Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy by Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff

Bawarshi, Anis S., and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010. WAC Clearinghouse. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

At Ursuline, we write in genres every day, whether academic essays, emails, lab reports, or lesson plans. How people use genres has been a fascinating question for scholars to explore. In this book, the authors provide an overview of genre theory from several perspectives including linguistics, literary studies, rhetoric, and sociology. Though seemingly abstract at the surface level, the topic of genres is important for pedagogy and our day to day activities in the classroom. Many times, it is precisely genre that students are having difficulty with when writing in a new and unfamiliar discipline, and the authors communicate the insights of several decades of research into genres.

Though not all scholars are in agreement, most who have researched genres suggest that the explicit teaching of genres to students will best assist them in utilizing genres. An interesting approach to teaching genre comes from the Australian-based systemic-functional school, which involves what is called the "teaching-learning cycle" (34). In this cycle, students are first exposed to various examples of a particular genre and invited to analyze them. Next, students and teachers work together to construct an example of the genre. After this collaboration, students create an example of the genre on their own. For example, if I were to teach students how to write a research essay, we would read several examples of research essays first, then we would work together to write a research essay, and, finally, the students would write research essays of their own. This method, though not without its critics, has been implemented successfully at all grade levels including higher education.

Teaching genres seem to be particularly successful if the instructor can communicate to students that genres are not mere formulas but instead "dynamic, situated actions" (17) that "help organize and generate social practices and realities" (20). The authors are critical of the hackneyed teaching of universal modes of writing such as description and narration, feeling that form is typically overemphasized whereas a true understanding of genre always involves content and context as well. To replace such traditional but untheoretically-sound pedagogical approaches, after discussing the theory and research into genres earlier, the authors discuss some interesting pedagogical approaches to teaching writing in Part 3 of the book, which concludes with a handy glossary and annotated bibliography (a genre, incidentally that has been difficult for students at Ursuline).

In conclusion, the book is a valuable primer on genre theory and well worth reading. Even more valuable though is to stop and consider what genres you utilize in your courses and how you expect students to master them. Are you depending too much on tacit knowledge that you hold but the students do not? Or are you explicitly guiding the students through what is for them new rhetorical territory? Getting students to think about genre explicitly can help them to transfer their skills and enable them to recognize and negotiate new genres and situations in the future (190). As the authors vividly demonstrate, genre is worth thinking about for instructors and students alike.

The book is available for free online at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/bawarshi_reiff/.