Dias et al. – Worlds Apart and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts

Dias, Patrick, et al. Worlds Apart :Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print. Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Society.

In this text, the authors explored how writing functioned in academic and workplace contexts in order to determine the correlation between academic writing instruction and workplace writing preparation. The study began in 1992 and one goal of the study was to identify commonalities and differences between writing in academic and workplace settings. They selected four matching university and professional settings: public administration courses and Federal government institutions, management courses and corresponding work settings, architecture courses and a firm of architects, social work courses and social work agencies. The different pairs represented different genres of writing.The researchers used a multiple case study approach to study writers and writing across both academic and workplace settings. They stated that they chose case study in order to ensure that participants’ perspective were an integral part of the study.
The Data-gathering activities consisted of:
  1. Inventorying the genres in each domain
  2. Document tracking
  3. Conducting Reading protocols of designated readers
  4. Ethnographic observation of writers involved in tasks of composing
  5. Interviews
  6. Participant validation (12-13)
For data analyses researchers utilized textual analyses of the writing collected , analyses of oral discourse surrounding production of texts using categories based of systematic linguistics, and sociolinguistic analyses of production and reception of texts within the acts of speaking, reading, and writing occurred (13-14).
Two main questions they attempted to answer were:
  • How do university writing practices relate to writing in the workplace?
  • In what sense and to what extend is writing in university a preparation for writing in the workplace? (15)
Concerns emerging from the research:
  • What changes need to be made in university teaching practices in order to exploit more fully the potential of writing as a tool for learning, and to prepare students to enter more easily into workplace writing practices?
  • Can universities prepare students to write for work?
  • What workplace practices inhibit the full development and use of writing for productive work? What practices support the use of writing to promote workplace goals?

The researchers used a combination of several theoretical frameworks that emphasize the situated nature of writing, including: Genre Studies, Activity Theory (AT), Situated Learning within Communities of Practice (COP), Distributed Cognition, and Semiotic Theory.

Genre studies helped the authors to frame written discourse as “regularized, but not fixed; fluid, flexible, and dynamic; emerging and evolving in exigence and action; reflecting and incorporating social needs, demands, and structures; and responsive to social interpretations and reinterpretations of necessarily shifting, complex experiences” (23).
In this study, language, and writing in particular, are understood as mediating tools:
“Language as mediational means or tool is not a mere neutral conduit; it also puts its own mark on mediated action. Thus, in our case the genres that constitute the mediating communicative means of a community may affect thinking by constraining the sort of thought that can be expressed (and by creating a need to have certain kinds of thoughts in order to fulfill the requirements of the genre). And in general we concur with his insistence on regarding agent, means, and actions as integrally bound and irreducible.” (36)
The authors argued that it is fair to expect academic institutions to prepare students for workplace writing, but that in order to do so, we must acknowledge that there are differences in the act of writing in academic and workplace settings.
“Because with few exceptions writing is a medium deployed in both worlds, such preparation is not an unreasonable expectation. And it is precisely such an expectation that makes acting, the second term in our title, critical. Writing is acting; but in Activity Theory terms, writing at work and writing at school constitute two very different activities, one primarily epistemic and oriented to accomplishing the work of schooling, and the other primarily an instrumental and often economic activity, and oriented accordingly toward accomplishing the work of an organization. In that light, one activity, writing in school, is not necessarily preparation for successfully undertaking the other activity, writing at work.” (223)
These differences can be seen in  real ways, such as through the types of feedback given in response to writing in both contexts: “What seem radically different are the other sorts of consideration that inform the supervisor’s commentary. Whereas the professor’s sense of what is necessary and appropriate derives from ‘the literature,’ or from the curriculum, or from a sense of what is currently valued in the written transactions of the discipline, the intertext on which the supervisor draws is more varied and more diffuse” (225).
While functional literacies are portable in the transition from university to workplace, rhetorical literacy is necessary for the transition from the university to work: “Certainly, skills related to portable tools: computer-related skills, including key boarding, word-processing, and spreadsheet skills, language fluency, abilities related to using and designing forms, charts, and other kinds of graphic displays. Oral skills and the social skills valued in group work ought to carry over as well. Again, we meed to remind ourselves that such skills will be modified in transition; for instance, an individual’s fluency will be severely retarded in the workplace if he or she lack rhetorical savvy” (232).
Based on their study, the authors argued that in order for academic writing instruction to translate into workplace writing success, several aspects of workplace writing should be incorporated into academic writing instruction.

“It seems reasonable that the embededness of writing in workplace practices ought to be replicated in school settings as well, if it isn’t for the fact that the process of education does often operate on a model of detaching skills and practices from their workaday settings in order to teach them effectively. Such encapsulation (Engestrom, 1991) of knowledge and skills is quite likely a deterrent rather than an aid to learning to write… If there is one major, obvious-seeming way in which educational courses might prepare people better for the demands of writing at work, it is through constituting the class as a working group with some degree of complexity, continuity, and interdependency of joint activity. Such arrangements will go some way toward realizing the far richer communicative relations that contextualize writing in the workplace.” (235)
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