Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Halloween for me is a kids' holiday, and I love it. Rather than dressing up myself in some sexy costume and attending crazy bacchanalias (isn't that what adults do on Halloween? I've heard tales . . .), I'd rather stay home and give candy to all the kids who ring the doorbell, admire their costumes, and remember what it was like when I was kid. (Okay, that probably officially makes me an old fogey)
I always loved Halloween as a kid--my favorite holiday. But trick or treating has changed since then. It may look the same, but what it does for the kids is very different. Just to show that genres aren't so simple in their purposes/functions/uses/motives--trick or treating isn't just about getting candy. Or at least it wasn't to me and my friend. In MYYYY day (said with an old fogey creak), trick or treating was different.
I hope you'll listen to my short tale of what Halloween used to do for us. If you're on a mobile device, click on the small black link "Listen in Browser" and you won't have to have SoundCloud. (And I'll hope you'll let me know if you have any trouble getting access to my audio recording. I'm still pretty new at it.)
May we all be both wild and safe this October 31.
Mass shootings have become so common that genres are emerging in response.
What an awful statement about our current world.
The deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, stood out in numbers, but it was, according to New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza’s source, one of 338 mass shootings this year.
338 mass shootings this year
In response, politicians give speeches, news reporters conduct interviews, law enforcement gives press briefings, and social media light up with eyewitness videos, expressions of horror and sympathy, debates over gun rights and regulation, and hashtags. And the NRA goes silent.
These responses have become almost ritualized, as Lizza notes about Washington politicians’ responses. They are genres emerging.
Look at the president’s speech Monday morning after the Vegas shooting. Lizza describes it as a classic “thoughts and prayers” version. I’d list these conventional moves:
"Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one, a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain, we cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims, we are praying for you and we are here for you. And we ask God to help see you through this very dark period."
"Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded or lost the ones they loved so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace, and we pray for the day when evil is banished and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear."
President Obama’s responses to the many shooting during his presidency actually differ from that pattern. At least in two speeches—immediately after the movie theater shooting in Aurora and the murder of children in Sandy Hook—Obama developed his own pattern:
Instead of a “thoughts and prayers” speech, I’d call this one a “hold them close” speech.
After Sandy Hook:
"So our hearts are broken today -- for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost."
"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. "
“We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless — it’s beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living”
"At the end of the day, what we’ll remember will be those we loved and what we did for others.”
Neither “thoughts and prayers” nor “hold them close” speeches emphasize a call for public action. Both call for private acts—prayers and hugs—but not primarily for public response. That’s probably appropriate at that moment, immediately after the terrible event.
But Obama did call for gun control legislation in a later speech after Sandy Hook, and he hinted at it in the immediate speech:
"And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
But of course nothing happened.
And then we have Las Vegas.
The 338th mass shooting this year
And we have “thoughts and prayers” speeches. And interviews with other politicians offering thoughts and prayers. And social media posts offering thoughts and prayers. And online shouting matches about gun control and gun rights. And a hashtag.
When a type of event becomes so common that genres emerge, we lose some of our awareness of the situation. No need to think about how to react or what to say. Just follow the script.
Offer your thoughts and prayers
Use the hashtag
Sympathize with the loss
Vow to treasure your loved ones
We can’t let that happen in response to mass shootings. We have to disrupt the business-as-usual model, we have to disrupt the genres, to make something different happen.
Something different like legislation, policies, regulations.
Something different like debate that considers not simple opposition but real options
Something different like news media interviews not about how politicians feel but about what politicians will do
Something different like social-media-organized activism in the streets rather than in a hashtag
Activism. Challenges. Options. Legislation.
Even this call for legislative action may be an emerging genre. Lizza calls for it. Democrats call for it. I’m calling for it.
So let’s disrupt that response, too, by using some other existing genres to keep the call for action from falling into a void:
Write a letter or make a phone call to your representatives
Start or sign a petition.
Organize a demonstration and make a protest sign
Let’s not move on this time.
Let’s not blame incomprehensible evil and leave it at that.
Let’s offer not thoughts and prayers but rather ideas and actions
Let’s not let these genres become conventional, expected, the norm
Expect something more.
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.