“Mutt Genres” and Mentoring/Tutoring

First thing we’ll do today is sit in our internship groups.  With the help of special guests Allie Clark (ESLRC) and Kim Jaxon (Jumbo workshops), we’ll have a quick discussion about ways you can be useful to students in the last five weeks of the semester.  I’ll lead one of the two remaining groups.

With Wardle’s “Mutt Genres” there are SO MANY interesting things to discuss.  The first is Russell’s original “ball-using” metaphor to describe the goals of FYC (first year composition, called “Academic Writing” here at Chico State).  Russell starts off by saying that courses like ENGL 130 are often focused around what he calls “general writing skills instruction”: courses in general academic writing whose stated goal is to prepare students to write in other college courses.

The problem with that, to Russell, is

The object(ive) of GWSI is most often described as teaching students “to write” or to “improve their writing.” If writing were an autonomous skill, generalizable to all activity systems that use writing, improving writing in general would be a clear object(ive) of an activity system. But writing does not exist apart from its uses, for it is a tool for accomplishing object(ive)s beyond itself. The tool is continually transformed by its use into myriad and always-changing genres. Every text is some genre, to paraphrase Bakhtin (1986), part of some activity system(s). Learning to write means learning to write in the ways (genres) those in an activity system write (though one must remember that this is complicated by the fact that activity systems and their tools—including genres—are always in dialectical change). From this theoretical perspective, the object(ive) of GWSI courses is extremely ambiguous because those involved in it are teaching and learning the use of a tool (writing) for no particular activity system. And the tool can be used for any number of object(ive)s (in myriad activity systems) and transformed into any number of forms (genres).

He continues:

To try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a GWSI course is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball-using. Such a course would of necessity have a problem of content. What kinds of games (and therefore ball-use skills) should one teach? And how can one teach ball-using skills unless one also teaches students the games, since the skills have their motive and meaning only in terms of a particular game or games that use them? Such a course would have a problem of rigor since those who truly know how to play a particular game would look askance at the instruction such a course could provide (particularly if the instructor did not herself play all the games with some facility). And it would also have a problem of unrealistic expectations, since it would be impossible to teach all—or even a few—ball games in one course. Finally, it would be extremely difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a course in general ball-using since one always evaluates the effectiveness of ball-using within a particular game, not in general. And ways of using a ball that work well in one game (volleyball, for example) would bring disaster in another (such as soccer).

How about that?  Before we continue with Wardle, let’s take on this central analogy, which sets up a number of the claims Wardle makes later on.

Then we will:

  • List some of our reactions to what we read
  • In internship teams, discuss moments we had questions about the article.  What moments or claims left you wondering, or where were the spots you wanted more information?  Write them as questions!
  • I will list your Q’s on the board.
  • Can we answer some of these questions?  Perhaps each group takes another’s question?  Or do we go through them together?

One of the things we can do to get at the notion of “mutt genres” is to think about how and when we work with them in our internships:

  1. What genres (kinds) of writing are appearing in ENGL 130, the Jumbo, the Writing Center, or the ESL Resource Center?  What would you call them?
  2. Are they “mutt genres,” in Liz Wardle’s terms?  Why?
  3. What do students understand about the purpose of these genres, or the role they play in advancing knowledge in a community of practice?  Or is the central point of doing that writing unclear, or merely to HAVE DONE that writing, to get a good grade for it?
  4. Could it ever be different?  That is, if we accept Wardle’s claims, how could writing at the freshman level be more meaningful or authentic, more tied to an actual community of practice?
  5. We know students write better and more fluidly if they find meaning in their writing or connection to their topic.  What could we do as tutors and mentors to help students find meaningful connections?

I’d also like us to acknowledge that this article has seen a lot of discussion and debate online, as you might infer from even a quick Googling of the term “mutt genres.”  What can we learn from others’ responses to the article?


Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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