SI521 "Open Educational Resources at the University of Michigan" Open Textbook/Genre and OER

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One of the major stumbling blocks that has been identified for adoption of Open Educational Resources, in particular for the adoption of open textbooks as replacements for conventionally published textbooks, is a perceived lack of authority on the part of OER. Because open educational resources are created by people working outside of the traditional publishing system and its established avenues for controlling quality and accuracy--and increasingly created not just by one or two people but by crowd-sourced groups whose members may not be professors or otherwise formally credentialed--other ways must be found to establish that the text is authoritative, situate it within its subject area, and orientate it to its intended audience.

While there are external ways to establish authority and audience for an open textbook, such as convincing a well-known professor to use it in the classroom as a vote of confidence, one very effective way that is available and applicable to everyone is through the judicious use of language in constructing the textbook. In this chapter, we will look at a particular sub-field of linguistics called applied pragmatics that studies exactly how people establish authority and audience through language and how language can promote clarity and understanding. An understanding of the underlying cognitive and social processes behind how language is used can help you construct a text so as to create the best impression possible.

This chapter examines three important concepts in the field of applied pragmatics--genre, Gricean maxims, and register--and discusses how each one contributes to readers' perceptions of a text and how awareness of each concept individually and the three taken together can be used to establish authority in the subject area in the minds of the intended audience. Each concept will be illustrated with examples taken from the third edition of Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education, a Wikibooks open textbook written in large part by students of Old Dominion University.

What is Applied Pragmatics?[edit | edit source]

Pragmatics is a discipline within the field of linguistics that examines how language takes on meanings in context that go far beyond what the individual words themselves signify to the intentions of the speaker and the inferences of the audience [1]. Applied pragmatics uses the principles of the discipline to examine real world situations and propose solutions to problems. Genre, communicative maxims, and speech registers are three concepts within pragmatics that can be applied during the construction of texts to influence how the audience perceives and reacts to the texts.

Genre[edit | edit source]

Genre in Applied Pragmatics[edit | edit source]

Genre is a term we are generally most familiar with from literature and film, where it is most often used to mean "a stylistic category or sort" [2], and in contemporary usage it most often refers to the content of the work, such as the historical fiction or epic fantasy genres. In linguistics, however, a genre is something much broader, it is a conventionalized communicative event [3], an act of written or verbal communication that is made in the presence of conventions of structure, content, or style. The most basic linguistic genre is often said to be the conversation but genres can also be as complex and arcane as the audit working papers produced by accountants while reviewing financial statements or as mundane and easily overlooked as the warning labels on medicine containers. Genres can be made up of one or more subgenres, which are variations on or more heavily specified instances of the parent genre, such as the sub-genre of the student workbook within the larger genre of textbooks [4]. A genre may also have as structural elements other genres that are NOT subgenres of itself. For example, the genre of the textbook contains as a strongly recommended structural element the separate genre of the table of contents.

How Are Genres Formed?[edit | edit source]

Genres tend to emerge when a certain set of communicative needs arises repeatedly in similar contexts. The nature of these needs and the demands of the context make certain forms of communication more likely or suitable than others. As the situation arises repeatedly, future instances will likely refer back to previous instances to provide additional context and will make use of the same strategies for addressing the communicative need. In this way, certain features will over time become expected components of communication in this situation, or genre conventions. For this reason, Carolyn Miller describes genre as "typified rhetorical action" [5] and situates genres firmly in the cultures, sub-cultures, and specific conditions that create them. Because genre conventions are highly dependent on the cultural and situational context, crossing cultural boundaries can render a genre incomprehensible. For example, Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education is situated in the specific context of a culture where K-12 school teachers are expected to attend college, to be licensed by the state, and to be educated not only in their subject area but also in pedagogical theory. In a culture without these expectations, the existence of such a text would be incomprehensible.

Genre Conventions[edit | edit source]

As previously mentioned, genres are governed by social conventions that dictate features such as when and where the use of a certain genre is appropriate, what word choices and grammatical structures should be used in the text, how the sentences should build progressions of ideas, and how the ideas should build on one another to produce an overall response or reaction in the audience [4]. In Social and Cultural Foundations, the text begins with a cover illustration and information about attribution and publication, then a table of contents, then the first chapter addresses philosophical issues of education. This presentation of information displays knowledge of conventions the textbook genre which place importance on structuring information very carefully to make it maximally accessible and comprehensible for the learner (this can also be seen in the careful ordering and titling of sub-sections for each topic essay, including introductions and conclusions).

