Teach a student to fish…

There’s a saying that goes like this: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Here’s the analogy to teaching writing: Assign a student a writing task and you teach her to write one way. Teach a student to understand writing as a rhetorical action within a recurring situation, and she’ll write for a lifetime. This is the principal behind genre theory.

I still remember the first course I took on teaching writing. It was my second semester at James Madison University in the Masters in English (Literature), and I took Teaching Writing as a pre-requisite to teach first-year writing. It was then that I read Carolyn Miller’s (1984) Genre as Social Action. Reading Miller’s work radically changed the way I viewed writing and learning to write. I’m almost embarrassed to say that it had never occurred to me until reading Miller to think of a genre as anything but a kind of music.

In fact, writers tend to work within established genres, which Miller defines as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (as cited in Tate, Taggart, Schick, & Hessler, 2001, p. 146). All writing courses rely on genres. For example, some assignments teach the genre of the research paper, while others teach the genre of the letter to the editor. Back in 2013 when I first discovered genre theory, it clicked for me that I could teach students how to use the genres they’d likely encounter in college.

Amy Devitt’s chapter “Genre Pedagogies” in Gary Tate et al.’s (2011) A Guide to Composition Pedagogies has deepened my understand of genre pedagogies. Specifically, Devitt offers three approaches to teaching writing through the genres, and suggests a combination of these three:

  1. Teach particular genres – i.e., teach students the genres they’ll need to write (such as a thesis driven research paper).
  2. Teach genre awareness – i.e., teach students how to analyze and understand genres.
  3. Teach genre critique – i.e., teach students how to think critically about the ideologies and values behind various genres.

The advantages of genre pedagogy are vast: in particular, genre pedagogy, particularly genre awareness, helps students to acquire transferable skills they can apply to other writing situations. As Devitt writes, “Essential to the argument for teaching genre awareness rather than particular genres is the notion that genre awareness can help students transfer their knowledge to other writing tasks and contexts” (p. 153). Of course, this transfer doesn’t happen automatically. Teachers of writing need to assign reflective writing to encourage metacognitive awareness. Students need to become aware of what they know.

Although I find value in genre pedagogy, the composition classroom may be constraining. Devitt writes of Feedman, who argues for situated learning to teach students about genres. Students might best learn about genres within the context that uses those genres. For example, history majors may learn about writing in history best from their history professors, not in their first-year composition course.

Though genre pedagogy has many advantages, it leaves much to be desired: if genres are best learned within their actual contexts, then what is the role of first-year writing? Should we follow Elizabeth Wardle’s suggestion that first-year writing should teach students “about writing, giving up on teaching students to write” (Devitt, 2001, p. 158)? Or is the role of the first-year writing teacher to help students to “transfer their prior and newly acquired genre knowledge” (p. 158)? And how can writing teachers interested in genre pedagogy achieve its full vision of teaching metacognitive awareness to encourage transfer of learning, to analyze genres, and to critique the values of genres? This is a full agenda for a semester-long writing course, and perhaps that’s one of the restrictions of fully putting genre pedagogies into practice.

What do readers think? I’m interested in what other compositionists think about the relationship between genre pedagogies and situated learning, the tension between teaching students about writing versus teaching students to write, and the reality of using the three approaches in genre pedagogy within a one-semester course.

3 thoughts on “Teach a student to fish…

  1. writingwithvetter

    Hmm. I get that genres are best taught or learned within their actual contexts, but I have to believe that genre theory and rhetorical theory also allows for learning outside of those contexts. Otherwise, that’s right – what are we doing in the fyc classroom?


  2. Havva

    Krista, I enjoyed reading your post on genre pedagogies! I mean the analogy that you made between the teaching-how-to-fish saying and teaching genre, the little confession that you made about your early interpretation of the concept of genre, and the questions that you raised about implementing genre pedagogies in a one-semester first year writing course… I agree that it might be better for a history major to learn writing in the discipline from a history professor rather than in a composition course. This makes me question: “Then why don’t they do it?” There seems to be valid practical reasons behind the politics of teaching history, or else, in composition classes considering that this is the case for years.



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