Composition Forum 31, Spring 2015
“The Fact That I Could Write About It Made Me Think It Was Real”: An Interview with Carolyn R. Miller
Abstract: In this interview, Carolyn Miller describes the origins and struggle to bring to publication her now-landmark article Genre as Social Action (1984) and its subsequent uptake as a powerful explanatory construct across many disciplines. Readers will also find an account of the fall—and subsequent resurrection—of interest in genre in rhetorical and communication studies as well as thoughts on a research agenda for new scholars in genre studies.
Dylan B. Dryer (DBD): A lot of important articles were published in the first half of the 1980s and Genre as Social Action is certainly among the most significant. I’d like to try to reconstruct the kairos of the early 1980s for rhetorical studies. According to the article’s capsule bio, it came from your dissertation, directed by S. Michael Halloran at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]. I thought we might start with the eclectic sourcing of the article, which has –
Carolyn R. Miller (CRM): -- but before we get to that, what you call “the kairos of the early 1980s for rhetorical studies” certainly wasn’t anything I was aware of at the time. When I was looking for doctoral programs in the early and mid ‘70s, I had no idea of the field of rhetoric. I was teaching in an English department, primarily technical writing. I’d done a masters degree in English and American literature in the late 60s, and knew I didn’t want to get a literature degree, but also knew I had to get some kind of Ph.D. But there wasn’t any Carnegie Mellon or Purdue or Penn State; there weren’t any of the rhetoric and composition programs that have become so powerful. And I was really unaware of the whole field of speech communication. I was a teacher of writing, so I didn’t really look in that direction. I ended up at RPI, which at that point, as far as I could tell, was the only program in the country that could prepare me to do what I wanted to do. It did have “rhetoric” in the title of the degree program [Communication & Rhetoric] but it had only one junior faculty member in the area, Michael Halloran.
When I got there in the summer of ’76, he’d just returned from a summer conference on form and genre, which had been organized by Karlyn Campbell and Kathleen Jamieson at the University of Kansas, and eventuated in a publication through the Speech Communication Association in ‘78. [Form]. Thus, what I knew of rhetoric after I got to RPI in 1976 was really through the tradition of speech communication. We read some Burke; we read some I.A. Richards, Richard Weaver, Bitzer, Black, Perelman, Toulmin, James Kinneavy. I didn’t take any classical rhetoric; I only did that later. So that was what rhetorical studies looked like to me in the late ‘70s as I was finishing my degree program. And I was not aware that anyone else in English departments was interested.
DBD: That then might have something to do with the eclectic sourcing?
CRM: Yes! [laughs] To get to the sourcing then, much of it certainly was from my time in graduate school. The RPI program was quite eclectic; it had some literary scholars, cultural studies scholars, a couple of people in technical communication, Halloran in rhetoric, and a communication theorist named Lynda Rummel, who had recently come from her doctoral work at SUNY Buffalo. She taught a two-semester communication theory course that was required of all graduate students. She had had some kind of wonderful fellowship in her doctoral work that gave her a couple of years to just read. So she had read everything. She was an incredible resource, and that was how action theory, sociology, and phenomenology got into that article. And then from Halloran, the rhetorical theory and criticism. Before I got to RPI, I’d taken a course in linguistics at Duke and a philosophy of language course at UNC Chapel Hill, which transferred into my doctoral program. So that’s where I got the speech-act theory. And possibly the Halliday. And then some of it came from my immersion in the traditional English department where I was teaching.
DBD: The propositional quality of the title has always interested me: genre as social action. It’s not an is, so the implication there is that there is work to be done. It’s a construct to consider. Can you say a little more about who you saw yourself as pushing back on, or the climate more generally you felt you were responding to?
CRM: Well, really, the climate was created by the rhetorical theorists and critics I cited in the first couple of pages. I felt that they weren’t adopting a truly rhetorical approach to genre. And I was also pushing back a bit against composition theorists in the modes tradition, which I had become convinced by that point was a particularly arhetorical and unproductive approach to understanding discourse and the teaching of discourse. So that motivated my attempted refutations of Kinneavy and Brooks and Warren, whom I used as stand-ins for that textbook tradition.
DBD: Could you say a little more about the orthodoxy of the modes at that time?
