Amateurs lack genre awareness

Amateurs write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. It’s one consequence of using literature teachers to teach writing in the US. Our students do not learn that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, messages) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in a document. That’s called genre awareness.

Let me share a story that makes my point. Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even SEEN such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion FIRST. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical EDUCATION that would lead to better workplace success!

Are you ready to drink the koolaid yet?

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  1. If I were a manager/mentor for a student intern, I would accept as part of my job: (1) to explain to the student that she would be writing a compliance memo after our tour, (2) to explain what a compliance memo is, (3) to give her several examples of compliance memoranda, and (4) to give her a checklist to use on the plant tour, or show her samples of field notes colleagues and I had written up on plant inspections. There are thousandss of different types of business and professional documents, and a composition teacher cannot be expected to introduce students to all of them. That is exactly what on-site training, mentors, and internships are for!

    1. I applaud your willingness to truly mentor newbies, Karen. Unfortunately, my evidence suggests such willingness is rare. It’s one reason the vast majority of undergraduate business & engineering degrees in the US require an advanced professional writing course where students can learn something about common workplace genres. One course is not enough to make a student job-ready. And that appears to be the expectation of most employers. But it helps!

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