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English 305 teaches students how to write for their specific career

By Sally Jongsma

English 305 is probably the only upper level English course with no English majors enrolled. It’s not that they couldn’t be; it’s just that many other majors are recognizing the value of English 305, Business and Technical Writing. This semester the class includes students majoring in computer science, nursing, pre-med, pre-law, ag business, marketing, and human resources.

Such variety makes the course more challenging but also more exciting to teach for Instructor Leah Zuidema. And because she wants each of her students to benefit as concretely as possible, she began the course having them do a research project about how writing is used in the profession they plan to enter. It also helped her better understand the individual needs of each student.

Prefessor Leah Zuidema and her students regularly discuss each other's writing to help refine their skills.

Prefessor Leah Zuidema and her students regularly discuss each other's writing to help refine their skills.

The results were surprising for most students. Even though they signed up for the course (many encouraged to do so by their advisor), most did not realize the extent to which they might benefit from it.

“In my freshman composition class I had students tell me they weren’t going to be writing once they got out of college,” says Zuidema. It’s a common misconception. They may not be writing academic papers, but most people will send e-mails to customers, write letters for applications, send out school board reports, write minutes and more—as Zuidema’s students found out. They were assigned to interview people in the professions they planned to enter. Students sat down with professionals to talk in detail about the kinds of writing they did. They also examined many writing samples—official records, letters requesting action, memos to employees, detailed reports—and listened to them talk about both the process and the product.

“The students were surprised at how much people had to tell them,” says Zuidema. Textbooks tend to give only one example, but this assignment helped them see that things change from one day to the next and from one audience to another.

The students were also surprised at the process they were required to follow to get their information. For many students doing research means going to the library or to the internet. Using the discourse-based interviews that Zuidema required not only gave them a live personal learning experience but also opened a discussion about different ways to do research, how to choose sources, and what difference the audience makes.

“The interview breathed life into the course,” says Zuidema. “Students do a better job if what they are doing is interesting.” It also gave them a better sense of what people actually do in their jobs.

A second interesting project the English 305 students did was to find a document that was significant for a local audience and that could be improved by revision.

“At first students thought they wouldn’t find anything that needed revision,” says Zuidema. She made a request to the college community to suggest documents they would like help revising. In the end, as students became more aware of how such things as audience and language affect a document’s usability, they found many options to choose from.

Zuidema set several guidelines: they had to choose something they had some interest in; they had to work collaboratively in groups of two or more, because that is most often how business and technical writing happens in the workplace; they had to do usability testing to determine whether the information was available, understandable, and applicable. They all ended up choosing Dordt College documents—the housing sign-up form, the N-SPICE (Netherlands Study Program in Contemporary Europe) handbook, and the campus safety report. Students used surveys, interviews, focus groups, and actually watching people use the document for their study. Each group wrote up a five-to-ten page report with recommendations for revisions, including tables recommending how to better use statistics cited.

“If writing matters, we should write as if it matters,” says Zuidema.

A lot matters in any written document.

“Any choice you make in writing is an ethical choice,” says Zuidema. You need to know your audience to know how to address them, you need to use the page, white space, statistics, context, and word choice in a way that has integrity and delivers the appropriate message.

“Some—especially government—documents use the passive voice instead of the active voice, making bad news seem more impersonal,” says Zuidema, who continues to emphasize the effect of those choices throughout the different assignments of the course.

Josh Blom, the only freshman in the class, recommends the class to anyone majoring in business. The class challenged him and improved his writing, allowing him to apply what he’s learned during the rest of his college and professional career.

“It has enabled me to learn a method of conveying my ideas to others in a way that they can easily understand,” he says.

Kirk Struik, a senior computer science major, says he learned that there is a lot to consider when doing technical writing—such as being conscious of one’s audience and of the style of writing that might be most appropriate.

Zuidema believes her students gained confidence in their abilities to write. At the beginning of the course she gives them a “baseline” writing assignment responding to a document or piece of writing. They hesitantly write a paragraph. At the end of the course she repeats the assignment. She has to tell them to stop writing.

Small Group Collaboration

Small group collaboration was an essential part of the Business and Technical Writing course this semester, says Instructor Leah Zuidema. Beginning with a small class made up of a wide range of majors, Zuidema wanted to help her students learn about the kinds of writing they would be doing in the careers they are preparing for. But she also knows that one thing that almost all people need to do in the workplace is collaborate.

“Students were nervous about collaborating, but it went very well,” she says. They worry that others will not do their share of the work and will pull their grade down, and they aren’t used to working together. So she helps them learn how they can do that. Using strategies she’s learned throughout her studies, she tells them to avoid relational conflicts by debating issues, trying to come to consensus, and learning to compromise. She also has them avoid procedural conflict by setting policies for themselves, deciding ahead of time what to do, for example, if someone misses class when others are depending on her or what to do when someone doesn’t have his work done on time.

“Students are learning to take responsibility and be accountable to each other,” she says. That is a crucial workplace skill for everyone.