Resisting courses, embracing teaching:
Maintaining a rhetorically sound writing training program in the workplace

Jamie MacKinnon

My workplace is, among other things, a writing-intensive milieu. Writing and the write-and-review cycle are critical to generating, evaluating, and disseminating the knowledge this research and policy agency requires to fulfill its mandate. Written reports sustain intelligent debate among decision makers, and many of the agency's functions are enabled (and often enacted) by writing.

For some twenty years, this agency has maintained a Writing Training and Consulting Service. The purpose of the Service is to help employees to further develop their writing abilities.

I'd like to briefly describe the Service and its rhetorical underpinnings. Training emphasizes audience analysis, writing as epistemic and as part of a larger "conversation," and the strengthening of writing process strategies, especially planning and revision, as critical to development. Training focuses on real writing in one of two fashions. Individual clients are coached from inception to completion of documents they're required to write as part of their work. Groups of employees participate in workshops, the goals of which are to clarify how writing fits into a given research agenda, to determine audience requirements for key document types, and to improve the social and collaborative processes that contextualize the group's writing.

The Service is reasonably effective, I think, for two reasons. First, because of its sound theoretical underpinnings. Second, because the teachers are genuinely engaged in helping clients to develop their writing ability over time. What the Service does not do is deliver courses. Being a course provider is an ever-present temptation, and I believe that understanding the temptation, and why and how to resist it, is useful in maintaining a critical perspective on learning, development, and training. I'd like to describe the context in which this temptation-resistance tension occurs, suggest some of the costs, as well as the benefits, of resistance, and initiate, with the foregoing as backdrop, a meditation or conversation on teaching, learning and the development of writing ability.

Clientele. The clientele of the Service is generally highly schooled: economists, business analysts, financial analysts, IT staff, etc. Most of them have proven themselves highly effective as writers in an academic context, and a good number of our clients are simply employees who are making the significant jump from academic to workplace writing. As many of you will know, some of the differences between these two contexts relate to subject matter, audience, purpose, style, and, importantly, the writing process itself.

In university, students often write on subjects they themselves have chosen, to single readers with a greater understanding of the topic, for the purpose of demonstrating what they know. Students usually work alone, and once a paper is submitted, there's little opportunity (or obligation) to rewrite.

In contrast, writers in my workplace are required to: focus on assigned topics that are relevant to various business functions and research agendas; anticipate what various readers already know and what they need to be informed about; produce analysis that helps management think about, debate, and make decisions on specific issues; work collaboratively during the write-and-review cycle; and revise substantively, using feedback from a variety of people, until the paper is considered appropriate for the target audience.

Eighty or ninety per cent of the clients are sent to us by supervisors. Perhaps three quarters of these referrals are rooted in one of more of the following problems:

When this latter problem occurs and it's very common the supervisor will also have problems articulating the problem, or what the goals for training should be. So I sometimes have to discount the "felt" problem as articulated "not terribly clear, sometimes very awkward," or "a lot of repetitious content" or "hasn't got the right style" and do some needs analysis of my own. But, given the pace of work, the pressure to produce, and the negative context in which training is sometimes introduced (i.e., "sent" by a supervisor) I don't spend a lot of time on this at the front end. Instead, I try to jump into a paper as quickly as possible.

The teaching approach. Some of my initial work with writers is to undo, or perhaps to amplify, their notions of what writing is, and what it does. Collateral damage sometimes occurs from this undoing: (temporarily) diminished confidence, "decentration," changed notions of self, power, efficacy and community.

Sometimes, in an effort to hint at what writing training / learning may involve, I sketch three different perspectives on writing. I say that a lot of people seem to think of writing as primarily a linguistic ability, and expertise therefore as mastery of diction, grammar, style, etc. It's interesting, I note, that many books and courses . . . "Memos for every occasion," "Better Business Writing," etc. are, in fact, little more than style and usage guides. And, I note in passing, that there are a surprising number of business writers whose grammar and style are fine, but whose writing doesn't add a lot of value to readers' lives.

And I say that some people think of writing as a communicative ability, and expertise therefore manifest in clarity and readability. And as you know, there are armies of academics and researchers who push this point of view. They work in the "plain language" movement, they develop or use scales like the Fogg readability index, they test comprehension, they do user protocols, etc. And, I note again, there are a fair number of business writers whose writing is clear, concise and highly readable, but whose writing doesn't add a lot of value to readers' lives.

While both of these perspectives are useful, they don't capture one of writing's most exciting possibilities: that of helping a person to think, learn, understand, analyse, and solve complex problems. What I'm pushing, of course, is the epistemic view, i.e., that of writing relating to knowledge production and its validation. The writing process, I say, can help us to pose better problems (i.e., richer and more fruitful problems), to speculate and to theoretize and to devise hypotheses, as well as to generate, explore and evaluate alternative possibilities.

I've found that this kind of "motivation," or backdrop for the training to follow, is useful for many of my professional clients.

The training approach is rhetorical, process-based, and reflective of an analytic process often used in business.

A summary of what I mean by rhetorical:

A useful model, I think, is Fulkerson's (1990) one of four points of emphasis in writing: the privileging of the text, of reality, of the writer, and of the reader. Sometimes I think that my clients at least those who are fresh from graduate studies have spent a lifetime writing in a context (school) in which the text is ostensibly privileged but paradoxically devalued and then think that when at last they get a job in a large research agency like the one in which I work, they will finally be writing in a context in which the writer is privileged. The last hurrah of the naive, I suppose. If they don't learn quickly that readers are a key part of the mix, they're in trouble.

