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Composition Forum 31, Spring 2015

Review of Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines

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Rebecca S. Nowacek

Soliday, Mary. Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2011. 176 pp.

Mary Soliday’s recent book promises an exploration of the “everyday genres” students encounter across the curriculum. With the phrase “everyday genres,” Soliday seems to be invoking those assignments—including lab reports, research papers, and the ambiguous “college essay”—that suffuse the American college curriculum but are divorced from their original disciplinary or professional exigencies. To a significant degree, Soliday’s central argument regarding the nature of these everyday genres as a type of social action will be familiar to readers already conversant with research in rhetorical genre theory: writers, she argues, benefit from participation in talk and activities that invite them to enter into the motives (disciplinary or otherwise) of the assignments, because these motives give meaning to genre conventions and reader expectations. While this book may not advance rhetorical genre studies, it does weave together the reflections, interviews, paper analyses, and pedagogical innovations documented by a multi-disciplinary group of graduate student writing fellows in order to offer insight into another important and poorly understood area: the complex institutional challenges of delivering a robust general education program committed to improving access for a diverse student body.

Soliday’s sites of research are especially timely as it becomes increasingly clear that the field of writing studies would benefit from sustained analysis of the challenges of writing instruction in general education classrooms. General education courses require disciplinary experts to design assignments appropriate for the task of introducing non-majors to a discipline—not as a stepping stone towards further professionalization or disciplinary learning, but rather to inculcate the kind of exposure and appreciation that seems central to a liberal education. Not surprisingly, the resulting conflicts of motives and genres (for instance, the conflict between the motives of instructors immersed in disciplinary ways of knowing and those of students struggling for a decent grade in a required class) pose significant challenges to instructors and students in general education courses. The difficulty of designing assignments appropriate for such courses is often addressed in WAC workshops and consultations, but explored far less thoroughly in our scholarly literature. There is, of course, a long history of naturalistic studies of writing and learning conducted within disciplinary courses (see Russell, Naturalistic Studies) and the past two decades have brought skillful analyses of the institutional double binds encountered by writers transitioning to workplaces (e.g., Dias; Freedman) and in FYC (e.g., Russell, Activity Theory; Wardle). However, studies that explore the particular institutional context and internal contradictions of the general education mandate to introduce non-majors to a discipline have not been as plentiful. (Adler-Kassner et al., Geisler, and Russell and Yanez provide three important exceptions.) It is in this context that I read Soliday’s work with great interest.

Soliday’s analyses are strongly influenced by two related theoretical frameworks articulated in the introduction and first chapter: Lave and Wenger’s model of apprenticeship and rhetorical genre theory. Together they lead her to emphasize the importance of immersing students in the social activities of an intellectual community as a counterbalance to the problems generated by assignment genres divorced from the recurring rhetorical situations that served as their initial exigence. Wardle has previously illuminated this problem as one of “mutt genres”; Soliday (drawing on language from Prior) describes how genres “in the wild” become increasingly “domesticated” in ways that lead to internal contradictions in their “everyday” manifestations for both instructors and students.

The heart of the book, presented in Chapters Two and Three, analyzes assignments given in seven different courses—most of which appear to be general education courses. In the chapter titled Stance in Genre, Soliday focuses on how writers learn to address their readers in ways that are both confident (36) and critical (42). In Content in Genre, she turns her attention to how writers figure out what information is taken for granted and what is considered new and interesting by their audience. Both processes, Soliday argues, require “subtle social knowledge” (36) that is “gained through interaction…with peers and teachers” (83). Throughout these two chapters, Soliday highlights the problems that arise for writers when assignments embody conflicting motives—a frequent problem in general education courses. Take, for instance, her account of the “college essay” assigned in a psychology course enrolling several hundred students, taught by a dedicated lecturer and staff of teaching assistants. Although the prompt “directly solicits” a “free-floating college essay,” it simultaneously (if indirectly) invites the type of case study often valued by psychologists. Comparing the lexis, grammar, and content focus of essays written by more and less successful students, Soliday concludes that the more successful writers “adopt[ed] a wilder stance . . . by speaking as a seasoned therapist” (67), a stance which brings them in line with the inconsistently articulated motives of the instructor. In many ways this line of argument echoes Bartholomae’s description of writers who dare to “carry off the bluff” as they invent the genres of university writing, with Soliday focusing our attention on the recurring challenge posed by everyday, domesticated genres divorced from their initial professional and disciplinary exigencies.

