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Special Field Exam: Sample Questions

Literacy Studies: Writing in Communities and Workplaces - Teresa Bruckner

Questions/topics for fields:

1. How did you become interested in the questions of everyday literate practices?

2. Sorry, Desmond, only apes are naked: What are humans, anyway?

Since writing is a uniquely human activity, I reckon some view of what constitutes humans as unique is a good way to begin. Vygotsky might have been after this, or I read him thus: the humans that we recognize as human are cultural animals, even in terms of cognitive abilities. Any of the higher, that is, not shared with other animals, cognitive functions depend on mediational means. Language is the premier mediational means for humans. Vygotsky talked about the importance of humans being able to produce their own stimuli and then respond to them. Wertsch also comes up with a nifty definition of human activity, including cognitive activity, as necessarily making use of mediational artifacts: “individual-operating- with-mediational-means”. He also insists upon the materiality, the physical reality, of those mediational means. I think I like Latour’s definitions of humans the best because he has the largest collection of names for the same idea: collectives, imbroglios, hybrids, assemblages, articulations. He writes in Pandora’s Hope that “at every point one finds people and things mixed up” (97); we are never minds-in-a-vat. Others remind us that we are always also minds embodied. Since writing is always a visual mediational means, Gibson is useful here: when we describe a text as eye-catching, it finally occurred to me to ask, Where are those eyes and what are they doing that they need to be caught? As it turns out sometimes those eyes are in a body standing on the cereal aisle of the grocery store in sight of dozens of texts, each of which wants to catch those eyes. Gibson points this out: eyes are always in a head on a body on a surface. Haas takes up the idea that “writing can be understood as an embodied practice” (226), and argues that writing studies is, or should be, technology studies.

How does the view of humans as necessarily engaging with material artifacts extend the concerns of writing studies? what does this insistence on the presence of non-humans in human lives offer to writing researchers?

Since all frameworks or theories leave out something, what are the blind spots to this very materialistic view of humans? Could this view accommodate such factors as intention, will, emotion?

3. If writing is a tool, what kind of tool is it and what are the consequences of its use?

Taking the position that people and things are always mixed up, it seems reasonable to expect that the things--like texts--available to people are consequential, even if those consequences are not straightforward and predictable. Goody suggests that one of the consequences of writing is that it “tends to make explicit what was implicit in oral communication” (106). This explicitness changed the nature of religion, law and government and “is of fundamental importance for the development of what we think of as reasoning” (142). Bowman and Woolf see that there is a possibility for negotiating the risk of technological determinism without ignoring the role of writing in the ancient world altogether: “One does not have to believe in technological determinism, in other words, to believe that some innovations might make a difference or even that the difference made by particular innovations might not be completely unpredictable” (4). Eisenstein likewise suggests that printing had widespread, recognizable consequences in terms of the diffusion of knowledge--and sometimes of ignorance. Bolter sees that electronic text, especially hypertext will lead us to a new metaphor for mind and self: mind becomes “a pulsing network of ideas” (207) and self is intrinsically unstable. A more general idea about what writing can afford is presented by Latour’s notion of immutable mobiles which can be layered and recombined in centers of calculation such as scientific laboratories and government offices.

These researchers have suggested grand changes in culture and individual thinking because of writing, what might this suggest about any individual act of writing, including such mundane tasks as notes on a calendar?

How can writing researchers avoid textual determinism? is textual determinism sometimes the appropriate view to take?

What is the best way to account for the multiple complex antecedents to any one instance of literate practice? The short answer to the question posed above seems to be, “everything”; is there a way for people--like me--so thoroughly embedded in a writing- saturated world to de-naturalize writing and so see it afresh?

Here’s a question that begins to intrigue me more and more: why is it possible to be completely unaware of the history of an artifact or technological system and unaware of the network of factors involved in the creation and stabilization of that system and yet still be successful in engaging the system or using the artifact? Why, for example, can people be very successful writers without engaging in writing studies? What does writing studies add to the practice of writing?

