Traveling in Space and Time: A Study of Learning Trajectories in Student Acquisition of Engineering Communication Strategies
Natasha Artemeva, Carleton University
 

In my CCCC 2003 presentation I reported on one part of a six-year longitudinal study into student acquisition of engineering genres. The main objective of the longitudinal study is to discover whether a pedagogy based on Rhetorical Genre Studies and Theories of Situated Learning and Distributed Cognition provides a foundation necessary for building continuity between the university engineering communication classroom and engineering workplace practices.

In my six-year study, I have followed a group of my former students who in the past took an Engineering Communication course that I designed and have been teaching at Carleton University. The course design is based on the principles of Rhetorical Genre Studies and theories of situated learning. A detailed description of the course was published in Artemeva, Logie & St. Martin (1999). The main questions that remain to be answered are whether

My preliminary studies (Artemeva, 2000; Artemeva & Logie, 2002; Artemeva, Logie &St. Martin, 1998) have shown that students do indeed acquire basic communication strategies appropriate for their chosen field that help them to become acculturated in workplace contexts. In other words, they begin to genre their "way through social interactions, choosing the correct form in response to each communicative situation [they] encounter," which they do "with varying degree of mastery" (Shryer, 1995, CATTW).The subject of my CCCC 2003 presentation is a series of events that occurred in the life of one of my longitudinal study participants. In the presentation, I related these events to the audience and then analyzed them using Rhetorical Genre Studies as a theoretical tool.

The events:

Sami was a second year engineering student when he took my engineering communication class. At the end of the course he gave informed consent to participate in the longitudinal study. About a year after his graduation he sent me an e-mail saying that he had been hired by an engineering company where he had worked for 4 months by that time. In his e-mail he communicated deep frustration with the communication practices in this company that were contrary to what he had learned at school both as a student and an undergraduate Teaching Assistant:

As it turns out, most engineers at this company don't believe in wasting their design time with documentation, and therefore all writing seems to be done last minute and in a very poor manner. . . This as you can imagine does not only create internal problems, but also wasted time and money when these documents go to subcontractors and half their work has to be redone due to mistakes in the documentation.

Most of the engineers here are only about 10 years older than I am, and their outlook on documentation is incredibly different than mine . . .

Then, in three months, Sami sent me another e-mail containing the following information:
"Recently there was a project where the senior engineer had an implementation plan (this particular person has been in industry for 25 years, and he has told me before: "documentation and writing is a waste of my time and experience". . .). I had a different implementation in mind, but was having trouble getting my ideas heard by that person. And when he did, he told me: "no." There was going to be a design meeting at which he was going to present the method we were to proceed with. After being advised by my boss, I prepared a well thought out and organized presentation outlining my method and the alternative methods. The presentation was geared to the upper management (some engineers and some business people) as well as the director of R&D and director engineering (who would want to see a little more technical info).

The other person [the senior engineer] gave a five-minute presentation, which was so technical that I had a difficult time following all the information (I'm one of the original designers on the project). He had nothing prepared in the form of pros and cons of the method etc. Then I was given the floor to give my presentation. I had all the information on all methods from implementation time, to manpower and cost projections. My presentation lasted five minutes as well, but I gave them all the information necessary to make an intelligent decision as to why we should go with my method. They agreed.

The director of R&D let me give 3 more presentations to upper management after that. I also authored a document which had to outline different technologies and which ones we should use in our new product. This document was intended for both management and engineers (I found that document difficult to organize). Then, I was promoted to director of R&D about 2 weeks later (emphasis added).

In an e-mail discussion and a series of interviews that followed this message, I asked Sami why he decided to write his own proposal. He responded:
The only reason why I wrote my own proposal was to show the senior engineers and the director of R&D that I was capable of independent thought. That I was not just another lab rat.
I asked Sami if he had consulted any proposals written in that company before writing his own and whether he had attended any presentations before delivering his own. He responded:
I did not see proposals written within the company, but just other sample documentation. I would have liked to see a proposal, but I could not locate one. I am finding that there are a number of people who like to do things orally, so that they are not held as accountable.

Yes I had attended 2 or 3 presentations. Only one of which I thought was good (it was given by our chief engineer, whom I have much respect for) and the rest were poor at best. The presenters did everything that we are taught to be wrong.

I asked him (in many different ways) what had helped him prepare the proposal and deliver the presentation. His response was:
"I relied more on what I learned at school and my other experiences [his summer work terms and work with the first company where he was for three months] than I did about what [the current company] was doing. In all fairness, anything would be better than the general practice here."
I analyzed the events that occurred in Sami's life through the lens provided by the theoretical concepts of Rhetorical Genre Studies. I believe that the analysis presented below allows us to uncover connections between classroom and workplace and provides us with an opportunity to redefine our understanding of what it means to learn genres of one's profession.

