense…).

(David Walton, Universidad de Murcia, also wrote an extremely experimental, self-reflexive Ph.D. thesis, on Oscar Wilde).

- Institutions ----> genres as Shaping Contexts, Roles.
Institutions are more than their material manifestations (they include the accepted or usual procedures, etc.). E.g. in the case of the university
the lecture (a genre) is only a part of a course, part of a degree programme – genres are situated within a framework of institutional procedures and expectations.

- Speech acts ----> genres as Directed Discourses.
E.g. letters of authorization, patents, carpe diem poems…

2 examples of generic practice: Dissertation defenses and Art Monographs

1) The Ph.D. defense

Ph.D. dissertations are similar texts everywhere – but there are different modes of examining them around the world.
- Disputas in Norway, / viva voce in England / oral examination in America
- Committee members in America, Internal/external examiner in Britain, Opponent in Norway.
- Grand ceremony – closed room / vs. open meeting, etc. Extremely formal in Norway; more formal in UK than in USA.
- Advisor or superviser: present under permission in UK but silent, in US the advisor chairs the committee— many local differences.

Data from several dissertation defenses recorded (MICASE corpus, etc.).
Emerging structure in America's defenses:

- Greetings (personal introductions)
- Chair asks audience to leave
- Committee agrees.
- Defense proper (summary, candidate attempts a presentation, rounds of question, free questioning, questions from committee, questions from audience).
- Closing segment, leave-takings, decision, party arrangements, photo-ops.

Turn percentages of interactants differ widely in the examples. AI candidate: high percentage of turns for candidate, low for chair, high for members of committee. In a Ph.D. on social psychology, much lower percentage for candidate and more for chair and members (showing more disagreement and interaction among committee members).

Informality reconsidered: The Ph.D. defense is an important event but it is handled in an apparently informal way. (Everybody knows the preestablished arrangements). Humor used to reduce tensions. Laughter is distributed every few minutes (most of it at the candidate's expense). This moderates the insistence of institutional regulations. Laughter (Bakhtin) demolishing formality, etc.

Research talk informality. Frequency study of the use of the vague term "thing" per 10.000 words: astonishingly high frequency in defenses.

US Ph.d. defense, not a meaningless ritual:
- academic conversation certifying membership,
- things can go wrong,
- chair wants no arguments between committee members, committee must show expertise and humanity,
- High-level editorial meeting
- Celebratory relief at the end of a long journey
- Dysfluent at times: informal language, laughter, mistakes...

Institutional framework is handled with a very light touch. Cloaked by humour, etc. Formal standards of writtenesque language do not apply. Formality not acceptable in USA—more formal and indirect language in UK.

2nd example: the Art History Monograph (a genre which goes back to Vasari's study of artists' lives and personalities in 1550)

Focus on monographs studying Thomas Eakins' picture  "The Gross Clinic" (1875).

4 monographs on Eakins:

Lloyd Goodrich (1933): Viewpoint of the painter is presented as objective, artist as genius:
"The hand that guides the brush is as steady as the hand that guides the scalpel" (1933)

Johns (1983) represents the new social history of art. Focus not so much on the individual but on times and social circumstances.
Here the picture is seen as emphasizing advance in medical science in the 19th century, etc.

Fried (1987): Ambivalence: surgeon threatening castration, or having enacted it, psychoanalytical reading.

Henry Adams (2005). Again, psychoanalytic reading, this time bolstered with details of Eakins problematic family relationships and sexual tendencies.

The lessons drawn from the painting are very different.

(Perhaps this issue should be faced squarely from another angle — benefitting from the insights of critical theory and of the history of criticism as a kind of genre analysis in its own right, "from within")

The art monograph is facing an institutional decline. (Guercio 2006, Art as Existence). A number of conflicting tendencies influence the evolution of this critical genre: the classical idealization of artist, vs contemporary views of problematic identities; major art historians, 20th-c. authorities (Gombrich etc.)  did other genres (theory), not monogaphs on individual artists; feminist and postcolonial critics vs. traditional white male artists—lack of interest in canonical artists. Decline of the genre in the academia – monographs on artists are no longer being written by academics, but by art dealers, curators, specialists in auction houses…. Increased commodification of the genre: there is a stronger commercial motivation behind the monograph. Criticism helps to raise the status of the art object. A dance between theory, interpretation, description and illustrative detail in the monographs. In Ph.D. defenses, architecture students fail if they just talk about either theory or their design: they have to relate one to the other. Conventions in writing about art change.

Final considerations:

Frow: When discourses are well constructed, they perform the genre.

Now, as performances proliferate, genres drift and change, and analysts try to follow the drift of these transformations.


C. Inchaurralde: we become conscious through the use of genres. That leads to new ideas and to the growth of thoughts. Writing text is also as a matter of creating, not of communicating a preexistent idea (even the shopping list).  An interesting consideration, Swales acknowledges. Inchaurralde again, on the danger of writing atypical theses - not advisable to be too original in this respect...

F. Collado: On US thesis defenses - can candidates fail at that point? Is there a real risk? (Yes they can).

J. A. García Landa (myself) on disciplinary issues: As students of genre place more and more emphasis on interactional and contextual issues, and not on purely formal matters of textual structuring—isn't there a danger of a lack of disciplinary limits in that study, a kind of theoretical anxiety or crisis? That is, the question may arise, "am I still doing linguistics, or am I doing something else—sociology, ethnomethodology, whatever"? Is there a way in which disciplinary limits can be usefully asserted?

Swales recognizes this is a real issue, and that it is to some extent a matter of choice of focus—and of contextual relevance of the analyst's task. As to his own approach, he would rather not drift too far away from textual linguistics and stylistics.

I suggest that an interdisciplinary or exploratory angle may help see new aspects to this issue, but also that a disciplinary focus on textuality helps concentrate on some issues which may be disregarded or may lack sufficient focus if the emphasis falls on wider contextual issues.

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