Book? Movie? Comic? Breakfast Cereal? – Sharing Thoughts on Genre

I have been trying to establish a regular get-together at Staffordshire University, where interested people have the space to share ideas they have come across and/or are using within Learning and Teaching. And as I am organising this, I got to pick our first starting point. Since I am also working on the series of Thinking-through-Genre events with Writing PAD, it is probably not surpsiring that I picked ‘Genre’ as a subject.

I had sent around two links as starting points for discussion: Mahmoud Shaltout’s ‘Peda-Comical: A personal account of comics in education’ (2016), where he reflects on the genre of comic books as a resource within his learning and teaching, as well as Fiona English’s ‘Genre as a Pedagogical Resource as University’ (2015), where she gives a short overview of some of the work in her 2011 book.

On the day I also brought Galman’s The Good, The Bad and The Data (2013) and Sousanis Unflattening (2015), as they are both examples within the comic book genre and I thought this would present a nice extension of the readings. They are particularly interesting when looking at the use of traditional narrative and visual narrative.

What I had overlooked, probably due to my established  familiarity with the subject, was that none of these actually defined the term genre in this context – and neither did I at our meeting until somebody actually specifically asked me to. Clearly I need a bit more practice facilitating these get-togethers so I can set aside my assumptions!

Let’s try to do it now: I think the easiest way to define genre as I am talking about it is that it describes different ways in which to communicate content. Each genre has different rules (or ‘affordances’), and deciding on one over another means that you possibly gain something, but might lose something else. I have previously tried to make this concept accessible in the Dress-up Doll of Formality activity.

My favourite quote that encapsulates this is by Douglas Adams, who wrote:

(…) the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is “What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?” Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book. (Adams, 2003: 155f)

This always spoke to me because it makes a lot of sense to a designer. Because in a way (and this is also something we discussed briefly at our meeting), communicating content in a variety of guises is what being a designer (any type of designer, although it might be most obvious in the case of graphic designers) is all about.

And maybe this is also why I have always been absolutely fascinated by adaptations, especially cross-platform ones. Regenring (as in putting the content of one genre into another) is just another word for the same principle.

A visual representation of the 'minutes' of our meeting

A visual representation of the ‘minutes’ of our meeting

With the question of what ‘genre’ actually is (or can be) agreed on, we then proceeded to talk about the affordances it has, and how we can make use of them. The comic book, for example, is what one of us used as part of the dissemination mix of a research project to broaden its impact (find more details here). She made the point that producing a comic didn’t just get some of our Comic and Cartoon Arts students a live project to work on, but more importantly transformed some of the findings from the report into a format accessible to students, the people it might be most valuable to and who were unlikely to read neither the original report nor scholarly articles based on it because of their genre.

In a way the question of accessibility is what we probably most talked about – and particularly the problematic that comes with academic genres that are often not very accessible to students. Not just the question whether it makes more sense to ask students to communicate their research in a format that is more relevant to ‘real life’ than academic formats like the essay or research report, but also the academic genres we use within the university, such as module descriptors, module handbooks and similar, often filled with our own jargon that surely must seem like a foreign language to students. Sure, we give them a glossary, but is this the most accessible way to invite them to understand the processes and procedures of their academic life…?

…something to discuss further in our next meeting!

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2 comments
  1. Giskin said:

    Really enjoyed this, thanks! It made me think about my own teaching and how to use analogies better.

  2. My (very short) definition:

    Genre is a naming concept which identifies the shape or framing of a text. It says what kind of text it is and what to expect from it.

    Genres arise out of social activity and reflect (or affect) interpersonal relations. They develop because they are (or seem to be) the best way to do what the context requires.

    Genres orient us towards shaping our meanings in particular ways using the resources/materials made available by the given (or chosen) genre. (A pie chart offers a different way of meaning compared to a bar chart even though the same data set may be used in the production of each.

    A genre does not exist as an ‘entity’ but rather as a semiotically articulated social practice.

    (See e.g. Chapter Three in English 2011)

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