Rhetoric: How We Examine Writing in the World
- Genre Is a Form of Social Action
- Genre Is a Product of Situated Cognition
- Genre Is Both Stable and Dynamic
- Genre Can Be Translated
by Clint Johnson
Genre is a concept that comes from understanding how language becomes meaningful in context. Essentially, it is a tool that helps us use language by grouping it into categories or types. For example, a list is different from a report, which is different from a romantic story, which is different from a tweet. Each genre is different in form but also in how, when, and why it is used. This is because each genre exists for specific reasons, to do particular things in the world. By studying genre, we improve our ability to learn and then use forms of communication effectively in various situations.
At Salt Lake Community College, we often use theories of rhetoric to understand the work language does. A rhetorical view of genre teaches the following:
It’s about knowing how to effectively participate within a community.
Writing professor Carolyn R. Miller changed how people understand genre by defining it as “typified social action.” Language binds communities together. Within communities, people have values, goals, questions, and concerns that are often similar, and they use language to negotiate these wants and needs. In this mass of interaction, many situations occur over and over, whether it’s challenging a parking ticket, telling a scary story, or proposing marriage. Genre provides ways to understand and respond to these “recurring” situations. Think of how you write to help you shop (probably a list) compared to how you communicate your educational and work experience when applying for a job (probably a resume). When faced with a recurring situation, others have made choices in their communication that helped them achieve their goals of acting in and upon the community. By knowing what others have done that has worked in the past, we are better able to make choices in communication that result in the social actions, and reactions, we want.
It tells us how people think in situations that recur in life.
People from different cultures often respond very differently to similar situations and subjects. An American is likely to think differently about the responsibilities of government than a Kenyan or North Korean. These differences exist not only in what we think, but how we think. A German student may be encouraged to analyze and evaluate a statement by a professor while a Chinese student may be charged to memorize, understand, and recite the statement. These socially influenced ways of thinking, what genre theorists Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin (formerly of the University of Utah) characterize as “a community’s ways of knowing, being, and acting,” can be understood as genres. To understand genre is to understand what and how others in our communities think about subjects and in situations, which helps us determine our own positions and communicate more effectively.
It offers familiar ways to communicate while also changing to fit new circumstances.
Genre, at its most basic, can be understood as a form that a text takes. This form can be used over and over and provides a frame of reference to help us communicate. Learning to write a Facebook post by using appropriate length, tone, and links makes it easy to communicate a huge variety of ideas so that they will be read, and hopefully liked and forwarded on, by Facebook readers. Knowing the genre makes communication in that situation easier. You know what people expect in your writing and how to give them that. However, genres are always changing. The new Facebook Quote Plugin allows people to easily highlight and quote sections of a text while the Save Button allows them to save content from a page onto their own with one click. Genre changes as the goals, desires, challenges, and even technologies used by the community change. Failing to learn those changes to the genre can limit our effectiveness when using that genre in a community. This paradox, that genre provides stability to communication while still changing, caused contemporary writing teacher Catherine Schryer to characterize genre as “stabilized-for-now.” Genres are useful as we learn them, but we must continue to learn about their changes or they become less effective tools.
Some things we understand about a genre in one situation can help us communicate in another.
One invaluable thing about rhetorical knowledge is that it can be transferred from one situation to another. Genre works the same way—kind of. What we learn about one genre in a specific situation can often help us learn to communicate effectively in a similar but not identical situation. However, doing exactly the same thing we’ve done previously rarely works when writing in new genres. Instead, we need to “translate” our knowledge. This is similar to how Spanish must be translated for an English speaker to understand what is said. Literally translating every word in order from Spanish to English creates confusion because the languages are different. Instead, the meaning communicated in Spanish is considered and rebuilt using the unique nature of English.
Similarly, our knowledge of genre gained from previous experience provides us with principles, strategies, and notions about writing that we can use to examine new genres and see how some things we know apply there. Reports you write in your history class won’t be exactly the same as reports you write in your English class. However, certain things you learned about writing a report in English class—such as the importance of documenting sources and avoiding a style that makes you seem biased—may also be important in reports for your history class. By translating our genre knowledge when we’re challenged with writing in a new situation, we’re able to learn new genres more quickly. This helps us communicate effectively in new situations.
Berkenkotter, Carol and Thomas N. Huckin. “Rethinking Genre from a Sociocognitive Perspective.” Written Communication, vol. 10. no. 4, Oct. 1993, pp. 475-509. ERIC. doi: 10.1177/07410883930100004001.
Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, 1984, pp. 151-167. Grand Valley State Univeristy, http://faculty.gvsu.edu/royerd/courses/495/miller.pdf.
Schryer, Catherine. “Records as Genre.” Written Communication, vol 10, no. 2, Apr. 1993 pp. 200-234. SagePub, doi: 10.1177/0741088393010002003