And I thought genre was flexible…or is it?

Carolyn R. Miller’s article, Genre as Social Action highlight important arguments from many well-known Composition theorists on the issue of Genre and the rhetorical situation. The conversation I found most intriguing deals with genre and being linked to human action. Another element that is stressed is how reoccurrence is demonstrated as a social act compared to a materialist point of view. “In order to understand occurrence, it is necessary to reject the materialist” (156).

Miller is implying the rhetorical situation and genre are both human habits. In this argument, she takes a more cognitive approach to the situation of genre by linking it with human interaction. She mentions our “stock of knowledge” and how people learn and comprehend information through interaction and in turn, become familiarized with the patterns of the information in which they learn. Form these patters, reoccurrence spawns and creates a cycle that is repeated through the learning process, hence, reoccurrence. Once information begins to reoccur, the person then becomes familiar with the pattern.

While relating this to genre and learning genre through rhetorical situations, it leaves one to think, where is the room for creativity in a rigid and formalistic structure on how to compose, departmentalize, and categorize genres? Why and how do people categorize genres as they do?

Having demonstrated and assigned various genres in the classroom, I can relate when Miller mentions genres can become repetitive… from a grading point of view. I find it ironic that the definition of genre according to the text taught in my class, Writing Today by Johnson- Sheehan, genre is defined as being flexible (36). But the definition of genre through Miller’s article in a rhetorical sense is to ‘classify’ (155). How can one place genre within specific parameters while maintaining ones own authenticity and creativity without bending the constraints of the genre and rhetorical situation? Is there a method for this? Or, if one veers outside the imaginative lines of genre, what happens next?

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About hflute

Heather is currently teaching two sections of English 120 at NDSU while on a journey through academic enlightenment through the path of English Composition. She is passionate about reading a variety of books and is always excited to become encapsulated in an engaging research project. She also loves coffee and puns.

3 thoughts on “And I thought genre was flexible…or is it?

  1. Good questions, Heather. I thought the Devitt chapter gave some helpful approaches for examining parameters, as well as the edges, or genre. For me, the question quickly becomes: “to what end?” Organizing and classifying genre for genre’s sake could be an interesting intellectual project, but I think the concept pushes for experimentation and response. For me, being able to classify is only an important step as it helps spur creativity. However, academic approaches to genre may be more apt to stick to the classifying. Without meaning to insult any super scholars out there, such an approach just seems boring. Scientists can classify; humanists get to play.

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  2. I’m glad you brought attention to creativity with your question “Where is the room for creativity in a rigid and formalistic structure on how to compose, departmentalize, and categorize genres?” I think Miller might say that the issue of creativity lies less in confining formalistic structures and more in the intersubjective creation of situations: what does it mean to be creative when it’s a variety of people building your frame and understanding of how to act? Devitt in her GCP chapter begins to approach this problem. In citing her own article, she writes that “Any view of genre as inhibiting creativity ignores that all creativity works within constraints” (151). These constraints could include the other people who create the situation, and in any situation we’re always working within them. The goal of creativity is then to make do with what we have rather than wholly invent something new. This same kind of point has come up many times: there’s always the speaker who spoke before you, the writer who wrote before you–and we can’t ignore that. I read a neat notable quotable recently from Bakhtin who says that no one is “the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe.” There’s never silence; there’s always stuff, constraints, other people, other texts — situations.

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  3. I definitely think there’s room for creativity in genre theory, although it might not always be so easy to notice. The opportunity for creativity comes only after one is familiar and comfortable with a given genre. Once someone understands the conventions of a genre well enough, they are able to play with that genre in interesting ways.

    Devitt quotes Reiff and Bawarshi’s discussion of “boundary crossers” in her chapter as those who “repurposed and reimagined their prior genre knowledge for use in new contexts” (158), and this is precisely where some of that creativity blossoms. Once one understands the rules, forms, and conventions of a genre, they can break those rules in meaningful ways to make a point, play with the forms to challenge their audience, and either use the conventions in new ways or discard some of them altogether.

    Much of this has to do with playing with audience expectations (which, really, genres help us cater to, don’t they?). Satire often uses the forms of genres people are familiar with, but breaks conventions of that genre, or explores topics usually absent from a particular genre. And this, I think, is exactly where creativity in genre theory can emerge. First we must have a solid understanding of a genre, and then we can play with that genre.

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