Composition Studies

Peter Vandenberg

Professor and Department Chair, Writing, Rhetoric, & Discourse, DePaul University

Posted June 2012

Contemporary composition studies—the discipline that formed around the pedagogical activity of first-year writing instruction in English departments in the United States—reflects a history of association with literary approaches to genre dating back to the formation of such departments in the late nineteenth century. An equally significant antecedent was the rhetorical tradition’s propensity for classification more generally (Herrington & Moran, 2005). Defined in the classical period as invention heuristics, “the modes of discourse” (narration, description, exposition, and argument) evolved into discrete forms via textbooks and instructional practices (Connors, 1981). The hermeneutic tradition in literary studies and the lack of a research program connected to writing pedagogy conspired to sustain a form-based approach to instruction and the emergence of a range of “classroom genres” (Christie, 1985) rooted in organizational patterns (the five-paragraph essay) and more finely parsed modes (the comparison/contrast paper). 

While “the modes of discourse” were indeed dominant and still persist in many first-year writing textbooks, by far the dominant pedagogical preoccupation in composition studies’ early formation as a discipline was the notion of process: “What happens when we write?  What occurs as we compose?” (Perl, 1994, p. xi).  Arising from a primary concern with the cognitive activity of the individual writer (e.g. Flower & Hayes, 1981) or a staunch belief in the integrity of the individual subject (e. g. Murray, 1972), “the process movement” brought together scholars with varied and conflicting methodological commitments and pedagogical aims for the writer (correctness, goal awareness, ideological resistance, “finding a personal voice,” and so on). While much of this work was more nuanced than subsequent critiques acknowledged, strong and often unexamined presumptions about authorial agency overwhelmed attention to social considerations, “as if,” James Reither put it, “the process began in the writer . . . and not in the writer’s relationship to the world” (1985, p. 622). 

Critical inquiry into the epistemological position of much process theory created the conditions for composition’s “social turn.” In the discipline’s primary journals and books distributed by its best known presses, the social turn was driven by increasing attention to poststructural theories of language and social epistemologies (Berlin, 1987; Faigley, 1986; Clifford, 1991), owing likely to the location of most writing programs in U.S. departments of English and the preparation of most writing teachers in literary studies. Much of this early work provided broad-stroke notions of the influence social context has on the individual writer. 

Central to what came to be called social construction was the concept of discourse community—a version of the sociolinguistic concept of speech community—which assumes that relationships among like-minded members of disciplinary or professional groups share ways of speaking, writing, valuing evidence, and so on, and that such discursive practices define boundaries between groups (Bizzell, 1982; Bartholomae, 1985).  Drawing on rhetorical studies, applied linguistics, and emergent work in the fields of Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines, however, the field did engage more specific questions about how the writer and the writing are, themselves, constituted by social contexts. Such work introduced contemporary notions of genre to composition studies.

Addressing “literary critics” specifically, Elaine Maimon (1983) argued that “[t]hrough a study of genre in all disciplines in the arts and sciences, we can learn more about the varieties of thinking in the academy and in the larger world of professional and public activity” (p. 112).  Widely understood as the most influential stimulus of contemporary genre theory in composition studies, Carolyn Miller’s (1984) “Genre as Social Action,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, argues that “a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (p. 151; emphasis added). Both authors suggest implications for pedagogy deriving from contemporary genre theory, Maimon by recommending “a more sophisticated, multidisciplinary approach to the research paper” (1983, p. 119). Though primarily interested in methodological variation across disciplines, Charles Bazerman’s (1991) writing textbook, The Informed Writer, anticipates the value of genre-based pedagogy in discussing the range of “data presentation” across fields (p. 339). 

The influence on and uses of contemporary genre theory in composition can be seen in three spheres of professional activity—the field’s theoretical discourse, writing program administration, and the writing classroom. These categories are useful primarily in organizing references to the term genre in the field. To the extent that they are mutually informative on a theoretical level and at least partially imbricated in practice, their boundaries are somewhat artificial; one cannot assume a hierarchy of value or clean breaks among them. 

