Saturday, April 12, 2008

Transitions for School to Workplace Writing

Katie Robisch

This project examines the transition of writers from academic settings to the workplace. The purpose of the project is to determine how writers learn in the workplace, what skills transfer, and what teachers can do to help better prepare writers for the professional world. This project offers a beneficial starting place for professors teaching writing skills at many college levels. It also can help many students understand the types of writing tasks they may need to perform after graduation. Finally, it allows any curious composition theorist an opportunity to see theories in the specific setting of the workplace. In researching this topic, I considered sources from academic anthologies and textbooks. I examined social perspectives on the culture of the workplace and also genre theory as it operates in the workplace. I tried to find studies that examined many different types of writing in many different organizations, from non-profit press releases to bank reports to technical support emails in a university.

Adam, Christine. "What Do We Learn From the Readers? Factors in Determining Successful Transitions Between Academic and Workplace Writing." Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. Ed. Patrick Dias and Anthony Pare. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton P, Inc, 2000. 167-182. Adam recorded reactions from “oldtimers” in both academic and professional settings in response to writings from students and new employees. She chose “oldtimers” because she believed them to demonstrate the culture and values of the organizations to which they belonged. She found that academic writing differs because of time restraints, revising possibilities, and purposes for reading, among other reasons. Basically, while professors evaluate papers based on whether or not the student has demonstrated knowledge, professionals evaluate pieces based on whether or not it speaks clearly to a primary reader. Also, revision comments on academic papers often reflect the past (i.e., “you misunderstood” or “you should have included”), while comments on business pieces recommend changes so that the future audience will understand. In terms of recommendations, she believes teachers should emphasize a fuller revision process. She also believes co-ops and internships to help in developing professional writing skills because “the nature of written discourse in the two settings [academia and the workplace] appears similar, written genres arise out of very different social settings and are the result of very different social and rhetorical goals and activities” (181). Her findings back up her suggestions, but the chapter itself seems very repetitive about revision.

Beaufort, Anne. "Learning New Genres: the Convergence of Knowledge and Action."Writing in the Real World: Making the Transition From School to Work. New York: Teachers College P, 1999. 103-137. This entire book by Beaufort studies four different writers acquiring new skills at a Job Resource Center, but this particular chapter deals with three of the studied employees learning the new genres of public relations writing and grant proposal writing. Providing a brief overview of genre theory, Beaufort explains that the “norms of discourse community are embedded in its genres” and that “the importance and very character of genres in the business world are judged not on aesthetic considerations but on the basis of the social actions that they accomplish” (103). After studying the three writers, Beaufort decided that Freedman’s theory that genre is best learned through participation, not through the teaching of its conventions, did not hold true. Rather, “Immersion in the discourse community certainly motivated and aided learning of the genre, but immersion did not automatically produce expert grant or PR writers” (136). Ursula, who was learning the press release genre, struggled because she did not understand the conventions of the journalism discourse community. She also struggled with request letters because she felt unsure of the social action they were required to produce. After help from an experienced publicist and many attempts, she refined her skills, but her struggles with the genre show the importance not only of participating in the community but also of understanding its goals in values in order to create effective prose. Selma and Pam both struggled to learn to write grant proposals for the same organization. Both had some experience with city grant proposals, but only after talking with several people and developing their own methods (such as typing out requirements and then dividing them into separate folders) and talking to the people who actually create Requests for Proposals did they learn to develop effective proposals. In general, all three workers illustrate that even though they were immersed in the discourse community, they still had to learn conventions and truly understand the goals of the community (and also practice and receive help from superiors) before mastering their workplace’s new genres. Beaufort concludes, “The data here suggests, rather, that a combination of coaching and immersion in the social context is the optimal condition for learning a new genre” (136). Although the chapter seems to focus more on genre theory than typical workplace practices, it establishes clearly how adults may learn new genres in the workplace. Also, Beaufort does a good job of adequately explaining genre theory and the conventions of the new genres in a way that relates to her findings. She may have strengthened her chapter by relating concepts to uptake in genre; however, this addition may only benefit composition theory students and not a broad audience.

