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Genre and CSCL: The form and rhetoric of the online posting


Genre analysis, the investigation of typified communicative actions arising in recurrent situations, has been developed to study information use and interchange online, in businesses and in other organizations. As such, it holds out promise for the investigation of similarly typified communicative actions and situations in CSCL contexts. This study explores this promise, beginning with an overview of ways that genre analysis has been adapted and applied in related areas: in the study of group behavior in organizations, and of evolving and proliferating communicative forms, actions, and situations on the Internet (e-mails, blogs, FAQs, etc.). Focusing on the particular genre of the Internet “posting” in CSCL contexts, the paper hypothesizes that the educational use of this genre bears recognizable similarities with its generic antecedent, the letter. In testing this hypothesis, the paper describes a pilot case study of a set of CSCL postings (n = 136), which attempts to quantify the occurrence of rhetorical characteristics common to both the epistolary and CSCL “genres.” This content analysis shows the recurrence in this sample of a range of rhetorical markers (240 in total) that are characteristic of epistolary dynamics. It concludes by considering the implications of these findings and of a “genre approach” for CSCL research generally, and for community of inquiry models in particular.

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  1. At the same time, it is also important to note one way in which this application of “epistolarity” has departed or diverged from the examples provided in history and specifically in the analyses of Altman herself. This divergence is underscored by Altman’s aforementioned description of the characteristics of epistolarity as “charged with paradox and contradiction,” with any one trait invoking its opposite (e.g., the letter as a “distance maker” also functioning as a “distance breaker”). What the analyses above indicate, however, is that only one side of paradoxically charged characteristics such as “distance maker/distance breaker” or “continuity/discontinuity” is generally evident. The example adapted from the transcript and provided in table one, above, is indicative of this: “I’m glad to read, Marge, that you were able to integrate student needs in that way. I hope you continue to….” The characteristics of epistolarity are clearly evident here in their positive sense—acting as a bridge between writer and addressee, establishing continuity and connection between messages—but not so much in the more negative sense of emphasizing discontinuity between postings or the distance separating reader and writer. The example of epistolary communication from Rourke cited earlier suggests a reason for this: When Ruth thanks her classmate Jacques and exclaims that they share the same frustration—in wondering what happens after pressing ‘“Send!”’—the “distance breaking” and “discontinuity” that is evident arises from uncertainty over technical issues, which become less pressing as technology and ways of utilizing it become more familiar and established.


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Correspondence to Norm Friesen.

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Friesen, N. Genre and CSCL: The form and rhetoric of the online posting. Computer Supported Learning 4, 171–185 (2009).

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  • CSCL
  • Epistolary form
  • Genre analysis
  • Content analysis
  • Rhetorical analysis