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Bunch, George C. “Metagenres” as an Analytical Tool at Two-Year Colleges. TETYC, Dec. 2019. Posted 02/24/2020.

Bunch, George C. “Preparing the ‘New Mainstream’ for College and Careers: Academic and Professional Metagenres in Community Colleges.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47.2 (2019): 168-94. Print.

George C. Bunch, describing himself as a “relative ‘outsider’” who has been studying English learners and the “policies and practices” affecting their experiences as they enter and move on from community colleges (190n1), writes about the need for frameworks that can guide curricular choices for the “New Mainstream,” the students with diverse backgrounds and varied educational preparation who populate community colleges (169). He suggests attention to “metagenres,” a concept advanced by Michael Carter (171) as an “analytical tool” that can provide insights into the practices that will most benefit these students (170).

Bunch contextualizes his exploration of metagenres by reporting pressure, some from policymakers, to move community-college students more quickly through layers of developmental and English-as-second-language (ESL) coursework. Such acceleration, Bunch suggests, is meant to allow students to move faster into college-level or disciplinary coursework leading to transfer to four-year colleges or to career paths (168).

Bunch reports a study of ten California community colleges he and his team published in 2011. The study revealed contrasting orientations in approaches to developmental writing students. One endorses a skill-based curriculum in which students acquire “the basics” to function as “building blocks” for later more advanced coursework (172). The other promotes curriculum leading to “academic pathways” that encourage “opportunities for language and literacy development and support in the context of students’ actual progression toward academic and professional goals” (172). Bunch contends that in neither case did his team find adequate discussions of “the language and literacy demands of academic work beyond ESL, developmental English, and college-level composition courses” (173; emphasis original).

Bunch writes that scholarship on the role of writing instruction as students prepare for specific professional goals follows two divergent trends. One approach assumes that literacy instruction should promote a universal set of “generalist” competencies and that writing teachers’ “professional qualifications and experience” make them best qualified to teach these practices (173). Bunch points to the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, as well as work by Kathleen Blake Yancey, as exemplifying this approach (173-74).

At the same time, he notes, the later “WPA Outcomes Statement” illustrates a focus on the specific rhetorical demands of the disciplines students are likely to take up beyond English, asking, he writes, for “guidance” from disciplinary faculty and hoping for “share[d] responsibility” across campuses as students negotiate more targeted coursework (174). Bunch expresses concern, however, that faculty in the disciplines have “rarely reflected on those [literacy practices] explicitly” and tend to assume that students should master language use prior to entering their fields (174).

Bunch suggests that the concept of metagenres can supply analysis that affords a “grain size” between “macro approaches” that posit a single set of criteria for all writing regardless of its purpose and audience, and a “micro-level” approach that attempts to parse the complex nuances of the many different career options community-college students might pursue (175).

To establish the concept, Carter examined student outcomes at his four-year institution. Defining metagenres as “ways of doing and writing by which individual linguistic acts on the microlevel constitute social formations on the macrolevel” (qtd. in Bunch 176), Carter grouped the courses he studied under four headings:

  • Problem-Solving, most apparent in fields like economics, animal science, business management, and math
  • Empirical Inquiry, which he located in natural and social sciences
  • Research from Sources, visible in the humanities, for example history
  • Performance, notably in the fine arts but also in writing coursework (176)

Bunch notes that in some cases, the expected definitional boundaries required negotiation: e.g., psychology, though possibly an empirical discipline, fit more closely under problem-solving in the particular program Carter analyzed (176-77).

Bunch offers potential applications at the levels of ESL/developmental/composition coursework, “[w]riting across and within the disciplines,” “[c]ollege-level coursework in other disciplines,” and “[i]nstitution-wide reform” (177-79). For example, writing students might use the metagenre concept to examine and classify the writing they do in their other courses (178), or faculty might open conversations about how students might be able to experience discipline-specific work even while developing their language skills (179). Institutions might reconsider what Thomas Bailey et al. call the “cafeteria model” of course selection and move toward “guided pathways” that define coherent learning goals tied to students’ actual intentions (179).

Bunch and his group considered coursework in nine programs at a “small community college in the San Francisco Bay Area” that is designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution (180). In selecting programs, he looked for a range across both traditional academic areas and career-oriented paths, as well as for coursework in which minority and underprepared or minority-language students often enrolled (180-81). Primary data came from course descriptions at both class- and program-levels, but Bunch also drew on conversations with members of the community-college community (180).

He writes that “the notion of metagenres” was “useful for comparing and contrasting the ‘ways of doing’ associated with academic and professional programs” (181). He writes that history, fashion design, and earth science (meteorology and geology) could be classified as “research from sources,” “performance,” and “empirical inquiry,” respectively (182-83). Other courses were more complex in their assignments and outcomes, with allied health exhibiting both problem-solving and empirical inquiry and early childhood education combining performance and problem-solving (183-86).

Bunch states that applying the metagenre concept is limited by the quality of information available as well as the likelihood that it cannot subsume all subdisciplines, and suggests more research, including classroom observation as well as examination of actual student writing (186). He cites other examinations of genre as a means of situating student learning, acknowledging the danger of too narrow a focus on particular genres at the expense of attention to the practices of “individuals who use them” (187). However, in his view, the broader analytical potential of the metagenre frame encourages conversations among faculty who may not have considered the nuances of their particular literacy demands and attention to writing as part of students’ progression into specific academic and career paths rather than as an isolated early activity (174). He posits that, rather than trying to detail the demands of any given genre as students enter the college environment, institutions might focus on helping students understand and apply the “concept of metagenre” as a way of making sense of the rhetorical situations they might enter (189; emphasis original).

