User Tools (skip):
The write track for the workplace
| On the subject of literacy, there is a measure of tension between the academy, where it is taught, and the workplace — where it is applied.
However, this tension is not, as some would have it, predicated upon some crisis of general literacy — i.e., overall writing and reading skills — but upon the specific literacies demanded by particular professions.
"We have a very high rate of basic literacy and it has been improving," asserts Anthony Paré, chair of McGill's Department of Educational Studies.
"But in our society we no longer deal in a single literacy. We have plural literacies, extending beyond narrow concerns about formally proper grammar to the specifics of how to be effectively literate in the context of a profession or workplace."
He points out that literacy is a tool for accomplishing the dictates of the job. The objective, he goes on, is for effective communication. This is realized even when language is used imperfectly, so long as it is used precisely according to the diction of the profession.
With the prevalence of international communications, for example, people are frequently dealing with others who are not working in their first language. This needn't hinder understanding, even if messages are not grammatically flawless, so long as ideas are transmitted clearly.
New forms of written communication, notably e-mail, have also had their impact on conceptions of literacy. Few e-mail messages are composed with careful attention to form, but are more likely to be a quick jotting. This does not, however, make them less comprehensible for being less well crafted than, say, an annual report.
Paré and educational studies professor Ann Beer recently completed a SSHRC-sponsored research project, in collaboration with Carleton University's Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway, entitled "Relearning Writing for Work: Transitions Into and Within the Changing Workplace."
Focusing their research on architecture, engineering, management, public administration and social work, the study found that employers believe students should be leaving university better prepared for the kinds of writing they will be expected to do within the context of their intended profession.
And while professors Paré and Beer agree that the training students receive in professional writing can be improved, there are a number of impediments preventing the academy from ever fully meeting employer expectations.
As Beer points out, the two domains pursue different purposes. "The academy's goals have to do with knowledge creation and being on the forefront of research, while business is spurred by profit motives and efficiencies."
Furthermore, the properties of each company's culture, even within the context of a broader professional culture, are so distinct that no university curriculum could ever account for them all.
Besides which, Beer says, "Corporate cultures are so deeply internalized that those who've been with a company for any length of time cease to take conscious note of how they do things. Each workplace develops its own style and must assume responsibility for teaching it to new recruits."
"Individual corporate cultures are so precise that we could never reproduce them in a theoretical environment," Paré agrees.
Still, the researchers believe universities can do a better job teaching writing that replicates a general professional setting.
Paré explains, "Almost all the writing a student does in university consists of writing up; a novice writing for an expert. That isn't what happens in the workplace. When you're required to write something in a job setting, you do so as an expert.
"Workplace texts do not go one-way, but follow a cycle of review and revision. There's a rhetorical dynamic at play that is absent in the university, where a text is submitted to be assigned a grade. University courses could encourage more of a flow. Professors should review drafts, whether by themselves or by small working groups of students. This will help prepare [students] for the interplay between writer and reader that occurs in the workplace."
McGill has gone some way towards addressing the problems of writing for the professions with courses offered through the Centre for the Teaching of Writing. They provide instruction on how to write so as to effectively communicate in the form and language the student can expect to encounter on the job.
The results of the "Writing for Work" study have spawned two books, Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts, published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, and Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings, from Hampton Press.