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Composition Forum 14.2, Fall 2005

Bawarshi, Anis. Genre & the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2003. 207pp.

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Clay Arnold

What is good writing? Communities and institutions have tried to answer this question since before composition was a field of study, though it remains unclear whether the question can or even should be answered. If there is no consensus about what makes good writing, neither has the subject of first year writing courses been finally decided. In his new book, Genre and the Invention of the Writer, Anis Bawarshi enters the ongoing conversation about what should be taught in first year writing, and how it should be taught. He says that first year writing students should study and write about writing by learning to negotiate and utilize the rhetoric of different genres. Teaching genre-based writing helps students resist the idea that there is only one way to write well. Such resistance offers students a more active awareness of the ideological situations of writing, and opens students to the ways people affect and are affected by writing.

Genre begins, appropriately enough, with a discussion of beginnings: “Why and how writers begin to write is the subject of invention” (1). Before the nineteenth century, invention was considered to occur when the writer (or speaker) “placed” himself within rhetorical topoi. With the rise of empiricism, Bawarshi says, people began to consider rhetoric simply as a way to express already-formulated thoughts. The site of invention was moved from socially situated rhetoric to within the writer; in the current-traditional view, invention became internal and personal, no longer social but private. In the 1960s, the process movement reconsidered the importance of invention in writing. With the aid of process-driven, pre-writing activities such as brainstorming and clustering, writers are invited to consider invention as emanating from the writer. For all their apparent differences, Bawarshi notes, current-traditional and process approaches to writing are similar in that they consider invention to be an individual rather than social act. In contrast to current conceptions of a pre-social and pre-discursive invention, Bawarshi suggests that invention emerges from the writer, but adds that the writer is always already socially situated.

According to Bawarshi, the shift in emphasis from current-traditional written product to the writing process finally recognized the writer as agent while at the same time making invention teachable in composition. The site of invention during this shift, however, remained within the writer. Bawarshi maintains that such a position leads to an incomplete view of invention because it does not recognize the fact that writers write within fields that exist prior to themselves. Invention can instead be thought to reside “within a larger sphere of agency that includes not only the writer as agent but also the social and rhetorical conditions, namely genres, which participate in this agency and in which the writer and writing take place” (51). Once students are made aware that invention is located in and particular to the ideological situations in which one writes, Bawarshi explains, invention becomes less vague, less mysterious, and more accessible. Genre-based pedagogies relocate the subject of writing from student text or students themselves to the genres in which texts and selves are formed.

The subject of writing classes has changed as methods for teaching composition have emerged. Current-traditional theories were product based; the goal of writing instruction was the production of writing in a formal classic style. The subject of current-traditional composition became formal grammar rules. As process advocates have noted, under current-traditional methods, writing classes prepared students for little more than writing in the composition classroom. Process methods often de-emphasize grammar rules and promote writing that elicits expressive self-discovery from the (student) writer. Combining cognitive methods withexpressivism, the process movement defined writing as heuristic, as a learning tool. This heuristic approach displaced the product as the subject of writing classes, making the subject of the product-based classroom the “writer’s growth” (60). Even though process methods include informal compositions such as pre-writing and journal writing, process teachers generally expect formal and academic final papers from students. Teachers in the process movement often advocate rewriting and revision, questioning the possibility of finality in writing, but they often expect a finished written product that conforms to the standards of a formal English paper. Bawarshi maintains that genre-based pedagogies, on the other hand, afford the writer self-awareness, but recognize that writing varies according to changing situations. In other words, genre-based pedagogy promotes self-awareness, but also an awareness of the ideological processes that surround the formation of self. In the genre-based classroom, the subject of writing is the writing produced within various genres, while the goal is for the writer to learn to situate herself within different genres and produce writing that fits those genres.

Students need the ability to “read” or analyze genres in order to participate within various genres. When writers write, they always do so within some genre. This much seems intuitive. Even the “themes” of current-traditional rhetoric and the pre-writing activities of process-based writing are academic, classroom related genres, says Bawarshi. He theorizes that when students do not perform up to expectations in the writing classroom, it is often because they do not understand the conventions of the genre in which they are working. In such cases, students have not successfully read the conventions of the genre in which they are writing. For effective writing to occur, then, students need the ability to read and discern the rules for writing within particular genres. Of course, instructors do not possess the stores of knowledge it would take to teach every genre, even if there were time for such an endeavor, as Bawarshi acknowledges. Fortunately, teaching every genre is unnecessary. Once students have learned to read genres they can read any genre, and as they become more adept readers they can adapt their writing to the standards of different genres.

The conventions of genres are not completely deterministic, however, since writers simultaneously participate in multiple genres and bring their own subjectivities to the genres in which they are involved. Genres change over time because of participation within genres by individuals with different values and beliefs. By teaching students how to more successfully read and participate within genres, teachers show students how to conform to the standards of genres and how to change the more (subjectively) undesirable conventions of genres. Bawarshi argues that writers can only purposefully change the genres within which they participate once they have learned how to analyze and determine the rhetorical strategies for writing within genres. Teachers of genre teach a rhetorical writing class, since “genre analysis makes sites of activity and the positions of articulation they frame rhetorically visible and accessible to inquiry” (158). As writers move from genre to genre, the rhetorical demands to which they must adhere (and possibly transform) change. Learning to read genres challenges writers to discover differing rhetorical strategies.

