A few semesters ago, I began using a particular in-class assignment in my ENG 202: Technical Writing and Presentation classes at Technical Career Institutes. In the assignment, I give students a document to read, usually one originating online. I ask them also to examine the document in terms of how well it does or does not fulfill the functions of technical writing, as determined early in the semester through guided class discussion of students' background knowledge of technical documents (that the classes are at a technical school helps with this).
Students do, admittedly, have some difficulty with the assignment. Several fail to understand the prompt that is given--"Discuss how [the selected document] functions, and how it fails to
function, as a piece of technical writing.
Please refer to specific textual and paratextual details to support your
discussion"--and offer instead a summary of the piece or a free response to it. I am happy to see that the students can write an adequate summary and are able to engage meaningfully with their readings, but within the context of the course, I cannot necessarily reward their doing so on the assignments given. If, as is often assumed to be the case for a technical writing class, the task is in large part preparation for the workforce, then I very much cannot reward inattention to the assigned task. Employers are hardly likely to, after all.
Even with the difficulties some students face, however, the assignment is valuable. Other students perform increasingly well on the designated tasks, improving each class meeting in terms of their abilities to stake claims, identify and deploy appropriate textual evidence to support those claims, and explain how the evidence functions to support their ideas. They also improve in the usage issues upon which I comment as part of the requirements of the course and of academic instruction in writing generally. And all of the students are repeatedly engaged in examination of "real-world" materials that correspond with the concepts covered in textbook readings and continued classroom discussion. They are therefore offered abundant practice in working with technical writing materials and in interpreting evidence, both of which are likely to be helpful to them in their careers and the lives which enfold them.
The assignment could be easily deployed in other contexts. For a technical writing class at something other than a technical school (and even at a technical school, although I do not do so with my own classes as explicitly as I perhaps could), the initial discussions of technical writing features that undergird the assignment could be supplemented with provided exemplars of technical writing, arriving at something of a list of genre features from representative high-quality examples of it. Also, the documents I offer to my students tend to reflect my own personal and professional interests--they have included such disparate ideas as aikido, gaming, and tenure processes--largely because I am able to access them easily. Some of the difficulties students have faced with the assignment possibly stem from unfamiliarity with the content. Examples of technical writing in other areas of inquiry could be meaningfully deployed to correct for that particular problem. (This presupposes that it is a problem, which may well not be the case.) Further, the documents I provide, owing to the limitations of the teaching environment in which I offer them, are somewhat decontextualized; they are often print-outs of online materials, and the shift in medium affects the way in which they can be interpreted. Presenting them in their native hyperlinked online context could allow access to more illuminating paratextual features--as well as to hypertextual features which teaching more aligned with digital media can more effectively address.
While the above paragraph identifies ways in which I might improve upon my own use of the assignment, it is still one well worth using. It, like the riddle assignment about which I have written before, does much of what I want to have done in the classroom, offering students practice in the specific skill proficiencies mandated by course descriptions and connecting that knowledge to the larger cultural contexts in which my students will work and live.