Category Archives: Devitt

Well, it’s late.

I think she’s making this too complex. We know what genre is when we see it. As she herself mentions, when you pick up the mail and see a letter from a friend, you respond differently than you do to an advertising flyer. She says we respond to much more than the textual features and formal conventions of these items of mail, but… what are we responding to besides these things? (I mean, also graphics, paper quality, the way the paper is folded, font, etc, I suppose.) But most importantly: why is pinning down a definition of “genre” important? Or does she have another project here that I am missing?

She does mention something that I think is important: she says that, though the assignment is a letter to the editor, “if you begin with an inverted triangle” (???) the audience is really the professor. I think she refers to a description of the rhetorical situation here. However, this makes me think about the idea that if you ASSIGN a letter to the editor, the assignment is really a paper for class. How do we make the genre NOT a college essay when the assessment procedure is a letter grade given by an English professor? It’s hard to shake.

Devitt has a point, but…

Devitt has a point (and I enjoy the way she writes) but I am not seeing more than a blunt instrument here for me to use in my classroom. Help?

She writes, “our theory of genre, therefore, must allow us to see behind particular classifications (which change as our purposes change) and forms (which trace, but do not constitute genre). Genre entails purposes, participants, and themes…” No arguments there. I like it when students make honest “mistakes” in assessing some new situation — if they make those mistakes for really cool reasons, like, for instance, hearing the intent of the speaker, or listening more to what the specific story is here, and its life lesson, rather than being smart and putting things into categories correctly.

She quotes Bakhtin who says, the speaker is, “after all, not the first speaker…”

and later paraphrases Miller, saying genres are “actions.” Well, the way I see it, when I write an art review of a painting, I am participating in a dialogue with a pre-existing narrative — hence, why should I worry? I can jump right in. After all, the visual artist did all the heavy lifting. I am joining in, and maybe diverting and amplifying the energy.

However, Devitt’s assertion that “we can use the new conception of genre to improve our teaching, especially our diagnosis and treatment of students’ problems,” didn’t ring so true to me. I feel like freshmen (well, our freshman) need to be led onto the dance floor, first, and then be told the name of the song.

Uncoupling “Genre” from “Form” – Devitt

Once our attention shifts to the origins of genres, it also shifts away from their formal features… Historical changes in generic forms argue against equating genre with form; note the formal changes in what we call a poem, for example, or in the familiar letter. The forms may change but the generic label stays the same… More importantly, equating genre with form is tenable only within the container model of meaning. By integrating form and content within situation and context, recent work in genre theory makes genre an essential player in the making of meaning.  (575)

The above debate — and really, Devitt’s argument throughout “Generalizing about Genre” — reminds me of when I realized the differences in the way that academic literary critics and writers talked about writing. The former loved to categorize literary artifacts, creating ever-more specific taxonomies of truth as expressed in a particular historical moment, aesthetic tradition, or shelf on a library. The latter, instead, was focused on writing as a functional, alive exercise — how to create writing, as craft, with techniques that were leveraged like carpenters building a house.

Thinking about the origin of genre or genre as a response to a situation and context really makes it a much more active, alive thing, full of transformations and evolutions and fluidity and dynamic qualities. While it is still important to know where to find the book in the library, it’s nice to see genre given a kind of agency as a cause in rhetoric, rather than simply the static (or even dead) effect of rhetorical actions.

Genre and Discourse Communities

(My first post for some reason did not appear in its complete state.)

Devitt highlights important points about discourse communities and genre:

Just as genres construct situations and situations construct genres, discourse may construct communities and communities construct discourse.  Thus, rather than looking at human membership to define community, perhaps discourse membership–that is, genre sets–can better define the nature and constitution of a discourse community, just as the community better defines the nature of the discourse.

This moment seems extremely useful for thinking about the 1121 section on discourse communities including how discourse and genre are interlinked.  I think especially significant is Devitt’s point that discourse just as much defines or shapes a community as a community impacts or defines discourse.  The notion that discourse membership is tied to genre use–this idea of “genre sets–” can be incorporated into assignments for the class as well and further connect genre studies to discourse community assignments.


If Miller did the heavy lifting to re-conceptualize genre — from simple forms to social and situational responses to to recurrent situations — which, in fact, she did, I believe Devitt makes it clear in terms that I think even my students would understand once I introduce them to rhetoric and walk them through it. I’m tempted to pair this piece with an activity I do in class where students are called on to write in specific genres based on a situation without telling them what the generic conventions are (as long as I don’t dwell on Saussure and Bakhtin); what’s fun about that activity is when they, as Devitt says, “recognize [as readers] the genre of a text….[and] based on [their] identification of genre… make assumptions not only about the form, but about the text’s purposes, its subject matter, its writer, and its expected reader.” When I tell them to write a coroner’s report, they immediately know what is supposed to be in it, usually because of what they’ve seen in innumerable television shows and films — Bakhtinian intertextuality in action. However, they also recognize that they’re making it adapt to the current situation/context, and that they’re both reproducing a form and creating a new iteration of it.

What this says to me in terms of teaching is that students are, in fact, able to understand what Devitt says about genre, that “…genre is a dynamic response to and construction of recurring situation, one that changes historically and in different social groups, that adapts and grows as the social context changes.” Once they really understand that, then I can move them beyond the traditional 5-paragraph theme structure which so many of them still cling to as the only form of academic writing, and do so with the strength of a thousand Hulks; since a 5-paragraph theme doesn’t exist in nature, then a writer must figure out what genre is called for in a specific writing situation based on context and audience, and go from there. As Devitt snarkily says (and I appreciate good snark in a theorist), “The assignment may ask for a letter to the editor, but the writer who begins with an inverted-triangle introduction is still writing for the teacher.” In short, this piece is, for me, theory in action.