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GENRE ACROSS THE CURRICULUM
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2005 Utah State University Press
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Chapter OneTHE IDEA OF GENRE IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
An Overview of the Work in Genre in the Fields of Composition and Rhetoric and New Genre Studies
Anne Herrington and Charles Moran
GENRE IN CLASSICAL RHETORIC
Genre is an idea with a history perhaps as long as that of thought itself. Early creation myths often speak of a creator who brings form out of a formless chaos-in Scandinavian mythology, a cow licks the form of the first human out of a shapeless ice block; in Judeo-Christian mythology, a creator brings order out of a universe "without form and void," and then in the next six days populates it with the "kinds" of animal and plant life. But for our limited purposes here, an inquiry into the value of explicit attention to genre in the teaching of writing, we begin with Plato and Aristotle, both of whom have, in different ways, framed the issues the teachers and students in subsequent chapters will struggle with. What are genres in writing? Do they exist as ideal forms in an empyrean, or in the structures of the brain? Or are these forms to be found in the language that participates in recurring social action? And how are these genres, once described and understood, best taught and learned? In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that advice about form in the existing handbooks is misguided because it ignores the organic relation between form and content. He outlines advice about the form of a speech allegedly drawn from contemporary handbooks:
Socrates: "First, I believe, there is the Preamble with which the speech must begin. This is what you mean, isn't it-the fine points of the art?
Socrates: Second come the Statement of Facts and the Evidence of Witnesses concerning it; third, Indirect Evidence; fourth Claims to Plausibility. And I believe at least that that excellent Byzantine word-wizard adds Confirmation and Supplementary Confirmation.
Phaedrus: You mean the worthy Theodorus?
Socrates: Quite. And he also adds Refutation and Supplementary Refutation, to be used both in prosecution and defense. Nor must we forget the most excellent Evenus of Paros, who was the first to discover Covert Implication and Indirect Praise. (Plato 1995, 266d-276a)
Socrates' point is that form is not fixed but organic: that the parts must relate organically to the whole, and that form cannot be abstracted from content and practice, then codified, then taught. "Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work" (264c). For Socrates, and by inference Plato, handbook rules will not guide you to this organic unity; the true guide is not the rhetorician's prescriptions but the soul's memory of its experience of the "heaven" of the true and the beautiful.
Aristotle, as Plato's pupil, echoes the language of organic form, particularly in the Poetics, where he divides poetry into kinds or categories: "I propose to speak not only of the art in general, but also of its species and their respective capacities; of the structure of the plot required for a good poem; of the number and nature of the constituent parts of a poem ... Epic poetry and Tragedy, as also Comedy, Dithyrambic poetry-and flute and lyre-playing-are all ... modes of imitation" (1954, 1447a).
The emphasis in the Poetics is most steadily on its description of the structure of the "species"-which we want to begin to consider genres: the epic, the tragedy, the comedy. True, for Aristotle the study of drama is valuable because of its social use: the function of tragedy, for example, is famously the catharsis, a process by which the performance leaves the audience better than it was through the "proper purgation of the emotions." But the emphasis in the Poetics is upon the formal properties of the performance, an emphasis that has carried into the idea of genre in contemporary literary criticism.
Shakespeare's plays, for example, are most often considered tragedies, comedies, or history plays. Those plays-such as Much Ado about Nothing-that do not fit these genres have been considered Shakespeare's "problem plays." Until the arrival of the postmodern and the (perhaps) attendant move of English toward cultural studies, literature courses were typically organized around a genre: Nineteenth-Century British Poetry, Elizabethan Drama, The Eighteenth-Century Novel. Literary genres were seen to have origins and trajectories, as in Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature (1942, 235) and Ian Watt's landmark study, The Rise of the Novel (1957). Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, developed a taxonomy of literary genres in terms of both transcendent aesthetic forms and rhetoric, "the conditions established between the poet and his public" (1957, 247). And, far from dead today, genres survive in MLA job descriptions, where we find advertisements for those qualified to teach these kinds of literature. Literary genres survive as well outside the academy, in the cottage industry that is "genre writing," where aspiring writers can find contemporary handbooks that will instruct them in the writing of "Young Adult Fiction" or "Romance" or "Science Fiction and Fantasy."
