Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. I was working on a textbook proposal and had to draft a table of contents. The pickle: I've never written a table of contents. Not only have I never written a TOC, but I have never put one second of thought into the genre itself or how to write one. So what did I do? I did exactly what I teach my students to do when they approach a new writing task: I conducted a genre analysis. I took out a bunch of textbooks from my bookshelf, lined them up, and studied them (photographic evidence below!). I wrote down similarities. I wrote down differences. From there, I made a list of possible rhetorical moves I could make when composing the TOC. I identified the options that I thought would work best in my particular rhetorical context, and I drafted two different TOCs that corresponded to the textbook ideas. My co-writer and I got together, looked at the versions I created as well as the versions he created, and—voilà—we achieved our writing task.
Teaching students how to conduct a genre analysis is invaluable in the writing classroom. The identification of genre features and patterns helps students gain genre and rhetorical awareness/knowledge and helps them to determine the moves and strategies they need to make in order to write effectively in a given genre and rhetorical situation. Genre knowledge provides students with a reflective process for approaching a writing situation: students who have the ability to activate their genre awareness and conduct a genre analysis are able to build themselves a guide for how to approach any given writing task.
In writing classes, instructors can support students in learning about genre and how to conduct a genre analysis in low-stakes or high-stakes assignments. Below, I offer a low-stakes assignment that I’ve used with students to build genre knowledge and practice genre analysis in a fun and easy way. I often facilitate this activity immediately before I pass out guidelines for a high-stakes writing assignment. This activity usually takes between 45 minutes to an hour.
Genre Analysis Assignment
Step #1: Give students three take-out menus from three different restaurants.
Step #2: Instruct students to read through the menus and look at them in relation to one another in small groups. Ask them to note commonalities in terms of content, structure, organization, language, design, and rhetorical strategies.
Step #3: Facilitate a class discussion. Ask students to identify the common situation in which a take-out menu emerges, noting why they exist, who engages with them and why, and the multiple purposes they may have. Record their responses on the board. Next, ask students to identify the commonalities they noted among the menus in their small groups. Record the information on the board.
Step #4: Now ask students to turn a focused eye on one menu. Ask them to return to their small groups and work to identify the common moves in the genre, the unique moves made in this particular menu, and the unique factors of the rhetorical situation (this may involve a bit of quick research).
Step #5: Debrief as a large class. Ask students to share their findings and record student responses on the board. Facilitate a class discussion focused on what the activity has taught students about writing and how they might approach a given writing task.
Most students find this activity enjoyable and valuable in learning how to conduct a genre analysis. In my experience, most students have an easy time identifying common and unique rhetorical moves as well as the rhetorical context of one single menu, especially when it’s a local restaurant. It’s a great warm-up activity to do prior to a high-stakes genre analysis assignment or a high-stakes writing (of any kind) assignment. Often times, I conduct this activity immediately before giving out a high-stakes writing assignment: I add an optional Step #6, wherein I ask students to identify a process for how they might approach composing in the particular genre as dictated by the assignment and the kinds of skills, abilities, and/or knowledge they may need to enhance or gain in order to effectively complete the assignment.