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Composition Forum 31, Spring 2015

From the Editors: 30 Years of Genre as Social Action: The Past, Present, and Possible Futures of RGS

Christian Weisser, Mary Jo Reiff, and Dylan B. Dryer

This volume marks the fourth special issue of Composition Forum. Readers may recall our first special issue in Spring 2006: Volume 15, focusing on Composition and Location, guest edited by Christopher Keller. Owing to the success and interest in that special issue, we offered a second in Fall 2012: Volume 26, addressing Writing and Transfer, guest edited by Elizabeth Wardle. Following that, we published a third special issue in Fall 2013: Volume 28, guest edited by Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson, highlighting the subject of Veterans and Writing. The special issues of Composition Forum are among our most frequently cited, so we are thrilled to offer this fourth entry in the series focusing on Genre. Guest Editor Dylan Dryer has compiled some excellent pieces on the subject of genre, and we believe this volume adds much to an important and complex conversation in writing studies. Guest Editor Dryer provides an overview of the contents of Volume 31 below.

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From Guest Editor Dylan B. Dryer:

It’s been gratifying to help bring this special issue together, coinciding as it does with the 30th anniversary of Genre as Social Action, a paper whose central insight anchors the lively and flourishing field known as Rhetorical Genre Studies (or RGS for short). The issue begins with an interview with Carolyn Miller herself, and while it would be conventional to say that Carolyn gave generously of her time and expertise for this interview, where Carolyn is concerned, open-handedness with time, expertise, wisdom, bibliographic range, good cheer, encouragement, innovative synthesis, and capaciousness of vision all go without saying.

This interview offers, among other things, a fascinating glimpse into the backstory of the article Genre as Social Action.. Those of us who have been working productively and gratefully with Carolyn’s ideas for these many years will feel doubly grateful when we learn how much dogged persistence it took to bring the paper to print at all! And indeed, history suggests that it was the Quarterly Journal of Speech that was unprepared for Carolyn and not the other way around; the last three years of bibliometrics alone suggest that Genre as Social Action is unlikely to be dislodged from its current “most-cited article” status in QJS for the foreseeable future.

Readers accustomed to the canonical status of Genre as Social Action may also be surprised to learn how unevenly and patchily the article was initially taken up. The retrospective features the recollections of David Russell, Amy Devitt, and Cathy Schryer, each of whom recognized the significance of Carolyn’s paper early on. Each offers us a glimpse of their own first contact with the article and how their uptake of Carolyn’s work factored into what has become their own most-cited work. In each case, we find the construct of genre as “social action” helping a scholar to reconcile problems of typification and recognition, form and context, or genre stability and change.

Turning to the more immediate present of the field, Charles Bazerman’s warning to students considering empirical research on writing that that there was “no simple or quick answer” to the methodological problem of rhetorical genre studies still holds. As he explained, our only feasible option for moving to a more disinterested and accurate understanding of the origins and transmission of others’ generic knowledges and composing practices was “a bootstrapping operation” of aggregating knowledge: examining

more texts in a more regularized way; interviewing and observing more writers and readers, and ethnographically documenting how texts are used in organizations. The richer and more empirical a picture develops, the less we are dependent on the limitations of our own experience and training. (321-2)

Such bootstrapping had been underway for at least a decade and has continued since; countless solid qualitative and interpretive research—critical-discourse analysis, archival investigations, interpretive scholarship, case-studies of classrooms and ethnographies of workplaces—are now aligned behind Miller’s argument for a truly rhetorical (i.e., pragmatic) understanding of genre, a construct that has proved exceptionally robust.

Each of the seven original research articles featured in this issue probe interesting problems for RGS: silence, strong forms of multimodality and cross-language relations, metagenre (in both Michael Carter’s and in Janet Giltrow’s sense of the word), affect, ephemerality, occluded genres and occluded sites of composing (155). For example, do we find images working as conventions? What is the uptake-affordance presented by a transitional thread in a listserv? Can distant-reading practices reveal an important pattern in the prototypical example of “uptake” (a student’s response to a paper prompt)? Might a more responsive construct of “affect” or “silence” give us better ways to spot misalignments between convention and intention? How much tacit genre knowledge (which has persistently eluded our ability to track reliably) might be manifesting itself in plain sight—i.e., bodily?