In the Rhetoric, as in the Poetics, Aristotle observes and classifies, discovering and making manifest the forms that are there to be seen. He finds these forms, however, not in an empyrean of pure forms but manifest in the world about him-in actual arguments made in actual and recurring social situations. In his derivation of genre through observation of actual rhetorical performance he anticipates the approach of the functional structural linguists, such as Michael Halliday, who have developed outlines for the study of units of language longer than the sentence-the generic features of extended texts-and linked these genres to recurring social situations. Aristotle lines out the kinds of oratory: forensic, political, epideictic; the kinds of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos; and the kinds of argument: the topoi. Yet to a greater degree than in the Poetics, these divisions are all keyed to communication/performance in particular and recurrent social situations. As Kenneth Burke noted, "Though Aristotle rigorously divided knowledge into compartments whenever possible, his Art of Rhetoric includes much that falls under the headings of psychology, ethics, politics, poetics, logic, and history" (1969, 51). We might add to this list "anthropology," so long as we understand Aristotle as describing the recurring social situations, and their attendant forums, of ancient Greece, and not of all societies in all times. Aristotle instructs us in audience analysis, in the presented persona of the speaker, in appeals to reason and to emotion-all located in social settings, in public forums.
We fast-forward here, through the development and sophistication of Aristotle's Rhetoric by Cicero and Quintilian, through the dispersion and loss of the Middle Ages, through the recoveries of the Renaissance, to the redefinition and reduction of genre in nineteenth-century American writing handbooks to the "modes of discourse": exposition, persuasion, description, and narration. These "modes" were based not upon the discourse used in recurring social situations but upon the faculty psychology of Hume and Locke as understood by the eighteenth-century rhetorician George Campbell, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric defined the four functions of mind-understanding, imagination, emotion, and will-that corresponded to the four ends of discourse: to inform, to please, to arouse emotion, or to influence action. Robert Connors finds the first American appearance of the "modes of discourse" in Samuel Newman's A Practical System of Rhetoric, published in 1827 and reprinted some sixty times by 1856 (Connors, 1981, 445). Connors traces the history of the modes-exposition, persuasion, description, and narration-through Alexander Bain's 1866 English Composition and Rhetoric and Genung's The Practical Elements of Rhetoric to universal adoption in the rhetoric texts of the early twentieth century. In Connors's words, "From the middle of the last decade of the nineteenth century, through the Great War, and into the middle of the disillusioned decade following it, the modes controlled the teaching of composition through complete control of textbooks" (449).
THE REACTION TO THE MODES: THE WRITING PROCESS MOVEMENT
The importance of the "modes" to the story of genre in composition studies is the hostile reaction to the modes, and to the forms of school writing in general, that begins in the 1960s with what Maxine Hairston has called the "paradigm shift" of the writing process movement (1982, 76). The process movement defined itself against the "other" of "current-traditional" teaching, which was characterized by the prescription of traditional forms of school writing-resulting in what Ken Macrorie would call "Engfish". The attack on the modes, and the concurrent establishment of the "five-paragraph theme" as the antagonist, began with Albert Kitzhaber and continues even today in the strand of pedagogical theory that James Berlin has labeled the "expressionist" school (1987, 145) Kitzhaber's attack on the modes was uncompromising. In his frequently cited doctoral dissertation, written in 1953 but just recently published, he wrote, "The effect of the forms of discourse on rhetorical theory and practice has been bad. They represent an unrealistic view of the writing process, a view that assumes that writing is done by formula and in a social vacuum. They turn the attention of both student and teacher toward an academic exercise instead of toward a meaningful act of communication in a social context" (1990, 139).
