Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing (Part 2 of 2)

This post is the second of two posts on transference and academic writing from the 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, held at the Regional Writing Centre, University Limerick, Ireland in June 2017.

Lawrence Cleary is an Educational Developer and Co-Director, Regional Writing Centre at the University Limerick, Ireland

(post one)

Many questioned how this year’s 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing, differed from our 2012 symposium. The simple answer is that the second symposium was asking whether it was our job to prepare students for workplace writing, even though no strong arguments were made challenging the notion. It was largely assumed that we should prepare students for the writing that they would do in their professional fields. Our 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, on the other hand, was asking if it was even possible to prepare students situated in an academic context for the writing they would do in a completely different context, the workplace.

My scepticism resulted from an interest in Rhetorical Genre Studies and, in particular, the implications of Activity Theory[1] that commenced in earnest after attending Genre 2012 conference in Ottawa. If “genres are part of how individuals participate in complex relations with one another in order to get things done, and how newcomers learn to construct themselves and participate effectively within activity systems”, then “how [can we] teach genres in ways that honor their complexity and their status as more than just typified rhetorical features”?[2] How could workplace activities that are mediated through language be replicated in academic contexts if the goal of the replication did not match the goal of the activity it was about to replicate? As Dias et al.[3] so aptly put it, the contexts are worlds apart. The conditions that motivate the occasion, the features of the rhetorical situation, the nature of the process, the role of author, the rules and the conventions…are all likely to be starkly different. This symposium would contest the notion that writing well in an academic context necessarily prepares graduates for the writing they will do in workplace contexts, a topic skirted around in our last symposium.

Too often, in the literature[4],[5],[6] and in my conversations with employers in many of the transferable skills seminars that I attended in the years since the last symposium, employers have maintained that graduates do not assess the new writing situation, but remain reliant on the values, purposes, conventions and forms, etc., of academic writing.  Graduates’ sense of authorship, audience and purpose, industry representatives have told me, are often completely off the mark of what the corporate context requires. With this in mind, I wanted our symposium to initiate a conversation between representatives from industry and academics about how graduates perform in workplace writing situations, the baggage that they bring along from academic writing contexts, and the process they go through in learning to write for this new workplace context. Because of my own strong belief that the role of ‘situation’ in writing pedagogy is undervalued and, therefore, ineffectively covered or considered in conversations on writing, I wanted both academics and business communication managers to explore the limits of replicating workplace writing situations in academic contexts and to discuss ways in which third-level educational institutions could better prepare third-level graduates for future workplace writing situations.

The symposium was held on June 1st, as the Irish Network for the Enhancement of Writing (INEW) were bringing in Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg Hunt Professor of English and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University (FSU), earlier in the week to talk about the role of reflection in peer review as a tool for learning and writing transfer, and the two co-Chairs, Íde O’Sullivan (UL) and Alison Farrell (NUI Maynooth) graciously asked Kathy if she would mind presenting at our symposium while she was in town. Kathy, generously, agreed to speak to our audience about things that they should consider when framing their conversations on writing and transfer and teaching writing transfer. I thought that some writing developers in Ireland might have some sense of how people in Rhetoric and Composition Studies talk about the writing, or rhetorical, situation and about metacognitive awareness about one’s own process and practices, but those concepts might be somewhat new to many here who teach writing either in the discipline or as ancillary support. Kathy[7] described, for our audience, the components of the Teaching for Transfer (TFT) curriculum that she facilitates in FSU and how each of those components worked with each other in the teaching and learning dynamic. She also identified and defended what she believes to be the conditions necessary for transfer to occur.

By the time that I spoke to Kathy, Anthony Paré was already on board. Anthony agreed to talk a bit about the historical theoretical evolution in our approach to teaching writing at third level and to emphasise the role of context in transitioning from one writing situation to another. Anthony, in his talk, elaborated on the seemingly endless functions that text can perform and emphasised how a shift in context can impact on the form that ‘text’ takes in order to mean and function. Anthony advocated for an increase in the number and variety of rhetorical challenges faced by students, replication of situations and processes that are specific to actual

Anthony Paré, Professor and Head of Language and Literacy Education Department, University of British Columbia, speaking at the Regional Writing Centre’s 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, June 1st, 2017, University of Limerick, Ireland.

situations they may face later in their academic careers or in the workplace or in life in general, opportunities for addressing a variety of audiences, chain or series assignments and an increase in the modes by which knowledge is communicated, arguments made. Anthony also brought to the table discussions about the role of industry, their responsibility for easing the transition for incoming graduate employees.

