so you’ve met a linguist…

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what is a linguist anyway?
if you’re here, then
a) you already know and this will still be amusing, or
b) you’ve already seen this slideshow .gif

all credit to Jodie Martin

changing education paradigms

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a topic a little to the left of language pedagogy, but any pedagogy is, after all, language-based.
sir ken robinson (sure i’ve never heard of him either, and one suspects anyone knighted) talks of why education is not working so well in this day and age, and in the US.
of course, he may need to hear of LCT theory…
but we should not be so complacent here, as anything the US does, we seem to want to *ape*

Genres and genre theory: a response to Michael Rosen by Frances Christie

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this is an open letter to UK education entrepreneur, michael rosen, written by frances christie, and posted to sys-func – meant to go onto his blog at
posted here for public perusal.

Dear Michael Rosen

A friend of mine in the UK – Paddy Walsh – has passed on to me your recent ruminations on “How genre theory saved the world”. I note that Paddy is a former subject English teacher and SNS English consultant, and familiar with work done using genre theory in the UK. As I was one of the genre theorists with whom you exchanged articles in English in Australia a good many years ago, I thought I might respond to some of the matters you raised.

Genre theory in Australia

I can’t comment on how genre theory came into literacy education in the UK, as I was not there, so I leave that to others. In fact, all my observations here are based on Australian experience. Genre theory emerged in Australia after 1980, for it is was at a time when various progressivist and/or constructivist theories of education were very influential in many parts of the country (they still have some influence, though I think it
is true to say it is waning.) In the teaching of literacy and of writing in particular, many of us who worked in schools and teacher education were alarmed at the ways teachers were encouraged to promote “children’s self expression” at the expense of any structured sense of goals or direction in writing. One important figure who brought such ideas to Australia was Donald Graves, though there were others. The curriculum theories of Stenhouse, for example, like those of the Plowden Report on Children and their Primary Schools (1967), had tended to promote educational theories that focused on “processes of learning” and the role of the teacher as “facilitator” only of these processes. Such theories were imported into Australian curriculum directorates and teacher education, and there were of course many local theorists willing to extend them. Just as Bernstein had early raised critique of such educational theories in the UK, so too, many of us in Australia began to challenge them, as did Halliday, who had arrived in Australia after some years in London where, among other things, he had directed the Nuffield/Schools Council Programme in Linguistics and English Teaching (1964-71). The English teaching materials that Halliday and his colleagues had produced as part of that programme had always offered more structured and teacher directed activities for the English classroom than did the various “growth” and “process” approaches that achieved some popularity in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Genre theory was initially developed by Jim Martin and Joan Rothery in Sydney from 1980, and it was based on an extensive analysis of children’s texts taken from several schools. The initial work they did has continued, and it has been expanded and developed all over Australia by people too numerous to mention here, so that the total database of written texts is by now considerable. A brief overview of the development of genre theory can be found in Rose (2011a), and of the development of genre-based literacy pedagogy in Rose (2008). The first point to stress from all the genre work done over some 25 to 30 years, is that the genre theorists did not invent any genres: they identified them by exhaustive analysis of many texts. They are what emerged from close analysis of the many reading and writing tasks in all school subjects that students encounter across the years of primary and secondary schooling. Moreover, close study of the genres found in many areas beyond the school reveals that they relate very closely to those found in schooling. Of course, the fields of experience and knowledge beyond school differ, while sometimes several genre types are embraced within the same long text. Furthermore, what we can term “canonical” or even “elemental” genres, often introduced in the primary years, tend to proliferate a range of related genres in adolescence and adult life, depending on purpose and the field of knowledge under construction. As students become proficient, they learn to play with and adapt the various genres, sometimes evolving new variations, elsewhere employing known ones to make new meanings, thereby demonstrating the infinite flexibility of such genres for making meaning. In fact, genres are not static, but capable of constant adaptation and shift, under the pressure of social change in which individual creativity plays an important part.

