Tuesday, June 12, 2012

“Transferability and Genres” by Amy Devitt

Devitt, Amy.  “Transferability and Genres.”  Locations of Composition.  Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser.  Albany:  State U of New York P, 2007.  215-27.  Print.

A tradition of grumbling and lamenting exists in America where education and writing are concerned.  It goes a little something like this.  Employers complain that college graduates can’t write because their professors stunk.  College professors complain their students can’t write because the students' high school teachers stunk.  And so on and so forth until presumably even the kindergarten teacher moans about the quality of a child’s parenting. 

What’s going on here?

Composition scholar Amy Devitt provides a possible answer in her essay.  She argues that general writing skills don’t exist (cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, whose work I’ve written about recently, would disagree at least slightly), and that writing “is a highly situated act” embedded in specific genres, which are patterns of text developed in response to recurrent social situations (215-16).  When student writers fail, it’s often because they are misapplying a previously-learned genre to a new situation.  She uses the example of new associates in a law firm who write analytic memos by relying too heavily on their law school genres, with predictably substandard results.  However, those associates who wrote the worst memos typically wrote the worst in law school as well, and Devitt attributes their greater failure to not learning the previous genres as well as they should have.  She writes, “The genres that writers know constitute their genre repertoires, and writers draw from their repertoires to write in a new situation” (223).

What does this mean for us as college instructors?

Devitt recommends that we focus on teaching a few genres well in our classes, with an eye on how they can be used in the future (that’s the transferability part of the essay), as well as teach students about genres as a concept, so they’ll be better prepared to analyze and utilize a new one when they need to do so.  Students will still struggle to learn a new genre, but it’ll likely be more akin to huffing up a San Francisco hill than trying to climb Mt. Everest.

We'll probably never stop employers complaining about us though.  Or stop complaining about high school teachers.  Nevertheless, now we can do more than throw up our hands in frustration.

The essay collection is available through OhioLINK.

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