Book Review: Academic Writing and Genre (2008)

Review of Academic Writing and Genre (available also in the LinguistList Reviews archive)

Reviewer: Marina Santini

Book Author: Ian Bruce
Book Title: Academic Writing and Genre
Subtitle: A Systematic Analysis
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
Year: 2008

This is a monograph consisting of 7 chapters and 5 appendices. It focuses on genre-based approaches to the teaching of academic writing. The book reviews pedagogical approaches to genre and presents a comprehensive synthesis of the current research in the field. After a thorough review, which includes also reflections on the nature of human categorization, the author, Ian Bruce, proposes an innovative model to teach academic writing through a two-layer genre-based approach, and discusses the ways in which such a model can be implemented in an academic curriculum for undergraduates and post-graduates, and native and non-speakers. The book is informative, clearly written and well organized. It is a significant contribution to the genre discussion in general, and to the teaching of academic writing in particular. Since it helps unveil the dynamics underlying the acquisition of genre competence, this book is a recommended reading to all those working in areas where genre classification has a bearing – from pedagogy to genre analysis, applied linguistics, corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, information studies, context-based information retrieval etc.

Chapter 1 (”The teaching of academic writing”) is the solid and compact corner stone of the whole book. It starts by stressing the importance of learning and teaching English as an additional language (EAL) in the current days. The author argues that genre-based courses enable second language learners and novice writers to integrate their linguistic, organizational and contextual knowledge in a variety of different tasks, especially in a university environment. Realistically, the author emphasizes: ”there is still a considerable diversity of views about how genre should be defined” (p. 7). For this reason, he observes, there is a wide diversity of types of knowledge that constitute genres: this is not just a terminological problem, but ” It is also a problem that arises out of fundamental disagreement about the very nature of the object of enquiry, what it is that is being investigated and classified” (p. 7-8). The author provides two useful signposts for orientation: (1) a table (Table 1.1) where the designations proposed by the different authors are listed (strangely, Longacre’s typology (Longacre, 1976, 1983) is missing), and (2) two ”benchmark terms”. The two terms are ”social genres” and ”cognitive genres”. Social genres refer to ”socially recognized constructs according to which whole texts are classified in terms of their overall social purpose” (p. 8), for instance personal letters, novels and academic articles. Cognitive genres (also ‘text types’ by some authors) refer to classification terms like narrative, expository, descriptive, argumentative or instructional, and represent rhetorical purposes. The author anticipates that cognitive genres and social genres are characterized by different kind of features (listed in Chapter 6).

Chapter 2 (”From social genre towards pedagogy”) presents and discusses two influential approaches to social genre: one put forward by the Systemic Functional School and one developed within English for Specific Purposes (ESP). The chapter is clear and organized with a regular structure, i.e. a presentation of the approaches, followed by a discussion and comparison. The discussion shows that both approaches tend to focus on the conventionally recognized staging of content, which is related to the actual linguistic features of exemplar texts. However, the author is not entirely convinced by these approaches because findings from empirical studies (Biber 1988, 1989 and Paltridge 1993, 1997) disconfirm this view (p. 36). This chapter helps identify the core ideas of the two approaches by outlining their contributions and limitations. This contrastive analysis leads the author to motivate and support his own stance. In particular, the final discussion (p. 34-37) reinforces and strengthens the author’s view on genre (i.e. the differentiation between cognitive genre and social genre) introduced at the end of the previous chapter by setting the three necessary elements that characterize genre constructs. These three elements are: 1) social motivation and socially constructed elements of genre; 2) cognitive conventionalized structures; 3) the actual linguistic realizations of the discourse. Since the author sees discourse creation as a process of representation, he proposes a theory of genres in terms of discourse categories. His theory takes into account the types of social, linguistic and cognitive knowledge that are involved in the representation process, arguing that these elements are very important to understand, operationalize and learn genres.
Chapter 3 (”Constraints on a cognitive genre construct”) starts by re-affirming the author’s doubts with respect to the deterministic relation between social genres and their linguistic realization put forward by the systemic and ESP approaches. He realizes that, although this deterministic link has been questioned by corpus studies and genre analyses, there has been no ”attempt to acknowledge the additional existence of more general cognitive discourse structures that might in some way mediate between socially constructed, conscious patterns of textual organization and the linguistic systems that they employ” (p. 29). In this chapter, the author reviews theories relating to the categorization and organization of knowledge through the notion of prototype, hierarchy, schema, scripts and goals, scenarios, frames, mental spaces, and image schemata. The reviewed theories help 1) establish the cognitive basis for the categorization and organization of knowledge; 2) assess the role of prototypes in making category judgments; 3) define the approaches to types and levels of categories; 4) point out issues of complex categorization within discourse; and 5) define the implications for discourse categorization. The author concludes by saying that ”the organization of the language output is not a homogeneous activity to which a single type of categorization can be applied. Any representation of knowledge in coherent discourse involves intermeshing systems of categorization.” (p. 77).

