What Genre Is Your Writing Assignment?: Cultivating Field Knowledge and Improving Student Writing

What Genre Is Your Writing Assignment?: Cultivating Field Knowledge and Improving Student Writing

Julia Bleakney
Ph.D, Director of the Writing Center, Center for Writing Excellence, Elon University

Shay Brawn
Advanced Lecturer, Program in Writing in Rhetoric, Writing Specialist for Human Biology

Insights and Guidance

By the time they arrive in your classroom, students have written many, many “papers.”  Yet their understanding of what constitutes a “paper” is likely to vary based on the settings in which they’ve previously written. For instance, students who have written mostly for English classes may assume that a paper is analytical and that quotations from sources are “evidence”—an assumption that makes sense in the case of textual analysis but not in, for instance, a policy analysis or a literature review. Thus, one of the best ways you can help students write in a way that satisfies the values and standards of your discipline—and help them to avoid importing inappropriate strategies from other settings—is to assign writing in genres actually used by practitioners in your field and to help your students understand those genres.

At Stanford, students who have taken PWR 1 and PWR 2 (or their equivalents) practice strategies for writing in new situations: the emphasis on rhetoric in PWR means that students are taught to consider how purpose, audience, and situation interact to shape their communication choices, and cultivating genre awareness is part of that process. However, in order to write effectively in the particular genres (or subgenres) that make up your field, students need your insights and guidance both because you are practitioner in the discourse and because you have the best sense of what students need to know and when they need to know it as they attain disciplinary knowledge.

1. What is Genre?

We often think of genres as fixed forms—such as the ingredients list and step-by-step instructions in a recipe or the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (IMRaD) sections in a scientific research article. However, if we present genres to our students as fixed forms or sets of rules, we encourage them to approach writing as a kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise—and it can be surprising what, lacking sufficient understanding of the genre and the field—writers can put in those blanks. So rather than ask, “What is a genre?” it might be more helpful to ask, “What do genres do?” 

Genres are forms that evolve to meet particular kinds of communicative purposes—e.g., to make informed policy recommendations to legislators (policy brief) or to report the results of empirical research (IMRaD)—by communicating with particular audiences (busy non-specialists, interested fellow experts) within particular constraints (time, space, available information, cultural values, social norms, community-specific standards of evidence, etc.). And they continue to evolve as the needs and values of those communities change. (See, for instance, Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science for a fascinating account of the evolution of the scientific research article from letters to the more formal structure we recognize today.)

Thus, understanding the forms and norms of genres can be a vital path for students to understand the ways of thinking and ways of doing in the fields they are entering. By the same token, when students encounter unfamiliar genres without understanding their connection to the disciplinary or field contexts that give them meaning, they may struggle to write effectively in the new form even if they have written very successfully in other contexts.

2. What kinds of genres should you teach?

Depending on your course goals, you may want to assign writing in expert genres (such as research proposals, literature reviews, research posters, policy briefs, etc.) or genres for lay audiences (op-eds, blog posts, PSAs, podcasts, feature articles, etc.). Expert genres will help students develop a deeper understanding of the discipline or field, while more public-facing genres reinforce students’ comprehension of course content and deepen their understanding of the broader significance of disciplinary knowledge.

3. Why should students learn to write in particular genres? 

Assigning writing in established genres helps students achieve your course’s learning goals by:

  • making the assignment more meaningful. Research shows that students are more engaged in the writing task when the assignment has clear expectations and when the writing task is “meaning-making”; writing in a recognized genre is one way to make the assignment meaning-making and purposeful because most genres have built-in purpose (Anderson, et al 2015).
  • ensuring that unfamiliarity with a genre doesn’t get in the way of students demonstrating their understanding of course material. If you ask a student to write a “paper,” a “term paper,” or an “essay,” they won’t find much guidance outside what you give them, which places a tremendous burden on the prompt (and perhaps on your office hours!). But when you assign recognized genres, you make it easier for students to find resources, particularly internet resources, with sound advice for research, planning, and writing most genres. Just pointing students to one or two such resources makes it much more likely that their work will meet your expectations. 

Assigning writing in genres will help student learning beyond your class, particularly in other courses for the major by:

  • giving students a foundation to draw on when they are asked to write in  a similar genre in a different context.
  • helping students develop meta-awareness about the “moves” —the logical and argumentative steps—of  any genre that help them successfully transfer knowledge from one writing task to another.
  • deepening students’ understanding of your field or discipline because genres are a window into the values of the “discourse communities” that use them.

4. How should you teach genre?

Assign and Analyze Models

Whether you assign an expert genre or a public-facing, lay genre, a good place to start is by asking students to read exemplary models (student writing or published articles) to help them understand genre expectations. However, not all students know what to look for when reading. Here are some suggestions for helping students get the most out of reading model samples:
  • Ask students to compare two exemplary samples of writing in two different genres, perhaps even written by the same scholar. (Some scholars write in both popular and expert genres, and it can be powerful for students to see the same content delivered to different audiences with different purposes.)
  • Ask students to identify similarities and differences in format/structure, scope of argument, use of evidence, level of diction, audience awareness, etc.
  • Model for the students how to analyze a sample to understand the “moves”— structural, logical, argumentative—in a given piece.
  • Use assigned class readings as an opportunity to introduce genres and identify genre conventions and purposes, particularly in terms of audience needs and expectations. (This can help students as well with reading texts for which they are not the intended audience.)

Be Specific about Genre in Your Prompt, Rubric, and Feedback

The more explicit you are in defining the genre of your writing assignment in the prompt, the easier it will be for students to make good choices about structure, kinds of evidence, diction, etc. Some of the most helpful prompts not only identify the genre but also specify a particular situation (i.e., not just “you are writing a research proposal” but “you are writing a research proposal for the NIH). That kind of detail helps writers more effectively address the expectations of an audience by giving them the means to consider audience needs more concretely than they might in the absence of information. Less helpful are prompts that simply outline sections to include and direct students to organize their material in a particular way. When writers who are new to a genre try to use such formal templates, they often struggle to create coherence because they are not making choices based on their communicative purposes in relation to audience needs and expectations.

Once you have laid the groundwork for thinking about genre in your prompt, you can use it as a frame of reference to identify qualities you are looking for in a successful assignment and to identify strengths and weaknesses when you give students feedback. 

Discuss the Purpose of the Specific Genre Assigned

It can be helpful for students to understand that genres are not arbitrarily developed types of written documents but, rather, they evolve as responses to the communicative needs of specific audiences. Students will appreciate any clues you can give them about how the particular genre you have assigned is used, especially if that can explain some of the conventions of the genre. If you assign a genre that you write yourself, students will benefit from hearing you talk about your experience learning to write in this genre, especially if you struggled to learn the expectations.

Direct Students to Additional Resources

Writing tutors in the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking are trained to help students analyze the disciplinary writing expectations for a given assignment. You can recommend students meet with a tutor when they are getting started on an assignment or when they have a draft.

You can also direct students to useful online resources. Here are some useful resources for thinking about genre in general:

You can also point students toward resources with advice about specific genres. For example, here’s a sampling of resources about policy memos:

Works Referenced

Paul Anderson, Chris Anson, Robert Gonyea, Charles Paine. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English Volume 50, Number 2 (November 2015): 199-235.

Bazerman, Charles. (2000). Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/ bazerman_shaping/ Originally Published in Print, 1988, by University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin.

John Swales. Genre Analysis: English in Academe and Research Setting. Cambridge, 1990.