How Do Genres, Media, and Platforms Shape Our Perception and Our Communication?

In this episode, we explore genres, media and platforms with Dr Carolyn Miller. Dr Miller is particularly interested in discovering how genres originate and how they shape the ways we think, perceive, act, and communicate.

Airdate: July 11, 2022

Season 2 Episode 24 | 51 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.230] – Liz Fraley

Greetings and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she’s our interviewer, and welcome to Carolyn Miller, today’s guest in Room 42. Dr. Carolyn Miller is the SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication Emerita at NC State. She’s the founding director of NC State’s, PhD in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media and of the MS in Technical Communication. She proposed and taught the first graduate courses for the MA option in Rhetoric and Composition.

[00:00:41.100] – Liz Fraley

Dr. Miller served as the Director of Professional Writing, and Coordinator of the undergraduate concentration in writing and editing, which has become Rhetoric and Professional Writing. She’s established and directed the Center for Communication in Science, Technology and Management and co-directed a successor at the Center for Information Society Studies.

[00:01:00.900] – Liz Fraley

Her professional service includes terms on governing boards of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the MLA Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition, and the Rhetoric Society of America.

[00:01:18.960] – Liz Fraley

She’s the past President of the Rhetoric Society of America and was Editor of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly. She has served from the editorial boards of College Composition and Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Philosophy and Rhetoric, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Written Communication.

[00:01:39.050] – Liz Fraley

And today she’s here to help us start answering the question, how do genres, media, and platforms shape our perception and our communication? Welcome.

[00:01:48.110] – Carolyn Miller

Thank you. It’s great to be here, and I hope we have an interesting discussion.

[00:01:53.630] – Janice Summers

I am so excited to be talking to you. Your accomplishments and your career leaves me exhausted. All that you have done and contributed to the world and technical communication rhetoric is just so impressive, and I’m so thrilled and delighted that you’re here talking with us today.

[00:02:13.430] – Carolyn Miller

Well, it took me 42 years to do all of that. I didn’t do it all in a week.

[00:02:19.730] – Janice Summers

Yeah, but you kept going and you kept accomplishing this-

[00:02:23.920] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right-

[00:02:25.050] – Janice Summers

-and you continue.

[00:02:26.190] – Carolyn Miller

Kind of wore me out, and then I decided it was time to retire.

[00:02:32.010] – Janice Summers

And now you can just come and share your wisdom with us, which we’re just thrilled. So I want to talk to you about genres-

[00:02:39.900] – Carolyn Miller

All right.

[00:02:40.680] – Janice Summers

-if we may. So tell me, how is a genre created? What is the birth of a genre?

[00:02:48.390] – Carolyn Miller

Well, that’s an interesting question, and different people will give you different kinds of answers. And I think it’s useful to think about two overall approaches to thinking about genres. In one, a more theoretical approach that many academics will take, and it tends to be more prevalent in literary studies, but it goes all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, and it was very prevalent during the Renaissance, where someone would come up with a theory or a framework that says genres, for example, are based on the different kinds of possible audiences. This was what Aristotle thought.

[00:03:37.890] – Carolyn Miller

So he said there’s three different kinds of audiences. There’s audiences who judge the past. Those would be juries, there’s audiences who judge the future. Those would be people in the legislature trying to figure out what we should do, how we should spend our money. There’s audiences who judge the present, people who are celebrating like if you have a funeral or a celebration of somebody. And so this theoretical framework gives you three possible genres. Three and only three. That’s the theoretical approach.

[00:04:18.820] – Carolyn Miller

Then there’s the more empirical or observational approach where you look around and you see what are people doing, and how are they talking about it, and how are they interacting with each other? And what you find, taking a more of a sociological or anthropological approach, and what you find certainly today is that you get a proliferation of an unending number of genres. There’s no way of saying, “Well, there’s only three,” or “There’s only eight,” or “There’s only ten.” It just depends on what are people doing? So genres come and go. They live and die, they morph, they combine. So it’s impossible to—in my view anyway—to do a complete inventory.

[00:05:17.350] – Janice Summers


[00:05:18.970] – Carolyn Miller

So genres are born from what people need to do and what people want to do in communicating with each other.

[00:05:30.550] – Janice Summers

Okay. So genres can come and they can give birth to more genres. And sometimes they may be retired, but they might come back again.