Generic conventions constrain our behavior but they also create a shared base of expectations that aid interpretation and condition response. Those shared expectations, along with the specific cultural and situational context, are known as common ground(see "Gricean Maxims" below for more detailed discussion of common ground). When we are confronted with a text belonging to a genre we have encountered before, it offers us an insight into what the expectations of the text's creators are and offers us a pattern for possible response. A text that presents itself as a member of the textbook genre is asking us to regard it as authoritative within its field and to apply diligence and focus to its content. The inclusion of multiple choice and essay questions at the end of each topic essay in Social and Cultural Foundations not only shows understanding of how the textbook is likely to be used, it provides a template for how to respond to the information offered: by testing one's knowledge or presenting an opinion on the topic.

How Can Knowledge of Genre Contribute to Open Textbook Production?[edit | edit source]

Open Educational Resources are produced with certain genres in mind. Much attention has been focused on how to solve the problems of applying the open source model to the production of textbooks, such as in Benkler's Common Wisdom[6], as the textbook genre demands that examples provide at least the appearance of authoritative wisdom and enough stability for classroom copies to be produced when necessary. Establishing authority outside of the conventional legitimation channels of the publishing industry--such as review of manuscripts, conditions of publishing contracts, extensive professional editing, and professional marketing--can be difficult.

One way for open textbooks to show their claim to authority is to show a firm grasp of the conventions of the textbook genre, thereby establishing that the authors are, at least, deeply familiar with the genre even if they have never produced an example of it before. It is important to note that textbooks, like most academic genres, vary considerably from one discipline to another and between national cultures. OER projects that seek to reach users across disciplinary or national lines need to consider these differences and how they may impact the potential comprehensibility and usefulness of the resources being created.

A good way to start is to find a conventional textbook that is as close as possible in subject area and audience to the intended open textbook and read it thoroughly and critically, noting what features of its structure, content, or style provoke reactions during reading. Then those features can be included and even expanded on in the creation of the open textbook. It is also a good idea to read as many different examples of the textbook genre as one can find, to gain a sense of the range of different strategies available. OER is not merely good for imitating the existing academic genres but also presents a unique opportunity to challenge and expand genres that may have grown stagnant and fusty. Knowledge of genre conventions also opens the possibility for questioning, violating, and ultimately transcending them. Social and Cultural Foundations presents the essays voted "best" on each topic as the "official" versions but also provides the "runners-up" as supplementary materials to allow the end user to decide for themselves what is the most effective way to present the information.

Gricean Maxims of Communication[edit | edit source]

Paul Grice was a philosopher who was interested in implicatures, assumptions which are drawn from the arrangement of statements and the context in which communication takes place but which are not necessarily required to be true based on only what is said. In Grice's time, language was more often viewed as a kind of code transmitting meaning that was applied by the speaker and reversed by the listener in a purely mechanical fashion no matter what the context. Since communication is patently not simply a matter of what is said, Grice attempted to make explicit the unspoken assumptions that allow us to create non-literal and non-obvious meanings from a series of sentences, rather than perceiving them as simply disconnected statements [7]. He called these assumptions maxims and originally envisioned them as specifically applicable to conversation. However, most of the assumptions hold true to at least some extent for all other forms of communication, written or spoken.

Cooperative Principle[edit | edit source]

The most general maxim is that communication is a two-way street and that both parties should contribute to the general direction or purpose of the communication. This applies even when the communication is apparently one-sided, such as in much written communication (including textbooks). The text is still expected do its best to aid the reader in understanding and in reaching the established goal--in the case of a textbook, teaching the reader its content without undue trouble. Likewise, the reader is expected to cooperate towards the common goal by applying attention and effort to understanding the material. The communicative principle also applies when the direction or purpose of the communication is not yet clear, in which case the two parties are expected to cooperate to establish what the purpose will be [7].

