Date of Award

Fall 2009

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas R Newkirk


Developing genre awareness as a means of "learning how to learn" in new writing situations is a goal of four recently proposed writing pedagogies that recognize the context-dependent nature of standards for "good writing" (Devitt, Reiff, and Bawarshi (2004); Beaufort (2007); Johns (2008); Downs and Wardle (2007)). Yet other scholars argue that useful genre knowledge cannot be taught explicitly in the classroom, but must be acquired tacitly through participation in a workplace or other discourse community (Dias et al. (1999); Freedman (1994); Smit (2004)).

This qualitative study investigates the range of variability and potential sources of genre awareness among undergraduates who had not received explicit teaching about genre awareness. It presents students' explicit understanding of why particular genre conventions are followed in a particular context by examining what they could tell about learning the advanced lab report in writing-in-the-major courses in either Zoology or Civil Engineering. Research data includes surveys of all students in three courses (n=112), interviews with a subset in each course (n=24) and with all instructors (n=7), samples of graded student lab reports, and classroom observations.

Overall, few study participants demonstrated genre awareness as defined by Devitt. Students showed limited awareness of the rhetorical purposes of the advanced lab report and even less awareness of the values and beliefs embedded in its discourse conventions. Disciplinary identification and mentoring experiences were found to be factors that might contribute to the development of genre awareness. Unexpected findings were that some insecure writers showed relatively high overall genre awareness, while some confident writers showed relatively low genre awareness.

Further research is needed to refine an assessment instrument that could be readily used by other researchers. However, the instrument for assessing genre awareness that was developed for this project generated rich observations of student perspectives about learning to perform a new genre. The data illustrated some of the problems that advocates of explicit teaching of genre awareness seek to address. In particular, this study suggests that lack of genre awareness may contribute to the development of disciplinary prejudice and, as a result, reduce possibilities for effective collaboration across disciplinary borders.