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Composition Forum 46, Spring 2021

Assignments and Expectations: The Role of Genre and Faculty Expectations in Transfer

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Jane Danielewicz, Jordynn Jack, Ashley Hall, Sarah Ann Singer, Emi Stuemke, and Jennifer Ware

Abstract: As WPAs at a research institution without a WAC program, we embarked on this project to learn about the types of writing prompts faculty across the disciplines assign and their expectations for student writing. Although our first-year composition program is genre-based and focuses on teaching for transfer, we did not know what genres other faculty assigned nor which writing skills they hoped students could apply to their assignments. We also wanted to understand how they crafted writing assignment prompts and how they perceived students’ abilities to meet their expectations. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 faculty members from a range of disciplines about their writing assignments in courses in the major. We found that faculty (1) want or even expect students to take on certain disciplinary roles as writers in their assignments; (2) but they are not routinely making these expectations clear to students in their writing assignment prompts. To address these impediments to transfer, we present a three-part rhetorical framework for faculty that relies on genre to clarify expectations and allows for cuing to promote transfer for students in disciplinary writing contexts.


“What does good writing look like in your field?” We asked this question to faculty from a range of disciplines. After clearly articulating their discipline’s genres, conventions, and expectations, they couldn’t help but bemoan students’ disciplinary writing. “If I don’t emphasize concretely the need for analytical discourse or argument, they’ll give me a history paper,” Matthew, a political scientist, told us dejectedly. Despite her best efforts, Leslie, a physicist, lamented that students still do not understand “how to write something in scientific discourse,” and instead produce work that “still reads like a college paper rather than something a scientist would write.” Madeline, an anthropologist, restated the directions she gave to students completing writing assignments in her anthropology class: “Look at how the economists, or the public health, or the policy person thinks about these issues. What does the anthropologist bring to the table?” As these statements indicate, disciplinary faculty are eager to express their opinions about how and what students write in their upper-division courses.

With no WAC program at our R1 institution, we (WPAs and instructors) embarked on a project to discover more about the types of writing that faculty from other disciplines assign. Building on work by Rounsaville, Moore, Wells, and others, our goal was to better understand and ultimately enhance transfer from first-year composition (FYC) to upper-division courses across the curriculum. In keeping with other studies focused on questions of genre and transfer across the curriculum, we considered questions similar to what Moore posed in her 2012 survey of transfer research: “Can teachers integrate more bridges and transitional strategies if they know more about the other disciplines and discourse communities students encounter?” (n.p.). Engaging with these questions, we explored possible bridges that might be built by studying syllabi and conducting semi-structured interviews with the faculty who participated in this study. Our goal was to better understand faculty members’ expectations for student writing in major courses and the strategies they are already using to help students meet their expectations.

Extensive research has been done over the last twenty years on the efficacy of teaching for transfer in FYC programs (Moore; Yancey et al.). In particular, research has demonstrated that high-road transfer of genre knowledge from one situation to another—while difficult—is not impossible, especially given the promise of genre-based approaches (Bawarshi; Bawarshi and Reiff; Rounsaville; Wells). To build on existing research and gain some deep emic knowledge about the situations that students were encountering in their major courses, we embarked on a project (supported by a CCCC research grant) that involved (1) collecting and analyzing writing assignments in syllabuses across the curriculum; (2) and interviewing a select group of faculty from a range of disciplines about their writing assignments and reactions to students’ writing. It was obvious that in order to enhance students’ transfer, we needed in-depth information about what types of writing faculty in other disciplines were assigning. As Rounsaville describes, transfer may be more possible if students have “the ‘right’ antecedent genres that approximate future ones,” (n.p.) and it is impossible to teach all genres in a one-semester course. In particular, we took up the concept of “genre cuing” (Reiff and Bawarshi 331), exploring the idea that backward-reaching transfer (Perkins and Salomon; Salomon and Perkins) can be activated by assigning and discussing disciplinary genres.

In this article, we first present a brief review of literature about how genres can enable writing transfer, focusing on how faculty struggle to communicate disciplinary expectations and how this impacts students. Second, we present the institutional context for the study site and describe the qualitative methods used. Next, we present our results, which lead to two key findings: that faculty (1) want or even expect students to take on certain disciplinary roles as writers in their assignments; (2) but they are not routinely making these expectations clear to students in their writing assignment prompts. However, as Moore's earlier research showed, faculty lacked concrete vocabulary with which to frame their assignments. In response to this dilemma, we argue that faculty need a more explicit framework for cuing genre and disciplinary expectations. Finally, we introduce a three-part rhetorical framework that relies on genre to clarify expectations and allows for cuing to promote transfer for students in disciplinary writing contexts.

