“Dispensed of Necessity and Without Enjoyment”

My first year at UCSB has been quite a ride! I think that’s why it’s been 6 months since my last post. I’ve been planning new courses, developing curricula on my committees, finalizing revisions for my book chapter on MOOCs and our piece in College Composition and Communication (which was finally ACCEPTED, by the way), and grading student papers. I also presented at the 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, where I gave a talk on problematic partnerships on a panel with Jeff Grabill, Sarah Robbins, Todd DeStigter and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. Oh yeah and I co-authored a piece for WPA, and then one more book chapter. Let’s just say I’ve filled out my punch card at the UCSB Coffee Cart a time or two.

As I reflect back on all my teaching and research this year, and also as I re-read my previous blogs on grading and business writing, I’m really struck by the ways the courses I teach and the research questions I pursue are fundamentally intertwined. As I work more and more with students in academic writing, business writing, writing for public discourse, and starting next fall, writing for the teaching professions, I’m starting to think more and more about how students understand themselves as writers. In my academic writing course, for example, I’m having students conduct an empirical study on their own writing habits and then analyze those habits for interesting trends and patterns. Students often ask questions like, “does text-messaging count?” or “what about things like shopping lists or notes to myself? Does that count as writing?” It reminds me a lot about conversations in our field about “real-world writing,” in addition to another study by Grabill et al. from the WIDE Research Center that found that while students write overwhelmingly in digital genres they tend to value them less than other “official” genres. I wonder what it would look like if students understood their own literate practices as complex, audience-driven, and genre specific. It makes me want to do away with “essays” entirely—or at least think more deeply about the role of the essay in our field. Adam Banks recently declared the essay “dominant genre emeritus” in the 2015 CCCC Chair’s address (which started its own unique debate about “essayist literacy“).

Also, I feel like I’ve turned a corner with Business Writing. Not only did it inspire me to think more deeply about student motivations to revise, but it also inspired me to dive into contract grading. I’m really indebted to the research from Asao Inoue on this, not only because he offered a basic template for how to word grading contracts, but also for his research that argues for grading labor over content as a more ethical and valid form of writing assessment. Most writing assessment practices, he writes, judge quality of writing. But when you evaluate labor practices instead through contract grading, you’re evaluating whether or not students are “demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an activity such as reading or drafting.” In this way, evaluating labor values the “noncognitive dimensions [of writing] such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” At Fresno State, where Inoue conducted a study on contract grading, he found that grading labor “did not reduce the quality of writing in program portfolios assessed by blind readings.” And, perhaps more importantly, he also shows that this was consistent across all racial populations (343). It seems to me that contract grading based on labor failure not only frees me up from conjuring up some wonky writing rubric; it also seems to maintain fairness, validity, and quality, because, as Inoue says, “students find reasons to learn and grow as writers when their labor is truly honored, and they listen more carefully to feedback when grades are out of the way, perhaps especially because their writing labor is being acknowledged and quality is assumed to be a consequence of that hard labor” (343). As this applies to my business writing courses, I found that instead of taking off an arbitrary number of points on each resume faux pas, or even trying to distinguish between an “excellent” and a “good” cover letter, why can’t I just give copious feedback on student writing, let them revise (or not), and be done with the assessment as quickly as possible? It’s the feedback and intellectual exchange that matters in writing pedagogy anyway!

And then…that leads me to another question, which is, well, what is the goal of business writing in departments of English, Writing, or Rhetoric? This is actually the question of a research project I’ve been pursuing lately. Filed under the larger umbrella of investigating “problematic partnerships,” or the ways writing studies practitioners negotiate the weird and sometimes ethically fraught institutional relationships common in our profession, the role of business writing in rhetoric and composition is actually quite confusing. Right now I’m reading everything I can find, but my findings so far are fascinating, yet limited. Aside from a College English piece in 1960 by Karl Murphy analyzing the role of Business Writing in departments of English (his survey found, actually, that business writing, in some form or another, was being taught in between 75% – 80% of American colleges and universities, and that was 55 years ago); and a piece in the ADE in 1980 by William E. Rivers called “The Place of Business Writing in English Departments: A Justification,” I haven’t seen much else on where Business Writing “fits” in my field. The field of Business Communication is thriving, though, with several prominent journals and conferences and methodological quandaries (take for instance, Margaret Graham’s 2004 Journal of Business Communication essay that describes Business Communication as a “loose federation of academics and consultants who claim to teach and research something called business communication”). In my field of rhetoric and writing, we often lump Business Writing in with Professional Writing and Technical Writing (in the UCSB Writing Program we include Business Writing in the “107” sequence, which includes writing for accounting (107A), writing for business (107B), news writing (107J), and technical writing (107T), while the “professional” and “multimodal” writing courses are housed in the “105 Sequence”). However, in the almost 40 years since the last critical investigation of the role of Business Writing in departments of English, what has changed? How do we teach business writing? Are these courses housed in departments of English, Writing, and Rhetoric, taught any differently than the “loose federation” of academics teaching them as “communication” courses in departments of Business, Marketing, and elsewhere? Can we “claim” the W in Business Writing? These questions are on my mind lately—especially as I read Murphy’s 1960 article on business writing that speculated, “In many English departments the course or courses in business writing, if taught at all, are under-the-counter products, dispensed of necessity and without enjoyment.” I wonder how much has changed? As I assign Wardle and Downs “Writing about Writing” reader for my summer sections, I also wonder how I can begin to claim this class as my own, to make it an intellectual inquiry, to have it align with some best practices in the field, etc. I think we need an updated survey! I’m working on it.

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