Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Gee, did you know that tomorrow are the US midterm elections?
How could you miss it?
As part of my drive to help people become aware of the ways language, texts, and genres influence us without our noticing, I’m compiling another list for you to ponder—or add to.
What genres are shaping our votes—and whether or not we vote?
Here are a few:
Political ads (including Smear tactics, Racist ads, Inflammatory ads) on radio, tv, social media
Bot phone calls (aka political ads)
Tweets from politicians
Campaign literature (hung on our doors, handed to us at the grocery store, mailed to us)
Voters’ guides (League of Women Voters, local community guides, your favorite news source)
News stories about the economy, migration, the Supreme Court, racist killings, tweets, and … pick your favorite topic
Political discussions at work, at the dinner table, with friends
Political arguments at work, at the dinner table, with friends
Voting Rights Act—oh no, wait, that one’s gone, and it was just a single, powerful, text
Voting restrictions (signature matching, photo IDs, home address requirements, purged voter registries, prior felonies, and so on and so on and so on)
Get out the vote phone calls
Excuses for not voting (too busy, too tired, my vote doesn’t count, it’s all rigged, I don’t like any of the candidates)
Responses to excuses for not voting (ask your employer for time off to vote, ask for a ride, go with friends, if not a candidate then support the democratic system, and on and on and on—VOTE ANYWAY!!)
Polling places (especially their locations—see Dodge City in my own Kansas, long lines in Atlanta, Georgia, and other big cities, and so on and so on)
Free rides to polling sites
Discounts from Uber, Lyft, for rides to the polls
Voting machines (electronic, paper trail or not, party ticket option or not, and so on)
Voting booths (and all that image represents)
Ballots (and sample ballots viewable ahead of time)
“I Voted” stickers
“I Voted” social media posts
I’m sure I missed many bits of language influencing our votes, but most important is what influences whether you vote.
Pay special attention to the genres encouraging you to vote, trying to make it easier for you to vote. Be especially critical of the genres inhibiting your vote, encouraging you not to vote.
Don’t let any of these genres—or anything else—keep you from voting.
If you need information—about where to vote, what’s on the ballot, voter ID requirements, or anything else—you can get that information from the US government here
(So you know the credibility of that source, here is the US.gov URL: https://www.usa.gov/election-day )
If you live in Lawrence and need a ride, email me and I’ll get you to your polling place.
So just one final word:
Horror movies/scary movies
"Trick or treat!"
Carved pumpkins (stencils, pumpkin faces)
Decorated houses (spider webs, ghosts, recorded spooky voices)
Halloween candy (individually wrapped, smaller, kid friendly)
Halloween music--uh, no. Well, maybe one (see You Tube video below)
What did I miss?
I had a nice surprise this morning, and another one last week.
This morning, a newsletter appeared from the provost's office in my university that featured "Faculty in their Prime." I was one of them! I was surprised to be included at all among such great colleagues (I didn't know about it ahead of time). I was also surprised both by the "prime" part and by the bio featuring my blog! It was great to see this public adventure of mine receiving attention instead of the usual list of my scholarly works. Thank you!
The other nice surprise this past week was the arrival of actual physical copies of my most recent book, Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Genre Studies, co-edited with my colleague and friend Carolyn Miller. I had known that Routledge had published it on their website, but I hadn't seen the actual book, and somehow that physical copy made it real. Thank you to Routledge!
So in recognition of my two nice surprises this week, I want to point folks to some of my blog posts that might help them see why I find genre so fascinating. After all, I've been writing this thing weekly over two years now, and there's a lot of stuff to sort through over in the Previous Posts and Archives lists. And most people don't think of genre the way I (and others in my field) do--as the ways we get things done in the world, as expectations about how to act, not just what forms to use. As things that can show us ourselves and our communities.
After I'd hit my two years (plus some) anniversary last August, I wrote a post about how my blog came to be, and it references lots of the topics I write about and some of my favorite posts: How to Birth A Blog It would be a good one to start with, if you're interested.
An overview post explains how I see genre in two pictures. To play with a particular genre we use all the time, I wrote a series on how to make a good (and bad) apology. I still use the practical advice in that one to make my apologies meaningful. Teachers and students tell me they like the series I did on the syllabus as a genre. Turns out the syllabus reveals a lot about our roles and expectations.
On a more disheartening note, I've written about how genres, with their usual ways of getting things done, can make things seem normal that we could and should be challenging. One I wrote about was the normalizing of a Nazi sympathizer through a New York Times profile on him.
But the normal ways of doing things can vary, too. Recently, I wrote about how Aretha Franklin's funeral and John McCain's funeral were so different from one another, even as they were both recognizably funerals.
I hope you might have some time to browse around in the blog. I talk a lot about how Words Matter, too. Maybe as you browse, you'll find a nice surprise yourself, something that makes you laugh or think. If you do, I hope you'll let me know.
And my thanks again for two nice surprises this past week. May your week bring you your own nice surprise.
If you’re watching the news these days, you’d find it hard to miss reports of the “confirmation hearing” of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice. I watched “Dr.” Christine Blasey Ford “testify,” including “responding” to questions from the “prosecutor” hired by the Republicans. And I watched “Judge” Brett Kavanaugh “defend himself” by making “statements” and “attacking” Democrats.