Chapter 4 (”Operationalizing cognitive genres in academic writing”) contains the operationalization of cognitive genre knowledge. This chapter is divided into three sections. The first section underpins the need to acknowledge the operationalization of cognitive genres with extended written discourse. The second section presents a review of taxonomy of cognitive genres. In the third section, a model for describing cognitive genres is presented. The author proposes a joint model that combines linguistic, cognitive and social knowledge within a framework for rhetorical organization. Since the previous chapter showed that human categorization is carried out on a cognitive basis, the author argues that ”there can be no valid reasons for attempting to separate linguistic and non-linguistic categorizing knowledge in relation to rhetorical structuring” (p. 83). The model suggested draws on three areas of knowledge (each of which employs prototypes as a basis for categorization), namely 1) social genres, 2) cognitive genres, and 3) linguistic system. However, in the model presented in this chapter, social genres are temporarily disregarded. The focus of this version of the model is on cognitive genre structures, which may be used to organize the realization in language of texts. The description of the model is followed by two empirical studies that show that the model has a basis in the real world. The model proposed and the studies reported focus on four cognitive genres that occur in English academic prose: report, explanation, discussion and recount. They are based on the four pedagogic text types (Quinn, 1993) and the four corpus-based text types (Biber 1989). Bruce’s empirical studies show that the knowledge and ability to use cognitive genres relate to the level of discourse proficiency of writers.

Chapter 5 (”Relating cognitive genres to the teaching and learning of writing”) contains a detailed account of how the proposed cognitive genre model should be related to language teaching and learning, and in particular to the development of discourse competence in academic writing. The chapter is divided into four main parts: 1) language learning theory, 2) curriculum design for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, 3) integration of the cognitive genre model into the syllabus, and finally 4) an outline of a possible syllabus unit based on a cognitive genre. In the first part, the cognitive genre construct is discussed in relation to the dual processing theory of language learning and language use. It appears that if the learning of structured material is beneficial, then the cognitive genre model can provide the basis for a discourse framework to be employed in pedagogic contexts. The second part discusses some principles regulating the design of general EAP writing courses, such as the pre-university or foundation level. The third part discusses a top-down approach to syllabus design involving types of knowledge relating to four processes, namely a) rhetorical purpose, b) gestalt structuring, c) discourse patterns, and d) interpropositional relations. The proposal for a general EAP writing syllabus is summarized in Table 5.1. The last part provides the outline of a possible syllabus unit based on ”report” cognitive genre with a summary of the aims and content of a sample syllabus unit (Table 5.2). The writing syllabus, based on the cognitive genre model, that comes out from this discussion is: top-down, not discipline specific, and focuses on the realizations of common types of rhetorical purposes and related organizational structures.

Chapter 6 (”The scope of social genre knowledge”) has two main aims: 1) the discussion of knowledge used in the construction of social genres, and 2) the inspection of the social genre/cognitive genre relationship, particularly in terms of its application to the teaching of academic writing. The framework of social genre knowledge is based on: a) context, b) epistemology, c) writer stance, d) schematic structure, and e) use of cognitive genres. One important conclusion presented in this chapter stresses the different levels of linguistic realization activated for cognitive genres and social genres: ”Social genre influences are exerted in relation to context specific choices, such as the use of the specialized technical vocabulary (related to a particular field) and the choices of metatextual language relating to the area of writer stance, addressivity and audience. Furthermore, in terms of discourse organization, social genre knowledge relates to the conventionalized structuring of certain genres, such as Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion sections of the research article. On the other hand, the use of cognitive genres relates to an aim to represent a certain type of knowledge (usually within one section or sub-section of a larger text) and influences linguistic choice in terms of the signaling of local discourse organization and lower-level, more specific aspect of coherence and cohesion” (p. 144). Once the distinction between these two levels is clear and acknowledged, the designer of an academic course should select the genre construct s/he wants to focus on (social genre or cognitive genre), and the type of knowledge to be included in the course and how it should be arranged. Helpful examples are provided and discussed on pp. 144-150, with ”enquiry questions” that can assist novice writers in analyzing the discourse of their specific subject areas.

