Confusion about Genres


Genre Uncertainty

Genres (common types of writing) can be one of the most effective tools for helping students adapt what they know about writing to new courses. However, there are times when genres provide more bewilderment than help.

Point of Confusion: One genre is known by many different names

For example, depending on its length, audience, and purpose, a synopsis of a book or article can be called a review, summary, precis, or report. Students writing one of these may not immediately recognize how it builds on similar work from other courses, so faculty teaching summary-focused reviews may want to explicitly remind students of these connections.

Point of Confusion: The same name is used for many different but related genres

Again, reviews provide the most common point of confusion. There are synopsis-based reviews, reflective reviews, and critical reviews—all called “reviews” for shorthand. (See the Writing Center handout “Three Types of Reviews.”) Students comfortable with one of the review types may assume that a new “review” assignment is the same as what they did in the past. To avoid this, name the type of review and help students understand both its purpose and structure.

Point of Confusion: The same genre can be used many different ways in different classes

The classic example is the traditional research paper. These are really more of a meta-genre. Though research papers in different classes share many features, they can vary to surprising degrees.

Research papers can be used by almost any discipline and vary in purpose (argumentative vs. informative), audience (academic vs. public), length (6 to 20+ pages), expected modes of critical thinking (varying by discipline), types of evidence (expert opinion, textual analysis, quantitative data analysis, etc.), and the roles students are expected to play (prove their knowledge, analyze or synthesize differing views, or make original arguments in response to existing debates). So while students can follow general academic writing guidelines anytime they hear “research paper,” it is understandable if they sometimes bring habits or expectations that may be out of sync with the current project.

Ways to bring clarity and encourage students’ success

However, despite the possibility for confusion, genres can be powerful guides for making effective writing choices. This is because genres provide a framework for responding to common writing situations. For example, literature reviews often explain how the writer’s work fits into the existing research, clarifying the necessity and importance of the writer’s project. In this way, a literature review gives the writer more than a format to follow; it provides guidelines for balancing many key elements of writing, such as audience, purpose, organization, style, as well as methods for selecting, evaluating, synthesizing, and integrating sources.

Genre awareness helps students make connections between classes when they recognize:

  • How the assignment fits within a common genre—a common type of writing project that they may have seen before or that they may use again in the future

To support students, faculty in all disciplines can:

  • Make students aware of whether the assignment does fit into a common genre, and if so, who uses it, why, and when
  • Explicitly refer to prerequisite courses that use this type of writing
  • Explicitly discuss any likely confusion (what could students easily misunderstand?)
  • Provide links to handouts or resources that refer to this genre
  • How this genre works in this course and discipline

To support students, faculty in all disciplines can:

  • Show successful examples of this type of project (it does not need to be an example of a response to the class assignments)
  • Discuss the samples or assignment in class (or on a short video posted on Canvas, in an optional extra class workshop, in small TA-led groups, etc.).
  • Help students understand when professionals in this discipline use this type of writing. What type of debates are involved? What is the purpose of this type of writing? How is it usually organized and why? What are some common expectations beyond formatting? What—specific to this type of writing—distinguishes highly successful from mediocre work?