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September 5, 2018 Previous day Next day

Twelve Wynadotte bantam eggs in an incubator, 6 larger white eggs on the left and 6 smaller partridge colored on the rightThis fall, I am designing new assignments for the  Technical Writing courses that I teach. During the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and activities with you all. The first step in my process was to determine these basic kinds of assignments I would ask students to create:

  • Correspondence (to include letters, memos, and email)
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents (or Instructions)
  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper (a report for non-experts)
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

My next goal was to create an overarching theme for the assignments. In addition to unifying the assignments, the theme allows students to become familiar with one writing scenario that they work with during the entire term. This strategy enables students to jump into writing more quickly, rather than spending time figuring out the background situation for each assignment first. Naturally, there are still rhetorical parameters for students to analyze for each activity, but the information from one assignment helps them determine the details of the next.

For the theme to work, it must support all of the assignments I had planned for students from a range of backgrounds. Students in the course are studying areas such as engineering, computer science, forestry, wildlife conservation, dairy science, and building construction. I needed to find a way that all these different careers would interact and write similar kinds of documents.

My solution was a business incubator that would bring together all these students to help them launch a new business. Not every student plans to go out into the world to create a new business; but the scenario is familiar enough that they are able to play along and imagine how they would work in the situation.

In my posts for the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and how they relate to the theme. This week, I want to share the basic details for the theme and activities that the class will focus on this term. One local parameter that you need to know about is the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim, which translates to “That I may serve.” This motto drives a lot of service projects and outreach at Virginia Tech, so it was a natural addition to the incubator scenario. Students are very familiar with the motto, so I do not need to explain it in the course documents. Here is the Writing Projects Overview, which explains the overarching writing project theme to students:

Writing Projects Overview

In this course, you will write a series of connected projects that you will submit in two batches (Portfolio 1 and Portfolio 2). As explained in the Grading Policies and Standards, these portfolios are collections of the original writing that you do in the course, such as memos and reports. As we begin on these projects, I want to explain how the projects are connected. The full details on these projects will be included in the relevant Canvas modules.

What goes into the two Portfolios?

Portfolio 1 will consist of four shorter pieces:

  • Info Sheet
  • Correspondence Project
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents

Portfolio 2 will focus on research-based documents, which will be a bit longer and/or more complex:

  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

So how do the projects connect?

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes.

What is a business incubator?

According to “Incubating Success. Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures” (2011), business incubators are “designed to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services, developed or orchestrated by incubator management, and offered both in the incubator and through its network of contacts” (15).

There is much more to what an incubator does and how it works, but for our purposes you just need to understand that it is a place the provides support to help beginning companies succeed.

So what will companies in this incubator do?

Naturally, starting a company is a complex endeavor that involves many decisions, specific legal and financial work, and a significant amount of planning. For this class, we will assume that most of that work is already done. We will generally assume that your company is happily chugging along, doing whatever it is that your company does. That might be making a product, providing a service, researching innovations, and so forth.

You will define the work that your company does, but beyond that you will not need to worry about that part of the scenario. You will focus more on creating some technical writing documents that relate to the company you create.

What makes the Ut Prosim Incubator special?

Our make-believe incubator was founded by some well-established and successful Virginia Tech graduates who wanted to give back to younger graduates by helping them get started in the business world. They have created a program that supports any kind of company with the one requirement that the company participates in the special projects that the Incubator undertakes as a whole.

These special projects relate to the mission of the Ut Prosim Incubator to reach out and work in ways that support others. The founders of the incubator have extended the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (“that I may serve”) to their own mission and motto, “that I may serve through my business.” To clarify, the incubator asks that member companies participate in programs that support causes like sustainability, environmental stewardship, mentorship of young entrepreneurs, and public outreach and education.

How do the writing projects relate to the Ut Prosim Incubator?

ProjectShort Description
Info SheetYou will create a short information sheet that introduces your company to others in the incubator. There will be a specific list of information to provide, including your company name, what it does, and your company’s typical customers.
Correspondence ProjectYou will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.
Technical Description

You will write a technical description related to your field (such as a tool that is typically used or a process that is part of your industry). The description will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The description will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company.

User Documents

You will also write the user document that students will use in the diversity initiative described above. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.
Short ProposalYou will write a short research proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to the incubator goal of public outreach and education.
White Paper

You will write an informational report for non-experts that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

Progress ReportYou will write a progress report that updates incubator staff on the work you have done on your white paper.

