Genre is not enough


This article, drafted in 2001, attempts to articulate my disagreement with efforts to construct the goals and processes of the educative practices appropriate to Batchelor Institute (BIITE) in terms of the concept of genre. I will argue that the focus on genre is a reductive account of the goals of education at BIITE, a focus that inevitably substitutes a mono-cultural definition of learning outcomes for the richer educational commitments defining BIITE.

In the past, power in education and training was exercised at the point of ‘inputs’, in the writing of textbooks and in the design and production of curriculum resources. However, during the 90s, the exercise of power in education and training has shifted its focus to ‘outcomes’. This shift from the moment of instructional input as a point of leverage to the assessment of outcomes as the object of governmental gaze means that definitions of ‘what is assessed’ has become the key site for negotiating and contesting the purposes, modes and meanings of education and training.

What I find particularly disquieting is the claim that genre captures the entirety of social life and that therefore there is no worthwhile distinction between ‘genre’ and ‘socio-historical practice’. This means that the latter is irrelevant to the goals of the curriculum as expressed in its assessment practices. Sometimes it is acknowledged that understanding the socio-historical dimension of a genre may be a ‘teaching strategy’, ‘a means’ to mastering the genre, but still, it is insisted, it does not form any part of the content or goal of assessment. This can be captured in the claim: ‘It is the essay itself that we need to assess, not depth of cultural analysis and understanding’. 

Essentialism and colonization

Clearly this is an essentialist account of genre. On this view, genre are posited as stable structures that subsist separately from the contingency, differences and hybridity of socio-historical reality. Genres are thus defined as linguistic structures separate from their immersion and realization of social life in all its contested reality. We could label this the fallacy of reductive linguisticism. Facility in language has been divorced from facility in the substantive social life and discursive practices in which language is grounded.

The problem with this linguistic essentialism is that it implicitly defines social life itself in terms of genre, worse in terms of a small number of highly stylized genres. This is a central problem with the entire ‘Genre theory’ movement. Initially, Jim Martin, the key theorist of this movement, did try to develop a notion of ideology which would allow a distinction between genre and social life as ‘connotative strata’. By not reducing social life to genres, he thus opened up a space for two ways of interrogating genre. First the ideological question could be put: Does this genre represent or express the social substance of this region of social life justly? Secondly, the pedagogic question can be raised: Will learning to master this genre provide a teaching/learning context in which students come to understand and learn how to participate in the reflective practices of this region of social life? Allowing that social life was more than genre thus acknowledges that genres can be misrepresentations, partial realizations, or distorted expressions of the region of social life they claim to express.

Unfortunately, in recent times Martin has abandoned his attempts to articulate a stratum of ideology separate from genre because most educators using the category of genre in educational contexts are not concerned with critical reflection. Yet, for indigenous peoples and their efforts to forge an educative practice that resists the reductiveness, mono-culturalism, injustice, and silences of the genres that have emerged from the history of an imperial and colonizing West it is critical not to conflate social being and genre.

To define the outcomes of a Batchelor Institute course purely in terms of genre is to demand that students somehow take on the voice of the colonial Master, instead of forging a more complex voice, an emergent voicing that mediates between the voice of the colonial Master and their own master voices, voices of difference, voices of other ways of being, voices of social and cultural oppression. By reducing social life to genre, the genre movement reduced issues of cultural difference and colonial injustice to matters of access and exclusion, as if the key issue for indigenous peoples is to be ‘let in’. But the key issue for indigenous peoples is to be ‘let in as indigenous peoples’. It is this latter, historic task that defines the project of BIITE, not the assimilationist task of simply training indigenous people in the standard forms and habits of English speech and writing.

Education into a community of stewardship

This paper will now outline an account of the goals of adult education that does more justice to the indigenous education tasks of Batchelor Institute. The key claim of my account of education is that the central goal of education is to assist students to participate in a region of social life, a domain of social reality. A region of social life consists of a complex texture of practices, habits, routines, discourses, interests, values, histories and texts. To learn to participate in a region of social life is to learn to conduct oneself in a way that engages in the practices and contesting realities of that region of social life. Veronica Arbon has recently marked the fact that social reality is not a matter of a unified set of genres, canons, practices or paradigms, by adducing the indigenous understanding of the land as a medium and locus of ‘sediments and sentiments’ (Arbon, 1997??). A region or ‘place’ of social life is disseminated and dispersed, offering participants a wide array of conflicting, complementary and contesting subject-positions and voices. To participate in a region of social life is to participate in a dialogue, not simply to take up the position of the universal or transcendental Subject. Everyone is situated in social life uneasily, even experts and exponents. Voice is always doubled, a matter of question and answer, claim and response, puzzlement and gesture.

