This semester I was reminded anew of the advantages of giving my Writing for Business students real assignments—that is, assignments for real readers in real organizations to help solve real problems.
The class had been allowed to generate their own ideas for group report projects, and one group had chosen to find out how students in the recently phased-out Hospitality Management (HM) major felt about the way the phase-out had been handled. In helping this group tackle its assignment, the class discussed the following questions (each followed by the answer we decided on):
—What should the purpose of the study be? Just to let the HM majors vent? Or something more constructive? We decided that presenting a report whose purpose was simply to state what hadn’t gone well wouldn’t achieve anything. Since the goal was to help an organization solve a problem, the authors needed a better thought-out, more reader-centered purpose. We agreed that the purpose should be to “help UC conduct phase-outs more effectively.”
—Who should the reader(s) be? The undergraduate business dean? But it was unlikely that he would be undertaking many more phase-outs. And he already knew of many of the phase-out snags. We finally decided, after some research, that the vice provost in charge of academic planning for the university would be the most appropriate primary reader for our report.
—Should we contact the reader before sending her the report, or just let her receive it cold in the campus mail? Though it was somewhat daunting to have to email a vice provost and describe the project, the group came to agree that they’d better let her in on what they were doing and invite her to offer any suggestions she had.
—How should we frame the report in such a way that it appears useful, not just critical? It was tricky that the study would involve only one phased-out major. How useful could the study of one such major be? We decided that we would call the report “a case study.” That way, it would be clear that the data were for only one case but would suggest general points that could be applied to other cases. We also worked with some potential sample sentences to see how to turn overly negative wording into more neutral or even positive wording.
—Should anyone else get a copy of the report? This generated our most intense discussion yet. I asked if the undergraduate business dean shouldn’t get a courtesy copy; The HM majors in the class said he didn’t need one since he was already quite familiar with the topic. “What if the vice provost receives your report and then wants to talk to him about it?” I asked. “Won’t he feel blindsided, or left out, or told on?” Reluctantly, the group realized that he must receive a copy of the report as well, so we decided that they would send him a copy (with a polite cover letter) when they sent the vice provost her copy. (I’m still not sure that was the ideal decision.)
The other groups had similar logistical and political issues to deal with. For example, one group was conducting an employee-satisfaction survey at a place where one of the group members worked, so the group needed to think carefully about how to involve the management and receive their blessing for the study. Another group was researching how a nearby blood center could get more blood donations from students, so they needed to be careful to give due credit to the efforts the center had already made in this direction.
Simulations (realistic case studies) can be very educational, particularly if they’re designed to help students learn certain skills—e.g., how to graph numerical data and incorporate it into a report, or how apply the basic plan for a negative-news or sales message. But they’re not likely to engage students as deeply in issues related to audience, purpose, and tone as real assignments are. Perhaps for this reason, my students do much better work on projects for real readers.
Are you getting similar payoffs from having your class prepare their work for real clients? Do you have a great assignment to share or success story to tell? Or pitfalls to warn about? We’d love to hear your ideas.