Do the Clothes Fit?

Yesterday, UPenn hosted  the fall meeting of the Philadelphia WPA (thanks to Valerie Ross, Patrick Wehner, Roger LeGrand, Doug Paletta, Katie Gindlesparger, and Liz Vogel for pulling this off–and to Scott Warnick for smoothly volunteering me to do the same next fall). The day was a wonderful introduction for me into the Philadelphia area collection of writing teachers.

Having Anis Bawarshi give a talk on transfer and genre theory was a special treat. His scholarship and insights have certainly helped me with my thinking about the function of genres in writing instruction. I particularly appreciated his openness and generosity of spirit–there’s no other way to say it. I’m very glad that I had a chance to meet him.

So thinking of what Anis and other participants had to say about genre, here’s what I want to say–actually, I have boatload of things I want to say, but one of my friends gave me some very good advice about the genre of blogging (‘have a picture and keep it short’), so I’m going to try to keep my remarks to one.

I credit James Moffett and John Dewey for reminding us that how we teach is what we teach. I think that we should let our students in on what I have elsewhere called the exclusionary function of genres. That’s the kind of high road knowledge that is very likely to transfer–and it transfers across discursive categories (like writing, socializing, dressing). Knowing how to speak and be within different kinds of rhetorical situations–well, that’s genre knowledge that helps us frame our ways of being in putatively dissimilar situations.

I’m wandering–and also edging dangerously close to breaking the genre of blogging. I thought I had one point–but I have two.

Here’s the first one: when we teach our students to write within genres, we are teaching them how to behave. Rather than teach them how to write in-genre, we need to teach them something about writing out-of-genre. I think that kind of knowledge might transfer.

And the dangers of doing it. In-genre writing can be boring. Out-of-genre writing is dangerous to the writer and to the culture within which that writer is inscribed.

It’s more than a little interesting to think about who gets to write out-of-genre. Here’s the first thing: people who write out-of-genre are more interesting than people who write in-genre. Let’s say, more fun. Or poetic.

Second thing: your social class origin, your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your physical attributes, and so on have everything to do with whether you think you can risk writing out-of-genre.

My good friend, Eli Goldblatt, brought up Bakhtin in the genre discussion. Bakhtin is/was way cool.

Here’s how I see it: genres are like clothes. You know the difference between people who seem to be wearing other people’s clothes and those who are wearing their own. Bakhtin’s point was that when first we wear them, they don’t belong to us. After a while, they do.

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