Beaufort, Anne. "Transferring Writing Knowledge to the Workplace, are We on Track?"Expanding Literacies: English Teaching and the New Workplace. Ed. Mary Sue Garay and Stephen A. Bernhardt. 1 Apr. 2001 . Beaufort believes that if composition classes want to help students succeed outside of scholarly writing contexts, they need to understand the many variables in differing contexts of workplace communication and they need to examine the transfer of skills. Classes can accomplish this task by teaching as many general strategies as possible and also teaching students to have meta-awareness of their own writing processes. To give them more general knowledge, professors should teach students about varied forms and genres, and she even suggests throwing out “school names” like narration and argument paper in favor of real-world documents such as proposals and reports. Also, classes should emphasize the social context and take “a look beyond the immediate writing situation to the broader back drop of institutional and social norms and values that both define writing practices and in turn are defined b them” (Piazza qtd. 185). Beaufort illustrates her ideas by studying Ursula, who did not receive the suggested type of writing instruction, as a counterexample. Ursula was an English major who became and an Administrative Assistant to the Executive Director of an organization called Job Resource Center. Ursula, who relied on the same strategy for most of her college papers, had to learn new forms such as press releases for her new job. Her struggle to learn these new forms came partly because of physical distractions in the office, but Beaufort believes also because she was not aware of any changes in her process. Ursula did rely on previous documents, the company archives, and advice from her boss and peers when writing at work; and all of these strategies illustrate the different strategies used in workplace contexts. Although Ursula was aware of changes in audience and writing goals, she was not aware of transferable skills from other writing contexts. Beaufort asserts, “What she lacked was a heightened awareness of the full spectrum of factors influencing writing in the academic setting. Even that “local” knowledge, coupled with metacognition about what she knew, would have served to aid her transition into a professional writing situation (196)”. Had Ursula been exposed to a curriculum that emphasized social context of writing, conscious attention to the writing process, and the variety of genres, she would have learned more quickly. Although the Ursula as a contradiction example was a bit confusing, Beaufort clearly illustrates a current problem in transferring skills to the workplace and provides a solution.

Beaufort, Anne. "Writing in the Professions." Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Ed. Charles Bazerman. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008. 221-235. This piece by Beaufort summarizes and reviews the literature on writing in the professions. Beaufort traces the composition process of writers back to early researchers like Flower and Hayes, but she also stresses that genre and situational variables affect the process of professional writers. She also notes researchers who studied intertextuality, collaborative writing, and even efficiency of writers in the workplace. In a separate section, Beaufort describes research on the ways that organizational culture affects writing and that few studies have examined gender differences in business writing practices. Also, the chapter examines the role technology has played in workplace writing, noting especially that it allows writers to revise more often, although not as much for content. Beaufort notes studies that found social affects that negatively affected writers, such as Pare’s study of social workers and juvenile delinquents. To show the other side of the debate, she also explains that writing practices can positively affect on people in business. Again, she stresses that texts evolve in response to social contexts, and she also describes more discipline specific studies, such as those done with biology and sociology. Describing later studies, she notes how research has shifted to include socialization processes for writers and school to work transitions. She briefly describes theories that related to and have added to understanding of professional writing and then mentions further areas that need to be examined, such as transfer of learning issues. Beaufort summarizes, “in all, studies of writing in the social contexts of business and the professions has yielded a rich basis for understanding (and theorizing) the social features of language, genres, and acts of composing” (231). While the article is brief, certainly does not cover studies in depth, and does not make any strong claims or arguments, it still provides a clear, recent synthesis of workplace writing studies. She provides an excellent starting place for beginning researchers trying to isolate a topic within professional writing studies. Also, she cleverly ends the article by demonstrating its relevance saying “not only those in literacy studies and professional and technical communications fields, but also those in organizational development and economic development, would do well to heed this field of research as it impacts their endeavors” (231).

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Pare. "Virtual Realities:TransitionsFrom University to Workplace Writing." Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. 201-221. This study examines the rhetorical complexity of workplace contexts. This study focuses on four different groups of writers including a financial analysis class, a unique systems analysis class, interns, and entry-level employees. The financial analysis class demonstrated “guided participation” because it asked students to read documents and infer aspects. The systems analysis class paired groups with an actual company for an actual project, although their teacher often stepped in to oversee the project. This class demonstrates almost the exact midpoint in the transition between school writing and professional writing. The interns illustrated “attenuated authentic participation” because they worked not for a class but with a supervisor. The entry-level group illustrated because ‘“an interactive process in which the apprentice engages by simultaneously performing several roles…each implying a different interactive involvement”’ (218). The researchers found that “it is this careful balancing between actual practice and timely instruction that we feel characterizes successful transitions into workplace writing” (221) Because the workplace offers spontaneous learning opportunities, students need actual exposure to workplace activities. When at the workplace, students learn through participation, more hands-on approach. They must experience the reality of a task that actually influences action in order to experience the actual practitioner’s rhetorical situation (220). They “learned something from their experience, but the learning was secondary to, or a by-product of, the instrumental purpose of their writing” (221). The analysis was very thorough, but the difference between interns and entry-level groups was hard to distinguish upon first reading. Also, this study groups all students together and does not consider that participants in any of the four groups may learn differently or have different motivations in each setting.

Ledwell-Brown, Jane. "Organizational Cultures as Contexts for Learning to Write." Transitions:Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. Ed. Patrick Dias and Anthony Pare. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton P, Inc, 2000.199-221. Ledwell-Brown studied workplace culture and how it affects writing by examining manager’s responses and expectations of writing to see how they reflected the goals and values of the company. She focused her study on a pharmaceutical company that heavily emphasized writing and tradition. The company community believes the managers’ efforts and traditional hierarchical structure account for the company’s success and also that everyone in the company shares the goal of succeeding in the market. Also, all decisions must be in writing and approved by several people, so managers pay careful attention to details of writing. Ledwell-Brown did find that different departments of the company considered collaboration differently, such as the marketing division who believed in teamwork and the management information systems division who believed in individual effort and hierarchy. Most importantly, she discovered that writers need to know much about their organization and its values to be good writing, and that managers, who comment and supervise company writing can convey this culture to employees who do not acquire it tacitly. Ironically, managers often do not see themselves as teachers or assisting writers. In terms of the new writers, Ledwell-Brown says their university training and the transition from the university culture into the work culter one may inhibit them from learning to write in these new contexts. Writers must adjust to the new demands that require action, unlike school demands. They also need to learn to accept criticism from supervisors as attempts to ensure the company’s standards. Although the article focuses only on one, very formal company, it effectively shows how writers must understand the corporate culture in which they work in order to produce effective writing.