Ultimately, in his view, the concept can aid in

providing more specific guidance than afforded by the kinds of general academic literacy competencies often assigned to the composition profession, yet remaining broader than a focus on the individual oral and written genres of every conceivable subdiscipline and subfield. (189).


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Donahue & Foster-Johnson. Text Analysis for Evidence of Transfer. RTE, May 2018. Posted 07/13/2018.

Donahue, Christiane, and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Liminality and Transition: Text Features in Postsecondary Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.4 (2018): 359-381. Web. 4 July 2018.

Christiane Donahue and Lynn Foster-Johnson detail a study of student writing in the “liminal space” between a “generic” first-year-writing course and a second, “discipline-inspired” first-year seminar (365). They see their study as unusual in that it draws its data and conclusions from empirical “corpus analysis” of the texts students produce (376-77). They also present their study as different from much other research in that it considered a “considerably larger” sample that permits them to generalize about the broader population of the specific institution where the study took place (360).

The authors see liminal spaces as appropriate for the study of the issue usually referred to as “transfer,” which they see as a widely shared interest across composition studies (359). They contend that their study of “defined features” in texts produced as students move from one type of writing course to another allows them to identify “just-noticeable difference[s]” that they believe can illuminate how writing develops across contexts (361).

The literature review examines definitions of liminality as well as wide-ranging writing scholarship that attempts to articulate how knowledge created in one context changes as it is applied in new situations. They cite Linda Adler-Kassner’s 2014 contention that students may benefit from “learning strategy rather than specific writing rules or forms,” thus developing the ability to adapt to a range of new contexts (362).

One finding from studies such as that of Lucille McCarthy in 1987 and Donahue in 2010 is that while students change the way they employ knowledge as they move from first to final years of education, they do not seem fully aware of how their application of what they know has changed (361-62). Thus, for Donahue and Foster-Johnson, the actual features detectable in the texts themselves can be illuminating in ways that other research methodologies may not (362, 364).

Examining the many terms that have been used to denote “transfer,” Donahue and Foster-Johnson advocate for “models of writing knowledge reuse” and “adaptation,” which capture the recurrence of specific features and the ways these features may change to serve a new exigency (364).

The study took place in a “selective” institution (366) defined as a “doctoral university of high research activity” (365). The student population is half White, with a diverse range of other ethnicities, and 9% first-generation college students (366). Students take either one or two sections of general first-year writing, depending on needs identified by directed self-placement (366), and a first-year seminar that is “designed to teach first-year writing while also introducing students to a topic in a particular (inter)discipline and gesturing toward disciplinary writing” (365). The authors argue that this sequence provides a revealing “’bridge’ moment in students’ learning” (365).

Students were thus divided into three cohorts depending on which courses they took and in which semester. Ninety percent of the instructors provided materials, collecting “all final submitted drafts of the first and last ‘source-based’ papers” for 883 students. Fifty-two papers from each cohort were randomly chosen, resulting in 156 participants (366-67). Each participating student’s work was examined at four time points, with the intention of identifying the presence or absence of specific features (368).

The features under scrutiny were keyed to faculty-developed learning outcomes for the courses (367-68). The article discusses the analysis of seven: thesis presence, thesis type, introduction type, overall text structure, evidence types, conclusion type, and overall essay purpose (367). Each feature was further broken down into “facets,” 38 in all, that illustrated “the specific aspects of the feature” (367-68).

The authors provide detailed tables of their results and list findings in their text. They report that “the portrait is largely one of stability,” but note students’ ability to vary choices “when needed” (369). Statistically significant differences showing “change[s] across time” ranged from 13% in Cohort 1 to 29% in Cohort 2 and 16% in Cohort 3. An example of a stable strategy is the use of “one explicit thesis at the beginning” of a paper (371); a strategy “rarely” used was “a thesis statement [placed] inductively at the middle or end” (372). Donahue and Foster-Johnson argue that these results indicate that students had learned useful options that they could draw on as needed in different contexts (372).

The authors present a more detailed examination of the relationship between “thesis type” and “overall essay aim” (374). They give examples of strong correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and the use of “an interpretive thesis” as well as negative correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and “an evaluative thesis” (374). In their view, these data indicate that some textual features are “congruen[t]” with each other while others are “incompatible” (374). They find that their textual analysis documents these relationships and students’ reliance on them.

They note a “reset effect”: in some cases, students increased their use of a facet (e.g., “external source as authority”) over the course of the first class, but then reverted to using the facet less at the beginning of the second class, only to once again increase their reliance on such strategies as the second class progressed (374-75), becoming, “‘repeating newcomers’ in the second term” (374).

Donahue and Foster-Johnson propose as one explanation for the observed stability the possibility that “more stays consistent across contexts than we might readily acknowledge” (376), or that in general-education contexts in which exposure to disciplinary writing is preliminary, the “boundaries we imagine are fuzzy” (377). They posit that it is also possible that curricula may offer students mainly “low-road” opportunities for adaptation or transformation of learned strategies (377). The authors stress that in this study, they were limited to “what the texts tell us” and thus could not speak to students’ reasons for their decisions (376).

Questions for future research, they suggest, include whether students are aware of deliberate reuse of strategies and whether or not “students reusing features do so automatically or purposefully” (377). Research might link student work to particular students with identifiers that would enable follow-up investigation.

They argue that compared to the methods of textual analysis and “topic-modeling” their study employs, “current assessment methods . . . are crude in their construct representation and antiquated in the information they provide” (378). They call for “a new program of research” that exploits a new

capability to code through automated processes and allow large corpora of data to be uploaded and analyzed rapidly under principled categories of analysis. 378