G is for Genre

3 03 2013

reading newspaperIs a blog post (like this one) an example of a genre? If so, what would you call the genre?  And what are its generic features?

The question raises some of the thorny issues associated with the term ‘genre’. In An A to Z of ELT I define genre as ‘any type of spoken or written discourse which is used and recognized by members of a particular culture or sub-culture’. Blogging is a kind of written discourse. It’s not so clear, though, how culturally specific it is. Anyone can blog, after all, and anyone with access to the internet can read a blog.

My definition continues: ‘As a genre becomes established, it acquires a conventionalized structure and often a characteristic vocabulary and grammar’. Blogging is established, without a doubt (over 181m blogs at one recent count), but are blog posts conventionalized to the extent that their structure, vocabulary and grammar can be described?  Or do they simply replicate (or even cannibalize) the features of other genres, such as op-ed pieces, or news reports, or diary entries? In short, if you were teaching students how to write blog posts, what would your model be?

Swales (1990) regards some discourse types, such as conversation and narrative, as being too baggy and pervasive to qualify as genres. Blogging would seem to be such a one.

McCarthy and Carter (1994: 32-33) would probably concur. They argue that ‘there may… be an endless continuum of genres with some genres mixing with one another to form generic blends. It may be that there are too many exceptions for the rules to be proved with the result that the notion of genre becomes as slippery as the notion of register… Thus, instead of talking about the genre of report it may be more appropriate to talk about reports (plural) or the activity of reporting’. So, no blog genre, just blogging.

card playersThe problem may be partly resolved by greater granularity: that is, by specifying the audience, topic, but especially the purpose, of the discourse. Thus, Swales (1990: 58) defines genre as comprising ‘a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre’ (my italics).

So, let’s re-categorize this blog post as an example of the genre: blogging to language teachers in order to understand more about language teaching. In this sense it shares a rationale with other blogs, such as Willy Cardoso’s, or Carol Goodey’s, to name just two.

Ignoring the issue of how specific is specific enough, we might now ask: What are the generic features of this genre, and how do you get at them?

Burns et al (1996:2) make the interesting observation that ‘the concept of genre is an abstraction: it involves an averaging of the structure of those texts which aim to fulfil the same purpose’.

‘Averaging the structure of texts’. How would you do that? Assembling a corpus of texts would be a start, and specifically those texts that the members of the parent discourse community have validated as good exemplars of the genre. Could you ‘average’ a corpus of blog posts in such a way as to extrapolate generic features?

Probably yes. A crunching of my posts and Willy’s and Carol’s might reveal certain common features, at the level both of overall organization (the macrostructure) and of the lexico-grammatical micro-features.

But how interesting would this be? And why would you want to do it? Presumably for pedagogical purposes, e.g. to induct aspiring members into the discourse community.

doctor patientHowever, critics of genre theory reject this approach as being too prescriptive and too rigid. Cook (1994: 46), for instance, argues that ‘notions of genre operate rather like school rules, which take no account of the individual. In the classroom of genre, there is no room for the creative misbehaviour of the artist (which demands both awareness of genres and some disrespect for them)’.

This tension between convention and innovation is well captured by Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 190): ‘When we make use of genres in speaking or writing, we use the stabilized patterns but exploit the variability around them to create what is uniquely needed for that particular literacy or discourse event’. And they add that ‘any simplification of the notion of genre loses something of its complexity’ (p. 191).

In similar spirit, Freadman (2012: 547) argues that ‘any genre… alludes to, or carries, the history of its own practice ….  The pedagogical question … is how to bring a student to take her or his place in this history — to discover how something has been done before, and how it can be adapted to particular needs as occasions arise’.

Discovering how something has been done before is anathema to many proponents of genre theory, such as the ‘Australian school’. They would rather students were told how something has been done before. Anything less is disempowering. Genres (they argue) are heavily implicated in questions of power, since ignorance of genres can exclude people from effective social participation. Hence, genres should be taught, and taught explicitly. ‘Conscious knowledge of language and the way it functions in social contexts … enables us to make choices, to exercise control. As long as we are ignorant of language, it and the ideological systems it embraces control us’ (Martin 1989: 62).

But this doesn’t answer the question: How do you recognize a genre when you see one? And what is its own best example?

party scene introductionsReferences:

Burns, A., Joyce, H., & Gollin, S. (1996) ‘I see what you mean’: using spoken discourse in the classroom: a handbook for teachers, Sydney: Macquarie University.

Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature: the interplay of form and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freadman, A. (2012) ‘The traps and trappings of genre theory’, Applied Linguistics, 33, 5, 544-563.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. (1989) Factual Writing: Exploring and challenging social reality (2nd edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (1994) Language as Discourse: Perspectives for Language Teaching, London: Longman.

Swales, J.M. (1990) Genre  Analysis: English in academic and research settings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Illustrations from  Elías, A. (1920) Método Práctico de Inglés, New York: National Paper & Type Co.