Using Genre to Complicate “Writing for School”

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Matt Switliski (nominated by Christina Ortmeier-Hooper) is completing a PhD in English with a concentration in Composition at the University of New Hampshire. He has taught First-Year Writing, Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, Professional and Technical Writing, and other courses. His major research interests are writing centers and creative writing. His secondary interests include response, stylistics, and craft books. Matt was a 2018 Bedford New Scholar.


In the First-Year Writing classes I teach, I often ask a series of questions on the first day of the semester to get students involved and to access some of what they already know about writing. “What were you told to do (or not do) in writing?” generates plenty of ideas and usually some disagreement. The answers encompass the expected (Your thesis should be in the first paragraph) and the surprising (You can’t start a sentence with “because”). For as many times as I’ve asked that question, I’ve never had a student ask, “What kind of writing?” To shake up their ideas about school writing being one universal variety, I try to integrate discussions of genre throughout the term.


Some context: At the University of New Hampshire, our one-semester First-Year Writing (FYW) course is the only requirement for all students regardless of program (save those with appropriate transfer or AP credit). While individual instructors have a lot of flexibility, the course is generally structured around three major assignments—an analytical essay, a researched persuasive essay, and a personal essay—with a rhetorical emphasis throughout. The first assignment asks students to rhetorically analyze an argument, integrating the appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. That language bridges nicely to the next essay in which writers make their own arguments, supported by evidence. It’s in the early days of the researched persuasive unit that I raise the matter of genre with the assignment linked here.


One way I’ve introduced genre is to have students brainstorm as many different kinds of writing as they can. I encourage them to be as broad with it as possible. If it contains language, it’s fair game. As students call out ideas—Lyrics! Menus! Lab reports! Poems!—I scribble them furiously on the board, both to signal that their contributions are valuable and to give us a powerful visual of the diversity of writing. Breaking into groups, they discuss what’s common and what’s distinctive about each of these sorts of writing, sharing their findings as a whole class afterward. (I realize there are much more nuanced approaches to genre, as in the work of Amy Devitt and Anis Bawarshi, but I’m not even sure I understand those views as well as I should. Besides, this exercise is really just scratching the surface of a much bigger topic.)


From there we consider the research papers they’ve written in the past, whether those are a genre themselves or if they include a range of genres. Some have written diverse work that integrates research, but many more have written a kind of generic research paper that just gathers information and solders it together without opinion, without audience, without purpose. That, I tell them, is not the case here. The research will help them make a point that they believe. And in doing so, they get to experiment with genre.


As you can see in the assignment, I provide students with the introductions to three approaches to the same basic research topic. The audience for each is different, however, as is the evidence used. In the past I’ve given them the choice of writing their research paper as an op-ed, a report, or a letter, though I do like the idea of making it entirely open-ended; that way, they would not only need to research material to help them make their arguments, but they’d also need to research how to write whatever genre they choose, something they will need to do in the future as FYW cannot prepare writers for every contingency. (Here I align myself with Downs and Wardle in rejecting teaching a “universal academic discourse” as a goal for FYW [553].)


While each example obviously differs in style and structure, I emphasize audience, purpose, and evidence. The letter addresses an individual, the report a larger group, and the op-ed the largest. Given those audiences, we discuss what issues are relevant to each of these audiences and, if we don’t know, how to find out. What the audience cares about changes the angle of the argument and thus demands different evidence. We discuss what each argument is asking its audience to do and if that course of action is within their power—something I expect them to address in their own writing. And we talk about evidence not just as it relates to the audience and purpose but what seems appropriate for the genre. A report probably won’t have much room for pathos, whereas a letter or an op-ed might. The ethos of the writer can sometimes be relevant for an op-ed and almost always is in the case of a letter. As for logos, well, that’s key to nearly any argument, something they generally notice when writing their own rhetorical analyses.


How do you bring up genre in writing classrooms? How do you work against the ubiquitous generic research paper?



Bawarshi, Anis S. Genre and the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition. Utah State UP, 2003.

Devitt, Amy J. Writing Genres. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 4, 2007, pp. 552-584.


To view Matt’s assignment, visit Persuasive Genres. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

About the Author
This is the shared account for the Bedford New Scholars TA Advisory Board.