As a college student of many… many years, I have come to the conclusion that all students of higher education institutions (university, community or technical college) hate their English courses. Unless if you’re an English major, like myself, the utility of taking English courses for a career as a nurse, mathematician or physical therapist seems almost nonexistent to the blind eye. This feeling only intensifies among those in schools of trade and vocation, where teachers within these schools teach with an approach that prepares them for jobs where little to no writing is required outside of the actual job application. However, employers are beginning to dig for potential employees capable of stringing together cohesive and structured word documents and coming up empty handed. In Carolyn Miller’s “What’s So Practical About Technical Writing?”, she points to the pedagogical methods used in Technical Writing classrooms as a cause of the current turn out of employees with inapt professional writing skills.
Let’s rewind for a second, and examine how English courses are broken down according to Miller. At most universities, freshmen are required to take composition courses to become “more effective as students,” literature courses aim “to help them be more effective as reader-critics,” while technical writing classes aim to make students “more effective as engineers, accountants or systems analyst” (Miller, 61). According to Carolyn Miller, technical writing classes are often described as practical, where efficiency and effectiveness are key, and getting things done are the main objective. Effectiveness and efficiency are qualities that any potential worker bee should hope to acquire during a long stint on a mundane campus, however, technical writing classes are proving inadequate, and often leaving students unprepared for the lives they plan to lead in their working field of choice.
Technical writing is known as the rhetoric of “the world of work.” In Chapter two, Carolyn Miller goes over problems with how technical writing is currently taught from a nonacademic standpoint when preparing students for the workforce, a “practical”, “goal oriented” standpoint lacking “theory, history, experience or general appreciation” (Miller, 61). Miller suggests that educators change the standing pedagogy of technical writing to better prepare workers for the writing they encounter on the job, and this is only possible through intimate understanding of the professions students hope to pursue and adjusting teaching methods accordingly.
Out of the gate, Miller’s approach seems promising. There are base elements to writing that everyone should know when writing in the professional sense, whether you work on a construction site or writing for a newspaper. A professional writer should be able to shift between discourses. A loan proposal for a small business can’t sound like a Facebook message between buddies. Even if grammar is used correctly, one must learn to steer away from colloquialisms, run on sentences, and how to speak in a familiar and a formal tones. One can only gain this flexibility through rigorous training in grammar. The kind that should be provided in all English classrooms.
As a gymnastics coach of seven years, the idea of flexibility is all too familiar and is equally useful this context. Flexibility within the back, shoulders and abdomen is essential to excelling as a gymnast. Combined with strength and mental capacity a gymnast can reach amazing heights. As a former gymnast (who wasn’t flexible), I can testify that it is possible to do gymnastics without being very flexible, using strength, I was able to compensate for what I lacked in flexibility. However, at some point, the lack in flexibility will limit one’s performance and ability, which is why I’m in college rather than the Olympics. On the contrary, too much flexibility will make a gymnast appear sloppy and noodle like when performing. It’s the coach’s job to understand what a gymnast lacks in regards to flexibility, strength or mental capacity, and present the athlete with exercises to build the area of insufficiency (stretching, weight training, simulation drills) while at the same time providing refreshment drills to ensure that what the gymnast already has isn’t lost.
Let’s look at flexibility as a professional writer’s ability to shift from an informal discourse to the formal, professional writing discourse sought after by employers, strength will represent grammar know-how (punctuation, subject-verb agreement, etc.), while mental capacity represents organization, spelling and word usage. While it is possible for a student to construct sentences with some good spelling and basic grammar knowledge, eventually, a lack in flexibility will limit a student’s opportunities in the professional world. It is the teacher’s job to provide lessons, exercises and homework to build a student in all three of these areas then drill them to combine them into through practice essays and papers similar to those provided in the professional realm. Miller points out that this kind of training should be expected of all writing teachers, however, in technical writing classes teachers take a relaxed approach, demanding less since the students who are required to take these classes are aiming to be craftsmen and workers in fields where writing and academics aren’t expected to be needed. In David Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”, the process of “student tracking” is explained, a process where students are placed on high or low tracks of educations. Students on the high track, receive “the best of the best” in regards to resources and are pushed to achieve a higher standard. Lower tracks have “low expectations and worse teachers” and the students are taught according to curriculum made less demanding and are “tracked” take on non-academic careers.
At the moment, the practice of teaching technical writing from a nonacademic stance has been widely accepted in our school systems for some time. This is the type of class you’d find in a lower, less demanding, track as the video above details. While the video discusses the systems used within the American education as a whole, Carolyn Miller’s article focuses on how this same division is implemented with writing classes today. Richard Bernstein divides practical writing classes into two groups. Low sense, found in Technical writing classes, pertaining to those of the working class, or the craftsman, who only use writing as a means of getting things done, those who aren’t concerned with rhetorical thinking or theory; the anti-intellectual, whose primary concern is providing for their household. This group is taught through the non-academic technical writing classes that Miller speaks against. Practical in the high sense pertains to those who learn writing skills through studying theory and classical compositions of literature, this is considered the education of people of power and means, and in Aristotle’s time would have been rhetoricians, philosophers, politicians and great debaters. This division of education, however, is not new, and originates from the rhetoric of the ancient Greek. The concept of practical stems from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Praxis is the basis or process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized. With this concept, Aristotle categorizes knowledge into three distinct groups, theoretical (concerned with knowing), productive (concerned with making and), practical (concerned with doing). Sound familiar? To Aristotle, praxis was activity engaged in by free men. This sets the tone for the basis of all knowledge and its distribution within Greek society. In Aristotle’s day, the High sense was prescribed to the Greek citizens; all were eligible to participate in political activity. The low sense was reserved for the working class who weren’t allowed to participate in political affairs: slaves, foreigners and prisoners of war.
These preconditions of classism have managed to survive into the education systems of our country, plaguing learning and modern rhetorical thought to this day. It’s a plague that Carolyn Miller seeks to stamp out. To mitigate the problem, Miller proposes that teachers of technical writing become more acquainted with the fields of study that their students fall into and the jobs they plan to seek, then, design a curriculum that properly prepares them. She suggests that educators shun the “practical” mentality and begin blending theory and classic composition when teaching students professional writing in vocational schools, bridging the gap between technical writing and classic composition and holding all students within writing classes to the same standard. Learning to write isn’t just a means to achieve a goal, it’s essential to attaining the critical awareness that employers look for in their potential employees to ensure success, even in professions outside of the realm of academics. Miller’s aim, is to sway the standing pedagogy and teach writing as the art it is, thus, making a more rounded, knowledgeable and productive employee, who is both skill in their profession and, both, culturally and critically aware.