Columns September/October 2023

Genre in the World: How English Degrees Taught Me to Take Action in Life

By Sabina Barber

Genre as a Tool

Genre is more than a classroom tool that helps people categorize and analyze literature, art, and music. Genre helps us frame the requirements, rules, nuances, and deviations of communicating in certain contexts. Caroline Miller explains the three dimensionality of genre in her text, “Genre as a Social Action” when she writes, “genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality…for the student, genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” (Miller 1984, 165). Genres that students learn in the classroom are part of a bigger scheme of the working world. Pieces created within genres come from people who have experienced the world and want to express their living in a sharable form. Their experiences transfer to literature, art, music, and other forms of expression that are put into categories of genre. When students learn genre rules to analyze work that arose from lived experiences, they can understand the part(s) of society that the creator of the piece wanted to share. When students internalize this knowledge they learned from different genres of work, they have keys to understanding the world that was handed down to them, and they can use their genre knowledge to create work to help make better worlds outside of the classroom.

My Experience

My background in understanding genre comes from studying various fields of English. In 2020, I earned my bachelor’s degree in literature with a minor in creative writing. Then, in 2023, I earned my master’s in rhetoric and composition, but half of my classes were in technical communication. From these studies, I learned how to read, analyze, write, and use numerous genres that have moved me through the world. Even though I have come far in my learning, my understanding of genre started at a conceptual, theoretical level.


When I was in literature classes and analyzed a piece like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, I thought about eighteenth-century gender roles. By analyzing The Yellow Wallpaper through the feminist genre lens, I was observing how society functioned in the eighteenth century for an ill, high-class woman. This analysis allowed me to see feminist issues that were prominent then, and are still relevant now. From analyzing literature in various genre lenses that induce critical thinking and empathy, I was able to understand different issues that arose from the lack of human rights, but I did not know what to do with that information other than write essays for class that only a professor saw.

Rhetoric and Composition

Trees in autumn colors, light filtering trough the leaves

After working with genre through literature, I expanded my study of genres to rhetoric and composition. In this field, I learned how to analyze texts and their related elements (words, images, people, physical spaces, etc.) From rhetorical analysis, I learned that the American perspective of nature is romanticized through the genre of rhetorical ecology. An example of romanticization of nature is when someone takes pictures of remote wilderness landscapes without people in it, which can be seen in the image on the preceding page.

Understanding how rhetorical decisions influence people in extreme and mundane ways is the most important genre-based lesson that I learned through rhetorical analysis. Even though rhetoric and composition taught me more about genres, I was not sure how I could use it in ways that impacted my communities.

Technical Communication

Until taking technical communication classes, I did not understand how I could use genre outside of the classroom. In technical communication, I learned how to write technical documents used in workplace and community settings, and how genres can serve larger purposes than theory, analysis, and critical thinking. I encountered the real-world use of genres when I wrote an accessibility proposal for an official government website for blind and visually impaired people, which provides local news, support, and other information and resources.

Using Jay Dolmage’s Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, I took concepts of what makes an accessible world and applied them to the website. The first concept was “Movement—getting there—how we get to an event or a class” (Dolmage 2017, 118-9). People who are visually impaired rely on speech commands and text to talk to navigate the digital world. However, the website could not be processed through a screen reader; there were no speech command options; and the text to talk was confusing and difficult to follow. While there were more issues with the website, I took all of the issues that I saw and wrote an accessibility proposal. The proposal is a small example of how using a technical communication genre allowed me to use my knowledge of accessibility and website design to create a text that points out flaws that were detrimental to an entire community’s accessibility and how those flaws could be fixed. While my piece did not change the website (which has fortunately been improved by the organization since my work in that class), it demonstrated that through technical writing via a proposal, I have the ability to fix issues in the world with a written document instead of theorizing and conceptualizing how issues can be fixed.

Use Genre to Change the World

Genre is more than a classroom tool to help students analyze work. Outside of the classroom, genres transform entire communities. In the majority of English classroom settings, genre helps students conceptualize different themes and topics, but technical communication classes taught me that, to truly understand genre, it is important to understand how using genre can enact change in the real-world. When students can apply what they learned in the classroom and apply it to their lives and communities, they can make differences for themselves and others.


Dolmage, Jay. Universal Design. In Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press, 2017.

Miller, Carolyn. Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 2, (1984): 151–167.

Plenio, Johannes, forest heat by sunbeam, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2023,

Barber Headshot

Sabina Barber recently earned her master’s degree at Boise State University in Rhetoric and Composition. She has a love of working with words and all genres of work. Sabina is passionate about exploring various aspects of life and values being a lifelong learner.