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Exploring evolutions from Literary Kinds to Self

vspaeth's picture

           How can we define genre?  It is a kind of something, a type.  It is a manner we use to categorize information that we come into contact with on a daily basis.  Genres evolve.  This semester we have explored the evolution of various genres; we have seen how the lines between them become blurry.  We have taken the definition of genre and molded it to fit in ways we may not have thought about before.  With this in mind, how has the genre of this class evolved over the course of the semester?  It has evolved.  Everything evolves.  I have evolved, the class has evolved, and this paper will evolve as it is written.  The evolution of the class is important because it helps me to see where my problems were and it helps me to tie everything together and try to make sense of a class that I struggled through. 

            If you look up the course on or the Tri-College Course Guide you will find it under English 209: Literary Kinds.  The description states: “Beginning with a biological evolutionary model, we examine a range of explanations for how and why new genres evolve.  Readings will consist of critical accounts of genre; three hybrid novel forms will serve as imaginative test cases for these concepts.  Students will identify, compare, and write an exemplar of a genre that interests them.”  This information causes us to expect certain things from the class.  It is like when you go into a book store and pick up a novel labeled as a mystery; you know what you are getting more or less.  We read this information and assume we are getting the genre of the class. 

            So what does this presented genre look like?  For starters, English 209 indicates that the class is a mid to upper level English course.  Anyone who has taken an English class before this one would assume that the form of the class would not differ greatly from other English classes and the content would, at least, look familiar on some level.  In my own personal experience, English classes have involved a lot of close readings of texts, analysis, and the occasional look into history in order to understand the context of a text.  The 200-level indicates the amount of work to be expected and the expected level of experience and understanding of the discipline that would be needed.  The title of the course, Literary Kinds, narrows the expectations for the content of the class.  The subject matter of the course would seem to be different kinds or genres of literary texts and topics.  The course description for the class was very specific in how the class would begin, what the reading would look like, and what kind of work could be expected.  The expectations help students choose classes and, at least in my case, help orient them for the semester.  The evolution of the class diverged from what expected.    

            The first genre that we observed was the genre of the Academic essay and how it is currently evolving through the digital humanities.  This raised many questions for me personally and possibly for any student because it challenged my definition of genre right off the bat.  I had thought of genre as something that defined literature.  Words such as mystery, thriller, romance, and comedy struck me as genres, not exactly “academic essay.”  The jump was not too large at first.  The idea of academic essays being a genre of writing fits in with the stereotypical idea that surrounds genres (the fact that they define a kind of writing).  However, the evolution of the genre that we observed involved its emergence into the digital humanities.  The idea that a genre also included form was a completely new idea for me.  My experience with genres before did not really take form into account.  If I read a mystery novel or watched a mystery film I would expect similar content based events to occur.  The idea that the presentation of the work could affect its genre was new and very different. 

            When we got to our first web events I was not sure I had the language to address the topic that I had chosen.  I was also unsure about how to approach an essay where I was looking to explain how form could be used to further evolve a genre.  My paper was looking at Tumblr as a possible space for academic writing.  Through rereading my paper and reviewing the comments posted by Anne, I am able to see how my paper lacks an actual argument.  I had been trying to wrestle with the idea of form as a genre and trying to apply it to a genre that I more easily recognized; the academic essay. 

            This first paper was a struggle for me for many reasons.  For starters, I knew that I was expected to post an entire paper online.  This is not something I had been expected to do before and may have caused me to struggle when it came to the idea of an audience.  In my Teaching of Writing class that I had taken this semester the idea of the audience was an important topic.  If students do not feel comfortable in a topic they may not feel like they have a voice of authority and therefore they find it more difficult to argue against voices of authority, or develop a voice of authority for your audience.  My lack of confidence in this genre of writing had made it more difficult for me to present an argument in the web event.  Overall, the first section of the class, although it did stray from the presented information, was easy to follow and understand because we were in a position to create a definition of genre for our purposes.  Defining genre as both form and content of a work of writing, while different, was something we worked together to form through the first section of the course. 

            By the end of the first section of the course I had learned that genre accounted for more than the content of writing.  I was also faced with a visible example of the evolution of a genre that was occurring currently and that, whether I had realized it or not, I was taking part in.  Looking at academic writing was a nice introduction into these slightly different ideas because it was something we had all experienced before.  We had a basis to build off of. 

