What Do You Teach When You Teach Writing?

Joseph R. Teller asks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?,” and answers with the claim his students can’t write clear sentences to save their lives. He posits three principles as pedagogical orthodoxy of compositionists: writing classes are supposed to 1) favour process over product, 2) tackle complex issues rather than imitate rhetorical modes, and 3) combine writing with reading instruction. One could argue with each point, and many US composition theorists do so in their research. I’d rather focus on something else, something quite essential that’s not present at all in this list. From my perspective in Canada, the gaping hole in Teller’s discussion is the concept of genre, and along with it the practice of genre-based pedagogy.

Genre theory asks, if as instructors we want students to write good sentences, what exactly are these sentences meant to be good for? What are they supposed to do, in which particular situations are they to be used? What kind of sentence structures function well in these situations, and how do we teach them?

When you hear someone say students can’t write a good sentence to save their life, think of the students in your class who have already been in situations where they needed to save lives. Now consider that they figured out sentences that worked for them in those situations. Then realize how those real life-saving sentences — emergency call statements, sentence fragments with restarts, simple commands — are far from the intricate structures that their writing course instructor might claim will save their lives. Why are they so different, yet so functional? Because they belong to a different situation, fulfill a different task, are of a different genre.

There are many writing courses where students are asked to read texts of wildly varying situations — in Teller’s example, by Seneca, John Henry Newman, Mike Rose, and Rabindranath Tagore — and then disappoint their instructors with the essays they produce in response. But I wonder, if students read Seneca, were they meant to write in the same genre? What was that genre, its situation, audience, tasks? Or was it Newman’s writing they were to take as their model? Tagore’s? How real was that genre to the students — was it shown to be currently alive outside the classroom? — and was it linked to the writing they will do after the writing studies course is over? Were students given time to identify and practice the genre moves, discursive features, lexical bundles that went along with the type of text that was expected of them?

Genre-based pedagogy demands that the exact nature of the writing we want of students cannot remain an unspoken, un-analyzed part of a writing course. Students need to understand the genre, what it does, how it does it. They need to be enticed to use it, to do something with it. If they are to adapt the course’s writing practice to writing in related genres, they should be able to name constituent parts to understand how they can be used flexibly, and how they are used differently in different genres. While genre analysis provides models and typical language elements, it doesn’t deal in formulas and language rules.

You might question genre-based pedagogy because it threatens to kill the passion of classroom discussion. You might not look forward to spending so much time analyzing discursive features of model texts, providing structures for students to adopt, or even figuring out for yourself how the genres you’re trying to teach function. Figuring these genres out is intricate work; years of research have been poured into understanding genres of research writing in different disciplines. This might sound like dry research to you. But it is essential work for instructors in writing and discourse studies. If we are serious about teaching written genres to university students, then we need the tools of applied language analysis to know what we are doing.

Earlier this year, I found myself thinking in an unexpected setting about the necessity of genre theory and applied language analysis. I took my very first figure skating class. The other students and I enrolled with a simple goal — we wanted to learn how to skate. But things didn’t turn out quite so simple when we also had to adopt a range of new vocabulary. Skating practice involved learning the names of movements — sculling, pumping, three turn, crossover. Teaching them required detailed language about the sides of blades, positions of feet, bending or straightening of knees, ways of lifting legs and holding arms. We practiced the parts of movements separately, then together. Our teacher had to repeat those sequences for us, correct us by calling the names of elements we’d missed. We tried to memorize right sequences by talking to ourselves in the technical language we’d just learned.

You know what the skating teacher didn’t do? Show us recordings of glorious skating performances from the past 100 years. Then let us discuss them before expecting us to produce our own brilliant movements, without first explaining which parts of the performances we were supposed to learn or giving us language and practice to break these movements down.

Let me make one last point in favour of genre-based approaches to teaching writing. If, like Teller, you find yourself doubting the efficacy of asking students to peer review each others’ work, I can tell you that learning possible sequences of genre moves, and adopting the technical vocabulary to name relevant language elements, is exactly what enables students to provide useful advice to each other. Just like I, the still very inept skater, was able to look at a fellow skating class student and tell her she had started on the wrong foot and wasn’t really on her outside edge when she needed to be.

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