Kairos 17.3


In 2010, the Writing Hub took over the administration of two graduate courses in Professional Writing and Communication as a result of the English Department’s dissolution of its Master in Professional Communication degree program. In the absence of this program, the English Department felt the courses were a mismatch with the mission of the Department, which offers mainly literature courses.

Communication in Professional Contexts A focuses on written communication, while Communication in Professional Contexts B focuses on oral communication. While the division of oral and written communication in the workplace seems artificial and out of step with real-world practice, there is a common emphasis on how written and oral communication comingle in everyday professional writing situations, particularly across multimodalities. From 2013, the courses will be redesigned and renamed with WRIT prefixes.

James Porter and Patricia Sullivan (1997) wrote in Opening Spaces that "workplace is the primary writing site our students will inhabit, and the computer is one lingua franca that links the classroom and the workplace" (p. 95). Technologies, then, become the common ground for students aspiring to be professionals and for professionals returning to the classroom. Everyone can relate to issues of confusing or ambiguous emails, personas or avatars in social networking and gaming, frustrations with online or offshore customer service centers and policies, and the complexities of researching and applying for employment online—or more particularly, the challenges of constructing an ethos in such a depersonalized environment. In both courses, we explore Walter Ong's (1988) description of hypertext as a secondary orality—and what this means in professional contexts.

Given this focus, the concept of constructing an identity across written and oral modes of communication has become the common thread of both courses and we support student learning towards this goal by using an online textbook. Professional Writing Online (Porter, Sullivan, & Johnson-Eilola, 2009) features case studies, employment search projects, and document analysis exercises—rich exercises in exploring the intersections of written and oral composition along with performance and identity across modes. In both courses, students almost invariably comment on how email, text messages, and blogs seem to straddle written and oral communication in both their risks and rewards.

For the final assignment in Course A (Written Communication), students are asked to locate and apply for a job that interests them, applying everything they have learned about workplace communication. This task almost always leads to a rich discussion about what should be included in a CV and cover letter and what would be most appropriate for an interview. Simulated interviews are part of the exercise, and these underscore the variations in persona from the written application materials to the physical presence of the applicant. We have recently added an in-class collaborative exercise to complement this task, where students present their job search materials to a mock hiring panel comprised of Writing Hub academics in a simulated interview setting. This highlights the differences between oral and written communication modes in professional settings, emphasizing the importance of both.

For the final assignment in Course B (Oral Communication), students are asked to assume the identity of key players in a case study of their choice in order to solve a problem. Ultimately, they produce a collaboratively written argument on how best to solve the case, but only after robust face-to-face discussions and argumentation have occurred in a role-play setting. They are also required to pitch their solution orally to the class.