            This idea of working off of a base of knowledge is something that comes up a lot when looking at the psychology of education.  When talking about the theories of Piaget, Anita Woolfolk claims that “People are born with a tendency to organize their thinking processes into psychological structures.  These psychological structures are our systems for understanding and interacting with the world.  Simple structures are continually combined and coordinated to become more sophisticated and thus more effective (p. 32).”   This idea basically states that we build knowledge by working off of what we already know.  With this in mind, the importance of genre becomes clear.  Genre provides us with a basic outline in order to build more knowledge off of.   Genres are also important because they are one way in which we can organize our thinking and understanding of the information around us.  The idea of building knowledge is also reflected in Vygotsky’s theory of The Zone of Proximal Development.  “According to Vygotsky, at any given point in development, there are certain problems that a child is on the verge of being able to solve.  The child just needs some structure, clues, reminders, help with remembering details or step, encouragement to keep trying, and so on (Woolfolk, p. 47).”  Although the theory specifically looks at younger children, the idea that knowledge grows from former knowledge is relevant even to college-aged students.  That is why in order to enter a number of disciplines the student must first take an introduction course or some other prerequisite.  This requirement helps ensure that students are all entering upper-leveled classes with a basic understanding to build more knowledge off of. 

            So, how are these ideas relevant to our Literary Kinds class?  After we finished off with digital humanities and the academic essay the class morphed, and with it so did our definition of genre.  We moved on to reading the first chapter of Price’s Mad at School and spoke with the author in class.  This is where I started to get lost.  I could not understand the relevance of this in the context of an English class, maybe an education class, but the connection to genre and literature was beyond me.  I was not the only person who was looking for connections.  Class time was dedicated to building bridges across the two topics.  Ultimately we decided that the connection existed in the fact that Price introduced the idea of the genre of the classroom and the idea that genre can also be used when talking about people. 

            This was a hard transition for me because I did not have any former knowledge or experience in thinking like this or viewing the world in this way.  The topic took genre out of the literary all together and applied it to a much more personal plane.  Since our definition of genre was relatively new to begin with, having it morph so soon to cover a field much bigger than literature was a big step.  It blurred the lines between text and life, the academic and the personal.  Even as I write now I am struggling between balancing these two and this whole idea that genre could be applied to people made the two seem inseparable.  The ideas were more abstract than I had been expecting for an English class; they were more philosophical than I had ever experienced before. 

            For my second web event I had decided to explore the evolution of the classroom in general; inspired by the ideas presented in our study of Price’s work.  This essay had probably been one of the hardest for me.  I am not well versed in the multi-discipline work that I think I was attempting in this web event.  It was an education-based paper and yet I was writing it for an English class and for me it was confusing.  I felt unsure about what language I wanted to use and it made it more difficult for me to express my ideas.  I felt unsure writing it because I did not know how to explain my thoughts about the classroom in the language of genre.  It is not a language that I have mastered and at the time I felt like I was writing a paper for the wrong class.

            My lack of language mastery and former knowledge in this new, abstract topic had me feeling like I was at a disadvantage in the classroom.  I began losing my ability to follow class discussions, which made it harder for me to participate, but I was usually able to tie my thoughts together by the end of the week in order to post in our class blog.  Our movement into Graphic Narratives was enjoyable for me because I had former experience with the medium and was excited to learn more about them.  At the time I did not really understand the connection but looking back I can see the interesting conflict that existed in Graphic Narratives. 

            Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics talked about the idea of the iconic image.  The basic idea was that in comics, the artists try to represent objects and people in their most basic forms so that they are easily recognized by the readers.  So for example, the complicated image of the human face could, in its most basic form, be represented by a circle with two dots and a curved line representing eyes and a mouth.  An interesting conflict arises within Graphic Narratives because they seek to represent the varying genres of people with iconic images.  In a way it has kind of paralleled my experience with this class; I have tried to take in all of this varied information and represent it in a way that I can understand and digest.  An interesting point that Scott McCloud makes is that the artists and writers of graphic novels want the reader to be able to identify with the characters depicted; like how the characters in Persepolis were drawn in such a simple, general way.    

