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Writing about Business Writing: An Ethnography Assignment

 

Marianna Hendricks
The University of Texas at El Paso
mrdrum@utep.edu

Since 2010, I have experimented with integrating a WAW approach in my first-year writing courses. In 2012, I grew these efforts to include more business writing, both within first-year writing and in a dedicated course on workplace writing.

One way this has been successful is in the assignment below, the Workplace Writing Ethnography, which I developed alongside several colleagues at UTEP. This project stems from the commonly-assigned literacy narrative, or auto-ethnography, and extends the task of ethnography into exploring genres and conventions of a students’ target (or current) workplace. This is especially important for students who intend to enter a new career after college, as the project emphasizes analysis of the ways novices enter and integrate into a discourse community.


 

Workplace Writing Ethnography

Overview

The Workplace Writing Ethnography is different from the auto-ethnography. Rather than examine multiple writing practices for an individual (you), this assignment allows you to explore how written communication is structured within a single workplace. Ultimately, your objective is to: 1) get a sense of what genres are common within your chosen workplace, 2) profile conventions and “document cycling” practices (Paradis, Dobrin, and Miller, 1985) that are considered normal there, and 3) document (or propose) ways that novices could enter the written communication practices effectively and efficiently.

You will choose a workplace that you are either already in, or a workplace you would like to join in the future, perhaps as part of your career goals.

This assignment stems from class discussion of John Swales’ (1990) article “The Concept of Discourse Community,” where he gives six defining characteristics of discourse communities:

  1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
  4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.
  6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise. (pp. 471-473)

Gathering Data

You will explore the six elements of discourse communities as they relate to the written communication within a particular workplace. When selecting your community, consider the guidelines listed below:

Locate a business or organization that is related to your future career aspirations. If you wish to study your current workplace, work with an upper-level supervisor to research beyond your current role.

  1. Contact an upper-level supervisor of this business or organization. Briefly explain your project, ask permission to observe people on-the-job for at least 3 hours, and set up an interview with the supervisor following your observation.
  2. Observe members of the community during a shared activity, and take detailed notes of how they interact (what are they doing? what kinds of things do they say? what do they write? how do you know who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’?).
  3. Request an interview with at least one lower-level employee in the organization.
  4. Collect artifacts and writing produced in the community. Consider requesting examples of emails, memos, business letters, web materials, brochures, mission statements, grant proposals, or procedures.

Record and/or take detailed notes during interviews with the supervisor and lower-level employee (we will develop research questions as a class beforehand).

Analyzing Data

After completing your observation and interviews, review your notes and the artifacts you have collected. As you read and re-read, try to answer as many of the following questions as possible:

  • What are the shared goals of this community? Why does the group exist and what does it do?
  • What mechanisms do members use to communicate? What are the purposes of these mechanisms?
  • Which of these mechanisms are considered genres? Which are primarily written?
  • Who are the normal audiences for these genres? What do they usually want to know? What do they expect to see?
  • What are some conventions for written communication in these genres? Is there a certain tone, specialized language, or standard way of saving or sharing information?
  • What kinds of “document cycling” take place in this community? Who provides feedback, and how often? When is a document considered final? How does it get there?
  • Who has expertise? Who are the newcomers? How do newcomers learn appropriate language, genres, knowledge?

Connect your findings with at least two of our readings. Consider whether your research seems to line up with what we read and discussed, or if your findings call some ideas into question.

Presenting Data

You will present your findings within a 5- to 7-page article, using a format commonly used to share qualitative research in academic journals. This article should be double-spaced, using a 12-point font in Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri, and one-inch margins. Please include all of the following sections:

  • A title page, including a title, your name, class time, and contact information.
  • Introduction, providing an overview of your workplace and research questions.
  • Literature Review, using course readings and any other relevant sources to support the way you structured your inquiry, data collection methods, analysis, or findings.
  • Methods, providing details of how you collected and analyzed data, in a way that another researcher could reasonably replicate.
  • Discussion, making connections between what you found and what it might mean, especially to a novice entering the workplace or someone looking to improve current practices.

The final version of your article should follow APA format, including a title page with running head, in-text and reference page citations, page numbers, and first-level section headings.

Drafting and Peer Review

All students will have multiple opportunities to share working drafts of their article with peers and the instructor for feedback. Please come to class on peer review days with as much work completed as possible, and be ready to provide meaningful comments on “global” issues such as appropriate focus, helpful structure, clear descriptions, and sufficient detail. Students who wish to receive additional feedback may make an appointment with the instructor during office hours and visit the University Writing Center to meet with a tutor; however, do not come expecting an editing session.