Tom Deans (Haverford, Director of College Writing)
Writing Across Contexts: Audience and Genre
Prepared by Wil Franklin
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
Given Tom's topic, I (a scientist) rather than Anne Dalke (a humanist) will report on the latest Brown Bag discussion. To be successful, I will have to navigate the very same terrain that Tom mapped out for us in his presentation. After a brief review of the classical and mostly absorbed discipline of rhetoric, he walked us through five kinds of knowledge that writers access to varying degrees when engaged in the process of exposition. Is this the correct literary use of the word, exposition? One type of knowledge a writer must access is the subject knowledge, i.e. using vocabulary correctly, but more importantly grounding the writing in the proper context.
Another knowledge set is that of rhetoric: "the ability to analyze audience, formal textual features, style, structure and kinds of evidence valued." This skill set is what most people think of when referring to a first year writing course in college. Much of what is taught in these types of courses was developed by literary faculty trying to teach at a time when classical rhetoric was vanishing from curriculums. For the first time those who belonged to a particular discourse community were thinking about what general skills were useful and could be applied across disciplines.
A discourse community or "active system" plays subtle, but important roles in several other categories of knowledge that writers tap into. A subset of the discourse community, say colleagues within a particular academic discipline, act as editors and collaborators of a written work. And thus, there is no single writer producing work in a vacuum....(thanks to Anne Dalke my ghost writer or discourse community advisor).
Knowledge of the "process" within a discourse community is also very helpful when writing in a new field. For example the path a written work takes in science, from field or lab notes, through collaborators with the research lab, to collaborators in other labs, to editors and finally publication is different than the production of corporate documents, literary works or news media.
Knowledge of the discourse community will also help a writer to understand "genre knowledge." This is a matter of tone, style and content; topics and or style that are pertinent, desirable and even fashionable for writing within that subject. A written work could be a complete and accurate account of the subject, a perfect work of syntax, and rhetorically persuasive, but lacking the "genre" style and affectations of the discourse community the composition could be rejected for publication or flop in minds of the target audience. (You will let me know how I did in the forum, yes?) This reminds me of writing my first wine related articles for Cuizine Magazine. I wasn't a scientist writing in a void, I had worked, read, and conversed about wine for years. And both the teachers and students picked up on Tom's suggestion that motivation by the writer, where ever she may find it, is paramount to becoming a good writer. A personal attachment and drive is what it takes to explore new subjects, new discourse communities. To uncover the more subtle "process" knowledge and "genre" knowledge takes dedication in time and effort. And it was here, in the realization that knowing your audience is only a small part of successful writing that the discussion ended. It seems a successful piece of work has less to do with being an adept wordsmith and more to do with possessing the motivation to investigate an entire community and, to be really successful, to join it.
Further discussion of such questions (as well as commentary on this summary) is invited to continue in the on-line forum. The semester's series will continue next Friday, March 4, when Al Dorof (Public Affairs), Dorothy Wright (Science & Technology Newsletter - science journalist), and Ruth Guyer (Haverford, General Studies - science journalist) will speak about "Bridging the Two Cultures: Communicating Science to the Media."