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?