The Evolution of Genre

Statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, dressed with helmet and spear.

Many students like to think of writing as something that springs into existence fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. If you read my previous post about writing as a social activity—the etymology of and history contained within language—you know this is not the case. Just as words themselves didn’t simply emerge into existence, writing systems and genres were created by people. “Writing […] addresses social situations and audiences organized in social groups and does so through recognizable forms associated with those situations and social groups” (Bazerman 35). Basically, audience informs genre.

I frequently compare writing to dancing, but here I’m going to mess things up a little by discussing music and ethnomusicology. Essentially, cultures arrange music in accordance with their language, values, and modes of thinking, in much the same way that, say, citations reveal the priorities of a certain discipline (Lerner 41). For more on how the relationship between language, culture, and music develops as displayed by Disney movies, click here.

In clearer terms, “disciplines shape—and in turn are shaped by—the writing that members of those disciplines do” (Lerner 40). Consider Gregor Mendel. Today, we consider genetics as a strict and complex form of biology, and biology as a strict, firm form of science with an equally strict methodology; however, genetics was not always a biological discipline, and biology was not a “hard” science the way it is now. Mendel developed genetics in many ways, but most chiefly in his statistical analysis of observed inheritance traits, as opposed to the qualitative analysis used by, say, Charles Darwin. Mendel knew how to use Chi-squares where Charles Darwin drew pictures and wrote descriptions, and—once Mendel’s research reemerged—the ramifications were severe enough that every pre-medical student I knew in undergrad had a serious hatred of Chi-squares, Punnett squares, and general statistics.

Approximate reaction of any Biology student when faced with genetics research.

That works neatly for genres where there are defined expectations, but what about genres wherein part of the expectation is flexibility? Ball and Charlton argue that all writing is multimodal, and that those modes are “linguistic, aural, visual, gestural, and spatial” (42), and no genre portrays this multimodality as clearly as poetry. Poetry, whether written or spoken, operates in multiple modes. View this clip of the video below to hear a student talk about the relationship between poetic meaning and line arrangement.

Watch from 4:08 to 4:42 for comments about the relationship between space and meaning in poetry.

Now you understand that we have looped back around to my post on introductory writing—good writing, regardless of genre, is any piece of writing that clearly communicates its meaning to the reader. Disciplines gain specific formatting and citation techniques not spontaneously, but through the deliberate collaboration and contemplation of a series of authors. Mendel introduced statistics to biology, and e.e. cummings possibly ruined the use of capitalization and punctuation in poetry forever. Writing has evolved as we have gathered new knowledge and new methods of organizing said knowledge, and it will continue to evolve. Good writing is not necessarily afraid of experimentation with the five modes of writing but is an act of conscious and deliberate experimentation that seeks to add meaning rather than detract from it. I, for one, look forward to seeing what genres of writing develop in my lifetime as knowledge expands and barriers break down.

Sources

Ball, Cheryl E., and Colin Charlton. “All Writing Is Multimodal.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 42-43.

Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 35-37.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by the Process of Natural Selection, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859, pp. 1-442.

Gurung, Divya. “basic wannabe instagram girl reviews basic instagram poetry.” YouTube, uploaded by itsdivya, 23 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TYPfuaqpAQ.

Lerner, Neal. “Writing Is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 40-41.

Mendel, Gregor. “Versuche über Plflanzenhybriden.” Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr 1865, Abhandlungen, 1866, pp. 3–47.

Sideways. “How Disney uses Language.” YouTube, uploaded by Sideways, 23 April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btxZGzWlsMw.

3 Replies to “The Evolution of Genre”

  1. Samantha, I love how your statements on the creation of writing are tied to Mendel and Darwin. Writing is never seen as concrete, as the subjects of biology and evolutionary theory are. Looking at it through these lenses provides a realism to what is normally perceived as just interpretation.

  2. I enjoyed that you took a look at how disciplinary changes present across multiple fields of study, although I did get hung up when you spoke about multimodality. You pose it as an answer for genres with flexible expectations, but I’m not certain what your conception of flexibility vs defined expectations across disciplines. Aren’t all disciplines flexible? Isn’t that flexibility what allows them to develop over time? On that note, would you also argue that multimodality, as a concept, has analogous counterparts in other disciplines?

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