What this means is that learning a region of social life cannot be reduced to mastery of the routines or genres of that region. Learning a region of social life is learning two things: one, learning the routines and, two, learning the practices of reflection that have accumulated around those routines. Learning genre cannot be separated from learning to engage in the heteroglossia, the conflicted diversity, of that region of social life.

Insofar as modernity has attempted to institute abstract universalized subjects as constitutive of social life, it has been committed to insisting that the price of entry into modern social life is the rejection of one’s cultural roots. Unhappily, the genre movement collaborated in this modernist rejection of cultural diversity by implying that social life could be captured in the stable and unitary structures of linguistic genre. One of the facts defining our time is that indigenous peoples everywhere have rejected this deal; they wish to participate in modern life without setting aside their customary ways of being.

Educational genres as medium, not goal

On my view, the role of genre in pedagogy is quite different from that suggested by genre theory. Genre is not the goal of education, it is the medium of education. Genre is ‘the canvas’, the linguistic medium, on which one displays one’s appropriation of a region of discursive practice and its complexity. The goal of education is participation in a region of social life, or (another way of saying the same thing) participation in a community of practice and reflection responsible for that region of social life. The genres that are singled out for attention in education and training are highly stylized and conventionalized precisely in order to force learners into more reflective realizations of the ambiguities, differences and tensions at issue in that region of social life. (Notice that actual regions of social life consist of extensive arrays of genres, far too many to teach explicitly,—see the work of Pat Beattie in documenting the genres deployed in the various professional fields addressed by Batchelor Institute.)

To learn to be responsible for, and to, a region of social life, that is, to learn to be a member of a community of reflective practice involves much more than simply mastering the genres devised for assessing learners of that field. Nor does re-working the genres of assessment so that they are identical with the ‘genres of the workplace’ help. Becoming an engaged and fluent member of a community of practice means coming to participate in the community of memories and hopes, the traditions and values, the texts and stories, the vocabularies and paradigms of that community, not just mastering its regularized routines, procedures and habits.

What is important about essays and reports as educational genres is not that they are the actual vocational genres or forms of discursive interchange in their respective regions of social life and their communities, but that they provide learners with affordances and resistances that heighten or deepen their engagement in the fundamental dialogues constituting that region of life. A good educational genre is one that allows learners to articulate and express the situatedness, nuances, ambivalences and complexities of their engagement with a region of social life and the communities that assume stewardship of that region.

Genre as medium for assessment of understanding

The task of an assessor is to read a student’s performance of a genre, not in relation to a set of linguistic rules or features defining that genre, but as a display of ‘where they stand’, of what and how they have appropriated the discourses, concepts, paradigms, and voices at issue in that region. Teachers have always read through the generic surface of student work to the background understandings standing behind student performance. For, it is precisely how learners comport themselves within the confines of the conventions of genre that provides teachers with insight into ‘where they are at’. Discourse (sociocultural being) is realised through genres. As teachers, we read the student’s appropriation of the discourse, not their mastery of a genre, from their performance; or rather, we try to discern when a deviation in the genre or linguistic form signifies a deviation in discursive meaning; when it is a ‘mere matter of language’ and when it is a matter of meaning and understanding; when it is a cultural difference to be elucidated and when it is a linguistic difference to be mastered. And this is why teaching  and assessment can never be enacted by machines: a deviation in language is almost always both a difference of language and a difference of meaning. Certainly, is this is the point of the concept of formative assessment, these deviations provide a pretext or context, a point of leverage, for interpreting and reinterpreting both language and socio-cultural reality.

Educational genres have typically evolved over the centuries precisely so that all students must fail and thereby display their limits and situatedness. Assessment is a game designed to show up where one stands. To imagine that the goal of education is mastery of genre is to entirely miss the point of educational genres, which are what Ian Hunter calls ‘infinite texts’. Infinite texts or performances are texts or performances that can never be perfected. It is precisely because the genres of education are not masterable that they can be a medium for deepening understanding and engagement, for reflective appropriation of the ‘cultures’ of a community. So, although it may seem that redefining competence as mastery of genre posits a more manageable task for both students and staff at Batchelor Institute, in fact this move misunderstands the role of educational genres in learning, their power to reveal misunderstandings on the part of students and their poverty if taken for the whole of life.

The power of genre, in my opinion, is as a medium in which to reveal to students their need to enter more deeply into the principles, concepts, and underpinning knowledge of the discourse or discipline they are studying.


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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