Genre Transfer, Cuing, and Writing Instruction Across Disciplines

Previous qualitative studies indicate that faculty have trouble articulating disciplinary and genre expectations. For instance, Chris Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki have shown that faculty regularly evoke a common terminology for talking about writing assignments, yet this terminology “often hides basic differences in rhetoric, exigency, epistemology, style, form, and formatting—differences that are revealed when faculty elaborate on their assignments” (59). As a result, Thaiss and Zawacki argue that students struggle when attempting to identify their instructor’s expectations or to understand how a given assignment relates to the relevant discipline. Building on this research, Reiff and Bawarshi elaborate on the common terminology faculty use to describe assignments, which they call “academic trigger words.” These words flatten disciplinary differences (324) and include terms for non-specific school genres (e.g., “research paper”) and modes (“argue,” “analyze”). These terms do not help students understand how research in one field may be analyzed differently from research in another.

While some students are able to repurpose prior genre knowledge to approach new assignments in different disciplines, others stick to known forms (like the “paper”) regardless of the discipline or task (Reiff and Bawarshi 325). As Reiff and Bawarshi affirm, cues indicating that a new genre is being evoked are critical: “Without such cuing, priming, and guiding, students might easily resort to well-worn paths—routinized inclinations and default uptakes of genres” (331). Similarly, Natasha Artemeva and Janna Fox argue that rehearsing a genre is a “necessary but insufficient precondition for genre-competence development” (476, emphasis added). Complicating matters further, such prior experiences may not be helpful in situations where disciplinary assignments call for unfamiliar genres. As a result, students may not recognize that genres are distinctive across disciplines. Instead, they tend to draw on prior genre knowledge with little regard for disciplinary differences (Soliday; Beaufort; Herrington and Moran).

In contrast, disciplinary insiders—including faculty members from across the university—have tacit knowledge about common genres. However, students are often outsiders and need cues to help them gain a discipline-specific sense of expectations. Bawarshi and Reiff contend that assignment prompts are “border genres” written by insiders for outsiders and may lack clarification of tacit genre expectations (85-86). Bawarshi illustrates the importance of clarity in writing prompts by arguing that “[t]he prompt, like any other genre, organizes and generates the conditions within which individuals perform their activities” and “the writing prompt not only moves the student writer into action; it also cues the student writer to enact a certain kind of action” (127). Ken Hyland’s interviews with scholars from art, business, engineering, and the sciences emphasize the disconnect between what is expected and what is articulated. Hyland spoke with faculty from across disciplines “to make explicit the tacit knowledge or strategies that participants bring to their teaching” (243). When those expectations are not explicit in assignment prompts, genre transfer is difficult to achieve, especially for students who may not have much experience with disciplinary genres. For transfer to occur, writers need genres to be cued, primed, guided, and rehearsed. Assignment prompts, when well designed, play a significant part in such actions.

Accordingly, research in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) suggests that the problems of genre transfer and “cuing” genres lie as much with faculty as with students. While Elizabeth Wardle examined these issues among rhetoric and writing studies faculty, related research suggests that similar challenges arise in the pedagogical practice of other fields. Numerous studies have surveyed the types of genres assigned across the disciplines (Graves, Hyland, and Samuels; Nesi and Gardner; Melzer), and they often find that non-specific terms for genres predominate. Students are frequently assigned “essays” and “papers” regardless of the discipline. In a focus group study, Jerry Nelms and Ronda Dively found that faculty fail to distinguish between different types of academic writing, “preferring instead to assign all exercises—regardless of topic, aim, level of formality, etc.—to the categories of ‘written assignments,’ ‘weekly writings,’ or ‘papers’” (227). This dependence on “essays,” “papers,” and similar school-based genres may be reasonable, unless faculty really have something else in mind—an assignment that they are calling an “essay” but that, in fact, involves something different from what students typically associate with that genre. Clarifying faculty expectations would help us to build bridges that facilitate genre transfer more effectively, especially for assignments where faculty expect students to take on disciplinary roles as writers.

Background and Methods

This study was conducted at a large R1 institution in the southeastern U.S. and examined disciplinary faculty’s choices when creating writing assignments, their assumptions about how students should respond to those prompts, and faculty’s explanations and justifications for their assumptions. The research was guided by the following questions:

  1. What genres of writing were faculty assigning and what terms were faculty using to describe the expected genres?

  2. How were their assignments framed in terms of the course goals?

  3. What did faculty expect students to produce in response to their assignments?

  4. Were disciplinary faculty aware of the FYC program at all or about its emphasis on genre and transfer?

  5. How satisfied were faculty with students’ writing in response to their assignments?

Genre-based writing assignments are a mainstay of composition instruction at the university. Our Writing Program’s mandate, like that of many other writing programs across the country, is to “prepare students for the academic writing they will encounter in their college courses” (Jack and Danielewicz 9). In our “teaching-for-transfer” program, focused on multiple genres in a variety of disciplines, no students are exempt from FYC. However, beyond FYC, there is no WID or WAC program for disciplinary writing nor any structural support for faculty development in writing instruction.{1}

Accordingly, we hypothesized that disciplinary faculty assigning writing in major courses were anticipating that students would be at least competent and, to some degree, experienced college writers. We also know that one writing course in a student’s first year of college cannot prepare them to write all genres in every discipline and that there is no such thing as “global” academic writing (Smit; Wardle). But apart from these basics, we had little knowledge about what faculty were expecting or how satisfied they were with students’ writing. Overall, we needed more specific information about the situations into which students were attempting to transfer their knowledge.