CRM: It seemed, as I recall, to pervade all of the textbooks; if you were going to do any kind of classification of discourse you had the modes—the four rhetorical horsemen of the apocalypse [laughs] I think Bob Connors called them: description, exposition, narrative, and argument [Rise]. That was the way of organizing textbooks, and it was a completely situationless, audienceless, approach to writing. Very much in line with what Richard Young called current-traditional rhetoric. I think it’s a conception of genre that’s indigenous to English studies because of the static, objectified quality of words on the page. But the idea of rhetoric as action is not indigenous to English studies, and to some extent that’s what I was trying to urge on people in English—and in effect trying to say to the rhetoricians in Speech Communication—you know: “Be true to your origins!” You think you’re rhetoricians, but your concept of genre isn’t particularly rhetorical, either. [laughs]
You know, as I look back on this now, and my review of the file that I have of the submission and revision process, my whole effort strikes me as pretty brash. And very characteristic of the junior scholar who doesn’t really understand the import of some of the wild claims she may be making.
DBD: Before we get into that, was there something about the scholarly culture or conditions in rhetoric at the time that would have contributed to that attenuated version of “genre”? Or just bleedover from lit studies?
CRM: I don’t think it really had much to do with literary studies. The attenuation was also native to rhetorical theory and criticism back in the early 80s, when neo-Aristotelianism was still very powerful, a kind of ghost haunting the field. It had dominated the field from the early 20s into the 60s and had become a fairly formulaic descriptive exercise in fitting public address into Aristotelian categories including the Athenian genres: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Neo-Aristotelianism came under strong challenge in 1965 with Edwin Black’s book Rhetorical Criticism [see Miller This].
Black argued that the emphasis on single speeches by single speakers prevented attention to what he called “congregations of discourse” [laughs] which is an interesting term, that is, those that are similar with respect to the situations in which they occur, the strategies they employ, and the effects they have on audiences over time. Campbell & Jamieson picked up on that strand in Black’s thought and pushed it even further in that collection of essays in ‘78. But of course like most work in Speech Communication, the work that they sponsored was focused on political oratory. So I was trying to push that line of work a little, beyond political oratory into some other areas that I was more familiar with, but that I thought would fit just as well.
I think my dissertation made that point much more strongly than the article itself does—that I was trying to continue and extend Black and Campbell & Jamieson. And I just realized this morning that maybe part of the resistance I got from the reviewers was due to my failure to position it within the literature in a way that made more sense to these critics. So now, in light of what I’ve learned from John Swales, I realize that I should have tried to “create a research space” by “continuing a tradition” rather than by “creating a gap.” And I think that that is a safer stance to take for an unknown junior person. That’s a little insight that this interview brought me to.
DBD: Yes, that makes sense. Was there also possibly in there somewhere a resistance to the kinds of texts you were proposing we take seriously?
CRM: Probably. I don’t remember hearing that explicitly in the reviewers’ reports. But there’s a place on page 155 where I can see myself trying to justify theoretical attention to the kinds of genres that I had been concerned with as a technical writing teacher: “such homely discourse as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the white paper”—well, maybe not the ransom note!—and I contrast this immediately with the kinds of genres addressed by scholars in communication studies: “as well as the eulogy, the apologia, the inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon” [Miller Social].
DBD: Perhaps we could look at the title from the other angle: is the “as” an “is” at this point? Are there situations or occasions in which genre is not or not always social action?
CRM: I guess I’m reluctant to use an “is” there because … how to put this … it’s a matter of what you’re trying to do that determines what kind of description is going to be helpful to you. So for example, if you compare Cathy Schryer’s definition, genre as “regulated improvisational strategies”—that’s a very different description and I don’t think it’s any more true or less true than seeing genre as social action; it simply allows you to do different things. It depends on the kind of inquiry you’re pursuing and the kind of question you’re asking.
Maybe I’m reluctant to engage in definitional moves and want to say instead, ‘well, we can use this description or that description on different occasions.’ I’ve gotten a little more nervous about making pronouncements of the type that I was willing to make 30 years ago when I didn’t know any better.
DBD: Wow, so that last bit really went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I was beginning to think that you were saying that the brashness was not a matter of overreach, but now it seems …
CRM: Well, I think there’s probably some stuff in there that’s not fully supported, and certainly the reviewers pushed me on that a good deal. And look at this statement on page 154, where I claim to be offering a way to “promote critical agreement and theoretical clarity”! Really! Think about all the disagreements and theoretical differences we’re still having. That was pretty naïve and pretty, well, brash.
