Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Genre Effect: Exploring the Unfamiliar

Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Genre Effect: Exploring the Unfamiliar

Article excerpt

Much composition pedagogy begins writing instruction within familiar territory. As a result, composition educators often structure curriculum and courses so that students first write in familiar genres, like personal narratives, and examine and critique their own lives, experiences, and even beliefs through those genres before turning to unfamiliar territory. Many compositionists also use that familiar territory to foster and develop students' critical consciousness, defined by Paulo Freire in his influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed as "learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality" (35). Composition educators, of course, want to help students develop their writing skills and abilities, but in doing so many also invite students to uncover, critique, and resist underlying ideological dimensions present in the discourses of their everyday lives through the critical examination of the familiar.

One impetus for beginning within the familiar can be found within Lev Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development," which he defines as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers" (86). Vygostky, and many others after him, suggests that teachers provide students with experiences that are within their zone of proximal development in order to encourage learning. Another impetus can be found within the works of John Dewey, in which he argues that educators must connect student interests to the material and classroom. For example, in Interest and Effort in Education, he suggests that to "make things interesting," subjects should "be selected in relation to the child's present experience, powers, and needs; and that . . . the new material be presented in such a way to enable the child to appreciate its bearings, its relationships, and its value in connection with what already has significance for him" (23-24). And yet another impetus can be found in the wide-scale admonishment of the "banking concept of education" and the adoption of various kinds of "problem -posing education" (Freire, Shor). An integral component of "problem-posing education" is, as Ira Shor suggests, to "situate learning in the students' cultures - their literacy, their themes, their present cognitive and affective levels, their aspiration, their daily lives" (24). Certainly these theoretical foundations and arguments are not only reasonable, but valuable, and have lead to many productive uses of the familiar within the writing classroom. However, as with all pedagogical approaches, there are some limitations to beginning with the familiar, especially when one of the goals of the composition classroom is to develop critical consciousness.

In this essay, I consider some of the problems students and teachers may encounter when beginning within familiar territory and then provide yet another option for how a composition course might begin writing instruction to foster students' critical consciousness. To do so, I examine how one pedagogical approach, the explicit teaching of genre, incorporates the familiar, mainly through familiar genres, and then I explore the difficulties that students may encounter when beginning within familiar genres. I argue that these difficulties may lie within our own assumptions about composition pedagogy and critical consciousness as well as the ideological forces of genres and what I am terming as the genre effect. From this, I expand upon current approaches to the explicit teaching of genre by proposing and exploring a pedagogy that considers the genre effect and invites students to begin not with the familiar but with the unfamiliar.

The Explicit Teaching of Genre and the Familiar

The explicit teaching of genre differs from other approaches to writing instruction in that it understands genres as "typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations" (Miller 31). …

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