The Life of Genre, the Life in the Classroom
Charles Bazerman, University of California, Santa Barbara
Genres are not just forms. Genres are forms of life, ways of being. They are
frames for social action. They are environments for learning. They are locations within
which meaning is constructed. Genres shape the thoughts we form and the
communications by which we interact. Genres are the familiar places we go to to create
intelligible communicative action with each other and the guideposts we use to explore
But the symbolic landscape we have constructed for us to live in is precisely that
which most fits us and the others with whom we share it. The more we inhabit these
places the more we make our home in them, even as we come to explore the lives in near
and increasingly distant places. Even when we find the genres we become habituated to
are filled with dissension, dysfunction, or even deception, and we want to seek
alternatives, they still have formed the discursive and cognitive habits we bring with us.
Other people have other places they have constructed and where they regularly go
to interact. When we travel to new communicative domains, we construct our perception
of them beginning with the forms we know. Even our motives and desire to participate in
what the new landscape appears to offer start from motives and desires framed in earlier
In our role as teachers we constantly welcome strangers into the discursive
landscapes we value. But places that are familiar and important to us may not appear
intelligible or hospitable to students we try to bring into our worlds. Moreover, students
bring with them their own landscapes of familiar communicative places and desires.
Students, bringing their own roadmaps from their previous experience, would also benefit
from signs posted by those familiar with the new academic landscape. However,
guideposts are only there when we construct them, are only useful if others know how to
read them, and will only be used if they point toward destinations students see as worth
So we should not take lightly the choice of which genres we ask our students to
write in. Nor should we keep those choices invisible to students, as though all writing
required the same stances, commitments, and goals; as though all texts shared pretty
much the same forms and features; as though all literacy were the same. Nor should we
ignore students' perceptions of where they are headed and whether they are much moved
to go toward the places we point them toward.
The picture I have drawn of the role of genre as it shapes educational activity is
informed by developments in linguistics, rhetoric, psychology, and sociology. The ways
these areas of inquiry consider genre and related concepts provide alternative ways for
considering genre different from those offered by the literary tradition. These alternative
traditions differ not only in the intellectual and investigative tools brought to bear on
genre, but in the range of genres considered.
For almost two centuries genre has been an important term in the arts and art
criticism, first brought to the English language in relation to a kind of painting of rustic
scenes favored by the French Academy, but the term spread to the literary and other arts.
Although the term genre is now used widely to identify the distinctiveness of various
kinds of creations it all creative realms, it still bears the stigma of a shallow
formulaicness and a limited vocabulary of stylistic and organizational gestures associated
with French rustic genre painting. Artistic productions considered as being primarily
within a genre are frequently set in contrast to richer, more creative works of art that are
only incidentally of a genre and are thought to transcend the limitations of genre.
In literary studies the modern consideration of genre invokes an ancient tradition
of evaluating works according to their species, a tradition stretching back to Aristotle, but
which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had become moribound within a rule-
determined version of artistic decorum. The romantic rejection of this tradition in the
name of individual expression, originality, organic unity, and the chaos within added to
the stigma of those works labelled as generic. Even among those literary critics who
have seen past such stigmas, literary studies still have traditionally concerned themselves
with a limited range of literary genres already embedded within practices and
assumptions of the literary system, so that literary thinking about genre is more adapted
to thinking about the lyric than the comic book, and to both of those more than to the
environmental impact statement. Moreover, because literature is often written and read in
contemplative circumstances, apparently (but not thorough-goingly) removed from
immediate exigencies of life, the social embeddedness of genre has been less visible.
Moreover, insofar as literary texts advance recognizable social designs, reminding us of
their social positioning, they are typically considered as propagandistic and coercive, and
thus less of less literary value. Genre in literary studies has therefore come to signify
more matters of textual form or of effect upon ideal readers than of social relations (see,
for example, Dubrow; Fowler; Hernadi; Strelka). Curiously, because schooling also
apparently (but again far from thoroughgoingly) has elements of removal from immediate
exigencies of life and from overt designs, other than the development of mind and
reflection, the apparent contextlessness of the literary can translate readily to the apparent
contextlessness of classroom language. Consequently, the literary genres can readily
appear as models for the genres of classroom writing, and both can appear as the
universal forms of knowledge and thought. Literary literacy can, on the face of it, appear
equivalent to all literacy.
