Genres are abstract, socially recognised ways of using language.(Hyland, 2002a: 114)
Hyland’s definition of genres as ‘abstract, socially recognised ways of using language’ is general enough to be widely acceptable, but as such it masks significant differences in how genres are more specifically defined and operationalised in research and teaching contexts. This chapter explains what we mean by academic genres, and how we classify genres of assessed student writing into groups of similar genres, called genre families.
We begin with a fabricated scenario which raises some of the methodological issues involved in investigating student writing. This is followed by an overview of distinctions and concepts needed to conduct such a study (assignments, texts, genres, academic writing, genre family, social purpose, staging and register).
Our thirteen genre families with their purposes and stages are presented in Section 2.2. They are grouped according to five broad social functions of student writing, each of which is explored in more detail in a subsequent chapter (Chapters 3 to 7).
Differences in register are highlighted in Section 2.3 through the typical clusters of lexical and grammatical features identified by the multidimensional analysis for each of the thirteen genre families. For example, the language of Proposal genres is more persuasive than the language of Literature Survey genres, but both have highly informational registers when compared to argumentative Essay genres.
Section 2.4 maps out the distribution of the genre families across the four university levels (first year to taught Masters) and across four disciplinary groups of study. This provides a broad picture of assignment genres across the academy.
Investigating Student Writing: A Scenario
If you ask a student in Sociology, or in Engineering, what is involved in writing assignments in their discipline, they will soon start to explain that there are different types of writing – essays, research proposals, reports, projects and more – and that each of these has a different function; each relates differently to research or practical work being done and to reading and lectures in the discipline; and so each is organised differently. You will also begin to realise that when a Sociology student talks about a ‘report’ or a ‘project’ or a ‘case study’, they may well be describing a rather different type of assignment than that referred to by an Engineering student who uses the same labels.