The junior and senior students who take my advanced communication courses are both excited and anxious as they look forward to graduating and entering the professional workplace. I approach the class from a different direction, having left a professional career to pursue further education. I use our different perspectives on the workplace to build toward my central goal in teaching: to help students make concrete and practical connections between the assignments they do in my classroom and what they will do when they enter the workplace.
For me, helping students with practical application of their communication projects means much more than simply teaching them the genres they will use in their careers. It means providing my students with a strong background that will allow them to respond professionally to any communication situation. The more connections I can help them make, however, between the theory I teach and the work they will do, the more their work in my class becomes both important and memorable.
During the first class of each semester, I ask my students a question that shapes the course for the semester: “Why are you taking this class?” Invariably, someone toward the back of the classroom calls out, “Because it’s required.” That honest answer represents the attitudes of most of the students who take advanced communication courses—they are merely filling a requirement on their path to graduation. But the answer also provides me an excellent place to start teaching.
As part of our discussion on that first day, I ask my students to step out of the classroom and find real examples of professional communication in the building. They come back with instructions, warnings, flyers, posters, signs, memos, labels, and many other examples of communication outside of their expectations of a typical English writing course. This exercise literally and figuratively moves the students outside of the traditional academic space to find real communication between real people with real consequences for success or failure. It provides a strong foundation for the practical focus of the rest of the semester.
I design each of my assignments to have immediate practicality. For some assignments, the immediacy is obvious to the students, like the job application packet, which helps them in attending employment fairs and applying for internships and other positions. Other assignments, however, require me to work harder to help my students see the practical connections. In my technical communication course, for example, I ask the students to create a detailed set of instructions to post on the website Instructables.com (using an assignment I adapted from another instructor). Like the exercise on the first day of class, this assignment takes the students outside of the classroom. Their work gets online comments from people who are trying to use the instructions, which ends up being far more valuable (and memorable) than any feedback I can give the students as an instructor.
Designing assignments with immediate practicality drives home the lesson that creating good communication pays real dividends in the workplace. Throughout the semester, each of my assignments helps the students make those connections between theory and practice.
In addition to my teaching in the classroom, I worked with another graduate student (under the direction of Professor David Russell) on a grant-funded project to develop an online version of English 314: Technical Communication, which I piloted in summer term 2011. This online course is built on the same theme as my face-to-face course: connecting classroom and workplace. But the online format allows us to employ additional innovations. We use a semester-long workplace simulation where every assignment is situated in a professional context. The students apply for a job with our company, are assigned to work on a semester-long project with a team of fellow students, and produce documents, correspondence, and oral presentations associated with the project. This simulation not only provides a semi-realistic workplace experience, but it also contextualizes each of the documents the students produce, helping students make that practical connection.
To help my students prepare to enter the workplace, where they will need to take a much more active role in defining and fulfilling their responsibilities than they do as students, I require them to take responsibility for their own learning in my class. This involves some unconventional pedagogical strategies. I assign all of the students to working teams early in the semester. Each team determines its own attendance and participation policies and plans its own calendar of assignment deadlines. The teams submit their policies and calendars to me in a formal contract, which I then use to evaluate them throughout the semester. When I shift these administrative decisions to the students, they are able to take responsibility for their learning—both their successes and failures.
Helping students make connections between my classroom and the workplace has been my greatest challenge as a teacher. But it also brings the greatest rewards: the students who have been hired into good jobs using materials developed in my class; the students who are expanding the grant proposal written for my class into a multimillion-dollar NSF proposal; the students whose online instructions were chosen by the website editors to be featured on the front page. I believe that my job as an instructor is to help my students succeed. I also believe that my students are most likely to succeed if I help them make strong connections between my classroom and their professional workplaces.