In modern scholarship there are several theories of genre, so it is perhaps worth stressing that genre theory in the systemic functional linguistic (SFL) theory after Halliday holds to a particular theory of language, context and text. It is argued that when we use language we exercise grammatical choices to create texts. The relationship of text to context is very intimate: context is only known because of the text that gives it life, while text is only known because of the context that makes it relevant. A genre is a text type, and genres emerge in a culture because they represent ways of getting things done, be they of the informal day to day business of living found in much speech, or of the more formal business of creating and shaping meaning in writing, often these days in many multimodal contexts. 1For Halliday and his colleagues semantics is not “intertwined” with grammar (your term). On the contrary, meaning is quite literally constructed in the grammar of a language: hence learning language is indeed “learning how to mean”, as Halliday wrote some years ago. Learning the genres of one’s community is a necessary part of learning its culture and its meanings.

The primary or elemental genres of schooling genres are very powerful, for they represent canonical ways of constructing meaning and achieving significant goals, personal, familial, communal and social in any culture. They are elemental in the sense that they are building blocks that can be used and/or recombined in infinitely variable ways. In the early years of schooling, genres are to be taught and learned as prototypes. Consider for example the six year old (from a professional home) who wrote the following complete prototypical instance of a narrative (elements of structure marked by me, not the child, and items of spelling corrected by me):

In the ancient times there was a minotaur that was very nice and kind and lived in a cave

but one day he stepped on a magic spot and turned bad so he started to kill all the dwarfs and people

and one day a witch along and turned him good again and made everything alive again.

The average adult reading this smiles at its evident grasp of a canonical way of constructing story in an English speaking culture, with its associated value that good eventually triumphs over evil. You are right when you suggest that many children learn such genres because of exposure to their examples in books, both in the home and at school. Where this occurs in families, the talk that develops around books tends to draw the young into elaboration of the experiences read about and it predisposes them to engage with books and book learning. Hasan (2005, 2009) and Williams (2005), both linguists, have demonstrated that the talk around early preschool book reading differs, depending on the “social positioning” of the families: children of professional/middleclass backgrounds are in general better prepared than others for the expectations of school learning. In practice, many children don’t have the early reading experience of middle class and professional children in book reading. Two psychologists, in the USA, Hart and Riseley, 2002, using very different research methods, drew similar conclusions in their study of young children. They saw this as part of addressing reasons for school failure among many children. A colleague here in Australia, David Rose, who has worked extensively with Australian Aboriginal children, often in remote communities, points out that many such children arrive at school without ever having had books read to them of any kind, and this is common for many children in urban schools as well.2

Among the canonical genres of an English speaking culture, I would list the following, all based on extensive research on genres in Australia over many years:

• narratives: which introduce characters in some setting, unfold a series of events leading to a complication (sometimes more than one), and offer some evaluation, eventually bringing about some resolution; these are found in story books and literary texts of many kinds.
• recounts: which reconstruct experience in temporal sequence, and which are found in early writing of personal experience, though they are also found in the writing of history among older writers and readers.
• procedures: which direct behaviour in undertaking activities, and which are found in games, recipes, manuals and science experiments.
• reports: which classify some phenomenon and describe it, used in the social and the natural sciences.
• explanations: which identify some phenomenon or historical event and explain how or why it occurs, or what its consequences are. They are also used in the social and natural sciences and in the humanities such as history.
• expositions and discussions: which are both argumentative genres, involved in exploring issues and arriving at opinions on the basis of evidence. While the discussion involves some examination of different arguments for and against a position before adoption of a particular position, expositions take up one general position and argue it at some length. Argumentative and/or persuasive genres are found in many subjects and areas of knowledge.

