Sunday, April 27, 2008

Students Entering the Workplace: Writing Transitions

Carly Schott

Preparing students to succeed in their places of work upon graduation is undoubtedly a main focus of any university. An essential component of this success is competency in writing, a communication skill that is vital in most fields of work. The question of how to adequately prepare a student for post-graduation writing tasks has been debated and explored by researchers from many different angles. The focus of this research has been to evaluate student transition from classroom to workplace, noting the influences from writing at school and the subsequent writing obstacles faced as a new employee. Many of the discussions seek to understand why students struggle in workplace writing upon graduation, and how to improve this transition.

Why Do Students Struggle With the Transition?
Understanding why students struggle with this writing transition can help shed light on what both university professors and workplace managers can do to help them be more productive writers. Recent research has incorporated genre theory, emphasizing that writing in the workplace and writing for the university means writing in two different genres (Adam 168-169). As such, the exigences that shape these genres are different, and result in confusion for the student’s transition (170). In addition, the nature of the two settings that create the genres often are not aligned, affecting a new employee’s ability to produce effective writing (“Write Where You Are” 45). Truly, a major difference in these two settings is the primary goal of writing tasks. At the university level, the goal of writing is “clearly and explicitly for students to learn;” in contrast, the workplace tasks are “focused on material or discursive outcomes and in which participants are often unaware of the learning that occurs” (46).

To further illustrate this idea of genre discrepancy, Christine Adam conducted a study that focused on differences in reading practices of university professors and workplace managers, as they “responded to texts of less experienced members of the two communities” (170). The study found that for the professor and manager, the purpose of responding to texts is different, the processes of reading texts are different, and the comments written on texts are different (172-176). For example, the purpose of a professor reading a student’s text is evaluative, while the purpose of a manager reading a text is to make revisions to create the best possible text that will most likely effect future action (172-173). This is due to the fact that at the university, guidance primarily takes place prior to the writing task being completed, while in the workplace, guidance and collaboration occur after completion of the initial draft (“Write Where You Are” 45). Because the writer’s text should be constructed with sensitivity to audience needs and wants, this presents a problem when audience’s expectations change after students enter the workplace.

An additional reason why students may struggle with this writing transition is grounded in the idea of identity negotiation, as newcomers must adjust to new written practices that effect identity when entering the workplace from the university. New writing expectations may be unfamiliar to a newcomer, in contrast with their personal values, or “may ask them to give up some measure of authority to which they believe they are entitled” (Wardle 5). In addition, a newcomer transitioning from a university to the workplace may be given some new authority, but then have it taken away when he or she does not quickly adopt the new writing conventions and practices that go along with that authority (7). In order to achieve enculturation into the workplace, a newcomer’s identity is often challenged and shaped by the new community, and their shortfalls in writing may not be a result of ability level, but identity issues (5). Students coming from the university into workplace settings come with their own sets of beliefs, personal expectations for their position within the new community, and ways of writing – their own personal identities. To become a full participant, this identity is negotiated: “new workers must find ways to engage in the work that other community members do, including the writing they do; newcomers must be able to imagine their own work – and writing – as being an important part of a larger enterprise.” Because of the genre discrepancies between the university and workplace previously outlined, this is often a struggle for newcomers.

How Can Students Be Helped?
At School
Many studies have been conducted with the goal of learning how to structure classroom writing tasks so that they best prepare students to enter the workforce. Because the university goal of learning does not align with the future-orientated goals of the workplace, it has been a challenge for researchers to establish clear course structures that ensure that students are exposed to the kinds of writing practices they will experience in the workplace. In order that assignments reflect the workplace nature of future-action, writing tasks “need to have consequences beyond the classroom (and the student’s grade) in order for the student to fully appreciate the prospective aspect of workplace writing” (Adam 179).

Besides the hands-on experience of an internship or co-op, actually gaining experience with assignments that are future-oriented proves to be difficult for students in the university. For example, a class where students simulate workplace reports in their field still has the primary goal of learning, which is in conflict with the primary goals of the workplace (“Write Where You Are” 32). As a way to reconcile this discrepancy at the university, students themselves can be charged with the task of defining the course goals and actions of the class, which hopefully align with the teacher’s goals (Dias 26). Then, “in small groups students can begin to define the goals and frame the tasks that will help them realize these goals” (26). This encourages the students to look at and situate themselves within the larger university, a process they will have to undertake in the workplace.

There are other course structures that also accurately reflect workplace settings. For example, Aviva Freedman and Christine Adam analyzed a fourth year practicum course in a business school that is able to align its writing goals to that of the workplace. The students are broken up into groups and assigned real clients who need their workplace computerized in some way. The students interact with the clients, visit their workplace to interview participants there, and must produce several documents outlining their computerization plans for the client. Ultimately, many of the clients end up using the proposals of the students. As a result, this course is answering a real-life exigence, the goal of which is not to get a satisfactory grade but to provide the clients with their services and expertise. Overall, this course was successful in mimicking the workplace “in the social roles taken on by the students and instructor, in the writers’ sense of audience, in the textual features, and in the responding and collaborative practices of the instructor” (“Bridging the Gap” 143).

At Work
Undoubtedly, when “students leave the university to enter the workplace, “they not only need to learn new genres of discourse, they need to learn new ways to learn such genres” (“Write Where You Are” 53). In order to ensure that their employees produce effective writing, managers must realize their needs as newcomers. Students should be made aware of their new goals and audiences, so managers must help students “see how their new readers’ roles and contexts shift their response” (Adam 177). Because their reader’s roles are focused on revising, not evaluating like at the university, “a program of sheltering or coaching for new employees can be used to make explicit the role of revision in learning how the workplace operates” (178).

In addition, managers must be sensitive to the identity and values that are challenged, shaped, and redefined as newcomers enter the workplace (Wardle 5). The values and attitudes of an organization have a significant influence on the writing produced, values that are specific even to various divisions within the organization (Ledwell-Brown 212). For example, a marketing division would have a different “desired outcome” and “prescription for writing” than an M.I.S division within a company (215). These various writing practices reflect such values as teamwork and commitment to high quality. To aid in a newcomer’s transition to the writing in a workplace, a manager can make explicit the goals and values of the company and specific divisions, so that the new employee will be aware of her identity within the larger enterprise.

Questions for Further Investigation
Much of the current research investigates university versus workplace writing, without much of a focus on the actual student and his or her transition. A long-term study on the evolution of a student’s writing early at the university until a few years into a new work environment would be insightful research. A study like this would emphasize the student’s perspective and provide a fuller picture of the writing transition. Also, there is not a lot of research concerning workers who do not attend a university, and how this has an effect on the writing that they have to produce in their fields. For example, if a person enters the workforce right after high school, is this a significant disadvantage when it comes to writing tasks? How does their writing transition compare to the transition of someone who went to a university? All in all, these questions can be answered with case-studies focused on various students and their writing transitions.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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