That writers are able to situate themselves within genres and change their rhetorical habits like this belies the notion of a single style that can be called “good” writing. Presenting a singular notion of what “good” writing might be often leads back to a current-traditional focus on grammar and mechanics. Teachers of genre “aspire to a higher goal” than only teaching “students how to ‘master grammar, usage, and formal fluency’” (147). Grammatical skills are certainly desirable, but a decontextualized focus on mechanics, exclusively, implies a universal conceptionof good writing and ignores the fact that grammar, usage, and fluency change with each writing situation: “Rather than teaching students some vague and perhaps questionable notion of what ‘good’ writing is, a notion that most likely cannot stand up to disciplinary standards or scrutiny, we gain more by teaching students how to adapt as writers, socially and rhetorically, from one genred site of action to the next” (156). What is good writing? The answer is that good writing is dependent and contextual.

The sooner composition teachers can convince students to resist the notion that there is a single conception of good writing, the better. Bawarshi convincingly argues that when writers understand good writing to reside in the ability to adapt to changing situations, they gain a new awareness, a new agency. By encouraging students to decide for themselves how they will enter and negotiate various genres, teachers show students ways to choose “a subject position in the Althusserian sense of being interpellated” (108). The genre, or the “intersection between a writer’s intentions and the genre’s social motives” is the ideological site in which identities are formed (79). By teaching writing as movement between genres, instructors encourage students to explore how identities are formed, allowing students new ways to negotiate the spaces between social spheres and the self. Theorists of liberating resistance pedagogies like Paulo Freire, and, more recently, critical pedagogues of composition, advocate a negotiation of ideological space that, like the genre-based pedagogy recommended by Bawarshi, offers methods for ideological interrogation in writing. Students who learn to recognize the requirements of writing within various genres can choose to conform to those standards or to resist them. Once students have learned how to situate themselves within, transgress, and transform the boundaries of various genres, they have a skill that they will take with them when they leave the first year writing classroom.

When students have internalized methods for analyzing genres, they will have acquired a new way of ordering the world. Teaching ideological awareness can be slippery, though. In some cases, teachers who believe they are teaching ideological awareness are actually inscribing their own ideological positions uncritically. To be sure, teachers always teach from a combination of ideological positions, since ideology is inescapable. The difference is that some teachers teach an ideology uncritically, while others teach awareness of ideologies. Uncritically teaching an ideology amounts to a transfer of knowledge, a pedagogy of “banking” to use the Freirean terminology; to be a teacher of ideologies, on the other hand, means giving students an understanding of how they can analyze and meaningfully participate in the ideologies of their choosing. Teaching an ideology inscribes students with a set of values; teaching ideologies gives students a way to decide for themselves what constitutes appropriate value. Teaching an ideology is limited in scope because it tells students what is right or wrong given a specific situation; teaching ideologies prepares students to encounter and read ideological situations outside the classroom, and to enter or resist those situations. The genre-based pedagogy Bawarshi has in mind allows teachers to teach critical ideological awareness. Some scholars argue that teaching ideological awareness is fruitless, that students arrive in the classroom already resistant to particular ideologies or theories, and that teaching new theories can confuse undergraduates, and even graduates, making them resistant to learning (see Bishop). Other scholars have argued that the critical introduction of conflicting theories is essential to learning (see Welch, Hesse). Students, both graduate and undergraduate, should be exposed to conflicting ideological theories. Exposure to different ideological situations may be upsetting, but it is also educational. There is not as much to learn by rehashing the familiar. Introductions to the unfamiliar, exposure to newtheories and ideological situations, can be made possible in the composition classroom by teaching genre theory.

Genre-based pedagogies offer more than a way to teach social (ideological) reading. Students should learn to examine social and rhetorical texts in order to produce texts that successfully participate in disciplinary and social conversations. Using genre, Bawarshi theorizes a way to teach rhetoric in the first year writing course that gives students the critical awareness they need to assert their own authority. While teaching genre opens spaces for teaching resistance, writing remains the subject of the genre-based class, and rightly so. Bawarshi convincingly argues that students of writing should primarily be students of rhetoric. Teaching genre is a way to make sure that writing students study writing first and foremost. More than simply teaching the varied requirements of specific academic disciplines, first year writing teachers can prepare students to move through different genres by teaching the rhetorical strategies of situating themselves within genres so students will be prepared for the demands of situating themselves within any future writing classes. As much as first year writing teachers need to teach students how to think critically, it is important also to “teach writing in its disciplinary and professional contexts, where writing is not only a means of communication—the acquisition of certain communicative skills—but also a means of socialization into disciplinary values, assumptions, relations, and practices” (154). Teaching how to critically read genres, such as various academic disciplines, instructors prepare students to place themselves within various genres and to write successfully in those genres: “Such an analytical skill is transferable and does not require an immersion in disciplinary cultures” (165, Bawarshi’s emphasis). As transferable as this skill is to ideological resistance, Bawarshi argues persuasively that it is equally applicable to later WID / WAC or other writing courses.

Genre and the Invention of the Writer theorizes methods of teaching first year writing that do not prescribe generic and ultimately false notions of “good” academic writing. This book primarily thinks through the teaching of genre; it is not a textbook that translates this approach directly into a syllabus or lesson plans. For those who want specific methods of incorporating genre-based pedagogies into the classroom, I recommend the rhetoric Bawarshi recently coauthored with Amy Devitt and Mary Jo Reiff, Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres (New York: Longman, 2004). As practical as this voluminous textbook is, it becomes even more useful when augmented with the theories offered in Genre and the Invention of the Writer. With Genre , Bawarshi theorizes a first year writing classroom in which ideological reading and resistance is possible while rhetoric and writing is maintained as the subject of the course.

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