Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
Let’s begin by imagining the world—the worlds, rather—in which you write. Your workplace, for instance: you might take messages, or write e-mails, or update records, or input orders, or fill out a variety of forms.
Or what about your educational world? You likely write in response to all kinds of assignments: lab reports, research papers, short summaries, observations, even, sometimes, short narratives. Sometimes you might write a short message in Canvas or via e-mail to your instructors. You may also have financial aid forms to fill out or application materials for programs or for transfer institutions to complete.
What about your world outside of school or work? Do you, occasionally, write a Facebook post, or a tweet, or a Snapchat story? Do you repost other people’s articles and memes with your own comments? How about texts or e-mails to friends and acquaintances? You might also be a writer of what we sometimes label as creative texts—you might write songs or song lyrics, or poems, or stories.
The names of the things you write—e-mails, messages, record or application forms, order forms, lab reports, field observations, applications, narratives, text messages, and so on—can be thought of as individual compositions, large or small, that happen incidentally in the course of other activity. But another way to think of these compositions is as predictable and recurring kinds of communication—in a word, genres.
The term genre means “kind, sort, or style” and is often applied to kinds of art and media, for instance, sorts of novels, films, television shows, and so on. In writing studies, we find all sorts of written genres, not just ones that you might classify as artistic (or creative).
Genre is a word we use when we want to classify things, to note the similarities and differences between kinds of writing. But we don’t identify genres solely by their formal markers. For instance, memoranda use a specific sort of header, and lab reports typically have commonly used section headings. But it’s not the header that makes a memorandum a genre (or subgenre); it’s not the section headings that make a lab report a genre (or subgenre). In other words, the formal features or markers don’t define the genre, although they are often helpful signals. Rather, it’s a situation in which the memorandum or the lab report typically recurs, and it’s also the fact that such situations seem to call repeatedly for a kind of writing that answers the needs of that situation. We begin to classify a kind of writing as a genre when it recurs frequently enough and seems to perform the same functions in recurring situations.
Here’s a definition: “A genre is a typified utterance that appears in a recurrent situation. A genre evolves through human use and activity to be a durable and usable form for carrying out human communicative intentions in fairly stable ways.” This definition might feel a little knotty, so let’s break it down.
|utterance||any act of language — written or spoken|
|recurrent||happens again and again|
So a genre is an act of language—for our purposes here, mostly acts of writing, in particular—that behaves in typical or characteristic ways, which we can observe in repeated or persistent situations.
For students, classrooms are recurrent situations, if you think about it—while the events that occur in a classroom on any given day might differ in their details from another day, in their overall configuration, the activities of a classroom are remarkably similar over time. We might expect, in a recurrent situation, to observe, then, recurring types of communication. A teacher writes on the board; students might take notes. A teacher hands out an assignment; students respond to the assignment. Genres take their shape in recurrent situations because the communications that occur in recurrent situations tend to be remarkably similar.
Charles Bazerman, writing in Naming What We Know, says that we can see genre as
habitual responses to recurring socially bounded situations. Regularities of textual form [like the header on a memorandum or the section heads in a lab report] most lay people [i.e. not experts] experience … [are] the structural characteristics of genres [as they] emerge from … repeated instances of action and are reinforced by institutional power structures.
In other words, if you work in an office, you probably write memos, using whatever the prescribed form is in your workplace. You, as a writer in that situation, don’t precisely choose that genre, nor its formal characteristics—in a way, the situation chooses those for you, and all the people who are doing similar work to you use the same genre, in much the same way, and probably have been doing so for quite some time. This is part of what we mean when we say that genre lives in the recurrent situation—in offices, in labs, in all kinds of institutional settings. Bazerman highlights the institutional nature of genre when he says, “Genres are constructions of groups, over time, usually with the implicit or explicit sanction of organizational or institutional power.” Individual writers in institutional settings usually have somewhat limited choices when it comes to genre.
Still, writers who are really at home in a particular writing setting use genres with a great deal of fluency. As we’ve said, the genre is built into the writing situation—when you’re at home in a writing situation, the genre is simply part of your accustomed toolset, and you know very well which tool to use. But all of us are writers in multiple settings, in some of which we may be very comfortable, and in others of which we may have to do a little more thinking and prospecting—looking about, sizing up what might be the best choices for the situation, including choices about genre. In these cases, simply knowing that there are genres—typical ways of using language that recur in the situation—can help a writer assess how to respond, and to figure out what genres are typically used in that situation.
