Spring Conference Focuses on Genre
On April 3, Amy Devitt, Professor of English at the University of Kansas, visited campus as part of the Writing Program’s annual spring conference. In "Understanding Genres as Culturally Meaningful Actions," Professor Devitt explained how teaching with genre can be more rhetorical and cultural than simply focusing on static forms and conventions. Devitt argued that we should teach genre as a form of social action. Teachers across multiple disciplines, graduate students, and undergraduates participated in an interactive workshop that took up academic genres, such as literacy narratives, arguments, and even course syllabi, while also exploring popular genres like wedding announcements and obituaries. Devitt’s goal was to help participants see genres not as templates, but rather as culturally meaningful actions that shape and are shaped by the people, communities, and cultures that use them.
Director of Undergraduate Studies Tony Scott noted the ways in which Devitt’s talk continued conversations from recent professional development events in the Writing Program that have examined how sophisticated writers learn to move across languages and dialects and learn to adapt to diverse communities of practice. “In these sessions,” says Scott, “We have discussed how writing is culturally adaptive and productive, and how there are no universal codes, no singular languages, media, dialects or textual forms that prepare writers to enter all of the situations they will enter in academia and beyond.” Following from these discussions is the exploration of contemporary genre studies.
In his invitation to the event, Scott posed the following questions to Writing Program teachers: “What does this conception of genre as culturally adaptive social action mean for writing teachers and how we can best serve our students? How might it shape how we conceive of ‘academic writing,’ the writing competencies we want our students to develop, how we make assignments, how we read and assess as teachers, and how we encourage students to read as writers?”
Professor Devitt took up some of these questions when she encouraged teachers in the audience to select the genres that they use in the classroom consciously and carefully, and to consider teaching genre awareness and critique as a way to promote students’ critical thinking. She offered a number of strategies to help bring this pedagogy to life in the classroom, including asking students to watch a genre change through individual choices (such as those that people make in obituaries) and learn how to use an emerging genre (considering the differences between Facebook posts and Tweets). “Genre is everywhere and everything,” explained Devitt. “Once you start to see genre differently, it influences the way that you see just about everything.” In closing her talk, Devitt urged, “If we can teach genres in ways that acknowledge our inability to teach any genre thoroughly or completely, and that help students to question, as well as to follow generic expectations, then we’ll come much closer to easing our well-grounded fears of genre’s power, and much closer to giving students access to that power.”
Like Scott, Writing Program Director and Chair Lois Agnew emphasized the ways in which this discussion of genre can build on existing conversations and inform the Writing Program curriculum: “Genre provides a useful framework for infusing our curriculum with rhetorical principles, as genre theories offer a concrete way of thinking about how texts both influence and are shaped by audience, purpose, context, and medium. The goal of teaching students genre awareness can provide our curriculum with consistency across sections, while leaving enough flexibility that instructors will be able to design courses and assignments that reflect their particular strengths. Rhetorical genre theories also nicely sustain and complement our conversations about multilingual writing and discourse communities, in that those theories encourage teachers to engage with students' strengths and offer them strategies for adapting their existing knowledge to new contexts and in response to the expectations of varied communities.I look forward to continuing conversations across the program in the months ahead about how engagement with rhetorical genres can have a more prominent role in our curriculum.”
This event was sponsored by The Writing Program; the Humanities Center; the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics; and the Department of Psychology.
—story by Emily Dressing