Two points need to be made about the canonical status of such elemental genres. Firstly, they are “basic text types” (a term that I understand has been adopted in the UK) that are often revisited throughout the school years and throughout life beyond school. Secondly, and this is a related point, each elemental genre leads to an associated assemblage or “family” of genres, all differing in some ways but all bearing a relationship to each other. There are, for example, more story genres than the narrative and the recount, some more commonly found in speech, others in writing. Similarly, there is a considerable range of explanations, their configurations differing considerably, depending upon the subject involved: the explanations of history for example (e.g. Coffin 2006) are markedly different from those of the sciences (e.g. Unsworth 2000). Moreover, there is a range of expository, argumentative and interpretative genres, some found in literary response genres (Rothery’s term) (see Christie and Derewianka 2008: 58-85,), others in the academic writing of university studies (e.g. Hood 2010). A complete taxonomy of the genres now described is beyond the scope of these notes. A recent discussion has been provided by Martin and Rose (2008), while an account of the developmental emergence of different genres across the major school studies and across the school years is provided by Christie and Derewianka (2008) and by Christie (2012).


Arguments for the learning of language by “immersion” (your term) are in some ways attractive, though the metaphor here is misleading, suggesting an apparently natural process of learning language that is not really merited (Gray 1990). One thinks of the way young children learn their mother tongue, supported by some years of scaffolding by their caregivers before they achieve a degree of independence in their language. The processes involved here are effortful and they have been well described by Painter (1999), while I have already alluded above to the work of Hasan (2009) and Williams (2005) revealing the differential preparedness for school language and learning of children from differing social class backgrounds. (Delpit 1995 provides a related discussion re the USA.) As for the experience of migrants and more recently of refugees in learning language, I note that in Australia, at least, we have expended a great deal of resources for many years on the professional preparation of teachers of English as a second language, the better to assist such people. The Australian experience has been that migrants need considerable assistance in mastering the English language if they are to achieve successful participation in the workforce and the wider society.

Spoken and written language

Your observations about speech and writing seem to me to rest on some common misunderstandings about the nature of their differences. You argue that written language can be understood as a “dialect” when it is a register, unless relatively trivial features (e.g. a double negative) are all one has in mind. You also suggest that it differs from speech principally in terms of its different “cohesion”, as described by Halliday. In fact the grammatical differences between speech and writing are considerable, involving much more than achieving control of cohesive devices, as Halliday’s discussion of Spoken and Written Language (1985) demonstrated. The learning of literacy is demanding and it takes some years to achieve successful mastery. One measure of this is the fact that it was because of the invention of literacy that societies such as our own created the institution of schooling in the first place. All traditional (i.e. non-literate) societies educate their young, but it is only literate societies that have the institution of schooling. Learning literacy and the considerable bodies of knowledge to which it provides access, requires a degree of concentrated attention to the nature of the written language and its meanings: this requires teachers and schooling over some periods of time.

In the initial years as young children take their first steps in mastering literacy, they tend to produce simpler language in their writing than they are capable of in speech. That is because, as Halliday pointed out, children’s language regresses while they grapple with the demands of mastering the spelling and writing systems, as well as some aspects of the grammar of written language. In these first years the attitudinal expression is simple, the knowledge constructed also simple, even “commonsense” and drawn from the fields of personal experience; the grammar is in fact quite close to that of speech. By late childhood, among successful school students, the grammatical organization of the language begins to change, showing a growing expansion of grammatical resources, apparent for example, in a greater lexical density, a developing capacity to deploy a range of different clause types, and a growing control of what are termed different Theme patterns (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004) that guide the flow and direction of the discourse. The knowledge and experience dealt with are by now more “uncommonsense” in that they go beyond the fields of immediately lived experience into the more remote realms, while attitudinal expression is more marked than in the first years of schooling (though of course the extent to which attitude is expressed depends on the knowledge being built). Into adolescence and with the shift to the secondary school generally, the patterns of written language change once more as students move into the more abstract realms of generalization, abstraction, argument, interpretation, all of them features that become increasingly important as students grow older. The grammatical organization of written language by mid to late adolescence is actually very different from that of the first years: written texts are by now very dense, largely because of extensive use of nominalization, while clause patterns differ from those of speech and the attitudinal expression is more nuanced (as in history and English literary discussions, for example). Overall the manner of structuring and organizing knowledge and experience is well away from the manner of talk. If that were not the case, we would not have evolved writing systems and their associated practices for expressing meaning. Writing does what speech does not do, though that does not mean it is more important than speech, only that it is different, because it serves different purposes.

