Genre and Genre Systems

As the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has emphasized, engineering students must develop effective communication skills for successful transition to the workplace after graduation. A component of our work has been in identifying and bridging the gap between the genres STEM students are asked to write in the classroom and those that they will write in the workplace. In our initial needs analysis, we asked instructors and department administrators to select genres from a list that they anticipated students would use in STEM workplaces after graduation. We then compared those genres to the genres assigned in students’ writing-intensive courses. The results are represented in the word cloud below, and for more information on these findings, consult Yoritomo et al. (2018).

Word cloud demonstrating the disconnect between genres that our STEM undergraduates are assigned (left side) and those that they are expected to use after graduation (right side). Font size scales with how many courses teach the genre or how many survey participants selected the genre. Light blue font color indicates a genre that is present on both sides (Yoritomo et al., 2018).

The concept of genre is a central component of our work, and genre theory is one of the key frameworks that we draw on when outlining expectations for scientific writing, working with instructors in workshop settings to develop assignments, and mentoring instructors as they redesign syllabi. We define genre as typical, recognizable, repeated combinations of form, content, function, and situation. In addition, we also draw on the concept of genre systems, which provides a framework to consider links between texts, contexts, and activity. For example, behind a single proposal is an entire genre system that might include emails, meeting notes, reviewer comments, cover letters, memos, lab notebooks and other forms of documentation.

Starting Points:

  • Consider what genres you assign to students in your courses, and how those compare to genres your students may encounter in the workplace. A potential starting point would be to open up a conversation with students about the features they notice when considering those genres, the function of the genre in different contexts, as well as how their experience of the genre may shift in transitioning from the classroom to the workplace.
  • Conduct a guided genre analysis with students. Choose a few effective examples of a genre that plays a role in your field (from white papers to journal articles to memos) and ask students to take note of repeated and similar features across the examples. What do they notice about the format, organization, style, source use, and data visualization used by each document? What variations do they notice across the examples? Share background about the possible audiences and contexts connected to this genre to guide students’ observations.
  • Call attention to the genres of communication that your students use in your class context. For instance, you could spend time toward the beginning of the semester talking through professional email conventions and their purpose, providing your own examples of challenging email situations (requesting a job reference, asking to extend a project deadline, sharing unexpected news about an experiment, etc.). Consider how you can make class communications an explicit genre of instruction in your course.
  • Introduction to Genre and Design from the WAC Clearinghouse
  • Civil Engineering Writing Project: Genre Units


Additional Resources:

Artemeva, N. (2008). Toward a unified social theory of genre learning. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 22(1), 160-185.

Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. University of Wisconsin Press.

Bazerman, C., Freidman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.). (1994). Systems of genres and the enactment of social intentions. In Genre and the New Rhetoric (pp. 79-101). Taylor and Francis.

Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T.N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication : cognition/culture/power. L. Erlbaum Associates.

Fillenwarth, G. M., McCall, M., & Berdanier, C. (2018). Quantification of engineering disciplinary discourse in résumés: A novel genre analysis with teaching implications. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 61(1), 48–64.

Molle, D., & Prior, P. (2008). Multimodal genre systems in EAP writing pedagogy: Reflecting on a needs analysis. TESOL Quarterly42(4), 541–566.

Russell, D. (1997). Rethinking genre in school and society: An activity theory analysis. Written Communication, 14(4), 504–554. 

Swales, J.M. (1990). Genre analysis : English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J.M. (2004). Research genres : explorations and applications. Cambridge University Press.

Wickman, C. (2010). Writing material in chemical physics research: The laboratory notebook as locus of technical and textual integration. Written Communication, 27(3), 259–292.

Winsor, D. (1999). Genre and activity systems: The role of documentation in maintaining and changing engineering activity systems. Written Communication16(2), 200–224.