Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres: A Review

Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines, by Mary Soliday, Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. 

Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines (WAC and WID) represent both opportunity and challenge to traditional writing programs. Opportunity, because they can demonstrate the value of our research and the expertise of our instructors to other parts of the university, potentially earning us new allies and deepening respect for our departments and programs. Challenge, because they inevitably involve giving up control, to stakeholders from other disciplines who might not be inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt. Implemented and run carefully, such a program can convince others in the university that our pedagogy is valuable and our funding justified. Implemented poorly, such a program can convince others in the university that they can do our job as well as we can, and leave them convinced our funding is wasted. For good or for bad, these programs represent an unusual opportunity to showcase our work to parts of the university that typically do not encounter it.

Such an opportunity structures and animates Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines (2011). Part of the NCTE’s Studies in Writing and Rhetoric series, the book articulates and advocates an understanding of WAC/WID programs through the lens of genre. Soliday’s consideration of genre and its value as a frame for WAC/WID programs is of tremendous use to WPAs and writing researchers, but what truly enlivens her book is the real-world situation that Soliday recounts. As Soliday explains, in the late 1990s, there was a call for higher standards from administrative leadership at the City University of New York (CUNY), a public university system made up of seventeen colleges. The Board of Trustees enacted a junior-year college literacy test and eliminated remedial writing classes. Crucially, they also  funded this new program, making real change practically possible for those who would work the most to implement it. Drawing on this funding, the university hired a cohort of writing fellows, drawn primarily from post-coursework PhD students, and a WAC director for each campus (18-20). It is in the latter role that Soliday served at City College, one of the most prominent schools within the system.

Soliday’s experience at City College demonstrates both the challenges and the rewards that I discussed earlier. As might be expected with a broad new program implemented via fiat from above, many community members at CUNY were initially resistant to the WAC initiative. This resistance stemmed both from those with writing expertise and those from other disciplines. As Soliday says, “some English teachers were uncomfortable working closely with outsiders who either challenged their expertise or required too much time to collaborate with (or both)” (22). This reference echoes, I imagine, fears held by many of us within composition studies. The fear of wasted time is a constant for many people, but particularly for academics, as the unstructured nature of time that should be spent on research makes spending it elsewhere a seductive possibility. The fear of interacting with scholars from other fields is also common, given the possibility that such scholars would be unconvinced of the value of what we do, or out and out skeptical of it. This resistance was matched by that of faculty members, some of whom “dismissed, sometimes abruptly, [the fellows’] attempts to build partnerships” and who “expressed disdain for both WAC and the fellows” (21). Yet despite these initial problems, Soliday and the CUNY WAC initiative were a success. The book tells their story.

This concrete, real-life example of the CUNY WAC initiative provided by Soliday is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. This kind of experiential and narrative-driven explanation can provide insight and understanding in a way that purely theoretical work might leave at a permanent remove. Soliday’s theoretical and empirical exploration here is impressive, but it is made markedly more moving—and the book markedly more powerful as an informative and entertaining text—by the way in which she grounds that exploration in anecdote and story. Many academics have attempted this kind of a narrative-scholarly synthesis, but frequently that these efforts fail, as finding the necessary balance is difficult. But Soliday handles the challenge with aplomb.

It helps that Soliday’s experience was, ultimately, a positive one. CUNY’s WAC program became a valued part of the school’s curriculum. This acceptance was the result of many hands, including the writing fellows, the WAC administrators, other members of the administration, English faculty, and sympathetic faculty from other departments. But a key aspect of this success was the focus on genre, and in particular, on genre as a communicative act. The concept of genre has, at times, been the subject of criticism, based on the superficially convincing logic that genres are necessarily limited and artificial constructs that obscure more than they reveal. If we imagine genre to be a set of discrete and limiting categories into which we attempt to fit our acts of writing, then indeed, genre is a subject worth criticizing. As Soliday says, “in the university, genres are often isolated from the social worlds that produce and sustain them” (84). But she defines genre far more helpfully and usefully. Soliday frames genre as both the product of, and a subject of, teacher talk—the way instructors and professors share expertise, requirements, expectations, and conventions between each other. “[S]ituated learning theory powerfully links a genre to the social experience that makes the genre meaningful from the start,” she writes (73).  Rather than a set of external guidelines that constrain the realm of the pedagogically possible, genre in Soliday’s terms is an emergent quality that stems from teacher desires as communicated socially. This social communication amounts to a kind of metagenre that informs and conditions genres themselves. Thus understood, teaching genre becomes not a chore that involves restricting student freedom but a rhetorically alive act of creation, one involving teachers and students in a communal creative process. Soliday writes:

situated learning theory powerfully links a genre to the social experience that makes the genre meaningful from the start. It explains why the invention strategies and sequenced or linked assignments WAC specialists bring to the disciplines are so useful for writers addressing new audiences about new subject matter. Further, the theory justifies why students in college need direct and ongoing exposure to talk about prompts, models, and drafts with particular audiences…. (73)

In this philosophy, genres are not constituted of assignments but rather dictate assignments.