When a writer decides or intuits that a particular genre is called for by the situation, he or she takes up the genre and uses it to frame a written response to the situation. So, for instance, when a scientist has gathered enough experimental data, she will probably write some sort of report of the findings. When the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments on a particular case, eventually they will write a ruling, and often a dissent. The scientist doesn’t have to figure out whether she’ll write a report or if she’d rather write a song lyric. The Supreme Court justice writing for the majority knows that she will not write a haiku. In each instance, the situation calls for a particular genre. The writer in the situation knows this. So the writer takes up the genre and uses it to respond.
Each time a writer takes up a genre, the writer reaffirms, in a way, the stable features of the genre. But the writer also—perhaps in minuscule ways—might adapt and reshape the genre, which potentially shifts the genre’s stability. For instance, the proposal genre typically requires you to define a problem, often in a fair amount of detail, as well as provide a very well-reasoned solution, with evidence that supports the solution’s feasibility and desirability. Without these moves, what you write simply won’t be a proposal. But as you consider how you might define the problem, it occurs to you that a brief story, followed by an analysis and some data, might illuminate the problem better than a presentation of dry statistical data alone. Not everyone who writes a proposal will choose to use narrative—the narrative strategy is a way that you might imagine your audience and that audience’s response, aiming for a livelier and more engaged response.
To sum up: sometimes when you write, the genre is a choice that’s already made for you. But there are also times when you’ll have opportunities to decide upon the genres you’ll use to write in the world, and often this will be true in the writing classes you take. This requires some critical imagination and research on your part—imagining the writing situation, and the genres that might respond well in that situation. Thus, genres are both stable and to some degree fluid and evolving, just as human communication itself is both predictable and unpredictable.
Knowing about genre can provide powerful insight into how writing works in the world. We know from a fair amount of empirical study that writers learn to use genres best within contexts where they use the genres regularly—the genres in use within a particular locale will become part of the toolset writers within those locales pick up to do their work there. But even in your writing courses, you should start to become more aware of the genres that are built into the settings in which you currently find yourself—school, work, public life—as well as genres that are at work in other settings you want to be a part of.
Sometimes, despite what we’ve described above about the ways that genres are dependent upon contexts and situations for their meaning, it can seem as if a genre is a thing all on its own, especially when we’re learning about a particular genre. It can seem that what you’re supposed to learn is how to approximate the genre, and you hope that by observing and then imitating the genre features, you’ll produce writing that behaves like the genre. Often students cast about for a formula, thinking that a genre can be understood simply almost as a template. Let’s say you’re learning about the report genre. You learn that it typically has an informational purpose. You look at a few reports, and it seems like they often have headings and they often have graphs or charts. You forge ahead, trying in your draft to bring in as many of these kinds of features as you can. But do graphs and headings alone make a piece of writing a report?
One thing an approach like this—looking at the genre as a formulaic, standalone artifact—does not show very well is how the genre actually functions in an environment. Charles Bazerman, a scholar and researcher in writing studies who has spent a good deal of his academic life looking into the ways that genres work, talks about something called “genre sets,” which are a “collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce.” For instance, to use Bazerman’s example, “If you find out a civil engineer needs to write proposals, work orders, progress reports, quality test reports, safety evaluations, and a limited number of other similar documents, you have gone a long way toward identifying the work they do.” You might think about the kinds of texts you are called upon to produce in one of your typical writing settings—for instance, a classroom. You produce, for instance, notes on classroom presentations, drafts, feedback on other students’ work, responses to readings, records of your research, e-mails to classmates and instructors, and so on. The collection of texts you list would be the genre set for you as a student.
Beyond the texts you produce, though, lies a network in which your texts are situated. So, for instance, students in a college class will produce notes, drafts, exams, assignments, e-mails to the instructor, and so on. The instructor has a different but intersecting set of texts: syllabi, assignments, e-mails to the class or responses to student e-mail queries, comments on drafts and final assignments, exam questions, and so on. Beyond the classroom, instructors also read and interpret policies, write assessment plans and reports, and so on. Each person acting within the system of college is part of a situated and intersecting set of texts, which Bazerman calls a genre system.