4. What does writing mediate? Specifically, how do texts relate to genres and genres to activities?

Writing in general may well be one of the antecedents to sweeping changes in human society, but what of individual texts? Genre theory suggests that recognizably generic texts serve a dual function of establishing a situation and presenting participants with ways to deal with the situation. Miller’s definition of genre as social action in recurrent situations has been widely picked up by other researchers who explore the way texts become meaningful as part of ongoing activities. Miller writes that genre ”is a means by which we define a situation in space-time and understand the opportunities it holds” (in Freedman and Medway, p. 71). Because recurrence is always only partial, generic response is constantly changing, and Berkenkotter and Huckin include dynamism as one of the key features of genre. Other features of genres are their historical nature (Bazerman) and their interconnectedness with other genres and other activity systems (Russell, Berkenkotter). Genre theorists also agree that genre is one way that the social and the individual are dynamically mediated, as Witte writes about meaning-making: “[it] can be represented at a fundamental level as an interplay between the self and the other” (281).

Is it useful or important to see all writing as generic?

One concern that genre studies raises is that we might begin to see specific written texts as the only or the most important defining features of activities. What other artifacts, such as buildings, furniture, and the placement of bodies, help people define and respond to situations?

By focussing on the functions of texts, can genre theory help us--or me, anyway--to move away from asking about writing the kinds of questions we usually ask about art and music--what does it mean?--and move to asking the kinds of questions we usually ask about couches and ovens--what do people do with them?

5. Accounting 101: How to study complex human activity

It seems like one end of the research methods spectrum might be well represented by the ethnomethodological work of Garfinkel and his followers who produce exquisitely (excruciatingly?) detailed analyses of participants’ interactions and yet realize that “in no case is the investigation of practical actions undertaken in order that personnel might be able to recognize and describe what they are doing in the first place” (7); personnel find such investigations “uninteresting.” He seems to suggest that an outsider’s understanding of a practice is never as complete as the practitioners’ understanding: in order to understand what people are doing, you have to be like them. I think the task that ethnomethodological researchers set is extremely interesting and very difficult, and definitely requires the researcher to join the culture under study. At the other end of the spectrum seems to me to be the work of Kaufer and Carley whose goal is to arrive at a formal, mathematical, predictive model of communicative interactions without ever watching real live humans, relying instead on historical studies and communications theories. Hutchins and others who do what I or they would describe as technology studies seem to strike a comfortable balance between examining the history of an artifact and its use in real time by real people. Cognition in the Wild is a beautiful example of the study of a system of people and artifacts--”peopled things” is the memorable phrase Star uses to describe such a system (Ecologies, p. 20)--aboard a navy ship. Several pieces from the Bijker and Law collection also have an interesting mixture of historical study and observation, especially Akrich.

What research methodologies might best capture the complex interplay of people and things that make up literate activity? What might provide the most complete, or most interesting account?

Can historical study further our understanding of writing, or only real-time observation of living people? What can the methods of technology studies add to writing studies?

How can we best balance the outsider’s view of literate activities with members’ view? Since the researcher’s view and the participants’ view are necessarily different, to what uses can the researcher’s conclusions be put?

6. Walking that tightrope: Which came first, the chicken or ...?

There are pervasive tensions between technological determinism and unbridled freewill; between the subjective and the objective; between the social group and the individual; between novelty and understandability; between stability and innovation; between stasis and change; between what people can do with tools and what tools do to people. Everyone I’ve read deals with these tensions in some sense, so this might not point to a particular part of the reading list; but it does point to a conversation I’d like to have about the role of writing in human lives. Norman, borrowing from Gibson, talks about the tradeoffs between constraints and affordances; Bakhtin talks about words being owned by nobody and being the individual’s own words in producing an utterance; Wenger talks about the dynamic duality of participation and reification; Latour wants off the tightrope altogether in Pandora’s Hope by suggesting that it’s no good asking either/or questions in a both/and world.