As the quotation marks suggest, I’ve been trying to make sense of Thursday’s events through the strange mix of words and genres used by reporters and the Senate panel itself. Many very smart people have written about the events in terms of the “he said/she said” nature of sexual assault trials, and others have compared this hearing to the “interrogation” of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing.
Is it a hearing or a trial? Or something else?
It’s a hearing, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If we take the word literally, the Senate committee should have spent a lot of time listening, asking to hear what people have to say. News accounts reported that only 5 Senators were in the room to hear the testimony offered from a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The others didn’t hear Aalayah Eastmond.
Perhaps that lack of listening supports its being called a “confirmation” hearing by many accounts. Notice the presumption of confirmation in that label. Perhaps a man hears what he wants to hear to confirm and disregards the rest (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel).
Of course, words carry many meanings that are not literal, including the word “hearing.” As a genre, a hearing carries with it precedents and prior knowledge (hence the many comparisons to past confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees), procedures and conventions (hence the formality of people testifying in front of a panel, the polite references to “Dr. Ford” and “Judge Kavanaugh”), and ideologies (hence, unfortunately, the politicizing into Republicans versus Democrats, the turn-taking by party, questions becoming political statement-making, and each person testifying being treated differently by the different parties).
It’s a trial, according to the prosecutor
Most obviously, what made it seem more of a trial is that the Senate Republicans on the committee hired a “prosecutor” to do their questioning of Dr. Ford. Someone was on trial and needed to be prosecuted. Rachel Mitchell has been called a “sex crimes prosecutor” and a “sexual assault prosecutor.” Her official title was “chief of the Special Victims Division and deputy county attorney,” according to Fox News, but she is currently on leave.
She is always called a “prosecutor.” Her job has been to prosecute those who are accused of committing sexual assaults of various kinds. In this case, that would be Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, in this case, she was hired to question Christine Blasey Ford. If you listened to her part of the hearing, you could tell that she was hired to “prosecute” Ford, the alleged victim of the assault. Surely not Mitchell’s usual role. In fact, when it came time to question Kavanaugh, the accused, the Republicans took back their questioning role and cut out the prosecutor.
Who was the target of the “prosecutor”? Who was being prosecuted? Words matter.
It was also a trial in how Ford responded to the prosecutor’s questions. She answered all questions directly and succinctly, with relatively little elaboration and some fumbling efforts to check her records for accuracy before answering. Just the facts, ma’am (apologies to Sgt. Joe Friday and Dragnet).
Or maybe it’s a brawl, according to Kavanaugh’s attack mode
Not so for Kavanaugh’s testimony. No semblance of a trial, or even a hearing, with orderly questioning and deliberate and careful responses to questions. He made statements. He answered some questions and not others. He asked the questioners questions.
Many have pointed out the difference in how Kavanaugh and Ford responded to questions. They often attribute it to gender differences, claiming for Ford a timidity and desire to please while for Kavanaugh a brashness and aggressiveness not permitted to many women.
I would attribute it to genre differences as well. What genre did the two think they were acting within?
Unlike Ford, Kavanaugh chose to treat the event not as a trial, or even a hearing. It was not about the facts and only the facts, sir, as it seemed to be for Ford. Instead, he made it about a defense of his name (as most put it), and a fight, a battle. No careful answering of questions, checking his records. Instead, he spoke angrily, denied the accusation of ever assaulting anyone, and attacked his Democratic questioners.
Or maybe it’s all of the above
Kavanaugh and Ford were not interpreting the situation in the same way. They were acting in different genres, based on different assumptions and conventions.
And neither of them was acting as if this were a job interview. Nor was the prosecutor. Nor were the Senators, who either accused or stroked the two people testifying.
Although Senator Graham was speaking on Kavanaugh’s behalf at the time, his description may be the most accurate for both Ford and Kavenaugh: "This is hell."
In the end, I don’t think it came down to “he said/she said” because that assumes he and she are reporting their versions of the same events. I found Ford’s testimony credible, heartbreaking, enraging, and unnerving. I believe her.
Kavanaugh wasn’t asking me to believe his account of the same events. He wasn’t trying to convince me with the facts. He was asking me to take his side and defend him, not against Ford’s accusations but from the Democrats’ “sabotage” of his nomination. He wasn’t trying to offer evidence because he wasn’t testifying at a trial or hearing. He was in a fight. I still can’t tease out all the genres he was drawing on—or Ford, for that matter.
And I can’t discover all the genres the whole scenario was enacting—farce, circus, and sham have all been suggested.
How can you follow the rules when the rules keep changing?
I’m an optimist and believer in transparency, so I look for what might have rescued this fiasco. Greater clarity from the Senate Judiciary Committee about exactly what genre this “hearing” was going to be and what genre of “testimony” they wanted and what genre of “question” would be permitted. The rules change when the genre changes.
Such explicitness about a genre, such transparency in the rules, can help give access to a situation’s newcomers as well as pros. I'm not naive enough to think that that was the goal for many on the Senate committee. Many of the participants in this situation were insiders, had been here before, knew the unspoken rules and what strategies would be allowed or even effective. One person was a first-timer, a newcomer, a novice in this genre game.
As Ford said quietly to her lawyer in response to a questioner and the traps hidden in the question, “I don’t understand.”
I don’t understand either. But I know that the conflicting genres made this game one with even higher stakes than before—people’s lives, and the reason-based, apolitical justice system on which our democracy depends.