Let’s imagine a little theoretical genre system—Social Media World:
The genre system I’ve sketched out above depends on several intersecting elements: the things you write, the things you read, the things you circulate and the things your network circulates, and also on your comments and re-posts. The particular network doesn’t matter so much, although it will shape the specifics about what you write and how you respond. But in social media, your genre system is always partly what you do, and partly what other people who are in your network do. It’s even partly what people outside your direct sphere do—like the coders who design, and redesign, the social media platforms you use and participate in, and whose design decisions affect how you participate.
Anis Bawarshi thinks of these situated and intersecting sets of genres as forming a rhetorical ecosystem. In “The Ecology of Genre,” Bawarshi uses the example of a patient medical history form, the form that people fill out when they go to a doctor’s office. You’ve probably filled one out yourself. Typically, this form asks for specific information about the patient, such as physical statistics, “prior and recurring physical conditions, past treatments, and, of course, a description of current physical symptoms.”
Bawarshi notes that the medical history portion of the document is usually followed by insurance information, and a “consent-to-treat statement,” as well as a legal release. All of these parts of the form, put together, mean that the patient medical history form (or PMHF) genre “is at once a patient record and a legal document.” Bawarshi thinks that this genre is like a habitat—a place that sustains the creatures that live in it and really sets the living conditions for those creatures. The patient medical history form, like a habitat, shapes the way individuals “perceive and experience a particular environment”—i.e. the physician’s office. He also suggests that the PMHF, like any single genre, “does not function in an ecological vacuum”; rather, it is one of a number of genres that work together to create a whole “biosphere of discourse.”
It’s perhaps helpful, as you learn about particular genres, to think about how the genre at hand might fit into larger genre sets and systems—or even ecologies, and how genres shape the ways we interact, live, and work with each other. As Bazerman notes, any system of genres is also a part of the system of activity happening in any writing situation. This means that understanding the genres operating in any setting will also help you to understand better what happens in that setting—how people work together, how they solve problems, how they communicate, certainly, but also how they get work done.
As we discussed above, when we learn about genres as a part of a writing curriculum, it can seem like we’re describing formulas for writing instead of the situations that shape and give rise to the genres. You, as a student writer, can feel a little bit like you’re just learning an advanced sort of conceptual formatting. When you use genres in their natural settings—when you’re using the genres that are a part of your workplace, or when you’re exchanging writing with people you know well, in ways you’re comfortable with—all that situation and situatedness blooms back to life, and your ability to write competently and fluently in the genres that are part of your writing environment will have greater consequence because you’ll be better at it. So it’s worth considering: how do you learn how to use the genres that function in your particular writing environment with greater competence and fluency?
It’s like doing field work: you bring your wits and your gear and you figure it out by observing and jumping in. This is where a writing class can be very helpful, helping you to attune yourself to a writing situation, to cues that will guide you in assessing expectations, conventions, and possible responses. In other words, your writing course can teach you about genre, but even more, it can teach you how to be sensitive to genre, the sets, systems, and ecologies in operation in a new writing situation, and how to more capably participate in the work going on in that situation. Your writing class teaches you how to learn the genres in a new setting.
In The Terminator—the first (and arguably the best) one—there’s a great, brief scene in which the terminator-borg is holed up in his room. Someone knocks on the door. His borg-brain runs through possible responses—some are neutral, others reasonably polite, and others expletive-rude. He chooses the expletive, which for the moment is effective—the door knocker leaves.
With all this genre knowledge you’re developing, are you just a little worried that you’re basically going to be a borg, scrolling through your limited options in a nano-second, the choices all but made for you?
You might appreciate Charles Bazerman’s thoughts on this: “the view of genre that simply makes it a collection of features obscures how these features are flexible in any instance or even how the general understanding of the genre can change over time, as people orient to evolving patterns.” For instance, Bazerman goes on, “Students writing papers for courses have a wide variety of ways of fulfilling the assignment, and may even bend the assignment as long as they can get their professor … to go along with the change.” In other words, genres evolve and change over time, and each user taking up a genre takes it up just a little bit differently. Genres help writers get things done: they are durable text-types that people use repeatedly for similar communicative acts. Knowing about genres, being sensitive to the genres that are a part of a particular situation, and becoming a capable user of those genres makes you a more flexible and adaptable writer.
Anis Bawarshi, “The Ecology of Genre.” In Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Charles Bazerman, “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.” In What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Ed. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.
Charles Bazerman, “Writing Speaks to Situations Through Recognizable Forms.” In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. Boulder, Colorado: Utah State University Press, 2015.
James Cameron, director. The Terminator. John Daly and Derek Gibson, producers. Orion Pictures, 1984.