Genre as “Family Resemblance”

When I taught Introduction to Literature last year, exploring the concept of “genre” became a very big theme of the class. I think at first it was because I wanted to ensure that my syllabus included a broad variety of genres since it was an introduction to all literature, or literature in general (as opposed to fiction or essay). From that first focus on genre in constructing a syllabus that included sufficient variety of texts though, I started to become fascinated with what it meant for a text to be “of a certain genre.” I realized that the more I tried to define a genre, the slipperier the concept became. Through the course of the semester, my class and I did a lot of puzzling through the differences and similarities of genres and even modalities. We explored “boundary cases,” asking where literature ends and visual art begins (or if we should even use such boundaries) by looking at blackout poetry, and mind maps. Through all this, I was grasping on my own and with my students for a clearer understanding of genre. So, it was heartening when, for this week, we read about genre and I found that many of my questions (how do we define genres? Why don’t they seem static? What really is the difference between a genre and a subgenre?) were not just lack of knowledge on my part, but rather, pointed to a real slipperiness in the concept of genre that engages theorists today.

I think that this very slipperiness can also be seen as a kind of versatility in the concept of genre, and in fact the concept of genre thus loses some of its usefulness if we try to create static classification systems. Our minds, being apt at recognizing patterns, understand (grok?) genre differences in a fundamental way even when attempts to strictly define these genres are problematic. I would argue that texts of the same genre are thus recognized by our brain because of what Wittgenstein calls “family resemblance.” Our brain is in fact so good at detecting family resemblance and creating fluid but still useful sets of texts that we can also understand intuitively when a text is engaging in genre-bending or genre-breaking, even before we have identifiable reasons for knowing this.

What I’m less sure about is what this means for teaching writing. I completely agree with Devitt that “if each writing problem were to require a completely new assessment of how to respond, writing would be slowed considerably” (576). Thus, we want to help students recognize and utilize how new communication situations resemble past communication situations they have already encountered. I think my fundamental question then becomes this: how can we teach students to see and utilize this family resemblance between certain texts or communication situations without essentializing genres and thus divorcing form and function?




Glacial Change and the Structure of Academia

The readings for this week came at a really interesting and fortuitous time, not only because I’ve been thinking about many related issues in WRD 507 (Global Englishes), but also because I’ve been having very related conversations with administrators and colleagues recently. (I actually stopped my reading of the New London Group article [1996] to photo a few paragraphs and send them to an administrator to say “See? This is what I’ve been talking about.”) But the largest thing that struck me in completing this week’s reading was how *little* has changed in how (my college at least) teaches composition, despite the work of the New London Group twenty years ago. It’s unbelievable to me that that article was written the year I graduated from high school; from where I stand, it feels like it could have been written this year….and yet as I read it, I vaguely felt like I had read it before, possibly ten years ago. Yet has it impacted how I teach? No! And why is this?


The glacial change in literacy instruction is underscored by Selfe (2007), who quotes not only the New London Group’s 1996 article in her introduction, but also her own earlier work as well as other scholars, who were all echoing the need for the discipline to progress (2001-2004). And yet, I read this in 2016 and in my limited sphere, I see little that has changed even another nine years after the publication of Mutlimodal Composition (Selfe, 2007).


This causes me to reflect on my own choices – or resistance to making new ones – and how the structure of academia may account for this lack of progress. As I write this, I think of one very basic, seemingly inconsequential example of my resistance to change. The last several versions of Microsoft Word no longer default to Times New Roman, yet I stubbornly make my students switch their papers back to Times New Roman, cursing Microsoft for switching to this “ugly” new font and debating resetting my own computer’s default back to Times. But why might Microsoft have made the switch? Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, Joe Friend, answered in 2013 article in Forbes as follows: There were two reasons for the switch. First, “to support digital consumption the new fonts were created to improve screen readability.” Second, “at the time, Office was looking to modernize the look and feel of documents [which] hadn’t changed substantially since the early 90s…” Yup. I wanted my students’ papers to look the same way mine did when I was in college.


Again, this is just one small example of my own personal stubbornness to accept the changing times (no pun intended). But (1) why is it that academics are often so resistant to change? And (2) to what extent might this resistance to change have brought academia to a breaking point? I don’t have time to fully answer these questions here, nor do I have fully formed answers, but here are some preliminary thoughts.


In regard to (1), I think the institution of tenure is a factor. The very stability of departmental faculty and the fact that often the very faculty members with the most power have not had to be on the job market in so long means that they are either unaware or unsympathetic to the changes in how people communicate in the current economy. (For example, at my college, our department’s assessment coordinator, who remains firmly committed to a hand-written five paragraph essay exit exam, has been teaching at our college since before I was born.) Next, I think the idea of academics feeling like gatekeepers of the language and needing to ‘uphold standards,’ which often translates as upholding “formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule governed forms of language” (New London Group, p. 1) is a factor, as is a fear – or at least deep ambivalence – about the “market forces” and “corporate culture” (p. 6) that academics see as encroaching on the educational arena at all levels. (For a fascinating discussion of this, see, “Marketization of Education: An Ethical Dilemma,” which expresses the fear that colleges have become highly commercialized arenas that “serve to prepare the student to become a participant in the consumer culture and no longer strive to encourage student’s reflection and critical thinking” [Natale & Doran, 2011, p. 188].) I think many faculty who share the fears expressed by Natale and Doran may also argue that extended written (monomodal) texts are the purest way for students to develop their critical thinking skills (e.g., without distraction of other modalities) – pure thought. I have heard philosophy professors (even young ones!) say as much.


In short, I think the response of many academics has been to try to hold back the tides of change, whether through sheer stubbornness, a fear of themselves being deemed outdated, or a genuine sense of duty to protecting higher education from the (potentially) corrupting influences of market forces or the (potentially) less rigorous (than the sustained long monomodal essay) forms of thought expression.


Regardless of the reason, I do think that we – those of us who have been slow to heed the prescient message of the New London Group (or comparable messages in other fields, such as mathematics education)  – have allowed higher education to get to a breaking point whereby a disconnect between how today’s students need to be educated for today’s economy (and indeed an economy that may from here forward always demand a kind of unprecedented flexibility on the part of the worker) and how we are still educating them is now creating a state of incredible (and very contentious) change.