Monday 2 January 2012

Genre theory - continued

I'd like to pull together a few more thoughts on Genre Theory - in particular on the 'applied' side. First, to be clear - and I should have said this in the previous article - I was primarily talking about primary school practice. In crude terms, I think it's fair to say that with children under the age of 11 there are limits on the extent to which you can handle abstractions - in particular in relation to language. Whether it's with my own children or the children I've worked with, I can think of no quicker way to ensure they switch on the 'I'm bored' button than to try to engage them in 'metalanguage' - ie language about language, abstract conceptual thinking about what language does, what it can do etc. It's not impossible, just difficult!

So - to continue with the theory first. One of the bases on which Genre Theory sits is that there are 'genres'! 'Genre' is a word that anyone working in the world of arts and media criticism throws around all the time. I do. It's part of the conversation. Listen to someone like Mark Kermode talking about movies, he is essentially working his knowledge of genre: he talks about the film he's just seen in terms of other films of its kind - how it varies, how it's similar - and he often does that little gag about how 'it's a cross between "Toy Story" and "Gone With the Wind"', or some such. This is a shorthand, non-pompous way of talking genre. Incidentally, it's a way of talking that implies that interesting things happen when genres are mixed.

A close look at any list of genres that anyone is talking about at any given time and you can quickly see a) we use the word inconsistently and non-systematically b) the genres we have invented are not structures in nature, deduced empirically from investigation and experiment. What happens, say, in talk about Literature, people use 'genre' to describe the 'type' they're describing! So, I might for example talk about 'the picture book' as a genre but later in close examination of specific types of picture book, I might find myself talking about, say, a genre of picture book that has emerged where the text is a rhyming text. Whatever precision the word may have once had, we can say that now there isn't some neat order or classification mapped by its use. There aren't levels universally agreed where we can use the word 'genre' and higher or lower levels where we should use 'type' or 'form' or 'mode'. This is where literary, media and linguistic description is at. Each writer and researcher ends up using words like these in their own ways for their own purposes.

Part of the trick of Genre Theory was to do smoke-and-mirrors and sound so self-important and scientific that it revealed something about language and human interaction that we hadn't noticed before. It produced a system where we didn't even know there was a system. M.A.K.Halliday's writing is a bit like that. He produces new terms and classifications like rabbits out of a hat. A good deal of it demolishes some old, established terminology about language on the grounds that it's inadequate and inconsistent. At other times, it's because he has spotted, he claims, processes by which we try to make meaningful utterances that others didn't notice.

No harm in any of this. The problems arise in education if we a) treat these categories as if they are hard and fast descriptions of water-tight, 'discreet' categories and b) we teach to the category. So, the theory rests on the notion that we use language and language-forms (genres) for different purposes. When I talk or write about my leg hurting or what I felt like when I lost something, I am, it's claimed, engaged in a different genre of language from when I'm, let's say, talking or writing about Genre Theory (!). In the first I'm on about personal stuff (feelings) and in the other about abstract, conceptual stuff (ideas). The claims made by Genre Theorists - and it has to be taken seriously - is that many children are deprived of access to the kinds of language that the abstract, conceptual stuff is couched in, which in turn deprives them of access to power. What's more, it's teachers' fault that this happens. The language of power (its genres) haven't been taught or haven't been taught properly.

But let's look more closely at whether it's really true that we talk and write in genres as tightly demarcated as is claimed, or indeed as are now universally taught in primary schools. Here's a quick, much shortened version of a story that the Storytelling Laureate Taffy Thomas told us all on the day of his inauguration:

A long time ago, a mayor of a town is retiring and it falls to him to decide who will become the next mayor. He decides to set a test. He gives out sunflower seeds to anyone who wants to become mayor and the person who grows the biggest sunflower will become mayor. Six months later all the people who want to become mayor come back with their sunflowers. He walks down the line looking up at them all until he gets to a young girl who has a pot with what looks like nothing but earth in it. 'What about you?' says the mayor. 'Well,' says the girl, 'I planted the sunflower seed you gave me, but it didn't grow.' 'You will be the next mayor,' said the mayor, 'because, you see, I boiled all the sunflower seeds. None of them would have grown.'

Now what can we say 'generically' about this story? First of all I've done a 'recount'!  (The category of writing primary school children have to do when, say, they go somewhere or do something.) I've retold the story in my own words, much truncated - because I'm 'telling' it here and I've also written something I was told - which involved various kinds of transformations of what Taffy did and what I do when I tell it. In a good many schools, re-telling or re-writing stories for a purpose has become quite a low-status activity, if not overlooked altogether.  Secondly, what genre was the story? 'Story'? 'Folk-story'? 'Not true story'? Or more specifically, was I broadly in the language of feeling or ideas? Stories, surely, don't operate at the level of ideas.


