Teaching Genre in the First-Year Writing Classroom

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Teaching students to understand genres and how they work has become a central goal for many writing teachers. For those of us who teach writing about writing, it is difficult to imagine explaining key concepts like rhetoric and discourse community without explaining genre. However, Doug and I (and the teachers we’ve worked with) have had a hard time finding readings about genre that are both comprehensible and accessible to students. While scholars like John Swales mention genre in passing, that has not been enough for our students. Other scholars, like Carolyn Miller, explain genre in a way that can be difficult for first-year students to grasp.


Of course, looking to other textbooks for examples about how to talk about genre has been historically pretty frustrating. Even though our field generally agrees on a view of genres as flexible responses to recurring rhetorical situations, textbooks often take the most formulaic view of genre possible. Students like rules and instructions, and first-year writing textbooks are often all too happy to provide them, even if the result is teaching students inaccurate concepts about how genres work—concepts that are not usefully transferable to new and complex writing situations.


In my own classroom, I have always spent a lot of time on genre, but have produced my own definitions and examples for students to work with. In the third edition of Writing about Writing, available this November, we decided it was time to explain genre ourselves, in the way that we explain it to our own students.


In a new first chapter, we talk about conceptions of writing and introduce students to both the idea of threshold concepts as well as some particular threshold concepts about writing that are important to all writers. We then introduce students to two threshold concepts that will help them use the book most effectively. One of these is about genres (that writing responds to repeating situations through recognizable forms) and the other is about rhetorical reading (that texts are people talking), which Doug will describe in Bedford Bits in September.

In the genre discussion, we introduce students to the idea of genres as “recurring text-types, which are ‘typified rhetorical actions in response to recurrent situations or situation-types.’” To illustrate, we draw on many examples from students’ own experience to illustrate how this works (for example, syllabi and text messages).

We provide some heuristics for thinking about how texts work, drawing on Sonja Foss and John Swales, among others. For example: what conditions call for this type of text? What content is typically contained in this type of text? What form does this type of text typically take?

We ask students to engage in some reflection about their own experience. For example, what do specific instances of genres they commonly encounter (like syllabi) have in common, and what changes across individual instances?

We end by providing some specific ways for students to think differently in all of their classes, and as they use the Writing about Writing textbook. 


 We are excited about this new addition to Writing about Writing, and look forward to hearing about your experiences using it with your students.



About the Author
Elizabeth Wardle is Howe Professor of English and Director of the Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University. Her research interests center around transfer, threshold concepts, first-year writing as writing studies, and writing program administration.