To sketch out the fuller context in which these articles are operating, and to assist those coming to RGS for the first time, I’ll use the remainder of this Introduction to situate these seven original research articles in versions of five premises central to the field. My version of these premises is deeply indebted to a kind of state-of-the-field stock-taking that four of us (Amy Devitt, Mary Jo Reiff, Anis Bawarshi, and I) prepared for a half-day 2013 CCCC workshop. (Our handout for that workshop is available as a PDF; it also goes further into questions of knowledge transfer and methodological challenges than I'm able to here.)

Five Premises for Rhetorical Genre Studies

Residual formalism maintains that a genre is an classifiable object (a grant proposal, a transmittal letter, a dissertation, an amicus brief, etc.) or simply an object in need of a new subcategory (the zine, the selfie, the bromance), categories that might be said to have arrived once they can survive outside scare-quotes and have acquired a definite article of their own. This perspective accommodates the traditional artistic and developmental notions of genre (literature over here, fiction over there; narrative for “basic writers,” argument for advanced students, etc.) as well as a generally conceded notion of genre evolution.

There is much to be said for this construct, undergirding as it does much that we experience as helpful and efficient. Obviously we require a store of recognizable forms to manage existence, from the everyday (“fine, thanks, you?”) to the rare ceremonial (“not guilty, Your Honor”); we hope that a check in the mail will look like a check and not a circular from the grocery store. Conventions (the heavy envelope to thwart snooping; that little memo-line for forgetful check-writers, the signature that legally binds it as a promissory note, the safety-measure requiring the cardinal amount to match the numerical figure, and so on) lead us to our first premise, which no school of thought on genre disputes:

  1. Established genres usefully consolidate our predecessors’ successes at problem-solving.

RGS parts company with lay formalism with its next premise:

  1. Genres, strictly speaking, aren’t things; they’re responses based in intersubjective phenomena that we experience as recurrence.

What’s usually thought of as a genre—a routine set of inscriptions, broadly construed—is properly speaking only a material trace or a residue of that response. These traces persist and become convenient metonyms for the complex action of response—“we should send a memo to the Dean”; “where are those Design Reviews?”; eventually they become pedagogical artifacts: “Here’s what a client letter looks like”; “your class project will be an Environmental Impact Statement.” Genres manage the complexity of life by making almost all of the everyday appear like something we already know—an essential, unavoidable, and almost always productive element of modern human existence.

Yet as Miller reminds us, any “situation” is actually an irreproducible confluence of material conditions and social factors. Because genre conventions enshrine past perceptions, practical applications of these conventions give us knowledge that make current situations appear to be like the past (156-7)—an appearance that we impose in a complex process tellingly called “recognition.” Some injuries, after all, can’t be atoned for with a check, but that doesn’t prevent the callow among us from trying. Each of the articles in this Special Issue bear on this premise: such is the force of convention, for instance, that Laura Gonzales’s student Nathalia dutifully “draws” literacy sponsors when her writing teacher asks her to “draw on” the readings for her essay, but doesn’t question the point of being asked to do so in a writing class.

Anis Bawarshi can state our third premise, the basis of many ideological critiques of genre in RGS:

  1. “[G]enres maintain the social motives which individuals interpret and enact as intentions” (77).

Advocating what she called an “ethnomethodological” understanding of genre, Miller asked us to “explicate the knowledge that practice creates” (155, emphasis added). Genre re-cognition implicates us in larger social patterns of interpersonal and intra-institutional relations; the practice of a social action means gaining knowledge of what that social scene is like. This effect helps explain genres’ insusceptibility to change. For example, Kate Pantelides delves into a lively thread of metageneric commentary (in Giltrow’s sense of the word) posted to the Writing Program Administrators’ Listserv about the relevance of the Composition and Rhetoric dissertation for WPA work, both to explore tensions between the peculiar persistence of this genre and the new kind of academic labor that it continues to regulate access to. Despite “relative consensus regarding these versions of the dissertation as genre and the need for genre change,” she finds, “[i]ndividual posts and larger threads alternate between the two realms with frustration because of a perceived powerlessness to act on an individual level in the face of macro-level systems.” Practitioners, to stay with Carolyn's formulation, often have a complicated relationship to the knowledge that that practice creates. While chafing at its constraints, they can also feel protective of the status it confers; even as they wish it otherwise, their material, cognitive, and cultural investments in the worldview in which the genre is embedded conspire against their ability to see it otherwise. (Cathy Schryer's work with Bourdieu's construct of habitus is especially helpful here.)

