Current Writing Theory: Genres
In the current theory put forth by Gee and his colleagues, the design of writing is based on a form called genre. These genres are acceptable formats created by a discourse community which help to represent the communication structure, values, and knowledge contained within a discourse community.
Gee advocates teaching the genres, especially to those that are outside of the mainstream discourse communities (cultural minorities, those in the lower classes, marginalized groups within a society). This allows those outside of the mainstream to access the skills they will need to communicate within the mainstream. Since the genres are tied to the culture of the mainstream, it is also necessary to teach the genres in the context of the cultural values and discourse rules for that culture. Once those outside of the culture, understand the culture and are part of the mainstream discourse community, they can begin to change and influence the culture to include more features of the minority community. However, without this knowledge of the mainstream genres, those excluded from the mainstream will remain outside of it.
At the base of this theory is the culture, which influences genres (a reflection of the discourse within the community) and design of writing.
Critical Pedagogy is similar in recognizing the power of writing and literacy to the access and change of power structures within cultures. However, there are some differences in approach.
Freire advocated the teaching of literacy as a way to access the power structures within a culture. According to Freire, literacy helped to open up the underpinnings of a culture and social system, thus empowering those who were oppressed to change the culture and society.
Like genre theory, critical pedagogy begins with the culture. Writing allows access to the culture and discourse communities, but then critical pedagogy advocates the negotiation of meaning. Writing is a tool for that negotiation and access to understanding. Accessible written formats are imposed by those in power to suppress those outside of the power structure. So to understand how the power structure works and change culture, it is important to learn to write and use this tool to make changes to the culture. Design of writing, again, will come out of the culture and discourse communities.
Process approach to writing
Flower and Hayes studies identified the importance of the process in writing. While the format might be established, it was important for children to learn what was behind the format. In other words, the design of writing was based on a process that inserts information into a standard form. The focus would not be on the finished product or even the form, but rather the process of creating the finished product. Design of the writing would be design of the process. The process would be culturally bound, with the negotiation of meaning as students go through the writing process.
Extending this into the work place, the process approach would focus on HOW collaborative writing would take place, rather than what the form will look like. However, it is assumed that the format will not be as important as the process of writing. In fact, by putting process before form, it is assumed that the format will be assumed and agreed upon in the beginning.
A new way of looking at writing
So, what would happen if design came first? One impact that technology has had on writing is that it does not necessarily have to conform to a strict standardized format. Also, there is much greater written dialogue between and within discourse communities. In the past, discourse communities would be more isolated, and as a result, their formats would have less outside influences. Mainstream discourse communities would be heavily influenced by schooling, organizational cultures, and/or mass media. However, today, electronic tools allow people to belong to multiple discourse communities and for each community to continually change at a much faster pace than they did previous.
If we look at design as placement of writing rather than categories of writing, then how would that impact collaborative workplace writing? Buchanan (1992) describes placement of design as:
“Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception of that situation and, hence, a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances (p. 13).”
The implications of this is that there might be more flexibility in the design of writing which could lead to more creativity and knowledge creation in the workplace. However, it could also mean more impact on the organizational culture.
With the advent of new technology, and greater access to diverse discourse communities, starting with the "design" of writing could also be threatening to the organizational culture, group members, and workplace processes. I think of the current complaints, for example, from the media, "experts", and the general population about the "poor writing skills" of the current generation of university students. However, is it perhaps a difference in discourse? Values reflected in the forms and formats chosen to be used in a given context? Or a threat to the power structures by engaging in discourse communities outside of the status quo?
Although it is outside of the scope of my current dissertation, I think it is important to look at what the potential for new designs that technology has generated has impacted or will impact culture. One way to look at this is to look at how other writing technologies (i.e. printing press, typewriter, ball point pen, pencils) have changed the design (placement) of writing in the past and the impact this had on culture, formats/genres, and power structures/discourse communities.
More importantly, my current dissertation is leading me into a new way to envision collaborative writing from past writing research. If we begin with a design or placement of writing which creates formats based on knowledge placement, which can then be used to engage discourse among and between communities (within departments, professions, the organization, and/or stakeholders), will we be able to change cultures, have a better understanding of the culture and/or power structures, and better harness workers' creativity, critical thinking skills, and/or knowledge? It seems to me also that by beginning with design rather than format or culture, there is a more dynamic model of collaborative writing. Not only will the organization be able to react to new influences from a diverse workforce, but they will also be able to establish a shared vision through collaborative design of writing and formats within the workplace. Both the organization and individual and group forces within the organization will have an impact on the organizational culture through the process of co-creation (co-design) of document formats and final written products using those formats.