Up to Doug Brent's Papers on Rhetoric and Communiucations Studies
This article was originally published in Textual Studies in Canada 4 (1994): 5-15.

Writing Classes, Writing Genres,
and Writing Textbooks

Doug Brent
University of Calgary

It is certainly not news that other texts form one of the most important features of the social context out of which new texts arise. However, recent work in the area of oenre has vastly refined the rather coarse notion of "intertextuality." Investigating how texts are aligned with each other in genres allows a more precise description of the ways in which pre-texts form systematic structures which enable and constrain the production of new texts.

In Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, Charles Bazerman suggests that genres emerge from and in turn shape the goals, epistemological assumptions, and knowledge-making practices of a discourse community. In a case study of an engineer's professional writing, Dorothy Winsor refines this notion by showing how different roles, shaped by dlfferent corporate objectives at different times, call into being different genres and different knowledge-making practices. Graham Smart's study of the genres used in the administration of the Bank of Canada calls attention to the ways in which a variety of genres can be combined into a complex web of recirculating knowledge in which each knowledge-making activity is represented by a separate genre. Fmally, Anthony Pare and Graham Smart build on Bazerman's insights to argue that genres form networks of expectations regarding not only formal features but also composing processes, social roles, and reading practices. In short, genres exert a powerful and systematic shaping influence on new texts and the ways in which they are written and read.

This body of generic theory casts new light on the one genre to which more students in writing classrooms are exposed than any other: the writing textbook Itself. Students have a highly efficient, survival-driven ability to internalize the generic features of the discourse environment in which they are expected to perform. If the textbook implicitly forms the authoritative representation of knowledge in the classroom, students will efficiently internalize and reproduce not just the "content" of that genre (whatever writing heuristics or algorithms are explicitly presented), but also the textual forms, composing practices, and reading processes that are implicit in that genre. In short, they will learn to write like textbook authors.

In its broad outline, this is a well-known and much-lamented problem. In this article I wish to use recent work in genre to illuminate the problem more fully, and in turn to use the problems of the textbook genre to advance our understanding of how genres guide and constrain composing practice. At the heart of my discussion will be a representative anecdote which I believe illuminates the ways in which students, and by extension writers in general, recreate for themselves generically organlzed knowledge.

When I say that this is a well-known and much-lamented problem, I am referring to the periodic jeremiads that appear in composition journals. Meditations on the inadequacies of textbooks seem peculiar to this discipline: an ERIC search on the keyword "textbook" turns up a miscellany of articles recommending or warning agamst this or that textbook in biology, history, literature, etc., together with teacherly tips on how to use textbooks effectively. However, there are almost no articles from disciplines other than composition which engage in rigorous critique of textbooks as a class.[1]

It is not absolutely clear why this should be so. Partly I suspect that the discipline of composition studies itself is inherently a pedagogical study in ways that other disciplines (except of course for the ultimate pedagogical discipline, Education) are not. This makes its practitioners more inclined to scrutinize the apparatus of their discipline with the intensity of a pool player sighting along her cue. In addition, composition is a more inherently self-reflexive discipline from others. Opponents of the "banking mode" of education from Dewey onward have argued that all education is a process of discovering and internalizing new modes of learning, not of receiving and reproducing knowledge. But the spectacle of students learmng the contents of textbooks in, say, chemistry or economics, and then reproduclng that knowledge on a test, is not as self-evidently absurd as the spectacle of students in composition classes reading about how paragraphs should be formed and then going off to form them. Composition has no obvious subject matter of its own except the descriptions of the procedures which students are expected to learn and of the products they are supposed to produce; yet these descriptions have so regularly and so patently failed to produce satisfactory results in the classroom that composltlon researchers are constantly looking under the table to see why it's wobbling so badly.

In all disciplines, then, textbooks and the pedagogical practices surrounding them could bear critique, but it is in the discipline of composition studies that this critique has been occurring in a deeply anguished fashion. Kathleen Welch, for instance argues that composition textbooks rarely appear to take any account of the vast body of rhetorical theory that has informed our discipline over the past thirty years. Instead, they present warmed-over versions of the rhetorical canons and modes supplemented by brief excerpts of model texts which have been surgically removed from the discourse environment which gives them life.

