A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

Table of Contents About Us References

Chapter 5: Bad Ideas About Genres. Review by Lena Ziegler

In chapter five, “Bad Ideas About Genres,” twelve essays covered common challenges and approaches for teaching genres often explored in first-year writing courses. While the connection between genre and some of the focal points of these essays may not always be clear, there are valuable lessons to be gained from most sections of the chapter. Highlights included insights on pop culture writing, reinventing research assignments, and rethinking how we respond to plagiarism; on the other hand, the slightly more repetitive essays on the five-paragraph essay didn’t offer quite as many new perspectives, but are still valuable to outsiders to the field.

The chapter opened with two essays each exploring the merge of creative and academic writing. Michael Theune’s essay about humor starts us off, using classic scholarship from Peter Elbow to remind readers that not only is humor writing grounded in style—the one element of writing that tends to be lost on young writers—but it is also intrinsically collaborative in nature, making it the perfect genre to explore with students (p. 187). Theune’s essay was written with humor (surprise) and a gracious voice, providing ample evidence for how and why a teacher might allow for humor rather than require rigid academic voice when teaching composition. Cydney Alexis followed with an argument about why the label “creative writing” can be damaging. Like Theune, Alexis reminded readers that by elevating fiction and poetry as the only genres with potential for creativity, we devalue all others. Calling on the developmental history of creative writing as a discipline, Alexis argued that English departments would benefit from banning the term “creative writing” from curriculum, so as not to value one particular genre or aesthetic over another. Though Alexis made some interesting points, as one of only two essays in this chapter that focuses on style, additional suggestions for how to make academic or everyday writing reflect greater creativity would have gone a long way.

Continuing with a foray into pop culture writing, Bronwyn T. Williams debunked the notion that what is popular is automatically without merit by citing ways in which students who consume popular media develop rhetorical literacy with further understanding of genre, style, and audience (p. 197) while increasing their use of online literacy communities (p. 198). Mark D. Pepper springboarded from these points into an argument for how popular culture is useful beyond the critical lens. In this section, Pepper’s insights were particularly helpful, offering direct guidance for how an educator might reconsider their use of popular culture, specifically when formulating assignments that ask students only to critically analyze through the lens of theories or experts, rather than treating their own consumption of popular culture as worthwhile (p. 204). As popular culture often feels like a go-to theme for instructors and graduate students designing first-year composition courses, both of these essays could be especially relevant.

The following three essays grappled with the many popular frustrations instructors have with the five paragraph essay (5PE) as a model for student writing. Quentin Vieregge kicked the conversation off by comparing the 5PE to scaffolding for students, well beyond their need for it (p. 210). Refreshingly, his essay didn't knock every use of the 5PE, but instead built an argument for why students need to learn the rhetorical skills necessary to understand how, why, and when to adapt this model into something bigger and better. Susan Naomi Bernstein and Elizabeth Lowry continued with an explanation of how the 5PE represents Freire’s “banking method” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge into the minds of their students (p. 214). This, they argued, makes the 5PE grounds for complacency on the part of the student, killing originality by providing an easy way to avoid being challenged (p. 214).

On the same note, Bruce Bowles Jr. provided an explanation in his essay for how standardized testing and state standards have created a requirement in secondary education to utilize the 5PE for ease of assessment, rather than building rhetorical skill (p. 221). He wrote, “the manner in which we assess writing will always exert a tremendous influence over how we teach writing,” which will likely ring true to most educators and could also help those outside education understand yet another argument against teaching to the test (p. 222). While the 5PE is highly relevant at this level and should certainly be represented in this chapter of the book, three essays on the subject at times felt a little redundant. Though the information in these essays is surely valuable, it may be less groundbreaking for seasoned educators and more useful for graduate students and new instructors still finding their footing in a first-year-composition classroom.

The chapter continued with a focus on research writing and teaching, asking readers to contemplate whether or not research writing can even be considered its own genre. As one of the stronger elements of the chapter, the three essays that covered research offered helpful background on how to approach teaching research skills, a task that typically requires ample trial and error before getting it right. Alison Witte offered background on the scholarly teaching of research, reminding readers that despite how it has been treated, research is an action not a genre (p. 228). Rather than teaching answer-focused research merely to fulfill a requirement, it is important to teach students the natural process that comes with it. As she argued, “Students need to be taught not to look for answers, but to look for problems that need solving and for questions that need to be answered” (p. 228). Additionally, Witte suggested that if we are to teach students about research with this inquisitive focus, we should also allow opportunities for primary research that will help them feel more invested in the work they are doing (p. 229).

Similarly, Emily A. Wierszewski debunked the need for an answer or thesis statement at the start of research. “We should conduct research not just to back up our pre-existing assumptions and prove we’re right about something,” she explained, “but also when we feel curious or confused and do not have answers” (p. 233). Where both Witte and Wierszewski encourage a rethinking of the research process, Alexandria Lockett suggested a reconsideration of mode, recognizing the unique challenges of learning to write, research and cite in the age of Wikipedia and Google. Lockett offered digital genres already familiar to students as the key to combating these contemporary challenges. Though Lockett’s piece stands out as the only section that directly addressed the inclusion of specific, unique genre writing when it comes to teaching research, all of the pieces worked well in deconstructing how research has traditionally been taught, allowing readers to consider how research is a skill used within genres, not the genre itself.

Lockett’s discussion of accidental plagiarism offered a smooth transition into the final sections of the chapter, which covered citations and plagiarism. Susanmarie Harrington addressed one of the many problems with enforcing strict punishment for plagiarism: students are often not given the easy, clean foundation for understanding it that we may think (p. 242). Considering the variety of citation styles that exist in the popular culture students consume, as well as the academic texts they read, Harrington implied that it is no wonder students struggle with knowing how and when to cite. This observation echoed ideas discussed in Muriel Harris’ closing essay in chapter 3 in which she explained "COIK" (clear only if known), a phenomenon coined by technical writers. COIK suggests that the there are “definitions understood by people who already know what is being defined, but not understood by people trying to learn what is being defined” (p. 157). When it comes to plagiarism, students do not necessarily come to an assignment or even a course with a full understanding of what they are being asked to do or not do. They may not have the academic or social background to distinguish what is acceptable versus unacceptable.

The three essays that cover research offer helpful background on how to approach teaching research skills, a task that typically requires ample trial and error before getting it right.

With this in mind, Jennifer Mott-Smith argued that students who plagiarize should not automatically be punished. Not only do students struggle with understanding what constitutes plagiarism from lack of practice and confusing guidelines, but generational and cultural forces make an impact as well. Millennials and younger people often share, repeat, and repost with credit within the context of social media, she explains (p. 250). Additionally, she wrote, “research has shown that teachers let inadequate attribution go if they feel the overall sophistication or authority of the paper is good...they tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group” (p. 251). Both of these essays took not only compassionate approaches to acts of plagiarism, but ones that may contradict policies at individual institutions, providing opportunities for readers to identify areas of weakness when it comes to how and why students are taught to cite and avoid plagiarism in the first place.

While the plagiarism essays offer a wealth of insight, it is curious that they are included in this chapter on genres. Though they tie in naturally with the topic of research, they don’t necessarily fit with the overall theme of genre itself, leading to questions about why they were included in what is already a very long chapter. In all, however, this chapter was well-balanced, well-organized, and offers some helpful insight regarding common issues and concerns about genre facing both new and seasoned instructors. Though it may have been helpful if the chapter focused on a greater variety of genres to be taught in first year composition, specifically expanding its offerings regarding style and themes, there was enough relevant and useful scholarship in the chapter to make it work as a representation of challenges composition instructors face every day.