The cooperative principle may be seen most clearly in Social and Cultural Foundations in the multiple choice and essay questions given at the end of each chapter, which are meant to test progress towards the established goal of mastery of the material. The textbook fulfills the principle by providing an opportunity to test comprehension and the reader is expected to contribute the effort of at least attempting the questions to reinforce what they have read.

Maxim of Quality[edit | edit source]

"Quality" refers to the truthfulness of an interlocutor's assertions. One should strive to say things that are true and not to say things that one knows to be false or that one does not have enough evidence to judge as true or false [7]. For a textbook, it is very very important to follow the maxim of quality as truthfulness is an important part of authoritativeness. If Social and Cultural Foundations were to make assertions that, for example, blue-eyed children always perform better in school than brown-eyed children, the authors would be violating the maxim of quality as they know this is not true. Even if they were to state that blue-eyed children usually perform better than brown-eyed children, they would still be violating the quality maxim unless there were sufficient evidence available to judge the truth value of the statement. The burden of evidence is high in genres such as textbooks that rely on the appearance of authority and impartial judgment.

Maxim of Quantity[edit | edit source]

This maxim deals with the amount of information offered in a statement: it should be sufficient to advance the exchange but should not be so large as to derail it [7]. Quantity is important in textbooks where information must be carefully structured to meet the needs of the audience. Enough explanation must be offered for each concept to provide a firm grounding that the next concept can build upon but not so much that the student becomes confused and overwhelmed and cannot take it all in. In Social and Cultural Foundations, philosophies of teaching are important for understanding later topics but it is more important for students to be familiar with why there are different philosophies available, not with the full oeuvre of scholarship on each one. Therefore, one essay is devoted to philosophies as a whole, rather than a full topic to each individual philosophy, which could quickly derail the textbook and prevent discussion of other, equally important topics.

Maxim of Relevance[edit | edit source]

Relevance is a bit slipperier than quality or quantity: it concerns the logical or thematic connections between what has been said previously (in this exchange or even in past exchanges) and the current contribution to the exchange [7]. Contributions should build on what has come before and should provide for future contributions to build on them in turn. The idea of common ground is important in determining what is relevant. Information that can be gleaned from the situational context is in the common ground, as is information from prior interactions between the interlocutors and information contributed during the current interaction. If both interlocutors belong to a specific community of practice (which could be as wide as, say, the English-speaking world or academia, or as narrow as the occupants of a single dorm room), the shared knowledge and norms of their community of practice would also contribute to the common ground.

In the Social and Cultural Foundations "Philosophies of Education" there is a violation of the relevance maxim:

Why is it important to abide by a teaching philosophy? Well, there are many reasons. But mainly, consistency is important in a classroom. Consistency establishes trust between the student and teacher solidifying expectations. Also, having a teaching philosophy will allow students to be aware of :different biases. Teachers want students to form opinions for themselves, not form opinions for them. So in order to be a successful teacher, one must become familiar with the philosophies of education.

The violation occurs between the fourth and fifth sentences, when the author shifts suddenly from the importance of consistency in the classroom to the need for students to be aware of bias. The author fails to sufficiently establish a connection between consistency and bias, or between bias and having a strong teaching philosophy, and thus the statement lacks sufficient relevance.

Maxim of Manner[edit | edit source]

This maxim does not deal with the content of a statement but rather the manner in which the content is expressed. Statements should be made clearly and simply, with as little ambiguity as possible, and with an orderly progression of ideas [7]. Manner is important in writing textbooks because students may already be struggling to grasp the content of the text and undue difficulty in interpreting the language will only compound problems (and perhaps even render the textbook unusable). A violation of the maxim of manner occurs in the "Motivating Students" chapter of Social and Cultural Foundations:

Several keys unlock the door to the importance of the art of engagement in the classroom: enthusiasm, curiosity, opportunity, environment and :motivation. Each of these key items plays a vital role in recognizing the importance of engaging students.

The use of "keys" and then "key items" results in a mixed metaphor which may impede understanding of the passage. "The door to the importance of the art of engagement" is likewise an overly-worded metaphor that ultimately obscures what is really being discussed.

