Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Expert as Novice: Reliving the Freshman Year

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For the past few weeks, I've been working part-time at an IT consulting & network integration firm in downtown Manhattan as part of the technical writing team (which is really just me & the existing technical writer). The thing is, even though I’m (somewhat) proficient at writing for academic purposes, technical writing is a whole new ball game. While my writing is clean and easy to read, I don’t always have the knowledge to write what needs to be written. It’s a bit confidence-shaking. I’m feeling like an intern rather than someone whose specialty is writing.

Feeling like a beginner isn't easy, especially when you've devoted your entire adult life thus far to studying English and Communications, and even more so when as a writing instructor and writing consultant, I’m supposed to be an expert writer. It’s true that I can write for many contexts. Heck, I can even teach writing in the disciplines! But writing in the professional domain about information technology has proven challenging, and my lack of content knowledge is extremely frustrating. I know if I knew more, I could write better.

This brings me back to some of the literature that I have been reading for my dissertation. Sommers & Saltz’s study “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” for instance, talks about the struggle that freshman face as they are placed in a new writing environment, where they are expected to perform as experts without already having expertise. While it it is the process of writing that these freshman struggle with, it is also the writing that helps them to make sense of complex concepts and gain expertise. Furthermore, they find that students who embrace their novice status are the ones most likely to make the greatest strides in writing development and learning in general. Continued writing is helping me to gain an understanding of the IT field, but embracing my novice is still a challenge.

Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers by Lee Ann Carroll also speak into my situation. Carroll thinks writing assignments need to be redefined as literacy tasks because they require much more than just a handle on writing skills, such as grammar and organization. Writing tasks require some knowledge about the content area, an ability to negotiate the needs of the audience with the needs of the writer, to understand form, and perhaps to navigate information. Many literacies are involved in the composition of a single piece of writing. And with new roles come new literacy needs. In this case, my inability to perform as I would on, say, an essay for a Writing Studies course is directly related to being asked to perform a new role and a lack of information technology literacy. I am missing the necessary vocabulary and am fairly unaware of the conventions of the field. No matter how cleanly I can write, I will not be able to produce the quality of writing that someone who has in-depth knowledge of the field will be able to produce. My performance as a technical writer is affected by this lack of knowledge. Again, this is extremely frustrating to someone who supposedly has “mastered” reading and writing, with nearly 10 years of higher education devoted to it.

To cope with my lack of knowledge, I have been reading, taking notes on style, and asking questions-- and I am learning a lot-- but the process of learning to be an effective technical writer at an IT firm is still a much slower process than I’m comfortable with. Even when I feel that I’ve said something as precisely as possible, I am often told “that’s great, but here’s an even better way.” The person I am working under is great in that he tries to encourage me, but still, sometimes, I feel like my work is more of a burden to correct than a lightening of his workload. It can be totally disheartening.

It really makes me empathize with my students. It makes me see that they probably are giving me their best efforts and that my feedback to them may come as a surprise. It shows me that while they may understand my feedback in theory, they may not know how to put it into practice. Furthermore, encouragement is nice and may be genuine, but without specifics or if always followed by “but here’s what you need to fix,” it may wind up being meaningless. On the other hand, this experience also shows me that with time, effort, a willingness to research concepts and revise their writing, and a careful eye for rhetorical analysis, students will be able to make significant progress. Finally, this progress likely will not come in rapid epiphanies, but as a slow, non-linear coming into awareness.    

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