Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I have colleagues I’ve never met. Friends I don’t know. Family I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. (Well, maybe I could. Both sides of my family have some pretty distinctive physical features.)
Colleagues, friends, families. All groups I’m a member of. All communities I’m a part of. I’m confident that you, too, share communities with people you’ve never met.
But how can we share a community if I haven’t met the colleagues, don’t know the friends, and wouldn’t recognize the family members?
One of the ways is discourse, genres, the shared ways we communicate.
I have family members I know only through the family stories told about them, and others I know are part of my family because of my cousin’s record of our family history on Ancestry. I know some family members only through a family Facebook page. But they’re all family.
I have friends I know only through social media. I know, I know, they aren’t truly “friends” in a BFF good friends for life way. Don’t count on Facebook friends to help load your moving truck or show up for your funeral. But there are people I know only through shared Facebook postings who I know friend-type stuff about, like their fondness for decorating cookies or bird-watching or skiing. And I feel friend-type feelings for them when they share successes or struggles. I don’t want to get into a debate about the declining nature of friendship (a cartoon: youngster says “I have hundreds of Facebook friends,” old man replies, “When I was young we called them imaginary friends.”). But I have a sense of community with friends on Facebook that comes only from our shared genre, Facebook posts.
And some of those Facebook friends I’ve never met are also colleagues I’ve never met.
I’ll be spending March 15-18 in Portland, Oregon, at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of you there (say hi!). In fact, though, most of the people at this conference I don’t know, have never met, and will never meet. But they’re part of my community. That got me thinking about how communities are made. And of course that got me thinking about genre, because, well, because genre.
(I’ve been dying to use that new expression I learned from students--"Because ______." I hope I used it right. No more needs to be said, just because ____. I learned the expression a year ago, so it’s probably old hat now. As is the expression “old hat,” I bet.)
Genre scholars pay a lot of attention to the ways genres help to make communities, so I won’t begin to capture all they know about the topic. And certainly there's more to communities than only their genres. But I can sketch this one example and a few of the ways I find it interesting.
The conference I'll be attending gathers around 3,500 scholars and teachers of writing, mostly working in colleges or universities of all kinds. But we don’t work in the same schools. We don’t teach the same students. We share a common professional interest—writing and the teaching of writing. That’s all.
And we share this conference. Through the sponsoring organization we also share a journal, College Composition and Communication. And a website. And social media pages. These days, any organization has to have a media “presence.” You probably are part of similar communities, if not this one—maybe an online group or one that sends out a newsletter or magazine, alumni associations, non-profit organizations. You may never see many of your fellow members, but you form a community through those shared genres.
For my professional organization, just looking at the conference itself, I can see the ways we form a genuine community of colleagues, even if we only interact with a very few of the community’s members. We form a community through sharing genres.
Let’s start with the official conference genres (it’s a long list, so feel free to skip to the end of the bullets once you get the idea):
These genres help to create a community. Through the Call for Proposals, we define ourselves with some shared words and perspectives. (This year, it’s Cultivating Capacity, Creating Change.) Through giving us name badges with big first names, the organization tries to create a chummy community, where “big names” mean first names, not important people. (But those tiny last names on the name badges drive me crazy, not because I’m stalking Andrea Lunsford or Asao Inoue or other superstars but because I can’t remember the last name of that person I met last year and how can I introduce her to the graduate student I’m with if I can’t read her tiny last name on the stupid name badge?)
But one of the things that’s interesting to me is that these genres don’t necessarily create a community through all of us participating in them. Many of us attend the Opening General Session and hear the Chair’s Address, but not all of us. Most of us attend presentations, roundtables, and workshops, but not all of us and not the same ones. Most of us browse the books in the book exhibit, but not all of us.
Still, there’s the sense that this is us—the books and the talks and the speeches and the awards and even the business meeting. What all those genres do is declare us a group, a community.
Even if we don’t attend the Chair’s Address, we hear echoes of it all through the conference rooms and hallways conversations—and it’s later printed in that journal I mentioned. We don’t hear the same presentations, but we hear some presentation (or I expect most of us do). We’re experiencing the same conference.
There’s some thought that the conference has gotten too big. It’s hard to keep that community feeling going among 3,500 people. Smaller groups emerge through participating in shared genres—through attending special interest group meetings or just attending presentations on the same topic (like genre, history of women’s rhetoric) or type of school (two-year colleges, independent writing programs).
But as I finish up this (late) post, many colleagues are sharing the news that their flights out of the Northeast have been canceled by Storm Stella and they won’t be able to make it to the conference at all this year. And I’m sad for these people I mostly don’t know. I feel my community diminished. They are colleagues who will be missed, even by those of us who don’t know them. Because we’re a community.
As I head off to Portland (airlines willing), I'll be participating in many other genres--the informal, unstructured ones I share with closer friends and colleagues. Greetings, conversations over breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks. Accounts of our last year. Jokes. And stories. And more.
But those closer relationships don't diminish the relationships of the larger community. In fact, they exist precisely because of the genres that enable the larger community to exist. Those friends and colleagues are ones I met through our shared profession, our shared school or interests. We began as part of a larger community, then became colleagues, then became friends. And that larger community exists, and shows itself, through its genres.
So if you're reading this blog and you make it to Portland, please do stop me and say hello. After all, we're colleagues in a shared community. And hey, you've read my blog!
And if you're not part of this community, you're part of many others, and I bet some of them are communities whose members you don't know but whose genres you share--fellow gardeners, baseball fans, or caregivers. We may not know all the individual members of our communities, but we know something about them. They're us.