[00:05:41.270] – Carolyn Miller

Right. Or come back in a different form. You have to listen to how people are talking about what they’re doing and how they’re evaluating the communication practices of other people. And I really got into this approach to genre when I started looking at blogs back in the early 2000s when the first commercial blogging platforms came online, MySpace and… I can’t remember the names of these old ones. They were early.

[00:06:23.040] – Janice Summers

Platforms come and go, right?

[00:06:24.390] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. And it seems that all of a sudden everybody and his cousin had a blog, or had two or three blogs, and every teenager was pouring out his heart and soul on their-

[00:06:44.570] – Carolyn Miller

On this digital platform.

[00:06:45.930] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right. But this personal blog was being published to the world. So there’s this really strange and new intersection between the public and the private that the digital world enabled that created a totally new environment for people, and that intrigued me and my co… I worked on this with a co-author and trying to figure out, “Well, this happened really fast. Why did everyone want to be doing this today when yesterday, they never heard of it?”

[00:07:28.530] – Janice Summers

That is interesting because it took off and exploded. And it wasn’t just people bearing their souls and doing this very public personal expose. It was also companies that started writing blog posts.

[00:07:42.190] – Carolyn Miller


[00:07:44.010] – Janice Summers

Everybody and every company started writing a blog.

[00:07:47.970] – Carolyn Miller

And they have a blog. Now, you have to have a Twitter stream. Back then, 20 years ago, it was the blog. And so one of the things that my co-author and I discovered as we worked on this, it took us maybe a year, a year-and-a-half to put this paper together that we wrote, and by the time we were done, the paper was out of date.

[00:08:17.240] – Janice Summers

Technology changes.

[00:08:19.450] – Carolyn Miller

We couldn’t work fast enough because not only were there personal blogs, but as you say, there were corporate blogs, there were mommy blogs, there were runner blogs, quitter—smoking quitter—blogs, travel blogs, photo blogs. Again, people discovered they could do a whole lot of different kinds of things that other people recognized and developed mutual expectations around. The personal blog was the grandmother, I guess, of a whole bunch of progeny, a whole bunch of offspring, if you will, offspring blogs.

[00:09:10.410] – Carolyn Miller

So that was one of the things that sort of impressed on me, the fact that genres change and multiply and diversify. And in the digital environment, they do it really quickly, and it’s just really hard to keep up with what’s going on because the digital media belong to individual users in a way that film production and book publishing and newspaper publishing individuals can’t really produce from those kinds of communicative platforms, so the digital media enable individuals to have much more influence on what’s going on in the communication world.

[00:10:02.550] – Janice Summers

Well, and rapid to users or to other people, the pace that information can be put out there-

[00:10:11.630] – Carolyn Miller

Right. Some people experiment-

[00:10:12.500] – Janice Summers

-is so different.

[00:10:15.210] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah. They experiment, they play, they play off each other, they test the limits, they push the boundaries, and this is how innovation happens. And again, it happens more rapidly and it’s more driven by individuals than in the past where you had the big, heavy, clunky, expensive publishing platforms of the print era. It really is a different world out there.

[00:10:45.910] – Carolyn Miller

So genres have become—to me and I think to a lot of people—more interesting simply because they’re more driven from the bottom up than from the top down in the digital world, so that’s a really new development, if that makes sense.

[00:11:08.770] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it’s interesting, too. Think about the birth of the blog and the explosion of the genres that fall on the blog and the rapid pace of information you get out there. And yet, the checks and balances are missing.

[00:11:26.580] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah. Well, the checks and balances are partly the constraints of the technology. It allows you to do certain things and not other things. And also what other people respond to, what they’re interested in, what they get some kind of satisfaction out of. There’s a kind of a community-driven set of expectations that allows people to say, “Well, this is a great blog and this blog is a waste of time. This is an A-Lister and this is a B-Lister, or worse. This guy is going to get lots of clicks and likes and shares and whatnot. This is going to go viral and this is just going to go thud.”

[00:12:21.390] – Carolyn Miller

So people develop standards of evaluation that again, it’s kind of miraculous to me that people reached agreements so easily and so quickly and so—what’s the word I’m looking for? Sort of naturally, without really talking about it, that allowed them to create these social expectations that are so widely shared.

[00:12:59.390] – Janice Summers

That’s true. Yeah.

