894 Reading Notes: Genre Theory (Week 4)

I really enjoyed our readings for this week on genre theory as they helped me to begin to draw connections to my previous thoughts on genre, our discussions of rhetorical situation and Foucault’s archaeological method.

Caroline Miller and Charles Bazerman both emphasize that genre is more than form or a set of requirements that must be be fulfilled or met for no clear purpose. I found this a helpful reminder since we do often define genres by their form and features–what must a resume contain, a letter of recommendation, a memo, and empirical report? To understand genres we do often have to think about this formal features first to get a handle on them. I thought about an assignment I often do in my basic writing classroom to help students begin to think about genre. One day in class I bring in a whole collection of DVDs in their cases. Each student takes a DVD case and we brainstorm together what are the components of a DVD cover based on what they see on the covers they are examining. When we are done, we have a list that describes the form of the DVD cover genre.

Image of the DVD cover for the movie New Moon with arrows pointing to various features, including images, titles, reviews, special features, synopsis, etc
The various components of the DVD cover genre

Now if I stopped the lesson there, I would be guilty of conceiving and teaching my students to conceive of genre simply as a specific combination of formal elements, which Miller and Bazerman have argued against. However, we continue on with our discussion about why certain elements are present on a DVD cover. I ask students to think about the purpose of the DVD cover–what is its purpose? Why not just include the title? Why does it have features such as images, review excerpts, synopsis, rating information, time, etc.? What is it trying to accomplish? This often leads to fruitful discussions and I believe begins to get at the notions of genre’s connection to action that both Miller and Bazerman are highlighting. When I teach notions of rhetorical situation to students, I usually simplify it by explaining the components as being connection to one of the 5 questions what, who, why, when, and how.

  • What: the message being conveyed
  • Who: the audience for your message
  • Why: your purpose–what you are hoping to accomplish to/for your audience
  • When: the best time for your message or the time constraints controlling your message
  • How: the mode and genre of your message

I have usually conceived of these questions as hierarchical, building on each other, and building up to genre in a way similar to Miller’s notion of hierarchical levels building from language to genre. However, as I made my way through these readings and pondered their concept, I began to see how much messier this actually is. What I was particularly struck by was the cyclical nature of genre that Miller and Bazerman seem to be presenting. For example, Miller connects genre and culture not simply in a unidirectional relationship suggesting cultural leads to genre but instead that they mutually create and reinforce each other. In “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre” Miller asks, ”What is culture and how is it constituted? Are genres at least some part of that constitutive substance?” (68).



Reading Notes

Similarly Bazerman conceives of a cyclical connection between genres and reality. In “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems,” Bazerman claims that his approach to genre (as well as lower and higher systems such as speech acts or genre systems) examines “how people using text create new realities of meaning, relation, and knowledge” (309).

The words genre and reality with a double-sided arrow connection them

These bidirectional notions of genre complicate an easy understanding of them. Susan Popham’s notion of boundary genres, or genres that draw from multiple disciplines also challenges the notion of genres as a set of formal characteristics. Like the medical documents she describes, boundary genres are made up of the formal characteristics from different disciplinary genres. This amalgamation happens to achieve a specific end within a community. Boundary objects will continually be created and invented to serve the needs of communities, and the only way to really understand or approach these genres is to consider that action(s) they intersect with within those communities.

What also struck me as I thought through these readings coming out of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge was the notion of rules. Both Bazerman and Miller challenge the notion of approaching genres as a set of formal rules; however, Foucault’s notion of rules or the governing ideas that connect things does seem to be very applicable. To return to the DVD example, what rules govern the need for review excerpts or stills from the movie on a DVD cover? These rules are the connections between what the text is trying to accomplish (encourage people to actually watch/buy the movie) and the formal means available to the text to do this. I’m finding myself more and more focusing on these invisible connections/rules that hold the various elements of a network together.

Red square with the phrase "Keep Calm and Know the Rules"
Walker, Willie. “Keep Calm and Know the Rules.” Keep Calm Studio. http://www.keepcalmstudio.com/gallery/poster/kcs_a273cb40


Bazerman, Charles. “Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people.” What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices (2004): 309-339.

Bazerman, Charles. “Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions.” Genre and New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis (1994) 79-100.

Foucault, Michele. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social  Action.” Quarterly of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.” Genre and New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis (1994) 67-77.

Popham, Susan L. “Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication  19: 279 (2005).

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