Poster Presentation

You will design a poster presentation, based on the details in your white paper, that will be part of a poster session that the incubator sponsors for the local community. Like the white paper, the presentation will focus on the incubator goal of public outreach and education. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.



So that’s the overarching plan for the term. Everything is in progress, but I’m not far enough along yet to have any feedback from students. I will share more when I do, and next week, I will share the first assignment that asks them to write a memo with the basic details about their companies. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions about the course, please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.


[Photo: Incubator-9128 by graibeard on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

One of the eight threshold concepts that frame my FYC and co-requisite courses is this:  uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of a writer’s growth. Upon reflection, I think I would add that these nouns also characterize an experienced writer’s process (the meandering path that led to this particular blog post, were it made visible, would provide substantial evidence to support this assertion). 


And yet, even having articulated this principle within my classroom (and particularly in the readings I assign), I find that I am still very quick to minimize or undermine uncertainty for my students, especially in the early days of their college writing careers. And I suspect in doing so, I am also minimizing an opportunity for learning.


A classroom conversation this week illustrates my tendency. I had asked students about thesis statements, and their answers were typical: It’s the last sentence of the first paragraph in the essay. It’s just a summary of what you say. It’s the plan for the essay so the reader can follow. I was told it had to have a certain format. It can’t announce the topic. It can’t be too broad or too narrow. It should answer a question. You should know what it is before you start writing. Using their text as a guide, students talked about weak and strong thesis statements and identified problems in samples that needed to be “fixed.” The students seemed pleased with the exercise: it was straightforward and clear—thesis statements either work or they don’t. There was only a slight ripple of consternation when I suggested that thesis statements need not be presented in one place, worded a specific way, fully developed at the outset, or stated explicitly. Despite making these comments, however, the activity of evaluating and improving thesis statements (and reading about “common problems” with a thesis) implied the opposite: thesis statements are certain, clear, and predictable.    


Later that same day, I called my daughter, who has just begun a Ph.D. program in English. For some time, she had been reworking an MA project as a book chapter. She commented on how frustrating the process had been for the first several days (perhaps even weeks) of her work. But, she was thrilled to announce during our talk that her initial musings and reflections had finally led her to a thesis, and she now feels confident the chapter will come together. I could hear the energy in her voice: she had a thesis, and while it might still need some tweaking, her sense of the potential impact of the paper (and her ability to write it) was striking. 


Consider the differences in these thesis-focused conversations: for many of my students, a thesis is primarily a component of a written product – a component that will be assessed by expert readers, possibly as ineffective, inappropriate, or misplaced. In short, my students view the thesis as something they can “get wrong” and thus something that must be nailed down immediately – and preferably without any changes. My daughter, on the other hand, views her thesis as a means to control and develop her writing. She discovered her thesis via invaluable but messy exploratory writing (which no one sees or grades), and she is harnessing the power of that thesis to guide the development of her work. While the thesis will surely be subject to the critical reflection of her future readers, she can use those responses to further define and refine her theoretical stance.  It is, in short, a mode of learning, a means to agency and control in her writing—and her thinking.


I see a similarity in the ways my students conceptualize a thesis and their understanding of grammar: both are seen as a toggle switch, set to either the right or wrong position, not as opportunities to learn, make choices, or express meaning. The anxiety produced by the desire to get it right leads me (far too often) to let students bypass the messy process of thesis-building (or sentence construction) by issuing a judgment and recommending remedies quickly. They invariably do whatever I suggest. I know better, but I have a competing desire to relieve anxiety, especially for students whose previous academic experiences have been demoralizing and disorienting.


In a workshop for our faculty at the start of this term, we were challenged to apply practices of “Transparency in Learning and Teaching” or TILT (a faculty professional development initiative led by faculty researchers at UNLV) with our assignment design.  For me, this fall, that means finding ways to make “useful confusion” explicit for students and helping them recognize the value of uncertainty in the process of discovering and refining a thesis. Transparency about the value of uncertainty means challenging the binary terms so often used to talk about the thesis (right/wrong, strong/weak, broad/narrow). It also means asking more questions during writing conferences, and acknowledging the frustration of working with a murky thesis in initial drafts. My hope is that students will come to accept uncertainty and confusion—anxiety-inducing as they may be—as a means to extended possibility and power in their writing, just as experienced writers like my daughter have.   


In what ways are you helping students re-imagine uncertainty and confusion as platforms for writing development?


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