Chapter 7 (”Teaching genre knowledge in an advanced writing course”) illustrates the inter-relationship between social and cognitive genre constructs in a postgraduate writing course. This course was taught by the author himself and was addressed to ”students engaged in research and dissertation writing research in a variety of disciplines, and who are non-native speakers of English” (p. 151). The course comprises 12 unit topics and is mostly organized in terms of Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion (IMRD) structure. The author argues that IMRD provides a general prototype or baseline against which ”disciplinary differences and preferences in research reporting can be identified and analysed” (p. 151) because developing an understanding of the characteristics of research reporting in one’s own particular discipline can be empowered by the awareness of the differences that can occur across disciplines. In the chapter, the 6th unit of the course – ”Reporting Research: Results” – is examined in detail. Table 7.2 shows the syllabus of this unit, which is divided into two aims. In relation to the first aim (i.e. social genre), the ”enquiry questions” exemplified in the previous chapter are answered here with respect to the Results section. In relation to the second aim (i.e. cognitive genre), a small study is presented (using Wordsmith) that provides the basis for the selection of the cognitive genre focus in the Results section course unit. Finally, the pedagogic focus of the 6th unit is outlined. The book wraps up by re-stating the motivations for a more comprehensive and exhaustive genre model where textual competence, generic competence and social competence are all woven together in a unifying view of discourse competence, since genres are discourse categories.

The book is a valuable resource for two main reasons: 1) it presents a thorough discussion on genre, and 2) proposes a genre-based model for the teaching of academic writing that assist novice writers in developing their own capacity to deconstruct, analyze and reconstruct both cognitive genres and social genres.

* Discussion on genre
This monograph provides an in-depth insight into the relation between two different genre constructs, rhetorical genres and socially defined and stipulated text types. It provides some orientation in the maze of different genre terminologies and conceptualizations through the two benchmark terms of cognitive genres and social genres. These two terms are underpinned by theoretical motivations, empirical evidence and a methodological framework, and can, hopefully, become steady reference points in the current genre discussion. In their simplicity, these two benchmark terms – unified by the noun head (”genres”) and differentiated by the attributive adjectives (”cognitive” and ”social”) – have the potential for streamlining and clarifying different typology of genre classes.

Although the close relationship and interaction between cognitive genres and social genres has already been pointed out by previous authors, and in particular by Werlich (1976) (text types vs. text forms), in this book the author provides convincing evidence of why it is useful to unveil and exploit this interaction. From a linguistic and textual point of view, one benefit is the distinction of the different types of linguistic material that can help identify cognitive and social genres (”both social and cognitive genres influence the writer’s choice of language, but influence this choice in different areas” p. 144). On the one hand, social genres are characterized by context specific choices, such as the use of the specialized technical vocabulary, writer stance and conventionalized content structuring. On the other hand, cognitive genres are molded by more specific aspects of coherence and cohesion (p. 144). Therefore, there are linguistic and textual cues that – when used together – allow us to determine or characterize social genres more satisfactorily. Cognitive genres can be seen as a kind of high-level textual features that help identify the rhetorical aims embedded in social genres. The identification of these aims is fundamental to operationalize genre knowledge. Importantly, this approach not only complements the systemic and ESP approach to genre, but also overcomes the Biberian dichotomy between external features and internal features, so that the social aspect and the rhetorical aspect of genres both share a linguistic ground.

Rhetorical structures (i.e. cognitive genres) are undoubtedly important and much more universal and long-lasting than the social genres themselves, which are historical objects, linked to time and cultural evolution, and they provide more sophisticated and elaborated linguistic and textual material that can used to deconstruct and reconstruct social genres in the process of learning. In this respect, it would be interesting to have more empirical data (in the future) coming from experiments similar to Study 2 in Chapter 4 with respect to ”cognitive genre dominance” within social genres. Werlich (1976) puts forward this idea of rhetorical dominance noting that, for example, leading articles or reviews are predominantly argumentative (Werlich, 1976: 46) although they might contain other cognitive genres. One extreme case is presented by the author himself on page 9, where he mentions that instruction manuals are associated to a single cognitive genre. The different combination or proportions of cognitive genres within individual social genres could be an additional useful element for the analysis and differentiation/identification of genre constructs.

Chapter 3 explains well the need of the intermediate layer of cognitive genres for the understanding of social genres. But I have a remark on the word ”constraints”. Although Chapter 3, with its comprehensive review of ”theories and constructs proposed for the categorizations and structuring of knowledge” (p. 39) is indispensable for understanding why cognitive genres are useful as mediating structures between linguistic system and social genre, it not clear what kind of ”constraints” are needed. The word ”constraints” appears in the title, and on the first page of the chapter (p. 39), but then disappears, and it is not explained why we need ”constraints” on cognitive genres, nor the kind of constraints that should be applied. The final discussion (Section 3.5 p. 73) does not refers back to need of constraints, but summarizes and discuss the implications of categorization theories for discourse creation and categorization. Whatever the author had in mind with the word ”constrains”, Chapter 3 and especially Section 3.5 are an invaluable aid to better understand the nature of human categorization and how any ”coherent discourse involves intermeshing systems of categorization” (p. 77).

