Teaching and Learning Genres in the Disciplines: An Interview with Chris Nelson

By Ruth Sylvester, WIC Intern

Last winter, we featured an interview with Dennis Bennett on the new undergraduate Writing Studio. In this issue, we talk with Chris Nelson, director of the graduate Writing Center. We asked Chris to share his ideas about teaching genre.

WIC: The second WIC learning outcome addresses students learning about how to write in their field: “Students in writing intensive courses shall demonstrate knowledge/understanding of audience expectations, genres, and conventions appropriate to communicating in the discipline.” Why is it important for students to learn to write in a variety of genres?  What kinds of assignments do you think are effective in teaching genre?

Chris Nelson: Genre allows us to define the ways groups of people communicate—not just the conventional forms that we use but also the values and perspectives that form those groups. The genres that we find in scholarly fields also tell us important things about how each field builds knowledge. When students first enroll in a writing class at a university, they are exposed to important, conventional ways of communicating ideas in academic settings. This exposure is important, because it is necessary for becoming familiar with the norms of academic writing: summarizing, paraphrasing, arguing, analyzing, synthesizing. We often encounter these tasks on their own—in exercises, activities, or even formal assignments.

But the purposes these tasks serve can seem unclear to many students when separated from the knowledge-building activities for which they are used. Instead, when we recognize genre, we understand that writing plays specific roles in exploring and communicating ideas in a field—that there is a social function that writing plays. In short, genre takes us from the commonly understood situation of writing for an individual teacher (not to mention for a grade) and allows us to consider the more rhetorical purposes that a document must accomplish if it is to be a worthwhile or useful piece of work for other scholars who share your interests. For example, when we see a white paper in engineering, we know that the writer is synthesizing current information about a given research direction to query other engineers whether that research direction is worthwhile. The function of that document is to prompt the evaluative expertise of the community to decide whether a research idea has merit—so it is ultimately the writer of the white paper who benefits from the genre, assuming the writer has done their job of meeting the conventional expectations of that white paper.

Students who learn to write a variety of genres, then, have the opportunity to learn about, and become part of, a larger community of knowledge builders who not only share similar interests but also communicate their ideas in expected ways. So, genre allows us to become acculturated to both the knowledge and the discourse of a given field.

This becomes a bit of a trick for any writing teacher, because assignments must require students to implement conventional forms of communication (which themselves can indeed be interrogated as the writer gains proficiency, but that is another conversation) while at the same time enable them to experience communicating ideas meaningfully. For me, any assignment that engages students in writing for specific audiences can be effective at promoting genre, but a teacher who is able to welcome students into conversations about the roles that document plays for specific audiences helps them to see that an assignment has purposes to accomplish, rather than being an arbitrary exercise for a grade only. That can be quite a tall order, but to me seems to be the role that a teacher in any discipline plays—answering the question of how to guide students into the standard practices of our fields so that they, too, become knowledge builders.

WIC: How do writing tutors address genre in the Graduate Writing Center?

Chris Nelson: Like all writing center tutors, Graduate Writing Consultants are trained to identify the rhetorical purposes of a given document: purpose, audience needs, formal conventions, and so on. The Graduate Writing Center takes that training a step further by working with what we might consider to be the professional academic forms of writing: scholarly journal articles, conference posters and presentations, funding proposals, and of course theses and dissertations. Ideally, a writing consultant would be familiar with writing and knowledge conventions in each discipline, but that is knowledge that would take years to accumulate—if it even is possible! Genre allows us to prompt writers to teach us about content and communication expectations in various fields. Their awareness of research writing conventions allows consultants to define formal expectations and allow writers to determine whether those conventions operate similarly to or different from the types of writing they encounter in their own fields.

In some respects, genre allows us to explicitly define with students the codes, so to speak, of writing—codes that many scholars absorb and learn to implement over time as part of their own graduate education, even though they may not have learned to name these codes directly. These are important conversations, since graduate students are very adept at identifying conventions in their fields, but may remain unaware of the reasoning or purposes behind these conventions. By enabling us to identify explicitly the expectations of content and communication, graduate students not only learn, but also show consultants, ways of communicating in their fields. So, consultants learn about writing in various fields just as much as students do. By virtue of that learning, consultants can then ask more substantive questions about content or the ways that content is conveyed in a given document.

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