Friday, April 25, 2008

School to Workplace Writing: A Review of Literature

Katie Robisch

When interviewing new employees, supervisors often examine candidates who can communicate clearly and effectively, particularly through writing. Companies expect that any employee with a degree has acquired such skills from their university experience. In some cases, college graduates have only their first-year composition class as previous writing training; other students may have completed several courses involving different genres of writing. No matter the amount of previous writing experience, new employees adapt their writing skills upon entering the workplace environment. Much research has examined aspects of this transfer.

Internships and Co-ops
A number of studies examine the effectiveness of actual participation in writing tasks in the workplace as an intern or as part of a co-operational situation. Much of the difficulty of transition occurs in that students learn only when exposed to real workplace tasks with authentic workplace demands and rhetorical situations. These writers must experience the reality of a task that actually influences action in order to experience the actual practitioner’s situation (Dias 220). “The importance and very character of genres in the business world are not judged on aesthetic considerations but on the basis of the social actions that they accomplish” (Beaufort, Learning 103). Similarly, interns learn by facing writing tasks that demand future action, unlike academic writing tasks that focus on reflection or past experience (Ledwell-Brown). Although internships have been effective in teaching students to write in the workplace, simply experience will not teach them all that they need to know. Students will only adapt and transition successfully if they receive a “careful balancing between actual practice and timely instruction” (Dias 221). According to the research, the optimal condition for learning new genres of the workplace is a combination of immersion in the social context and in instruction (Beaufort, Learning 136). Also, some students, despite what they learn in school or through internships or even a precise balance of the two, will not transition successfully unless they truly understand the goals of their workplace community.

Social Context and Work Culture
Much of a person’s successful transition into workplace writing relates to their new social context. In many cases, successful writing comes after several revisions or “document cycles,” and this feedback becomes an integral part of the very workplace community (MacKinnon 46). This feedback and revision also “plays a key role in a very different type of learning: learning about the institution itself” (Adams 178). Professional writers must learn to see these feedback opportunities as a learning experience from which to grow in order to be successful (MacKinnon 51).

Furthermore, new workplace writers must understand the goals and values of their workplace in order to write effectively. Workers who do not have goals aligned with those of their community can demonstrate poor writing and not fully enculturate into their new workplace (Wardle 595). In terms of previous experience, some new workplace writers may have experienced workplace genres in their university studies, but they must understand that even if the genres of their workplace look similar, they arise out of different social settings and result from different rhetorical and social goals (Adams 181).

Also, some writers may know conventions of the new genres and begin to learn through feedback, but much of what they will revise will be to ensure that the document their creating represents the goals and values of the community. In terms of learning these company values, managers and supervisors communicate the norms and expectations of their discourse communities (Adams 169) and pass them down or convey them to younger employees.

Teaching Successful Transition
Given that actual participation in workplace activities and understanding of social values of the workplace seems to best foster professional writing abilities, the classroom must try to emulate these findings. Classes that require revision and collaborative projects will better imitate workplace situations (Reither 197). Also, assignments with real workplace titles such as “report” and “proposal” instead of “narrative” and “argument” will also help to encourage similar workplace situations (Beaufort, Transferring 196). Furthermore, teachers who act as more of “project managers” will help to better imitate workplace superiors (Reither 204).

Research also indicates that university classes can teach some basic strategies to help facilitate the transfer of writing abilities. Teaching different workplace genres and basic ideas of genre knowledge combined with teaching students to be aware of their own writing process will help them when they face new writing tasks in the working world (Beaufort, Transferring 196). Also, because of the importance of social context, students should learn of its importance and some strategies for analyzing it. One suggestion for analyzing social contexts includes teaching students to apply writing theories to workplace activities and to see whether or not they agree with certain practices (Spilka 208). In applying theory in such a matter, they will be learning to analyze social contexts.

Researchers have determined the importance of internships, understanding social context, and even described possible changes and solutions for teachers to make in the classroom. What has been neglected, however, is a more longitudinal study of the transfer of writing skills into the workplace. What happens to student who experiences these new ideas in class, works and writes as an intern, and continues to learn upon entering the workplace? Furthermore, after a few years at this workplace, how has the writing changed? Tracking the writing of a person beginning with their university training to internship or entry-level experience to their first promotion would provide concrete, sequential evidence to current theories and research findings, especially involving the importance of social context.

Of course, finding a volunteer who is willing to be tracked for such an extended period of time, not to mention a business that allows what may be a huge distraction or limiting factor on their employee’s performance, would be difficult. However, a more longitudinal study of transfer of writing ability needs to be performed. Much of current studies, while incredibly insightful, are limited to one organization or a shorter time span. Applying current research into a long-term study would only increase knowledge of how to better prepare students and new employees for the writing roles they will face in the workplace.

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