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Prof’s Pioneering Work Hailed

Carolyn Miller is honored for her 1984 journal article on genre. Photo by Becky Kirkland.
Carolyn Miller is honored for her 1984 journal article on genre. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

In 1984, when Carolyn Miller was fresh out of graduate school, she spent months and months writing and revising a journal article that drew on her dissertation in communication and rhetoric. “I was such a newbie,” Miller says, reflecting on her struggle to get the article published. “I realize now how little I understood then about how you make a statement in an academic forum.”

Her article, titled “Genre as Social Action,” went through four grueling revisions before it finally got published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. Miller’s hard work paid off handsomely. Her article has long been the most frequently cited article the journal has ever published, and it provided the catalyst for the development of a whole new academic field: rhetorical genre studies.

Miller is now the SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication in NC State’s Department of English. In honor of the 30th anniversary of her article’s publication, the journal Composition Forum is dedicating its November 2014 issue to articles about rhetorical genre studies and the impact of Miller’s work.

The Genre Code

“Genre” refers to the categories that we slot communications into, based on the patterns they demonstrate. For instance, a fictional narrative that doesn’t take long to read from start to finish would generally be called a short story; a book-length piece of fiction is a novel. To use a more controversial example, the memoir genre is understood to consist of true stories founded on research or personal knowledge. That was why, after Oprah Winfrey featured James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces in her book club, she was angry when she learned that Frey had made up some of the events in his book.

Genres are useful because they tell us what to expect. When we go to see a romantic comedy at the movie theater, or we listen to a campaign speech, or we read an editorial column, those genres provide a structure that helps us get more out of the experience. For scholars, however, the difficulty with genres has always been how to define them. It’s easy to rattle off a list of genres, but what really constitutes a genre? When can we say a genre exists? What separates one genre from another?

The problem is particularly acute in the field of rhetoric, which is the study of how we influence each other through communication. Aristotle said there were three genres of rhetoric: political, judicial, and ceremonial. Rhetoricians since then have come up with many other schemes for defining genres, but they all overlap or contradict each other in some way. This was the state of rhetorical studies when Miller sat down to write her article.

“Rhetorical studies was chaotic in 1984,” she says. “Everyone had a theory of what genre is, and they were all saying something different.” Miller got the idea to write her groundbreaking article when she realized that none the rhetoricians’ definitions of genre were particularly rhetorical in nature; that is, they were based on content or structure, but not on the communicative act itself. To Miller, those were the wrong approaches for any rhetorician to take, because “the essence of rhetoric is that you’re trying to have an influence on someone else via a speech act. So I wanted to move away from definitions of genre based on content or structure and toward a definition based on action.”

Thinking About the Box

The essential insight of Miller’s article is that it doesn’t make sense to come up with a list of exactly three genres — or four, or 40 — because genres are created through shared, repeated social actions. Genres are social actions, which means that old genres die, and new ones come into being, all the time. Miller’s article was the first theoretically based statement of that principle within the field of rhetoric.

“The weird thing about the article is that the people I thought I was talking to didn’t pay much attention at first,” she notes. Rhetoricians and other communication scholars cited the article several times, but within a few years, interest in genre studies had died down. The article didn’t start to get legs until applied linguists discovered it. “I don’t even know how they found it,” Miller says. The linguists were interested in teaching international students how to write theses and scientific reports in English, and they found that it was easier to teach someone how to write a scientific report if you taught them to recognize the features of such reports as a genre — what they look like, how they introduce a problem, how they create a scientific tone.

After that, scholars in composition studies discovered Miller’s article because they found it helpful for teaching first-year students how to understand the genres found within the university. From there the article filtered into the K-12 world for much the same reasons. “The article provides a useful way of helping students see that all good writing isn’t the same,” Miller says. “They need to understand that different genres have different vocabularies, different argumentative strategies.”

One reason why the article’s citation rate is so high is that it’s been taken up in many different fields. Now genre is an interdisciplinary term: musicologists, sociologists, anthropologists and film scholars talk about genre as often as rhetoricians do. The concept has also gone international. Several years ago, Miller was invited to give a talk at a conference in Brazil because scholars there had been reading her work after a national K-12 educational reform made genre the basis of writing education. She has spoken in Brazil five times since then, as well as Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway and South Korea.

Worldwide Genres

Another reason for the article’s popularity is the explosion in new genres since the advent of the Web. “We have all these new potentials for communicating in ways we could never do before,” Miller observes. “The symbolic world is proliferating out of control, and people are interested in genre because it gives us a way to mentally control that world, to categorize and compartmentalize it so we can understand what’s going on out there.”

One of the first Web-specific genres to become popular was blogging, and Miller published a study on blogging in 2004. “But the paper was out of date by the time it was published,” she says, “because by then the genre had already splintered into travel blogs, photo blogs, mommy blogs, you name it.”

Now genre is a topic of popular interest that is frequently mentioned in the press as a way to describe literature, music, TV, the performing arts, even technology. “I’m not taking credit for all of that,” Miller says. “It’s just that the concept of genre is more broadly useful than we academics realized back in 1984. And it remains useful for academics too.”

So how does it feel when a journal in your field devotes an entire issue to a theory you proposed decades ago, at the beginning of your career? “It’s very gratifying,” she says, “and a little strange. When I wrote the article, I didn’t have any sense that it was going to be important. I was just trying to get some mileage out of my dissertation.”

After 30 years, it’s clear that Miller is still having an impact in the field she helped create — and far beyond it.

By Brent Winter. This article first appeared in the NC State Bulletin.