Flouting the Principle and the Maxims[edit | edit source]

Just like genre conventions, Gricean maxims are not set in stone and in fact are most clearly observable when they are being flouted. Grice himself found most interesting cases where interlocutors violate the principles (at least on the surface) in order to communicate some deeper meaning or to achieve some purpose that is considered more important than the nominal purpose of the conversation [7]. Flouting the conversational maxims is so frequently used for communicative reasons that the most immediate assumption for an interlocutor confronted by a violation is to look for a possible meaning in the violation or a potential reason to override the maxim. In the example violation of the relevance maxim discussed above, the seemingly irrelevant juxtaposition of the "consistency" and "bias" statements may well lead a reader to look for a higher-level link between them, perhaps erroneously inferring that there is a correlation between consistency in philosophy and the obviousness of bias. Another apparent violation occurs in the "What is the Role of Edutainment?" chapter with the opening quote "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road." The connection to edutainment is a much deeper implicature than the ones we have previously examined, as the gist of the article is that edutainment is the wave of the future, therefore the connection is that those who do not adopt it will be steamrollered and end up part of the road. Since the quote precedes the chapter, however, the gist of the article is not yet in the common ground, so the reader has to reason from prior experience with quotations that begin chapters that the connection is high-level thematic.

Humor and politeness are two overriding reasons that frequently lead to violations of the maxims, to introduce irony or incongruity into an exchange or to overlook or avoid mentioning sensitive issues. Because humor and politeness are both very culturally dependent, this frequently leads to cross-cultural misunderstandings. As seen in the "consistency" and "bias" example, textbooks need to be very careful about adhering to the maxims in most circumstances to avoid the production of erroneous assumptions. Humor is not a core feature of textbook writing (unfortunate as that may be) and thus maxim violation on those grounds is not often a good decision. Textbooks do need to maintain politeness in the sense of impartiality, decorum, and avoidance of profanity and vulgarity, but they do not need to violate maxims for the purpose of avoiding sensitive topics or redirecting conversation. Therefore, on the whole, textbook writing should emphasize respect for the maxims, instead of flouting them.

Limitations of Gricean Maxims[edit | edit source]

Grice's ideas have been very useful for constructing a theory of how we structure communication in order to be understood. However, his maxims are better understood as general guides for reasoning out the meaning of an act of communication rather than a strict formula that all acts of communication must conform to in order to have meaning. One of the most serious flaws of the maxims is that they are highly contextual and subjective, particularly where manner and relevance are concerned. This presents a serious problem for the computational linguists behind natural language processing (which interfaces between human and computer languages) [8].

It also presents problems for humans, who must make constant judgment calls on what is sufficient evidence for a statement to be considered true, how much information is appropriate at this time, what information actually has bearing on the situation at hand, and how that information can be conveyed appropriately. Other potential criticisms of the theory include that the use of figurative language does not seem to be directly subject to the quality maxim, in that it seems to be interpretable without any recourse to ideas of objective truth value [9], and that the theory sees understanding "what was said", decoding the linguistic structure, as distinct from--and necessarily prior to--understanding "what was meant", working out the implicatures, when implicature from context seems to be a major way humans resolve which of multiple meanings of a word is applicable in the strictly linguistic meaning of a sentence [10].

How Can Knowledge of Gricean Maxims Contribute to Open Textbook Production?[edit | edit source]

Grice's maxims were originally formulated to apply to conversation but even in writing--perhaps especially in writing--careful consideration of expected common ground and potential implicatures are vital to ensure that what the audience receives is as close to the meaning that the writer intended as possible. Because the audience is not physically present, it therefore does not share the immediate context of the author and cannot request immediate clarification [11]. Writing must be constructed to provide as much context as is necessary to make the author's intentions clear even without the advantage of proximity.

