Understanding Genre Part 1: Genre Forms and Wizards

This is the first in a two-part series on genre writing in blogs based on a project I’m currently doing with my composition students. Find the second part here.

When I first introduced my students to their genre analysis project, I gave them a series of different types of non-fiction writing that I asked them to read. In their first look at the texts, I wanted them just to read, to experience the text how the author wanted them to. I’d be miffed if the first thing someone did with something I’d written is run it through a rigorous analysis. The second thing I asked them to do was pick out features that stood out to them, including the type of font the article uses or where the author used pictures. I wanted them to look at the form of the text. Then, I asked them to tell me who the audience was and what the different things they’d picked out about the text was doing to influence them. Finally, I asked them to reconstruct the rhetorical situation they thought the author was writing for: what was their exigence, who was their audience, and what were the constraints binding the situation. On another note, apparently I ruined my students’ fun time writing about travel by having them analyze the genre rigorously.

I know. I thought the analysis was the fun part too.

One of the texts I asked my students to analyze was by a travel blogger writing under the moniker “lilistravelplans.” I asked my students to slowly deconstruct the function of the blog, to uncover the forms the author was using, then the purpose behind the forms, then the rhetorical situation those forms met. According to Amy Devitt, genres develop–that is, the forms and communicative practices chance–because “they respond appropriately to situations that writers encounter repeatedly” (576). So in analyzing a genre, it’s important to understand the situation the genre is acting within because the forms are just an answer to that situation based on what other authors have done to answer it recently.

Sometimes wish fulfillment takes us to weird places, like bison wizards, but that’s the magic of personalizing genre forms.

I feel like not enough rhetorical discussion mentions wizards and dragons, so I’ll do that now. In June of 1997, JK. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the UK. The story, which is probably familiar but I’m just going to hit the important bits, details the first adventures of a young orphaned boy living initially with his awful aunt and uncle before he is whisked away for whimsical and terrifying magical adventures which he navigates masterfully with the eager help of two friends he makes almost as soon as he comes into contact with other children. Also, there is magic, and he gets to do a lot of it. Devitt posits that genre “responds to recurring situation,” and the situation Harry Potter is acting in, or at least one of them, can be found through a really cursory look at one major element of the series: wish fulfillment. Specifically, every socially-inspired and powerless wish a child could have is answered in Harry Potter: he has unreasonable relatives but not once he is carried away by a giant magic man. He has no friends, but once he immediately meets two people who become lifelong friends who will literally risk their lives for him. He is powerless because he’s a child in a horrible living situation, and he is given magic and wealth and a revelation that he is actually really important. But he still has to go to school, but wait the school is magic!

A quick look at other children’s literature reveals the same sense of wish fulfillment, but they go about it in vastly different ways because they are answering similar situations with slightly different, evolving forms. Spiderman–any of the recent films–depicts a scrawny, socially incompetent Peter Parker who stops being scrawny and gains the confidence only radiation can offer. Any Star Wars: a young person is informed they have magical powers and can change the enormous, confining political system they struggle in. Most movies with dragons (How to Train Your Dragon, Eragon, The Hobbit, Mulan, etc.) depicts either someone without power being given it in the form of a scaled sidekick or learning they have the unique power to defeat one of these huge beasts. Though the delivery, the form of a genre, changes, the situations they respond to remains similar. Gunther Kress argues that “no message or text is conceivable which does not respond to such social facts,” and genre takes into account the social facts of the audience and responds to the situation those create.

Now, back to travel writing.

In looking at the sample text I gave my students, elements of the form are quickly apparent. The author uses bright colors–pink seems to be thematic for her–bold and italicized text to visually communicate the same idea the text itself does: there is a section of dialogue from the past that would be obviously from the past without the italics, but the added visual enhances the idea that this text is different and worth paying different attention to. The author uses vivid, high quality pictures of the location she traveled to throughout her post, but she does not discuss the content of the pictures much. These are some of the overt forms of the text, and they were the details my students picked out. But picking out the forms of the text was not enough for a full understanding of what the author was doing. I wanted them to fully immerse themselves in the study, to understand why the author did what she did so they would not need to copy her exact forms but would instead know what they would need to accomplish and be able to do it in their own way. My goal for their analysis was for them to understand why texts within a genre do what they do so they can make something that fulfills the same purpose.

4 Replies to “Understanding Genre Part 1: Genre Forms and Wizards”

  1. Hey, Justin, this is an attractive blog and your entry describes what looks to be an exciting project. The visuals are apt.
    You might benefit by giving a little more context at the beginning, or at least telling us that the students would be writing or studying travel blogs, specifically before the end of the first paragraph. It just seems to come from nowhere. The only other issue I had was the shift to your discussion about wizards and dragons seemed abrupt. You may need a stronger transition.

    I hope the project works out well with your students.


    p.s. anyone who reads anything I write realizes I like to brag about former students, so I’ll include the link to a travel blog written by the student who helped me develop a website. I don’t know if it will prove useful for your students or not, but here it is: http://clairefortakeoff.com/


  2. Hi Justin —

    I would like to start by saying that I appreciate that you broke your blog into two parts because it helps the reader follow along better and keeps your ideas cohesive. I need to implement this more into my own blog, or at least indicate that certain blogs go together in some way.

    This is probably because I know you personally, the voice you have as a writer and teacher come across clearly in your blog. I laughed as I read your summaries of Harry Potter and Spiderman; they were so concise and detailed, yet so true. This also dives even further into genre because Harry Potter has become a genre of its own. We expect certain things from Harry Potter, and understand social things because of what Harry Potter has taught us. Second, Spiderman has always been its own genre because of the different ways in which Spiderman’s story is told – from cartons like Teen Titans to Spiderman: Homecoming. Your discussion of these two stories made me think of Peter Pan, and how the story has been adapted into so many different things. I cannot think of what that is called and it is driving me crazy…



  3. Justin,

    I am really impressed with your blog. Your title clearly gives me an indication of your goal for this blog which is to help the reader understand genre. You also continue to remind your readers that you are speaking as a practitioner in the field of composition as a teacher at NAU. Additionally, you add value to your blog by explaining in clear prose the scaffolding process that you use with your students to help them identify, analyze, understand, and learn enough about genre production to subsequently create their own genre-driven compositions.

    As an Adult Basic Education instructor at Rio Salado College, I found the process you put your students through (first look experiencing, identifying standout features, audience identification, influential aspects of the text, reconstructing the rhetorical situation including exigence, audience, and constraints) illuminating for my own practical use. I had been throwing everything at my poor students at once! I can see now why they were being overwhelmed. I am going to start implementing a more structured process in my classroom based on what I learned from your blog.

    I enjoyed the example blog traveling blog you had your students analyze, and was interested to note that Lili’s pictures all contain images with colors that match her choice of bright pinkish fonts which she uses to visually communicate the pinkness of the communities that she visited and experienced.

    You explain why understanding the rhetorical situation is important as a sort of fill-in-the-blank form that remains dynamic because it is “based on what other authors have done… recently.” Your goal, which you stated multiple times, struck a chord with me. When true understanding is achieved, then students can take what they learned and create similar texts (that address the rhetorical situation) but in their own unique ways. That, I think, is a great definition of content mastery.

    There were a few things I might suggest, but I will private message you those. All in all, a great post! Thank you for your generosity in sharing.



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