Chapter Three documents a variety of ways in which students can be invited to align themselves more successfully with the motives of their instructors. In one case, instructors and graduate student writing fellows clarified the genre by clarifying the needs of the audience reading the methods section of a biology lab report; in another they demystified instructor expectations through analyzing introductory paragraphs together in class. In the example of a particularly effective anthropology course, instructors brought course talk and a series of activities and assignments into alignment with the motives of the instructors. Reflecting on the “wildness” of these assignments, Soliday argues that these instructors “did not offer domesticated college essays, but instead they contextualized the [assignments] in numerous ways that gave students access to these genres as social and rhetorical practices” (98, emphasis mine). With this idea of contextualization, Soliday brings to the general education classroom familiar themes from the ongoing scholarly debate over the value of explicit genre instruction: explicit instruction can be helpful, she argues, but not without consistent motives and alignment between the genres of the assignments and the meta-genres (which she names as classroom talk, note-taking procedures, and so forth) that surround those assignments. She also spells out the implications of this perspective on explicit instruction for WAC practitioners, critiquing the impulse of some instructors to force writers to figure out expectations on their own rather than designing a consistent, supportive sequence of activities and assignments.

On some occasions, the book’s effort to provide accounts of more than a half dozen disciplinary courses makes it difficult to capture the nuances of the interplay of genres and meta-genres in any one classroom (in the ways readers of Prior, Roozen, and others might expect). This absence is disappointing given how much the book’s argument focuses on the need to bring them into alignment, and might have been ameliorated by a clearer explication of how the accounts of these different classrooms (constructed through a variety of data collection and analysis methods) can be triangulated to compose more than a series of anecdotes. Furthermore, the scope of the book leaves little room to explore the nature of students’ ambivalence and resistance to aligning themselves with the motives of their instructors.

However, the powerful benefit of Soliday’s program-wide focus on assignments is the way it allows her to insist on institutional responsibility for promoting the conditions that make students’ engaged participation possible. Student success is not simply a question, Soliday reminds us, of designing better assignments or revising curricula to provide fuller contextualization. In addition to identifying the pattern of conflicting motives embodied in assignments across the general education curriculum, Soliday documents how instructors’ ability to interact with students—conferencing with them, writing feedback on drafts or earlier papers, teaching writing in a lecture course with hundreds of students—depends on the size of their classrooms, the availability of the pedagogical support provided by the graduate writing fellows, and other labor conditions. Questions of access and institutional responsibility dominate the brief final chapter and offer a powerful challenge not only to WAC practitioners (and the administrators who provide or withhold their funding), but also to researchers in the field of writing studies; we should be prompted by this research to continue exploring the double binds posed by the general education curriculum for both students and instructors.

I conclude by highlighting what may already have become apparent in this review—my fascination with Soliday’s recurrent use of the trope of “genres in the wild.” Over the past several months, I have found the metaphors of wildness and domesticity tremendously generative in conversations with my own students; they have prompted fruitful considerations of the rhetorical dimensions of genres traversing different contexts. Still, I found myself wondering as I read Soliday’s analysis whether the genres are really, in fact, getting “wilder” in the successful anthropology class. Could it be that the process of contextualization is instead a viable substitute for wildness? To extend the metaphor, perhaps the contextualization Soliday advocates creates a more “cultivated” habitat rather than a fully “wild” one. Everyday Genres does not answer these questions—though future work in rhetorical genre studies might profitably take up that vocabulary for further consideration and critique. Nevertheless, by turning our attention towards the particular intellectual and institutional context of general education courses, this book stands to make a valuable contribution to the field of writing studies more generally and, I predict, to the classroom and administrative practices of individual readers.

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, John Majewski, and Damian Koshnick. The Value of Troublesome Knowledge. Composition Forum 26 (2012): n. pag. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <>.

Dias, Patrick X., et al. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999. Print.

Freedman, Aviva. Show and Tell? The Role of Explicit Teaching in the Learning of New Genres. Research in the Teaching of English 27.3 (1993): 222-51. Print.

Geisler, Cheryl. Literacy and Expertise in the Academy. Language and Learning across the Disciplines 1.1 (1994): 35–57. Print.

Prior, Paul. Writing/Disciplinarity: A Socio-historic Account of Literate Activity in the Academy. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998. Print.

Roozen, Kevin. ‘Fanfic-ing Graduate School’: A Case Study Exploring the Interplay of Vernacular Literacies and Disciplinary Engagement. Research in the Teaching of English 44.2 (2009): 136-69. Print.

Russell, David R. Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction. Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995. 51-78. Print.

---. Where Do the Naturalistic Studies of WAC / WID Point? A Research Review. WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs. Eds. Susan H. McLeod, Eric Miraglia, Margot Soven, and Christopher Thaiss. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001. 259-98. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <>.

Russell, David R., and Arturo Yanez. ‘Big Picture People Rarely Become Historians’: Genre Systems and the Contradictions of General Education. Writing Selves/Writing Societies: Research from Activity Perspectives. Ed. Charles Bazerman and David Russell. WAC Clearinghouse, 2003. 331–62. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <>.

Wardle, Elizabeth. ‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University? College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 765-89. Print.

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