Metaphors for genre

I’m always trying to perfect the way I present the concept of genre to to my EAP writing classes. Some students seem to get it right away. But others have a hard time letting go of the idea that there’s one type of writing in English that you use in all contexts, (and for many, that writing is synonymous with the writing done on the IELTS exam).

Some groups you can just hit with Swales’ definition of genre. We can dive right into the idea that exemplars of a genre show similarities in terms of purpose, style, structure, content and audience. But with others you have to take a step back and figure out some type of everyday metaphor to liken it to.

The one I’ve been playing with lately is the idea of footwear. We can think of various types of footwear: high heels, soccer cleats, winter snow boots, sandals. Each one has its own particular purpose (to make it wearer look good, to provide traction and allow for speed, to keep feet warm and dry, to keep the feet cool) and also  there are certain contexts where each is expected. If you don’t wear the expected footwear in that context, it can seem inappropriate. It’s not the end of the world if you wear snowboots on the beach, but it is weird to those around you. Each type of footwear shares certain and structural and style characteristics (a pronounced heel, laces and spikes, rubber and lugged sole, open-toed construction), without each pair necessarily being exactly the same.

I think it’s a pretty apt metaphor for genre. How do you explain the concept of genre to your classes?


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