From Kitzhaber on, the reaction to the "modes," and to writing taught by formula, has characterized a powerful strand in the teaching of writing, one in which the teaching of genres has been forced into the background. The documents that issued from the 1966 Dartmouth Conference defined the principal aim of instruction in English as personal growth (e.g., Dixon 1967) and paid scant attention to the teaching of forms. James Britton's influential Language and Learning (1970) established a set of "kinds" of writing based not on form but on function, upon what the writing did for the author. "Transactional" writing helped the writer participate in the work of the world; it was "language to get things done" (125). "Expressive" writing helped the writer make sense of her world; and "poetic" writing was expressive in its function but included as well an element of "formal arrangement" (177). The function of poetic writing was "to be an object that pleases or satisfies the writer" (1975, 91). In The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18) (Britton et al. 1975), Britton explicitly attacked the teaching of the "modes," which, he wrote, "have shown a remarkable capacity for survival" and "survive unscathed in the most influential of contemporary manuals" (3). In Britton's view, school writing focused too intensely on the transactional, leaving little room in the curriculum for the expressive and its consequent participation in students' personal growth. In the writing classes that followed the "personal growth" model, transactional writing was devalued, and this closed off the possibility of explicit teaching of the kinds of writing we do to "get things done," including the genres of academic writing.
For classrooms based on the work of James Moffett (1981), genres emerged organically from the students' writing as it was composed, and could be reinforced and coached by the teacher as it emerged, but not explicitly assigned or pre-taught. In Active Voice (1981) Moffett writes, "Coming up with a subject, a reason for writing about it, and a form to write it in can often happen rather naturally for individuals in an integrated language arts program where writing is going on in close conjunction with dramatic activities, work in other media, and reading in literature and other areas" (18). In classrooms based on the work of Donald Graves (1983), the teacher was to "[s]urround the children with literature" (65) and let genres emerge from the reading and writing that the teacher orchestrates in the elementary classroom. Donald Murray's influential book, A Writer Teaches Writing (1968), deals only briefly with genres in his section on creating assignments. He echoes the "modes of discourse" when he suggests that "most students will probably learn best in the beginning through description" (134), and suggests that student writers be encouraged to increase the range of genres in which they are writing, but he says nothing beyond this brief mention of genre about if or how form should be understood and taught-perhaps the perspective of the journalist, for whom forms of writing become habitual and therefore transparent.
This reaction to the teaching of the "modes," with its concomitant understanding of genre as form, continues today in textbooks that follow an expressivist epistemology. In their Community of Writers (1995), Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff describe the genre "essay" in these terms: "The essay is a slithery form; perhaps (notice we only say perhaps) we all recognize an essay when we see one, but few of us could actually define the form. This may well be its strength" (232). In Elbow and Belanoff, we ask our students to write essays, but we are not to try to be explicit about the formal properties of the genre. This approach, contemporary genre theorists would be quick to point out, excludes all who are not "we," which is a group of writers and readers steeped in the masterpieces of Western literature. A writer outside this "we" is left to figure it all out on his or her own. Elbow and Belanoff continue the long-standing attack on the teaching of the five-paragraph theme: "This is a school-invented genre, and unfortunately, it is the only genre that some students are taught" (132). "But it is a handy formula in certain conditions where you don't want to think an issue through-either for lack of time or because you've already worked it out.... Thus, it is a handy genre for timed exams: 'In twenty minutes, explain the importance of the Civil War.'" In recent editions of the textbook, there is more attention to genre, but this is genre understood as form and not as linked to recurring social action (126).
This reaction to the "modes" appears as well in Tom Romano's recent advocacy (2000) of the multigenre paper, a composition that might include prose, poetry, dance, music, and graphics. In the teacher testimonials that Romano includes in his first chapter, the teachers say again and again that the multigenre papers they get are "more interesting" than the research papers they used to assign and read. In their words we hear the echo of Ken Macrorie's attempts to root out "Engfish" from his students' writing. Romano shares with Macrorie, and with Moffett, the assumption that his students, given the freedom to draw on a number of forms, will discover the appropriate forms and order them appropriately. Nowhere in his book is there explicit teaching of genre, and nowhere in the book is an understanding that genre is connected to social action.
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