[00:13:03.720] – Liz Fraley

It’s odd for me to think about, because I’m not sure what you mean by, like, we come up with a set of standards for determining basically popularity.

[00:13:18.080] – Carolyn Miller


[00:13:19.330] – Liz Fraley

Really, right? And that’s not standards-based necessarily.

[00:13:24.390] – Carolyn Miller

The standards are not explicit, really. They’re tacit agreements that a community arrives at, allows them, again, in this mysterious way to agree on this is a great blog, and this isn’t.

[00:13:47.090] – Liz Fraley

We’re shaping both the genre that exists and that we value. We’re actually setting genre value as well.

[00:14:01.770] – Carolyn Miller


[00:14:02.390] – Liz Fraley

And it’s more than just a category. It’s more than just a pattern.

[00:14:06.290] – Carolyn Miller

Right. So we know what is a good example of a blog and what is a bad example of a blog, so what really sort of fulfills the expectations and there’s a good example of the category and what’s a not-so-good example.

[00:14:27.110] – Janice Summers

What is done to our overall communication, though? It’s an interesting thing because I think there’s also that danger in communication. One of the things in technical communication, that we inform, and instruct, and believability. Credibility is really important in technical communication.

[00:14:49.590] – Janice Summers

And it’s kind of like… I think there’s some of the blog explosion and the subsequent social media explosion is missing some key elements that I think in technical communication and the rigors of technical communication we employ, and that is the accuracy of the information.

[00:15:09.570] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah, sure, sure. Again, the standards of evaluation or certain genres of technical communication are going to be really, really important. The standards of evaluation for a personal blog are going to be something different.

[00:15:28.070] – Janice Summers

That’s going to be public sway on opinion and emotion.

[00:15:31.590] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah, exactly. Whereas with a lot of technical communication, particularly that is produced by a corporation, the standards aren’t going to bubble up from the bottom. They’re going to be imposed from the top. This is how we do things. This is how we achieve the credibility of our products and our documentation. This is our branding that identifies our way of doing things and our way of guaranteeing to our users that you can rely on us.

[00:16:14.870] – Janice Summers

The validity of the information.

[00:16:16.540] – Carolyn Miller


[00:16:17.610] – Janice Summers

And that’s really interesting because when you think about it and you think about the blog explosion again, that genre, and how that influenced technical communication, the company’s website. Because I think… I might be wrong. I’ve never done deep research. Somebody can do this for us and report back to us.

[00:16:40.060] – Janice Summers

But I think that what happened is you see a lot of the… Because the thing about the blog, it was personal, and humans connect with humans. In technical communication, we talk about the user is our focus. And I think that really touched a nerve with people, is that human-to-human connection via the blog. And I think that good companies try to incorporate that human-to-human connection in their corporate organization, their technical communication to make it a little more personable and approachable.

[00:17:17.250] – Carolyn Miller

Right. That can backfire, of course. But if something that looks like a personal blog and people come to expect certain things from it, because the genre says this is a personal blog, it’s implicit expectations of this category. And then you find out, well, it’s really just some corporate hack trying to pretend to make this personal, and meanwhile they’re just trying to sell me something, then my expectations have been violated. I feel betrayed, and I’m going to have a negative response to that corporation.

[00:18:07.050] – Carolyn Miller

Our expectations are, again, I think can be so strong that when they’re violated, you really lose your reader, you lose your user, if I can put it that way. So pretending to be something that you’re not is a genre violation, and it’s a test of how important genres are, how strong people’s negative reactions can be when they’re violated. I think we’ve talked about the violation of expectations in the memoir.

[00:18:45.870] – Carolyn Miller

There’s an incident several years ago when James Fry, who wrote this memoir called… I think it was called A Million Little Pieces and it was about his recovery from addiction and alcoholism and all kinds of dissolute behavior, and he went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and she really loved this book and thought, “This is a story of redemption and it’s so wonderful.”

[00:19:14.560] – Carolyn Miller

And then it turned out that he made up a lot of these stories about himself. And she had him back on and gave him what for, for betraying her expectations of what a memoir really is. And there was this big scandal about it and lots of publicity. And Oprah again scolded him. And he published a kind of apology and explained, “Well, you know…” I can’t remember all his apologies, but it was really a funny incident.

