Devitt, “Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept”

Devitt, Amy. Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept.” CCC 44.4 (Dec. 1993): 573-586. (14 pages)

Amy Devitt outlines a new theory of genre that, as she describes at the onset, is meant to provide a more unified understanding of both genre and theories of writing that would run against the “dichotomies that threaten to undermine our holistic understanding of writing” (573).

In the process of outlining her reconception of genre, she critiques conventional conceptions of genre as form or text-type. Genre as form would restrict genre to a “container model of meaning” whereby form functions as the container in which content is put, effectively dividing form from content. Genre, in this formation, is “normalizing and static concept, a set of forms that constrain the individual” and more, implicitly focuses on the product perspective (574). And more, defining genre against formal structures, in fact, is not tenable for a full understanding of genre: in practice, the formal traces and historical chances in generic forms often evolve, change, and transform without the genre itself changing.

Devitt then turns to her new conception of genre and grounds it, like other genre theorists like Miller, in Bitzer’s (a neo-Aristotilean) rhetorical situation; namely, for Bitzer, genres develop when situations recur: features of genre then further recur in order to appropriately respond to those recurring situations. In this way, genre is highly intertextual: “a situation that we or others have responded to in the past, our response to that situation can be guided by past responses” (576). However, Devitt teases out this relationship to genre and situation, and in this new conception of genre, notes that this relationship is not linear (in that situations exist and genres respond to them); rather, as she writes, “our construction of genre is what helps us to construct a situation. Genre not only responds to but also constructs recurring situations” (577). This understanding of genre positions situation as socially constructed: “situation may exist only as writers and readers construct it” (578). The recurrence of a situation is, then, a social construction, one that genre has a hand in constructing. Succinctly, “we do no construct the situation directly through the text, however; rather, we reach the situation through the genre” (578)—in other words, it’s no the single text, but the concatenation of texts, networks of text, flowing through the genre.

The notion, then, that genres are social actions is a reflection of genre’s function to construct as well as respond to situations rather than, say, a container that holds content (578). “Genre is truly, therefore, a maker of meaning” (580).

In the concluding section of her piece, Devitt offers a kind of laundry list of implications that can branch from this new theory of genre. She focuses her attention at first to self-assessment, revision, and assessment more widely. In particular, when focusing on the question of how to know what to revise when re-reading a piece of writing, Devitt offers genre as a way to “provide at least part of that template, might provide at least part of the writer’s notion of the ideal text” (582). She also turns her attention to pedagogy more widely and connects genres—or sets of genres—to discourse communities: “understanding a group’s values, assumptions, and beliefs is enhanced by understanding the set of genres they use, their appropriate situations and formal traits, and what those genres mean to them” (582).

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