Friday, July 12, 2013

Across the Divide

High School and Higher Ed. Writing Instructors Come Together

This Monday, I attended a great event, Across the Divide, a writing forum that connected high school writing instructors from multiple disciplines with college writing instructors (mostly FYW). The forum took place in the form of a 2-hour roundtable talk that was based around organic discussion. It was held in a beautiful conference room at Biotechnology High School in Freehold, NJ, where several of the high school teachers were currently teaching. 

The conversations were insightful, constructive, and fun. You can watch the conversation and check out the live-tweet feed to see for yourself!

Just a quick aside: I found out about this event from my twitter pal, @ReadyWriting. I was immediately interested because I don't think there are nearly enough opportunities for high school and college educators to collaborate. Plus, I am an alumna of the school district that was hosting the event and still live in the area. However, I didn't learn about the event from local media outlets; I learned about it from someone hundreds of miles away via tweet. Props to the power of social media.

Anyway, some really great things happened at this roundtable. For one, high school teachers and college writing instructors got to talk to one another. Connecting educators across the vertical divides can be a challenge. This was a great way for us to recognize each others' wants and needs, as well as those of our students. And of course, I loved learning more about what these teachers were doing in their classrooms.

Furthermore, there was no "blame game" going on in the room. Often in education, we pass the buck-- How many times have you head "why didn't they learn that in high school?" or "Didn't they teach you anything in first year writing?" This event, however, was a testament to how bright and motivated educators across grade levels are. It also showed that we shared many of the same notions of "good writing," "good writing instruction," and had many of the same goals for our students.

Some of the things that were discussed included:
  • Interdisciplinary learning: Many of us noted that putting subjects in boxes was detrimental to students' learning processes, that they were most able to engage when they could make connections to other content/contexts. Students had a hard time seeing English as anything but literature, and therefore, they were unable to transfer the skills. Part of this had to do with testing, but we saw that part of it had to do with educator's "that's not my job" attitudes that box disciplines in narrow constructs.
  • Using Multiple Genres: One of the things that the Common Core introduced this year was more information texts, which through some high school teachers for a loop ("not my job"). At the forum, though, we seemed to agree that students needed to be exposed to more genres and learn how to read texts that are informational because it will help to remove the idea that English is only reading Literature and writing is only figuring out what literary devices are used in a piece. It will also enable them to read, understand, and evaluate different texts outside the classroom, and in a world where they are constantly bombarded by text, this is essential.
  • Rhetorical Awareness versus Content Learning: Rhetorical awareness was something that the college writing instructors was not taught/encouraged much in high school writing classroom, and the high school writing instructors seemed to agree and see a need for more. They also noted, however, that time constraints made doing anything more than reading a text with students difficult sometimes. Time to discuss rhetorical concepts was limited.
  • Form versus Formula: We all agreed that there may be a time and a place for a 5 paragraph essay, but there is a difference between The Five Paragraph Essay and an essay that happens to be five paragraphs because that is the best way to write about the issue. It was important to us that students recognize the difference between matching a form to a purpose and audience and simply choosing a formula and filling in the blanks. 
  • Encouraging Students to Take Risks: Partially because of testing, partially because of cultural ideologies, partially because no one likes to be disappointed, and sometimes because of laziness, we noted that students seem to fear taking risks and many of them seek "right answers" to questions that don't need/have "right answers." We want to find more ways to encourage students to take risks and move beyond marking experimentation as failure, even when it doesn't go as planned, because that is how real learning occurs.
What was evident across the board is that we all had a passion for teaching. Everyone who was there wanted to be there to improve our students' experiences with developing as writers, which perhaps goes against cultural rhetoric that suggests many teachers are just skating by or are there because they want summers off. The people in that room were dedicated to improving the lives of others. Each one clearly held her or himself accountable for improving their practice, volunteering to take on professional development on their own time that day. We were all engrossed in the process of teaching and revising our teaching strategies as new contexts demand. It was obvious that we were all enthusiastic about learning new ways to help our students, which included keeping up-to-date with research in the field, checking in on the conversations happening among professional peers on social networks, and talking to current and former students. And we all agreed that these conversations were useful and likely necessary, but far too rare. Why is that?

