Teaching Genre, Accepting all Voices

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.

(cartoon from GoComics.com)

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.”

References

Bazerman, Charles. “Genre and Identity: Citizenship in the Age of the Internet and the Age of Global Capitalism.

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.

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13 thoughts on “Teaching Genre, Accepting all Voices”

  1. Elizabeth,
    You do an absolutely fantastic job of anticipating your audience’s thoughts, concerns, and reactions right out the gate! Your second sentence literally “hears” the question they might ask in response to your first sentence, and you proceed to answer both fully and fairly. Your proposition is solid and followed by another response to possible opposition (not academic enough?) and an even stronger follow-up definition of what we [English teachers] should be teaching in our classrooms.
    Your second paragraph continues to draw in your audience – acting on engagement, humor, shared surprise/astonishment, and the desire of teachers to empower their students both in and out of the classroom. As a member of your audience, I could tell you “heard” my hesitance in understanding the role of genre in the last clause of your first paragraph, and your answer both heard me out and responded in a way I could relate to and agree with. Your phrasing – “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” – was both concise and complete, because the final wording of “context” clarified for me exactly what you meant by including genre in your proposition from paragraph one.
    You transition well in the third paragraph, clarifying the difference between teaching just Standard English and how the teaching of genre differs in its benefit and usefulness for students. Your conclusion of this notion is something I have always very deeply believed and philosophically practiced (but just hadn’t been able to clearly articulate for myself): “We need to teach our students the tools to switch from genre to genre instead of memorization of Standard English.”
    The rest of your discussion here reminds me of when I took Introduction to Linguistics at NAU and we learned about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammars – the former being the forced Latin linguistic rules placed over the English language and nitpicky guidelines (MAY you go to the bathroom?? To WHOM?), the latter being how we really talk in daily life when communicating with one another. This distinction always resonated with me, and I take great care to express to my students that there can and should be a difference between how we talk to one another in person, or in text, or in social media, than how we communicate in say, an academic literary analysis or letter of recommendation. My explanation is just a surface-level acknowledgement of the importance of genre you so effectively develop and illustrate here – so thank you for that!

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  2. Hi Chase,

    Well said. Thoughtful and energetic, your post leaves me much to think about. There is a lot of meaning in your closing section as I, too, share this “radical hope” of yours—radical, but very possible, perhaps.

    Being able to switch between discourse communities is essential to living meaningfully, at least for those who belong to overlapping discourse communities. I am one of those who do. I am a first-gen immigrant, and I switch between Standard English and what is Filipino Tag-lish (Tagalog-English). I am aware when I need to be working within the SE discourse community–in my role as instructor (at least in most instances so far), in my role as parent in our school district, or as community member in our neighborhood. Seeing how I’ve listed all of these contexts leads me to see how SE is overwhelmingly used where I live. Perhaps it’s regional, but in the Chicagoland area SE remains to be the pervasive language of “stability”, “belonging” ,and “power” (I’d rather not refer to it this way, but at the same time, that power structure remains). It would be difficult for me and my family to function where we are and move within the communities we do move around in without being highly proficient in the SE discourse.

    But to your point when you ask whether SE is the only path to success in America, I’d have to respond with a very definite, qualified, “Maybe not, but for now, mostly yes…at least in this area of the country.” I know that doesn’t sound definitive at all. It’s an element of life here which I continue to grapple with and to which I have not found simple answers.

    At the same time, alongside this experience, non-SE thrives as well in other situations. With my in-laws and extended family, in less structured and more personal settings, SE is optional. It is Filipino-English for many, and if an aunt, uncle, or sister-in-law suddenly only communicated in SE, it would be the most bizarre thing. Very out of context. Tag-lish indicates identity, culture, and belonging, and so it is valuable. Thus, this switching between discourse communities is very real. It is something my family and I experience in constant and profound ways.

    And always, this ability to move between discourse communities does not mean denigrating the qualities of either discourse community, as you’ve pointed out; in fact, the switching actually allows for significant language and communication insights/connections to emerge. My kids do that all that time—pointing out how so-and-so (grandpa or cousin or uncle) said it this way in Tag-lish, but in English it would mean something entirely different. Insights like these provide us with more opportunity to reflect on membership and what it means to participate actively and productively in these communities.

    Thanks for your post and for the chance to stop and think about discourse in our daily living.

    Best,
    Tessa

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  3. Hi Chase,

    Wow! Your idea is very interesting, and I think you have a great deal of support on you non-traditional ideas. One observation that I loved was that your idea would be very radical in my district, but the words you used to define it, “an understanding of genre and discourse communities coupled with critical reading, writing and visual literacy skills” are some catch phrases that I hear in every single professional development meeting that I attend.

    I totally see how students would find this engaging. In fact, I find that some students cannot communicate properly because of many different barriers: language, idioms and like you stated, the conversations that kids are having at the dinner table. Lastly, I think that the more students are aware of other genres, the more tolerant and willing they will be to work collaborative with their classmates as well as co-workers.

    I was curious at which point this kind of education would begin? I know that you mentioned college students, but it seemed like it was more of an example of what students are already accomplishing. Would this begin once a certain amount of foundation knowledge had been established? How would it be assessed? I have been grading standard English for so long, that I can’t see how student’s objectives would be graded? This has my mind spinning, how invigorating! Thank you for your response.