This social understanding of genre involves its own tradeoffs and concerns, of course. It’s important to remember why genres tend to get defined in one-size-fits-all, deracinated terms in the first place: because instructors and students often require definitions that can be ported from one context or scenario to the next. Consider the textbook industry, which must wring profits from its books in a crowded marketplace. A company like Longman or Pearson can’t help but publish books that treat genres as set forms, at least to a degree, because they must be able to sell books to students at elite private colleges in Connecticut and those at open enrollment public universities in New Mexico alike. Limits of applicability across contexts extend to the book, as well. Soliday’s advice is well taken, but like all that is drawn from individual, specific contexts, it may not be applicable to all who wish to draw from it. The downside of the contextual, narrative nature of a book like Everyday Genres is that the same naturalistic and real-world nature that makes the book inviting threatens to exclude particular readers. All things considered, Soliday does an adequate job of transcending the particular context of her experience and research. One of the most effective tools she employs in this effort lies in the appendix, which contains actual writing-focused assignments from a variety of disciplines. These include anthropology, education, philosophy, art, and music. Such direct models help to concretize Soliday’s theoretical considerations of genre and social practice.

But while Soliday’s definition of genre invokes the natural, it expressly does not invoke the untaught. Soliday counters other researchers in arguing that a genre can be imparted to students through explicit instruction in a classroom context. Here, Soliday addresses one of the many tensions or conflicts she identifies in what instructors seek from students. Soliday locates the resistance to formal instruction of genre and other writing aspects in instructors’ tendency to think back to their own learning. “Many professors subscribe to this apprenticeship model of learning based on their own learning,” Soliday writes; “they did not receive explicit guidance, but they figured out what their readers wanted and succeeded” (101). But this expectation of student self-direction did not stop professors from complaining about student lack of genre knowledge. “[I]f students acquire genre only through immersion,” Soliday writes, “this process appears insufficient to their teachers, who continue to join WAC programs hoping to improve their students’ grasp of disciplinary genres” (7).

This is, admittedly, a nuanced stance of Soliday’s: that genres are themselves natural phenomena that should be understood as the consequences of real-world social practice within a given discourse community, that nevertheless can be taught through formalized instruction. I am inclined to believe Soliday in her contention that this tension—between the natural definition of genres as communicative practices and the necessarily artificial teaching of those genres—but I wish she had been a bit more upfront in defining this as a tension. Soliday is perhaps not explicit enough in acknowledging that her interest in students learning about real-world, natural genres rather than the fake genres invented in schools might seem at odds with her enthusiasm for teaching them in a school context.

A bigger problem, for me, is a lack of consistency in definition, of both content and process. My consistent concern when reading this (generally excellent) text had to do with the essential topic of the book: where, exactly, doe genres begin and end? Given the subject matter and title, it’s a very relevant question! Soliday’s intelligent, useful definition of genre as a social praxis has a downside: it’s frequently hard to tell where genre ends and a particular discourse community begins. If genre is the product of communicative acts and social agreement, what distinguishes it from any other social convention? Indeed, many would argue that it’s precisely the fact that genres are more static and certain than the shifting and conditional reality of social relations that makes them useful. Students, frequently unable to navigate the communicative norms of discourse communities to which they don’t yet belong, often require distinct rules and boundaries such as the kind traditional genres often employ. What’s more, this lack of clear definitional boundaries extends to Soliday’s project itself. I have said that the narrative style of the book is one of its strengths, and as a book, it is. As a research study, it’s far less beneficial. To be honest, having read the book, I am not entirely sure that I know what kind of a study is presented. Narrative research is legitimate research, and I respect the methodology, but Soliday does not seem to regard her own work as narrative in nature. Soliday mentions having conducted ethnographic research in the past (21), and in some ways Everyday Genres appears to be based on ethnographic research. At other times, the research presented appears to be a case study, or a series of case studies. While I can live with some amount of slippage between methodologies, I would like to have more information to adequately assess the type and method of research.

All in all, though, these are minor complaints. Soliday’s book deftly combines personal narrative with theoretical backing, and does so in a way that provides clear, consistent advice to instructors and administrators. The short book format suits her purpose ideally, giving her the ability to expand on her story and her ideas in a way that would not be possible in the space constraints of an article without the slackness and padding that is often found in typical monographs. The result is an intriguing, nimble text that demonstrates that theory, practice, and pedagogy are not distinct and separable elements but part of a continuum of human understanding that exist to reinforce and benefit one another. By speaking to consistent anxieties in a way that draws on real-life experience to dictate best practices, Soliday has provided a very useful guide for WPAs and composition scholars.

Soliday, Mary. Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines. SIU Press,  2011. Print.

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