Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
This past week I was visiting the University of Rochester and the Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program, to give workshops to writing instructors there. I enjoy working with faculty and students from other programs and discovering different perspectives on writing, teaching, and writing programs. I always come home knowing more than before I left.
Here are my descriptions of the two workshops from last week:
How to Choose the Genres You Use
All teachers (and students) use genres in their courses, whether they know it or not. This workshop explores why it matters which genres you choose and how to choose them well. Working from teachers’ current reading and writing assignments, this workshop invites teachers to examine the genres they currently use, decide the extent to which those genres are achieving their goals, and explore alternative genres and what they might offer. Participants should bring their current writing assignments and should leave with ideas for how to revise or expand those assignments.
How to Use the Genres You Choose
Using different teaching strategies, teachers can use genres to teach students different skills and perspectives, all of which can make them more successful writers and readers. You can use genres to help students learn how to write one particular genre or many future genres. You can use genres to give students access to a particular community—like the academy or a profession—or to any community they might encounter in the future. And you can teach students how to conform to the genres in their lives or how to reform or resist those genres. This workshop will ask teachers to explore their own goals and current practices and to consider how they might apply or adapt some of the suggested strategies and activities.
Of course, those descriptions contain lots of material for blog posts, as well as other workshops. Feel free to let me know if there’s a topic you’d like me to write about some day.
Or if you’d like me to give a workshop for your own institution!
Today, in my tiredness now that I’m home, I got to thinking about the genre of the workshop. And what a range there is of stuff we call “workshops.” I wasn’t delivering a lecture this time, or a “talk” or a seminar. I was offering workshops.
What makes a workshop a workshop?
I started with how interactive it is. Workshops involve participants being active, trying out ideas the presenter (me, in this case) offers for their own uses.
But the workshop is a physical space, too, originally. A workshop where work is done. A woodworker’s workshop. A home workshop. A place where things are made.
Now that’s a workshop.
Like all good language nuts, I searched the Oxford English Dictionary to discover when that original meaning expanded. The physical workshop, meaning:
“A room, small building, etc., in which goods are manufactured or repaired.”
That meaning was recorded in 1556 and continues today.
The extended meaning is newer:
“A meeting or conference at which the participants engage in intensive discussion and activity relating to a particular subject or project”
Started in the US, first recorded in this meaning in 1912, and by 1937 referred comfortably to a “Summer workshop” where participants had their own projects for which they sought “aid and advice”
“The Workshop” for some might name the writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa. Officially begun in 1936, this workshop gathered writers of poetry and fiction to study under a distinguished writer. Lots of other universities have writers’ workshops.
And of course we all “workshop” (verb) our drafts, sharing them with other writers to get suggestions for revising. That emphasis on getting advice started mostly (first citation 1961) with theater workshopping, when a performance would be given as a way to work out the bugs before the show opened for real.
What might be different with the enlarged workshop meaning is its collaborative nature. You don’t work in a writing or conference workshop independently, making your own thing. You share your work with others, hear what they have to say about it, before going on to change it in ways that you decide are helpful. I imagine manufacturing workshops could also be collaborative, but it didn’t seem to be a requirement.
But the heart of the workshop, it seems to me, stays within that initial physical workshop, a place where things are made or repaired.
A good workshop is a productive workshop, a place where people work on their projects, making new things or revising the old. And where everyone works.
As I return from the week tired and in need of rest, it helps to know that I came by that tiredness honestly. After all, I was working as we workshopped in the workshop.
Whether in a small building, tool shed, or conference room, workshops are productive work.
I had many plans for this week’s blog. Instead I’m pondering what makes travel so horrible these days, even on a usually reliable airline. Let me try;
I’m sitting underneath a blaring tv with some cheery announcer for a bad show on that I can’t not hear even with headphones. Just heard “blood from this pig that’s making it creamy delicious”. A cooking show, I hope?
I ate bad food with an inaccurate description from the menu. Still trying to get the taste out.
Watching constantly updated departure board. Cancellation after cancellation. Weather report from hurricanes. I’m rerouted and feel fortunate.
So keep checking boarding pass and airline app since route and timing aren’t what I’d planned and I can’t get the original itinerary out of my head
Everyone trying to have a little quiet space where I’m waiting. No genre there but silence perhaps
Tv just said Guess were not in Kansas anymore. I guess not. Me either.
Flight announcement asking for a volunteer to be bumped. Ah there a good one
Tv says “just blood? No salt no pepper?” I couldn’t make this up. Bad taste in my mouth not just a memory
But we and I keep traveling for the pleasures. Meeting new people. Seeing new places. Conversations. Memories. Expansion of life.