The principal purpose of writing in contemporary societies is to construct, store, disseminate and critique the various disciplines or bodies of knowledge valued in English speaking traditions and institutions, including for example, literary studies, science, history, geography, and so on. While initiation into such disciplines commences in the primary years, it is in the secondary years that the challenges of learning the various disciplines or school subjects become most marked. That is because this is the period when the characteristic discourses of the different subjects emerge most distinctively: knowledge construction in science, mathematics, English, history and so on is increasingly expressed in different genres, different ways of reasoning, different ways of handling the “uncommonsense” knowledge that the various disciplines represent. The nature of the various disciplines and their distinctive patterns of knowledge construction are discussed in detail in two recent collections of papers bringing together scholars in SFL theory and in sociology (Christie and Martin 2007; Christie and Maton 2011).

A very fine analysis using the functional grammar reveals the linguistic features characteristic of the various disciplines, and teachers who are made aware of these features can guide desirable pedagogies for the teaching of literate behaviour. This is a critically important issue, for all the evidence in most English speaking countries – the UK, Australia and the USA at least – reveals that for many children their school performance begins to drop off badly after late childhood and into adolescence. The problem has even been referred to in the USA as the “literacy achievement gap” (Strickland and Alvermann 2004), evident, it is stated, in the transition from the primary to secondary years as children try to grapple with the changing nature of the curriculum. Significant intervention is needed in these transitional years in particular in order to break what are often persistent patterns of school failure. These matters and the evidence I would offer for such a claim are discussed in Christie and Derewianka (2008: 212-217) and in Christie (2012). Rose and Martin (2012) offer a recent discussion of appropriate pedagogies to address such school failure.

The issue of “power”

Like you, I am concerned about issues of power in schooling, and I also agree that power works at its most effective in schools (as elsewhere) when it is invisible. But I would add that nothing is more invisible – and indeed more powerful – than language itself. Language is massively taken for granted, both in the schools and in the wider community. That is because there is a very general tendency to see language as no more than some neutral commodity which carries “content” – an instance of what Reddy (1993) called the “conduit metaphor”. In this view, the early years of schooling should devote attention to teaching children the “basics” of literacy- the spelling and writing systems principally. Beyond that, language and literacy development will largely be taken care of in some unproblematic way, as children move from learning one subject to another. Yet the very “content” children are to learn, be that in English, science, history or whatever, is itself constructed in language. Language is not a neutral commodity, for it is the principal resource with which teachers and students in schools shape meanings. The most effective way to address the undoubted power that resides in the various genres read and written is to bring them to consciousness in order to make visible many aspects of the ways meaning is made.

Hence, for the purposes of teaching writing, any genre should be analysed and discussed in terms of its meanings, its language patterns and its overall structure, all of them involved in achieving its social purposes. Thus, the information or knowledge and its meanings are introduced first, so that a considerable understanding of that knowledge is established, often over several lessons. This is certainly true as students grow older and move up the school years, engaging with increasingly demanding bodies of knowledge, say in history, literary studies, science or any other subject. The proposed genre for writing is introduced and discussed only when some critical understanding of the knowledge is established, so that the genre is made relevant and meaningful. Where students are already aware of the relevant genre, it will often not be necessary to rehearse its various elements as they will be familiar and already part of the repertoire of the students. By these means the various genres become an essential part of students’ knowledge building over the years of schooling.

It is of course always possible to play with the prototypical or elemental genres, exploring their purposes and reasons for using them. In the case of stories, for example, why are they constructed as they are? Why are people attracted to stories? Why do many stories have happy endings? What kinds of values and attitudes are expressed in stories? How do spoken and written stories differ? What are other stories apart from narratives? Why not try writing spoofs of stories? Similar principles can and should guide learning about all the other genres, when these are introduced at the various grades of schooling. What is the purpose of writing explanations, for example? What meanings do they express and what knowledge do they construct? Are there areas of knowledge not typically examined and constructed in explanations? If so, is it possible to construct explanations about them? Why not try writing a spoof of an explanation? What is the purpose of expository genres? Why is construction of an argument considered important? Are there other ways to construct arguments apart from the usual exposition? In fact, any genre can and should be played with and explored for what it is: a socially constructed resource for constructing meaning. Where children learn about genres in these terms, then that is to empower them.

