Defining Academic writing

Notes towards a critique of Genre Theory

When I think about defining academic writing, it is easy to shift too quickly to thinking in terms of SFL grammatics, and to define it in terms of features like grammatical metaphor, abstraction, technicality, etc. Or in terms of the genres deployed in assignments such as essays, reports, etc.

But this ignores the ‘rhetorical situation’ contexting academic writing.

I do not believe that the SFL notion of genre captures what is happening in academic writing. It’s notion of ‘institutional purpose’ is too thin, and there has been no real effort to thicken it up over the years – despite using phrases like ‘configuration of meanings’.

There are two issues: one, thickening the description of the institutional scene; and, secondly, acknowledging that educators are focused on the individual text and what it signifies about the understanding of the student author.

Re one: Genre theory has no category ‘above’ genre with which to describe the institutional context and its history of language games

Re two: Genre theory focuses on types, the generic case, not the unique or individual case.