But at the moment? Hoping for a boarding call soon
I hope to be back next week with something cheerier since I’ll have had great experiences and memories from this trip
Got to feel fortunate I can travel.
Twitter announced this past week an experiment with the length of tweets, increasing the limit from 140 to 280 characters, and a storm of complaints erupted, 140 characters at a time.
The responses got me thinking again about how I use Twitter, and how different that use seems to be from how others use it.
One Opinion writer on the New York Times Aparna Nancherla complained, in a clever Twitter-worthy title, that “Brevity is the Soul of Twit.” Nancherla argues that the short character limit forces self-editing, no long rants except in brief installments. And it creates clever maxims, like the authors’ own
“I once dated an apostrophe. Too possessive.”
I remember feeling wholly inadequate to Twitter, in its early days. I couldn’t be as clever as the authors of the tweets that were being retweeted. And, most of all, I couldn’t get the hang of the rules for this new tweet genre. It seemed I was supposed to make up a clever hashtag, making it part of the joke. Or was I supposed to use a hashtag that others were using? What was I supposed to say on Twitter, if I wasn’t clever enough to make a great joke? There seemed to be other options, but I couldn’t figure out what they were.
I couldn’t figure out this new tweet genre.
My Twitter shame reached its peak when I visited a hip university to give an invited lecture and workshop. Before the talk, one of the professors asked for my Twitter handle so her undergraduate students could live tweet the talk. I gave it to her (AmyDevitt1, in case any of you are looking for me). In questions after the talk, one graduate student, after looking me up on Twitter, asked, “But where’s your presence?”
Oh the shame! Oh the humiliation!
At that point, I had never heard of live tweeting. I hadn’t known I needed a presence on Twitter as well as an account.
Oh the shame! Oh the humiliation!
That was three years ago now, long past the date when I should have figured it out, especially since I'd been on Twitter since 20011. Twitter started in 2006 and took off in 2007 with the folks hipper than me (it made a big splash at the South by Southwest festival that year, a festival I wish I was cool enough to attend).
My confusion about Twitter then came from lack of use, mostly. Indeed, I had no presence. But I was still trying to figure out how to use the Twitter platform, and I hadn’t been able to see the genres of Twitter that were emerging.
But oh how quickly things change. Today, I see different uses of Twitter that I’d call different genres of tweeting. And in those different genres, I’ve found places where I can have a presence, small though it might still be. And maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
My list of Twitter genres is far from complete, but here’s a start:
The pithy, clever maxim
“Don’t maximize that maxim,” Nancherla urges. I’m still not good at that tweet genre, but I’m an appreciative audience.
Back in 2014, writers were already contributing to the second Twitter fiction festival, writing “twitterature” or “storyella.” It’s only gotten more interesting since, but it’s not the kind of writing I do.
Stars, celebrities, politicians, and celebrity wannabe’s tweet to gain followers and increase their audiences. What better public relations than to have millions anticipating your next tweet. I suppose this is my genre whenever I tweet about a new post on my blog or share my excitement about a friend’s accomplishments. I’ve been told we all need to be establishing our personal brand, so every tweet in some way may be PR.
Unfortunately, Twitter has become a place for people to attack those celebrities, bring down others, and generally spew hatred. So I’ve been told. But I have yet to find anything like that on my own Twitter account or from those I follow. Now that I say this, of course, I’ll probably become a troll target.
One of the best kinds of tweets for me is asking questions to quickly get answers and advice from the hivemind of others on Twitter who have experience with or knowledge about a topic. And I gather information by lurking as much as tweeting. Those I follow tweet about books, events, and ideas that I might not have known about otherwise. Or I learn about them first on Twitter, putting me a bit ahead of instead of always behind the curve. I can be more in the know. And the other night, when I heard late night sirens and helicopters, I used Twitter to learn about the awful shooting that had occurred downtown in the early morning hours.
Of course, I’m information-gathering from others who use Twitter to share what they know. I suppose sharing information is a form of PR, but some tweets appear to just want to share with others—offering a link to a reputable site for donating to Puerto Rico’s people, letting family and friends know you’re safe after a local incident, sharing an interesting article or blog.
Information sharing often happens through retweeting. I try to retweet the great posts others share. Maybe hitting the “like” heart should be a genre, too, but retweeting or quoting a tweet makes more of an impact. Retweet me if you like this one!
I don’t think it’s a single genre, but one of the most powerful uses of Twitter for me is connecting with others all over the world with shared interests, especially in areas I study. Creating new connections comes from someone liking one of my tweets, and my discovering this new person who works in my area. Hit the Follow button and have a new source of information and ideas. The same when someone new Follows me—another new connection. Someone I follow retweets a tweet that introduces me to one of their connections—another new link in the network. All sources of information and connection.
