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Read and Michaud. Professional Writing as Rhetorical Education. CCC, Feb. 2015. Posted 04/21/15.

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Read, Sarah, and Michael J. Michaud. “Writing about Writing and the Multimajor Professional Writing Course.” College Composition and Communication 66.3 (2015): 427-57. Print.

Sarah Read and Michael J. Michaud propose an enriched version of the undergraduate professional writing course that will allow students to become more rhetorically “savvy” (432) in negotiating workplace writing contexts and to more successfully transition from school writing to writing in other environments.

Their approach incorporates the tenets of writing-about-writing (WAW), which they argue will move students beyond reproducing the standard forms of more traditional “business writing” courses, such as memos and letters. In order to function successfully in the rhetorical environments they will encounter beyond college, writers must be able to analyze how writing works in specific situations among specific audiences and stakeholders and to adjust their responses across changing contexts. Drawing on the work of Doug Brent and Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, Read and Michaud posit that such rhetorical flexibility demands that learning shift from “skill transfer,” in which students can produce a particular written artifact, to “learning transformation,” in which the focus is on learning about learning: learning how to study and respond to new contexts as they occur (429, 434). Read and Michaud write that students’ ability to take what they learn in writing classes beyond the classroom is an important outcome for the field of composition studies; they argue that making the study of professional writing a study of how writing accomplishes tasks across diverse environments renders it “a rich pedagogical practice uniquely suited to the [multimajor professional writing] classroom” (429).

In order to develop their proposal for enhancing students’ rhetorical fluency in professional-writing situations, Read and Michaud review two extant models for fostering recognition of the rhetorical nature of professional writing and enabling the transfer of learning across the school/work interface. The “genre-based” model positions students as researchers of professional writing artifacts and how they function socioculturally in use outside the classroom. This model must overcome drawbacks in that analyzing genres in classrooms as isolated objects differs from studying them in authentic contexts, where they are used to accomplish “strictly instrumental” goals (432). Moreover, students may not understand the dynamics of the particular contexts well enough to recognize the nuances of genre use in a given location (432). Genre-based models overcome these obstacles by incorporating activity theory in order to locate the genre in actual use and by incorporating “structured reflection” to draw out students’ awareness of “what they have learned about learning to write” (434; emphasis original).

In “client-based” approaches, in contrast, students occupy a “protoprofessional” role in which they work on specific projects within a workplace context (435). While this approach allows students to experience writing as an authentic professional activity, it must incorporate strategies to make the experience “generalizable” beyond the specific application (435). A strength of this approach is that it allows students to share in a sociocultural interaction that develops rhetorical awareness (436). Read and Michaud argue that WAW integrates the strengths of both these approaches.

They use as a primary source Doug Downs’s “seven rationales for WAW” developed for first-year courses. Of these, the most relevant are those that emphasize “transfer” and “authentic” experiences (436-37). They each provide an overview of a course they have designed that draws on WAW to expand the rhetorical content of a professional writing curriculum.

Read’s course “teach[es] professional writing as a research activity” (438). Students choose a participant in a specific workplace site to study in depth over a semester. They are taught analytical tools used in writing studies as well as field research practices such as interviewing and data collection (440). Read provides them with an online tool, GEMviz, in order to create “genre ecology models” mapping the rhetorical context in which their participant works (441-43). Students are encouraged not only to use the analytical and online tools but also to critique and adapt them, even to the point of “abandoning [them] for a better tool” if necessary. This active critical role “foregrounds how knowledge production is a highly dynamic, recursive, and rhetorical process in both academic and professional environments” (443). Read argues that the three most relevant “rationales” from Downs’s list are difficult to teach: understanding that writing is more than “the transcription of language to print” and casting writing as “studyable” confound students’ expectations for a writing course, while designing truly authentic experiences places complex demands on the course itself (439). Similarly, the two course goals exist in tension with each other: developing “[s]trategies for encountering new workplace writing situations” at the same time students learn conventional forms and practices (440). Read finds that a reflection letter asking students to explore the ways in which they have learned the difference between rhetorical strategies and conventions reveals a heightened awareness of “the nature of learning in general” (446).

In Michaud’s course, students acquire “declarative knowledge” that they then “operationalize” through field research of a particular workplace participant and a particular genre of their choice (449). The course is built around the concept of the “knowledge society” and how writing functions in roles students themselves will adopt in such societies (447). Students read work by scholars of knowledge production like Deborah Brandt, then interview their participant and report via informal assignments and two formal reports on their use of this scholarship to learn about the participant as a knowledge worker (447-50). Reflection built into each report allows students to focus on their discoveries about the transition from academic to professional environments (450). Michaud reports that students enter the course unaware of the concept of “knowledge society” and of the importance of writing in that society (449); their reflections reveal learning not only that “there would be writing after college [but also that] there would likely be a good deal of it” (452; emphasis original), they also learn that this writing as well as the contexts in which it will occur will require “new learning” which they must approach through the application of what Doug Brent calls “flexible general knowledge” (qtd. in Read and Michaud 451). This flexible knowledge allows them to “transform” knowledge to meet new needs.

The practices of both courses, Read and Michaud contend, make a professional writing course a “rhetorical education” that functions as “another site within a liberal arts curriculum for enculturating students into the habits of lifelong learning” (454).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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