We used a snowball (or chain-referral) sampling method to identify and recruit{2} ten faculty in a wide range of disciplines, including natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities (Appendix 2). These faculty were known to be interested in undergraduate education as evidenced by: participating in seminars and workshops at the University’s Humanities Institute, serving on curriculum development committees, teaching “writing intensive” courses for their majors, and/or winning teaching awards. This individualized sampling method ensured that we had participants from across the disciplines, as well as faculty regarded as key instructors in their departments.

To facilitate discussion, we conducted semi-structured, hour-long interviews with faculty (see Appendix 1). Participants were asked to share a syllabus as well as any other writing assignments or handouts from one course in the major that they taught regularly. These materials served as a reference point during the interviews, which were conversational in nature. Depending on how faculty answered interview questions, we asked for more detail or posed new questions to continue the conversation.

Each interview was conducted by two members of the larger research team (a WPA primary investigator and graduate student). All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for coding and thematic analysis, which focused on references to genre, rhetorical situations, and disciplinary expectations for the writing assignments that faculty discussed. We noted how faculty described{3} their course goals (not only in terms of content but also in terms of enacting disciplinary practices), whether any genres were being signaled, and whether those goals were reflected in writing assignments given to students.

Results and Findings

Here, we present two key findings from our qualitative analysis: faculty (1) want and expect students to take on certain disciplinary roles as writers when they complete writing assignments; (2) but they are not routinely making these expectations clear to students in their writing assignment prompts. We address these impediments to transfer by presenting a three-part rhetorical framework for faculty. Our framework is intended to be the type of bridge Moore gestured to when she asked about the possibility of teachers using “transitional strategies if they know more about the other disciplines and discourse communities students encounter” (n.p.). Our framework provides a concrete way for faculty to clarify their expectations by using rhetorical genre charts (RGCs), and allows for cuing as a transitional strategy to promote transfer for students in disciplinary writing contexts.

Thematic Analysis Finding 1: Faculty Expect that Students are Becoming and Writing Like Disciplinary Members of the Field

Although faculty were eager to talk about their course content, they made it clear that content was only the means to an end of socializing students into the faculty member’s discipline. For instance, a professor of sociology, Carl, listed the following course goal on his syllabus for SOCI 250, Social Theory: “To initiate you into the tribe of sociologists, who share a common, though always contested, history of theoretical and conceptual tools.” Carl’s use of the terms “initiate” and “tribe” suggests he had a fairly high level of awareness of his role as a representative of his discipline and intention of socializing students as novice members of “the tribe of sociologists,” as he put it. When describing the purpose of this course during his interview, Carl explained that “[t]here is an identity aspect to it.” In other words, Carl is not only a professor; he is also, at heart, a sociologist who teaches sociology classes as a way of encouraging students to enter the profession. Carl further emphasizes students’ identity as sociologists by explaining that they are “being inducted into a group of people who have had very similar training” (emphasis ours), reminding them that this course is “required in every department around the country for majors...since the 1940s.” Carl believes that sociologists are characterized by particular ways of thinking, speaking, and writing—and, thus, is troubled when students in upper-level courses fail to take on the writerly roles or use disciplinary conventions expected by members of the discipline.

Similarly, Madeline, a professor of anthropology, made it clear that her main goal is for students to learn, appreciate, and practice the unique methods of anthropology as a discipline. Madeline described the message she wants to convey to students:

Anthropologists have very important and significant approaches that are not just stories to read, but really open up new ways of problematizing or thinking about social issues... An anthropologist who has lived in a community, who speaks the language, who reads the literature, who does with their body what the native people or the community does, has a different experience than the statistician or even the public health person.

As an anthropologist, Madeline is trained to analyze culture and, therefore, has a heightened awareness of her own disciplinary culture. Likewise, Carl’s disciplinary background in sociology may make his sense of mission about social group membership particularly acute. Nevertheless, both of their responses show how faculty members viewed themselves as representatives of their disciplines who were modeling this identity for the students in their classroom.

While Carl’s and Madeline’s responses clearly illustrate the centrality of disciplinary membership, all participants in the study mentioned it in some way during the interviews. Take, for example, Karen, a biologist, who stated that “What [students] really are trying to do is synthesis. We are trying to get them to see that...they can think like a scientist.” Across all of our interviews, we found that faculty were deeply engaged in asking students to reflect on how to act like or to become practitioners of their disciplines by using particular ways of thinking, speaking, and writing. Despite faculty members’ clearly articulated roles as scholars and teachers of their specific disciplines, and despite their stated goals of teaching students to become members of their disciplines, their writing assignment prompts and interview responses indicate that they are not routinely making their expectations clear to students.