Another way of coming at the “as” question is that I think not all classifications of discourse have to be rhetorical classifications. For example, if you’re trying to catalogue the content of the internet or a publisher’s inventory, you’re trying to classify discourse. But I’m not sure that seeing genre as social action is going to be all that helpful to you. But if you’re interested in the socio-cognitive import and in the relations between intention and effect, then it seems to me that we’re in the world of rhetoric. That’s where this approach is more useful.
DBD: So as we’re thinking about this brashness, then, if I can just birddog this for one more turn, the rhetorical construction of this young scholar; you said that you’d had a chance to look back at some of the reviewers’ comments. What were they responding to in their critiques?
CRM: Well, I can give you a kind of history of the whole process, including some excerpts, which might perhaps get to some of the brashness point. But indulge me for a minute if I start a bit further back than that. What I hadn’t remembered before I went back to my file was that I first submitted the essay in June 1982. I received in September two readers’ reports and editor’s notes recommending revision. The title at that time was A Pragmatic Theory of Rhetorical Genres, and the essay was derived from chapters 2 and 3 of my 1980 dissertation. Here’s what one of the reviewers said: “the essay is so long that length alone argues against publication.” [laughter] “40 pages? Perhaps the fact that it grew out of your dissertation explains its style and its tone.” Boy, haven’t we all heard that? “I keep losing track of your line of argument. Why the diversion to rebut Bitzer? What led you to select the theorists from outside our field that are treated?”
DBD: I love that “our.”
CRM: Well, this is QJS! There’s a very strong of who “we” are. And I wasn’t there; I wasn’t really a member. Let’s see: “Why not cut out everything between the introduction and the final 6 or so pages that doesn’t directly and clearly lead to these claims?” Well, yeah. [laughs] “Second problem: too many claims are grounded in mere assertion.” The other reviewer said that this paper “seriously misconstrues both Burke and Bitzer on the nature and function of situation. Perhaps most importantly, if the paper’s main concern is with action, and a generic criticism is the best pathway for examining action, then where is the sense of purpose and judgment about means and ends from an ethical viewpoint? How can you discuss action otherwise?” and I never really did address that, but it is an issue that has been brought up subsequently.
Of course, I wasn’t claiming that genre was the best way to examine action, but rather the converse: that action was the best way to examine genre. But the ethical dimension was something I wasn’t prepared to deal with. The editor suggested that I should come up with a different title because the term “pragmatic” raised difficulties. I cut 10 pages, retitled it, resubmitted it, and by August 22nd—this is pretty good turnaround—it was returned with two readers’ reports and a copy of the essay marked up by the editor … with a request for revision [laughs].
All of this is on paper, mind you; there is no email, right? We’re putting pieces of paper into the US mail. So the editor says, “The key problems are whether you have accurately represented the positions of several writers including myself [laughs], whether all those you refer to add to your argument and whether you aren’t responsible for coming up with a more useful conclusion.,” One of the two readers thought the essay was ready to go almost without revision, saying, “I congratulate you. This is a fine piece of work.” The other reader, among other things, did not like my use of Alfred Schutz, suggested that I drop the sections on literary genres, drop the Halliday paragraphs, and said the exigence section was “irrelevant to genre and you need evidence and examples. But I do think the essay has great potential.” [laughs]
DBD: Well, that was prescient.
CRM: On October 3rd I sent a revision, and then there was another round of reviews by two new reviewers and a conversation with the editor at the SCA convention in November. [Note: From 1970 to 1996, the National Communication Association (NCA) was called the Speech Communication Association (SCA).] By this point I have four reviews from four different people (plus the two under the other editor the previous year). One of the reviews opens this way: “This kind of paper is difficult to evaluate. It offers no data, no case analysis, no clear set of issues and concepts … I damn near voted to reject your paper for the above reasons. Yet there is a good deal here that is worthwhile,” including “the sensible observations on exigence as social knowledge [and] the way you draw together so many different theoretical strands.” This reader also liked my use of Schutz. The other is a very brief, handwritten note indicating interest in the use of semiotics but finding my critique of other research to be “problematic.”
