Playing with Genre

On Monday, we started talking about the nature of genre through the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin and how genres aren’t only what we read, but everything we write and speak too. Today, we’ll look at a way to help students practice writing in genres that they might not expect in the college classroom.


Stipula fountain pen

Some of the dullest research I’ve done has been pulling together literature reviews. Reading formulaic article after formulaic article, even if all you’re doing is jumping from abstract to results and discussion with a figure or two in between, can be soul crushing. But in any discipline there would still be something more engaging from time to time. There would be a Drucker who let human concerns shine in or a Schumpeter who wrote before stodgy generic expectations began to form and eventually calcify as the only option.

In his research on writing development among children, James Britton shows us that there’s more than the “transactional” format that enables us to flit from figure to figure until we land on the results. There is also room for the “expressive” where writers discover, or the “poetic” where the writers allow for more oracular heights than usually found in the standard academic essay.

In a first year composition course I’m developing now, I want to give students a chance to play with the genres they’re reading while practicing formal academic writing and thinking directly about the differences between the two. While reading short faerie and fantasy (like in this course) texts for the class running from medieval romance to Victorian revisioning of the fairy tale, we’ll work through the following assignment sequence:

Students will choose one text to work with for the following assignments.

First, students will emulate the text. If a poem is chosen, the student will write a poem with the same form. If a romance, then the student will write a narrative that moves from integration through alienation to reintegration. Here, students have a chance to show their understanding of the text in a way that couldn’t be contained in a closed-form paper. Audience: same as the one invoked by original text.

Second, students will write a traditional academic paper (4-6 pages) analyzing the same text. This paper will need to, for the time being, strictly follow disciplinary expectations, such as use of main claim or thesis and organization. Audience: academic readers of the discipline (not me).

Third, taking the main ideas (and perhaps a re-vision of the thesis), students will write about the text in an alternative genre to a general audience. Students can choose to compose a blog post, exploratory essay, vlog, podcast, or propose a different alternative genre to me. Here, it is important that they think about what their main ideas are and how to best get those ideas across to their chosen audience.

Finally, students will write a short reflection (1-2 pages) answering the following questions:

  1. What are the differences between the different texts you composed?
  2. What (if any) connections do you see across the three texts?
  3. What techniques, styles, or sentences from the alternative text could you see yourself using in formal academic papers (or vice versa) in the future?

My hope is that this process will help students make conscious rhetorical choices across different genres. During further revisioning, I would like to work with writers as they practice incorporating more of their own voice in a final term paper.


Next time we’ll look at what Bakhtin has to say about Br. Monday’s favorite genre, and then we’ll have another genre activity for this fairy tale class.

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