These compendia of current-traditional concepts are particularly dangerous, she argues, because they figure so heavily in the teaching of teachers as well as students. Untll recently, many writing teachers had little formal education in the discipline (until recently, Connors argues, there was no discipline), so teachers learned their craft by following the textbooks. Even now, when many writing teachers have been exposed to the rich veins of knowledge being created in the field, textbooks exert a powerful ideological influence because they suggest that the wilted precepts they contain represent the prevailing beliefs of the profession. In Canada, of course, the danger is magnified by the fact that the American composition revolution has largely passed us by. By far the majority of people teaching composition in Canada have been trained to teach something else (usually but not invariably literature) and have received more of their composition theory from the Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers than from College Composition and Communication.

Curiously, many of those who lament these textbooks go on to write their own, presumably aiming to do better, only to reproduce in new and original forms exactly the problems which they earlier lamented. The newly evolving theories of how oenres work can shed new light on this old problem. Textbooks cannot be rectified by writing new and better ones because it is the genre itself, not specific instantlations of it, that is at fault. If, as Carolyn Miller argues, a genre is a response to a recurrent socially-constructed situation, then textbooks will enact the same response as long as the situation to which they respond remains unchanged.

This recurrent situation--the writing classroom based on tidy, univocal precepts--is based on the assumption that we should be teaching "how to write" the way we would teach how to build a boat. This neglects the fact that to teach writing is actually to help students acquire a knowledge of knowledge-making practices. As Bartholomae has so persuasively argued, we are trying to provide our students with the opportunity to learn how to reproduce (and with some luck, advance on) the knowledge-making practices that we as mature members of a discourse community have internalized. This sort of practice is neither abstract knowledge nor routine activity; rather, it is knowledge embedded in action, knowledge which is acquired by "indwelling," to use Polanyi's overworked term. Thus the discourse environment in which students dwell is of the utmost importance in guiding the forms of knowledge which they will recreate.

The textbook, of course, is a vital part of that discourse environment. When it is present in the classroom, it forms a major--sometimes the only--well from which discourse is drawn. Even when it is not used as a guide to daily classroom practice, but rather is offered as a "backup resource" or "optional extended reading," the writing textbook commands authority by its very nature as a putative repository of relevant knowledge. But, as I hope to illustrate, it is the general idea of the textbook as a genre, not this or that textbook physically present in students' lives, that commands the most power. And this power comes not from the wisdom or folly that is contained explicitly between its covers, but rather from a highly complex set of expectations about composing and reading practices that are deeply embedded in its generic structure, whether it is present on a course syllabus or not.

Typically, the textbook is so ubiquitous that it forms a background hum in the academic knowledge machine, a hum that is difficult to analyse simply because it as so much a part of students' daily lives that it becomes a nearly inseparable part of what it means to be a student. The textbook genre only reveals its embedded expectations when circumstances create a state of tension between those expectations and other expected practices. This tension erupts, for instance, in a classroom in which it is expected that students will make knowledge in ways that reflect with some accuracy the knowledge-making practices of the academic discourse community itself.

Let me get into this problem from the bottom up, with the representative anecdote promised earlier. One summer, when enduring the annual depressing ritual of trying to decide on a textbook tor a second-year rhetoric course, I was struck by one of those insights that seems inescapably obvious once it has struck. The students were supposed to be the ones learning how to write; why feed them material already written in predigested form? Why not let them write the textbook? Why not form them into teams and send them to the library to research, edit, and finally desktoppublish their own textbook on the composing process, on argumentative strategies, on arrangement and style. on technical and professional writing--in short, on all the material that they usually imbibed as received knowledge. And why not ask them to do better than the usual textbook, to create a book in which the univocal received knowledge was challenged by real inquiry into the body of knowledge that we--me and you reading this article--have dedicated our lives to creating? That is, why not send the students to the library armed with starter bibliographies and get them to bounce the standard textbook knowledge off "real" research in the discipline which questions and expands it?