Recent literary theory, noting the indeterminacy of literary forms, the novelty of
individual texts, and the idiosyncrasy of reader response, calls formal or textual
definitions of genre (Derrida; Foucault, 22; Hernadi) into question and sees the
identification of any text as being essentially of one or another genre as chimerical. Both
Bakhtin and Cohen’s rehabilitations of genre are dependent on placing symbolic types
into psycho-social history. Bakhtin, viewing utterances as communicative, sees in speech
genres a situational stabilization influencing referentiality, expressiveness and
addressivity; generic shaping of communicative action thereby regularizes our subjects of
discourse, our emotional stance towards those subjects, and our relations to those we
communicate with. Cohen argues that genres are historically constructed and evolving, as
parts of changing social expectations as perceived by each individual. Thus not only do
genres change, what counts as an example of a genre is historically determined, how
readers apply generic expectations change, and each text helps transform the landscape of
These most recent turns in literary understanding of genre match well with work
already preceding in linguistics and rhetoric. Moreover, since much of the work in
applied linguistics and rhetoric was done precisely to make visible the particularity of
academic and pedagogic communicative practices, the implications for the teaching of
writing are already drawn, in ways that do not conflate literacy and literary--although
recognizing that the literary encompasses many varied and rich forms of literacy.
The work from linguistics can be seen as arising from concern for register: the
varieties of language deployed in different circumstances, consisting of features of
language that co-vary (Biber; Devitt). Further some forms of linguistic analysis have
attached these features to intellectual and social relations created by the deployment of
various features (Halliday; Hasan; Halliday and Martin; Kress; Kress and Threadgold;
Martin; Cope and Kalantzis). Further, some have used genre to understand textual
organization in terms of the typical meaning-making moves the writer takes appropriate
to regularized discursive contexts, as in Swales’ analysis of article introductions in
science and Dudley-Evans analyses of dissertations (see also Bhatia). Cognitive
linguistics work on prototypes, although not yet extended to considering larger
discoursal units, also provides a potential resource for considering genre (Rosch; Taylor).
Rhetoric since its founding 2500 years ago has had an interest in genre or types of
utterance, for rhetorical practice is concerned precisely with determining the effective
utterance appropriate to any particular circumstance. The rhetorical concept of genre has
from classic times associated the form and style of the utterance with both the occasion or
situation and the social action realized in the utterance. Miller in reviewing the rhetorical
discussion of genre and associating it with sociological concepts of typification, has
defined genres “as typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations (159).” That is,
rhetors become aware that a particular kind of utterance has proved effective in certain
kinds of circumstances, so that when they note similar circumstances that are likely to try
a similar kind of utterance. Over time and repetition, socially shared patterns and
expectations emerge to guide all in the interpretation of circumstances and utterances. In
her account, perception is a key to recognition of recurrent circumstances and of typified
actions, so that the emergence of recognizable genres increases the recognition of
situations as alike or recurrent. For example, once one is familiar with business letters of
complaint as a kind of response to particular circumstances, one may begin to identify
circumstance as that kind which calls for a letter of complaint. Moreover, the recognition
of genre typifies possible social intentions and actions, as one realizes a letter of
complaint is a possible response to some commercial injustice.
The implications of this socially embedded account of genre have been explored
by placing it within social structural and social psychological theories, seeing the rise of
genres in relation to regularized social relations and institutions of communication and in
relation to socially shaped psychological practice (Bazerman, Shaping). That is genres, as
perceived and used by individuals, become part of their regularized social relations and
communicative landscape, which provide both means and tasks for their thought
Further, the social and psychological implications of genre have been further
elaborated in relation to speech act theory and the structurationist accounts of Bourdieu,
Giddens, and Luhmann. Structurationist theory points to how larger patterns of social
regularities are created and maintained through the many individual acts which establish,
reassert, and modify patterns and expectations. These patterns provide social locales for
speech acts as well as shape the requirements for successful action. (Berkenkotter and
Huckin; Yates and Orlikowski.) Structurationist accounts of genre thus provide a means
of analysis of the social and institutional conditions of speech acts called for by Austin
and also avoid the abstracting and decontextualizing tendencies of Searle's analysis.
