We sample salsa and tortilla chips and we sample the latest energy drink when we shop at Costco; we sample everything from soap to cereal through the mail, and students in my 3050/3060 classes get samples of assignments to view on our Blackboard page. The question might reasonably be asked: is it too much and are we doing a disservice to students by allowing them to model work which we have previously evaluated as strong (or weak) work? And the answer, at least as far as technical writing is concerned, is, no, we are not doing students a disservice and, in fact, giving students a strong sample for them to model is a powerful way for them to learn to critique and therefore improve their own work.
Technical writing is writing for the workplace and every student who aspires to enter the business world should take a technical writing class. At Wayne State, engineering students are required to take both 3050 and 3060, but many other majors are finding their way to our 3050 classes. 3050 teaches the writing of technical documents; 3060 teaches students how to put those skills to use as well as how to write as a member of a team and how to give professional oral presentations. Both classes favor communicating in objective, practical, businesslike ways. We teach organization, formatting and the proper use of visuals in a technical document or presentation. Less is more in this world, and good formatting techniques encourage readers to act on particularly well-crafted documents—be persuaded by the argument, follow instructions, comprehend why a particular action was taken or is being recommended, etc.—thereby enabling reader involvement.
This kind of writing is foreign to most students who are used to word count requirements and the need to add, add, add rather than subtract, subtract, subtract. It is very easy and very common for students beginning technical writing courses to overwrite, poorly organize and ill-format their documents. We start off in 3050 with easy assignments—a diagnostic in the form of a summary, move on to a resume and cover letter, a set of instructions and a user test report memo, and we move up to a complex, two-component report: all common documents found in many workplaces. In a similar way, I could easily imagine the instructor of a beginning or intermediate essay writing course starting with a summary, move to an essay which analyzes a rhetorical situation in a text and then move to a complex, research oriented position essay. In each case, the value of a sample assignment that students might look at and evaluate is hard to overstate. Good students get a sense of content and readability, mediocre students might be encouraged that they are on the right track, and even poor students at least have the sample available to give them guidance and confidence. My personal philosophy regarding the teaching of writing is to teach students to think about the art of writing and in doing so to actually think about their own writing, and samples are simple signposts to use along the way. With them, I think, students are more confident about finding their way home; without them, students might more easily wander, lost in the woods of their words.
Dave Mackinder received an MFA in creative writing and literary theory from Wayne State and has been an instructor of Technical Writing in the department since 1994. He is currently serving on the Composition Committee on Assessment.