Redefining sources as social acts: genre theory in information literacy instruction.

Author:Burkholder, Joel M.


While the concept of the rhetorical situation is regularly used in composition instruction, its value to information literacy instruction has rarely been addressed. As defined by Bitzer, the rhetorical situation consists of three interrelated elements: an exigence, an audience and a set of constraints. The exigence is the problem, described as "an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be." An audience is the group "to be constrained in decision and action" by the introduction of some discourse. The set of constraints is "made up of persons, events, objects and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence." (1968, p. 6). In addressing a given rhetorical situation, a writer must consider each of these elements to effectively communicate a message, since each element influences the appropriate response. I suggest that this rhetorical situation is of critical importance to the researcher, as well. In describing the constraints of the situation more thoroughly, Bitzer suggests that understanding the relevant "beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives and the like" are essential in motivating audiences into action (1968, p. 8).

In Information Literacy as a Liberal Art, Shapiro and Hughes argue that being information literate implies a responsibility to active citizenship, using information "to be intelligent shapers of the information society rather than its pawns" (1996). The skills of information literacy are not limited to the world of scholarship; they are essential for all citizens in a democratic society. Information-literate individuals must consciously identify situations and the possible means of dealing with them. This process is more complicated than simply locating and evaluating relevant and credible resources. It requires a meta-awareness of how the selection of appropriate resources aids in the formulation of proper responses to any situation. In teaching the research process, librarians have tendency to overlook the selection of sources as a matter of rhetorical choice. However, Hendricks and Quinn assert that students are usually unaware of how citations are chosen "to persuade readers of their argument and to give their statements greater authority" and "to supply evidence and demonstrate that writers are familiar with the field" (2000, p. 451). It is unfortunate that to date little research has been conducted which investigates how students utilize their sources rhetorically (Petric, 2007). More effort has been devoted to simply counting the number and type for sources appearing in student bibliographies (Davis, 2002; Hovde, 2000).

When selecting sources, students may be lazy, opting for the path of least resistance by choosing Web sites over journal articles. Before we settle too quickly on this single conclusion, we might also consider that students are confused--or worse--unaware of the rhetorical implications of their choices. Several individuals in the library literature have commented on how students tend to view all sources as equivalent in type and/or quality (Hall, 2001; Brabazon, 2006). More information literacy instruction is the obvious response to improve students' source differentiation. However, I suggest that there is a fundamental flaw inherent in that response. That flaw involves what we currently define as sources.

As part of the information literacy initiative, librarians teach students how to develop a critical awareness of the sources used in their research. Unfortunately, we seem to ignore this particular advice in our current definition of sources. What are sources ? We speak of them quite often, instructing students how to locate sources, evaluate sources, select sources, and use sources. We use the term unquestioningly, as if its definition was obvious and its utility proven. But what exactly are they? As a term, it is a generic classification that encompasses an impossibly broad range of material; encompassing countless information types, and formats. There is little indication of the varying quality and content a student may discover. By meaning so much, it means very little. The term describes an idealized version of reality and cannot account for the overwhelming complexity of the information environment; nor can it possibly illuminate the rhetorical nature of sources.

For reasons that appear to be born out of convenience and expedience, most attempts to define sources do so by describing aspects of their physical natures. Due to our increasingly digital environment, these kinds of definitions are becoming much more difficult to defend. First, students engaging in the actual research process encounter an overwhelming number and variety of sources; not everything can be easily identified as a specific information type or format, let alone classified as such. In his criticism of format-focused instruction, Swanson asserts, "a single article may exist on a Web site, in print, or a subscription database" (2007, p.327). Clearly identifying a source presents practical challenges in the process of research. The larger problem with definitions that focus on sources as mere objects is that they neglect their significance as communicative acts.

Sources--from personal blogs to television news stories to scientific journal articles-are different, because they address different rhetorical situations. To perform as recognizable examples of a particular type of source, writers must make appropriate rhetorical choices that suit the purposes and the audiences they are addressing. Traditional definitions identify particular features of a source after it has already been created. They cannot adequately explain why the community--or context--that produces the text influences the choice of, and provides meaning to, the formal choices that are used in its construction. Moreover, traditional definitions cannot fully describe the ideological components of sources. A community's choice of a particular form sets and reinforces expectations in the readers of its communicative acts. Without understanding the expectations of the context, readers may have difficulty in forming responses that are appropriate to the situation. To address these issues, a more dynamic and robust definition of sources is needed.

Modern genre theory may provide us an answer by bridging the gap between what a form really is and what it is actually designed to do. In this theory, genre is no longer solely about the traditional classes of literary texts or other forms of art. It is about how people use language to accomplish specific tasks.

Genre Theory

In her essay "Genre as Social Action," Carolyn Miller defined genres as "typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations" (1984, p. 159). These actions are language based and conducted for specific purposes. Their full meaning is contextually dependent and can only be understood by looking at the "situation" and the "social context in which that situation arose" (Miller, 1984, p.163). As described by Miller, these situations are "social occurrences," not the "material configuration of objects, events and people" (1984, p. 152). The key element for genre formation is reoccurrence. Within discourse communities (e.g. scientists, journalists or gossip columnists), certain situations (e.g. the need to report on scientific findings, breaking news or celebrity gossip) reoccur with some regularity, demanding some kind of typified response. These typifications (e.g. the scientific method, the inverted pyramid, anonymous sources) are chosen for their consistent ability to address the situation. As more members of the community adopt these responses, formal conventions develop that place constraints on who can contribute, what they can contribute, when they can contribute and how they can contribute. These are not formulaic responses. Acculturated "[g]enre users can choose among obligatory moves--those aspects of a genre that are essential to others' identification of it as a genre--and optional moves--those aspects of a genre that are more flexible" (Dean, 2008, p. 14). As social responses, genres are situation and context specific, different communities will use different language, and therefore different genres, to fulfill different purposes in addressing the similar situations (Devitt, 2004). If we define our genres as "acts" that are socially constructed, it becomes possible to understand them as "a collection of communicative events,'" that share a "set of communicative purposes" within discourse communities (Swales, 1990, p. 46). Selecting appropriate sources must become a matter of understanding various purposes and not strictly matching needs to arbitrary content types or forms.

Genre theory offers us the potential to transform our understanding of sources. But while we are changing our definition of sources, we must also change our understanding of genres. Many...

To continue reading