Suddenly the world seemed brighter. The students' reading had been directed toward internalizing the predigested advice of the textbook. Now it would be directed toward making advice out of the undigested literature--historical, philosophical and pedagogical--of the discipline of rhetoric. Their speech assignments had been directed toward warmed-over Speech Communication topics such as why we should wear seatbelts (modern progymnasmata tor the modern Roman citizen). Now it would be directed to the public sharing of knowledge-in-the-making through presentation of their research as work-in-progress. Their writing had been a mixture of rhetorical criticism and written versions of the same progymnasmata. Now it would become chapters in a textbook that would truly represent the clash of ideas, the unresolved tensions, the traces of the unending conversation that underlie the making of scholarly knowledge. And they would learn some collaborative writing techniques and desktop publishing skills into the bargain.

Astute readers will recognize this pedagogical design as a version of the one championed by Reither and Vipond, Hunt, Pare, and others. [2]. Reither argues that by turning the classroom into a knowledge-making community, we can give students opportunities to "indwell" (Polanyi) an actual academic knowledge/discourse community, to learn, from the inside, its major questions, its governing assumptions, its language, its research methods, its evidential contexts, its forms, its discourse conventions, its major authors and its major texts--that is, its knowledge and its modes of knowing. Only this kind of immersion has a real chance of giving substance to their coming to know through composing (624).

By having my students attempt to create their own textbook by building for them- selves, as a community, the knowledge that would go into it, I hoped to create exactly this opportunity for indwelling. And by making the knowledge come together as a textbook, I hoped to give them a sense that they were working with a reasonably familiar genre, one that they had had lengthy experience of reading. They would therefore understand the audience of such a book; they would be writing for themselves and their peers, not for an imagined audience of distant scholars or, perhaps worse. their peers trying to imagine themselves as an audience of distant scholars.

To make the reading-writing context even more authentic, I based the final exam on the book they actually produced. Partly this was strategic: the multi-sectioned course had to have a final exam whether I liked it or not, and this seemed a good way to subvert the usual arhetorical exam situation. But it also seemed an opportunity to assure the writing teams that they would have a truly receptive audience of students who, for better or worse, were reading the book exactly the way people really read textbooks: mining it for material that they might need to reproduce on an exam.

Now that the class is over and the dust has settled, I am generally pleased with the venture. There were many procedural problems, of course, and I would manage the details of the exercise much differently in future. But I have never seen a more engaged and committed group of students (despite the ritual hand-wringing about the course being too much work). The book actually appeared, more or less on time. It was a thick and handsome volume, considering that it had been produced from a standing start in three months, and in it were inscribed the traces of more real learning than in any course I have ever taught.

Despite this general satisfaction with the course, however, I was profoundly troubled by a problem that went far deeper than the woes of classroom management. I had tried to set up a system that would produce a new and better form of classroom knowledge. But through draft after draft, right until the final product, the book looked, telt, and smelled like a textbook.

Of course, I had asked for a textbook, and was not surprised when it covered the standard textbook topics. I was disappointed, however, that the book did not more successfully resist the appearance of univocal knowledge sent from heaven. Occa- sionally the surface features of the text reflected a slide into this univocal stance. The chapter on "Arrangement," for instance, began with this paragraph:

Well organized rhetoric must have sufficient, relevant information presented in a meaningful order to enable the main ideas to flow. The order of information must reflect the occasion and the audience. The arrangement must be simple enough to allow the writer's purpose to emerge. There is not always a formula for choosing a strategy of organization. However, by analyzing the Ciceronian and modern strategies of order we will develop a greater understanding of arrangement.
All true--and all, of course, virtually useless to the student who has no idea of how to decide what is "sufficient, relevant information" or what is a "meaningful" (as opposed to meaningless?) order. Just like the professionally written textbooks.

But ultimately the most serious problem with the book was not inscribed explicitly in its surface features. The students had by and large done extremely well at creating a form somewhat different from the standard text. The book had copious notes and references, marking the traces of the prior texts from which its embedded knowledge had been remade. In the best chapters, the writers had compared a number of theories explicitly, without boiling them down into a single stream of univocal advice. The book also contained some primary research. The section on "The Composing Process,"tor instance. was buttressed with interviews with "real" writers in a variety of genres. The book eschewed exercises, checklists, and other impedimenta of the genre. Each chapter was preceded by an abstract, just like the "real" articles one finds in many scholarly journals, as if to give guidance to a browsing reader rather than a driven student. But nonc of these air fresheners disguised the underlying aroma of textbook: the sense of univocal recapitulation of received knowledge rather than true engagement in knowledge making.