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    1. Hi Christa,

      Thanks for helping me realize that in order to communicate within the discourse community of higher education, I need to phrase things in away that we can all relate, such as “an understanding of genre and discourse communities coupled with critical reading, writing and visual literacy skills.” Words like “oppression,” and phrases like “Standard English privileges some but marginalizes others,” might be met with a lot of resistance. Also, I think finding common ground is always important!

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  4. Elizabeth,

    You are absolutely right about how it is important to teach students to understand different types of genres. Some students are really good at creative writing and some are better at analysis. They need to be proficient at both. We get too caught up in teaching them unnecessary literature. Sure, Shakespeare is great and I love it, but there are so many students who can’t read tax forms or particular legal documents. These types of literature are things that they will encounter all the time as adults, yet they’re not being addressed in schools. Sometimes the curriculum in schools doesn’t make sense.

    Great job!

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  5. I think you have presented an interesting argument–one that has of course piqued my interest as I am high school English teacher. I really like how you put your argument: “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.”

    I am all for the spreading of diversity and allowing it to be more accepted and if that is to happen I think it needs to be taught at an earlier age than even high school. I love when you say, “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.” and what I got from it is that we all need to be okay with adapting and being dynamic. I think little children need to be taught this earlier on. I think we need to start teaching this concept in elementary levels.

    Thank you so much,

    -Eric

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  6. Dear Elizabeth,

    There’s so much about this blog post that I love—that’s right, love!

    First, I love how you followed up to your last post because it makes your blog have a very connected thread, which makes it easy for your reader to follow. You connect to your audience’s prior knowledge and even reference back.

    Next, I love what you wrote at the end of the first paragraph stating your purpose: “My proposition is that we teach the inclusion of all voices and backgrounds, as well as a general acceptance and respect for diversity.” I think that sounds academic, but I like how you defined it further using vocabulary from our studies.

    Then, I love your adopted new vision of “genre.” I agree with you and am also surprised by the revelation. It’s awesomely perfect that our study aligns so well with your discourse community and that you can incorporate it into your career. 🙂

    Finally, I loved the last sentence of paragraphs two and three: “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,” and “We need to teach our students the tools to switch from genre to genre instead of the memorization of Standard English.” You are in great position to make changes, lead the way, and alter genres, Elizabeth!

    Basically, I loved your entire stance on a soapbox and your “radical hope.” It’s rad.

    I just wanted to mention a few little things that you can choose to use or not!
    1. In your first sentence, you could link the words “last post” to your actual last post for easy retrieval for your reader.
    2. In the fourth paragraph, there are en-dashes instead of em-dashes.
    3. There aren’t any references to our class reading material, although, it’s really all there! (Don’t we need to include at least three?) That should be easy to incorporate since you really have it all there!

    I think your blog is very informative, inspiring, and enjoyable to read! So far, it’s a great series. I say, well done!

    Dawn

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  7. I think that you might want to situate this discussion between Standard Written English and SE (which usually denotes the spoken variety). Scholars usually distinguish between the two quite a bit, especially in terms of genre. Additionally, SWE seems to be at the heart of this practice of privileging different genres that you so well articulate!

    I noticed other comments referenced English literature as a genre, and while it is in some sense, the real issue at hand (for you, at least) does not concern students recognizing or embracing literary genres; you focus on students as agents, as critical writers and thinkers who can produce various documents and engage in varying discourse communities. Besides, English literature and composition studies are only related insofar as, historically speaking, English literary texts were used as reading material in the Comp. classroom. Now we have as many texts to read, write about, and analyze as there are students — which is good news! Studying English literature is, however, appropriate in, say, an upper-division English literature class…But I digress.

    I also think that good scholarship, like yours, allows the writer to push their own boundaries. You accomplished this by destabilizing your previous notion of genre then recognizing the possibilities for others, namely students in the writing classroom. Have you read Kress’ theory on genre? If not, you might consider doing so — the theories would work well with the project at hand.

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    1. Elizabeth,

      I was reading around the blogs, and when I read your comment: “My proposition is that we teach the inclusion of all voices and backgrounds, as well as a general acceptance and respect for diversity.” I had to keep reading. I agree that we as educators must address discrimination in the classroom. I use this new genre in a writing center environment at a community college. When student brainstorm, free write, outline, or draft an essay, I encourage them to use which vernacular they choose just to express the situation whether they use AAVE, Spanglish, or social media lingo. As you suggest, genre empowers and invites dialogue, and students can communicate and feel part of the group experiences regardless of the language they are using to identify themselves. Then, when students are ready for the final academic draft of their papers, we switch to academic conventions of writing. Therefore, I am with you on this pedagogy, for the current and following generations. We can teach them not only to find and express their voice, but we can teach them to switch their discourse regardless of the community they speak and interact with in their daily lives. Thank you!

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      1. I like this idea so much! I can’t wait to use it with my students on the next writing project: encouraging them to brainstorm (and possibly even create a first rough draft) in whatever version of English they want to! Thanks for the great idea!

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