Moreover, in providing socially and historically shaped locales within which we must
speak in recognizable and appropriate ways, genres present environments or habitats
within which we perceive and act (Bazerman, "Whose Moment" and "Systems of
Historical and ethnographic studies in many different domains have been pursued
using these linguistic, rhetorical, and socio-psychological approaches to genre, including
scientific and technical communication; medicine and veterinary record keeping and
diagnosis; business and policy communication; primary, secondary, university, and
graduate education. (See for examples, D. Atkinson; P. Atkinson; Bazerman and Paradis;
Blakeslee; Campbell and Jamieson; Casanave; Connor; Fahnestock; Freedman and
Medway; Freedman; Hunston; Prior; Schryer; Smart; Yates; Yates and Orlikowski). As
these studies deepen they have gone beyond mapping the variety of genres at different
communicative sites to examine how the various sites of work and social interaction are
organized around structured sets of genres, how the production of those genres are
essential parts of the work and interaction at those sites, and how thought and meaning
are framed within generic tasks. In so doing they are drawing the work in rhetoric,
communication, and linguistics ever more closely to work in psychology (see Vygotsky),
sociology (see Luckmann; Luhmann), and anthropology (see Bauman; Gumperz; Hanks),
finding shaping mechanisms for our internal and external lives in the mechanisms by
which we organize our communication. This work holds much promise for drawing
humanities’ understandings of the workings of language into relation with the social
sciences’ understandings of human relations, behavior, and consciousness. By forging
closer links with the related enterprises of conversational analysis, ethnomethodology,
and other forms of discourse analysis, genre analysis can play a major role in the current
investigation into the communicative grounds of social order (see, for example, Boden
and Zimmer; Ochs)
The picture of genre that emerges from these various investigations and studies is
that genre is a rich multidimensional resource that helps us locate our discursive action in
relation to highly structured situations. Genre is only the visible realization of a complex
of social and psychological dynamics. In understanding what is afoot in the genre, why
the genre is at is, we become aware of the multiple social and psychological factors our
utterance needs to speak to in order to be most effective. Once we understand the
dynamics and factors, we may have a range of choices available to us, including choices
that are far from traditional in appearance, but which nonetheless speak to the
circumstances. What we might feel as the weight of living up to the expectations of a
particular genre is in fact rather the reminder of all the complexities at stake in the form.
The pressure of genre is not of conformity so much as of response to complexity, and
insofar as we feel drawn or seek traditional formal solutions, those standardized forms
provide a means to begin to address the situation in a focused way.
When we invoke a genre such as a newspaper editorial, we are invoking not just a
pattern of timely topic, evaluative and emotional words, and policy recommendations--
we are invoking the role of journalism and commentary in contemporary politics, the
civic and economic power of a particular newspaper, the public reputation of its writers,
and the influence of its readership. We are invoking unfolding events in which there are
many players, a changing topology through time, and a deft sense of timing necessary for
any editorial to be successful. We are invoking the standards of taste and criticism within
a community, current attitudes toward political figures, and the emotional hot buttons of
the moment. It is in this complex environment that the editorial must act.
Moreover, genre helps us understand the novelty within situations, as we see in
the situation the intersection of different types of events and we work out what kind of
response can speak to all the variables we see. We may see in a situation a strong
expectation that we follow a well worn path, but then we may feel a discomfort with that
path and an impulse to set out in a new direction. How to turn the audience in that new
direction while they have their eyes firmly fixed on the expected is the art of rhetorical
creativity. If that art fails, if no form and intention is recognizable to the audience, they
may simply see our impulse as going nowhere and doing nothing. It is very easy for
readers to dismiss what they do not recognize. Similarly, blurring, blending and mixing
genres are hardly the same thing as abandoning all sense of genre; they are rather creative
acts dependent on intimate knowledge of genre.
Similarly, genres enacted in the classroom are more than a ritual repetition of
standardized statements. If they fail to be more than that, it is only because we so strip the
meaning from the classroom activity that generic productions become only formal
exercises. It is up to us as teachers to activate the dynamics of the classroom so as to
make the genres we assign alive in the meaningful communications of the classroom.
This may be by drawing on the students prior experience with genres in social situations
that have had meaning for them or by tapping into students desires to enter particular new
kinds of discursive situations or by making vital to their own concerns the new genres
and discursive realms we wish to invite them into. And we must do this within the
institutional definitions of our courses, so that students accept the appropriacy of what
they are doing in the classroom.
As teachers, we all know in class discussion we are expected to ask certain genres
of questions to open up discussion. We all know it is easy enough to make up a question
on the assigned topic of the day, but we all also know how difficult it is to come up with
a question that effectively engages the students and evokes reflective responses. In
finding the right kind of question, we need to search for what is already alive or we can
make come alive in the classroom, within all that constrains and defines that particular
class setting. The study of classroom genres is not about defining the minimal
requirements of any old statement, but about releasing the full power of the well chosen
statement that speaks to the full psychological, social, and educational dynamics of the
setting. In any classroom's discourse, how fully alive any students generic productions
are depends on the life we invest in our comments and assignments that model and
prompt students utterances as well as on what the students bring to the task. Our
assignment questions not only identify the genre we are asking students to produce, but
also provide an environment for students to speak within, a place for them to invest their
energy and concern. Unless we are lucky enough to happen across well-springs of
meaning students are waiting to release, it is up to us to invest that response space with a
life and meaning that will evoke the students’ desires to speak in kind. Genre is our tool
for getting at, defining, and intervening in those dynamics.