So in late November I sent another revision, and on December 19th it was accepted for the May issue, but there was further negotiation about details of expression and the specifics of my discussion of the prior research through the galley proof stage. And I will say that some of those exchanges got kind of testy. I had been a professional copyeditor for several years and I think I got a bit possessive about my own sense of appropriate expression; for example, at more than one point I cited the Chicago Style Manual and a usage guide in defense of my preferences. So as I say, I had a little more chutzpah than I have now, and probably more than I would advise other junior scholars to have.
DBD: I think readers will be astonished that you see yourself as having less chutzpah now than then. Maybe, as you say, it was an infelicitous selection of move, but it seems incredible that you’d construct yourself as more cautious now than then.
CRM: Well, I think everyone gets more conservative as they age, you know; that’s a kind of natural progression. The older you get, the better you understand how things work. And you get more cautious and cagey, simply because you understand what’s going on better. So brashness has a lot to do with sheer ignorance [laughs].
And I understand better now, in part because your questioning has brought me to think about this in ways I haven’t before, why the reviewers would have been so resistant, both in terms of a prior investment that they would have in a way of thinking and in terms of a tradition in which that way of thinking had seemed productive. So that’s why I think ‘continuing a tradition’ would have been a more strategic way to position myself. I also understand more now about the operation of academic disciplines. Having been a journal editor for four years helps a lot with that, as well as over the last 30 years just watching the fields of rhetorical studies, technical communication, rhetoric and composition develop and interact over that time. That’s shown me something about the ways of intellectual change—how slow it can be and how circular it can seem and how my attempt at intervention could have been seen as impertinent. I just could not have seen that at the time.
DBD: But if the result is this article …
CRM: But you never know that! [laughter] You can never know that at the time. In part I felt bolstered by the one very positive review, and this reviewer, Karlyn Campbell, had identified herself to me, as she had heard me deliver an early version at a conference. You know, I was a little annoyed that the editor put a lot more weight on the negative reviews that he got than he did on her review. He sort of said, “one of them is positive and the other has some questions,” and then never proceeded to refer to her review ever again. So one of the things I did learn right off the bat in my scholarly career is that you can negotiate with an editor; you can push back, and that when you get a series of reviews—one of the notes that I made to myself in the revision process is that “at least one person liked everything in the essay at one point”—but you can’t please everybody at one time. So it really is a negotiation and a matter of making some choices.
DBD: So after going back through that exchange—is it possible to situate those critiques and/or the reluctance (or intransigence) of the reviewers in a historical way or in a moment in the field, where as exemplars of the field, they weren’t seeing (weren’t able to see) the construct you were articulating? That there was something larger going on in that reluctance to accept what you were doing?
CRM: Part of it was that I was citing material that really was not, in Foucault’s expression, “dans le vrai,” wasn’t part of the conversation that was going on in the pages of QJS, and I was trying to bring in corroborating positions that would in effect broaden the application and the conception of genre as it had been used. And there was some resistance to that. And I think that’s perfectly comprehensible resistance. Why do we need this? What are these external perspectives really bringing to the table? And to some extent they weren’t bringing a whole lot for rhetorical criticism as it was going on at the time. They didn’t really need it.
DBD: So it was on the grounds of superfluity? Not a threat.
CRM: Yes, I would put it that way. It was more on the order of “I don’t get it. What’s the point?” And also, as I said, a pretty strong sense of who “we” are, who’s in this particular conversation.
DBD: Genre as Social Action has been the most cited article in QJS for a very long time, and Google Scholar can instantly find more than 2000 citations from all over the place, so let’s maybe move beyond that moment and start thinking about 30 years of uptake of that article. Why do you think it caught on?
CRM: Well the first thing I should say is that it didn’t catch on [laughs] in communication studies. For example, I think it has been cited very rarely in QJS itself. If at first I was a little puzzled by how little uptake there was within the community I thought I was addressing, part of the reason was that the whole interest in genre in that community really peaked in the early 80s. Back in 1980 there was a special issue of Western Journal of Communication on rhetorical criticism—they do this about every 10 years—in which genre was a featured concept, but in 1990, when the next special issue was published, genre was nowhere to be found in it.
I think that’s a kind of diagnostic of what happened to genre in that decade. There was a volume on political genres in 1986 edited by Herb Simons, and after that I think it just collapsed. Campbell and Jamieson published on the genres of the presidency, but went on to other things [Deeds]. So the people I thought I was talking to just lost interest. And the other way that I have developed of explaining to myself that lack of interest compared to the growth of interest in composition studies is that in communication studies the prototype rhetor is the president, the accomplished, expert leader who we understand primarily as one-of-a-kind, so what is generic about that kind of speaker is not as interesting as what is excellent.