No, I don’t think “following” someone is the same as talking to them at a conference or any kind of interaction f2f (face-to-face—see how hip I am [not]!). But some of my Twitter connections have come after I’ve met someone at a conference and been able to keep up with their work by following them on Twitter. And some of my Twitter connections have led to email exchanges about shared interests. (Yes, I’m still so unhip that I use email.)
Of course, you’ll have noticed missing Twitter genres in my list. I’m sure I’ll think of others as soon as I publish this blog post—or as soon as I hop onto Twitter tonight.
You also probably noticed that I’ve left off the most (in)famous tweeter of the moment. The Real Donald Trump (not the President of the United States, who tweets as POTUS) is most known for his attack tweets (for which he is going straight to hell, according to another famous tweeter) and for his PR tweets. I’m sure he’s trying for the pithy clever tweet. And he probably sees himself as information-sharing. He seems to do his information-gathering elsewhere, unless Breitbart has a big twitter presence. Come to think of it, it surely does, but I'm not going to check for fear of attracting trolls.
So I’m getting the hang of it, a bit. I’m still confused about which hashtags to use when, and punctuation has more nuances than I realize, and my presence is still relatively limited. I’m never going to be a Lin Manuel Miranda or Samantha Bee.
But Twitter goes far beyond the clever maxim, even at 140 characters each. I imagine I’d enjoy an increase to 280 characters since I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to be pithy or to include just the right abbreviations and hashtags.
OTOH (On the other hand—ooh, look at hip me using old texting abbreviations!), I’m willing to bet that the 280-character tweet will develop new habits and expectations that I’ll struggle to learn. And new 280-character genres will likely emerge that I won’t know and am not hip enough to help shape. So I’ll be back where I was three years ago—uncool again, confused about the Twittersphere genres, and struggling to have a presence.
But for today--If you're on Twitter, watch for my info-sharing PR tweet announcing this new blog post, defining my brand, and increasing my presence. #genre #280characters
When is an insult not an insult?
When the insulted has to look up your insult in the dictionary.
That’s the case for Donald Trump, I imagine, when North Korean president Kim Jong Un called the president a “dotard”--or, that is, when the translator for Kim Jong Un interpreted the insult with the word "dotard."
Now maybe the president is a dotard for having to look up the word, if he took the time to look for information in such a mundane and relatively factual source as a dictionary. Much social media teeth gnashing ensued, including expressions of horror over the many who did not know the term “dotard.”
Well, count me among them. I confess that I first thought, “Oh, is he trying to use the horrible insult of ‘retard’ but missed the word?” I even pronounced the word “do-tard” rather than “dote-erd” as I understand it now.
My more learned friends (especially of older literature) corrected my mistake, informing me of this wonderful old word connected to “dotage.” That I could understand.
Merriam-Webster dictionaries on Twitter offered a link to the definition of the word:
But I missed the insult completely. I knew it was supposed to be an insult, but like many sit-com and comic strip characters, I had to go look it up to know exactly what was being insulted. According to some on social media, that makes me an idiot.
That insult I understand.
Here’s another way an insult can go awry.
When the insult brings to mind a pleasant old song without the intended insult (whatever that might be).
All I thought of when Donald Trump used his UN speech to call Kim Jong Un a “rocket man” was the Elton John song. Ah, “rocket man.” Maybe it’s the line, “I’m not the man you think I am at home” that was supposed to sting. Or “Burning out his fuse up here alone.”
Oh no, wait. That was supposed to refer to the president of North Korea, not the president of the United States.
On YouTube, I even found this wonderful reinterpretation of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” by Iranian filmmaker and refugee Majid Anin.
but now we have this headline from the NY Daily News:
North Korea’s top diplomat says Trump’s ‘rocket man’ insult makes missile attack on U.S. ‘inevitable’
What does it take to make an insult work—to make it sting, burn, embarrass?
Apparently, only to know that it was an insult, intended to reduce, degrade, humiliate.
That's enough to provoke. Just maybe, that's enough to start nuclear war.
Maybe that insult really was an insult. Maybe insults never were funny. Maybe insults aren't fun to analyze as a genre either, to figure out what the requirements are for understanding an insult as an insult. I know I don't much care anymore. (well, maybe I still care a little bit)
Maybe all it takes for an insult to happen is one mean person intending to inflict harm on another, whoever that other may be and however mean that other person may be.
Maybe insults always burn, always sting, always make us say "ouch." Even if we then have to go look up the words.
Maybe our world will always be unsafe as long as insults are hurled, from one leader at another. But maybe that's people, hurling insults from one person at another, from one social media friend at another, from. one family member at another.
May we all be kind to one another. May we all be safe.