[00:19:52.170] – Carolyn Miller

But it demonstrated, again, I think, the strength of genre expectations by their violation. So we have these, again, cultural understandings that memoir… If that’s the publisher’s category, if that’s the shelf that it’s on in the bookstore, that’s the category that it appears in on Amazon, then I have a right to expect a certain relationship with the factual history of that person’s life. And if you’re going to violate those expectations, then I’ve wasted my money in buying your book.

[00:20:39.130] – Janice Summers

And that’s often something that you can’t recover from, when you violate those expectations.

[00:20:42.210] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right. That is a loss of credibility and reputation. So genre is very powerful in that respect as well.

[00:20:55.250] – Janice Summers

Because in that situation, that’s intentional manipulation.

[00:20:59.260] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah. People don’t like that.

[00:21:05.040] – Janice Summers

No. And we’re fine with the intentional emotional manipulation—we like fiction, it’s very entertaining. It’s not that we’re opposed to that. It’s that when we’re in fiction, we expect fiction. 

[00:21:23.760] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right. The line between fiction and memoir is one, I think, we’re still negotiating. It’s not a bright line. There isn’t any publishing czar that says, “You have to do it this way. You have to do it this way.” So the publishers and the authors are always jockeying around and negotiating and the public responds. This is a kind of organic way that a genre develops and changes over time-

[00:22:01.060] – Janice Summers

That’s a really good point.

[00:22:00.730] – Carolyn Miller

-but meanwhile, you could hurt people’s feelings.

[00:22:01.850] – Janice Summers

That’s a really good point because sometimes, there’s fuzzy boundaries-

[00:22:08.590] – Carolyn Miller

Yes, exactly.

[00:22:10.190] – Janice Summers

-genres, until the lines become clearer and clearer based on societal acceptance and finesse and fine-tuning, right?

[00:22:26.260] – Carolyn Miller

Right. Or unless you’re in a situation where somebody has the authority to define the genre and set the standards and say, “If you do it that way, you’re fired.” or “We’re not going to accept it. We’re not going to publish it.” or “Go back and rewrite it.” or something. I’m just going to think of an example and it slipped out of my mind here.

[00:22:57.210] – Liz Fraley

Institutional construction of a genre, a purposeful construction, like a memo or report pattern.

[00:23:07.160] – Carolyn Miller

Yes. A corporation might say, “If we’re going to do software documentation, we have a whole manual on how to do the software documentation.” Or “Here’s the way that we, in our corporation, write business letters. We always address the customer in this particular way. We always sign off in this particular way. And if you don’t do it that way, you get in trouble.” Or, in an educational institution, the teacher gets to say, “You write this assignment, and here are the guidelines. And if you don’t follow the guidelines, you haven’t matched the genre, you haven’t done the assignment adequately.”

[00:23:56.430] – Carolyn Miller

So there are some situations where the genre definition is going to be very explicit and very clear or other situations where everything is fuzzy and has to be negotiated by a trial and error method.

[00:24:30.230] – Liz Fraley

It’s partly the audience’s expectation and the writer tuning things for them, but also shaping it themselves. I’m thinking in terms of… Like your standard website. Every website has the contact button in the upper right-hand corner. There are certain patterns and expectations that.. If you’re for one purpose, you’re doing on purpose, and for another, you might be mixing or shoving them together to achieve a completely different purpose.

[00:25:05.770] – Carolyn Miller

Right. Yes. In some situations, experimentation is either permitted or allowed in some way that people can again start to push the boundaries and say, “What happens if we try it this way? It might work better or we might get a different response, we might make people notice something that they haven’t been noticing before.” But it is-

[00:25:36.410] – Liz Fraley

You have to really know the genre in order to do that challenge.

[00:25:40.410] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. You have to be able to do it right in order to violate it in an effective way.

[00:25:51.480] – Janice Summers

Does that mean like online help? Like online help and how you would shift the architecture, the structure of it to see what works better for the consumer. That would be one that you would play with more than, for example, if you’ve got maintenance manuals, operators manuals, work cards, those are probably going to be more set, more static genres because of expectation.

[00:26:17.290] – Janice Summers

If you’re doing a maintenance manual, you better have stuff the way the maintenance people need to find it. But if you’re online, you can play with your online help a little bit because you can change things faster and you can test those boundaries a little bit more.

[00:26:33.800] – Carolyn Miller

And it also depends on whether you have a captive audience or not. With online help, your audience can drift away or they can even drift away to a different product if they can’t find their way around your online help system, but if you’ve got your maintenance people, they are your employees, and you can deal with them internally and they can’t really drift away without losing their job.