Thematic Analysis Finding 2: Faculty Are Not Routinely Making Their Expectations Clear to Students in Their Writing Assignments

Instructors expect students to play a certain writerly role, usually as fledgling members of a discipline. So, it makes sense that when those same faculty members use terms like “analyze” or “synthesize,” they are expecting students to perform those actions according to the conventions of that discipline. Yet, we observed that the study participants had trouble recognizing their assignments as specific genres, typical of the writing they do as members of their discipline, that call for specific ways of analyzing or synthesizing information. Instead, they often relied upon what Elizabeth Wardle calls “mutt genres” and what we in our writing program have taken to calling “school genres.” Even when faculty intended to ask for other genres, they used terms—known as academic trigger words—that obfuscated their expectations. In this section, we present findings from interviews with three of our participants: Bernard, a history professor; Madeline, an anthropologist; and Heather, a literature professor. In each case, we identify terms functioning as academic trigger words and analyze the problems they cause for faculty assigning writing.


In his syllabus, Bernard repeatedly used the non-specific term “essay” to present writing assignments. For instance, we see below that by late October, Bernard’s students will be turning in their eighth essay of the semester:

Essay #8 (due 10/27): Why, according to Shane Hamilton, were political efforts to curb the buying power known as “monopsony” generally unsuccessful in the post-World War II period? What is the difference between a “nineteenth-century understanding of how concentrated economic power might pose a problem for a capitalist economy” and the twentieth-century reality? How do you know? Make sure to cite specific evidence from his analysis. (emphasis ours)

Clearly, Bernard has carefully structured the prompt, including questions that will guide students toward particular content, evidence, and a certain type of argument. However, Bernard reported that students had trouble producing appropriate responses to this prompt and the seven preceding essay prompts. In our interview, we asked Bernard why he called these assignments “essays” and asked him to consider the different types of writing he wanted students to compose. He explained, “It’s historical writing. It’s analytical writing. Historical argumentation...” In this response, we see Bernard searching for words, attempting to clarify his own vocabulary for describing what students should produce to meet his expectations. The response also provides clues about what he really wants students to do: take on the writerly role of a historian, conduct analysis in ways that historians would, and develop an argument that meets the conventions for scholarship produced by historians. In all, Bernard has a clear vision for what he wants students to produce but lacks the language necessary to prompt them to take up the genre(s) he has in mind. As we will demonstrate in the Implications section, Bernard’s problem can be easily solved by using a RGC.


Similarly, Madeline asks students to write “a research paper.” When faculty use academic trigger words like “research paper,” they miss an opportunity to clarify their expectations for what students should produce and the writerly role students should assume when doing research, making claims, or presenting evidence in their writing. Consider this assignment, which Madeline uses in her 400-level anthropology course:

Research Paper Objectives: This is your opportunity to explore an area of personal interest regarding gender and health after socialism. You will undertake preliminary literature review and analysis on a topic of your choice that is broadly related to one of the 3 themes of our class (sexuality, reproduction, and masculinity/men’s health). You must identify and analyze two new scholarly articles and compare them to at least two of our class readings for your research paper. (emphasis original)

Madeline explained that she distinguishes different kinds of “papers,” noting that she wants a “research paper” and not a “term paper on the topic.” Here, we see that Madeline has tacit expectations about the form of writing she wants students to produce and tries to convey those expectations through a negative definition: not a term paper on the topic. She also bolds two major trigger words—“analyze” and “research paper”—to underscore the importance of this portion of the paper. In her comments, Madeline described her frustration with students who didn’t understand or attend to her writing prompt for a “research paper.” In the prompt, she uses boldface type to call students’ attention to the form, method, and content of the assignment since, as she reported, students had trouble with the assignment in the past. However, despite these attempts to clarify, Madeline reported that she remained dissatisfied with how students responded. We notice that her prompt calls for a “research paper,” but she refers to “scholarly articles” and to comparing them to “course readings.” We suspect that students may have been confused about how comparing readings and scholarly articles constituted a “research paper.” For example, are “course readings” a type of research or evidence? Does “scholarly” mean “research?” These three terms are different and, when used in combination with other academic trigger words, likely complicated students’ attempts to meet her expectations.

In addition to the prompt, Madeline also tries to help students understand her expectations by providing a separate handout. Madeline goes so far as to use the handout to outline the basic form of the writing she is expecting:

Please organize your research paper in the following way:
  1. Introduction: Describe the topic both empirically and theoretically and justify its importance.

  2. Research analysis: summarize the findings of the articles you’ve found, discussing their disciplinary approaches (theory and method), and the broader debates they are partaking in. Be sure to frame your analysis as a review of the literature, a study of each author’s approach and argument.

  3. Compare and contrast the findings of these studies with the readings we have done in class. Refer specifically to at least two of our readings.

  4. Develop an anthropological critique of the issue, either by raising concerns about the assumptions and blind spots of the existing literature, and/or by re-conceptualizing how an anthropological study of the topic might proceed. (emphasis original)

In both the prompt and the accompanying handout, Madeline gestures to the writerly role she expects students to take on when she prompts them to “reconceptualiz[e] how an anthropological study of the topic might proceed.” But by asking students to “frame [their] analysis as a review of the literature,” Madeline combines the stereotypical conventions of so-called “academic writing” and the specific conventions of anthropological writing in a way that confuses students.

