2.2 Genres, Stories, and Academic Writing

Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly

The title of this chapter is Writing Projects, which would seem unrelated to genre, but for many undergraduate students, academic writing is understood not in terms of academic genres but as a series of writing projects or assignments. That is, the essays, lab reports, discussion forum posts, reports, and other types of common academic writing you do for your classes often get listed on a course syllabus as assignments or projects. So why do we want you to start thinking of them as genres? Because once you understand types of academic writing as examples of different genres and learn how genre works as a concept, you will be able to read and write much more effectively (It’s true!).

You might have been introduced to the word genre in high school as a way to classify a literary text, such as a novel, a sonnet, or a play. But genres are more than literary categories; they are the communication norms that allow us to make sense of social situations. Think of a genre as a kind of program or perhaps even a highly sophisticated algorithm that runs in the background during every act of communication, providing guidance about form, content, and interpretation. Put another way, genres are dynamic structures of communication that tell us how to behave in a variety of situations. Dr. Amy Devitt, Dr. Carolyn Miller, and Dr. Kerry Dirk explain that genre is a word we use to describe repeated patterns of communication.[1] What’s surprising is that these “repeated patterns” or genres tell us how to interact with each other in certain communication situations. An example might be helpful here, so let’s talk about coffee.

In Canada, there are many different coffee cultures, but for the sake of argument, let’s talk about two corporate giants, Tim Hortons and Starbucks, as genres. Specifically, certain phrases used when ordering coffee have built entrenched expectations for communication standards. Let’s call these “entrenched expectations” conventions (because that’s what they are!). Here’s a quick exercise you can do before moving on:

  • How do you order a large coffee at Starbucks? How many options for modifying that coffee can you choose?
  • How do you order a large coffee at Tim Hortons? How many options for modifying that coffee can you choose?

I think you can see that each coffee chain has a language that their patrons need to learn. This language is now common, and those who know it are part of that “coffee community” (as an aside, linking a communication genre to a brand is like winning Olympic Gold for advertisers). This is a fairly innocuous example. Genres can also reinforce stereotypes and are not without their problems. The central idea we’d like you to take away from this example is that genres are composed of conventions, and because of these conventions, we can make assumptions about the communication situations we find ourselves in (from ordering coffee to essay writing).

These conventions are created through repetition. As certain communication genres are repeated, they become habitual. This repetition of certain forms of communication creates assumptions and expectations. For example, a quick nod or even a vocal form of greeting is expected in many cultures when you pass someone in close proximity (like when you are walking down the street).

In this chapter, we are mainly concerned with genres you will encounter in primarily English speaking, post-secondary schools in Canada, but genres definitely vary from one culture to another. For example, essay writing is not ubiquitous or traditional in many cultures, but there is an assumption in Canadian post-secondary education that the essay is an important means of evaluation. That is, the essay enables a student to show an instructor that they not only understand course material but can also apply it. But what if your culture does not value essay writing as much as post-secondary institutions in Canada do?

The Four Feathers Writing Guide provides a way for Indigenous students, specifically Coast Salish students, to understand what academic writing is (a massive genre in and of itself) and how it works by approaching academic writing through Indigenous knowledge. The perspective on academic writing offered by the Four Feathers Writing Guide provides good advice for all of us.

While it may seem that there are few connections between oral teachings and academic writing, both tell a story and explain why the story is important. For example, Elders share teachings to help listeners learn specific information (Alphonse & Charles, 2018), and your academic writing will explain what you think about a topic, which is a story that only you can tell. Also, both oral teachings and academic writing aim to increase their audiences’ understanding. Each time an Elder shares a teaching, listeners have new opportunities to learn by adding information to knowledge gained from previous teachings (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). Similarly, your academic writing will help readers increase their knowledge by reading your discussion. Finally, in both oral teachings and academic writing, the audience’s familiarity with the topic determines what information will be shared. For instance, in First Nations’ culture, there is a shared understanding of Traditional Knowledge, though each family has their own teachings or family laws that incorporate Traditional Knowledge (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). For example, Traditional Knowledge emphasizes manners, but each family may have a slightly different understanding of which manners are important (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). Family laws are understood as Traditional Knowledge, so people who are familiar with Traditional Knowledge would recognize the importance of the family laws and would not need their importance explained (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). However, people from other cultures may not have the same understanding, so they would need the connections between family laws and Traditional Knowledge to be explained to ensure a correct interpretation (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). In a similar way, your intended audience will determine how much explanation you provide to readers. If you are writing for a specialized audience, you likely will not need to provide detailed explanations. However, if you cannot guarantee what knowledge, understanding, or perspective your readers already possess, you may instead focus readers’ attention on the significant information in your work by demonstrating the relationships between details, such as how research evidence supports a claim in a paragraph. By making the connections clear to readers, you can ensure readers correctly understand the key messages.[2]

In academic writing, we are telling a type of story for a particular audience. Sometimes it’s a story about history; sometimes it’s a data story (where the numbers tell you a story, such as statistics); and at other times, it’s a story about families, economics, or water pollution. In each case, as readers, you may or may not know what to expect in each type of story, and if you are a first-year student, some of these stories may be baffling. As you learn how the genres that these stories belong to work, you will not need their importance explained again. Becoming more knowledgeable about genres and their cultural importance is a responsibility we take on as academic writers. As Métis scholar, Chelsea Vowel (âpihtawikosisân) explains it, stories (including academic stories) are based on cultural knowledge and context. You aren’t always going to have your beliefs reinforced, but if you put the work in to understand these stories and the genres they belong to, then you will become a more knowledgeable and responsible citizen and community member.[3]

We really packed a lot of information into a relatively short space here, but we wanted to give you insight into what is an entire field of study.[4] You may even want to major or minor in this field (if you take Linguistics, Rhetoric, or English, you can!). The rest of the chapter is more focused on the different types – or genres – of writing assignments you will likely be asked to complete in your post-secondary career. Truly, this chapter should give you insight into what to expect when you are asked to write a research essay, a forum post, a blog, or any other type of academic writing project.

  1. For further reading, see Devitt, A. Writing Genres (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); Miller, C. “Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 2 (1984): 151-67; Dirk, K. “Navigating Genre,” in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, ed. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, vol. 1 (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2010), 249-62.
  2. Shirley R. Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Theresa Bell and Nadine Charles (TȺȽIE), “Connecting Oral Traditions with Academic Writing,” in Four Feathers Writing Guide, Royal Roads University, updated April 29, 2020, https://library.royalroads.ca/four-feathers-writing-guide.
  3. Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations & Inuit Issues in Canada (Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016). See, esp., Chapter 9: “What is Cultural Appropriation,” pp. 80-91 and Chapter 10: “Check the Tag on That ‘Indian’ Story,” pp. 92-98. To learn more about the book or Chelsea Vowel’s work, visit https://apihtawikosisan.com.
  4. “Genre Studies,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified June 2, 2020, 13:13, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genre_studies.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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