Theoretical Scholarship on Genre in Composition Studies

Compositionists have grounded work on genre in theory that has been broadly recognized as the North American school (see Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995), New Rhetoric (Coe, 1994a), and Rhetorical Genre Studies (Artemeva & Freedman, 2006; Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010).  Foundational assumptions about genre from across the disciplines are cited repeatedly within the field to ground axiological, epistemological, procedural, and pedagogical claims about genre:

  • Genres are “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (Miller, 1984, p.159).
  • Generic activity is central to the social organization of knowledge, including arrangements of power and authority that they foster or sustain.
  • Genres reflect a “duality of structure” (Giddens, 1984), mediating relationships between subjects and social institutions, co-constituting both through recurring activity (Bawarshi, 2003; Bazerman, 2002; Soliday, 2011). 
  • Genres are nonetheless flexible, adaptive frames (rather than static forms) that necessarily transform across time as situations, motives, and goals change (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Liu, 2005; Bazerman et al., 2005).  
  • Genres may function in interrelated fashion as “genre sets” (Devitt, 1991, 2004; Bawarshi, 2003) or  “genre systems” (Bazerman, 1994), in which genres call out and respond to each other as they function to coordinate actors and roles within broader “activity systems” (Russell, 1997); such systems define the professional communities, disciplinary formations, and workplace collectives that animate them (Liu, 2005).

Within composition studies, contemporary conceptions of genre have been embraced for the specificity with which they define social relations within networks of textual circulation. Genre theory provides a material link between composition’s historical focus—the individual engaged in the activity of writing—and its emergent attention to writing as an architect of social formations in their broadest sense.

Amy Devitt’s (1993) germinal article in College Composition and Communication (1993) introduced contemporary genre theory to the field’s mainstream. Amplifying Miller’s argument that choices of genre effectively construct situation, Devitt contributes to the critique of early cognitive approaches to process-based instruction by recommending that a writer’s goals may in fact be better explained as a product of genre selection. In Writing Genres (2005), Devitt mines the phenomenology of situation, introducing a model intended to complicate the idea that genre is a response to recurring situation. By treating “culture” in a broad ideological and material sense, Devitt declares genre a “reciprocal dynamic within which an individual’s actions construct and are constructed by recurring context of situation, context of culture, and context of [other, related] genres” (p. 31).

Three other scholars’ research on genre has also foregrounded the co-constitutive nature of subject and social context. 

  • Charles Bazerman’s work has been influential in a variety of fields, including composition studies. Bazerman has emphasized the central socio-cognitive function of genre for both the experienced and the developing writer (1997; 2002). 
  • Similarly significant to continuing work on genre in composition has been David Russell’s thorough critique (1997) of the persistent assumption that genres can be usefully separated from the activity systems in which they have meaning. Bazerman (2009) links the cognitive development of the individual and group through Russell’s notion of activity systems, a concept derived from Russian social psychology. 
  • Also drawing on Russell’s (1997) work on activity systems and Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration, Anis Bawarshi (2003) relocates the concept of rhetorical invention in the moment a writing subject’s choices are animated by genre. Using the first-year writing classroom as an example of an activity system, Bawarshi situates invention in the writer’s uptake of the stimulating genre; writers will “manage this discursive transaction by recontextualizing the desires embedded in the prompt as their own seemingly self-prompted desires to write” (p. 138). 