This underlying aroma can be traced not to surtace features but to the composing processes, and more generally the inquiry processes, that the students had used to generate the book. In addition to research in books and journals on rhetoric, com- munication theory, and argumentation, I had suggested that the writing teams look at one or two standard writing textbooks. I had hoped that they would compare the standard textbook advice with the latest scholarship in the field and with the primary research into the composing practices of actual writers. In fact, they swallowed the textbook advice more or less whole. Their composing process did not include the sort of critical engagement with the material that characterizes true research.

A paradigm case is a team whom I had directed to a textbook section on modes of persuasion. I asked them not just to read the section (a two-page distillation of decades' worth of knowledge), but also to follow up the footnotes and become familiar with the sources of the chapter: Aristotle, Monroe, Maslow, Festinger, etc. Their draft suggested no reading beyond the two pages of the textbook. I sent them back again, this time bearing a photocopied page with the footnotes highlighted. They returned swearing that they had read the primary sources, but their product was again indistinguishable from the synopsis in the textbook. Each theory of persuasion was simply listed, with footnotes acknowledging that the sources were various other textbooks rather than any of the original theorists, and with no critical comparison of theories. In short, the team had replicated not so much the look and feel of the current-traditional textbook but rather the composing processes that underlie it-- that is, lifting predigested information from other textbooks. And not once, at any place in the book, had a student ever suggested that any textbook advice was contradicted either by other textbook advice or by the research in rhetorical processes that they had read.

I believe there is much more to this than the obvious economy of effort that keeps Cole's Notes such a best-seller. There is also more to it than the fact that the students were new at the game and didn't have much time to adopt the authoritative stance that would allow them to challenge received opinion. The main lesson I take from it is a lesson in the shaping power of genre. Sending students to more interesting sources was not enough to break them out of the linear-transport model of knowledge when the constraints of the genre in which they were operating pushed them in the other direction. They adopted the surface features of a different genre--the footnotes, the abstracts, the primary data--but not its spirit, the critical edge that makes for the composing process of a true discourse community.

Genre is more than a set of recognizable formal features. As defined by Pare and Smart, it is "a distinctive profile of regularities across tour dimensions: a set of texts, the composing processes involved in creating these texts, the reading practices used to interpret them, and the social roles performed by readers and writers" (2). it is these roles and composing and reading processes, not the surface features, that really tell us what a textbook is.

These features are reproduced by, and in turn reproduce, a discourse community because they are responses to a recurrent rhetorical situation. Lloyd Bitzer laid the foundations for a "situational" view of genre in his famous essay "The Rhetorical Situation," in which he argues that a rhetorical act is a response to a situation and that rhetorical situations recur in recognizably similar forms, resulting in the sets of rhetorical acts that we know as genres. In "Genre as Rhetorical Action," Miller extends the idea of situation" past Bitzer's historical-materialist view to the social realm. Material conditions are of course never exactly repeated. Only when human agents view situations as being alike does a pattern emerge which calls for similar rhetorical action:

Exigence is a form of social knowledge--a mutual construing of objects, events, interests, and purposes that not only links them but also makes them what they are: an objectified social need. (Miller 157)
The textbook forms a response to a complex social need that is constructed by the pedagogical situation in which it is produced. The principal constituent of this pedagogical situation is the students' need, or perceived need, for a simplified com- pendium of knowledge (whether knowledge of "facts" or of generalized advice on matters such as writing processes) which they can use as a basis for performing an action, such as writing an exam or completing an assignment. The social knowledge that constitutes this need is shared by teachers and students, who participate together in the social conditions of its construction: the classroom environment. This situation, an all-too-familiar one to every student, was faithfully reproduced in my testtube discourse community in which students wrote ultimately from the desire not simply to know or to help others know, but to produce a set of materials that was examinable.