The prototype rhetor in composition studies, by contrast, is the first-year college student. That’s very different from the president, and I think it’s that difference that explains the differential interest in genre in those two fields. Genre has been interesting and useful in composition studies because it can help explain how a novice can become a member of the community and do the kinds of things that a community defines itself by.
What was surprising to me about the uptake was the people in applied linguistics. I had just never heard of them [laughs], and Aviva Freedman’s invitation to me to attend the 1992 conference in Ottawa and the re-publication that came out of that in 1994—you know that just came totally out of the blue. I met John Swales there for the first time and some other people in Canada who’d come out of that applied linguistics tradition and it was surprising and gratifying that they had found my piece and made some sense out of it. And the interest in composition and professional and technical writing came subsequent to that, so it percolated into English departments indirectly. The sheer quantity of citations has certainly been gratifying, and the diversity of disciplinary locations: business and technical communication, information science, health communication, literary and cultural studies, and of course applied linguistics and composition studies. I’m especially gratified by the fact that it’s been re-published twice, once in the Ottawa book and once in Landmark Essays in Contemporary Rhetoric, edited by Tom Farrell of Northwestern in Communication Studies, and that was really the first suggestion for me that anyone in Comm Studies had noticed [laughs].
DBD: You seem to still be wanting that.
CRM: Yes, I think I do. But it kind of baffled me at the time. This is a paranoid way of putting it, but why did rhetorical theory and criticism turn away from genre right after my article was published? [laughs]
DBD: [laughs] That distinction you make between the president and the first-year student is so productive. So you encountered a certain way thinking that was neither prepared nor particularly equipped to deal with texts that don’t already have certain cultural capital.
CRM: Right, and not really interested. That’s just not what we do! Why would you want to look at the incompetents! [laughs] When genre is used at all, it functions as a background presumption, rather than a critical focus. Autobiography, for example, or the presidential inaugural, which is a very common example, classical and biblical forms, the sermon—these tend to be points of departure, not points of arrival. They’re presumptions, not matters of exploration or inquiry.
One possible reason for the turn away from genre in the late 80s is the incursion of postmodernist theory into rhetoric at about that time, with critiques of the ideology of agency that some saw as promoted by speaker-centered criticism. And an increasing sense of the fragmentation of the textual object. We’re not looking at whole speeches that can be identified as “belonging” to a genre, we’re treating discourse as pastiche, and genre as traditionally understood had a hard time dealing with fragmentation.
There was a debate in the 80s and 90s about critical method and two approaches developed: textual criticism and ideological criticism. Textual criticism was kind of a reaction to the trends that Black’s work had instigated, a literary close reading of exemplary texts, looking for the ways in which arrangement and style created a dynamic aesthetic experience. That was very different from the ideological critics who came to call their work “Critical Rhetoric.” They continued Black’s work, but with a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion, rather than the normalizing approach that genres promote. So rhetorical criticism went in two different directions, neither of which had very much use for genre.
DBD: So we had to work our way back to Genre as Social Action; the postmodern critique had to run its course and then we were ready?
CRM: The people who took it up were in different intellectual places. The few literary and cultural studies scholars who have taken up rhetorical genre studies have found useful ways to accommodate the postmodern critique. And rhetorical studies has diversified. The applied linguists, the people in professional writing, and composition eventually, were either not dealing with postmodern thinking, or that was all over by the time they got to it.
DBD: Yeah, and all those folks are dealing with immediate and pressing pragmatic issues.
CRM: Exactly. The pedagogical imperative and the socialization of the novice are very strong in all those areas and that’s what made genre useful.
DBD: One of the things that your article really did for most of us who came to your work via Amy Devitt—or I should say “for me”—are the ethical dimensions of genre use and habituation. So when you were describing the prototypical rhetor for Composition as being the first-year student, one of the things that genre as “social action” showed us was what might be some of the costs to that rhetor by entering that community.