Especially relative to other schools of thought on genre pedagogy, RGS’s sensitivity to the ideological critique means we foreground a fourth premise, one that also marks our field’s development beyond the scope of Carolyn’s article (though she hints at it in her final paragraph):

  1. Although dominant genres are essential for academic, workplace, and civic socialization, they aren’t free: humans have legitimately complex feelings about genres.

All adults sense this on some level, even if they wouldn’t necessarily put it that way (Brodkey, Ivanič, Berkenkotter et al.; Casanave). Reading and writing about certain kinds of topics and listening and talking about certain kinds of topics in certain ways, as both Bazerman (Identity) and Russell have reminded us, help turn us into the sort of person who reads and talks and writes about those kinds of topics. When those topics are remote from one’s homelife, and especially if one’s family has historically been treated shabbily by the sorts of people who read and write and talk like that, ambivalence and resistance to those forms are both inevitable and legitimate.

Making an interesting contribution to our thinking on how adults “sense” their relationship to genres, Faith Kurtyka shows the usefulness of listening for affect. Heeding Anthony Paré’s recommendation that we attend to newcomers’ experience of a site of composing (because they will animate more clearly the “taken-for-grantedness” of genres), Kurtyka turns her attention to a novel site for study—the textual processes by which a new chapter of a sorority comes into being on campus. Striving to salvage “authenticity” and “sisterhood” from a campus culture about which the would-be sorority members have mixed feelings, Kurtyka explores one new member’s attempt to “bricolage” a recruitment video, a multimodal composition at a complex nexus of institutional imperatives and stakeholder desires.

Chalice Randazzo tackles an exceptionally difficult feature for RGS—textual silences. As she points out, “excluded information and people are typically already absent from the system or text—silent either by choice or by compulsion—making them difficult to trace.” Randazzo repurposes methods of inquiry drawn from rhetorical listening to help “RGS scholars differentiate between an item of silenced information that suggests exclusionary practices and another item that is unrelated to the genre or unnecessary to make explicit because of context.”

Taking the next logical step from the disruptions experienced by newcomers to a genre system and the disruptions they bring to it, Heather Bastian takes up where Reiff and Bawarshi leave off (331-2), contending that “purposefully and strategically incorporating moments of disruption into our research designs within the FYW classroom context can be equally valuable to RGS.” One implication of this suggestion, therefore, is that newcomers could well be made more conscious of their ‘newcomerness’ as it is happens to them, potentially avoiding unreflective capture by the systems of dispositions that established genres can scaffold unawares. Attending to writers’ “processes of selection, definition, and representation…and what informs and influences them, including genre, context, and the individual” Bastian finds useful data in students’ compositions as well as in their physical reactions, as she explores how students negotiated “individual, contextual, and generic expectations and intentions when encouraged to play an active role in their own uptakes.”

We might state our final premise this way:

  1. Execution of genre knowledge involves material and dispositional factors, so performing genre knowledge can be complex; because situations are never precise duplicates of previous situations, execution of this knowledge can have unexpected results.

Given the contextually-dependent construct of genre RGS assumes, given that the perception of recurrence is always an approximation, and given the wide range of relations humans take in responding and reacting to those perceptions, the development and performance of genre knowledge is less linear and less predictable than most genre pedagogies concede.

Interrogating the assumption implicit in some of our most influential research on students’ genre knowledge, Heather Lindenman finds the majority of the students she studies forging “distinctive and unconventional connections linking their various compositions that emerged from different domains.” Perhaps more importantly, she finds these students articulating a lay sense of metagenre “on the purposes of their compositions”—Miller’s sense of genre as social action has some fundamental explanatory power for the ways in which writers make sense of both process and outcome. These connections, Lindenman argues, are “students’ working theories about how their written texts might perform certain types of work in the world.”

Yet Lindenman’s work is also an example of how what Thomas Kuhn would call a “redesigned apparatus” can reflect and produce a paradigm shift—in this case, an unseen pattern in the questions we’ve asked have given us a recurrent answer that we’ve taken as evidence. Redesigning the humble apparatus of the interview question makes a new kind of data collection possible. I describe this work as part of a larger paradigm shift because I see Lindenman as taking part in an ongoing effort—decades now in the making—to restore agency to the composition student. Marguerite Helmers would not be surprised to hear that reflective metacognition is this era’s assumed “lack” for college writing students; operating with the assumption that they lack this ability, we have not thought to ask them questions that assume they do.