            The class in many ways began functioning like a comic during this time.  We were representing many different genres and ideas and trying to make them represent a bigger picture.  We had to constantly look for the connections in the gutters that occurred between topics.  The class also invited you to identify with it on a more personal level like the comics.  It opened up the ability to really think about yourself in ways that, well honestly, I was not comfortable with.

            The big questions did not stop there.  After graphic novels, the class evolved again in a very interesting manner.  We were asked to design the last third of the course ourselves.  It was an interesting assignment.  Here was a classroom full of different genres of students, and yet we were expected to design a plan that would cater to all of our specific desires.  We managed to do it, and honestly, I was shocked.  With Anne’s help, the similarities between our different interests were found and we were able to create a plan that would include a majority of our interests.  When I saw this, I think I started to feel self-conscious about my ability as a thinker and member of this class.  I would not have been able to see those connections that seem so clear now.  I am not sure if faced with the same problem I would be able to now.

            My discomfort with myself made the next section of the class more difficult.  Oddly enough, this part of the class resembled the overview given earlier.  We looked at different novels that blurred the lines between genres; specifically fiction and non-fiction.  We looked at works that called themselves non-fiction and saw how easily the authors could have fabricated any part of the story and how this put the entire integrity of the “truth” of the novel at risk.  Likewise, we looked at works that labeled themselves fiction and looked at the truths that were presented through these stories. 

            From these blurred lines we began to ask bigger questions, such as “what is truth?” and “does it exist?”  I sat speechless as definitions of truth were thrown back and forth.  I became a very quick skeptic.  Our topics grew more abstract as we debated truth and the value of our memories.  I was interested, extremely so, however, I quickly found myself falling further and further behind as far as my thoughts were going.  The class had evolved from a place where we were stretching and playing with the idea of genre to one where we began to question if anything was true, or real. 

            By the time I reached my third web event I found myself extremely stuck.  I had lost sight of what we were supposed to be taking out of anything.  My thoughts were jumbled.  Even writing my weekly posting was not happening in the ways I was used to.  I finally reached out to Anne and she helped me not only find an idea for this event but also helped me start thinking about what was going on between me and the classroom.  I was scared of our possible abstract conclusions.  I had not been prepared to think of these big, personal, and very relevant-to-my-life questions.  They unnerved me.  I was scared of myself and my own instabilities and that began leaking into my classroom experience.  After realizing what about the class was bothering me I managed to really focus on my third web event.  Instead of letting the idea of genre confuse me, I used it to do something I was more familiar with, analyze various texts.  By actually using the genre as a lens I was able to better understand it and also better understand the relationship between genre and text.  From writing that paper I learned that genre and text work together in order to get across the message or thoughts of the author.  In a sense, genre is always referring to form because it is a form for ideas to be expressed.  It does not mean that they cannot evolve, it just means that the content and the form and the text all have to evolve together.

            My topic for that paper, magical realism, helped me juxtapose the truth and fiction ideas that had been buzzing through the class for the last few weeks.  In magical realism the two elements coexist with each other.  This idea helped me feel more secure with the knowledge I had gained in the class.  Whether or not fact and fiction are separate entities does not really matter because regardless they are going to coexist.  The conclusion I reached comforted me and made much of the information we had discussed in class more clear in retrospect.  It put me in a good position to move into our final performances.

            Having the opportunity to work with some other members of the class for an extended period of time added and interesting dynamic to the Literary Kinds experience overall.  I became better acquainted with how I fit in to the classroom and what other students were taking away.  My experience may have differed from other groups on the day of presentations but working through my pieces of the project helped me reach more conclusions about the direction the class had taken and what I was going to take away. 

            My part of the presentation involved thinking of the class as a whole and also as a series of individuals who may or may not fall into different genres of people.  I realized, while working, that it was impossible to know how to put each member of the community we formed into a genre.  It would be easy to say that as a whole we were all students taking English 209: Literary Kinds, but on any level deeper than that I would not know where to begin.  This idea then turned inwards and I realized that I had no idea how I would even begin putting myself in a genre.  At this moment, I fully realized why I had been so bothered by the class.  I was reminded of the uncomfortable fact that I am still evolving and do not know how to even imagining putting myself in a genre.  Trying to do so had made me unable to adapt to the evolution of the classroom.

