In my last post I proposed that we try to step away from the grading (and perceived value) of Standard English in our classrooms. This poses many concerns in the writing classroom, including the question: what on earth do we teach in English writing classes if not Standard English? My proposition is that we teach the inclusion of all voices and backgrounds, as well as a general acceptance and respect for diversity. And if that doesn’t sound academic enough, then how about this: an understanding of genre and discourse communities coupled with critical reading, writing and visual literacy skills.
I have to admit, I’m surprised at myself for proposing the teaching of genre as a solution to oppression and discrimination in the classroom. The definition of genre that I grew up with, as a classification of forms of writing, seems fairly irrelevant to my argument. But the definition of new genre–as a dynamic model that places text within context and balances process and product in order to create meaning and identity–is extremely relevant to a classroom that teaches critical reading, writing and literacy skills. Genre empowers all students, no matter what socio-economic background they may be coming from, to think and communicate critically depending on the context of the situation.
Instead of instilling in our students a sense that Standard English is the only path to success in America, I think we need to teach students that learning to understand different genres (and to communicate confidently within those genres) is the path to success in America. In other words, a college classroom that explains that genres change depending on the situation, context and discourse community also has the power to explain that we all have the ability to shift genres depending on our desired outcomes. For example, teaching the importance of genre says this to students: you have the ability to switch from BVE or Spanglish or whatever discourse you grew up with at the dinner table to the genre of text messaging and SMSing on your phone with your friends. You also have the capability to write in the genre of an argumentative paper in this class, the genre of cover letters when you apply to your first job and the genre of law documents when you go on to law school. We need to teach our students the tools to switch from genre to genre instead of the memorization of Standard English.
Of course some of these genres–specifically the cover letter and the law document–require a certain level of Standard English. But that’s where a critical understanding of discourse communities comes into play. Along with learning genre, students will also need to learn to differentiate between discourse communities, and the expectations of genre within those discourse communities. For example, a text message to a group of friends is probably going to be different then a text message to your boss or a group of colleagues, and the level of Standard English you use on your website or blog is probably going to be different then on your Facebook status. And let’s face it, as long as we also teach our students to use Microsoft Word, Pages or Google Drive they will be able to communicate, at least in writing, in Standard English.
My radical hope is that by helping this next generation of students learn to switch between discourse communities and genres, more voices and more diversity will be accepted in our communities, our classrooms and our work environments. In closing, I’d like to share an idea by my favorite linguist, James Gee: “Children should, indeed, master the standard genres of many school-based, specialist, academic and public-sphere forms of language and social practices, but they should also know how to transform them, break them, and innovate new ones for their own social, cultural, and political purposes. In fact, they should know that even in using the Standard genres they are, or at least should be, always actively adapting them to their own purposes; customizing them to the contexts they as actors are trying to create – construe, imagine, creatively reflect, whatever way you want to put it.”
Devitt, Amy. “Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept.”
Gee, James. “Networks, the New Capitalism and Schools.”
Kress, Gunther. “Multimodality, Multimedia, and Genre.“