Much more difficult was it to find representatives from industry, and even more so finding third-level writing and/or subject specialists willing to present on their own attempts to facilitate writing transfer across contexts. Originally, I had approximately six or seven people that wrote to me to say that they would like to present on a curriculum designed to assist students in their transition to workplace writing. I envisaged a one-hour breakout of seven or eight twenty-minute presentations on pedagogical practices, but only two people responded to the call for abstracts; one of those two, sadly, had to bow out for personal reasons. Susan Norton, DIT School of Languages, Law & Social Sciences was our lone practitioner. Sue took the stage to deliver a thirty-minute talk about how Reader Response Theory helps developing writers to become more aware of the conventions of the texts that they and their audiences read so that they are more astute about how their audience makes meaning.

I had more success attracting representatives from industry, though the process was somewhat stressful. Maria-Jose Gonzalez, coordinator of Dublin Institute of Technology’s recently formed Academic Writing Centre, tipped me toward Tony Donohoe, Head of Education and Social Policy for the Irish Business and Employer Confederation (Ibec). She had heard Tony speak in the past and found him very supportive of initiatives like our symposium. It was Tony who found Barry McLoughlin, Senior Training Consultant for The Communication Clinic in Dublin. Though The Communication Clinic is usually thought of as one of Ireland’s most visible public relations firms, they also provide industries with consultants like Barry to either train staff to write texts that achieve corporate goals or else consultants write those texts themselves. Our third speaker from industry was much more difficult to come by. I was looking for a corporate-level communications manager, preferably one responsible for external communications. I wanted this person to describe the corporate culture, the kinds of texts that were produced, the process of production, and how the process differed from the writing they had done at university or at the IT.

I researched the top ten indigenous companies, either highest employment numbers or highest revenue turnover. I had originally written to a woman who produced quarterly financial reports for CRH plc, The International Building Materials Group, rated Ireland’s top industry with the highest turnover, but I received no response. I then began searching LinkedIn for Communication Managers. I had written to one person who was a University Limerick graduate working for Twitter, but again received no response. Finally, after making a few other contacts that did not pan out, I came across Edel Clancy, Director of Communication & Corporate Affairs, Musgrave Group, Ireland’s sixth largest employer[8].

Edel is native to Limerick and a graduate of UL, and one of our tutors was a good friend of hers. It couldn’t get better. I had written to her, but again did not receive a response. I was beginning to think I would have to give up on the idea of a having a representative from a large industry who could take our audience through the production of a text, step by step through its complicated, and potentially long, process. Then, Edel wrote back. I gave her the date, and she agreed to speak. She called me a few weeks before the symposium from a train travelling from Cork to Dublin. She was worried about the fifty-minute slot. She thought she would not have enough to talk about. Despite being disconnected several times as the train passed through areas without a signal, we spoke for over an hour about writing and how writing functioned at Musgrave Group. It became clear, even to her, that she’d have no trouble talking about writing for fifty minutes.

Speakers and RWC staff: (from the left) Anthony Paré, Íde O’Sullivan, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Edel Clancy, Lawrence Cleary, Aoife Lenihan, Fiona Farr, UL Dean of Teaching and Learning, Barry McLoughlin and Tony Donohoe (Picture Credit: Brian Gavin Press 22)

The symposium was brilliant. Our audience was not as large as I’d have hoped, but it is already a tricky time of year, only madeworse by the abundance of relevant events that had been scheduled for the preceding two days. By Thursday, June 1st, many people were already tuckered out and not up to the long drives to Limerick from far-flung quarters of Ireland. Nevertheless, people from as far away as the US, the UK and Germany were in attendance. Many people had written to ask if we could video-record the talks. We couldn’t afford a professional outfit to do the job, but we did manage to get hold of a video recorder and a stand. The recordings are available on our website. I hope those who contacted me find value in the recordings. The symposium finished with a panel conversation with the audience. Barry McLoughlin left us with a sense of the importance of writing knowledge to efficacy, asserting that people who feel confident about their writing skills feel more prepared to accept more demanding roles. Edel expressed the hope that the Regional Writing Centre step outside of the university to engage with a wider society, an idea with which the rest of the panel strongly concurred. Kathy and Anthony both advocated for more student engagement with industry through internship and apprenticeship programmes, Anthony speaking a bit more philosophically about the way the academic project views its place in society. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, UL’s Associate Vice President Academic, was asked to join the panel. Sarah brought the conversation back to the Graduate Attributes spoken of earlier in this piece. Sarah views the attributes as the link between a student’s academic experience and the future that awaits them. If one follows Kathy’s talk, they might consider this link made by Sarah and the link to the future that Kathy tells us is so important as a condition for transfer.