This, to my mind, is the key battleground. What Genre Theory has done is relegate story down the league table of important language use. It misunderstands the fact that human beings have invented story ('narrative',if you like) as a means by which we can bind feelings and ideas together. We do that by attaching  feelings and ideas to beings we can understand and/or sympathise with. In the story I've just told, feelings (to do with, say, wanting to succeed) swirl around with ideas about, say, hierarchy, worth, fairness, honesty.

In schools, we can do 'units' on such things, keeping the feelings separate from the ideas. (Note to secondary school teachers - the curriculum does this anyway by separating out aspects of the world into 'subjects' in which only certain kinds of discourse are permitted.) What you can do with story - as any preacher or politician has known for as long as preachers and politicians have existed - is combine modes of discourse. What we can do in schools is unpick those. So, back with that story, most of us could tell that story, most of us could set up all kinds of interesting role-plays, discussions, drama work, art work which would tease out for that particular group of children many different kinds of meanings and thought. (It's a very short story, but the principle can remain the same whether you're talking about a short story, a novel, a play, a film, a TV programme. One of the best pieces of school work I ever saw in a primary school took Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' as a 'whole school text' and did these sorts of things with it. And 'The Tempest' is a play which does very much intertwine feelings and ideas about, say, who should have the right to rule over others, why and how and what should you do if you don't like being ruled that way.)

Back with Taffy's story, we might imagine that at the end of some activities, a set of little plays, speeches, letters, newspaper articles, new rules for this town etc etc could be produced by a group of children from a very young age. We wouldn't have to sit down and tediously teach this or that genre. Of course, particularly with the older children (eg Years 5 and 6) we might want to make some of this explicit. We might want to give activities names. We might want to look at, say, a newspaper and see how it's divided up according to purpose - different kinds of stories on different pages; parts of the newspaper for 'opinion', parts for 'ideas' and so on.

The advantage of proceeding through narrative is that it has the potential to engage, to be participatory, to encourage imitation and adaptation, to be a means by which we can hold concepts and ideas in our head. It's highly flexible enabling us to freeze frame at any given moment so that we can investigate what people might 'feel' and/or might 'think/reason'. We can write, talk, act, 'recount' in many kinds of form: letters, articles, lists, speeches, poems, notes as part of our response to narratives. And of course we can talk and discuss these different ways of writing. Perhaps they are 'genres' doing different jobs. Are they? Do they? How?

And - this is crucial when it comes to what Genre Theory calls 'power' - we can ask, who will own and control the production and 'uttering' of these pieces of writing, talking, acting, recounting, letters, articles, lists, speeches, poems, notes etc? Bizarrely, Genre Theory doesn't ever seem to address this. To my mind, it's the most crucial part of 'linguistic production' (ie writing and talking). Schools have traditionally been places which ask children to produce a good deal of writing and talk but do very little to enable the children to own and control it. No matter what you're saying or how you're saying it, if you don't own or control the means of where and when you're saying it, to my mind you're being excluded from the discourse of power!

How does a child get a sense that using language (talking or writing) is something that they are entitled to do?

 I would say that it's when a) they make real choices about what to say and how to say it b) they have many chances for these 'utterances' (pieces of talk and writing) to get an audience (through performance and 'publishing' in the form of booklets, wall displays, school website publication, school bulletins, blogs etc) c) the chances to determine new areas for talk and writing whether that be subject matter or content.

Most of the Genre Theory work I've seen in primary schools does the opposite of all this. It involves lack of choice and keeps absolute power locked up in the pages of the worksheets, and prescriptions of what to write and how - the 'plans', the 'outlines' and 'structures' that the children are told to follow. In other words, at the very point at which the children are supposedly being 'liberated' (that's the theory), ie taken to a higher stage of linguistic competence, and a higher stage of thought (engaging with the discourse of power), they are in fact simply following laid-down formulae.

Part of the problem that lies behind all this is about who has the right to investigate language! For reasons embedded deep in the history of linguistics, we tend to give away our rights to investigate and describe language to the priesthood of linguists and their representatives. Give a grammarian two minutes with a group of fairly educated people and he or she can silence the room in moments simply by telling us that this or that thing we just said was an 'x' or a 'y' linguistically. It's a kind of modern magic.

In schools, I see language constantly being broken up and named 'verb', 'metaphor', 'recount' etc. But what if we took the attitude that language can be investigated like any other phenomenon - snails, mountains, blood or whatever?  What if we do what sociolinguists do, say, and collect data on how people in a school (at all levels) use language? And then have discussions about why that might be? What if we look at things like newspapers or comics and see if we can come up with categories for how language is being used differently from one part to another. Is the part where you're asked to subscribe to the comic different from where Roger the Dodger speaks? Why? How?