Revolution Lullabye

January 8, 2013

Brent, Crossing Boundaries: Co-op Students Relearning to Write

Brent, Doug. “Crossing Boundaries: Co-op Students Relearning to Write.” College Composition and Communication 63.4 (June 2012): 558-592. Print.

Brent, through a study of how six university students adapted to the new rhetorical challenges of a professional work environment, argues that it is the conglomerate experiences of their academic careers – not just the discrete bits of rhetorical knowledge they might learn in writing or communication classes – that prepare students to transfer academic rhetorical knowledge to solve professional rhetorical problems.

Brent followed six students from the University of Calvary who participated in four-month-long co-ops in a variety of professional careers.  He interviewed them about their work experiences and asked them to reflect on how their rhetorical education at the university helped them write in their new professional environments.  Although he noted that the students had widely differing experiences, he was able to glean several common threads from their experiences.  The most prominent, which the students cited often, was how their professional communication course helped them write clearly and concisely, which they perceived as a valuable skill in the workplace.  Other common themes Brent noticed was how they all had to do some sort of research, adapt their writing to different audiences, read critically, and multitask.  Brent argues that these general rhetorical skills are not just taught in writing courses – students develop them holistically across their academic experiences – but, Brent also contends, writing teachers have a particular place in this larger experience, because they are in a position to help students think consciously about the skills and knowledge they bring to bear to different rhetorical situations.

Brent reviews the literature of transfer, showing the limitations of emprical studies that seem to suggest that the transfer of rhetorical skills and knowledge from the academic enviroment to the workplace happens infrequently or not at all.  Brent contends that what we should value is not the transfer of discrete skills – like how to write a proposal or another particular genre – but instead, we as educators should be concerned with developing flexible schemas and habits of mind that allow students to transform their rhetorical knowledge to meet new situations.

Notable Notes

the research in professional environments is not as slow or meticulous as the research students are expected to do in academia: in fact, “the professional research process as described by the students sounds suspiciously like the process of desparate last-minute searching that is often cited as the one really used by many students, as apposted to the more meticulous process that mirrors what scholars do and teachers espouse” (587).

the six students were not selected because their jobs were writing-specific; writing is required in most all work environments.

what students took away from their professional writing/communication courses: 1. writing concisely; 2. sense of how professional documents are formatted/organized for some sort of hierarchy; 3. “highly general strategies for managing new task environments” (586).

helpful review of studies of learning transfer in writing studies and cognition

rhetorical performance/competence (560).

his definition of rhetorical education is limited to postsecondary rhetorical education and extracurricular experiences that might contribute to it (559-560).

Carl Bereiter: the transfer of dispositions or “habits of mind” (563).

when students are confronted with new genres/rhetorical situations, they often turn to Google (a strategy also used by professionals.) – a common “survival skill” (571)

Quotable Quotes

“If our goal in teaching writing (particularly but not exclusively professional writing) is to facilitate learning transformation rather than learning transfer, the implications for both research and pedagogy are enormous. One: although we may scale back any hope of teaching nuggets of rhetorical knowledge that can be unproblematically applied to new situations, we need not despair of being able to teacher more general rhetorical knowledge that can help our students perform rhetorcially outside our classrooms. Two: we need more research to refine our understanding of what knowledge is most amenable to transformation, and how we might help students acquire it” (565).

“They demonstrated good rhetorical survival instincts that had been developed in order to survive varied academic writing tasks, but that appeared to carry over as a means of dealing with new workplace genres” (586).

“Put more simply, it appears that the academic discourse environment as a whole, not just isolated courses on writing, had helped them learn how to learn” (588).

“While the case studies I have presented don’t settle any details of exactly what a rhetorical education might look like, the study does suggest that an understanding of how to extract genre features from models, how to analyze an audience, and how to use genre knowledge to interpret information will help students develop rhetorical knowledge that they can transform when thrown in the deep end of new rhetorical environments. In addition, if we can help them become more conscious about what to observe and what questions to ask in new rhetorical environments, we will have gone a long way toward helping them transform, if not simply transfer, this knowledge” (590).


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