Pros have contextualized (genre) knowledge

I have used the term “genre”  — even in the titles of a few blog posts —  a number of times. But I realized a couple of days ago that I have never explicitly defined the concept here. My bad! Most people are familiar with the word’s use in the context of music. If you use iTunes, you can browse genres of music like Blues or Classical or Rock. So what makes a specific musical performance Blues rather than Rock?  Pandora lists the following as indicative of the blues genre:

  • heavy melodic ornamentation
  • repetitive melodic phrasing
  • blues chord progressions
  • major key tonality
  • an electric guitar solo
  • an emotional male lead vocal

So a musical genre is defined by a set of features related to qualities of melody, chording, key, instruments, vocals, etc. (Help me. I’m far beyond what I learned 40 years ago from my piano teacher at this point.) Categorizing music into genres makes life more efficient whether shopping for or just talking about it. (I’m trying to imagine how confused you would be if I tried to describe Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV)’s music without referring to either Blues or Rock.) Of course, the qualities of a genre are not rigid. When a song like “Texas Flood” includes some Blues qualities along with the qualities of Rock, we can call the music Blues Rock.

Some of you may remember hearing the term “genre” in the context of literature: narrative (novels and short stories), poetry, and drama are the major literary genres. But the concept is used to distinguish categories of non-artistic creations as well. Back in the 1990s, such genres were defined as:

socially recognized types of communicative actions — such as memos, meetings, expense forms, training seminars — that are habitually enacted by members of a community to realize particular social purposes (Yates & Orlinkowski)

The qualities of a memo are not identical to the qualities of a meeting or an expense form or a training seminar or a business plan or even a letter — let alone any other genre of written communication.  Because their rhetorical context differs, so do their content, organization, style, and mechanics.

Most importantly, the qualities of these workplace genres are different from those of essays and literature. No one should be surprised when a workplace amateur, who is a pro at writing essays and reading literature, produces an amateur attempt at a memo or business plan.  And yet most people are.

Here is the critical point. When we label musicians as great, it means they are great in their genre.  SRV was a great Blues Rock musician. But if you had asked him to perform a classical guitar piece, fans of that genre who expected Andres Segovia would have seen him as an amateur. To be labeled as a pro at writing in the workplace requires contextualized knowledge like what I described a few days ago in Pros Read Thoughtfully Before They Write Successfully. That’s because

writing is a practice based on expectations: the reader’s chances of interpreting the writer’s purpose are increased if the writer takes the trouble to anticipate what the reader might be expecting based on previous texts they have read of the same kind. (Hyland)

Like SRV playing classical guitar, amateur workplace writers just don’t know how to fulfill their audience’s expectations. Stop kidding yourself. No matter how skilled you are with the tools used to perform a genre, it requires some blood, sweat, and tears to master a new one.

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