I have always considered myself to be a “professional writing” teacher.
I have, however, almost never taught a course called “professional writing.”
I would argue, though, that in any community partnership course, there is a significant amount of writing that replicates the work of the traditional professional writing course. For instance, through community partnerships over the past year, my students have worked with local Syracuse residents as well recent immigrants to Syracuse. They have corresponded with individuals and students in Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Collectively, they have produced dialogues concerning women’s rights, educational access, and global conflicts.
While doing this work, they have also produced the following documents:
- Business Letters
- Executive Summaries
- Strategic Proposals
- Budget Proposals
- Grant Proposals
- Partnership Agreements
- Power Point Presentations
- Book Manuscripts
- Author Permission Letters
The list could go on.
The point is that community partnerships necessarily draw students into the genres which are the typical focus of a professional writing course. Yet to some extent, professional writing courses are considered distinct from the field’s focus on community as well as community literacy. Nor have community writing/partnerships courses readily adopted professional writing as an informing and important source for their work.
My own sense for this seeming divide has to do with the politics associated with each set of classrooms. While community literacy might be critiqued for its noblisse oblige, such courses are often seen as being on a “progressive” side of our field. And while professional writing has deep roots in the non-profit world, I would argue it is too often seen in the service of corporate interests – too often, that is, its emergence in the field is seen as a sign of the corporatization of the university. Each characterization is necessarily a caricature, but one that carries weight in our field. And similar to our current political debate, there seems little space to draw these opposites into a constructive dialogue.
Ultimately, I would argue, this lack of dialogue, this disciplinary divide, hurts how our students understand the possibilities of writing – in all its forms – to inform and enable active public debate focused on real change.
With the hope of enabling conversations that allow greater nuance and alignment across courses, I suggest the following practices:
Archive of Community Writing
While community literacy projects often produce quite a bit of writing, this writing also seems to vanish at the end of the term. With that in mind, departments might consider creating a digital archive of student work. Rather than be organized by project (“after-school literacy program”), the work might be divided by professional writing genre (“strategic proposal”). Such an archive has two immediate benefits. First, teachers are able to see the types of common writing that occur across their specific community projects. Second, professional writing teachers will have examples to their students of how “professional writing” can emerge in community projects. And perhaps more importantly, all teachers will begin to see how their work might both intersect and mutually support each other.
Common Project Among Courses
One common feature of community projects is that they exist within a particular teacher’s classroom. As a result, most community projects fail to take full advantage of the resources within an entire department. It might be useful, then, to consider how one particular project might be integrated across a series of classrooms, such as a professional writing and advanced literacy course. Elements of the project could be divided among the classes, with several group meetings designed to show how seemingly different writing “genres” and “writing theories” when brought together enable a stronger set of work to be produced. If the first suggestion, the archive, was to highlight to teachers the ways their work might intersect, this suggestion is to help students see how the emphases of their coursework intersects.
Forums of Community “Business Writers”
Public events can also be used to work against a perception that professional and community writing are two different enterprises. Invite individuals who do work in community-based issues – such as gentrification, education, and the environment – to share all the ways in which they engage in “public writing.” Here the idea is to show that the work being assigned by teachers has a “real life” purpose that can support students’ civic or communal values. As with the other examples, the goal is to show that what are often seen as oppositional forces within a minor, major, or discipline have common ground that speaks to important public purposes.
Of course, I recognize that in the current political moment, fraught with divisive racist rhetoric and economic disparity, finding common ground between two courses, two elements of a field, might not seem the most important of tasks. Yet if we imagine such work as demonstrating to students how seemingly rigid boundaries can be brought together through nuanced engagement, then, perhaps, they might be able to transfer such work to the civic space, which is clearly in need of such lessons.