An Assignment Idea: Advising the Safe Use of–or Forbidding–Ear Buds

ipod-dark-photo-files-9-1242761I’ve been struck this fall, more than ever, by how pervasive ear buds are on campus and how oblivious many students are when wearing them. I’ve seen students step out into oncoming emergency vehicles, fail to see cars that are turning into them, and otherwise jeopardize themselves and others because of their inability to hear (and, sometimes, see—since, often, they’re looking at their phones as well).

I figure we can turn this situation into a teaching moment! Here are a couple of ideas for assignments built around the issue.

  • Have students, perhaps in groups, research the dangers of earbuds (and ear buds + cell phones) to find compelling data they could use in a safety message to students at their school. Then have them write that message. Have them discuss and choose whom the message should come from: head of safety and security, president of the student body, head of student affairs, the university president? The challenge of this assignment is that your students are probably not inclined to read or heed a message like this themselves. But that’s the beauty of it, too: They’re in a perfect position to figure out what it would take to overcome their readers’ likely objections. Tell them that when they’ve found data/arguments that would persuade them to change their own behavior, they’re onto something.
  • I found, with a little bit of Internet searching, that some workplaces forbid the use of earbuds on the job. Have your students, perhaps in groups, research this issue to find out why. Then create, or have them create, a scenario in which, playing some role in the company, they need to write the employees to state and defend the company’s ear-bud policy.

Either of these assignments will involve conducting research, evaluating evidence, persuading a reluctant audience, and writing clear guidelines. You can have great discussions around all these facets of the task. Let’s hope it also results in safer behavior on the part of our students! (How cool would it be to send the message to the director of campus safety and figure out a way to have it actually sent out? It could happen!)

If you’ve got an idea for a good informative or persuasive message assignment to use this fall, please share it!

A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

Classroom Talking Point: Too Cold for Persuasion?

Take one look at a weather map and you know winter is at its harshest in much of the country. If you are like me and live in the upper Midwest, phrases such as “polar vortex” have become part of your vernacular, and you spend much of your day putting on layers of clothing in a sad, futile attempt to make the -40 temperatures seem not so bad. In the spirit of all things winter, this week’s blog offers a classroom talking point on one university’s message regarding its decision to hold classes on a day when the high temperature was 15 degrees below zero (30 to 40 below with the windchill).

The message was posted on the university’s “Announcements” blog and linked to on the university’s Facebook page. While some took the message in stride, others (judging by their comments) did not appear persuaded that keeping the school open was a good decision. The text of the message appears below.

My thought is that this message would make a great talking point for a class discussion on persuasive writing.

  • What rhetorical devices does the writer use to justify the university’s decision to hold classes?
  • Are they effective in persuading the reader that the decision was a good one?
  • What, if anything, could the writer do to improve this message?
  • Does the writer follow what we discuss in class regarding the organization of a persuasive message: gaining attention, building the case, minimizing any possible flaws in the argument, and ending with an action item?
  • Some readers appeared so angry about the decision to remain open that they may not have been able to objectively consider the writer’s reasoning. How might business writers account for readers’ emotional reactions to persuasive messages?


The Message

SUBJECT: Classes to be held as scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 28

The university is open and classes will be held as scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

There have been a number of inquiries about why the university is open and holding classes as scheduled despite sub-zero temperatures.

The university rarely, if ever closes. A number of criteria are considered when deciding whether to hold classes, delay the start of classes, or cancel select classes.

Those criteria include, but are not limited to, excessive snowfall and/or drifting, icy conditions, temperature, wind chill, visibility and condition of sidewalks and roadways both on campus and in the community. The university makes the decision based on actual real-time weather conditions, not what the forecast is predicting the day before.

Naturally, one of the most important considerations is safety of students, faculty and staff. If the conditions are deemed obviously unsafe for travel to and from the university, and to and from facilities on campus, classes are canceled or delayed. This can be a subjective judgment—but it is based on the best information available at the time the decision is made.

