UWP 298 - Rhetorical Approaches to Genre Study

(4 units)

Course Description

This course uses a specific area of rhetorical study—rhetorical genre theory—to analyze the co-construction of genres and social institutions. Rhetorical genre theory (RGT) elucidates the rhetorical purposes of genres—the kinds of things one does in a given genre—by looking at how discourses are, in Norman Fairclough’s words, “enacted as genres.” By looking at the interplay of text and context, RGT lets us ask what a kind of text does, what cultural role it plays, what ideologies it embodies. Thus, RGT is ideally suited to the analysis of how texts participate in and shape knowledge-making work.

Goals and Assignments

In this course you will learn to use RGT both analytically (in scholarly examinations of texts) and heuristically (by applying RGT to help meet a need in your field). To meet these goals, you will:

  • Learn the fundamentals of rhetorical genre theory (including how it fits into a larger taxonomy of genre theories)
  • Research professional or disciplinary epistemologies, discursive norms, and genre conventions in your field
  • Learn to recognize the discursive nature of disciplinary boundaries
  • Learn to use a set of rhetorical tools in studying and solving problems in cross-disciplinary communication

Accordingly, there are two assignments that match the analytic and heuristic goals of the course, and a set of short reflective pieces.

For the scholarly analysis, you will write an annotated bibliography on a particular genre, drawing on genre studies, social science studies of the field involved, and other sources. The annotated bibliography will include an introduction that frames and interprets the literature and that could be used as the basis for a research proposal or review article.

Theory can be useful and interesting in and of itself, but in praxis (understood as theory-in-action) one can gain an even deeper understanding of how theories work. Therefore, the second assignment will be an application project. For this project, choose one of the following options (in consultation with me) (see here for example project ideas):

  • Create an annotated genre exemplar. In other words, write a piece that exemplifies a particular short genre, and explain what rhetorical moves it includes, how those moves work, and how the exemplar illustrates the genre’s epistemic and social functions.
  • Create a poster presentation or write a short article on how to write in the genre.
  • Write a detailed lesson plan (for academic use) or training plan (for workplace use) for teaching a genre in your discipline, or for cross-boundary communication in an interdisciplinary context.

Finally, submit periodic short reflection papers (see the Course Calendar, below) and a longer reflection paper at the end of the course. This kind of reflective work helps writers understand their own intellectual processes, an essential step to becoming proficient in any kind of professional writing, whether scholarly or professional. In addition, the reflections will support our class discussions.

This course is, to some extent, what Frodeman & Mitcham call a “knowledge experiment,” an attempt to learn via experience how interdisciplinary conversations work. As a group of scholars from different areas of study, we will turn our analytical lenses on our own interchanges as we work through the course readings and our research projects.


The readings fall into three general categories: texts on rhetorical genre theory, articles describing genre-based research, and articles showing how genre study can be applied in academic and workplace settings.

The primary course text is Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff’s 2010 book, Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy (available via free PDF or as a print book), which provides a theory overview, reviews of research approaches, and discussion of ways that genre theory has been applied.

Other readings loosely grouped under theory offer more in-depth arguments and debates about genre and what it means. These include:

  • Dirk, Kerry. “Navigating Genres.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. Eds. Lowe, Charles and Pavel Zemliansky. Vol. 1. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2010. 249-62.
  • Heilker, Paul. “On Genres as Ways of Being.” Writing on the Edge 21 2 (2011): 19-31.
  • Russell, David R. “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis.” Written Communication 14 4 (1997): 504-54.
  • McCarthy, Lucille Parkinson. “A Psychiatrist Using DSM-III: The Influence of a Charter Document in Psychiatry.” Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities. Eds. Bazerman, Charles and James G. Paradis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. 358-78.
  • Swales, John M. “Worlds of Genre—Metaphors of Genre.” Genre in a Changing World. Eds. Bazerman, Charles, Adair Bonini and Débora de Carvalho Figueiredo. Fort Collins, CO & West Lafayette, IN: WAC Clearinghouse & Parlor Press, 2009. 3-16.

Another set of readings provide examples of genre-based research. Our focus with these texts will be on developing a critical understanding of how genre-based research can be done, including the affordances of the various methods, and of the kinds of insights this research can provide. Readings in this section include chapters from Bawarshi and Reiff and also:

  • Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activities and People.” What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Bazerman, Charles and Paul Prior. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 309-39.
  • Berkenkotter, Carol, and Doris Ravotas. “Genre as Tool in the Transmission of Practice over Time and across Professional Boundaries.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 4 4 (1997): 256-74.
  • Carter, Michael. “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines.” College Composition and Communication 58 3 (2007): 385-418.
  • Eisenhart, Christopher. “The Humanist Scholar as Public Expert.” Written Communication 23 2 (2006): 150-72.
  • Feak, Christine B., and John M. Swales. Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Hyland, Ken. “Humble Servants of the Discipline?: Self-Mention in Research Articles.” English for Specific Purposes 20  (2001): 207-26.
  • Sullivan, Dale L. “Exclusionary Epideictic: NOVA’s Narrative Excommunication of Fleischmann and Pons.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 19 3 (1994): 283-306.
  • Tillery, Denise. “Radioactive Waste and Technical Doubts: Genre and Environmental Opposition to Nuclear Waste Sites.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12 4 (2003): 405-21.

During the final unit on application, we will shift our attention to how RGT and research can be used in everyday professional contexts, whether in academia, government, business, or the nonprofit sector. These readings will help you move from the research stage into creating your application project. Readings in this area include chapters from Bawarshi & Reiff and also:

  • Artemeva, Natasha, Susan Logie, and Jennie St-Martin. “From Page to Stage: How Theories of Genre and Situated Learning Help Introduce Engineering Students to Discipline-Specific Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 8 3 (1999): 301-16.
  • Bhatia. “Applied Genre Analysis: A Multi-Perspective Model.” Genre 4.4 (2202): 3-19.
  • Pearce, Amy R., Aldemaro Romero, and John B. Zibluk. “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Science Communication Education: A Case Study.” Communicating Science: New Agendas in Communication. Eds. Kahlor, LeeAnn and Patricia A. Stout. New York: Routledge, 2010. 235-52.
  • Saunders, Carol, and Jane Clarke. “Negotiating Academic Genres in a Multi-Disciplinary Context.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 21 3 (1997): 297-304.
  • Spinuzzi, Clay. “Compound Mediation in Software Development: Using Genre Ecologies to Study Textual Artifacts.” Writing Selves, Writing Societies. Eds. Bazerman, Charles and James G. Paradis. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University, 2003. 97-124.
  • Walker, Kristin. “Using Genre Theory to Teach Students Engineering Lab Report Writing: A Collaborative Approach.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 42 1 (1999): 12-19.

Although the course is divided into units for each of these, some readings overlap between sections and will create continuity by weaving threads from later or earlier units through whatever unit we are in. (For example, Heilker’s article, which we read during the first week, weaves together theory and application.)