Monday, January 10, 2011

On genre ecologies

            I found the articles below while I was looking for sources about an ecological approach to second language writing last semester. Even though Spinuzzi’s work is not about second language writing, I thought his methodology and framework might prove useful. As you may have guessed, I found the term  genre ecologies VERY appealing and Spinuzzi's work quite stimulating. (See his blog)

            Here are my reflections (or more accurately stream of consciousness) on Spinuzzi's 2003 chapter in Bazerman and Russell. I'm afraid what I write here makes sense only for those people who read the chapter. Sorry about that but there is so little time and so many things to write and share that I do not want to stop for summarizing sources (or editing my posts. Sorry about that too). Instead what I want to do is to write just enough to make you curious and then maybe you will read the sources yourself. Perhaps then we can discuss them and other sources they remind us.
            Anyway, here it goes. For Spinuzzi, the term  compound mediation is used for “the ways that people habitually  coordinate sets of artifacts to mediate or carry out their activities” (p. 98) and he gives several examples in this chapter. I wonder how close compound mediation is to Goodwin’s term, semiotic field, as the instantiation of semiotic resources in a given time and place. I see a family resemblance but I may be seeing connections that do not exist. It seems like Spinuzzi focuses more on coordinating artifacts rather than including linguistics and nonverbal resources like Goodwin does. However, both Goodwin and Spinuzzi seem to highlight coordination in their framework. I do not know. What do you think?
            Spinuzzi acknowledges that his framework is influenced by Devitt, Bazerman, Hutchins, and states that the distinguishing feature of genre ecologies framework is its “focus on contingency, decentralization, and stability (Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000) as these dynamic ecologies gain, adapt, and discard genres” (p.  99). I would like to read more about these frameworks in the future. The second part of the statement about dynamic ecologies emerging, ever changing, and dying reminded me of Complexity Theory. I do not have the book with me now so I cannot be sure but as far as I remember Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s take on genre was quite similar to Spinuzzi’s.  They see genre as a temporary equilibrium or stability.

           I found the figure that is based on activity theory (p. 100) quite interesting. Compared to sociocognitive approach, which takes mind, body, and world as its unit of analysis, this framework explains what goes on in the world by listing its components: artifacts, collaborators, objectives, division of labor, community, and domain knowledge. It sounds pretty analytical to me and I like more ecological approaches. I am curious about what you think of activity theory and how it relates to sociocognitive approach in second language acquisition studies.
            Spinuzzi’s study gives me some ideas about how I can approach genre ecologies. In this study, Spinuzzi explores how developers accomplish a specific task, that is, finding codes to be used in their work and tries to find out how they bring together different resources depending on the way developers interpret their situation. I think he makes a good argument for how interpretation of developers guides their decisions. The results of the study are also very interesting and I like how Spinuzzi complicates the activity theory framework on page 105. I think the figure he uses is a good way to formalize his framework. On the other hand, one might question if the components of this framework should be the tools or it should include other affordances, such as the ones listed in Figure 2. I would be more interested in how genres and people interact and change each other rather than how genres interact with each other. That might be a personal preference. This aside, I very much liked the first full paragraph on page 106.
             At all three sites, the elements of the activity system (Figure 2) were substantially the same. The artifacts, for the most part, were materially the same, available across all sites, and organized in generally the same ways. The object of the activity (the code) was more or less the same—in fact, much of it was shared among sites (communities), the domain of knowledge (including the unwritten rules, habits, and practices governing artifacts) was sometimes quite different. Consequently, developers sometimes perceived artifact types or genres as having different uses, possibilities, and levels of importance at different sites. These genres were constrained by the characteristics of the genre and the code, as well as the historical development of practices and the interrelationships of genres at the various sites. (p. 106)
            The two examples Spinuzzi gives to explain how different artifacts are interpreted and made use of in different sites are very explanatory. It seems like grep and comments mean different things in different sites and consequently afford different things for different developers (This reminded me of Gibson’s understanding of affordances where what an object affords is a function of the perceiver. It cannot be told a priori). I also liked the fact that the findings suggest that perception is context dependent. In   other words, we do not see some things if the frame we choose undermines that thing. Sometimes some things do not occur to us and sometimes they just do. When we see or when we do not see is an interesting question. How do we know what things afford us? Another issue I found interesting is how Spinuzzi’s framework suggests that it is not just about how genres influence people and how people interpret them but it is also important what people do to genres. On page 112, Spinuzzi writes, “furthermore, these developers at Site Charlie avoided maintaining and producing multiline comments, ensuring that future developers at this site would continue not to use such comments to comprehend or produce code.” This example demonstrates that the decisions we make based on our interpretations are influential. People do make a difference by either conforming to existing rules, or resisting them whether they know it or not. We reproduce ourselves, our interpretations, and our decisions. Our experiences find their way to other practices, other people as exemplars, sometimes in abstract forms, such as rules about what to do and what not to do, and sometimes in more material forms such as the example given in the article--by not maintaining a practice and consequently starving a practice to death ^_^. Just as interesting is the example given about the preference of developers using formal definitions and examples. I wish Spinuzzi gave more information about when and for what purposes developers used these different strategies. Spinuzzi observed, “developers preferred to learn vocabulary from the code’s many narratives rather than from the dictionary definitions supplied in the libraries” (p. 114). I find this quite stimulating. It would be wonderful to find an explanation for this. It seems like there is a trade off between efficiency of the system and the speed with which people have to work. Thinking about it, it is not just that if people had all the time in the world they would do the most efficient thing for the system to be perfect. I think people simply do not work that way. It is boring to do the same thing again and again. Moreover, it is possible that we are in a rush, or we are not in a good mood at that moment and even though we know what the right thing to do is we just do what we feel like doing taking our chances. Decisions are not made once and for all either. For example, let’s say we know that this specific thing is the right thing to do, say looking at the comments to understand the code, but we can just easily copy and paste the code and see if it works. Since the objective for humans--with the exception of perfectionists, that is ^_^-- is not perfection of the system but to get things done, there is no reason to do things perfectly. As long at it works it is good enough. I believe any design, be it aircraft or software, that does not take into account what humans are like is  doomed to fail.  Humans are not about perfection and it is a waste of time to train people to be perfect. It might be possible to design things for humans with all their weaknesses and strengths. We need machines for humans not humans for machines. Perfect humans for machines could only be a good idea for a sci-fi book or movie. This makes me think maybe computer modeling as a research method--one I have to say I am not a fan of--is not such a bad idea after all. If we can develop good ones we can teach machines to understand us. Personally I am not interested in this line of research but I can understand why people might want to do this.  
          On a more philosophical note, maybe what we desire more than anything else is not to understand ourselves, what it means to be human, or to find the meaning of life, maybe all we want is to be understood. If there is no one to understand us--after all for many people neither our cruel Gods nor our poor self-absorbed conspecifics make us feel understood, forgiven, or accepted--then who knows maybe we will create machines that would and live happily ever after ^_^. Anyway, below are Spinuzzi's other articles I've read and enjoyed. Hope you enjoy them too. I definitely want to read more of his work.