Genre has also been used in composition theory to discuss professional issues such as tenure and the ideological role of genre in the practices of text ownership, plagiarism, and citation practices. Gebhardt (1993) introduces the concept of genre into a theoretical debate over the professionalism of the field in noting that many composition scholars find their work being discounted by review boards because it does not match the expectations of the genre of academic scholarship. Other considerations of genre and ideology include the student or user perspective on how certain genres value different ideas of ownership, citation, or different literacies (e.g., Spooner & Yancey, 1996; Hesse, 2009). Also influential in this conversation about genre, new literacy, and ownership is Yancey (2004) who writes: “Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres” (p. 298). While she admits that technological changes and new conceptions of literacy have arisen outside of the classroom before, Yancey theorizes not just a movement from medium to medium, but also the development and availability of different genres in the form of new media such as blogs, wikis, and so forth, and the uses of these new genres within the classroom as well as outside of it. Giltrow and Stein’s collection (2009) proposes that genre theory provides a vantage point from which to assess the incessant change of Internet communication. 

Writing Programs and Genre Studies

In the United States, two categories of writing programs have developed, both informed in a greater or lesser degree by scholarship in composition studies; over the past thirty years, each has explored the potential of contemporary genre theory to ground writing instruction programmatically. One category of writing program, First-Year Writing (FYW), is tasked—depending on the currency of theory driving it in a given institution—with preparing postsecondary students for new educational contexts in which writing may be employed as a mode of learning and disciplinary awareness. These programs, nearly universal in the U.S., are traditionally located in Departments of English. A second category of writing program, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), is situated at the university level, grounded in recognition of the centrality of writing to nearly every academic discipline’s ways of developing and communicating knowledge. Often such programs are directed by compositionists and/or augmented by tutors or “fellows” trained in composition theory and practice. 

FYW Programs and Genre

First-Year Writing programs are widely disparate, but all are undergirded by a durable, institutionalized confidence in the transferability of rhetorical knowledge, including that of genre, across contexts. This confidence has been supported by a number of historical and institutional factors: composition studies’ self-identification in opposition to literature as a content discipline, its origins in the effort to theorize instruction, the powerful inertia of institutional missions that sustain its pedagogical practices, and perhaps most importantly its persistent relationship with rhetoric as a techne

In FYW programs that have stepped beyond the traditional modes, genre is assuming a role as organizing principle. Questions about what to teach, assign, and assess remain unsettled, yet FYW program administrators seem increasingly likely to conceptualize these problems as problems of genre. They have examined, for example, what genres are most appropriate to the goals of first year writing (Liu, 2005), which genres can usefully transfer to later coursework (if any) (see Beaufort, 2007; Wardle, 2009), and what long-term social consequences can be anticipated from the inevitable need to prioritize some genres at the expense of others (Bloom 1996). Summer Smith’s (1997) work on the genre of the end comment made by instructors on student writing calls into question practices at the writing program level in relation to how instructors negotiate genres of response to student writing. Smith (1997) draws on Miller’s (1984) notion of genres responding to recurring social action, and Bakhtin’s (1986) concept of primary and secondary genres to identify instructor reliance on primary genres of judging, responding, and coaching within the secondary genre of end comments. This work highlights the ways that genre foregrounds questions about curricular content, teaching contexts, and methods within a variety of writing programs.

WAC and Genre

Within WAC programs, genre is becoming increasingly apparent as an organizing principle as well as an element of instruction. Historically, WAC programs have understood writing as an ability that develops over time, one wrapped up with professional or disciplinary commitments and intentions such as ways of knowing, epistemology, and social actions (Russell et al., 2009); learning to write, therefore, is isomorphic with learning to become a situated practitioner. In summarizing research related to WAC, Russell (2001) identifies a “crucial” relationship between students’ capacity to identify and effectively choose disciplinary genres, their sense of identity or “agency” within the activity system of a discipline, and their motivation to persist in such an identity. Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995) argue that “true genre knowledge” includes awareness of “content” such as “appropriate topics and relevant details” as well as formal conventions (14). Drawing on Russell’s prior argument linking genre and student engagement (1997), David Jolliffe (2001) recommends that WAC programs seeking to integrate service learning situate students within the genre systems of community partners.