[00:27:08.230] – Janice Summers

Yes, they’re locked in. They’re locked in. But then you think about it, you think about online help for software tools that we use, and we’re in that tool. It’s not like we can really drift away from the tool. We can become very unhappy, though.

[00:27:23.460] – Carolyn Miller

Yes, right.

[00:27:25.690] – Janice Summers

You become very unhappy. And the next time we’re looking for tools, we might drift away from you then.

[00:27:31.220] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. Right.

[00:27:32.410] – Liz Fraley

It’s a long way from the three audiences of Aristotle.

[00:27:37.300] – Janice Summers

Haven’t we come a long way from Aristotle?

[00:27:40.930] – Carolyn Miller

The other point I wanted to make about blogs, though, again, it’s an example that I think makes a number of useful points, and that is that when my co-author and I first started looking at blogs, it seemed like the blog was the personal blog. That was the thing that people did first with those new platforms as they came online. And for some reason, that satisfied a real need that a lot of people seemed to have to bear their soul in public. And so the blog seemed to be the genre. That’s what you do with this technology, it’s this genre.

[00:28:29.930] – Carolyn Miller

But then, as we said, you can start getting all these different kinds of blogs. We can perform different communicative actions with blogging platforms. And so, is the blog a technology, or is it a genre? That’s the question that we ended up with. And I had to conclude that the blog really isn’t a genre, it’s a platform. It’s a technology that can support many genres.

[00:29:09.110] – Carolyn Miller

But when it first becomes available to people, we can’t see that. We can’t see the difference between the technology and the genre because they seem to fit so closely together. There’s only this one thing we can do with it because we’re just starting out. And I tested this hypothesis by looking at different technologies in history. And one of the things I looked at was radio, which is… I wanted to get away from writing and see if this applied to-

[00:29:45.790] – Janice Summers

Look at a different genre family.

[00:29:48.860] – Carolyn Miller

Yes, a different modality. I didn’t get into the visual, but I tried to focus on the auditory. And the history of radio is, again, very complicated, but it has a similar pattern in that the first radio broadcast was in, I think, something like 1904, if I’m remembering correctly. And it was a very short program on Christmas Eve. It had some Christmas music and some dramatic reading and greetings and whatnot. And then throughout the next couple of decades, you see the beginnings of what became the familiar radio genres. The news broadcast, the live music broadcast, radio theater, the weather-

[00:30:44.500] – Janice Summers

The soap operas.

[00:30:46.310] – Carolyn Miller

The soap opera, exactly. Or the serial drama, the variety show, the quiz show. And some of these genres, of course, ported over into the television medium when that became available. It begins with this, sort of…what are we going to do with this new toy that we have? Let’s just send out some Christmas music just to prove that we can do it, right?

[00:31:19.370] – Janice Summers

That’s interesting because the blog, the same thing. The blog came out just to prove that we can do it.

[00:31:24.190] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right. And there’s this process over what was for radio, decades of developing the audience, developing the possibilities, solidifying a set of expectations about the news, the weather, the music, et cetera, but it didn’t happen right away. Radio became genrefied, if I can put it that way, over the course of some decades.

[00:32:00.030] – Carolyn Miller

And the other example I like to draw from is one that Charles Bazerman came up with. And I think you interviewed him.

[00:32:10.160] – Janice Summers

We know him, yeah.

[00:32:12.870] – Carolyn Miller

I’ve known Chuck for years. And this little piece he did about the history of the letter. Not the alphabetical letter, but the letter that you write to somebody.

[00:32:27.270] – Janice Summers

Writing information on something.

[00:32:32.130] – Carolyn Miller

Right. And here we’re going way back into the very beginning of written history where you’ve got clay tablets and stone tablets. The letter didn’t really become an effective medium until you had portable, transportable… A medium like papyrus, and ink that was relatively easy to replenish, and also sufficient people who could write. Literacy was a new skill that not many people had. That developed pretty slowly.

[00:33:08.560] – Janice Summers

And someone on the other end that could read it.

