Genres, Furoshiki and Staffordshire Oatcakes
Today was the Thinking Through Genre workshop where people interested in using genre as a pedagogical resource (in all sorts of different disciplines). Before this gets buried on my to-do-list, I’ll write it up now (though I’m a bit tired, so forgive me if not everything makes sense…)
We started the day with making our own name tags and reflecting on the purposes of a name tag – it is a nice icebreaking activity that changes the energy of the ‘registration’ period at (academic) events, allowing informal networking, getting delegates to start playing (thus telling their brains that they might need to switch gear from normal day-to-day stuff) as well as producing something fun that might even show the personality of the wearer.
And then I continued to question and play with conference/workshop conventions by handing out delegate packs not contained by the standard cloth bag (possibly with some university branding), but instead specially designed furoshiki. Let me explain… furoshiki are usually square pieces of cloth that in Japanese tradition are used to wrap things. There are different ways to tie them in order to contain differently shaped objects (for example there is a really neat way to tie up a bottle). When I started thinking about organising an event based around the idea of genre and regenring, I thought that a furoshiki would be such a fabulous artefact to embody the idea of regenring: it can be a bag or sorts, but you can also use it as a scarf, a headband or even tea towel (I guess that depends on what material it is made out of). You can also use it as a kind of poster (I’ve always really liked the idea of printing academic posters on fabric, as this makes them so much easier to transport to conferences). But, as soon as you use it in one function, it usually loses the special aspects of the others. So if you tie it to use as a bag, you are not able to see the full design of the poster, but if you see the full design, you can’t tie it up.
So a few weeks back I set out to design a furoshiki to give to our delegates. And in order to put something meaningful on them, I raided the writings of Fiona English, our main speaker of the day, trying to see whether I could visualise her theoretical framework of regenring in a square, scarf-like way. Luckily she has a convenient table summarising the framework, where she talks about two different orientations – the material and the social – each with two different main aspects (thematic/semiotic and contextual/discursive). This was the basis for my design, and on this I also included some of the particular things to look out for as part of the analysis. I framed this with my take on genre – capital Gs in different fonts represent the idea of genre – the same content presented in different forms. The centre of the design has a ‘huddle’ of these Gs, representing the potential of the choice of form. The outside of the design has a band of these different Gs going around it, but this time one by one. In the corners, two different Gs intersect and on two corners the overlap is highlighted with the use of a colour, showing the content that would be covered in both these genres; the other two corners highlight their differences – what part of the content would be gained when deciding on one genre, and lost when deciding on the other. Gains and Losses are important when it comes to discussing genre, so I wanted to include that. (And this might all make more sense when you are familiar with Fiona’s work on regenring.)
I have to admit that I was a bit nervous if people would understand what I was trying to say with this, but people really liked them, so this was a great start to the day and a good way to introduce Fiona’s session on Practice, Knowledge-Making and Writing. She started out by defining genre in slightly more detail than I had done at the very start. My favourite bit of her definition was that “Genre is a naming concept which identifies the shape or framing of a text”. I think the term ‘naming concept’ is really helpful, and will definitely use this in future when I get blank stares when trying to explain what I mean by ‘genre’. She also said that “we choose genres according to the kinds of meanings and knowledge that we want to produce”, which again I think is a really clear way of getting to the heart of the matter. And when it comes to analysing genre (and possibly also genre choices we make), the most important questions we need to ask are “who is writing and WHY?” and “Who is reading and WHY?” Fiona discussed four different examples, covering appropriateness of genre, genre and the everyday, genre and knowledge (and how regenring – transforming one genre into another – can be used to produce more and different knowledge), as well as genre and choice. There was a lively discussion happening (we weren’t a big group, so we could be really interactive), and my personal favourite was the discussion of how (academic) conventions can be used to disguise nonsense, something that often happens in work of students who are not familiar enough with a particular academic genre and are trying to mimic it.
For lunch and our after lunch activity our venue became important: we were meeting at Middleport Pottery in Longport, so I had ordered Staffordshire Oatcakes for lunch – which were a big hit with the delegates – and then I had arranged for a short factory tour. (No point in coming to such a fabulous venue and then ignoring what is special about it, i.e. that it is still a working factory.) Phil, the fabulous volunteer, gave us an overview of the organisation of the buildings, and then showed us the highlights, including particularly the underglaze decoration process which makes Burleighware so special, ending up in the last bottlekiln of the site. And really the tour was part of the programme, because it then gave us the chance to think about different genre removed from texts – ways of communicating content through experiences and different ways of teaching.
We looked at a board game of Middleport Pottery and compared it with the tour – and also speculated on how both of these are different from the experience of working there, discussing gains and losses of genre again.
After this I shared the process of putting together Writing Essays by Pictures (you can find more details here) and reflected on how the starting point for this had been the collision of my work and my hobby of making books that pushed this forward. This was really an example of thinking through genre, as it was the formats of booklets, children’s books and then workbooks that helped me develop the final outcome.
We ended the day with delegates reflecting on how they would take this forward. Looking at the feedback there will be a lot of thinking, but also some application of new knowledge as soon as tomorrow. And as a workshop organiser, what more could you possibly want?
A Special Thank You to Richard Mellor, who took my furoshiki sketch and turned it into a print-ready design!
Many thanks for an engaging workshop that really brushed away the cobwebs hanging around the more creative parts of my brain. Just getting back to work today I felt like a better and more engaged tutor. I need to write up my notes while they are fresh and I’ll keep you informed with how I try to apply the alternative approaches we discussed.
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