CRM: That’s interesting, but it is work that you and others have done since 1984, not something that I really grappled with. You know, one of my earliest fans was Chuck Bazerman. We met at CCCC in 1979 in Minneapolis, and as Chuck has a way of doing, he cornered me [laughs] into a long, very intense conversation. This was before I was even finished with the dissertation. And as he recounts in his [forthcoming] paper for the Genre 2012 volume, he was really pressing me on this notion that I was still working on, my combining of the rhetorical tradition with the phenomenological concept of typified action. In other words, he thought that Schutz was the key to what I was saying, and that it helped him to see, in his words, “how social processes could produce patterns of textual practices.” I think it helped him to make the connection between the static text and the social context. And I think his work had a lot to do with disseminating my article to others in the kinds of communities he was addressing.
One of the things about the article’s uptake that has been disappointing is my own lack of uptake. I didn’t really do much with genre [laughter] after that, partly because I was thinking of myself as a rhetorician of science and I was really preoccupied with doing that kind of work, and since nobody else was talking about genre in the first 10 years or so after it was published, I went on to other things.
DBD: Yeah, it was blogs that brought you back, wasn’t it?
CRM: Yes, I went to that 1992 conference [in Ottawa], so I had a short piece in that 1994 volume on rhetorical community as connected to genre, but that was 10 years later. And then 10 years after that, in 2004, I did the first blog piece. So every ten years [laughter] I come back to the topic. But I didn’t see the potential in it that others came to see, and most of the really interesting intellectual development that’s gone on and the application has been done by other people. So when I got the invitation from Laura Gurak to contribute to that blogosphere collection, [Blogging] I’m not sure what gave me the idea, “hey, maybe genre can explain something about blogs, because there sure is a lot about blogs that I just don’t understand.” And I roped Dawn Shepherd—at the time she was a master’s student—into helping me figure this out.
And that got me back into it, that’s what helped me see how interesting issues of genre had become, given the context of the new media. And then I got the invitation to go to Brazil in 2007 and teach a short course on genre studies and I said, “whoa, people in Brazil are reading this? I didn’t know that!” so that made me understand how international the interest in genre had become—Norway, Italy, Brazil, Australia. So I pretty much dropped all the rhetoric of science stuff I’d been working on, some of it right in the middle, and jumped right back into genre.
A couple more things about uptake: one thing that’s been really frustrating to me has been the uptake of genre into activity theory.
CRM: Partly because I think that activity theory is not at all rhetorical—it treats genre as a tool or an instrument, as a means rather than an action that’s its own end. I haven’t had a whole lot of patience for that, but then I have to remember that not all descriptions of genre have to be rhetorical. And if some folks find activity theory useful, well fine; I just think it’s not the same kind of thing. And I think there has been at least one mistaken uptake by a few people: the idea of social action is sometimes understood as the consequence of action and not the action itself. This is I think from people who tend to be text oriented, who have a hard time seeing rhetoric as action itself. My model was really from speech-act theory, seeing genre’s action as the illocutionary act itself, that is, the action in the saying, rather than the perlocutionary effect, the consequence or possible consequences of the speech act. And I don’t know if I could have been clearer about that somewhere in the article itself.
DBD: Yes, I think that genre as action itself is exceptionally and perhaps even prohibitively difficult to keep consistently in mind. Our everyday rhetorical constructions of language prevent us from being truly consistent on that point. We can accept it if we think about it that genres have no ontological existence, but let your guard down for a second and it’s right there!
CRM: [laughs] yeah, right. Well, you know, language does that to us. It is the way we talk about it.
DBD: So you started to edge into this a little bit and I’m very interested to know if you could have any piece of the article back, if you could have another go at a paragraph, for example …
CRM: [laughs] There are two things I would fix right away, and that’s that there are a couple of errors in the originally published version. I got a quotation from Burke wrong, and the second line of the first paragraph has the wrong word in it.—at the end of the first line, the word “criticism” should be “theory.” Because I was trying to draw a contrast between what criticism was doing and what theory was doing, or really, not doing.
DBD: Well I have to say I’ve never noticed. “Rhetorical criticism has not provided firm guidance on the construction …” well, no it hasn’t! [laughter]
CRM: That was supposed to be the contrast. Rhetorical criticism has provided these claims, but theory hasn’t followed up on it. And the mistaken quotation is on page 158 on the bottom of the second full paragraph. “As Burke put it, motives are shorthand terms for situations.” I got that completely backwards. Embarrassing. But beyond those errors, the part of the essay that I’m least happy with is the whole section on hierarchical theories of meaning and the two figures, which nobody else understands.
