Throughout the course of the school year, faculty members at universities across the country assign a plethora of writing assignments. Whether for an English, Chemistry, or Art History class, professors understand the importance of teaching college students how to write well, not only for the sake of the students’ academic career, but also for their professional careers as well. Upon graduation, however, many students are finding themselves unprepared to write for their new jobs, which means they might not be successfully transferring what they have learned about writing in college to the workplace. This lack of transfer presents a real challenge for faculty members, who find themselves asking: how do we better prepare students for writing in the workplace? Part of the solution, according to Professors Brian Fitzpatrick of George Mason University and Jessica McCaughey of George Washington University, is for faculty and students to better understand the expectations of writers in the workplace, so the two researchers teamed up to explore the numerous types of writing professionals produce in the workplace.
The result of their collaboration, The Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences, is an online collection of audio interviews conducted with professionals from a variety of fields, including business, government and military, education, non-profit, arts, and law (Fitzpatrick and McCaughey hope to broaden this reach as the project matures). In their interviews, Fitzpatrick and McCaughey ask experienced professionals about the different types of writing they compose in their jobs, how they translate the writing skills they learned in college to the workforce, and what ‘successful’ writing looks like in their particular fields. By exploring these questions, the interviews provide a new resource for professors to use as they help guide their students to better learn how to transfer their writing skills.
The scope of these interviews not only allows students to learn about the type of writing that takes place in the particular field they wish to enter after graduation, but it also allows students to develop a broader understanding of what it means to be a writer outside of academic contexts. In an interview with WAC, Fitzpatrick and McCaughey highlight a central takeaway from their interviews: the importance of a writer’s ability to be flexible in their writing style. They explain that “the more diverse forms, styles, or modes of writing a student is exposed to, the more confident they’re likely to be and the more prepared they will feel when they inevitably encounter something new in the professional world.” Though specialization can be important at times, it is vital for writers to be able to adapt to new forms and contexts of writing. They outline the foundation of flexibility as a combination of “rhetorical awareness, critical thinking, and the ability to synthesize information.” According to Fitzpatrick and McCaughey, these elements help a student and an employee broadly, from “finding good information/sources; to disseminating, vetting, and synthesizing those sources; [and] to complex decision-making about audience, tone, form, context, and goals in writing.”
The ability to flexibly adapt to new writing situations hinges on what Fitzpatrick and McCaughey refer to as meta-cognition and meta-teaching. In their own words:
Meta-cognition and reflective writing allow students to think about their writing and writing process as more than just a thing they do for school. Rather, writing becomes a part of thinking, discovery, exploration, and action. Getting students to think about the decisions they are making/have made as they write helps them see what they are good at, what they need to work on, how they know what they know, and how those decisions play out in their writing.
Meta-teaching – instructors taking a step back in class to pull back the curtain — gives us a way to help students contextualize lectures, resources, instruction, lessons, and assignments. If students know and understand the how and the why, they can take that with them to help make decisions about writing when they leave our classrooms.
In order to be prepared for what lies ahead—which, for today’s college student, will almost certainly mean several job changes over the course of his or her career—students need to be aware of their decision-making process as they compose. Professors can promote that awareness by instilling a reflective practice and facilitating conversations about how the expectations inherent to the writing that they assign might be similar to writing situations that students might already be familiar with.
So how can faculty apply Fitzpatrick and McCaughey’s research to their courses? For them, the answer is two-fold. A key insight from their research is that workplace writing is less monolithic and more dynamic than we traditionally think it is. They note that a lot of organizations have their own specialized ways of communicating and don’t rely on standardized memorandums and formal letters. So they encourage faculty to create more authentic lesson plans, activities, and assignments that more accurately reflect what workplace writing looks like today, instead of focusing on specific forms like a memo. They also encourage professors to focus on rhetorical awareness and critical thinking across multiple writing situations. Another key insight they’ve identified in their research is the idea that an employee must be able to write to multiple audiences in the same piece of writing. For example, Fitzpatrick and McCaughey explain that sometimes a writer will have to address a client and an executive in the same piece of writing, and be able to accommodate those two different audiences in a coherent and consistent way. They believe that this is something students must learn how to do, and it is a concept that faculty can adopt in their writing assignments.
Fitzpatrick and McCaughey are far from finished in their exploration of this process. As they continue to research these ideas and interview more professionals, they say they are still “looking forward to digging in even more to the perception of self as writer, and thinking about ways that in the classroom we can help make an easier transition for students from ‘student writer’ to ‘workplace writer’.”
Learn more about this project, listen to interviews, and find out how to participate on The Archives of Workplace Writing Experiences website.
Jessica McCaughey is an Assistant Professor in the University Writing Program at George Washington University, where she teaches academic and professional writing. In this role, Professor McCaughey has developed a growing professional writing program consisting of workshops, assessment, and coaching that helps organizations improve the quality of their employees’ professional and technical writing and editing. Her research focuses on the transfer of writing skills from the academic to the professional realm and on teaching multi-lingual writers.
Brian Fitzpatrick is a professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University.