Know Your Theory! – Genre Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theory, and part 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy


Genre Composition Pedagogy

In a piece of historical fiction an author sets an imaginary plot against a specific historical setting. Realistic fiction involves characters and conflicts that could have actually occurred. Autobiography is someone’s factual telling of their own life story. At the middle school level this is how I’ve taught genre. However, contemporary understanding sees genres as rhetorical acts situated in specific contexts rather than a static set of conventions for students to memorize and mindlessly employ.

Carolyn Miller’s 1984 influential article “Genre as Social Action” defines genre as “rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations.” Authors, faced with similar writing tasks (recurrent situations), make similar stylistic and formal decisions (rhetorical actions). Over time readers come to recognize and expect certain conventions in a certain genre. For example I wouldn’t expect an autobiography to include a chapter on the author’s experiences transforming from a human into a mythical creature. A magical transformation goes against autobiography’s social contract as a genre rooted in the real. When teachers help students understand genre as rhetorical action they help students navigate the cultural expectations of public writing. To understand how a genre works is to gain access to the socially accepted forms of expression and discourse.

Three Broad Pedagogical Approaches to Genre Composition
As with the other composition pedagogies in this series, genre pedagogy has no one true way. The chapter breaks down genre pedagogy into the three following methods.

1. Teaching Particular Genres
2. Teaching Genre Awareness
3. Teaching Genre Critique

These three methods are not mutually exclusive. Incorporating all three approaches in a classroom creates students who are empowered to act rhetorically “within and beyond the situations they will encounter throughout their lives.”

Teaching Particular Genres
Giving students the tools to identify the characteristics of various genres is perhaps the most obvious and common method for teaching genre. Students learn a genre in order to write it. The genres we teach speak to perspectives we privilege in the classroom. Deborah Dean notes that the “genres we select favor and develop certain perspectives more than others.” For instance, Dean explains that focusing on five-paragraph essays promotes a certain type of logic, distance, and formality. Teaching mainly personal narratives favors individualism and chronological thinking.

Teaching students about genre characteristics often requires the use of explicit instruction. Although some warn against the use of direct instruction, the authors note that teaching students skills in an explicit manner doesn’t have to be formulaic or rote. Other scholars such as Ken Hyland and Lisa Delpit argue that explicit instruction in genre conventions is essential for supporting and empowering certain population groups like second language learners.


Teaching Genre Awareness
If teaching particular genres seeks to introduce students into the public arena of literacy, another genre pedagogy, genre awareness, seeks to provide students with techniques for learning any genre. Genre awareness pedagogy “treats genres as meaningful social actions, with formal features as the visible traces of shared perceptions.” A genre awareness approach requires students to collect samples of the genre, identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used, identify patterns in content and form, and analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context surrounding the genre. Once learned, students can apply the genre awareness approach to learning any genre.

Sample assignments include asking students to analyze a genre and then create a “mini-manual” to instruct others on how to read/write that genre. Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer have developed the Unfamiliar Genre Project. The assignment cycle requires students to select an interesting genre, collect representative samples of it, keep a research journal, write their own version of it, and more.

Teaching genre awareness attends to genre’s ideological and social contexts as well as its rhetorical and textual features. The goal of the process is to develop within students a nuanced and rigorous understanding of “how, why, and for whom” they write. Students use pieces of writing as objects of genre analysis. Helping students see writing samples as objects for strategic analysis instead of models for emulating requires a significant time commitment. In her book Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, Amy Devitt recommends helping students gain access to social situations, develop interview skills, and make observations. This is a far cry from telling students why Ender’s Game is an example of science fiction.

Teaching Genre Critique
True to its name, genre critique seeks to train students to think critically about existing genres in their cultures. The ability to analyze a genre brings with it the ability to “subvert, legitimize, or revise” them. Genre critique fits squarely within the larger tradition of critical pedagogy by calling attention to the way every day cultural practices often constitute various systems of oppression.

Genre scholars Richard Coe and Anne Freedman use the following meta-rhetorical questions to help students tease out the ideological implications tangled up within genres:

1. What sorts of communication does the genre encourage? What sorts does it constrain?
2. Who can – and who cannot – use this genre? Does it empower some while silencing others?
3. What values and beliefs are instantiated within this set of practices?
4. What are the political and ethical implications of the rhetorical situation constructed, persona embodied, audience invoked, and context of situation assumed by a particular genre?

Students learning this type of critique pick apart a genre, analyzing it for roles and expectations in order to create a new piece of writing that violates that genre’s tenets. The authors give the example of a syllabus. What roles for students and teacher does a traditional syllabus enact? How could students remix this genre to subvert the positions of power implied within a formal syllabus?

In “Genre, Antigenre, and Reinventing the Forms of Conceptualization,” Brad Peters says that the goal of genre critique is for students “to acquire – rather than acquiesce to – the grammar of a genre.” Taking a page from Cultural Studies, this type of perspective treats the genre as a cultural artifact ripe for analysis. For instance what can a food label tell us about how our culture views issues of consumption, transparency, and government regulation? A pedagogy of genre critique teaches genre not to help students internalize characteristics but to show what forms of discourse are possible. Genres “create an opening for students to realize that what has always been is not what must always be.”

Wrapping Up
I’ve always taught genre as a set of criteria for students to memorize. As I’ve grown as an English teacher (and read authors like Katie Wood Ray) I’ve induced students to explore a genre through an inquiry-based approach rather than a transmission model. I now understand the power embedded within and enacted by genres. Next year I’m looking forward to helping students investigate shared understandings and create their own meanings by applying a more robust understanding of genre pedagogy.



  1. Pingback: Know Your Pedagogy! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Sara Watkins

    Deep! I agree with your concluding statement where you say “I’ve always taught genre as a set of criteria for students to memorize.” That’s honestly the only way I’ve even thought about genre! It takes a whole new level of thought to reach a point of approaching genre from a level of awareness & critique, rather than straight conventions (as in you MUST do it this way or else), but I can totally see how that benefits the kids’ critical thinking skills.


  3. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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