I’ma wantin’ ter git students ‘way frum what they bin athinkin’ ’bout genres. And I don’t know how best to do it. “Genre” has so many uses and I tend to view it with simplicity, as “form” coupled with “subject.” “Style,” of course, can be a part of “genre,” but I’ve been less interested in that. What I have stayed away from is “subject matter” as a definer of “genre,” in part because I replace that with “intent.” I have a similar problem with “mode.”
Let me be clear: I have no problem with the use of either “genre” or “mode” in the study of writing. I’m just not sure I want to use them with students, for our students have been so inculcated with the vocabulary of certain forms of writing instruction, forms that rely on words like “genre” and “mode,” that they look to these rather than than to audience and intent (my view, here, is heavily flavored by B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior which, among other things, grapples with a similar problem of the vocabulary or grammar).
Let me be tangential: I was reading, this morning, an essay by Benjamin Whorf (an old one, from 1939) which starts with a quote from Edward Sapir that includes, in part, this: “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.” Whorf starts like this:
There will probably be general assent to the proposition than an accepted pattern of using words is often prior to certain lines of thinking and forms of behavior, but he who assents often sees in such a statement nothing more than a platitudinous recognition of the hypnotic power of philosophical and learned terminology on the one hand or of catchwords, slogans, and rallying cries on the other.
I know: You’ve all heard all this a thousand times. 1939 was a long time ago… not even I was yet born. Still, it is what makes me want to approach a genre assignment without ever using the word “genre.”
My attempt at breaking the “genre” mold this semester was a disaster. The students were too beholden to narrow ways of thinking about writing to break out in the manner I was hoping they would. That leaves me puzzling over what I would suggest for an 1101 genre assignment. I still like the idea of asking students to step into a situation of two sides and speak to both with the hope of getting them to talk, at least, if not reconcile. What I got, instead, this semester, was either a description of each side or an argument for one. I think what I needed was a series of directed writings leading up to the genre writing, something I did not feel I had the time for this semester.
What I am thinking of, instead, is a genre assignment that would allow a little bit of research into a particular genre–the obituary (I stole that, of course)–with the eventual goal of having students, in a series of in-class, low-stakes writings, detail their own hopes and imaginings for the future. The paper itself would be an obituary of each students, on their deaths at age 90. They would have to follow the form of the obituary genre (though I would never use the word “genre” in describing it). That would be following by a more expansive and “realistic” evaluation of the life they would like to have lead–not one making them look their best, but showing the pains and missed possibilities as well. The contrast between these two exercises could allow for an exploration of the codes of genre in general, of audience and of intent.
I haven’t got this fleshed out yet, but I like the idea of a two-part paper, one within genre conventions and one without. Also, this allows for a certain introduction to research and exploration.
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