Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall   2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  3

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Technical Writing: Skills and Citizenship

 

Sandra Hill, University of Louisiana at Monroe

 

Hill, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the emerging Professional Writing Program at ULM. 

 

Abstract

The lack of writing skills and decline in ethical behavior in today’s workplace can be addressed through use of service-learning in technical and professional writing classes.  Service-learning is known to increase students’ awareness of and participation in civic issues in their communities as well as provide a venue for experiential learning.  The presented model for incorporating service-learning projects in technical writing classes shows specifically how this pedagogy gives technical writing students opportunities to practice citizenship and workplace skills needed in the market.

 

 

Introduction to Workplace Literacy and Citizenship

A recent large study by the National Commission on Writing found that the U.S. lacks a workforce sufficiently skilled in writing.  According to the Commission’s September 2004 report, a majority of the businesses surveyed said that one-third of their employees do not meet the company’s writing requirements.  More troubling, however, is that a significant number of the business respondents said that two-thirds of their employees do not possess the writing skills that the company values.  The need for writing instructors to more effectively prepare technical and professional writing students to function well in the workplace is apparent.

 

Other studies, including the U. S. Department of Labor’s SCANS report on workplace skills and personal qualities and the ISO 9000, a European workplace study, assess the technologically altered and globally expanded workplace of today and the expanded skill sets needed for success in that environment (Meyer and Bernhardt, 1997, p. 86).  As Kelli Cargile Cook (Cargile Cook, 2002, p. 5-6) notes, “[t]oday technical communicators need to be multi-literate, possessing a variety of literacies that encompass the multiple ways people use language in producing information, solving problems, and critiquing practice.”  The term “workplace literacies” has evolved, which Paul Meyer and Stephen Bernhardt (Meyer and Bernhardt 1997, p. 86) define as those skills deemed necessary by business, industry, and government to be essential for success in the workplace.  Cargile Cook has labeled these literacies:  basic, rhetorical, social, technical, ethical, and critical. 

 

The problem of efficacy in the workplace does not stop with workplace literacies, however.  The debacles of Enron and World Com show the need for a better kind of citizen in the workplace.  Unfortunately on our college campuses today, students all too often receive regular doses of uncivil behaviors from hate crimes to date rape to murder.

 

Given the importance of preparing students to be morally engaged citizens and to have the communication skills necessary to function effectively on the job, the question becomes one of how to impart these attributes to students in the classroom.  According to the authors of Educating Citizens (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont and Stephens, 2003, p. 7), “[i]f a college education is to support the kind of learning graduates need to be involved and responsible citizens, its goals must go beyond the development of intellectual and technical skills … They should include the competence to act in the world and the judgment to do so wisely.”

 

Service-Learning as Solution

Service-learning, with its focus on experiential learning through civic engagement, has the potential to help solve both academic skills deficiencies and morality problems in the workplace.  As community service work, it introduces a humanitarian component that helps teach students how to be good citizens.  As real-world writing, it exposes students to the writing and communication skills that business and industry require.

 

Research shows (Eyler and Giles, 1999; Jacoby and Associates, 1996; Honnet and Poulsen, 1989; Kendall, 1990) that service-learning projects can help students learn course material and develop social skills, such as cooperation and tolerance.  In a technical writing class, when course outcomes are linked to workplace skills, students practice workplace literacies.  When the students discuss the civic problems their projects are addressing, they embrace citizenship. 

 

Service-Learning Defined

Barbara Jacoby and Associates (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5) define service-learning as “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.”  Outcomes are intentionally designed to promote skills learning and to foster civic and personal development.  In a technical writing class, for example, a service-learning project might involve the desktop publication of a brochure for the local Boys and Girls Clubs encouraging volunteerism.  The Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform (Bhaerman, 1998, p. 4) describes service-learning as a method of instruction that

 

  • allows students to learn and develop through active participation in organized service experiences that serve the community and enable collaboration between school and community
  • allows thinking, talking, and writing about (reflecting on) the work experience
  • provides students with opportunities to practice academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities.
  • extends learning beyond the classroom into the community where it can help foster a sense of caring for others

 

Reflection and reciprocity are major components of service-learning, according to Jacoby and Associates (p. 5).  Reciprocity refers to the ‘give and take’ of service-learning.  Students give their time and effort to help solve a community problem and take from the experience a lesson on community issues.  Reflection is necessary for students to think about and critically analyze the problem being addressed.  It is not enough for students to make a brochure for the Boys and Girls Clubs if they do not understand the civic work of the organization.  Reflection can be in the form of group discussion, journals, questionnaires, or a combination of these.