One of the most important features of this rhetorical situation is the relationship between the audience and the writer. The Aristotelian model of rhetoric--shopworn but still serviceable in its broad outlines--envisions persuasion as dependent on a balance among ethos, pathos, and logos. The arguments made in the speech itself must be received by an audience which is in the proper state of mind to receive them, and be delivered by a speaker who is considered worthy of being believed. But in the case of the textbook, the writer's ethos is so powerful that argument as such is barely necessary. The writer is presumably an expert in the field who has amassed the knowledge that the student will need; the audience is the student who must seek wisdom in writer's words and enact it in her assignments. This relationship is so unequal that the genre needs neither the usual ethos-bolstering apparatus of scholar- ship (the citations, the demonstrations of familiarity with previous scholarship, the ritual displays of appropriate methodology) nor the carefully constructed webs of evidence required to insert the writer's proposition into the academic reader's mental field. The writer can state her case and, as long as it is not blatantly contrary to simple common sense (and sometimes even if it is), the reader will act as if he believes it. Thus the form is inherently non-argumentative, uncontested, whether or not footnotes are grafted on to it. Passive absorption of pre-synthesised knowledge is a perfectly appropriate composing process to use in an uncontested genre, and that is exactly what my students did.

In an ethnographic study of introductory law students, Aviva Freedman suggests how generic expectations such as these can dominate a classroom even when they ale unarticulated. Freedman argues that the students in her study learned the specialized genre of law assignments, a sub-genre of "academic discourse," principally by intuiting and refining what she calls a "telt sense" of what it means to write law. The students were exposed to no models of legal writing, and (in a revelation that should sober us all) were helped little if at all by explicit statements from the professors, which *'turned out to be the least useful partly because they were skimpy and elliptical but mainly because the students chose not to pay them any attention" (104). Rather, this "felt sense" had its origins in a general sense of what academic discourse feels like, refined by a sense of appropriate lines of reasoning and lexicon. This sense in turn was gleaned partly from the style of speaking and thinking displayed in the lectures and partly by the questions imposed by the assignment itself, questions which implied "certain ways of thinking, certain ways of circling around the topic" (107). in short, the genre was recreated unconsciously by the students as they, skilled above all else in attending to the expectations of those who will mark them, felt for its subtle vibrations along the web of discourse in which they dwelled.

What this experience illustrates, then, is far more than the inadequacies of writing textbooks themselves. It illustrates that the shaping power of a genre goes far deeper than its surface features. Once a discourse task is characterised by a generic label, a rhetorical role and an associated set of composing and reading practices are called into being and exert a breathtakingly powerful influence on the inquiry processes that underlie that task.

The pedagogical lesson is that classroom environment and generic expectations have to be changed together in order for the goals I have outlined to be met. In the example of my own experiment, I changed the classroom environment by making the students responsible for their own knowledge-making practices, hoping to avoid the "tidy, univocal premises" that infest the current-traditional writing classroom and the textbooks which support it (or is it the other way around?). In doing so, I eliminated the reading of the standard textbook from the equation. But by allowing the writing of the textbook to form the centre of classroom practice, I subverted the system I had sought to create. And by making the student-written textbook the subject of a final exam, I imported the standard reading practices that inform textbook writing back into the environment.

Only by leaving the textbook out of the environment altogether can we hope to escape its generic influence. Any classroom that seeks to create a model of a living discourse community must incorporate genres appropriate to that commumty--reviews, field notes, critiques, even literature reviews. An obvlous model ls a compendium of researched articles on the subject of the course, like those that we as members of ''real" discourse communities actually buy to inform ourselves.

This is not to say, of course, that a shift in the genre practiced in a single class will introduce the educational millennium. The discourse practices that are inculcated by the educational environment at large will inevitably shape students' expectations of what it means to read and write, whatever we do in one or two classrooms. But when has any teacher ever expected to bring about any magic awakening of sensibilities single-handed? The best we can hope for, perhaps, is not to be complicitous in the perpetuation of discourse practices in which we do not beheve.

In closing, let me say that for me one of the most disconcerting imphcatlons of the generic perspective is its apparent closing-off of the power of human agency. Genre theory lends itself easily to the reifications endemic to any attempt to explam human action in terms of larger structures. Statements of the type, "Discourse communities reproduce themselves through the following mechanisms . . ." abound in discussions of genre theory, including this one, and seem to suggest that discourse communities somehow exercise a power all their own, to which the human agents that make them up are irrelevant. The obvious conclusion is that we as individuals cannot do anything to affect those structures. The authors who lament inadequate textbooks and go on to write equally lamentable ones themselves would appear to confirm this gloomy view.