Moreover, genre is a tool to getting at the resources the students bring with them,
the genres they carry from their educations and their experiences in society and it is a tool
for framing challenges that reach beyond what they know into new domains that are as
yet for them unexplored, but not so different from what they know as to be unintelligible.
As creative teachers, desiring to increase our students' rhetorical skill, flexibility and
creativity, we can try to locate those kinds of utterances our students are ready to make if
they are given the challenge and some guidance in what such statements do and how they
do it. That is, our strategic choice of genres to bring into the classroom can help
introduce students into new realms of discourse just beyond the edge of their current
What genres we choose to bring into the class through our comments and
assigned readings, and which genres we ask students to communicate in as we signal by
our questions, assignments, models, and instructions are matters that need to be worked
out in each individual circumstance. But if we find the right generic locations within
which to place the communicative activity of each class, students may become capable of
remarkable performances as they speak to environments they grasp and they want to
speak to. Many years ago, teaching third grade in an inner city school, I found that
children whom the system had given up on were able to create complex play scripts
based on television cartoons popular at that time--they knew the genre of Crusader Rabbit
and they very much liked playing in that generic space. More recently I found urban
college students in a business program, who were not much motivated toward
autobiographical revelation nor towards social science analysis, come alive with
wonderful discussion and papers when we put together social structural analysis of social
and economic mobility with their individual and family sagas. Immigrants of Asian
peasant families or fallen Iranian aristocracy had remarkable things to say about how
political and economic structure affected their life chances as well as the surrounding
social stability and political harmony. African-American students had precise
understanding of the barriers placed to social mobility in both rural and urban settings, in
North and South.
But among a group of equally ambitious and academically more advanced group
of engineering students the social mobility assignment fell flat, because their privileged
cultural homogeneity had given them few opportunities to think about how they and their
families’ fates were dependent on social factors. Rather their individual and family sagas
were built around tales of individual initiative and character. In this class the genres of
social analysis and personal narrative intersected in a different and less intellectually
exciting place. However, the right generic mix for this class was found in an assignment
that coupled the ambitious stories of their own lives with descriptions of technological
progress. Their research papers, describing leading-edge developments and ten-year
projections for fields they hoped to contribute to, led to remarkably sophisticated and
interesting papers, which, for example, argued for the increasing role of architects in
space station design or set out new directions for micro-chips.
So which kinds of readings and lectures and assignments work in any classroom
circumstance depends on a negotiation among institutions, teacher, and students. That
negotiation determines where the journey of the class can most successfully go while
meeting the goals and needs of each. Sometimes institutions have clear imperatives, as
defined through professional accreditation requirements or faculty senate mandates.
Although we at times may see these demands as rather blunt if not stupefying
instruments, they do assert the stakes the several professions and disciplines have in the
specialized literacy of students entering their domains. We as teachers often have strong
opinions about the kinds of writing we feel will lead to most growth. And students may
have strong attractions and aversions to the various kinds of discursive domains offered
in the university and the professional worlds beyond.
Since without student motivation little happens in a writing class, the last must
always be attended to. Learning to write is hard work, requiring addressing ever more
difficult writing problems, so that if we want students to learn to write we must locate the
kinds of writing they will want to work hard at, the kinds of writing problems they will
want to solve. Once students learn what it is to engage deeply and write well in any
particular circumstance, they have a sense of the possibilities of literate participation in
any discursive arena. Moreover, in any new discursive circumstances they may enter into,
they will have at least one set of well-developed practices to draw analogies from and
contrasts to. Further, if we provide students some analytical vocabulary to reflect on how
genres relate to the dynamics of situations, they will be able to observe and think about
their new situations with some sophistication and strategic appropriacy.
Thus while studies of genre point to how different discursive practices are in
different circumstances, we need not worry too greatly that in helping students down any
particular path--one they are interested in pursuing or one appropriate to the particular
career goals they have chosen--we are shutting them off from other practices we as
teachers of the humanities value highly. Rather, students are likely to learn how powerful
a tool writing is to carry out specialized work and how empowered they are in entering
focused, specialized discussions in appropriately forceful ways. With that knowledge
they are more likely to respect alternative discourses and their own ability to enter those
discourses when they are interested in doing so.
After all, having learned to inhabit one place well and live fully with the activities
and resources available in that habitation, no one is likely to mistake it for a different
place. Nor having moved to a different place, do people stint on learning how to make
the most of their new home. It is only those who have never participated more than
marginally who do not notice where they are, because they do not perceive why all that
detailed attention is worth their effort. Once students feel part of the life in a genre, any
genre that grabs their attention, the detailed and hard work of writing becomes
compellingly real, for the work has a real payoff in engagement within activities the
students find important.
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