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Fitting the Assignment to the Class

posted: 7.8.14 by Traci Gardner

Last week, I talked about a classification assignment I plan to use in the technical writing class that I am teaching this summer. Students will research their field of study and identify the kinds of writing they will do in the workplace.

As I designed the assignment, I worried about how to engage students in a way that avoided turning into a classification essay. I have no problem with classification essays, but they aren’t the right format for a technical writing class. Never once in my twenty years of doing technical and professional writing outside academia has a manager come to me and asked me to write an essay.

As I thought about how this kind of task might show up in the workplace, I realized that a spreadsheet was the perfect choice. Students can set up columns for the kinds of information they need to gather, list the different kinds of writing, and fill in the information. Almost immediately, however, I told myself that spreadsheets weren’t really part of the technical writing curriculum.

Fortunately, my devil’s advocate asked, “Why can’t they be?” and I quickly found myself realizing that I used spreadsheets and tables many times as a professional writer. Spreadsheets don’t look like letters or reports, but they are widely used as a format for comparing and gathering information. We used them often for benchmarking against competing websites, for instance, as we designed new online features. It’s a genre of writing that I know students will use.

And that is how I decided to ask students to create spreadsheets this summer. I plan to talk about the different kinds of spreadsheets that show up in the workplace and about the differences between using spreadsheet software and creating a table in a word processor. That information should clear any objections students may have against a spreadsheet in a writing class—and if they have any other questions, I’ll address them when they come up.

I’ve begun drafting an example to share, and it has me even more excited about this assignment. It fits perfectly in a technical writing class, and I can’t wait to try it. I’ll let you know what happens later this summer.

In the meantime, have you tried using a spreadsheet as an assignment in a writing class? Do you have any advice to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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