The only qualification I would offer in the case of these play activities is that such play in the case of any elemental genre is best introduced when children or adolescents have a reasonable grasp of the canonical genre structures I have identified here. The reason is that you need to know what it is you might want to change, subvert or challenge before you go ahead and do that. Brian Gray, a colleague who worked for some with Aboriginal children was clear about that: develop a confident understanding about a genre and the knowledge it expresses before you try to extend, modify or change it, and have good reasons to do so. The result otherwise is simply confusing and quite disempowering.

You write that the discourses of power are perceived by children as “given”, so that the children have no sense of being able to exercise power themselves. You say that the discourses are “given” because they are expressed in the ways the curriculum is presented, the school day is broken up into lessons and “units” of work are devised, with headmasters and teachers conferring rewards and punishments. Well, my response is to say that an education certainly involves, among other things, an initiation into many received traditions of knowledge, expressed as they are in well established practices of knowledge building in oral language and literacy. Furthermore, the relationship of teacher and students is asymmetric in that greater power resides with the teacher, since he/she exercises authority in the classroom, determining a great deal of what ensues. But it does not follow that children are necessarily rendered powerless. Indeed, where genres (or indeed anything else) are taught in such a way that the students are not actively engaged and indeed consulted in much that is taught and learned, then that is inappropriate pedagogy, and a problem not in itself to be laid at the door of genres or genre theory.

One final comment I would make concerns the relevance of genre studies and functional grammar studies more generally, to those successful students, like yourself, apparently, when you were at school. Professional discussions of genre work have tended to focus in particular on the needs of children, who for various reasons, don’t always perform well in their schools studies, thereby experiencing a sense of failure. There are good historical reasons for this. However, I would argue that those children who perform well in school also benefit from, and, take pleasure in, learning about and playing with genres as well as the grammar in which they are constructed. I know this from my own experience as a classroom teacher as well as from observations of many teachers in schools over the years. A number of very good books teaching functional grammar are now available, three of which I have listed below.

By all means, then, let us empower the children in our schools, and let us always start with a principled focus on the fundamental resource they use to live and to learn: their language.

Frances Christie
Sydney, Australia


1 I note that Halliday uses the term “genre” rather differently from Martin et al, though I shall not explore the theoretical differences here.

2 Paddy Walsh has surprised me by saying that some in the UK have criticized the work with Aboriginal of people like David Rose as being “racist” and hence discriminatory, or perhaps even “paternalistic”. The most charitable comment I can make on people who say that is that they are very ignorant, for they don’t know about the problems of petrol sniffing, alcohol abuse, disease and high infant mortality rates that afflict Aboriginal communities. In any case, Aboriginal people are clear that they want their children to learn “white fellers’ language”, by which they actually mean written English. Rose (2011b) and Vinson (2011) have both recently discussed the problems of Aboriginal children and their schooling.