 

Service-Learning:  Theoretical Background

The theoretical groundwork for service-learning as a useful teaching and learning tool has been laid.  At the 1989 Wingspread Conference, Ellen Porter Honnet and Susan J. Poulsen (Honnet and Poulsen, 1989) presented their “Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning,” in which they noted, “[t]he combination of service and learning is powerful.  It creates potential benefits beyond what either service or learning can offer separately.”  Some of the results of good service-learning that they noted include curiosity and motivation to learn, commitment to addressing the problems behind social issues, more sensitivity to how institutional decisions are made and how they affect people’s lives, and the realization that they [students] can make a difference.  Service-learning has potential for success in many areas of academia.  Edward Zlotkowski (Zlotkowski, 1999, p. vi), editor of a series of 12 monographs on service-learning, notes that “experience has shown that there is probably no disciplinary area – from architecture to zoology – where service-learning cannot be fruitfully employed to strengthen students’ abilities to become active learners as well as responsible citizens.”

 

The need for service-learning in the college classroom has been well articulated by pedagogists (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont and Stephens, 2003) who argue in Educating Citizens that it is the responsibility of higher education to teach ethical and moral behavior.  The authors note that “most mission statements of both public and private colleges and universities explicitly refer to an institution’s responsibility to educate for leadership and contributions to society” and that “[r]ecognition of the obligation … implies that certain values, both moral and civic, ought to be represented in these institutions’ educational goals and practices” (p. 13).

 

A six-year study by Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr. (Eyler and Giles, 1999) documents the success of service-learning (S-L) as a practice.  In their Comparing Models of Service-Learning project, funded by the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), the authors surveyed 1,500 college students from over 20 institutions in the U.S., followed by problem-solving interviews with 66 students from 7 institutions.  From this study, the authors found that

.

  • A majority of S-L students say that they learn more and are more motivated in S-L classes than in regular classes
  • S-L is a predictor of increased sense of personal efficacy, desire to include service in career plans, and belief in the usefulness of S-L to develop career skills
  • S-L is a predictor of increased leadership skills (compared to non-S-L students)
  • Students say they remember and can use material they learn from the community context
  • Students say S-L is powerful because it is rooted in personal relationships and in doing work that makes a difference in people’s lives

 

In the area of technical writing, Thomas Huckin (Huckin, 1997, p. 50) identifies three service-learning goals: 1) development of academic skills, 2) development of civic awareness, and 3) helping the community’s non-profit organizations.  He notes his success with service-learning in his technical writing classes: “students have been almost uniformly pleased with the experience, both because it gave them the chance to do “real writing” with real consequences for the larger community and because of the civic pride and satisfaction they felt from helping their fellow citizens” (p. 54).  David Sapp and Robbin Crabtree (Sapp and Crabtree, 2002, p. 11-12) note that “service-learning provides technical communication students with not only skills and experience for resume and portfolio building, but … also a worthwhile component in serving many universities’ missions to prepare students to be responsible community members.”  This contention answers in part the issue raised by the authors of Educating Citizens concerning the mission of the university in regard to preparing students as citizens.  

 

Melody Bowden and J. Blake Scott (Bowden and Scott, 2003, pp. 13-17) have identified the following benefits of service-learning specific to professional writing students:

 

  • Application of professional writing principles to non-academic situations
  • Interactions with real-world audiences
  • Management of major projects across time and space
  • Confrontation of real-world ethical problems
  • Connections to professionals in the community as well as portfolio building

 

The authors note the challenges of doing service-learning in technical writing classes.  They note differences in teacher’s expectations and those of the service-learning client, as well as the extensive time it may take students to understand the rules and conventions of the organization they are working for (p. 21-22).

 

My own five-year experience with service-learning projects in technical writing courses bears out these authors’ findings.  The majority of my students report on reflection questionnaires that they have learned the value of teamwork, improved their communication skills, and felt like they have made a difference in the community.  What follows is a model for incorporating service-learning work into a technical writing course. 