In the interview, she expands on this idea, reporting:

I emphasize that, ‘You aren’t doing a term paper on that topic. You aren’t learning everything there is about that topic, you’re actually looking at how these two particular authors, or these two particular texts, address that issue.’ And I really try to create a conceptual distinction there, because they’ll often write their summary as if this is the truth, and this is the answer. And I say, ‘No. What I want you to write “that Smith explains... based on the work that Smith did, field work or interviews or analysis, Smith found...” That’s the way you need to write your summary, because you are summarizing this person’s approach. And I want you to address their methods, their theories, and their arguments. Not just tell me, “Women in Russia are having fewer abortions than they used to.” (emphasis ours)

Trigger words, like the ones Madeline uses in her prompt and handout (e.g., analysis, compare/contrast, summary), signify moves that are frequently made in many different kinds of academic writing and in a wide range of disciplines. Madeline, however, expects students to perform these skills in ways that would be customary for her field by using theories and methods used by anthropologists.

Through discussion, we determined that the actual genre Madeline wants her students to produce is a literature review. While she names this genre in the assignment prompt, it was one term among many. It was not featured, highlighted, nor explained. Notably, until our interview, her sense of this genre was tacit in both her own thinking and in the instructional materials she provided to students. As this example demonstrates, faculty members do not think in terms of “genre” when it comes to designing assignments. The three-part framework we present below can help faculty like Madeline recognize the power of genre to bridge these communication gaps.


When we asked Heather, an English professor, to describe one of her assignments, she outlined a prompt that required students to write an “essay” that would contribute to an exhibit on World War I, which includes archived documents. Her assignment instructions contain the following: “The format of this essay is somewhat unusual, because it is for an exhibit. Think of it as a very long museum placard, not a thesis-driven essay.” When we asked her to explain this assignment, she said:

They each pick something out of the archive ...... Then, they basically act as investigators. They go forth; they research this subject (which in this case was a letter from a WWI soldier, a nurse). And they write an essay about it. But this is not a thesis-driven essay. It’s more like an extended museum placard.

Later in the interview, we asked her why she still calls it an essay as opposed to a museum placard. She replied, “I guess it’s something about the idea that a placard is physical, and it’s going up on the web. Digital placard? I don’t know.” She seemed hesitant to use a more descriptive but hybrid genre label and so she retained the typical but misleading term “essay.”

The problem with Heather’s use of the term “essay” is that, as she described in her interview, it perplexes students. For example, Heather reported that students frequently asked about where they should put their thesis in the essay and how she tried to explain that this particular type of “essay” did not include a thesis. Even in our interview, Heather herself had difficulty articulating her choice of the term “essay,” almost as if it were a required term and she didn’t have any choice in the matter. No wonder students were confused. Without a clear understanding of her expectations or of the genre they are being asked to produce, students were not sure what kinds of writing knowledge to transfer. They ultimately reverted back to conventions familiar in so-called “academic writing.” As a result, students struggled, losing sight of the innovative possibilities afforded by this assignment, which involves archival research and presenting information to public audiences. According to Heather, students spent time panicking and peppering her with questions instead of engaging deeply in creative exploration. Heather lamented that she expends too much energy explaining the assignment rather than working with students on archival research or offering feedback about how well their writing attends to a larger public audience. To remedy this situation, Heather could adopt a range of genres instead of “essay,” as we will show in the three-part framework we present below.


Our results illuminate two key problems that disciplinary faculty face. First, faculty expect students to write as members of their discipline, but students do not know how. Second, faculty do not always make their disciplinary expectations for writing explicit, and, in turn, students are not being cued to write in the disciplinary genres that faculty expect. In this section, we present a three-part rhetorical framework designed to help faculty address these challenges. Our framework 1) relies on genre to clarify expectations, 2) uses what we call a “Rhetorical Genre Chart” (RGC), and 3) allows for cuing to promote transfer for students in disciplinary writing contexts.

Our goal is to help faculty identify the genres they hope students will compose. The first step in this process is prompting the faculty member to shift their expectations from a tacit or dimly felt sense of the desired form students will produce and move them to an explicit identification of a genre. We do not, however, advocate for simply picking genres arbitrarily but rather imagining a real-world situation that calls for a particular genre. We argue that using a rhetorical chart can guide faculty to solve the mismatch between faculty’s expectations and assignment prompts. Faculty who use RGCs as a heuristic will think through and define five key components: genre, writer’s role, audience, purpose (of the genre), and rhetorical situation, as seen in Table 1.

Table 1. The Rhetorical Chart.


Writer’s Role



Rhetorical Situation






In our interviews, we found that faculty became most specific about disciplinary roles and purposes when we asked them to name a specific genre that could better encapsulate the kind of writing they asked students to do for an assignment. Given the surprise expressed by participants in this study when asked about genre, it didn’t seem to be a question most had considered before. But as faculty tried to imagine specific genres (rather than a research paper or term paper), they engaged in metacognition by thinking about connections between their own writing and what they ask students to produce. Faculty seemed not to have thought much about framing student assignments around genres that they might write themselves as faculty in a particular discipline. Thus, genre is the first component of the RGC, and it is the component that we often discussed first with our interview participants.

