STEM writing: Applying lessons learned from a genre analysis of Fermilab documents

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David Hailey


In recent years, there have been several studies that examined workplace writing practices for STEM professionals. H. E. Sales (2006) asked engineers in the field about the types of tasks they routinely performed, and he found that 50.1% spent 30-60% of their time writing, and 'a further 15% of the engineers [spent] more than 60% of their time on writing at work.' Similar studies found that software engineers and physicists spend only slightly less time writing. Genre theorists aim to classify documents by conducting analyses to determine if the structure can be classified by shared 'communicative purpose, textual features, and content' (Luzon, 2005). The definition of genre varies significantly from scholar to scholar. Dethier (2013) defines it as 'a type, form, or category'; Henze (2013) calls it 'shared conventions of text and situation'; Hailey (2013) defines each genre in terms of its purpose and audience; and Spinuzzi (2003), Rude (1995), and Miller (1984) see genres as socially negotiated structures of information. Using a practiced-based approach to defining genre, then, falls within norms of our field. It is common for technical writing educators to focus on genres that students will need when they enter the workforce after graduation. However, the sheer number of fields that require text-based communication makes it unlikely that a single type of curriculum, no matter how broad, will help us prepare all of our students to succeed in their chosen professions. Writing in the Discipline courses are a partial answer; they focus writing instruction on individual departments or programs in an attempt to train one group of students at a time in commonly held priorities (Artemeva, 2005). While WID programs improve learning outcomes (Kennelly, Maldone, and Davies, 2010), they are limited by funding and personnel and are not able to give comparable experiences to all students (Buzzi et al., 2012). My study examined documents produced by physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to see if workplace practices adhered to genre guidelines from the five most popular technical writing textbooks. I found that correspondence and reports followed the suggestions used in technical writing classrooms, but proposals and technical memos did not. This variance indicates that perhaps STEM writing instructors should re-examine what is taught to students about genres. Small changes, when applied rigorously in areas identified by painstaking research, can help educators prepare students to succeed in the careers they have worked so diligently to attain. Artemeva, N. (2005). A time to speak, a time to act: A rhetorical genre analysis of a novice engineer's calculated risk taking. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(4): 389-421. Buzzi,O., Grimes, S., & Rolls, A. (2012). Writing for the discipline in the discipline? Teaching in Higher Education, 17(4): 479-484. Dethier, B. (2013). 21 Genres and How to Write Them. Utah State University Press. Hailey, D. (2014). ReaderCentric Writing for Digital Media: Theory and Practice. Amityville, NY: Baywood Press. Henze, B. (2012). What do technical communicators need to know about genre? In Johnson-Eilola, J., & Selber, S. A. (Eds.). Solving problems in technical communication. University of Chicago Press. Kennelly, R., Maldoni, A, & Davies, D. (2010). A case study: Do discipline-based programs improve student learning outcomes? International Journal for Educational Integrity, 6(1): 61-73. Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly journal of speech, 70(2), 151-167. Rude, C. D. (1995). The Report for Decision Making Genre and Inquiry. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 9(2), 170-205. Sales, H. E. (2006), Professional Communication in Engineering. Chippenham and Eastbourne. Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. MIT Press.

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