In framing writing as a deeply social practice that cannot be evaluated outside the contexts in which it works, genre theory has helped divide thought about rhetorical transfer in university-level programs. Mary Soliday (2011) elaborates a distinction between competing attitudes about transfer. Some embrace a metacognitive understanding of writing, including genre, which positions writers to recognize situational elements and typicality in new contexts and respond appropriately; others promote an “apprenticeship” model in which situated immersion in material context is understood to be necessary to “learn to write” (if effectiveness is in fact determined by context). 

Skepticism about rhetorical transfer has emerged within the literature produced by proponents of Writing in the Disciplines, a research and curricular reform movement (Bazerman et al., 2009) whose name has since been reified to describe some university writing programs. (See Herrington & Moran, 2005, on the influence of WID on WAC.)  WID promotes a “strong” approach to the primacy of context, and raises objections to the claim that genre knowledge will travel across boundaries of disciplinary or professional communities. (See also Dias & Paré, 2000; Dias et al., 1999; Giltrow & Valiquette, 1994.)

Implicated in questions of transfer is the pedagogical practice of teaching genres explicitly. Freedman (1993a) raises the question of whether explicit teaching of genres is even possible, and if possible whether it is productive. Freedman argues that explicit teaching harms students by causing them to rigidly misapply “rules,” while tacit knowledge acquisition allows students to apply genres more fully as a response to social action rather than as a response to an explicit instruction. Williams & Colomb (1993), counter by claiming that highly competent students may fail to acquire genre knowledge tacitly, or perhaps all learners acquiring first-time knowledge have a tendency to overgeneralize or misapply rules on their way to proficiency. 

Soliday (2011) promotes a university-level writing program model in which the rhetorical expertise of WAC specialists can help disciplinary experts acquire a conceptual vocabulary necessary to self-consciously control complexes of values, language, and genres. She goes on to challenge the apprenticeship-immersion model on class grounds as well, arguing that large numbers of college students lack exposure to, much less immersion in, middle-class social practices that create scaffolding toward professional discourses. A too-firm commitment to the immersion model of learning genre, Soliday suggests, would seem to require writing off some postsecondary students at the outset. 

Genre and the Classroom

Like the scholarship on First-Year Writing programs, pedagogical theory advanced in mainstream composition venues tends to operate on deeply embedded presuppositions about rhetorical transfer. Assuming that an understanding of genre as concept will facilitate the positive uptake of genres in new contexts, this work focuses primarily on how to make an understanding of genre and activity systems “analytically visible” (Bawarshi, 2003). An early exemplar of specific pedagogical modeling, Richard M. Coe’s (1994b) “Teaching Genre as Process” recommends a lesson that asks students to analyze, explain, and—if necessary to the rhetorical situation they’ve defined—reinvent the genre of the brochure, reinforcing in such work “the practical relationship between structure and strategy, product and process” (p. 165). Ann Johns (2002) argues that to productively destabilize students’ “often simplistic and sterile theories of texts,” teachers should be better aware of the genre competencies and limitations students bring with them to college writing courses. Reiff and Bawarshi (2011) also explore students’ prior genre knowledge in a cross-institutional study of first-year writers. Devitt (2009) promotes having students scaffold forward from “antecedent genres” in a pedagogy of “critical genre awareness.” Reiff (2003) articulates the learning of genre analysis with methodology; “students learn one research genre (ethnography) while they simultaneously use ethnographic techniques to learn about and through other genres” (p. 555).

Recently classroom-level discussion has focused on digital literacies, especially on how multimodal genres as well as emerging genres influence students in their writing and the classroom (Anson et al., 2005; Brooks, 2002; Palmquist, 2005). Additionally, some scholars are also exploring how violations of genre conventions work, both those that are intentional and those that involve genre violations of “academic writing.” For example, Dean (2000) uses violations of genre conventions of the five paragraph essay to help her students recognize and productively work within even constraining genres to produce rhetorically effective writing. Finally, some researchers are considering the implications of habitual uptakes of specific school genres for learners’ and teachers’ identities (Kill, 2006; Poe, 2007). 


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