 

A Service-Learning Project Model

Kelli Cargile Cook’s proposal for teaching multiple workplace literacies can be achieved through collaborative service-learning writing assignments carried out in the computer classroom.  One way to begin these assignments is to start with the very first querying activity as an opportunity to practice professional e-mail (technology skills) and basic writing skills.  Students will first need to research local non-profits or campus service organizations that they might like to work with and then query the agencies for interest in working on a service-learning project.  As much as possible, students should work with the agencies they wish to serve rather than being assigned to an organization.  It is important for students to care about the cause the agency serves so that they will be willing to take an active and interested part in the project.  The query e-mail gives students practice in professional tone, e-mail protocol, and basic literacy (word choice, conciseness).  The activity also allows students to begin forming small groups around the agencies they hope to work with. 

 

Next, students learn about primary sources and practice oral communication (social skills) by interviewing the potential client they have chosen to work with.  Here students discuss what documentation the agency needs (service-learning must fulfill a bonafide need), the timeline for completion (all projects must be done by end of the semester), and any special equipment needed for production.  After several documentation possibilities have been discussed, the students return to the classroom to draft a recommendation memo to the agency to argue for producing one of the documents discussed in the interview.  With this memo, the first informal agreement is made on the type of document the students will produce and includes how and where the document will be produced, what specific content it will contain, along with its purpose, audience, design essentials, and delivery date.  This memo can also serve as a talking point for the civic problem that the organization serves.

 

As students wait to hear back from the agency on their recommendation, they can reflect on the social problems they have encountered.  Reflection provides an opportunity for students to critically discuss the civic issues, further practicing critical thinking skills.  The different groups can share the problems they are seeing and talk about ways these problems can be addressed.  In addition, students should reflect on their own writing and communication skills progress.  Some instructors require students to keep a journal of their thoughts while others use reflection questionnaires to help guide students’ thinking about civic matters.  The questionnaires can be helpful for instructors and students who are not sure how to focus their thoughts on civic matters, particularly students who have never before volunteered their services.  It is also a good idea for students to reflect throughout the project, not just at the end.  Multiple reflections give instructors and students a chronological history of thoughts with which to measure changes in civic attitudes and abilities throughout the project.

 

Before the students create the actual service-learning document they need a project plan.  By this time, students will have formed teams for their projects.  Each team then works out a plan for getting the work done, dividing up the tasks, setting deadlines.  A plan is essential to guide the students through this real-world project across the course of the semester.  The plan is also a large part of the proposal each team then writes to its non-profit client to formally propose creating the document.  The plan and proposal writing give the students more practice in teamwork (social skills), argumentation (rhetorical skills), organization of data (basic writing skills), draft sharing, and online team editing (technology skills).  Written acceptance of the proposal from the client can also provide some legal protections for the students and the university.

 

In the last leg of the project, teams work in the computer classroom to produce the service document for their agency.  These documents may be brochures, web designs, PowerPoint presentations, posters, or any number of workplace documents that are feasible to produce.  Working in teams around the computer, the students continue to practice technical and collaborative skills. They revise their document extensively because they know that it will actually be used by their client and the people the client serves in the community.  Also, because the document targets specific audiences, students must exercise ethical skills in their choices of language, graphics, and tone.  Class discussions should address gendered language, inclusiveness, and avoidance of stereotyping. 

 

Real-world documents must be delivered on time.  Therefore, it is a good idea to devote much class time to working on the documents to allow for the glitches that can occur, such as technology failure, student absences, and last minute changes by the client.  Problems will occur, but dealing with them gives students good practice in the real demands of professional communication. 

 

Conclusion

Service-learning is not easy, but the benefits can be enormous.  Research shows that service-learning students learn more and are better motivated than traditional classroom students.  An additional benefit for technical writing students is the opportunity to practice workplace literacies that are in short supply in the workforce today, according to national studies.  In fact, technical writing classes, with learning outcomes centered on effective document production and understanding of civil behavior, partner well with the documentation needs and goals of civic organizations.  Such projects can be worked seamlessly into a course curriculum with writing assignments such as e-mail, memo, and proposal directed to the service-learning client.  Through each document, students practice workplace skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, document design, rhetorical analysis, and ethics while also experiencing what it means to be an involved citizen.  In the face of diminishing workplace skills and unethical business behavior, service-learning offers a pedagogical helping hand.

 

 

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