WAW and Business Writing: What WAW offers Business Communications Students
The Pennsylvania State University–University Park
I have used Writing About Writing for the last five years in my lower and upper level composition classes; however, due to a career transition (i.e. no longer being a graduate student), I find myself in the familiar yet different territory of business communication. While the teaching of business writing follows the familiar shuffle of our other composition courses, I have begun to rethink the value of what WAW may bring to this class specifically.
I know that you are most likely saying, “Seriously, this isn’t that big of a deal. It’s a pretty simple shift,” and I agree with that sentiment. Business writing follows the same basic conventions of all other forms of composition courses in that it stresses the rhetorical situation, audience analysis, attention to detail, and style. It is my belief, and seemingly only my belief at this moment, that elements of our approaches to FYW that are inspired or directly linked to WAW are of aid to those of us who teach primarily business students. After visiting the 2015 Association for Business Communication (ABC) conference and some small experimentation in my classroom feel a bit more comfortable laying out how.
For those who have not taught business or technical communication, the learning outcomes for these courses place a great deal of emphasis on the crafting of messages for diverse audiences inside and outside the workplace, planning effective and persuasive reports, creating resumes and cover letters, and sometimes the use of social media. To effectively begin to write toward these genres students should be able to adequately understand audience, literacies, discursive environments, rhetoric, and modality. These threshold concepts are thoroughly covered by our WAW courses through the variety of readings and assessments that engage students in understanding how each portion works in cohesion with the other.
Audience Awareness in WAW and Business Writing
By asking FYW students to reimagine audience in light of literacy and discursive needs, WAW prepares students to examine and understand the different ticks of the workplace. Let’s consider two presentations from the ABC conference:
- Different Problems, Similar Goals: ESL Students and the Business Communication Writing Course (Marla Mahar, Oklahoma State University)
- Generational Communication in the Workplace (Evaline Echols, Lee University)
Both presentations focused on adaptation to new linguistic norms, specifically cultural and linguistic shifts one must make whether in the workplace or classroom. Mahar’s central argument fed upon the need for international students to be placed within a separate business writing classroom due to the anxieties of L2 student writers. Echols’ presentation focused more on the intergenerational nature of workplaces and the way in which the four different generations (Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y/Millennials) interacted with each other. Both presentations have their place within business writing but also hold a specific link to WAW in that they rely upon having students understand the history and rationalities of why we compose in specific ways. Specifically, our work on having students understand the vital link between literacies, discursive moves, and ethnography within the WAW classroom provides a starting point for them to engage in understanding the unique natures of new environments.
The readings and assessments we give our students in WAW classrooms should create the bridge between professional and academic writing. I have covered material in my WAW FYW courses that prepares students for the rigors of what is to come, especially in relation to each of the presentations mentioned above. Having students, especially ESL students, understand the history and reasoning for why they are crafting a document in a specific way may not entirely help them overcome anxiety but it is a start. In fact, as I have previously experienced with teaching majority L2 students at Texas A&M University-Commerce, giving students access to the professional conversations about writing helps them explore their own sense of agency.
Experimenting with WAW in Business Writing at Penn State University
My time at Penn State has been a bit different as my ENGL 202D: Business Writing students were not trained in WAW during their FYW course sequence. However, this has let me experiment a bit more with them as the readings will be new to each of my students. I have slowly experimented with injecting WAW into my business writing teaching: I have made explicit use of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” Stuart Greene’s “Argument as Conversation,” and John Swales’ “The Concept of a Discourse Community” in my courses. I picked these three readings primarily because of their viability to the writing assignments prescribed by the curriculum. Swales’ essay connects so easily to the nature of business communication because it focuses students’ attention on audience awareness, insider/outsider needs, and the multiplicity of genres inherent in their future field.
Students, especially my few international students (five total in all three sections), have responded well to these essays because they take the pressure off of instant perfection, the purpose of business documents, and to whom they will be addressing in different circumstances. We have engaged in conversations based purely on the nature of the needs of discourse communities ranging from the international environment to different regions of the United States. One of my Panamanian students opened up to the class about their anxieties concerning writing and speaking to their American colleagues in their coming internship. Likewise, my Vietnamese and Chinese students privately fret about their grammatical skills and sometimes under- or over-write as a reaction to thinking about how they are creating meaning in business documents. Using Lamott and Swales’ essays has generally helped these students feel more comfortable with communicating in writing in professional situations, though they still possess anxiety prior to the drafting stage.
To echo back to Echols’ presentation at the ABC conference, we have spent time discussing the generational differences they will encounter in the workplace. It is important that we expose our current students to the central idea that they will be communicating cross-generationally with others, and we must also convince them that there are conventions of literacy that are also deeply involved in how each generational group handles material and writing conventions in the workplace. In terms of literacy, I want them to think about the generational divide posed by technologies that have developed over the course of many of their future peers careers. Perhaps using Danielle DeVoss or Dennis Baron’s essays will help with this gap, something our current textbook does not speak to. I have not yet adapted WAW material to cover the literacy aspect of my unit, though. I plan on doing so over the Christmas break when I have more time.
Overall, I feel that there is a place for WAW in the business writing curriculums many universities use. While I am merely experimenting with injecting a small number of readings into my courses, I feel that this has produced some success as students feel a bit more comfortable with the reasoning for why they must switch different genres constantly in professional environments. My hope is that I can further develop my passion for WAW into something more substantial to the business writing classroom in order to help students develop further as adept writers.
To End on a Question:
You’ve already stopped reading this by now. But I have a question for all of you! Would you be willing to use WAW in a business, technical, science, or non-humanities writing course?