National Writing Project

Book Review: Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being by Deborah Dean

By: Tom Fox
Date: October 30, 2009

Summary: Deborah Dean, director of the Central Utah Writing Project, shows how exploring genre theory can help teachers energize their classroom practices—and help students understand their language and texts in social interactions that constitute genres.


Forget the old triad of poetry, fiction, and drama. Forget thinking about genre as a static form or a formula to follow. The new genre theory is about taking action. Genres support participation in the deepest sense. Genres are the key to meaningful language use and expert knowledge, and use of them helps give the speaker/writer/composer agency and power.

Deborah Dean, director of the Central Utah Writing Project, wrote Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being in response to an exigency in the community: a need for a broader and more comprehensive theory of writing. I'm writing a review in support of that goal, hoping to start some important discussions of our assumptions and beliefs about writing.

The new genre theory emerged spottily in the 1980s. A key article with a perfect title, "Genres as Social Action," by Carolyn R. Miller, was published in 1984. Miller's argument recasts genre as an action one takes in a community in response to an "exigency" or an immediate need. When someone dies, the "exigency" is the need to honor and commemorate the deceased and the eulogy is a social action design to respond to the community's exigency. When a hate crime occurs on a college campus, our social norms are challenged, the community is disturbed; a memo from the president reasserting democratic values of tolerance answers the "exigency."

Perhaps because the article was published in a journal unfamiliar to most rhetoric and composition scholars—the Quarterly Journal of Speech—the uptake was slow. It wasn't until the first half of the 1990s that genre theory began to show up in articles and collections of essays. These articles and essays, and eventually full-length books, appeared in scholarly journals and university presses, extending and elaborating Miller's insights into genre.

Learning a genre means becoming acculturated in a community and learning to take action.

Dean's book is the first to make this critical body of work accessible to a broad audience of teachers. NCTE's TRIP (Theory and Research into Practice) series published the work in short (119 pages) and reader-friendly form. Dean, with exceptional clarity, describes genre theories and their implications without reducing their complexity.

Why Is Genre Theory Worth Exploring?

The book begins with the question "Why is genre theory worth exploring?" Dean's answer is that genre theory addresses pedagogical concerns of the dichotomy between product and process, and the connections between reading and writing, new media writing, and testing.

Dean argues that genre theory "fattens" the process approach to teaching writing, adding important depth to what can be a thin theory. The process approach explores how writing gets accomplished; genre theory defines what that writing is—all writing, not just school writing and not just writing on paper, but writing on phones, on keyboards, with chalk, markers, and more—who does it in what context, and why.

These implications—what genres do and why they are important—are examined in chapter 2, "Exploring Genre Theory," a tour-de-force chapter that explores how genres are social, rhetorical, dynamic, historical, cultural, situated, and ideological.

Dean maintains her clear style while showing how genres "pervade lives," in the words of theorist Amy J. Devitt, because "studying genre is studying how people use language to make their way in the world," whether it's the simple act of writing a want ad to place in a newspaper or an online posting on Craig's List, writing a cover letter or a letter to a friend.

Dean explores how genres respond to social situations and in turn take action on those situations. They are "social in how they function and in how they respond, in their effects and in their origins" (32). For example, are all emails of the same genre? Is an email to a friend in the same genre as an email to a teacher or to a business? How might the language be the same or different? How does one's writing adapt to different situations?

Teaching genre goes far beyond classroom writing for Dean; understanding genre is "a way of being and a way of acting in different situations"—the "being" part of the book's title, as she says in the accompanying audio interview with NWP.

Genre theory supports broad goals of teaching writing by explaining more than process theory.

Genre as Action, Not Form

When genre is defined as an action in a community, not as a form to master, there are important pedagogical challenges that emerge. Dean tackles these in the remaining chapters of the book, and by doing so, explores the ramifications of genre theory for teaching.

Dean directly addresses the assertion by some genre theorists that learning genres is a process of acquisition. Learning a genre means becoming acculturated in a community and learning to take action. The situated nature of genres makes learning them in a classroom difficult—i.e., you can't teach writing in a school if it's not a real-world situation, some posit.

While not minimizing this difficulty, Dean has already asserted that genres are a key to understanding language use in general and writing in particular. In other words, because genres may be difficult to teach does not mean that writing teachers should turn away from the concept.

Citing a number of genre theorists, Dean argues that teachers assist students learning genres by

  • teaching the concept of genre as a means to understanding what people do when they write, providing students with a frame for both composing and reading
  • assisting students as they explore the situations and communities from which genres emerge
  • helping students see that genres are not rigid forms by looking historically at how genres change, examining innovations within genres, and critiquing genres.

Dean concludes the book with three helpful appendices on teaching questions (returning to the questions about whether genres can be taught), terms and definitions, and future directions for genre study.

A Comprehensive Theory of Writing

To conclude my review, I want to revisit and extend the argument that Dean begins with: Why study genre? Genre theory is the most comprehensive theory of writing to emerge since the process theory in the 1970s. As teachers of writing, we seek ways to help our students understand the value and purpose of writing. Genre theory supports broad goals of teaching writing by explaining more than process theory. Genre theory

  • conceives of writing as social action
  • provides us with a nuanced understanding of the variety of ways that writing takes action in communities
  • explores not only how writing gets done, but names and describes the ways it gets done
  • supports a rich understanding of reading as a well as writing
  • provides us with a rhetorically rich theory of writing
  • challenges us to teach writing as participation in a community.

Dean's book makes this important theory easily available to writing project audiences. Continuity programs seeking to enrich professional development from their site would be well served by starting to explore genre theory with this book. They could explore questions such as, "If we were to lead with genre theory instead of the process approach, how would that affect our inservice offerings?" "How could genre theory support our efforts to attract content area teachers?" "How can genre theories help English language learners enter into the communities of their choice?" "If we were to move from a writing process common text in the summer institute to a text on genres, how would that affect the development of teacher-leaders at our site?"

Dean's excellent book supports a thorough revisiting of our understanding of writing and how to teach it. With clarity and honest assessments, Dean examines the value of genre theory and develops thoughtful approaches on how to teach it. Writing project sites across the nation will find this book challenging, useful, and an extremely helpful resource as they reexamine their theories of writing.

About the Author Tom Fox is professor of English at California State University, Chico and associate director, site development, for the National Writing Project.

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