Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments across the Disciplines by Mary Soliday

Soliday, Mary.  Everyday Genres:  Writing Assignments across the Disciplines.  Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois U P, 2011.  Print.  CCCC Studies in Writing Rhetoric.

Today, I wrote a letter of affirmation.  Before today, I had never even heard of a letter of affirmation.  I did some basic research on the genre of the letter of affirmation and gave it my best attempt, but I still don’t know enough about the genre to tell if I wrote a good letter or not.  Though it’s been some time since I had the experience of learning a new textual genre, it is a common experience for our students.  As they go from course to course, they are often encountering new genres.  In this book, Mary Soliday discusses her experience at the City University of New York (CUNY) directing a writing across the curriculum (WAC) program, where she found that helping students understand a genre helped them succeed in writing it, an approach which seems like common sense but is too rarely done in the academy.  As a result of her experience, she has developed some insights as to why students often are unable to transfer writing skills out of a general education writing course into courses in their majors.

To help students understand a genre, Soliday argues that instructors should help students understand the social context the genre emerges from, writing, “If the goal is to help students to acquire written forms, then it follows that teachers need to build effective social contexts through which a novice writer becomes familiar with the typical motives that create the conventions usually associated with genres” (xi).  The lack of context, Soliday suggests, is a principal reason why students do not write well.

Soliday also suggests that instructors should have common approaches to the teaching of writing, which would help students transfer general principles of rhetoric across different disciplines (xiii).  She proposes that a focus on genre as a concept could help to accomplish this goal, provided students are immersed in the types of social situations in which genres operate and aren’t left to figure things out for themselves in an apprenticeship type model (14-15).

Overall, the WAC program at CUNY appears to have been a success with students generally declaring themselves more engaged and that they learned more of the content of the courses through a writing intensive approach (31).  Soliday writes, “If teachers can articulate the purpose given to a genre by the social group that awards it meaning in the first place, inexperienced writers will more fully grasp the conventions of the genre because they understand their readers’ expectations” (34).  So, one way we could improve student writing at Ursuline perhaps is by focusing on genre and context in a similar manner as CUNY did.  Soliday also finds that sequencing assignments, breaking them down into parts, and focusing on idea generation (brainstorming or what rhetoricians would call invention) also played useful roles in improving student learning and writing (77), ideas we could also emulate in just about any course.  Soliday’s book is a powerful reminder that the responsibility for improving student writing stretches across the curriculum to every course and every instructor.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

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