            Looking at this paper, one may wonder if anything could have been changed to make the class more accessible to students like me.  I honestly would not know.  To use the language of genres, the content of the course was obviously difficult for me to follow.  Maybe I could have used more structure in the beginning of the class to help orient me for later on.  However, even if the content of the class changes, as I imagine it will, the form will also change with it.  The form of the Literary Kinds classroom is more than what is written on the syllabus.  It is a product of every student who walks into the classroom and where they come from.  If the class had been made up of different students then this semester would have been drastically different. 

            At times the make-up of the classroom was difficult for me to work in.  The dynamics appeared to work well for a majority of the class and that led to an environment where banter was swift and conversation flowed rapidly.  Depending on what is expected of every student, this kind of environment can be both beneficial and detrimental.  For example, if the goal is that every student is paying attention, seeing many points of view, and opening their mind to new ideas then the environment is beneficial.  Students who learn best from debating and expressing ideas quickly can do so and students who learn best from listening and reflecting also can.   However, if there is a desire for every student to be vocal and participate it can be difficult on students like me who are not only slower thinkers but also on the anxious side.  Feeling pressure to talk in such a fast-paced environment makes it difficult to think of ideas and feel confident enough to express them.  It is hard, of course, to control this because each student will evolve in their own way and through the evolution of the students the classroom will evolve. 

            The interaction of form and content when defining genre transfers very clearly when looking at the class.  The form of the classroom was made up of many factors; us as students, the space, the time, and I am sure many others.  The content was given a basic outline by Anne but ultimately the content discussed depended on how the form filtered and interacted with it.  We picked what was focused on and ultimately what the last section of the class looked like.  The genre of the classroom evolved in content because the form evolved together.  It was a living, breathing process that occurred over the course of the semester.  

            This paper, this class, myself, we are all genres that have evolved from the moment we started, and we will keep evolving until we are completed.  I understand that this paper is slightly jumbled, it jumps at times, and some ideas might be left unfinished.  I like it that way though.  It is a representation of the class, and of me.  I have tried to show some ways in which this class had flaws, and some ways in which I did.  I have tried to balance the form of the classroom and the content and even show how they worked together.  Writing this paper has allowed me to reach interesting conclusions that I most likely would not have reached before taking a class of this genre. The class evolved.  We started with our expectations which quickly had to adapt.  We developed an idea together, and then stretched its limits farther than many of us may have imagined possible.  We have turned the gaze of the class inwards in ways that may have been strange and uncomfortable to more than just me. 

            I cannot fully separate myself from this class or this paper though.  I am a part of both of them.  I am part of the form of spring 2012’s English 209: Literary Kinds; I am putting content into a form now to express my ideas.  There is a mix of fact and fabrication.  You can question my perception and my memories but they define me, just as we have defined genre.  My experience may have been difficult at times but I would not want to change it.  Sitting here now, typing these words, I realized how much I have grown and evolved just as a result of this class.  No one ever said that evolution was easy.  I am like the academic essay that wants to spread my roots in digital humanities, and I am like the non-fiction work that wants to grab my audience with exaggerated details.

            The evolution of the course may have left me behind at times, but after writing this, and spending countless hours reflecting over everything we have learned I realized that without it, I would not have grown as a thinker.  Maybe years from now I will not remember that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was more about the author than the woman herself, but I will remember to be more skeptical when reading texts that label themselves as non-fiction.  I will remember to expect and accept change and evolution because there really is no escaping them (even this paper has managed to evolve to a more personal narrative by page 12).  I have come to terms with this semester now.  I have come to terms with the class and evolution and change and truth and fiction and everything that we have seen during these weeks we have existed in this genre.  Genre is complicated.  It is living and breathing and changeable.  We may not ever be able to fully understand it, but it should not stop us from thinking about it.                 



Works Cited

Class notes.  Teaching of Writing. Professor Gail Hemmeter.  Bryn Mawr College.  Spring 2012.

McCloud, Scott.  Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. William Morrow, 1994.

Woolfolk, Anita. Educational Psychology. 11th ed. . Columbus: Person, 2010. Print.