            Spinuzzi, C. (2002). Modeling genre ecologies. Proceedings of the 20th Annual International Conference on Computer Documentation, 200-207.

            Abstract: The genre ecology framework is an analytical framework for studying how people use multiple artifacts--such as documentation, interfaces, and annotations--to mediate their work activities. Unlike other analytical frameworks, the genre ecology framework has been developed particularly for technical communication research, particularly in its emphasis on interpretation, contingency, and stability. Although this framework shows much promise, it is more of a heuristic than a formal modeling tool; it helps researchers to pull together impressions, similar to contextual design's work models, but it has not been implemented as formally as distributed cognition's functional systems. In this paper, I move toward a formal modeling of genre ecologies. First, I describe the preliminary results of an observational study of seven workers in two different functional teams of a medium-sized telecommunications company (a subset of a larger, 89-worker study). I use these preliminary results to develop a model of genres used by these two teams, how those genres interconnect to co-mediate the workers' activities, and the breakdowns that the workers encounter as genres travel across the boundaries of the two teams. I conclude by (a) describing how formal models of genre ecologies can help in planning and designing computer documentation and (b) discussing how these models can be further developed.
            Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Compound mediation in software development: Using genre ecologies to study textual artifacts. In C. Bazerman & D. R. Russell (Eds.). Writing selves/writing societies: Research from activity perspectives (pp. 97-124). Retrieved Jan 10, 2011 from 

            Spinuzzi, C. and Zachry, M. (2000). Genre ecologies: An open-system approach to understanding and constructing documentation. Journal of Computer Documentation, 24(3):169-181.

            Abstract: Arguing that current approaches to understanding and constructing computer documentation are based on the flawed assumption that documentation works as a closed system, the authors present an alternative way of thinking about the texts that make computer technologies usable for people. Using two historical case studies, the authors describe how a genre ecologies framework provides new insights into the complex ways that people use texts to make sense of computer technologies. The framework is designed to help researchers and documentors  account for contingency, decentralization, and stability in the multiple texts the people use while working with computers. The authors conclude by proposing three heuristic tools to support the work of technical communicators engaged in developing documentation today.  

            Clay Spinuzzi, Four ways to investigate assemblages of texts: genre sets, systems, repertoires, and ecologies, Proceedings of the 22nd annual international conference on design of communication: The engineering of quality documentation, October 10-13, 2004, Memphis, Tennesse, USA [doi>10.1145/1026533.1026560]

            Abstract: Genre theories agree that genres work together in assemblages. But what is the nature of these assemblages? In this paper I describe four frameworks that have been used to describe assemblages of genres: genre sets, genre systems, genre repertoires, and genre ecologies. At first glance, they seem to be interchangeable, but there are definite and sometimes quite deep differences among them. I compare and contrast these frameworks and suggest when each might be most useful.  
            Fleckenstein, K. S., Spinuzzi, C., Rickly, R. J., & Papper, C. C. (2008). The importance of harmony: An ecological metaphor for writing research. College Composition and Communication 60(1), 388-419.

            Abstract: This essay argues for the value of an ecological metaphor in conceptualizing, designing, and enacting research in writing studies. Such a metaphor conceives of activities, actors, situations, and phenomena as interdependent, diverse, and fused through feedback. This ecological orientation invites composition scholars to research rhetorically: to devise and argue for a systematic account of reality in ways that others find persuasive, useful, and widely applicable while remaining sensitive to the incompleteness and the distortions of  single account.

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