Similarly, the “writer’s role” and “audience” components of the RGC prompt both faculty and students to think about who writes the genre and who reads the genre. These components are in concert with the fourth component, “purpose,” which describes why people in that specific writer’s role address the defined audience. This feature of the RGC prompts faculty and students to consider the work accomplished by the genre. During our interviews, discussions about “purpose” allowed for faculty to share broader information about disciplinary genres with which students might be unfamiliar. Finally, the RGC would not be complete without the “rhetorical situation” component, which drives all the other components because it motivates the writing. The rhetorical situation describes a real-world situation that students can potentially inhabit through role-playing. In other words, the rhetorical situation is the occasion for writing and often contains a precipitating event that the writer responds to by producing a particular genre. For example, one common rhetorical situation in academia is the announcement of a conference with a call for papers (CFP). Faculty or students (in this case) can respond to this occasion by submitting an abstract (genre) and a conference paper (genre). To create an assignment using a RGC, faculty might start with a typical academic rhetorical situation and then decide on an appropriate genre. The RGC is a flexible tool and the linear order of the components in the chart is less important than how they form an ecology. Most importantly, the RGC represents a real-world situation that calls for a particular genre. For example, Carl might announce that the Journal of Sociology is calling for articles for a special issue on migration (rhetorical situation). Students, as aspiring sociologists (role) taking his course on migration, can conduct research and write a journal article (genre) to submit for publication (purpose). All the components of the RGC work together to create a genre-based assignment that has an analog outside the classroom. A “Research Paper” as a genre does not exist outside the classroom but a “Review of the Literature” is a genre widely practiced by academics across the disciplines.

All genres, Lisa Gitelman writes, “have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture” (2); for this reason, it is often difficult for members of a particular discourse community to remember to articulate the purpose of a type of writing for students. Including a RGC as part of any writing assignment addresses the two thematic findings of this study and opens up new opportunities for faculty to make their expectations clear and explicit. A RGC describes a rhetorical situation that calls for a specific genre and identifies the role the writer plays in that situation. By creating a RGC, the audience is no longer the professor or some vague group but instead is specific and knowable (e.g., readers of the Journal of Sociology, the MLA conference committee, etc.). The genre dictates the purpose. For example, a journal article makes an argument based on evidence and fulfills the exigence (submit for publication) which calls the discourse into existence (rhetorical situation). In tandem with the benefits for faculty, using a RGC can help students imagine themselves in a realistic scenario, look at models of the target genre, and make decisions that move their writing closer to the target genre. We advocate posting and referring to the RGC daily in class to create a simulation by describing the rhetorical situation, asking students to adopt their role, and providing models of the genre for them to analyze and emulate.

The RGC offers a point of departure for explicit conversations between faculty and students about the roles students should play as writers, the context within which they should imagine themselves playing that role, and the type of writing—the typified genre—a writer in that role and context should produce. While the faculty members who participated in our study initially had trouble moving away from the language of mutt genres and academic trigger words, they were relatively quick to reframe their thinking about how to discuss the writing they assign to students in terms of specific genres when using a RGC. For some faculty, it was a revealing exercise about the genres they write themselves as academics, and for others, it was a relief to find a possible remedy to the pitfalls of assignment construction.

In what follows, we show how a RGC can address the problems inherent to writing assignments that use trigger words, which introduce ambiguity and confusion for students and frustration for faculty. To accomplish this, we use examples of assignments from two of the faculty who participated in this study. We begin with the existing assignment then redesign it by using a RGC. This process allows for a before and after comparison, demonstrating the value of the RGC. When an assignment with academic trigger words gets rewritten by incorporating a RGC, both faculty and students have a clearer sense of the goals of the writing assignment. Working with a RGC prepares students to write clearly, effectively, and authentically, which better meets faculty expectations. Thus, we show how the chart helps generate a genre-based prompt within a rhetorical ecology that cues students to activate prior genre knowledge through backward-reaching transfer.

Assignment Redesign Example Using Bernard’s Original Prompt

As established in our findings, Bernard tacitly expects a historical essay but reports that students don’t understand what he wants them to do or how to produce the type of essay he expects. His use of academic trigger words coupled with an undefined genre are problematic because they introduce ambiguity, resulting in confusion for students and frustration for Bernard. During the interview, we showed Bernard how a RGC clarifies the writerly role and context for students. As a result of this conversation, Bernard was able to select a more specific genre, which made his assignment clearer and created an opportunity for students to use backward-reaching transfer to activate their existing genre knowledge and apply it to the new situation. To illustrate, we first describe Bernard’s thinking process when asked to use a RGC, then we present the successfully revised assignment containing a RGC.

In our interview, Bernard initially struggled to settle on a specific genre for his assignment. When Bernard discussed what he wanted students to do with their writing, he offered three alternative terms for the assignment, but they each referred to a mode rather than a specific genre. Later in the interview, Bernard refers to this assignment as a “critical review.” Instead of “essay,” the term “critical review” might be a better label but historians do not generally publish these as a discrete genre. At another point in the interview, Bernard commented that his assignment reflects “[w]hat you do when you are constructing a historical argument in an article or a book.” Here, finally, we have a genre that accurately describes what historians write. Prompted by our questions, we observed Bernard engaging in metacognition about the kind of writing he assigned, mulling over different labels and eventually arriving at one that seemed to encapsulate a genre that a historian might write.