Clarity, brevity, and sincerity are especially important in academic writing and doubly important in didactic writing, which needs to not just impart information but guarantee understanding and guide comprehension. Didactic writing also must get the reader to accept it authority on the subject and precise, comprehensible writing shows that the author understands the subject well enough to explain it adequately. Open textbook writing in particular must consider its audience carefully at each step, as it speaks often into a void, unsure of who may seek it out and what their cultural and educational background might be. For that reason, careful review and editing of the text is essential to ensure that it is not so grounded in the immediate contexts of its creation as to lack the flexibility to be useful elsewhere. Some of the editors should be as close in ability to the intended audience as possible, to check levels of comprehension. Open textbook authors should review any examples they can find of writing that stands up to a high degree of decontextualization without losing clarity with an eye to how the implicatures build on assumptions about the audience and build on each other to aid understanding. Open textbook authors and editors should also seriously consider adding explicit statements to their texts regarding their assumptions about potential audience, particularly if the text assumes extensive prior knowledge of some subject area or discipline.

Registers of Communication[edit | edit source]

What Are Registers or Styles in Linguistics?[edit | edit source]

In applied pragmatics, registers or styles of communication are varieties within a language that are used in the context of a specific purpose or social situation [12]. Register differences tend to relate to diction--choices about which words and grammatical structures to use--and pronunciation or spelling but may also implicate choice of genres, tolerance of ambiguity and interruption, or use of specialized vocabularies or in-group slangs. Most speakers comfortably command several different registers. For example, even within academia there are different registers used for texts such as email correspondence between faculty members versus texts such as journal articles being prepared for publication. Within a textbook, there may be significant differences of register between the personal foreword and dedication by the author and the main text of the chapters. The most common typology for registers is a sliding scale of formality vs. casualness, with more "elevated" vocabulary and stricter adherence to formal rules of grammar and strictly enforced turn-taking at the formal end of the scale and slangy vocabulary, vernacular grammar, and lots of interruption at the casual end [13].

Textbooks tend strongly towards more formal registers of speech, with precise and unemotive language, long and complex sentence structures, and highly organized progression of ideas. While some textbooks, particularly those that are not primarily intended for classroom use, may use less formal language to better engage the learner, for open textbooks that are seeking to build up their authority through language use, selecting an appropriate register for the intended audience and subject area is key. In the Social and Cultural Foundations chapter "The Forgotten Half: Who is the Curriculum Designed for and Why?", the author shows knowledge of the appropriate register for her genre (textbook), field (education), and intended audience (advanced undergraduates) with precise and formal language, complex formal grammatical structures, and careful arrangement of ideas:

What were you thinking when you read the title of this chapter? “The Forgotten Half? What’s that?” Or “I already know this answer…curriculum is designed :for all students.” Unfortunately, there is a group of students in the United States who have been referred to as forgotten for nearly twenty years. This :same group of students is not inspired to pursue higher education, nor responds to the traditional curriculum being taught in schools. In order to :prepare us to professionally teach in the near future, we need to understand the students who make up the forgotten half, the problems with curriculum :in schools, and what we can do as teachers to help these young people use their talents to the best of their abilities.

How Do Registers Relate to Audience Reactions?[edit | edit source]

Registers, like genres, carry social expectations and the choice of what register to use is governed in large part by the social context of the speaker and the audience [14]. Inappropriate casualness may cause the audience to assume that the speaker is not taking the subject matter seriously, while being overly formal may cause them to feel that the speaker is being cold or patronizing them. Likewise, in a field with a specialized technical jargon, under- or over-use of the jargon may produce an impression that the speaker is inexperienced or lacks authority or contrariwise that they are trying too hard to impress others or that they do not fully understand what the terms mean.

Use (or lack thereof) of hedging--adding qualifications like "I think" or "it seems" to assertions to make them softer and more guarded--is an important difference in the registers of different academic disciplines, depending on how important argumentation and authorial interpretation are. In the humanities, where the support for an argument is the logic of its argumentation and not facts with a definitive truth value, hedging is less well tolerated than in the sciences, where statements are more definitively verifiable but everything is doubtful until the facts are known. Overuse of hedging can lead to perceptions of inappropriate subjectivity or a lack of self-confidence, while underuse can create perceptions of abrasiveness or ignorance of opposing interpretations or points of view.

Essentially, the use of an appropriate register reinforces positive perceptions of authoritativeness, belonging to the community, and polite but assertive statement of facts and opinions while the dissonance caused by an inappropriate register creates negative perceptions of inexperience, rudeness, or even outright ignorance. Register does not have bearing on truth value, as the Gricean maxims do, but it does have bearing on audience judgments of the authenticity and trustworthiness of a source. Use of an appropriate register displays knowledge of the needs of one's audience and the norms of one's subject area and community of practice.