Christie F. (2012), Language Education throughout the School Years: a Functional Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell: Michigan.
Christie, F. and Derewianka, B. (2008), School Discourse. Learning to Write across the Years of Schooling. Continuum: London and New York.
Christie, F. and Martin, J.R. (eds.) (2007), Language Knowledge and Pedagogy. Functional Linguistic and Sociological Perspectives. Continuum: London and Oakville.
Christie, G. and Maton, K. (eds.) (2011), Disciplinarity. Functional Linguistic and Sociological Perspectives. Continuum: London and Oakville.
Coffin, C. (2006), Historical Discourse. Continuum: London and New York.
Delpit, L. (1995), Other People’s Children. Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. The New Press: New York.
Gray, B., 1990, “Natural Language learning in Aboriginal Classrooms: reflections on teaching & learning style for empowerment in English”, In C. Walton and W. Eggington (eds.) Language: Maintenance, Power and Education in Australian Aboriginal Contexts. Darwin: NTU Press, 105-39
Hasan, R. (2005), Language Society and Consciousness. (The Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan, Vol. 1, edited by J. Webster). Equinox: London and Oakville.
Hasan, R. (2009), Semantic variation. Meaning in Society and Sociolinguistics. (The Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan, Vol. 2, edited by J. Webster). Equinox: London and Oakville.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1985), Spoken and Written Language. Deakin University Press: Geelong Australia.
Halliday, M.A.K and Matthiessen, C. (3rd. ed.) (2004), An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Arnold: London.
Hood, S. (2010), Appraising Research: Evaluation in Academic Writing. Palgrave Macmillan: London and New York.
Martin, J.R. and Rose, D. (2008), Genre Relations. Mapping Culture. Equinox: London and Oakville.
Painter, C. (1999), Learning through Language in Early Childhood. London and New York: Cassell.
Reddy, M. (1993), ‘The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language.’ In A. Ortony (ed.) (2nd ed.) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press: New York, pp. 164-201.
Rose, D. (2008). ‘Writing as linguistic mastery: the development of genre-based literacy pedagogy’. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, J. Riley & M. Nystrand (eds.) Handbook of Writing Development. London: Sage, 151-166
Rose, D. (2011a). Genre in the Sydney School. In J Gee & M Handford (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge, pp. 209-225
Rose, D. (2011b), ‘Beating educational inequality with an integrated reading pedagogy’. In F. Christie and A. Simpson (eds.) Literacy and Social Responsibility. Equinox: London and Oakville, pp. 101-115.
Rose, D. and Martin, J.R. (2012), Learning to Write, Reading to Learn. Genre Knowledge and Pedagogy in the Sydney School. Equinox: London and Oakville.
Strickland, D.S. and Alvermann, D.E. (eds.) (2004), Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap, Grades 4-12. Teachers College Press: New York and London.
Unsworth, L. (ed.) (2000), ‘Investigating subject-specific literacies in school learning’. In L. Unsworth (ed.), Researching Language in Schools and Communities. Functional Linguistic Perspectives. Cassell: London and Washington, pp.245-74.
Vinson, T. (2011), ‘The social context of literacy acquisition: achieving good beginnings’. In F. Christie and A. Simpson (eds.) Literacy and Social Responsibility. Equinox: London and Oakville, pp. 71-86.
Williams, G. (2005), ‘Semantic Variation’. In R. Hasan, C. Matthiessen and J. Webster (eds.) Continuing Discourse on Language. A Functional Perspective, Vol 1. Equinox: London and Oakville, pp. 457-480.

Some recent useful English grammar books using a functional orientation:

Derewianka, B. (2011), A New Grammar Companion for Teachers. PETA: Sydney: PETA.
Humphrey, S., Love, K. and Droga, L. (2012), Working Grammar. An Introduction for Secondary English Teachers. Pearson: Melbourne.
Humphrey, S., Droga, L and Feez. (2012), Grammar and Meaning. PETA: Sydney

6icom Programme

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Notes on a uniform

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The anthropological bent has dogged me, one might say, for a goodly period of my life. Occasioned, no doubt, by most of my early and formative years being spent on the sub-continent where many ethnic identities and language groups made themselves apparent to each other by the laying on of identity signifiers, many of which took the form of clothing – as well as an array of related adornment of a less practical motivation. My later adolescence on the Antipodean continent-cum-island can also be considered formative, at least in this regard, in that the teenaged Sydney-sider, even in the far-off decades of the 60’s and 70’s, was regularly required to focus their attention on the outward signifiers of dress that identified the wearer as in alignment (or not) with the local power structure. This self-scrutiny and the accompanying scrutiny of others on the part of teenaged female high-school students at the time, was enhanced and given direction in 1970 by the first appearance in the media-scape of the highly colourful and yet not very bright DOLLY magazine. I well recall my first perusal of that initial edition, to the extent that I remember to where and with whom I was travelling, and by what means. My reaction at the time may have included scoffing, I may even have suggested throwing the publication from a window of the top deck of the double decker bus in which we were being transported away from rather than in the direction of our secondary school on a weekday.