Through this work, Bernard settled on the “position paper” genre, which we have described in the RGC below (see Table 2).

Table 2. Rhetorical chart for position paper assignments.


Writer’s Role



Rhetorical Situation

Position Paper

Historian; undergraduate history major

Business historians

Convince an audience that the opinion you are presenting is valid

You are a historian who has been asked to present a position paper in response to a recent article by Shane Hamilton.

The position paper genre addresses Bernard’s major concerns: he had a tacit sense of what he wanted students to produce, but he had trouble explicitly articulating his expectations to students due to the deeply ingrained writing practices he uses when he writes as a member of his discourse community. We can see that even though Bernard initially struggled to find familiar descriptive language to convey his expectations to his students, using the RGC clarifies the assignment in terms of a genre—that is, as a response to a recurrent rhetorical situation that a historian might face.

Assignment Redesign Example Using Heather’s Original Prompt

English professor Heather recalls that her comments (and written instructions—“Think of it as a very long museum placard”) reveal that she wants some hybrid of several genres. When asked if she could find a new genre name, Heather replied:

That’s a good idea, because finding another term would help. Even though I specifically say ‘no thesis,’ [...] I’ll see these vestigial little concluding paragraphs on a lot of them, because [the students] feel like an essay has to have a concluding paragraph.

Heather’s response shows her trying to work through the concept of genre and how it might apply to her assignment. While she did not arrive at a definitive answer, she did seem to be thinking through the limitations of the non-specific term “essay.” Our interview prompted her to reflect upon genre and to shift her perspective about the assignment. Moreover, she started to recognize why students struggle with her expectations. What’s more, her response indicates an openness to considering her expectations for student writing in terms of genre, even when it is a hybrid or emerging genre.

After we interviewed Heather and considered the challenges she discussed, we developed three possible genres (and RGCs) that could convey her desired outcomes. Since Heather’s primary goals were to have students conduct archival research and share their findings with a broad audience, we asked Heather about the types of writing she produces as an academic that have these qualities. Together, we brainstormed different types of writing that appear in museums and exhibits. In thinking about these possibilities, our goal was to demonstrate how similar rhetorical situations can elicit a range of genres depending on the audience and assignment’s objectives. (See Table 3 for more information). This series of RGCs shows the potential for using a variety of genres. There is not a set list of genres—they're always changing and the idea is to present students with specific, real rhetorical situations and the types of communication that they elicit. Whenever possible, we seek to demonstrate how rhetorical genre studies—and, specifically, the RGC—elicit inventive, adaptable types of writing rather than rote categories, with which English faculty are often more familiar (e.g., poetry, comedy, tragedy, and so on). When we shared these charts with Heather, we emphasized how the RGCs can help her and her students inhabit rhetorical situations to try out genre options and to create opportunities for them to find their own models.

Table 3. The rhetorical chart offers alternative possibilities for Heather’s “extended museum placard assignment.”


Writer’s Role



Rhetorical Situation

Museum Placard


Visitors (local, regional, and national) to the XX University Library.

Provide background information about a document included in a museum collection.

You are an historian who has been asked to create an exhibit of archival documents from WWI at the XX University Library.

Exhibit Introduction or Statement

Museum Curator

Visitors (local, regional, and national) to the XX University Library.

Offer an overview that explains how an exhibit was put together, why certain pieces were selected, and the overall goal of the curated collection

You are a museum curator who has been asked to create an exhibit of archival documents from WWI at the XX University Library.

Exhibit Audio Tour

Museum Docent

Visitors (local, regional, and national) to the XX University Library.

Guide museum visitors through an exhibit and offer background information about the exhibit artifacts

You are a docent at XX Museum who has been asked to create an audio tour for visitors to an upcoming WWI exhibit.

Note that once we created a rhetorical situation and chose an appropriate genre, we could then describe the purpose of the assignment in more concrete terms by thinking about why readers would actually engage with this genre. Instead of trigger words like “analyze” or “research,” we came up with more concrete terms such as “guide museum visitors” or “offer background information.” Our conversations with Heather and other participants in this study affirmed that expectations for student writing tacitly assumed familiarities with features of disciplinary genres. However, these expectations were not explicit to the faculty members nor their students. This finding suggests that RGCs, which clarify genre conventions and expectations, could benefit institutions whether they have established WID or WAC programs or not.{4}

To address the problems articulated in our findings and to support faculty in designing genre-based assignments that promote transfer, we offer a succinct summary of our three-part framework:

  1. Create a RGC ecology with a rhetorical situation (context and exigence) that identifies specific, real genres that accomplish the kind of “work in the world” that is desired, instead of using so-called school genres such as research paper or term paper.

  2. Present a RGC that has an analog in the real world and whose components fit together, including:

    1. genre

    2. writerly role

    3. audience

    4. purpose of the genre

    5. rhetorical situation

  3. Use the RGC to invite students to inhabit the rhetorical situation, to role play, and to explicitly discuss genre conventions as they compose, including the use of models or exemplars of the genre.

