Sometimes one begins to experiment in a formal field of study without prior awareness of the field existing. While I suppose I knew “genre pedagogy” existed prior to reading Amy J. Devitt’s chapter, I had not read anything related (though I had certainly intuited some approaches as a student in our program). Interestingly, then, an assignment I used last year in my Religion and Popular Culture course connects with several ways Devitt describes the field. At other points, however, my instincts took me in directions not suggested by Devitt’s take on genre pedagogy.
Called the “Praxis Project: Let’s Go Viral” assignment, the assignment in short, read as such:
Your task: attempt to make something, related to religion and popular culture, actually go viral. The digital platform(s) is up to you. The method is yours to determine. The hits are yours to measure. The challenge is yours to accept.
Students formed groups and worked in teams to accomplish the task. To some extent (but not enough), I scaffolded the assignment with some work throughout the semester. I also directed class discussion, research, and experimentation related to virality. For instance, the assignment sheet read, in part:
Stipulations for this project:
1. That we study together what, in the area of religion and popular cultures, goes viral this semester.
2. That we analyze together the notion of virality.
3. That students conduct individual and group research into virality.
4. That, reflecting this research, we agree on terms of group project that attempt to make something go viral.
5. That these viral projects launch approximately April…
In some ways, I seem to have stumbled upon critical genre awareness pedagogy. In their textbook, Reiff, Bawarshi, and Dewitt guide students to engage in genre by (152, authors in bold, Adam in italics):
Collect samples of the genre / I did this by facilitating student discussions of samples of virality in small groups.
Identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used / My students did not complete a formal rhetorical analysis, though discussion of cultural factors were common.
Identify and describe patterns in the genre’s features / We worked on this approach in small groups that reported to the class.
Analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context / In a sense, this step is where the Praxis Project began. Further, its final step included a section on “analysis and connections.”
Later in the teaching genre critique section, Devitt writes, “Calling students’ attention to hybrid, blurred, or emerging genres can help students gain a critical stance towards genres more fully normalized” (155). While I did not have the language to put it this way on the assignment sheet, this notion indeed informed the assignment design. As, by definition, instances of viral writing on the Internet are always newly emerging in some sense, I believe studying examples of religion and popular culture going viral help students critique other forms as well.
At least two shortcomings of the viral praxis project become clear when using the genre pedagogy chapter as a reflection tool. First, I did not support enough reflection, analysis, and critique concerning the question of genre. As a class, we looked at what goes viral on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. But the genre often differed. We considered videos, blog posts, polls, pictures, selfies, and others. We tended to describe the genre of “that which goes viral” rather than doing careful work on the specificity or sub-genres of the viral postings.
Second, Devitt suggests, “Teaching the etiquette of a particular genre involved teaching the context, time and place, audience’s expectations, and strategies for working within the genre” (148). While the course covered some of these considerations, much of the emphasis was on the experimentation, risk, and invention required of making something go viral. In other words, I perhaps moved too quickly from genre analysis to application. In all, however, I continue to be drawn to genre pedagogy as a helpful took for both analysis and invention.
Questions for consideration
- What is the right balance between acquiring knowledge of genres, analyzing genre, and applying or experimenting with new forms?
- When it comes to new media, what are some distinctions between genre and sub-genres? Are all listicles made equal?
- Group work may be particularly well-suited for genre study. What are the benefits and drawbacks of group-based pedagogy for genre study?