A Response to Russ Hunt's review of Worlds Apart
["Between Planets: What's Between the Worlds of Worlds Apart," Inkshed 19.2 (Autumn 2001), 4-7]
While I do not speak for my co-authors, I expect they will concur with much of what I have to say in response to Russ Hunt's attentive and discerning reading of our book and his appreciative comments. I am grateful for such a reading, and for his delineation of why this book ought to be of interest to teachers of writing and Inkshedders in particular. But true to the genre of review writing, Russ also points to some shortcomings or as he more kindly puts it, disappointments, which I feel I ought to respond to.
He believes “there is a kind of narrowness involved in seeing the central issue as 'the performance of universities in preparing their graduates for the changed writing demands of professional workplaces.'” (p. 6) I don't believe any of the authors see the central issue of this book in this way; in fact, the quotation in context reads: “Our question about the relationships between writing at work and at school arose from some dissatisfaction with the performance of universities in preparing their graduates for the changed writing demands of professional workplaces” (p. 3, underlining added). We are in effect saying that the press-fed, popularly perceived failure of schools to prepare their students for writing at work led us to examine the relationships between writing at school and writing at work; but that our inquiring soon made clear the profound disjunction between the two worlds. For us the central issue became, as we state in the sentence that precedes the bit Russ cites: “Because writing is acting, it is highly contextualized, and it is the character of this contextualization that turns out to be the burden of this book.” (Worlds Apart, 6).
The theme of the research program which supported our study was “Education and Work.” That theme and our questions about writing could best be explored within professional faculties and their cognates in the workplace. When Russ argues that our “focus on the consequences of education for futures in the workplace, for careers, is not of much interest to them [English professors],” and will alienate them, we need to explain that our focus was primarily on writing as an activity and how it functions in various settings and the consequences of that. We were addressing people who teach and study writing; endearing ourselves to English professors will be better accomplished by an article that carries the findings to their practices.
At another point in his review, Russ points out that the “authors' characterization of the classroom situation makes it clear how it differs from situations where writing actually functions,” and then he goes on to remind us that “writing which isn't done in the workplace can serve such authentic functions as creating community, influencing others, establishing a record, furthering mutual tasks, and so forth, and can do so even in classrooms” (p. 7). But we had not intended to characterize the classroom situation; rather we had presented case studies of certain classrooms where writing was a major activity both for teaching and assessment purposes. We presume that there are similar dynamics in other such classrooms, but in no way do we wish to imply that there aren't classrooms or situations where writing can serve the authentic functions Russ mentions. We had certainly not intended to characterize so many of the writing classrooms, for instance, where writing is used in these ways. So while it is disappointing, it ought not to surprise readers that “we allowed a phenomenon like inskshedding to fall through the cracks”( p.7).
I can see now why Russ believes we assume “there is nothing out there in the space between the worlds,” simply because our study did not touch on such situations. We made no such assumption however; until we had understood and delineated clearly the differences between those two worlds of writing, and accounted for those differences, we were in no position to point to the efforts that attempt to bridge those worlds. We were concerned with the bulk of those university classrooms and workplace settings where writing goes on as we have described, and therefore accounts for a widespread conviction that one does not learn to write for the workplace in the university. We leave off saying:
If there is one major, obvious-seeming way in which educational courses might prepare people better for the demands of writing at work, it is through constituting the class as a working group with some degree of complexity, continuity, and interdependency of joint activity. Such arrangements will go some way toward realizing the far richer communicative relations that contextualize writing in the workplace (Worlds Apart, 235).Yes, Russ is right in wanting “an exploration of how that richness actually works to facilitate learning ... and might be brought into higher education contexts.” I am aware of how much of such effort is already being made by him and other Inkshedders. Our own effort in that direction and that of Inkshedders Christine Adam, Natasha Artemeva, Ann Beer, Jane Ledwell-Brown, and Graham Smart appears in Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings, Hampton Press, 2000. Honestly, not a plug for the book; just my way of saying how much we believe that the work Russ points to needs to be realized. (By the way, we ought to acknowledge Peter Medway as one of the co-authors of Worlds Apart; his name does not appear at the head of the review.)