How Can Knowledge of Register Contribute to Open Textbook Production?[edit | edit source]

As with genre, knowledge of and command of register helps to establish authority and membership within the academic community. Using the appropriate level of formality for the intended audience and the genre and subject area of the resources produced, showing understanding of the jargon of one's discipline, and showing the correct balance of deference to other points of view versus assertion of one's own ideas are important ways to establish authority outside of traditional channels. At the same time, materials like textbooks that are intended for teaching purposes must be especially careful not to indulge in excessive use of jargon or to apply too high a level of formality simply to establish authority. Open textbooks present an opportunity to challenge the use of jargon as a gatekeeping mechanism to restrict knowledge to a community of elites. For an open textbook to be useful to a broad potential audience it must be accessible and engaging. Reading a broad selection of the literature of one's subject area is always invaluable to gain a better grasp of what jargon is in current use, how appropriate humor and hedging are in the field, and how tightly structured one's arguments must be. For open textbooks that hope to reach a wide audience, keep in mind that non-native speakers of English will likely find more structured and formal writing easier to understand, and that jargon and slang go out of style very quickly and excessive use may date one's work and limit its useful lifetime.

How Do Genres, Maxims, and Registers Combine to Contribute to Open Textbook Production?[edit | edit source]

Taken together, these three applied pragmatics concepts point out important things to be aware of in creating texts like open textbooks that must establish their own claim to authority and clearly communicate complex ideas to a potentially very diverse and unexpected audience: know your intended audience, know the norms and conventions of your subject area and the genre of text you wish to create, and be constantly mindful of both things in the writing process. Try to anticipate and avoid using language or concepts that are too culturally embedded to be understandable to your broadest audience. Make sure that your line of reasoning does not require too many dramatic leaps of logic to follow. Show through your choice of words that you are serious about your subject and expect to be taken seriously. Examine many potential role models for your textbook, determine what features make them effective or ineffective, and then apply that knowledge to your own work. Most importantly, however, remember that genres, maxims, and registers are all resources for expression, not ends in and of themselves or a rigid set of specific rules. The creation of open texts is also an excellent opportunity to experiment with altering or omitted some norms and conventions that aren't particularly effective or relevant to your specific project. The creation of more and more open textbooks will, inevitably, begin to influence the conventions of the genre and its registers and that change is an opportunity to challenge existing beliefs about the role of language in education.


  1. ["Pragmatics." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Nov. 28, 2006.]
  2. Wiktionary defintion
  3. Bhatia, Vijay K. "A generic view of academic discourse.”"In Academic Discourse, ed. By John Flowerdew. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2002.
  4. a b Cook, Guy. Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989
  5. Miller, Carolyn R. "Genre as social action." In Genre and the New Rhetoric, ed. by Aviva Freeman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor and Francis, 1994.
  6. [Benkler, Yochai. "Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials." Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, 2005.]
  7. a b c d e f g Grice, H. Paul. "Logic and Conversation". In: Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts. Ed. by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press, 1975. 41-58.
  8. [Frederking, Robert E. "Grice's Maxims: 'Do the Right Thing'."]
  9. Wilson, Deidre and Dan Sperber. "Relevance Theory." In Handbook of Pragmatics. Ed. by G. Ward and L. Horn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 607-632.
  10. Bach, Kent. "The Top Ten Misconceptions About Implicature." In Drawing the Boundaries of Meaning: Neo-Gricean Studies in Pragmatics and Semantics in Honor of Laurence R. Horn. Ed. by Betty Birner and Gregory Ward. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2006. 21-30.
  11. White, Ron. "Adapting Grice's Maxims to the Teaching of Writing." ELT Journal 55(1), 2001.
  12. Halliday, M.A.K, M. McIntosh, and P. Strevens. The linguistic sciences and language teaching. London, Longman, 1964.
  13. Trudgill, Peter. Introducing Language and Society. London: Penguin, 1992.
  14. Eckert, Penelope and John Rickford. Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Kchoff 15:41, 21 April 2009 (UTC)