Before I jump right into the reason for this entry’s title, I’ll need some set-up first. I write this entry a day after returning from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs, or 4Cs). As always after a conference I am finding myself energized and exhausted at the same time. The dominant themes at work during this CCCCs (or, at least the things I sought out, and found valuable for my current thinking and work as a composition instructor and Writing Center administrator) seemed to be genre, transfer, and meta-cognition (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process), and (of course) the relationships between these concepts.
There were two panels I found most powerful on these subjects, in part because they served to validate the work we’ve been doing in our Writing Theory and Pedagogy (peer tutor preparation) course, and in part because it has helped me to think more fully about my intentions in my own Composition and Literature (English 101) course (that’s where the “nonce” idea comes into play… but more on that later). [Specifics and my eventual point/observations after the jump]
The first, on Thursday, was the Genres in Transition panel (with 12 prominent genre theorists, including Anis Bawarshi, Amy Devitt, Rebecca Nowacek, Carolyn Miller, Jane Danielewicz, Elizabeth Wardle, among others) where scholars responded to the idea that genre theory is “uniquely positioned to illuminate how writers in transition between writing tasks, situations and discourse communities” with their own concepts and current research.
The second was the Friday afternoon panel Teaching Meta-awareness: A Key for Students’ Transfer of Writing Knowledge Through Discursive Gateways with Elizabeth Wardle as the respondent to Barbara Bird and Carie King. In the panel Bird and King present the results of a study they conducted through their composition courses taught through a writing about writing curriculum. In this course, they advocate for methods of improving meta-cognition not only through writing about writing, but through teaching students annotation practices, and using reading responses, fish-bowl discussions, and final reflective portfolios where students return to the objectives of the course and present their most significant work.
In our Writing Theory and Pedagogy seminar (our writing tutor preparation course) we spend amp
le time with genre, discourse community, and discipline-specific conventions so that our consultants can recognize and help student writers adapt to genre-specific tasks. As we bring in professors from across the disciplines to discuss their expectations in terms of writing, we discuss discipline-specific genres our consultants regularly encounter in the Center. As Catherine Schryer states, “Genres are way more like verbs” (though I did not write in my notes what genres are more like verbs than, it’s still a helpful statement). The “we” behind genres makes some more stable and others less so.
Our current assignment, asks students to investigate a group on campus they expect may be a discourse community (a likely “we” behind genres), and to collect and analyze writing artifacts from that group to identify the possible genres at play. Although the assignment isn’t “about” genre, it’s a way of encountering discourse communities and genre “in the wild” (as Rebecca Nowacek says), within a specific context. This helps to build a rhetorical knowledge of genres, which Nowacek advocates for, as we help our seminar students learn “how genres relate to goals.” Tutors, then, become “conversational partners with writers” as they (both) acquire rhetorical knowledge of the genre(s) at play. Perhaps we’ll know more fully how well we’re doing in teaching genre when these assignments come in, but for now I feel the work we’ve done so far in re-focusing our approach in the seminar is valid and good.
In my own first-year writing pedagogy, I teach a writing about writing curriculum (much like King and Bird described in their panel) but largely avoid the concept of genre, privileging instead assigning assignment prompts that combine elements from different genres and assigning literary texts that exist somewhere between genres. While this might, at first, seem antithetical to our approach in Writing Theory and Pedagogy, my approach (I hope) helps students to accept their place as novices (to cite Sommers and Saltz) and increases meta-cognition. As Anis Bawarshi claims, it’s within “liminal states of encounter” or the “between-ness” in writing tasks that makes “tasks familiar and strange.” This, I feel, is a good strangeness. The essay assignments and texts are difficult to pin down, so students must rely on their own critical thinking to achieve the tasks at hand. It also makes it difficult for students to rely on past genre knowledge. As Bawarshi tells it, students may address written assignments through the “not” genres (“well,” they might say, “I know this is NOT going to be a standard five-paragraph essay”). If students have developed a sense of meta-cognition then that awareness of their own mental capacities should make adapting to new genres possible. What I’m trying to teach are analytical and academic habits of mind so that when the day arrives that genres are introduced (or, re-introduced) into their written lives, the formal construct will not limit my students’ sense of empowerment to deliver ideas true to their own interests and will, instead, feel freeing.
So, as always (though I have not always articulated this in this blog), I am attracted to scholars who acknowledge blurred and liminal spaces of the in-between, and who acknowledge that no topic of the mind can be seen in black and white absolutes. Elizabeth Wardle actually suggested in her portion of the genre talk that “we cannot teach genres in general because there is no such thing.” In a dramatic reenactment with two of her colleagues she demonstrates that students want rigid guidelines, and the more we define guidelines for assignments between genres the more the written product becomes a genre that can be identified. Thus, there is a paradox. I think, though, that paradoxes (often the tension resulting from two absolutes in tension) can be motivating (for both educators and students).
In the poetry world, temporary forms are called “nonce forms.” As the definition in this entry’s title suggests, these forms are built for the particular, specific occasion and are not intended to be replicated. However, the paradox there is the same: once others repeat the form, it is socially constructed into a recognizable form and no longer “temporary.” The term “nonce” might be a helpful descriptor for these forms professors request in their own idiosyncratic assignments that do not yet have that identifiable named genre. With all of the talk on genre happening it privileges genre in a way that almost makes me feel guilty for not teaching them specifically in my composition course. I was, therefore, very grateful for the words of Wardle and Bawarshi, in particular (update: Wardle has argued against what she calls “mutt-genres,” but has been helpful to me for validating the writing about writing component of my pedagogy, and her dramatic re-enactment of professors’ frustrations with genres is an accurate and helpful illustration for how poetic forms operate as well). If I think of the results of my assignments as nonce genres, I regain the sense of security I started with when first designing them. As with nonce forms in poetry, the formal elements of the written thing might contain elements of other recognizable forms, but the combination of these elements was created for a specific purpose for the specific moment (such as, a particular course). This, I hope, helps students identify those particular elements as they might be combined/re-combined in assignments in other courses (even specific genres). I hope, therefore, that these nonce assignments help with transfer.
I hope to write more intelligently and clearly on this topic in a future more scholarly avenue. For now, I thank the blog-o-sphere for giving me a means for coming to this thinking (if only a little, and in a particularly messy, nonce form).