The group plans to meet for several more sessions, though no dates have been selected. Those interesting in joining, either face-to-face or via GoogleHangout, can contact Michelle Lampinem (@MichLampinem) or Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone) for further information.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Lose a Job Before You Get It:

Cover Letters and the Consequences of Lacking Rhetorical Awareness

As I wrote about in my last post, I've been working part-time at an IT company as a technical writer for the summer. One of the tasks that have been entrusted to me as part of the technical writing team is to filter through applications for a full-time entry-level technical writer. I thought that choosing between the qualified candidates would be a difficult task. Instead, finding a qualified individual has been the harder job. It's shocking how many people claim "excellence in written communication," yet fail miserably at effectively communicating.

There are several composing models that I could use to think about these issues. I could consider Flower and Hayes' thoughts on defining a rhetorical problem-- better writers see more layers. I could consider Lloyd Bitzer's theories on about exigences, audiences, and constraints. These applications are ineffective because they seem to only consider exigence, the problem. I'd even argue that some of them are not consider exigence completely. They are considering their problem or purpose for writing-- finding a job. What is clear is that these applicants do not possess rhetorical awareness. Their focus is too narrow and sometimes inflexible.

So, let me share some of the things NOT to do when writing a cover letter, especially if you are writing a cover letter for a technical-writing position:
  • Do NOT read only part of the job application. Read the whole thing!!! I will say that 9/10 cover letters that I received did not fulfill the requirements listed on the job posting. If you can't follow simple directions and did not read an entire short ad, I will have to assume you will be just as careless with your work if hired. If we're talking rhetorical concepts, I definitely am doubting your ethos.
  • Do NOT explain how this job would just be a 9-5 to fill your pockets so that you can commit to other aspirations, such as working for another company or financing a book project. I am not looking to hire someone who does not really care about the job. I am not looking to spend my time training someone who will leave as soon as they can. I am not looking to build your portfolio. I am looking for someone who wants to do the job for which they are applying and do it well. Consider your audience. 
  • With that said, do NOT tell me everything this company can do FOR YOU. You are supposed to show me what you can do for the company. I do not care if I can provide you with the education necessary to get you into your actual dream job. As a matter of fact, like I said before, I'm not going to waste my time on you if you've already told me you want to move on as soon as you've learned enough. People who send me lists of ways the company can help them are clearly not considering the rhetorical problem/situation/ecology in any complex way. They are thinking only of their own problems, not of what prompted the job ad in the first place-- a need for a qualified, dedicated applicant.
  • Do NOT send a cookie-cutter letter, especially if it's only three lines long with a note telling me to call you. An obvious lack of effort will never be a positive selling point. Plus, hiring managers are usually employees who have other tasks to do outside looking for a new employee. In other words, I'm busy. I'm not tracking you down to chat. Tell me what I need to know, and then I might be interested in learning more. Make a logical argument for why you fit this position in this particular context.
  • Do NOT forget to proofread. If you are trying to claim excellence in editing and proofreading, you look [insert a whole slew of negative attributes here] when you leave typos in your cover letter and/or resume.

Usually, I like to think about composing through a broader, more complex ecological framework. I could talk about all of the other issues that may affect composing processes-- who is typing their cover letter on an iPhone, who has been hit hardest by economic decline, etc. In this case, though, simply remembering to consider three things-- the task they are being asked to perform, the audience they are being asked to address, and the limitations of what they can share with that audience-- would have helped these writers immensely.

This is why it's extremely important that rhetorical awareness-- rather than just form or content-- is a center piece of writing instruction. Every writing event will not call for the same performance or product, even ones that seem extremely similar. Those who cannot locate the elements that influence the writing event and ask the right questions of themselves will be unable to perform and produce effective writing, and they may miss out on real opportunities as a result.