At the end of the following year, for the school farewell ball, I brought, in lieu of a beau, my adoptive older brother, a person I had adopted to fill the space that a genetically-related brother might have occupied should I have had one – which indeed I should have had. The point of this short anecdote is that my adoptive brother, as my escort, had refused to follow the ruling set down by the school rule-makers, to wit, that escorts (interlopers, you must admire, into the all-female domain of our high school cohort) needed to be sporting a tie, worn in the appropriate fashion around the neck and collar. Instead, our rebellion was realised in a resistance of the local power structure through non-compliance with the dress-code, whereby he attended the event in a polo-necked jumper. We were rewarded for our efforts with a series of counter-resistant entry-level embarrassments in the form of discussions between my teachers and my escort. Since it was no longer the sixties at that juncture, I still wonder whether the polo was a good move to make.

In terms of formativeness too, I have not even mentioned the Mater’s influence on my later psychological make-up. Suffice to say that we (my sister and I) were subject to constant admonitions regarding the attire of exemplary others. And by ‘exemplary’, I do not necessarily wish the reader to imagine I refer to its regular positive connotation, but that attention was regularly drawn to those exemplars of style and taste which might advise us, in the words of those very clever mass media mavens Trinny and Susannah, what not to wear. With apologies for being less than precise here, we can summarise some of these instances of clothing error through the use of broader labels encompassing the main idea entailed. Certainly, for example, girls with fat legs should not wear mini-skirts. I personally could not agree more, and not primarily because I would hope to restrict anyone’s freedom to wear what they wanted – this would no doubt redound on myself in some way (I was born in India after all you see) – but because I am afflicted by a very nasty turn at the sight of visual arrangements which are not aesthetically-pleasing, which by the by has always been a great burden to both myself and to any companions, on occasions of traversing any locale where, for example, a McDonald’s has set up shop. Other combinations that one should avoid included that of dirty hair and a white collar, a stiletto and a bare leg, green and blue in the same outfit, a scarf tied about the rollers on the head, garish jewellery, and so on – these all administered by the Mater with a small disapproving grimace.

These notes that I offer here have been occasioned by a recent excursion stateside, where I attended a conference in NYC (a pretext, one might observe) in which context I was alerted once again to a phenomenon I am aware I have been subconsciously registering for some time, but have not systematically described as yet. My attention in this instance was arrested, or motivated perhaps, by the outward appearance of one of the presenters, whose self-satisfied but dull readings of the writings of some favoured performance artists while standing before blurry blown-up images of the same artists – all of course having lead intense and thwarted lives until their activities as performance artists meant that their subjugated and hitherto unappreciated inner selves had been released – caused me to interrogate in an extended fashion the basis for my sudden wave of displeasure at her delivery. On that score, I could uncover no satisfaction, but in the process I became aware of her vestimentary attributes, collocations of clothing items I have in the past remarked repeated in a variety of ways such that they can be considered variations on a theme, instantiations in fact of a genre, a conventional combination, an iconic reference to a potential state of identity rather than, say, indexical of an object.

/……to be continued

What Happened To The Sys-Func Email List?


On 25/10/11 2:53 PM, “UTS ServiceDesk” <> wrote:

Comment by Analyst: Listserv sys-func was approved for deletion. It was deleted on 24th October 2011.

Asch conformity experiments


The Asch conformity experiments were a series of studies published in the 1950s that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. These are also known as the Asch Paradigm.

Experiments led by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College asked groups of students to participate in “vision tests”.  In reality, all but one of the participants were confederates of the experimenter, and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to the confederates’ behaviour.

In the basic Asch paradigm, the participants — the real subjects and the confederates — were all seated in a classroom. They were asked a variety of questions about the lines such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line was longer than the other, which lines were the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The confederates always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses.

In a control group, with no pressure to conform to an erroneous view, only one subject out of 35 ever gave an incorrect answer. Solomon Asch hypothesized that the majority of people would not conform to something obviously wrong; however, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (32%). Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.

