Monday, January 19, 2009

Week 3 - Doing Theory/ Modes of Discourse

After reading Kinneavy’s “Modes of Discourse” and subsequently the readings for this week, I was left wondering whether or not it is necessary to lead a form of communication (in this case persuasive writing) with a precise, predetermined mode of discourse. While I believe it is certainly imperative that we understand all four modes—and that we are able to separate persuasion and poetry from these four as Kinneavy suggests—I don’t know that it is true or necessary that all good writing has one precise mode that commandeers the rest of the piece as Kinneavy seemed to suggest.

In all of our readings this week, it became obvious that good writing tends to use all four modes of discourse to one degree or another. I found it difficult to determine, however, whether it was more effective to establish one concrete mode of discourse and then support it with the other three, or if it was best to interweave and imbricate the four modes, so as to not establish any necessarily dominant mode. This question grew within me as I found Miller’s and Plato’s articles to be the most stimulating, although for my own personal interests, Miller’s article was the most interesting. Miller, in my opinion, never really established a dominant mode of discourse although one could easily argue that she ultimately left the reader feeling that her intentions were to evaluate and classify technical writing as it stands in academia, English departments, and in business-industry. This non-establishment for me is what raises the question, mostly because her article was by far, for this week’s readings, the most interesting and, arguably, the best written. Plato’s was interesting and engaging, but it was definitely overrun by narrative elements. Garret and Hackos and Reddish all employ multiple methods but their predominant, domineering mode of discourse tends to be descriptive. They make use of narrations as they give examples and classifications as they compare definitions to other groups within the field of usability testing and interface design. Their readings, however, were quite dry and quite simplistic. Part of this was their somewhat sophomoric examples and some of it was simply their scope.

So this raises a question for me. I realize that audience and purpose will always dictate the mode of discourse chosen (or at least it should) and that each has its place, its time, and its context. Hackos and Reddish and Garret all appear to be writing textbooks for college students or working professionals where Miller and Plato are writing for academia and thinkers. Miller most effectively engages the reader in the discussion but least effectively establishes a mode of discourse. Is it more necessary, then, in lieu of practical application writing and teaching to establish one predominant mode of discourse? While I didn’t really care for the writing in the textbook chapters, I can see it being quite necessary. I can’t imagine, for example, a textbook that is predominantly a narrative or even evaluative or classificatory. I could see, though, an academic piece being any of these. So, my question is this: do educational and instruction communications function best with a predominant mode of discourse or could they employ similar methods as Miller and complexly imbricate all four so that not one really stands out above the rest?


  1. Excellent!!
    You have made a good critique of Kenneavy's taxonomy of the discourses and the complexity of applying it to the actual writings. As you have said, the appropriateness of the mode(s) depends on the audience and the context for which the text is intended. Your example of textbook is quite appropriate. I also agree with you that Miller's article is excellent in accomplishing its goal of redefining technical communication. But I have a problem with your characterization of Garrett's and Hackos and Reddish's writings as predominantly descriptive. If we follow Kenneavy's definition of description and classification (if I have understood that correctly), we find that the former deals with the individual and the latter with the general(?) or the group. Second, Kenneavy also includes definition under classification. So, I think Garrett, Hackos and Reddish are defining and clarifying (explaining and exemplifying) the notions they are talking about. For instance, Hackos and Reddish define task analysis and move on to "consider three main topics." My point here is that the predominant mode seems to be classification though there are instances of description when they offer individual examples and describe them. These writers clearly say that they "begin with the question "What is task analysis?" and talk of different aspects of it.

  2. I agree with Hem's comment. I found it difficult to extract a particular (modular) code from the readings [or anything else for that matter]. Even the simplest example Kinneavy uses, "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg" has evidences of all the modes discussed.

    Well done.