One interesting fact is the importance given by the author to empirical data. The author’s dissatisfaction with the systemic and ESP approaches is triggered by findings from the empirical study conducted by Biber (1988, 1989) and genre analyses by Paltridge (1993, 1997) (p. 36). Biber’s text types for academic genres are then taken as benchmark for the new model (p. 106). Biber’s text types are found to be equivalent to Quinn’s text types (see Table 4.2 and p. 94). Interestingly, the author borrows labels from Quinn (namely, Report, Explanation, Discussion and Recount) and not from Biber. On the one hand, this confirms the validity of Biber’s statistical approach to reveal useful groupings, but, on the other hand, this also shows that Biber’s labeling could be somewhat streamlined (e.g. cf. Table 4.2: Involved Persuasion vs. Discussion or Learned Scientific Exposition vs. Explanation). Strangely, the author never mentions Biber’s terminological shift from ”genre” to ”register”.

* The model
The main aim of the genre-based model for the teaching of academic writing is to help students to develop the ability to deconstruct, understand and reconstruct genre constructs. The model is refined throughout the book with the aid of empirical studies and pedagogical considerations. In Chapter 4, a model for cognitive genres is first presented (Table 4.3) and subsequently enriched by the findings of two empirical studies. In Chapter 5 this cognitive genre model is related to a syllabus design (Table 5.1). The outline of a possible syllabus unit is exemplified by the ”report” cognitive genre (Table 5.2) and a very useful analysis of sample text (Table 5.3) using the model is then thoroughly discussed. In Chapter 6, the framework for analyzing social genes is outlined (Table 6.2), and fully integrated with cognitive genres. A clear representation of this two-layer genre model is shown in Table 7.2, where one unit of the syllabus taught by the author (namely Unit 6: Reporting Results) is used to exemplify how social genre and cognitive genre interact and what kinds of activities are expected from students.

This model allows teachers and course designers to decide which genre construct they can focus on (cognitive genres or social genres, or both), according to the academic level of the students (undergraduate or postgraduate) and other considerations, such as competence in the language. The chapters describing the model contain plentiful details and examples, and methodological suggestions.

This model appears to be not only profitable for developing the discursive competence of novice writers, but also easily applicable by novice and expert writing teachers. Additionally, the analyses of the genres (similar to those shown in Table 5.3 or Appendix 4) produced by students and teachers during the courses could be collected in electronic corpora (with suitable annotation) and used as a basis for further research in many linguistic and cognitive disciplines, e.g. corpus linguistics, second language acquisition, categorization, or discourse analysis.

* Future work?
My personal curiosity concerns the applicability of the proposed theoretical framework and model to genres belonging to other domains (for example, to the genres used in administration or within a company), and to computer-mediated communications.

In particular, I wonder whether this model could turn out to be useful in providing more insight into web genres. Web genres are instantiated in pdf files, individual web pages, complete websites and large networks. All these can be considered web documents. With these diversified units of analysis it seems that defining social genres as referring to the ”whole text” can be too prescriptive. On the web many documents appear to be a combination of many social purposes. It is not uncommon that a single web page contains an academic article, an ad for a newly published book, navigational links, copyright statement, input fields for log in, etc. Does such a web page belong to a single social genre (which one?) or to many? The situation is even more complex if one works with larger units of analysis, like websites or wikis. In brief, how can the theoretical framework proposed by the author be adjusted to genres that are not so predictable and stabilized as paper academic genres?

I also wonder whether the genre-based model could be applied to the teaching of web document writing. Currently, there are manuals teaching how to organize websites at different levels (structural, linguistic, typographic, etc.). Could this genre model help in this respect?

Biber D. (1988). _Variation across speech and writing_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Biber D. (1989). A typology of English texts. _Linguistics_, Vol. 27, pp. 3-43.

Longacre R. (1976). _An anatomy of speech notions_. Lisse: Peter de Ridder Press.

Longacre R. (1983). _The grammar of discourse_. New York-London: Plenum Press.

Paltridge B. (1993). _A challenge to the current concept of genre: writing up
research_. Unpublished thesis, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Paltridge B. (1997). _Genre, Frames, and Writing in Research Settings_.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Quinn J. (1993). A taxonomy of text types for use in curriculum
design. _EA Journal_, 11, 2, 33-46.

Werlich E. (1976). _A Text Grammar of English_. Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer.

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