However, I believe that this view is based on far too restricted a model of how social structures operate. Anthony Giddens' theory of structuratlon posits a more reciprocal relationship between social structures and human agency. While indivldual action is constrained by social structures, social structures themselves simply provide resources to individual agents who are knowledgable (if not always explicitly) about their actions and who operate out of individual (though not always successfully carried out) intention. "Resources . . . are structured properties of social systems, drawn upon and reproduced by knowledgable agents in the course of Interaction" (15).

If we see discourse communities as local social systems, then genres represent one of these resources, drawn on and used as part of the knowledge of the agents who make up the system. The actions of the individuals are heavily constrained by the resources offered them by the system, and thus in a sense the individuals do have less free choice than a more romantic view of the creative process would entail. But Giddens argues that structural sociologists make a serious mlstake when they suppose that "constraints operate like forces in nature, as if 'to have no choice' were equivalent to being driven irresistibly and uncomprehendingly by mechanical pressures" (15).

Thus genres, while forming an important component of the system by which discourse communities are reproduced, are creations of agents, not of reified systems. If they prove dysfunctional, they can be altered or eliminated by human action. The experience of my students, like that of the reformist textbook writers who endlessly reproduce the genre they despise, suggests that the genre itself is not the right lever to use in order to evoke change. The genre arises from the situation, not vice versa. If we wish to change or eliminate the dysfunctional genre of the writing textbook, we must do so by changing the elements of the situation that reproduces it. If the dominant model of the classroom changes from a knowledge-reception to a knowledge-making model, the textbook as presently constituted will no longer have a role. Only by shifting the structures that reproduce the genre can we control the genre itself.


[1] An interesting exception is Hansen's "'Real' Books and Textbooks"--a very brief article in the Journal of Econiomic Education that criticises economic texts whose only purposc is "to help students learn what they will be tested on in the course examination."

[2]1 am particularly indebted to Russ Hunt. who shared his teaching materials with me and whose ideas I pirated shamelessly when designing my course.

Works Cited

Bartholomae. David. "lnventing the University." When a Writer Can t Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985.

Bazerman. Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison: U of Wisconsin P. 1988.

Bitzer. Lloyd F. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric (1968): 1-14.

Connors. Robert J. "Textbooks and the Evolution of the Discipline." College Composition and Conmmunication 87 (1986): 178-94.

Freedman. Aviva. "Leaming to Write Again: Discipline-Specific Writing at University." Carleton Papers in Applied Linguistits 4 (I987): 95-115.

Giddens. Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity, 1984.

Hansen. W. Lee. "'Real' Books and Textbooks." Journal of Economic Education 19 (1988): 271-74.

Hunt. Russ. "Speech Genres. Writing Genres. School Genres and Computer Genres." Forthcoming in Genres in Education. ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Mcdway. Heinemann-Boynton Cook.

Miller. Carolyn. "Genre as Social Action." Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-67.

Pare. Anthony. "Ushenng 'Audience' Out: From Oration to Conversation." Textual Studies in Canada 1 (1991): 45-64.

-----, and Graham Smart. "Written Genre: A Profile of Regularities across Texts, Composing Proccsscs. Reading Practices. and Social Roles." Forthcoming in the proceedings of the Rethinking Genres colloquium, Carleton University, Apnl 1992.

Reither, James A. "Writing and Knowing: Toward Redefining the Writing Process." College English 47 (1985): 620-28.

-----, and Douglas Vipond. "Wnting as Collaboration." College English 51 (1989): 855-67.

Smart. Graham. "Genre as Community Invention: A Central Bank's Response to Its Executives' Expectations as Readers." Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P. 1993.

Welch. Kathleen E. "ldeology and Freshman Textbook Production: The Place of Theory in Writing Pedagogy." College Composition and Communication .38 (1987): 269-82.

Winsor. Dorothy. "An Engineer's Writing and the Corporate Construction of Knowledge." Written Communication 6 (1989): 270-85.