Given the constraints of the classroom, how can I balance the need to prepare students for the demands of writing in a professional context with the particular objectives of my course?
One of the central challenges of teaching writing is how different classroom writing can be from writing in the field. As writing instructors, we want to help students achieve our course goals while also teaching them to transfer writing strategies from our classes to the workplace. The stakes for writing in civic arenas and the work world are often radically different from what students expect when they are writing for a grade or to complete an assignment. At work, untested prose untouched by careful proofreading or consideration of an audience might reflect badly not only on an individual writer, but also on the organization for which he or she works. Demystifying the differences between classroom and workplace writing and developing assignments that engage work-world stakes can increase student motivation and prepare students to write in other environments.
We want students to carefully examine the significance of the critical thinking you teach them. Turning some focus to the professional contexts they will face enables our students to be both reflective and more effective in contributing to their future civic, academic, and professional endeavors.
Tomorrow: Allow students time to consider the differences between academic writing and professional writing.
Have students bring in a short piece of published, non-academic writing--an op-ed, a fundraising appeal, a press release, a statement of public policy--related to your course to facilitate discussion of the differences between academic writing and various kinds of public writing. Place students in groups based on the genre of writing they brought in, and ask them to discuss who the audience might be for each piece and how an author’s assumptions about that audience are reflected in the rhetorical, grammatical, lexical, and citational choices that comprise the writing sample. When the class reconvenes, have each group share their findings and work together to fill in a chart that outlines the different conventions of each writing genre. In this discussion, compare the types of texts they analyzed with the genres of writing your students will read and write in your classroom.
Teaching students to attend to the ways genre and stylistic conventions shift depending on the audience, purpose, context, and medium of different texts can help them move beyond a “one size fits all” definition of writing skills. Just as you wouldn’t wear casual clothes to a business interview, nor would you wear a suit to a chemistry lab, help your students understand how to “dress” their writing for different contexts and audiences. Offer some examples of the ways choices in form, style, and genre affect readers’ impression of the author or comprehension of the text, and talk about how revision, proofreading, and informal peer review in a workplace can help students produce writing that better meets an audience’s expectations. Furthermore, this activity can highlight the kinds of thinking that scholars must do when they are “translating” their specialized work for a non-expert public (something they may have to do to publicize their work or earn grant money).
This exercise can also be extended throughout the term to help students become observant proofreaders as well as careful consumers of professional discourse in your field. Encourage students to bring in pieces they feel are relevant to the issues you are discussing in class, and analyze the effectiveness of each text based on your earlier conversations.
Next Week: Have students reframe an academic assignment as a professional genre, which they use in a peer review session that models professional practice.
Talk to students about the audience and formal constraints of a particular genre. A good press release, for example, needs to be pitched to a particular publication, and must clearly articulate the newsworthiness of the topic. A genre like this can help students focus their research writing at a point when they might be mired in specialist jargon and unsure of the wider significance of their work (a feeling we as scholars often know all too well).
Frame peer review so that students have to make the kinds of concrete, task-informed decisions professionals have to make when they are evaluating writing. For instance, if students are preparing a summary of a grant proposal describing their research, the peer review groups might be given a grant budget and a specific call for proposals (with clear evaluative criteria) that asks them to make a decision with limited resources. Have the groups compose a report that explain their decisions along with the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals they considered in the context of the particular grant’s criteria.
After students complete the activity, have them write an informal reflection for 5 minutes in which they consider how their perspective changed when they had a different goal for writing than simply receiving a grade. As students share their reflections with the class, facilitate discussion about how the audience shapes the writing situation. Prompt students to share what their experiences were in their review committees when they noticed stylistic errors in the writing. Emphasize the value of researching an audience, reading examples of a genre, and revising and editing as you write.
When instructors take the time to contextualize the purpose and stakes of peer review, students are more likely to spend extra time proofreading their work, to care that they share their best material, and to understand why their writing matters beyond the classroom.
In Semesters: Enhance the quality of student writing by giving students a concrete professional context and audience for their assignment. Build proofreading into students’ writing process and connect it clearly to an assignment’s rhetorical context.
Design at least one assignment that gives students room to choose a relevant public audience for their writing. Early in the semester, discuss with students the possible audiences for professional work in your field. Provide sample texts written for professional audiences and have students, in small groups or as a class, analyze how audience affects stylistic and citation conventions. Facilitate a conversation in which your class develops a list of the audience's concerns. This list will vary by discipline, but it should range from micro (i.e., grammar, mechanics, style) to macro (argument, audience, purpose) features. Prompt this discussion by asking questions about how the various authors demonstrate expertise and authority––including everything from grammar to tone to the citation of key works in the field. As students work on the assignment over the course of the semester, give them an opportunity to research these conventions, and expand upon or change their initial observations about the requirements of the genre and audience.
The end result of this activity is a class style guide that students are expected to contribute to and follow over the semester. As a dynamic text, students should be responsible for proposing and voting on any changes or additions to the guide as the semester progresses. This activity can bridge the perceived gap between classroom and post-graduation writing by causing students to collectively articulate what they already know about writing in workplaces.
Giving students more agency in determining the audience to write for and the conventions to follow can also increase their investment in the coursework. If possible, try to create outlets for them to direct their work towards an actual audience, such as creating a public class blog or inviting members of your department to watch students’ final presentations. As an extra twist on this assignment, consider asking your students to rewrite an assignment for your class for a different audience. For example, have them convert a research paper to a blog post or grant proposal or have them convert a presentation into a mock press release or a short video clip.
Have you heard about the Minor in Professional Writing? Whatever your students’ majors--from English to engineering, from mathematics to music--good writing matters to their success both in school and after they graduate. The Minor in Professional Writing prepares students for the kinds of writing needed in contemporary workplaces through fifteen semester hours of targeted coursework, including a capstone, semester-long internship at a Columbus-area workplace. The second-level writing course, a 2367 course from any academic department, meets one of the minor’s coursework requirements. Learn more about the Minor in Professional Writing at http://cstw.osu.edu/writingminor or contact Trish Houston, Program Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The WAC Team
Dr. Chris Manion, WAC Coordinator
Say Carnahan, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Annie Mendenhall, English
Haley Swenson, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Lindsay Bernhagen, Comparative Studies
And the staff of the Minor in Professional Writing
Trish Houston, Coordinator
Bill Riley, English
Clayton Clark, English