Catherine Schryer's (2000) definition of genres as "constellations of regulated, improvisational strategies triggered by the interaction between individual socialization . . . and an organization . . .." (p. 450) serves as the basis for the analysis. Schryer explains that in this definition, the key word "constellation" allows her "to conceptualize genres as flexible sets of reoccurring practices (textual and nontextual)" (p. 450) and that the term "strategies" allows her "to reconceptualize rules and conventions (terms that seem to preclude choice) as strategies (a term that connotes choice) and thus explore questions related to agency" (p. 451). Schryer's redefinition of genre is largely based on Bakhtin's (1981) notion of chronotope. Bakhtin (1981), discussing the development of literary forms, defines chronotope (literally, "time space") as "the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships. . ." (p. 84). Bakhtin (1981) insists that

the chronotope . . .has an intrinsic generic significance. It can even be said that it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions, for . . . the primary category in the chronotope is time ( emphasis in original). (p. 85)
With this focus on time and its role in the acquisition and use of genres within various chronotopes, the notions of chronos and kairos become particularly useful. Paul Tillich (1886 -1965), German-born American philosopher and theologian defined the notion of kairos as a " crisis' or fullness of time,' the right time for creative thought and action" (Sessions, 1995, p. 803). Jo-Anne Yates and Wanda Orlikowsky (2002) suggest that "we focus . . . on the temporal dimension and draw on the Greek concepts of chronos and especially kairos as used in ancient and modern rhetoric to help us think about issues of time and timing in genre systems" by concentrating "our attention on active shaping of kairotic moments rather than passive acceptance of the chronological ones" (p. 118). Yates and Orlikowski (2002) take the view that reflects a dual perspective on kairos: they see it as both "emerging from the communicative activities of human actors (i.e., rhetors and audiences) in specific situations (e.g., institutional context, task, place, and chronological time)" and as "enacted, arising when socially situated rhetors choose and/or craft an opportune time to interact with a particular audience in a particular way within particular circumstances"(p.108).

Within the workplace chronotope that didn't favour communication strategies that Sami had acquired while at school, Sami used both textual (a written document and a presentation) and a non-textual (studying background of all people who were to attend his presentation) response to the situation. He was able to create a kairotic moment and use it to his advantage. (Note: The moment did not exist in the chronological time, that is, nobody had asked for submission of proposals, for example, which would create a kairotic moment that could be seized by anyone.).

The importance of the non-verbal/non-textual response to a recurrent situation (Miller, 1984) was reasserted by Anne Freadman, first in her article "Anyone for Tennis?" (1994b) and then in "Uptake" (2002). In her discussion of the trial that led to the last capital punishment in Australia, she asks, "How does a sentence' become an execution?'. . . how does saying make it so?" (p. 42) and then answers her own question by saying, "it makes some sense to say that the sentence is an uptake of the verdict..." (p. 44). That is, genres (and, therefore, uptakes on genres) do not have to be texts they may be actions, cartoons, etc. Anne Freadman (2002) defines the conditions of the existence of genre as dependent on what she calls " memory' and the adaptation of remembered contents to changed contexts" (p. 41). Understanding of these theoretical notions allows us to unpack Sami's story:

Sami consistently claimed that in the new workplace, he used communication strategies that he had learned at school and practiced during his workterms. That is, Sami is referring to the "memory" (Freadman, 2002) he brought to the new workplace from previous chronotopes. This "memory" allowed him to analyze a new situation and find an appropriate textual (writing a proposal) and non-textual (analyzing the audience of his future oral presentation) uptake on the situation. He clearly had a repertoire of appropriate "regularized" (because they were recognized by the management and clients) but at the same time "improvisational" (because they were distinctly different from the practice of that particular workplace) engineering communication strategies, both textual and non-textual. He was able to find an appropriate uptake on a situation in a particular and somewhat constraining (if we remember the attitude toward communication) -- chronotope of his new workplace and created a kairotic moment to his benefit (while the senior engineer saw only a routine moment in chronos the real time).

Miller (1994a) p. 38 states: ". . . what we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends. We learn, more importantly, what ends we may have . . .. We learn to understand better the situations in which we find ourselves. . . for a student, genres can serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community." From Sami's story, we can see how he first was in conflict with the organization because its communication practices were contrary to what he had learned at school and on his workterms. However, he was able to use his understanding of engineering genres as allowing for flexibility, i.e., he wasn't taking the situation for granted. In other words, to echo Schryer's (2003) comparison of genres to jazz, he was able to successfully improvise within the limits of the genre. Miller (1994a) reiterates that ". . . our stock of knowledge is useful only in so far as it can be brought to bear upon new experience . . ." (p. 29). Sami was able to use his stock of knowledge to recognize the situation and to choose an appropriate uptake.

In this case study, I have applied the theoretical notions of Rhetorical Genre Studies to unpack a complex situation of professional communication in the workplace. I presented a series of events that occurred to one of my longitudinal study participants and used the notions of

to explore the continuity in one student's acquisition and development of engineering-specific communication strategies.

This analysis allowed me to uncover the importance of the "improvisational" part of Schryer's definition of genre and of the "non-textual" part of the genre or uptake. Sami has understood the rules of genres of engineering. Even though only recently out of school, he is already in possession of a repertoire of flexible rhetorical strategies that allowed him to create a kairotic moment, select a suitable constellation of communication strategies, and turn the rhetorical situation to his advantage. The non-textual uptake on Sami's complex utterance was his promotion to Director of R&D.

I can now conclude that Sami did successfully acquire the necessary engineering communication strategies that would allow him to adapt to ever changing professional rhetorical situation and would not let him be co-opted by the constraining features of workplace communication practices. To echo Anne Freadman (1994):

To understand the rules of the genre is to know when and where it is appropriate to do and say certain things, and to know that to do and say them at inappropriate places and times is to run the risk of having them ruled out. To use these rules with skill is to apply questions of strategy to decisions of timing and the tactical plan of the rhetoric (p. 59).
This analysis has allowed me to redefine my understanding of what it means to teach and learn genres of one's profession because it illuminates the importance of a young professional's ability to improvise on the basis of regularised communication strategies acquired at school and elsewhere. This case study supports the previous findings of my longitudinal research and indicates that Rhetorical Genre Studies


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