Russ Hunt

Between Planets: What's Between the Worlds of Worlds Apart

Inkshedders will not be surprised to learn that the likes of Aviva Freedman, Patrick Dias, and Anthony Paré (and a number of other inkshedders and associates, who collectively pursued the tangled relationships among school learning and workplace learning, and explicit and implicit instruction, through two mammoth SSHRC grants over a period of years at Carleton and McGill Universities) can do amazing work, and are full of powerful, useful ideas.

The report on that long project, titled Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts, is in many ways a kind of culmination of a paradigm shift in the study of how advanced literacy skills get learned. Before this watershed, "normal science," to use Thomas Kuhn's phrase, generally assumed that workplace writing was hardly worth study. Not only was it smeared with toil and bleared with trade, it was so obviously simple as to be unworthy of serious attention. Compared with what literary scholars and critics might find to say about a sonnet or an essay, it seemed clear there was almost nothing of interest to be said about an insurance case report, a memorandum of agreement, a call for proposals or a letter of intent. Once you'd pointed out how clichéd and uncreative the language was, and how conventional and formulaic the organization of the text, the work of analysis and understanding seemed to be over.

It was in the early eighties that the work of Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami (1981) and others first broke down the comfortable wall between the writing we could take seriously and the writing we could ignore. But it has taken a couple of decades for this insight to be so widely accepted that it no longer needs to be apologized for, or prefaced with explanations and excuses. That the change has happened can be clearly seen in Worlds Apart, which in many ways represents the culmination of all that attention to kinds of writing activity that once passed utterly undetected under the academic radar screen.

The book's most important contribution to our understanding of writing and literacy generally may be the way it allows us to see how Russian-based "activity theory" and North American "genre theory" afford us a rich, binocular understanding of the nature of writing and the contexts in which it's learned. The book shows us how considering writing as a contextualized "activity" rather than a linguistic object allows us to see that, in the almost complete absence of direct, explicit instruction, social workers (for example) learn, on the job, how to write the kinds of reports that actually benefit their clients by persuading someone to take appropriate action, and to suggest some of the reasons that that kind of learning is so effective. The authors show us how this process is rooted in the relations among the people and texts engaged in a human activity, and how that understanding of patterns of activity allows us in turn to understand in a richer way the patterned linguistic actions that evolve typically out of repeated rhetorical exigencies and produce the forms of discourse we have (following, among others, Carolyn Miller) come to call genres.

Worlds Apart is organized into four sections: an extremely important introductory one on method, one reporting investigations of "university writing" (by which is meant writing done in connection with formal classes and explicit learning situations), one reporting on investigations of workplace writing (in contexts such as a children's hospital social services department, the Bank of Canada, or an architectural firm), and a final section titled "Transitions," which addresses the question "How can students move successfully from the academic writing described in Part II . . . to the complex rhetorical environments of the workplace?" The central insight of the book is embodied in its title: the world of school writing is utterly different and apart from the world of workplace writing, where texts have functions and serve purposes beyond the "epistemic" ones of learning, evaluation and grading.

In one sense, of course, this seems obvious (this is "just school"; that's "the real world") but the implications of this sort of exploration of these differences at this level are crucial for our understanding of the nature of texts, text production, and learning about texts. And though it may seem obvious, it hardly goes without saying. Among English departments, for example, models of text are, in general, profoundly and radically unhooked from action. Not only all student essays, but most professional scholarly texts, have as their central function not participating in a task by means of what they say, but rather demonstrating the author's expertise or skill so that others will judge the work and its author positively. It is, in fact, often very difficult to make clear the distinction between writing which has, and writing which does not have, what the authors of Worlds Apart call "authenticity" or "rhetorical reality" to people who have spent their careers working almost exclusively with either aesthetic texts or texts that exist primarily to exhibit their authors' skill or knowledge (or betray their lack of them).

The authors make this distinction very clear in Chapter 11, "Contexts for Writing: University and Work Compared." There they say, among other things:

Because most of the purposes and necessities of work are absent from the classroom, there are numerous functions that academic writing is never called on to serve. First, students have no need to produce legally valid records, nor occasion to perform acts for which they will be held to account. . . . Nor do their texts have performativity, in the sense of realizing speech acts such as orders or requests. (226)
They are aware that many readers, especially in English departments, will say that students are, in fact, "held to account" for their writing, or argue that comments on student papers are not, as the authors say they are, merely rationalizations for grades, but are -- or can be -- dialogic responses to what students are saying. Thus they are at pains to make the radical differences in the two situations apparent, and to make the implications of these differences for learning as explicit as possible. Students who have been taught to write in traditional ways, they demonstrate through case study after case study, are not only not helped to learn how to write in authentic professional contexts, they are often seriously handicapped by their expectation that there is only one way to learn, and that it is by being told explicitly.

In fact, one of the salient characteristics of the workplace learning situation as described in this book is that learning is not an explicit goal; they report that both novices and experienced mentors regularly deny that it is a goal at all. Consequently, many novices do not recognize the opportunities for learning implicit, for example, in having a text rejected or edited. The authors point out, for example, the common occurrence of the inference from their previous learning patterns that suggests that "anything written in response to a draft by a grader is evaluative and final. For these novices entering the workplace, then, the comments written on their drafts often meant negative evaluation and evoked resistance, rather than being recognized as opportunities for learning (and further collaborative performance)" (196).

One of many reasons to welcome the publication of Worlds Apart is that we no longer have to mount the argument that there are profound differences between writing in these two situations: we can simply refer people to the book, as we can refer people who really want to know what we mean when we say marks and evaluation are poisonous to learning to Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards.

There are also, though, some ways in which the book is a disappointment for me. There's 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." I'm concerned that the audience whom I think most directly needs to hear what this book has to say will find themselves alienated from reading it -- not only because of its professional context (how many English professors regularly read Erlbaum books?), but, more seriously, because its focus on the consequences of education for futures in the workplace, for careers, is not of much interest to them. A specialist in eighteenth century literature (of which I am one) will find it difficult to see how her interest in deepening students' literary understanding should be judged by its relevance to their possible futures in investment analysis or social work.

The authors' characterization of the classroom situation makes it clear how it differs from situations where writing actually functions. But 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. I was disappointed that the authors' methodology allowed a phenomenon like inkshedding -- which they are certainly aware of in other contexts -- to fall through the cracks.

I would, that is to say, have appreciated more attention to the specific processes by which implicit learning occurs in those workplace contexts (and in situations where transactionally embedded written discourse is used in classrooms). It would seem to me, for instance, that discourse-based interviews (cf. Odell and Goswami, 1981) with newcomers and apprentices should have brought to the level of conscious attention some of the processes by focusing on the contextualized rhetorical choosing. Such a strategy might have illuminated the role of making learning the explicit goal (as opposed to making the joint accomplishment of a task the explicit goal). What difference does that make to a learner's growing -- or not growing -- ability to make rhetorical choices, for example? It seems to me that the assumption, that there's nothing out there in the space between the worlds, makes it difficult for the authors to attend to such issues.

Perhaps when I say that what I want is not just a delineation of how the “communication relations that contextualize writing in the workplace” are “far richer” (235) but a further exploration of how that richness actually works to facilitate learning and explanation of just how that richness might be brought into higher education contexts, I'm asking for another, deeper cut into the data this valuable work was built on. Well, folks? Maybe it could be titled Between Planets.


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