I hope the readers of this report on our symposium and its context will link into our website to view and listen to the conversations that took place on June 1st, at our 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing. At the RWC, we are preparing now for a new semester, but we are also looking ahead to engaging an increasingly diverse society in the ongoing conversation on writing.

Thank you for reading along.

 

Notes

[1] Russell, D. (1997) “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis.” Written Communication 14(4), pp. 504-54.

[2] Barwarshi, A. S. and Reiff, M. J. (2010) Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy, West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, p. 104.

[3] Dias, P. et al. (1999/2009) Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. New York and London: Routledge, p. 5.

[4] thejournal.ie (2016) ‘Lots of jobs out there for graduates – but employers say they don’t have the communication skills’, http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/graduates-opportunities-employers-ruairi-kavanagh-2861634-Jul2016/

[5] Forbes (2016) ‘These Are The Skills Bosses Say New College Grads Do Not Have’, https://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2016/05/17/these-are-the-skills-bosses-say-new-college-grads-do-not-have/#234e34125491

[6] Ibid, p. 5.

[7]  Visit the RWCUL’s website to see video-recordings of each of the speaker’s talks: http://ulsites.ul.ie/rwc/keynote-speakers

[8] The Irish Times (2017) ‘Top 1000: Results 2017’, https://www.irishtimes.com/top1000

Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing (Part 1 of 2)

This post is the first of two posts on transference and academic writing from the 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, held at the Regional Writing Centre, University Limerick, Ireland in June 2017.

Lawrence Cleary is an Educational Developer and Co-Director, Regional Writing Centre at the University Limerick, Ireland

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Ireland’s first academic writing centre, originally called the Shannon Consortium Regional Writing Centre, University Limerick. The Shannon Consortium is an alliance between four third-level institutes[1] in the Shannon region: The University of Limerick (UL), Mary Immaculate College (MIC), Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) and the Institute of Technology, Tralee (IT, Tralee)—the only institute outside of not only the city of Limerick, but also outside of County Limerick. The formation of that alliance facilitated the consortium’s acquisition of a variety of Strategic Innovation Funds (SIF) that had been offered by the Irish government from 2006-2008. One of those awards funded the Shannon Consortium Regional Writing Centre for the first two and a half years of its existence, long enough for my colleague, Íde O’Sullivan, and I to establish the centre’s value and appeal for institutional funding to preserve and maintain it. In 2009, the University of Limerick found the contribution of the centre significant enough to warrant allocating an annual budget to keep the resource open. That allocation is managed by the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, to whom we now report. However, though we are no longer funded by the Shannon Consortium, we maintained our regional aspirations in our new name, the Regional Writing Centre, UL, and this aspiration is in line with UL’s strategic plan, Broadening Horizons 2015-19.[2]

The Shannon Consortium schools

Previous to the establishment of this first third-level academic writing centre in Ireland, only one other academic writing centre existed on the island: St. Mary’s University College Writing Centre, in Belfast, established in 2002 by two Americans, Jonathan Worley and Matthew Martin. Jonathan and Matthew spoke at our first symposium on writing, Research on Writing Practices: Consequences for the Teaching of Writing and Learner Outcomes, organised by my colleague Íde O’Sullivan in December of 2007, with Ken Hyland as keynote speaker.

In that first symposium, Íde and I presented on our rationale for our choice of response to the university’s writing needs, subsequently published as ‘Responding to the Writing Development Needs of Irish Higher Education Students: A Case Study’ (Cleary, Graham, Jeanneau and O’Sullivan, 2009).[3] Though the bulk of the presentation and ensuing article focused on the results of Íde’s 2005 and 2006 surveys of staff and student attitudes toward writing and their preferences for writing provision, as well as on the informed, systematic approaches available to us for addressing the needs expressed in the surveys, even here we felt we had to first establish for our audience that writing mattered.

When making our case in this first presentation, much of our argument for the importance of writing was focused on the importance of writing for the achievement of the national strategies to which Irish universities responded in their own strategic plans. Ireland at that time was determined to become a knowledge economy. “Knowledge, innovation, creativity and workforce skills are now the key success factors for Ireland’s economic and social prosperity” (Hanafin 2005).[4] Citing the Teachta Dála’s words in her 2008 formal evaluation of our writing centre, Terry Zawacki emphasised this idea that “[t]he importance of writing in the overall higher education mission cannot be overestimated considering the knowledge-economy context in which Ireland now evolves.”[5] Continue reading “Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing (Part 1 of 2)”