In arguing for a possible future for RGS “in the multimodal, translingual connections already being made in our classrooms by students,” Gonzales’s paper is aligned with what is coming to be called translingualism (for the significance of this prefix, see Lu); one aim of which is to orient US compositionists to thinking of other languages as resources, rather than “interference” to be mitigated. In this project, Gonzales shows us the potential of a mostly untapped datastream for RGS research—video coding with an attention to what Susan Gerofsky calls “embodied metaphor.” Examining not only compositional decisions made by multilingual students and their testimony about those decisions, but also their embodied gestures as they explained what they did, Gonzales’s exploratory study identifies an intriguing point of comparison: self-identified monolingual students seem constrained by their first-language word choices as they try to “draw on other semiotic resources (e.g., pictures, songs) to compose multimodal projects.” Contrastingly, at moments where the participating L2 students signaled less confidence in specific word-choices, they seem more likely “to merge (or translanguage) across modes as they think of different ways to convey their ideas” (cf. Shipka W345).

Reading these articles for this introduction, I was reminded of H.G. Widdowson’s exasperation with the conflicts between those doing critical analyses of small samples of language in social context and those doing functional descriptions of large collections of language in use. As he put it, if the analytical tradition was committed to making statements “about social attitudes and beliefs, the exercise of power, the influence of ideology, and so on, with scant reference to the linguistic data,” the descriptive tradition was committed to making

statements about the specifics of language in use without paying much attention to social factors. It ought to be possible to bring the two traditions into closer correspondence, but it is no easy matter. Particularly if the question of scope is confused with that of commitment. (158-9, emphasis added)

I see each of the six articles I have discussed as making a concerted effort toward more methodological transparency (providing coding protocols with representative datapoints and percentages of dataset coverage or triangulating researcher-intuitions against insider perspectives) and replicability (taking advantage of extra capacity in online publishing to supply the exact wording of questionnaires and sampling plans), all in the interest of modeling better practices with empirical dimensions of qualitative research.

Meanwhile, I am particularly pleased to publish Laura Aull’s paper, situated as it is on the descriptive end of Widdowson’s axis. If Aull is obliged to remind her RGS audience that “the social action of genre is always to some degree realized in linguistic action, (a point to which we have been inattentive in keeping our attention on “whole-text enactments in contexts”), she shows us how to emerge from the scope/commitment impasse from the other direction. If she watches no students composing, nor consults any students about why they might have written what they did, she situates the “linguistic attention often absent in RGS research,” in “contextual attention usually absent in EAP genre research.”

First-year writers, Aull finds, violate academic writing conventions not because they ground their claims “in personal experience or perspective” (professional academic writers do this, too); rather they use the “wrong” words to invoke personal experience and perspective. Just as the other six researchers push towards more empirical, functional analyses of genre in context, Aull pushes toward them from the other direction, finding in these broad patterns evidence that the first-year writers chose the “wrong” formation because they “do not seem to have access to the social context in which the preferred stance (of someone dispassionately surveying a field) would seem desirable.” As with whole text enactments, so too do lexical bundles “mediat[e] private intentions and social exigence” (Miller 163).

This issue’s Program Profiles suggest that genre knowledge is developed most reliably and validly in rich, goal-oriented social contexts: technical writing and postgraduate education (tellingly, I received no prospectuses for assessing genre knowledge in first-year writing courses (cf. Wardle)). Instead, these programs’ creation of substantial assessment protocols and scaffolded interactions with academic genres are in turn producing important information that we hope will be turned back to shape the construct of genre knowledge operating in “large-scale, commercially-based language skills tests” (Anna Habib, Jennifer Haan, & Karyn Mallett), knowledge transfer (Heather Adams & Patricia Jenkins), and structural opportunities for postgraduate writing (Megan Autry & Michael Carter).

Finally, I’m grateful to two important thinkers in RGS for their willingness to help us make useful sense of two recent contributions to the field: Mya Poe reviews Laura Wilder’s attempt to synthesize an RGS framework with recurring discursive features in the specific context of undergraduate literary analysis, and Rebecca Nowacek examines Mary Soliday’s recent application of a rhetorical genre construct to the broad context of general education curricula.