What kind of distinction is to be made, then, between people and things in the study of literate practices?

Are words like “context” and “situation” useful in describing the collectives of people and things that surround the writer?

When we look at writers in some situation, how should we conceptualize the tensions between the social, technological, and stabilized and the individual, creative, and changing?

7. And when we’re not at schoolwork? Writing in everyday lives

There is relatively little research on everyday writing, much less than on workplace writing or school-based writing. For that matter, it is not clear how everyday writing or writing in the community is to be defined. The collections edited by Barton, Hamilton, Ivanic, by Moss, and the work of Cushman, and Brandt to some extent give some ideas about how people use writing in non-work and non-school settings. In their contribution to Writing in the Community, Barton and Padmore suggest that everyday writing serves three broad functions: “maintaining the household,” “maintaining communication” for social relations, and “personal writing” (74). The pieces in Moss’s collection pay special attention to the uses of everyday writing to maintain social relations, among, for example, Hmong immigrants (Weinstein-Shr), young African-American males (Mahiri), and Mexicans living in America (Farr). Maintaining social relations with those far distant also seems to have been the function of much letter-writing in pre-telecommunications America, according to Decker. Farr also points out that aside from strengthening social relations, “supportive human relationships are crucial in the learning process itself” (26). Much of the everyday writing these researchers studied was not learned at school, but was learned from interaction with those more experienced in the particular kind of writing that needed to be done. Cushman’s informants, for example, routinely shared tactics for negotiating such writing tasks as filling out forms for subsidized housing.

What do we mean by everyday writing or writing in the community? How might these types of writing intersect or overlap with workplace or school writing?

Instead of seeing everyday writing as out of the mainstream of literate practices, can we use it to further our understanding of writing in other areas of life?

These works raise the important question of what counts as writing that is study-able? More mundane kinds of writing might perhaps be overlooked because we either have a conception of writing as an institutionalized practice that excludes the everyday or because we think that we already have a complete understanding of such texts. What kinds of writing might these researchers still be missing? and what would be a good way to find out what kinds of writing people do in their non-work and non-school lives?

8. Giving the chimps a box: What are the potential values of studying forms, as one type of writing that bridges the everyday and the institutional?

The idea is that if you hang bananas out of reach in a chimpanzee’s enclosure and also place a box within sight of the bananas, the primate will use the box to reshape its activities and get the bananas. Boxes make certain activities possible, maybe certain ways of thinking. What did/do fill-in-the-blank forms make it easier for human primates to do? To think? To coordinate? To perceive? To establish social relations? Yates talks about forms as one kind of internal communication that was implemented as part of the rise of systematic management around the turn of the century. Hoskins argues that the modern fill-in-the-blank form owes its genesis to “the form of written, graded examination the we now know was developed around 1800” (528) and more specifically arose from the examination practices at West Point. Bowker and Berg point to the efficiency of medical records and forms as a way to “see at a glance” what has been done and needs to be done. Campbell-Kelly also sees forms as a means of efficiently processing information, and calls the Victorian Railroad clearinghouse a “hymn to the standard form” (in Bud-Frierman, p. 60). Munger writes about EMS forms as a reflection of the changes in the status of a professional community. Jones suggests that forms are one way the local and contingent are disembedded and made part of “an abstract bureaucratic system” (p. 73 in Situated Literacies).

How might research on form-filling and form-processing practices extend the interests of the field of writing studies?

Historically, what became possible when forms were one of the things people had available to them?

How might forms be seen as an interface, a boundary object perhaps, between various domains of practice?

How might forms be seen as a text that mediates the needs and practices of the group that produced it and the needs and practices of the people who fill them out?

9. Discuss the questions and methods you are considering for your dissertation research on forms and form filling practices in everyday and workplace writing. What are the practical challenges you see in pursuing this research? How do you see this research contributing to the field? How do you see it fitting into the future trajectory of your professional life?