The university recognizes that some individuals have specific medical or physical conditions that prevent them from being able to venture out into the cold, or may have a lengthy commute to campus that may not be safe to undertake because of weather conditions where they live. That is why students, faculty and staff are instructed to exercise their best judgment in deciding whether to attend classes or report for work.

Classroom Talking Point: Intercultural Communication Gone Wrong

Coca-Cola Apologizes for Offensive Bottle Cap Message” reports the story of an Edmonton, Alberta, woman who opened her bottle of vitamin water and discovered a French word printed on the cap that, when read as an English word, means something terribly offensive. Coca-Cola had printed both French and English words on bottle caps as part of a promotional campaign. Coca-Cola has apologized and discontinued the promotion.

While the story itself is interesting, more interesting to me is the commentary after the article, particularly the many comments wondering why the language is offensive. News stories such as this provide discussion points for our business communication classes:

  • Why was this woman offended? What is it about the language that makes it offensive?
  • How would you respond to commenters who question why the language in the bottle cap is problematic? Are people who submitted comments overreacting? Underreacting? Appropriately reacting?
  • What if the word disparaged race, religion, or sexual orientation? Do you think people would have commented differently?
  • Did Coca-Cola react appropriately? Should Coca-Cola have done anything differently in addressing the issue?

While it is unfortunate that the incident happened at all, it does present us with a great opportunity to help our students become more sensitive and respectful business people.

On another note…Today is National Punctuation Day. Enjoy!

The Bonuses of Assignments with Real Clients

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.

A Classroom Case: “This Embarasses You and I”

Some of you may have seen the recent article “This Embarrasses You and I” by Sue Shellenbarger. Shellenbarger discusses the impact of informal communication (e.g., through email, Twitter, and texting) on the use of standard grammar in the workplace. She cites one survey in which 45% of 430 employers say they provide some kind of remedial writing training to employees. Other employers hold competitions to try to improve employees’ grammar, while some require spelling and grammar tests as terms of hire.

Also included with the article are a short video interview with Shellenbarger (“Managers Fight Grammar Gaffes at Work”) and an interactive, 21-question grammar quiz.

The article and video present a classroom opportunity to discuss the importance of good grammar to one’s professional image and the need to tailor one’s language to the audience and occasion, while the interactive quiz might challenge some students’ perceptions of their grammar skills.

However, if you’re looking for something more extensive, the Wall Street Journal’s Weekly Review: Accounting” provides a more in-depth case based on Shellenbarger’s article. Discussion questions range from the introductory to the advanced. These questions are accompanied by a small-group assignment requiring students to take the interactive quiz, work with group members to determine the reasons for their errors, and analyze which errors are most common among group members.

If you have other suggestions for using this article in the classroom, please share them with us.

Many thanks to Meg, my colleague, for passing this information along so that I could share it with you.

Building Writing Assignments around the Use of Social Media on the Job

We’re far enough into the age of social networking that most of us have probably given our students assignments regarding the use of these media, especially for marketing purposes.

 Another angle on these media, though, is how they should—and shouldn’t—be used on the job. Along these lines, two assignments in particular come to mind:

  •  Have students draft a social-media or Internet-use policy for a real or simulated company. There are many such policies available via the Web, as well as advice about how to write them.  Business databases such as ABI/Inform also include articles on the topic, and students could even interview business professionals whose companies have such policies and learn the thinking behind them. (Such research could be the basis for a report assignment as well.)
  •  Have students play the role of a supervisor or manager and write a persuasive email advising employees to curb their use of such media on the job.  The company in this scenario could be one whose employees need access to such sites as Facebook and Twitter as part of their work-related duties (in which case, blocking access to such sites is counterproductive) or one where blocking such sites is a possible next step if the employees don’t monitor themselves.

 Assignments along these lines not only provide good problem-solving experience; they also apprise students of the issues involved—and perhap make them more likely to use such sites responsibly themselves.

 The following websites will give your students a start toward tackling assignments of this kind: