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Multimodal Mondays: Visualizing Genres of Writing with GEMS

posted: 3.17.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s multimodal assignment comes to us from Michael Michaud, an associate professor at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI.

“As Carolyn Miller puts it, ‘a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of the discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish’ [151]. Function drives form, in other words” (Steven Lynn, Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction, p. 107)

The concept of genre as social-action is a new and exciting one for many students in writing classes. Having been introduced to this idea recently in an upper-level Intro to Composition Studies course, one student had this to say:

Most people claim they know what genre is and what different genres consist of but what Miller is pointing out is that genre is not what the typical person thinks. Genre is decided and defined based on what the writing is to accomplish. I think this is unique.

Goals

In composition courses, but especially in professional or workplace writing classes, I think we want students to learn about the ways in which genres emerge from and structure writing environments. We also, I think, want to help students see the ways in which genres interact with other genres to help individuals accomplish work. In the assignment I describe below, I work to help students accomplish both of these goals:

  1. to see genres not as static entities but, rather, as dynamic and changing structures, responsive to the exigencies of their environments
  2. to see the ways in which genres cooperate with other genres to get things done in composing environments.

Assignment

Genre ecology maps (GEMS) are a pedagogical practice that came to me from my colleague Sarah Read (DePaul University), who came to them via the work of Clay Spinuzzi and others in the field of professional/technical communication. The maps I’ll discuss in this post are a part of a larger research project that both Sarah and I assign in our multi-major workplace writing courses. Essentially, students conduct field research in local workplaces to learn about the professional journeys of their research participants, the ways in which their participants’ discourse communities function and interact with other such communities, and the ways in which genres of writing mediate work in their participants’ professional lives. We ask students to share their new genre learning both in writing and visually, via their GEMS, which serve as heuristics, helping students to think about the role of genres in organizations and the relationships between genres themselves.

Here is a list of some of the resources we ask students to read as they prepare for and carry out their research in our Writing-about-Writing (WAW) inspired course:

  • selections from Writing in the Real World (Beaufort, 1999)
  • selections from Becoming a Writing Researcher (Blakeslee & Fleischer, 2007)
  • “Observing Genres in Action” (Anthony Paré & Graham Smart, 1994).
  • “Modeling Genre Ecologies” (Spinuzzi, 2002)
  • “Writing for a Living: Literacy and the Knowledge Economy” (Brandt, 2005)

During interviews, students identify genres that are significant to their participants’ workplaces. They then begin the process of cataloguing these genres and thinking about how specific genre sets interact to help those who write them accomplish some task or activity. Before they get to work on their GEMs, I ask students to create a table in which they present some basic information about their genres. Here’s an example from a student whose research focused on the role of writing at a family services agency:

And here is the GEM that this student created to visualize both the process of composing these genres and the relationships between them:

Students use programs like Google Drawing (within Google Drive) or Microsoft PowerPoint to compose their GEMS. This work is both some of the most challenging and the most fun in that students are trying to find innovative ways to visualize original data that is unique to their research sites. There are, in short, no “right answers” in creating GEMS. Students must create GEMs that are both true to their research findings and visually effective. They draft, share, workshop and conference on their GEMs, trying to articulate to themselves, me, and their classmates why the GEMs “work” (or fail to). At the end of the term they “repurpose” their GEMs, transferring them into PowerPoint presentations that they then share and discuss during their research presentations.

Reflection

At the end of the term, I ask students to compose reflection letters to share what they have learned from the research process and to project out into the future–to imagine how what they’ve learned might be useful to them in some future writing context. The things they say in these letters focus on many aspects of the course and sometimes touch on the process of composing the GEMS. Students frequently comment on how surprised they were to learn that, among other things, research can be done with people, on writing, and can be shared both in writing and in forms that combine writing with other media. GEMs are, in sum, a terrific multimodal tool to help students think about the ways in which written genres facilitate action in contemporary organizations.

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