MacKinnon, Jamie. "Becoming a Rhetor: Developing Writing Ability in a Mature, Writing-Intensive Organization." Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993. 41-55. MacKinnon, an in-house business-writing consultant, studied recently graduated analysts and economists at a bank to examine the development of their writing ability. These employees had not written much outside of school nor had they experienced the genres they had to write for work. After interviewing the employees after the final draft of their first major assignment and again after a major assignment many months later, she interviewed their managers. Overall, he found that these writers learned from the new demands placed upon them and also through the many types of feedback, such as document cycling. 80% felt they had “developed significantly as writers” (48) and that although few thought they would develop as writers, by the second interview many thought they would develop even more in the next few years. Their managers agreed with their perceptions on improvement. Also, managers noted that successful writers in their company were not “shy” or “passive” (51) when dealing with feedback. They also noted that successfully developing writers at the bank see writing as “learning yet to be done and improvement yet to be made” and because of that will make “progress and he’ll continue to make progress. It’s the fellow who comes in saying, ‘Hey, look. I did very well in English in university and I write poetry. You can’t teach me: What are you, some bureaucrat?’ Those guys don’t do so well.” MacKinnon’s study offers a very in-depth look at professional writing development, and his inclusion of the manager’s comments greatly adds credibility to his argument.

Reither, James A. "Bridging the Gap: Scenic Motives for Collaborative Writing in Workplaceand School." Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993. 195-206. Reither, who teaches literature and rhetoric at St. Thomas University in Canada, asserts that writing is a social process because so many professionals must write collaboratively. This article explains that teachers need to foster classes to become places where collaborative writing and revision are integral, just as they are in the workplace. He explains that writing is always collaborative because it is knowledge-making. Also, classrooms need to emulate the workplace’s scenic motives such as the research and development and also the need to belong in the working community. He suggests that teachers act more as project managers and have students participate in activities that do not allow them to progress until they have pooled research findings, just as writers do in the business world. In this manner, they will learn about writing as “knowledge making” instead of simply something to do for a grade. His argument is strong in considering scenic motives of the workplace, but he does not give very specific examples of assignments, thus making his ideas more theoretical than practical.

Spilka, Rachel. “Influencing Workplace Practice: A Challenge for Professional WritingSpecialists in Academia.” Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Ed. Rachel Spilka. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993. 207-219. Spilka’s article explains how workplace practices and academia work together to shape writing even though the two are “ultimately mutually dependent polarities (217)”. Basically, while academia does have some power to change workplace practices through what it teaches to students, because so much of professional writing skill relies on understanding of social context, academia needs to focus on teaching actual workplace practices. Teachers can do this by teaching students not only to apply theory to writing practices, but also to question such practices and thus question the social context. In this way, they will learn how to understand and analyze social aspects, which in turn will make them more marketable writers. Also, teachers should carefully choose research studies to discuss and try to find common threads. Because these studies differ so greatly, Spilka also calls for more standardization of researching professional writing. While her article caters more to teachers and appropriate pedagogy, she makes an interesting point in saying that academia can influence writing practice. Had she not included the importance of social context in her argument, however, it would have appeared interesting but weak.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces.” Enculturation 5.2, 2005. This study focuses on identity in the workplace and how authority can affect writing. Wardle, who teaches composition theory at The University of Dayton, studied a computer support specialist working in a humanities department to see how he learned to write in a new workplace. Wardle interviewed and observed Alan, collected email messages he wrote and those written to him, listened to people interact with Alan, and conducted a survey with members of Alan’s department. She found that Alan considered himself extremely important because he was the only one in his department with such computer abilities. He felt he did not have to prove himself his knowledge or competence. His writing conveyed his sense of superiority to such an extent that faculty members did not always respond to him. He did not use proper grammar or tailor emails to a specific audience, which was “an accepted writing convention in the activity system” (590). Basically, Alan resisted adapting so that he could communicate more clearly in his workplace, and his colleagues did not change their views of accepted writing either. Wardle asserts that “our identities are shaped to some extent by the communities in which we choose to participate (594),” and Alan resisted because he did not want to identify with the humanities department community. The study shows that in order to learn to write in new contexts, people must do more than learn specific skills or improve cognitive abilities (594). Writing in these new contexts involves choosing to be involved in the community and the influence of power relationships. Also, Alan demonstrates a person who did not want to enculturate into a community. Although the study does not focus on documents or many types of professional writing, it clearly illustrates how company culture and attitudes affect people’s communication. Also, it stands out because it shows how much personal feelings affect writing development in new contexts.

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