[00:33:10.450] – Carolyn Miller

Yes, exactly. Bazerman found by doing a historical survey that the letter—again, this is not over years or decades, this is over centuries, a much slower process of evolution—but the letter was like the grandfather genre to many, many, many other genres. The idea that you can encode communication between two parties with a specific relationship to each other in specific circumstances so that you get a letter has a date, it has an addressee, it has a writer that sets up a particular relationship that allowed in its first manifestations, governance at a distance. So you could have a central authority, like the Pharaoh in Egypt, could send instructions to his armies or to his ports to import something. Or her, but usually, the Pharaoh was a guy.

[00:34:28.150] – Carolyn Miller

But then, the letter, as a medium, as a technology, became useful for doing a whole bunch of other things other than governing or sending instructions. It’s the grandfather genre to the scientific report, to the patent disclosure, to all kinds of religious documents, the papal encyclical, the brotherly letter, to critic-

[00:35:01.840] – Liz Fraley

The travel blog.

[00:35:03.190] – Carolyn Miller


[00:35:04.390] – Janice Summers

I was thinking love letters.

[00:35:08.370] – Carolyn Miller

In generations then, yeah, the blog, the contracts, wills, all kinds of legal documents. Many philosophical treatises are written as though they were letters. So, again, the letter starts off being one thing and evolves over the centuries. The medium stays pretty much the same, but the uses of it diversify and proliferate in all kinds of different ways as society gets more complicated, as we want to do different things in interaction with each other. So you get multiple genres, again, from the letter. I think that’s an interesting pattern that you see with different technologies and different genres over history.

[00:36:03.460] – Janice Summers

And think about just the tool itself, the letter is a tool, and how it impacted the ability of groups to grow and thrive.

[00:36:13.750] – Carolyn Miller

Absolutely. And this is what makes our societies much more complicated and diversified than ancient Egypt, or ancient Greece, or ancient Sumeria, or wherever the first writing developed. Our society is not only a lot bigger, but we do more things. We develop complex technologies, we send people to the moon, et cetera. We create the Internet.

[00:36:51.850] – Janice Summers

I’m just thinking about the genres, how are they observed culturally from one culture to another culture? Because now we’ve got communication, it’s a global thing.

[00:37:05.560] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right.

[00:37:06.510] – Janice Summers

You can write a blog here in English, but someone somewhere else in the world in a completely different culture can have access to that.

[00:37:17.500] – Carolyn Miller

That’s right. And of course, English is becoming more and more the global language. It’s the second language of a very great many people around the world. So those of us for whom English is the first language, we are spoiled. But that’s another whole conversation.

[00:37:40.150] – Carolyn Miller

But one of the things that I think that you’re pointing to is that because the digital technologies can cross-cultural and national boundaries so readily, and it seems like the genres, therefore, the genres of the Internet can cross those boundaries. Are they understood? Are they taken up? Are the expectations the same in other cultures as what we have here?

[00:38:16.430] – Carolyn Miller

I know that people are researching this, but it’s not something I have a lot of experience with, but the one example I do know about is the experience of people teaching international students who come to the United States and Great Britain in the English-speaking world to study, in particular, in science and engineering.

[00:38:44.090] – Carolyn Miller

The task of teaching someone who is native to Africa or Asia in particular, who grew up in a very different communicative culture, but is participating in the international enterprise of science, came to the United States, say to get an undergraduate or graduate degree in engineering or biology or something, and one of the tasks then is to teach them to write a scientific paper or a thesis, an undergraduate thesis or a graduate thesis in English, following the genre expectations of the scientific report or the thesis or whatever it is.

[00:39:35.410] – Carolyn Miller

Again, these genres look like they cross these borders so easily, but there are some rough edges where international students have grown up with expectations and understandings about the relationship between the individual and authority, that don’t translate automatically to the conventions of writing, say, a scientific paper. That when it comes to citing sources, citing authorities, sometimes this practice is one of the hardest things to get an international student to adopt comfortably. It works both ways. Some students, some cultures efface the individual that the student is very reluctant to say that he or she has any authority to say anything new.

[00:40:43.750] – Janice Summers


[00:40:44.540] – Carolyn Miller

What they’re willing to do is to repeat back what they’ve learned from the experts. I don’t have any standing, I don’t have any reputation, I don’t have any authority-

[00:40:57.370] – Janice Summers

Who am I to question that work?

[00:40:58.720] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. In other cases, the student is reluctant to give any credit to anybody else. They’re saying, I did this, and I’m not willing to subordinate myself to the authority of my predecessors. I’m reluctant to give credit to the shoulders that I’m supposedly standing on. Again, these are deep cultural habits of mind that are usually unconscious, subconscious anyway, implicit and so it’s hard to get through to somebody.

