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This post was originally published June 3, 2014.


Gardner_Jun03_168_large.jpgIn July, I will begin teaching an online section of Technical Writing. The course takes place completely online. I’ll never meet with the students in a face-to-face classroom, and there will be no set meeting time for the class. Students will log in whenever they like and access resources on the course website and in Virginia Tech’s CMS.


These classes are usually made up of students who are off campus for the summer, often working or doing an internship, and who are taking the course in their spare time. There is also the possibility of international students who are out of the country for the summer and military students who are serving somewhere. I expect to see some similarities among the group. In particular, I believe most of them will be splitting their time between the course and some other major activity (like an internship).


The biggest challenge I see is building community among this group of students. They are likely to have some common experiences, but these students probably don’t know each other and are  not likely to connect with one another beyond completing the activities for the course. After all, logistics are against them grabbing coffee after class or meeting at the library to work on an assignment together.


I decided that I wanted my first writing assignment for the course to work on two goals: to help students get to know one another and to work on a writing task that fits the focus and objectives of the course. There are hundreds of online icebreaker activities I could try, but I wanted to find something that was appropriate to the kind of workplace writing the course focuses on.


After some research, I decided to try a professional bio assignment. I’m still working on the details, but generally, students will imagine that they have taken a new position with a company and have been asked to provide a short biography statement for the company newsletter or the team section of the company website.

While the textbook I use doesn’t address the genre specifically, I found quite a few useful webpages that students can read and compare, including the following:



My plan is to ask students to review those articles and chat in an online forum about issues of style, audience, and purpose. After their exploration, they will write their own bios, choosing a style and format that is appropriate for a job they aspire to have. I’ll ask them to share their bios in the online forum as well, and I’ll have them provide one another feedback.


By the end of the unit, I hope they’ll know each other a little better, understand a bit more about the basics of technical writing, and have a bio they can use in the future. Once I finish designing the assignment, I will be sure to share it here. For now, I need to get back to planning that course. It’s just a month away!



[Photo: Cinderella's Using WiFi by David Goehring, on Flickr]

This post was originally published on April 15, 2014.


Jobs Help WantedAt CCCC last month, I found myself in my room one night, reflecting on all the wonderful sessions I’d attended and ideas I’d heard. In one session, Elisabeth Kramer-Simpson from New Mexico Tech and Elizabeth Tomlinson from West Virginia University inspired me with their discussion of internships and open writing assignments in the technical writing classroom.


As I thought about their presentations, I realized that I wasn’t content with the project I was planning to introduce the Monday after I returned from the convention. I had an odd desire to go into the classroom and say, “Let’s scrap the plan for the rest of the term. What do you want to know about technical writing this term?”


I knew it wouldn’t be the most responsible plan, but I was tempted. If students would engage, it could lead to a great series of activities. I wasn’t sure that they would engage though, and I feared that the more structured activities we had completed before I went off to CCCC would clash with such a completely open plan.


I found myself searching for a middle ground. The next project was to be job-application materials. The assignment I had always used was to ask students to find a job posting and write a cover letter and resume to apply for the job. I wondered, though, what would happen if I asked them all to write their own assignment for the project.


I began wondering how opening the assignment to more choice would customize it to what the student truly needed or wanted. If the student was trying to get a summer job, she could write the application materials the job asked for. If she wanted to establish an online portfolio, she could write the texts for that. If she was trying to network with people interested in the same discipline, she could write the documents that would help her do that.


I imagined that the deliverables for the assignment could include all of the following:


  • a traditional resume and cover letter
  • an application essay
  • a personal website
  • a cleaned up public Facebook profile
  • a  Linked In profile
  • a GitHub repository and profile
  • an profile


The more that I thought about the options, the more I found myself wondering why I should be the one to define what they need as job application materials. Why not let them tell me what they needed?           

So I scrapped my original plans and created a new, open assignment that let students choose the project they would work on. The result? Students actually smiled when I explained that they could do whatever job application materials were appropriate for what they wanted to do in the near future. I had students who excitedly told me they never had time to work on GitHub, and that they were so glad that they could do so as homework now.  Other students told me that their academic advisors had been urging them to set up a LinkedIn profile but they hadn't gotten to it. Now they could.


We wrapped up the project last week, and it has been one of the best activities I’ve taught. There was enough overlap in what the different tasks they chose called for that we had plenty to talk about and work on in class. At the same time, they have all had the chance to work on documents they needed and wanted to work on. Why didn’t I  choose this option before?




[Photo: Jobs Help Wanted by photologue_np, on Flickr]