Flight of form and function

British Airways Boeing 747

Image by Adrian Pingstone: Public Domain, Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ba_b747-400_g-bnle_arp.jpg

On a recent plane trip I listened to the pre-flight safety orientation–both for safety reasons and as a genre.  This non-academic ritual can teach us about academic sources.

A genre responds to a recurring situation (Miller, 1984, p. 159).  When the situation happens often enough, certain conventions develop around the genre (Burkholder, 2010).   In short, form follows function. The orientation has developed certain conventions: the gesturing toward the exits, the use of the prop oxygen mask, etc.  The conventions, though, are not the orientation itself.   Some flights, for example, use a video to convey the less specific safety information.  Still, the safety information gets conveyed.

How does this idea relate to information literacy?  When our students engage with a source type, we want to be explicit about the source’s function.  When we do point out formal features, let us place them in the context of the source’s purpose, intended audience, etc. (Devitt, 2004 ). We can also make connections between academic genres and the everyday genres students already use (Rose, 2003).

As we leave for summer vacations, we can keep this lesson in mind.  We can look for and listen for everyday genres.  Here’s wishing you and yours pleasant travels this summer!


Burkholder, J. (2010). Redefining sources as social acts: Genre theory in information literacy instruction. Library Philosophy and Practice. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libphilprac/413/

Devitt, A. J. (2004). Writing genres. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151–167. doi: 10.1080/00335638409383686

Rose, J. M. (2003). Teaching students what they already know: Student writers as genre theorists. Issues in Writing, 14(1), 25–44. Retrieved from http://www4.uwsp.edu/english/iw/