RGCs require faculty to think about what role students will inhabit, the genres they should aim to produce, and the rhetorical situations that established researchers and writers—like themselves—have internalized as members of their discipline. Then, when discussed in class with students, RGCs can be used to cue students so that they activate prior genre knowledge.


How does transfer get thwarted or fostered? How does genre play a role in transfer? How can RGCs support transfer? Our findings suggest it might be possible for faculty members in disciplines outside of writing studies to move beyond academic trigger words and mutt genres. The RGC offers one way to achieve this goal because it alleviates the vagueness of academic trigger words. As we demonstrate, the RGC is a simple yet potentially dramatic intervention. To move the conversation forward, we have framed the question of writing transfer as not simply one of generalizability of skills (Smit 133), but of whether faculty members in disciplines outside of writing studies can use a framework that enables them to better promote transfer of writing-related knowledge into disciplinary writing situations.

In our experience, working with the heuristics provided in the appendices allows faculty to engage in a metacognitive process that makes implicit knowledge explicit. By doing so, faculty help to create an institutional culture of “transfer-focused thinking,” where faculty are consciously designing assignments that activate students’ prior genre knowledge (Driscoll et al. n.p.). Moreover, these same heuristics can serve as pedagogical tools: they can be included on assignment sheets, structure in-class activities such as peer reviews or analysis of models of a genre, and serve as tools for evaluation and feedback. We suggest that RGCs can be used to build bridges between FYC and WAC courses at institutions with WAC programs. Even at institutions without WAC programs, RGCs are a design tool that, when widely adopted by faculty, can create a consistent framework for assigning writing that leads students to become effective writers and better meet faculty expectations. Widespread use of RGCs from FYC through senior honors thesis projects across the campus will create a unified approach to teaching writing, and potentially serve as a basis for conversation and collaboration among faculty across units. Workshops about constructing RGCs with disciplinary faculty at ours and other institutions have been well received. We anticipate that disciplinary faculty may also gain a deeper understanding of our FYC program’s purpose and scope.

We hope the RGC framework and accompanying examples facilitate its adoption in other institutional contexts. Ultimately, the RGC is a flexible heuristic that can be easily customized for multiple disciplines. If we can persuade faculty who assign writing in the disciplines to use RGCs consistently, they will be prompted to think in terms of genre when creating each chart. Students, too, who are already familiar with RGCs from FYC, would be able to jump in and begin to learn new genres specific to their disciplines. Genre transfer would be supported and enhanced. Widespread use of the RGC approach would also enable effective induction of students into a discipline, one teaching goal to which faculty in this study aspired. Our work also suggests that the assignment prompt must also avoid trigger words in order to limit confusion; designing a rhetorical situation, naming a genre, establishing a purpose, and defining a writerly role by means of a RGC is not in and of itself sufficient. Initially, faculty may struggle with creating a rhetorical ecology or using RGCs effectively as part of the writing assignments they design. However, the chart creates the conditions of possibility for what they really want: inventive assignments that invite high-quality student writing that reflects disciplinary expectations.


  1. Appendix 1: Interview Questions
  2. Appendix 2: List of Faculty and Their Disciplines

Appendix 1: Interview Questions

  1. Can you say something about the syllabuses that you’ve shared with us, particularly in terms of writing?

  2. How would you describe the kind of writing you assign in your classes?

    1. Why do you assign these particular writing projects?

  3. What do you want students to get out of writing in your class?

  4. Sometimes faculty members do not feel that the first-year class prepares students sufficiently. What should students already know about writing before they come to your class?

  5. In general, how satisfied are you with the assignments that you get?

  6. What challenges or problems do you find in your students’ writing?

  7. Regarding evaluation, what are you looking for when research papers/student writing comes in?

    1. What qualities or criteria?

  8. What barriers do you face when you assign writing?

  9. What kind of support would you like as a faculty member when it comes to improving student writing?

  10. Would you be interested in working further with us [to revise and develop new writing assignments]?

Appendix 2: List of Faculty and Their Disciplines








Women’s and Gender Studies










Political Science




  1. However, the curriculum does include a requirement for students to take a “communication-intensive” course in some later semester, but not all departments offer such courses and the requirements for such courses are minimal and often unknown to instructors. (Return to text.)

  2. The study (#14-2403) received an IRB exemption. Faculty who participated in this study are members of the following departments: Anthropology, Chemistry, Economics, English, History, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, Sociology, and Women’s and Gender Studies. (Return to text.)

  3. In addition to generating data for the research team, the interviews provided an occasion for faculty to reflect and think metacognitively about their writing assignment prompts and target genres. Some faculty requested follow-up meetings with the WPAs to discuss techniques for designing genre-based writing assignments and for sequencing writing activities throughout the course. (Return to text.)

  4. Furthermore, we know from our Writing Program that one benefit of asking students to produce real genres is that undergraduate publications increase. Students are prompted to submit their work to conferences, undergraduate journals, granting agencies, etc. and often get accepted or receive funding. (Return to text.)

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Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Utah State UP, 2007.

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