Variations of the basic paradigm tested how many cohorts were necessary to induce conformity, examining the influence of just one cohort and as many as fifteen. Results indicate that one cohort has virtually no influence and two cohorts have only a small influence. When three or more cohorts are present, the tendency to conform is relatively stable.

The unanimity of the confederates has also been varied. When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgment, even if only one confederate voices a different opinion, participants are much more likely to resist the urge to conform than when the confederates all agree. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have. Interestingly, this finding holds whether or not the dissenting confederate gives the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gives an answer that is different from the majority, participants are more likely to give the correct answer.

Academic Persona Types?

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Throughout this long deveopment, from 600 BC to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them.  With this difference, others have been associated.  
The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in greater or lesser degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proved empirically.  They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not the good, but that ‘nobility’ or ‘heroism’ is to be preferred.  They have had a sympathy with irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion.  
The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion.  
This conflict existed in Greece before the rise of we recognise as philosophy, and is already quite explicit in the earliest Greek thought.  In changing forms, it has persisted down to the present day, and no doubt will persist for many ages to come.

 — Bertrand Russell ‘The History Of Western Philosophy’ (pp21-2)

theoretical pedagogy


excerpts from the introduction to
System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange.
Second edition
ANTHONY WILDEN 1972 & 1980

The reader will already have noted that, if there is one constantly recurring question for a critical and ecosystemic viewpoint, it is the real and material question of context. Obviously, the academic discourse, as well as the dissenting academic discourse, has signification only in terms of the real context in which it occurs. As has been pointed out, the systemic characteristics of this context, with its recognized and unrecognized codings of goals, are ultimately dependent on particular types of socioeconomic organization in history.

One hypothesis of these essays is that the assumption or goal of ‘pure’ knowledge is an outworn rationalization. ALL KNOWLEDGE is INSTRUMENTAL. In the terms of modem communications theory, information (coded variety) is everywhere, but knowledge can occur only within the ecosystemic context of a goalseeking adaptive system peopled by goalseeking [individuals] required to ask how the knowledge has been coded and filtered; and what it is being used for, and for whom.

Thus one of the contexts of knowledge is the temporal context: past, present, and future. But the ideology of pure or objective knowledge to which the academic is expected to owe allegiance – besides protecting teachers and researchers from questions about the actual use value of their work – cannot deal adequately with time and place. It is an absolutist, non-contextual, non-temporal morality akin to that of a fundamentalist religion.
This is a fundamentalism that depends first on the misconstruction of closure and context; second on the correlative lack of understanding that contexts have levels; and third on its inability to deal with the real questions of logical typing in biological and social systems.

For example, the necessary abstraction of a system from its context in order that it may be studied – which should of course be accompanied by an overt attempt to avoid decontextualization by understanding the potentially paradoxical effects of such an abstraction – is quite commonly used, implicitly, to justify the pretended and actual abstraction or isolation of researchers from THEIR many contexts: from their socioeconomic status in a heterarchy of academic privilege, for example; from their actual functions in a system of liberal indoctrination; and from their spoken and unspoken commitments to ideological and political views – all of which the student may expect to find in one transformation or another in their work and in their teaching.

[…] We used to be warned by people who called themselves the ‘Old Left’ in the 1960s not to ‘politicize’ the university – a warning that made little sense to those of us newly arrived in the academic propaganda machine.

As has been pointed out in part, context, whether in theory or praxis, is a question of punctuation or closure – both AT a given level of relationship and, more importantly, BETWEEN levels of relationship.

Moreover, besides its historically peculiar attempts at closure from its real context and indeed from and between many of its own parts, the scientific discourse appears to have been composed by the inhabitants of Flatland (Abbott, 1884). We know that the discourse displays a dogged incapacity to deal adequately with system-environment relations (both practical and theoretical), even when they are considered on a single plane. But this incapacity becomes almost insignificant when understood within the context of the extraordinary ingenuity with which the scientific discourse persistently fails to recognize the realities of LEVELS OF RELATION and of RELATIONS BETWEEN LEVELS in open systems, in their environments, and, above all, between system and environment.

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