[00:41:50.350] – Carolyn Miller

Sometimes it’s hard for the teacher to understand what the problem is. It’s hard for the student to see how different the scientific practices of relating prior work to current work and how the student’s work needs to connect with that. It’s a difficult process because it is so implicit, it’s hard to figure out how to explain it to somebody for whom it’s not as natural as it is for us.

[00:42:27.600] – Janice Summers

Yet that practice is breaking boundaries?

[00:42:32.560] – Carolyn Miller


[00:42:34.450] – Janice Summers

To come up with a common, so there’s one agreed upon, very structured discipline in science to report findings to the research and accurately and objectively report what you’ve discovered.

[00:42:54.690] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. And that’s the problem, that scientific disciplines are not all alike either. That the practices of reporting and biology are not the same as in psychology or nuclear engineering. Well, for example, some disciplines do not want the author to use the first person pronoun. I discovered this, but it was found that these were the results. Whereas in other disciplines they say, “Oh, no, you don’t use the passive voice, you always have to use the active.” Different disciplinary conventions don’t translate across borders either. Genre is not totally transparent across those boundaries, it’s very tricky.

[00:44:01.950] – Liz Fraley

I was thinking about that while you were talking, too. It’s like do you say click the button or the user should click the button? That training is culturally bound.

[00:44:13.930] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. Yeah. Do I have a right to give you a command, or how polite does that command have to be couched in order for you to be willing to do it?

[00:44:27.680] – Janice Summers

In some situations, how many words do I need to use in order to give you that simple command? Does that command mean I’m rude or does it mean I’m right to the point so that you can go about your business?

[00:44:41.630] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. Again, how we relate to other people in language is part of our genre expectations. They’re not the same across cultures, so that’s another adaptation that genres sometimes have to go through.

[00:45:02.750] – Janice Summers

Communication is complicated.

[00:45:04.870] – Carolyn Miller

Oh, it sure is.

[00:45:08.490] – Janice Summers

Genres that’s a huge piece of it, but it’s only one piece of it.

[00:45:14.150] – Carolyn Miller


[00:45:15.460] – Janice Summers

Because then there’s form and format that comes in. And then you’re talking about visual cues or auditory cues. Boy, it’s confusing we can communicate at all.

[00:45:28.470] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah. Well, some people have asked the question whether, say, the scientific paper, which was always published in a paper journal and came every month in the mail or to the library, but then it gets translated into the PDF and you can download it on your computer. But then it gets put into a Web format so there can be comments from readers, there can be links to the original data or links to related studies, and it becomes part of a Web, but it’s still a scientific paper. But is it the same genre on a different platform?

[00:46:17.620] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because you’re opening up a whole new net with the open-source research.

[00:46:23.420] – Carolyn Miller

Exactly. Right.

[00:46:25.420] – Janice Summers

Just like a whole another living, breathing genre and research.

[00:46:30.750] – Carolyn Miller

Yeah. Either it’s a different genre or the scientific paper as a genre is evolving.

[00:46:40.690] – Janice Summers

Maybe it’s that birth of. It’s where things are fuzzy.

[00:46:44.870] – Carolyn Miller

Right. There was one scholar that said you can never pinpoint the exact birth of a genre. It bubbles up out of the primordial murk and then suddenly you realize, “Oh, this seems to be a genre. But how far are we going?”

[00:47:08.450] – Carolyn Miller

But there are a few exceptions to that general observation. One is the environmental impact statement, which is a genre that was defined by law. Okay. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 said that federal agencies had to produce evaluations of the actions that they were going to take in environmental terms. I can’t remember the exact phrasing. We know exactly when that genre started.

[00:47:45.230] – Carolyn Miller

Another genre that we know exactly when it started was the State of the Union Address. That’s in the US Constitution. The President shall—I think it says from time to time, it doesn’t say how often—give to the Congress a report on the State of the Union and that’s about all it says. That doesn’t give you much to go on, but we know that George Washington gave the first State of the Union Address. How did he do that? Here I am, I’m the first President.

[00:48:29.910] – Janice Summers

And he’s got to figure out. He has some basic guidelines, it’s legislated, he knows he has to do it.