CRM: I never understand other people’s figures either [laughter], I was just trying to map out the congruencies in what I was trying to say and what other recent scholars in speech communication were saying. I just thought that was intriguing and possibly corroborative. But I’m still not sure whether there really can be the kind of continuum that I’m showing there between the speech-act approaches there on the bottom and the Wittgensteinian approaches at the top. I mean I just don’t know if that holds water and I don’t really know how anyone would establish whether it does or it doesn’t. I do think it’s useful to think of genre as a kind of mid-level structurational concept that does connect these large-scale sociological/institutional frameworks with the individual rhetorical actions and speech actions that we make.
CRM: I think I was seeing genres as kind of containing units, rather than invitations or imprints, and that’s an aspect of my article that I might revise at this point. That said, I'm not so interested now in making critical or theoretical claims about what is or is not a genre, but more in understanding what members of a rhetorical community take to be the genres by which they constitute and understand themselves—and why.
DBD: There are places in the article, though, that—to come at this from the other direction—that are deathless. That last paragraph, I go back to that at least twice a year. There had to have been moments, though the testiness of those exchanges with those reviewers may have diminished it, in the drafting where you thought you were really onto something. It must have been transporting.
CRM: No, it just felt like hard work. [laughs] I didn’t go back through and count up the number of times I had to revise it, but I revised it a lot. I learned a lot from the pressure that I was getting from the editor and the reviewers. But I guess I was confident enough that I had something that I was willing to keep pushing at it and I was willing to be as brash as I was with what I thought I had. All I can say is that I had this intuition that there was something here, and maybe this is the experience of every writer: the fact that I could write about it made me think it was real.
DBD: so what seem like the most pressing unsolved problems for the next 30 years of Genre as Social Action?
CRM: I can tell you what I’m interested in going forward. The relationship between genre and medium is very intriguing, not very well understood, and pressing in the sense that the new media require us to attend to the question of medium, including the question of old media, which we’ve ignored because it was invisible to us until we had some alternatives. The whole issue of genre change—the tension between stability and innovation, genres as fundamentally stabilized at least to some extent, but at the same time allowing for change. How does this happen? Does it happen in different ways at different times in different genres in different media? I think there’s lots of intriguing empirical examples to look at. Whether we could come up with a grand theory of change, I sort of doubt, but I think we need to understand it better.
DBD: You doubt that because?
CRM: I’m skeptical of generalizations at that level, partially because genre does such different work in different realms of experience. So if you look at genres of film, the processes of change have got to be different than processes of change in public address or academic and professional writing. The constraints are different, the media are different, literally the producers are different, and the relationships among producers and audiences are different when you have consumers of entertainment versus audiences within bureaucracies: choices and motivations are going to be different. I don’t know if there’s a way to generalize all those processes of change.
And along those lines, the third future trend I would point to would be the multidisciplinariness of genre and the way in which it has functioned importantly and productively across many disciplines applying to many different kinds of symbolic phenomena. Can we talk to each other productively?
DBD: That’s an ambitious research agenda.
CRM: Well, I’m not going to do it all [laughs]—there are lots of others interested in these same issues, but I’ve got a few irons still in the fire!
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, eds. Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action. Falls Church, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1978.
---. 1990. Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. [Republished as Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. 2008. Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.]
Connors, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse. College Composition and Communication 32.4 (1981): 444-455.
Devitt, Amy J. Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept. College Composition and Communication 44.4 (1993): 573-586.
Farrell, Thomas B., ed. Landmark Essays on Contemporary Rhetoric. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.
Freedman, Aviva, and Peter Medway, eds. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Edited by A. Luke, Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994.
Miller, Carolyn R. Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167.
---. This is Not an Essay. College Composition and Communication 47.2 (1996): 284-288.
Miller, Carolyn R. and Dawn Shepherd. Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog. Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community and the Culture of Weblogs. Eds. Laura Gurak, Similjana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, ClancyRatliff, and Jessica Reyman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Libraries (2004): <http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogging_as_social_action.html>.
Simons, Herbert W., and Aram A. Aghazarian, eds. 1986. Form, Genre, and the Study of Political Discourse. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Swales, John M. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge UP, 1990.
An Interview with Carolyn R. Miller from Composition Forum 31 (Spring 2015)
Online at: http://compositionforum.com/issue/31/carolyn-miller-interview.php
© Copyright 2015 Dylan B. Dryer.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.
Return to Composition Forum 31 table of contents.