To Carolyn’s thoughts on future directions and unsolved problems in RGS with which she concludes our interview, let me suggest two more:

First, it’s essential that our bootstrapping operation continue, especially at the level of methodological attentiveness and experimentation these seven authors have engaged. As we draw together the literature reviews and works-cited pages on our latest bootstrapping efforts, we might approach knowledge-aggregation in one other way. Although our construct of genre makes a classical metastudy effectively impossible, we could all contribute an occasional hour to the adding, annotating, compiling, tagging, defining keywords, and other forms of stitch-by-stitch integration connecting and aggregating the rich body of knowledge that has accrued with this rich understanding of genre. The site,, for instance, might be just the place for such crowd-sourcing; fittingly, we also owe this site to the same capacious vision and dogged persistence Carolyn displayed in the mid-eighties!

Second, Carolyn’s construct of genre as social action remains robust in the face of these troubled (and sometimes troubling) sites for analysis, and it has been enriched by them. At the same time, as we continue to mine the powerful explanatory construct of genre as social action, we should now turn concerted attention to a corollary that must follow from the five premises sketched out above: if genre conventions produce and reflect social responses perceived as recurring, then those social responses are changeable by deliberate changes to those conventions, even at the level of routine inscription.

Perhaps RGS is ready to return to those features of genre that have always preoccupied Formalism (see Devitt, Giltrow), but with an edge. Motivated genre change, as tactical social intervention: a cause all of us engaged in Rhetorical Genre Studies are thoroughly equipped to advance, but few of us yet pursue in much of a concerted or systematic way.

Now there’s the next special issue on the intellectual legacy of Carolyn R. Miller, and one that I very much hope won’t be another 30 years in the making.

Works Cited

Bawarshi, Anis. Genre and the Invention of the Writer. Logan: Utah State UP, 2003.

Bazerman, Charles. Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004: 309-39. Print.

---. Genre and Identity: Citizenship in the Age of the Internet and the Age of Global Capitalism. Coe et al., 13-37.

Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman. Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English 22.1 (1988): 9-44.

Brodkey, Linda. Writing on the Bias. College English, 56.5 (1994): 527-547.

Carter, Michael. Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 58.3 (2007): 385-418.

Casanave, Christine Pearson. Cultural Diversity and Socialization: A Case Study of a Hispanic Woman in a Doctoral Program in Sociology In Murray, Denise. E. (Ed.), Diversity as Resource: Redefining Cultural Literacy; Alexandria, VA: TESOL, (1992): 148-182

Coe, Richard; Lorelei Lingard; Tatiana Teslenko (Eds.), The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002.

Devitt, Amy. Re-fusing Form in Genre Study. Genres in the Internet: Issues in the Theory of Genre. Janet Giltrow,; Dieter Stein (Eds.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins 2009, 27-38.

Gerofsky, Susan. Seeing the Graph vs. Being the Graph: Gesture, Engagement and Awareness in School Mathematics. In Stam, Gale and Mika Ishino (eds.), Integrating Gestures: The Interdisciplinary Nature of Gesture. (2011): 245–256. <>.

Giltrow, Janet. Form Alone: Historical Genres in Canadian Supreme Court Decisions. Paper presented at Genre 2012, June 28, 2012, Carleton University, Ottawa, CA.

Giltrow, Janet. Meta-genre. Coe et al., 187-205.

Helmers, Marguerite H. Writing Students: Composition, Testimonials, and Representations of Students. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Ivanič, Roz. Writing and identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing, 1998.

Lu, Min-Zhan. Metaphors Matter: Transcultural Literacy. JAC, 29.1-2 (2009): 285-293.

Miller, Carolyn R. Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70 (1984): 151-167.

Paré, Anthony. Genre and Identity: Individuals, Institutions, and Ideology. Coe et al. 57-71.

Reiff, Mary Jo and Anis Bawarshi. Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition. Written Communication, 28.3 (2011): 312-337.

Russell, David R. Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis. Written Communication, 14 (1997): 504-554.

Schryer, Catherine F. Genre and Power: A Chronotopic Analysis. Coe et al. 73-102.

Shipka, Jody. Negotiating Rhetorical, Material, Methodological, and Technological Difference: Evaluating Multimodal Designs. College Composition and Communication 61.1 (September 2009): W343-W36.

Wardle, E. (2009). 'Mutt Genres' and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University? College Composition and Communication, 60, 756-789.

Widdowson, H.G. Discourse Analysis: A Critical View. Language and Literature, 4 (1995): 157-172.

Return to Composition Forum 31 table of contents.