The approach is also process-based. Our interventions tend to focus on planning and revising. I won't spend much time describing what we do in coaching writers through a document, but here are a few key points:

Interestingly, I think, this rhetorically grounded, process-based teaching methodology mimics the methodological and epistemological precepts of our clients. It reflects the notion of the workplace as a knowledge-making enterprise that uses models and various kinds of analysis to make sense of complex empirical data.

Analytic process. Finally, our teaching sometimes reflects an analytic approach often used in business. I won't belabour this, but I do find that most writing process guides, even the best of them, don't deal very well with recommendation-oriented writing.

When we're dealing with operational issues, we tend to use elements of:

There we have it a brief aperçu of our writing training program. It works well, I think, in part because it is theoretically sound, because it's an organic part of its context, and because the teachers are interested in their client's development and their business lives. What then, might throw this wonderful program off course?

I think the most likely thing to throw us off course is the Siren call of courses. And the greatest pressure to teach courses, as opposed to coaching writers as they write real documents, comes not from "management" or "budget," but from employees, and to a limited extent, administration.

Many of our employees have been conditioned to think (who am I paraphrasing here?) that the knowledge is in the book, and the book is in the school. When I tell prospective clients that we don't offer courses, they are sometimes shocked, sometimes confused. Almost every other form of "employee development" takes the form of a course: second language training, retirement planning, leadership training, etc. Why not writing training?

I can only surmise why some employees are disappointed in the lack of writing training courses. Were they hoping to "get better" in the anonymous comfort of a course? Were they hoping to get out of work on a fixed weekly schedule for something that might be mildly entertaining? Or are they so conditioned by taking classes that they can't wrap their mind around a coaching model?

Another thing. Our work (and employee choices) take place in a context of tacit values regarding competence, development and remediation with regard to writing. I've often said that many educated people would rather admit to halitosis or larceny than to "needing help" with their writing. I've always been puzzled by the fact that most folks quite cheerfully take courses in Time Management, or Effective Listening (with their implied deficits) but are horrified at needing, or potentially benefiting from writing training, a complex ability that tends to develop over a lifetime.

There's a dissonance at work here, and taking a course (e.g., "effective business writing") "I'm on course this week" helps to muffle this dissonance.

Coaching, being coached, means that the thing is serious, the potential for improvement valuable, the commitment real. It implies a tighter bond between self and performance. Taking a course allows a little distance, a little disdain, and it makes one regular, normal, and then, of course, one can say "I already took that course."

And of course the preference of some people for a course reflects a rather straightened view of what literacies are and how they develop. Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I wonder what kind of a course one could devise for educated adults writers who write about arcane, complex, abstract subjects, in model-based, equation-riddled papers. By necessity, were there a course for employees who write such documents, it would have to deal with either the trivial (formatting, metric international conventions, etc.) or the overly abstract (principles of reader-centred writing, an idealized writing process, etc.).

I take it as axiomatic that 99% of the development of "high end" literacies is practice (and I mean the doing of it, not "dummy runs") and reflection, and that therefore the only way to strengthen this developmental process is for the teacher to engage in this practice, this reflection. The best way to sidestep this engagement, while appearing to be usefully busy, is to teach courses.

The other force working for courses and against coaching or consulting is administration. We've got an evil HR system called PeopleSoft. Despite the name, there's nothing humane or pliant about it. PeopleSoft requires course names (actually codes), start dates, billing codes, etc. We do what we can to meet most of my teaching is called Improving Your Writing Ability or Managing Your Staff's Writing or ignore these requirements, but they're really meant for courses.

PeopleSoft does what dumb systems do so well: it tallies hours, or "participant hours." Even though the writing training program (i.e., the results of this program) has good support from senior management, the chief public result reported in our automated systems, and in our annual reports, is "participant hours." Can you hear the Sirens singing? All this to say, that our consulting / coaching approach is easy to manage, but hard to "administer."

I feel very accountable for the consequences of my interventions, but the accountability can't be captured in a report card or a spreadsheet.

And of course it's easier to book rooms for courses. It's easier to create materials, and the materials would have a longer shelf life. It would be easier to reach a wider swath of employees with courses, thus achieving marketing ends. Course are easier to "cost" and invoice.

Two additional points. First, courses are akin to commodities they can be compared, selected, and consumed. Like commodities, they can be brokered by many middlemen. Second, courses would obviate the need for me to read, and re-read and read again the complex papers that are such a large part of my professional life. Putting the last two thoughts together: courses constitute a pretty package. The knowledge is in the box, and the box is on the shelf. The list could, as they say, go on.

Teaching writing courses would do a lot of things, but they'd almost certainly fail to do what our current program does: help some employees to develop their writing ability in significant ways time.

Of course, the issues I've sketched are more complex than I've allowed. I don't think courses are all bad. I've taken a lot of good ones, though none that pretended to teach me how to write. There are coaching elements in many courses, and there are course-like elements in coaching and consulting.

If I'm right in thinking that it's the employee-clients and the machinery of administration not management or budget that pull the most away from coaching and toward courses, then I'm lucky. The response is to educate staff, and to keep working on administrative systems that support or at least don't hinder our teaching goals. Which I try to do, with limited effect. However, I continue to think about the people we miss because we don't offer courses, and that's what they want.

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