Spring 2012 Lessons Learned: 202D

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I haven't taught Business Writing since 2008, when I left Penn State Shenango for the Hazleton campus. And as with every other course that I imported, 202D needs to be changed to accommodate the particularities of this student population.

Most of the assignments I used were tried and true, oldies but goodies:
  • A resume and cover letter to begin, encouraging the students to see themselves as professionals in training
  • "Two Memos and a Letter" was a project that encouraged rhetorical design: students had to create three business documents with three different audiences and intentions but all relating to a single issue in business
  • A presentation assignment that asked them to adopt the best practices for PowerPoint as promoted by Penn State's Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence

A few assignments were new, and it's here that I think some improvement is needed.

I consulted with the director of the campus's baccalaureate degree program in Business, and he stressed that students need to learn plain English, summary and outlining skills to succeed in upper level courses. Plain English is always a focus of Business Writing, but I emphasized it in every assignment. But for the outlining and summary I devised an assignment I called "The Water Cooler Project."  The idea was to walk students through the process of preparing to have a professional, intellectual conversation around the water cooler. I chose a best-seller on a business related topic, had them read it, outline it, summarize it, and then discuss it in groups. They recorded the conversations and turned them in as part of their grade.

As assignments go, it was not a great success. The students hated the book (Lords of Finance), and it was certainly longer than needed (or advisable). A colleague who peer reviewed a class session wisely suggested separating the tasks, and having them outline / summarize articles from professional journals or even business news sources. The possibility then exists of having them use a shorter but far more engaging text for the water cooler project. (Say, for example, an episode of a much-talked-about HBO program--the project was inspired by my memories of people talking incessantly about the Sopranos during the early years.)

I also used a "self-designed project" in the place of a mid-sized report. Following my practice in Technical Writing, I wanted the students to choose a topic related to their major and choose the form best suited for its expression. The troubles were two. First, many of the students honestly believe (and proved impossible to convince otherwise) that their intended professions require very little writing, and no report writing. That's an issue that needs to be addressed in 202D, certainly, but it needn't (shouldn't) be part of a major project due at the end of the semester. Leaving so much about the project open was a mistake.

Second, I've learned from the tech writing class that major projects should not be due at the end of the semester. They should be due around the 2/3 mark. That leaves shorter, less stressful projects for the end of the semester when they are wigging out about "classes that matter" (classes, that is, in their majors).

In the place of the self-designed project I will adapt a mid-size report assignment that my colleague Jim Manis described for me tonight. He asks them to read the business news until they find a topic of interest to them, then brings in the librarians to help them find additional sources on their topic; they then write up a report that presents a full background on the topic, using proper citations, etc. This might actually dovetail with the outline/summary assignment: that could be a preliminary step to writing the full report.

In all, it's been a good semester. My students have succeeded at a high level, as usual for the 202s. My policy of allowing revision until students are satisfied with their grades produces wonderful results in the 202 courses, because the students are focused on their majors and on their futures, and they value achievement as well as good grades.

I look forward to teaching this class again and implementing these lessons.

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