[00:48:36.370] – Carolyn Miller

That is requirement. So what does he do in this unprecedented situation on how to do this thing? He looked to precedence. You look to the past. You look to what’s familiar that might work as a model or pattern. Model or pattern he looked at? It was the King’s speech to Parliament. The United States had just fought this long, bloody, expensive war-

[00:49:08.990] – Janice Summers

To get away from the UK.

[00:49:10.790] – Carolyn Miller

-to get away from England and to say, “We don’t do monarchs here. We have a President who’s going to be elected every four years,” but the only model he could come up with that made him comfortable and that seemed to work… Again, in the Anglo tradition, most of the settlers, the first colonists came from England, not all of them obviously, but most of them felt comfortable with it. They felt both comfortable and uncomfortable with the King but he looked to that as a model and then adapted it and adopted it.

[00:49:53.830] – Carolyn Miller

I think some of the recipients, some of the congressmen at that time found his first State of the Union Address a little too monarchical, a little too regal. They had too much of the King about it, so they gave a response. That’s become part of the tradition of the State of the Union Address.

[00:50:26.610] – Liz Fraley

The response, yeah.

[00:50:34.750] – Carolyn Miller

Again, one of the very few examples where you can point to that’s the first of the genre.

[00:50:40.220] – Janice Summers

When we’ve legislated it.

[00:50:42.850] – Carolyn Miller

But it always has roots and ancestors.

[00:50:46.470] – Janice Summers

Yes. Fascinating. This has been such a great conversation. I really enjoyed spending time with you.

[00:50:55.380] – Liz Fraley

Me too.

[00:50:56.770] – Janice Summers

Thank you so much.

[00:50:57.200] – Liz Fraley

I always get something different.

[00:50:59.290] – Carolyn Miller


[00:51:02.230] – Janice Summers


[00:51:03.060] – Carolyn Miller

Excuse you.

[00:51:03.730] – Janice Summers

Thank you so much for spending time with us.

[00:51:06.040] – Liz Fraley

Yes. Thank you so much.

[00:51:09.010] – Carolyn Miller

This was fun. I found it interesting and I hope everyone else does too.

In this episode

Dr Carolyn Miller is SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication, Emerita. She is the founding director of NC State’s Ph.D. in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, and of the M.S. in Technical Communication; she also proposed and taught the first graduate courses for the M.A. option in Rhetoric and Composition, Dr Miller served as Director of Professional Writing and as coordinator of the undergraduate concentration in Writing and Editing (now Rhetoric and Professional Writing). She established and directed the Center for Communication in Science, Technology, and Management and co-directed its successor, the Center for Information Society Studies.
Her professional service includes terms on the governing boards of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the MLA Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition, and the Rhetoric Society of America. She is a past president of the Rhetoric Society of America and was editor of Rhetoric Society Quarterly. She has served on the editorial boards of College Composition and Communication, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Written Communication.

When we name things—trees or tennis or smiles—we are categorizing recognizable patterns: plants, sports, expressions. In categorizing entertainment, we use genre names like thriller, science fiction, or hip-hop to think about film, literature, or music. Genres also describe everyday categories of communication, like thank-you notes, obituaries, or challenge videos, as well as professional communication like progress reports, specifications, and user manuals.

Genres are the names we give to the shared patterns of communicative interaction. They are cultural patterns of getting things done together. Calling something a genre involves an assumption that other people will recognize it in the same way, that there’s some social agreement and social utility to sharing that recognition. Digital media have spurred increasing interest in genres because of the possibilities for doing new kinds of things. We did new kinds of things after the invention of the printing press, the telephone, the radio, and probably all communication media.

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been exploring: How do genres shape the ways we think, perceive, act, and communicate? How do they affect our resources and constraints as communicators? Where do new genres come from? How do people come to these shared recognitions? How do the social functions of new media emerge from the specific capabilities and limitations of the technology? How are new genres related to old genres—the conventions and habits of expression and interaction that are sedimented in familiar patterns of communication?


Contact information:

Professional webpage:

A useful introduction to my work by the NC State University News Service:

“Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog,” by Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd (2004). A fairly accessible example of my thinking.

“Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70:2 (1984), 151–167. Often cited as the seminal work in rhetorical genre studies. PDF from ResearchGate.

“Where Do Genres Come From?” In Emerging Genres in New Media Environments (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1–34. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-40295-6. Not available online.

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