Worlds Apart & WRT 307

Quite a few years ago, when I was starting out as a high school English teacher, I remember talking with a former teacher and mentor about how damned difficult it is was to design good assignments. Forms were the easy part, I said, but thinking through the purpose and audience — that was tricky. She agreed, adding that she thought that was so because the classroom was such an “artificial space.” That comment has stuck with me each time I’ve tried to design an assignment, whether it was for English 11, ENG 101, WRT 205, etc. I think: How can I make this assignment as engaging and authentic as possible? How can I design a task with real exigence for my students? Are these even worthwhile or realistic goals?

This anxiety returns to me as I think about how I’ll start piece together units and assignments for WRT 307 this fall. What curricula will best prepare my students for their future (and current?) workplaces? Which forms? Readings? Assignments? Technologies? These basic but vast (and vastly complicated) questions are addressed in Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts (1999). Dias et al ask, “[i]n what ways is writing in university preparation for writing at work?” More to the point, the authors investigate why it hardly ever has.

Claiming that “the contexts of writing not only influence it …  but are integral to it,” the authors necessarily make use of social theories of situated learning, including genre studies (Miller), activity theory (Leont’ev), communities of practice (COP) (Lave and Wenger), distributed cognition (Hutchins), and semiotic theory (Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Kristeva) – theories not alien to writing centers, I might add (see The Everyday Writing Center for a fresh example).

In the chapters we read, the authors primarily drew from Miller’s work in genre studies to identify “the social motives” operating among genres at both the university (Part II) and in the workplace (Part III).  With school genres, they found two motives. On one hand the genres grew from an epistemic tradition to teach students the languages of academic disciplines; one the other, they existed to “rank and sort” students. In the workplace, however, motives were often conflicting and competing. The authors’ example of such a genre is a written medical form within social service unit in a children’s hospital that was recently revised. As they interviewed various readers/writers of the form at the hospital, who overlap in their COPs, they found workers felt accountable to different, conflicting agencies – to themselves, to colleagues, to management and administration, other doctors, and to their clients.

So what conclusions can such a comparison offer? The primary outcome for teachers of workplace writing is that they need to stop kidding themselves and their students that exposure to and practice with workplace genres is an honest depiction of what is experienced in “the real world.” From the last paragraph of chapter 6:

The situatedness of workplace texts – their inextricable relationship to particular ideologies, settings, times, people, other texts, and activities – renders arhetorical (or under-rhetorical) any academic attempt to replicate them, no matter how sophisticated and elaborate the simulation, case study, or role play. Genre theory predicts, and our research confirms, the presence of highly structured textual rituals and patterns in the workplace, but those genres are inseparable from their context. So, although it might well be possible and even desirable to show students copies of workplace texts and to have practitioners talk to students about their participation in those texts, the lived experience of texts is impossible out of their enactment. (134)

I’m curious what other members of the class think about this argument and, if so, how far we need to take it. Does this imply we completely jettison courses like WRT 307, for example, or do we simply provide a caveat to students about this falseness that a professional/technical writing curriculum engenders? Other ideas?