Friday, June 29, 2012


Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design (Acting with Technology). The MIT Press (2003).
I’ll start with Spinuzzi’s framework – computer-mediated work. More succinctly, he is framing his research methodology (genre tracing) and claims with acts of technology-mediated work, not limited to computer-based technology. The application of Spinuzzi’s study to the practice of technical communication is obvious. So much of what the practitioner does is mediated by technology…

Spinuzzi draws on genre theory and activity theory to identify official and unofficial genres and to trace their development and transformation through an organizational system. He uses genre as a unit of analysis for studying how innovations are made and evolve in response to recurrent problems, tasks, and challenges in the workplace. He positions this method of analysis as an alternative to user-centered design analysis as a means of forefronting innovations “as organic and necessary ways that workers adapt information to support their own endeavors.” Ultimately, Spinuzzi is providing a method for evaluating and guiding information design.

At a practical level (and wow, does Spinuzzi talk about levels and scope), I see Spinuzzi making a case for requiring technical and professional communication courses across the curriculum. Symbolic-analytic workers are not waiting for professionally trained technical communicators and information designers to come along and solve their problems (which Spinuzzi describes as the worker-as-victim narrative). Rather, symbolic-analytic workers are creating innovative solutions using the tools and means available to them. They are performing work traditionally reserved for the technical communicator, documentation specialist, instructional designer, information designer, etc. What Spinuzzi is illustrating is the decentralized decision making environments in which workers develop unique and often personal solutions to recurrent work problems.

Artifacts (instruments, tools, etc.) regulate and transform the way workers perform tasks. In some cases, mediating artifacts qualitatively change the entire activity in which they are used – in which workers engage. I like this claim because it aligns with the more tangible definition of genre I was looking for after working through Miller and Bazzerman. But here is also the point that Spinuzzi deviates from earlier attempts to define genre as tools – as typifications. He argues that Miller, Bazzerman, and Russell do not account for the deeper socio-cultural qualities of genres. Spinuzzi draws from Bahktin when he states, “Genres are not discrete artifacts, but traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts – traditions that make their way into the artifacts as a form shaping ideology” (41).

While I don’t think earlier attempts to define genre can be recast that easily, I do appreciate how Spinuzzi stretches genre as a sort of “social memory”. Genres embody a “galaxy of assumptions, strategies, and ideological orientations that the individual speaker may not recognize. [A genre] represents others’ thinking out of problems, whose dialogue has been preserved in the genre” (43). This definition and differentiation is necessary for Spinuzzi to frame his research methodology – genre tracing – and the methods it employs.
Specific to my purposes and my mapping efforts, Spinuzzi’s treatment and definition of genre helps solidify the relationship of genre theory to rhetorical theory, activity theory and technical communication practices – practices served by Technical Communication’s core pedagogies (around which rhetorical theory and activity theory are clustered). And while Spinuzzi provides the researcher with a useful methodology, he doesn’t move the study of genre theory any closer to the Tech Comm core. In fact, he illustrates how difficult it would be teach genre as he defines it; in such a way as to address genre’s socio-cultural characteristics – of introducing the idea of genre ecologies and demonstrating all of the “interconnected and dynamic sets of genres that jointly mediate activities” (63).

I move again to the practical level. I find ready application of Spinuzzi’s (and Zachary’s) treatment of open-systems design to technical documentation activities. In such systems, writers and information designers “recognize and design for workers’ tendency to adapt artifacts… This awareness of compound mediation leads us to explore design approaches that make it possible for workers to consensually modify the system’s genres and add their own genres to the system” (204).

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