Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 3

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Consulting and Collaborative Writing Connections

Linn K. Bekins, San Diego State University

Steve Merriam, San Diego State University


Bekins is Assistant Professor at San Diego State University specializing in technical and scientific writing and Merriam is a teacher/consultant specializing in nonprofit communications, including grant writing.



Collaborative writing is a frequent and rhetorically complex activity common to most environments. However, educators know little about how to teach workplace activities such as collaboration, negotiation, and consultation in academic environments. This paper presents experiential learning as a pedagogical model, describes a program utilizing the model, and provides an example of a course promoting academic-workplace collaborations through genre-based writing assignments (e.g., marketing brochures, promotional materials, grants) and interactive activities (e.g., client interviews, user and task analyses, usability tests).



Experiential learning has been defined as a  “direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it” (Borzak,1981: 9 qtd. in Brookfield, 1983).  As applied to teaching writing, experiential learning is a pedagogy that encourages active experimentation and applies classroom skills through the collaboration and consultation to a community outside of the university.  Many experiential learning courses ask students to draw on the combination of coursework and their experiences to engage the community in ways that benefit both (see, for instance, Cooke and Williams, 2004). Community organizations often need help with the writing tasks students are learning about, and students often need the opportunity to practice completing certain tasks with audiences beyond the classroom.  At first glance, the experiential learning model may appear to be a market-based approach built on simple supply and demand principles (with the student as cheap labor) rather than on established and emerging theories of teaching composition. However, immersing students in communication contexts outside the university—like workplace and institutional discourse communities—can help students apply rhetorical principles of audience, purpose, and context to their own writing practices. Moreover, experiential learning provides opportunities for collaborative writing, consulting, and negotiating, all skills necessary to students’ development after their academic career ends.


It is our intention to outline a pedagogical paradigm based in composition theory which we feel teaches students to write within (and for) particular workplace environments and creates lasting relationships between the university and public communities. We begin with a brief review of collaborative and professional writing research, then illustrate the idea of collaborative consulting in teaching writing skills by way of example, and end with a brief discussion of experiential learning as a model for teaching writing.


Theoretical Framework

Over the past decade, research on collaborative writing has received an increasing amount of attention in composition research.  To varying degrees, theorists perceive of writing as collaborative, social, and context sensitive.  Ede and Lunsford (1986) claim quite simply that writing is a process that begins with the intention to write, ends with a product, and is collaborative only insofar as writers literally coauthor or write in teams.  Bruffee (1984, 1985) expands this definition to suggest that learning results from interaction; learning and communication practices are therefore inherently collaborative. Drawing on the experimental work of Vygotsky, who hypothesized that all human thought is actually internalized public or social conversation, Bruffee extends the notion of internal dialogue to the external world, positing that “any effort to understand how we think requires us to understand the nature of conversation; and any effort to understand conversation requires us to understand the nature of community life that generates and maintains conversation” (1984, p. 640).  According to this perspective, learning is not an individual activity, but a social or collaborative one involving the establishment and maintenance of community knowledge.  Such a comprehensive view suggests that writing is an ongoing process independent of whether or not authors literally write and revise together.  This view has two central aims: to build upon collaborator’s knowledge to construct knowledge and to provide “written knowledge” on which others may build (Bazerman, 1988).


To discuss teaching writing through experiential learning, we begin with the following assumption: discourses are developed, communicated, and practiced out of a particular social identity informed by rhetorical situation, which is to say that literacy is a social practice emphasizing the habits of discourse communities in response to the context informing communication acts.  Thus, discourse is communicated out of particular social identities and social institutions, such as schools, businesses, research labs and so on, to perpetuate specific values and beliefs.  Participation in such discourse communities, therefore, involves learning how specialized communities represent and display knowledge and practicing the specific conventions of language use. When students participate in discourse communities, they learn how those specialized groups represent and display knowledge and practice the specific conventions of language use.


To learn a discourse community’s communication conventions—i.e., to participate as a community member—one must first become familiar with the rhetorical strategies that mark a discipline’s discourse and govern the production and dissemination of knowledge within that community. This knowledge is very helpful to students as they become better collaborators and consultants. While research has shown how undergraduate and graduate students learn disciplinary writing (e.g., Berkenkotter, Huckin & Ackerman, 1988; Blakeslee, 2001; Casanave, 1990), few studies have addressed the transitions writers make from academic to nonacademic settings. Anson and Forsberg (1990) suggest that while certain surface-level writing skills are portable across diverse contexts, writers show a consistent pattern of expectation, frustration, and accommodation as they adjust to new writing environments. This is not surprising since writing differs substantially across contexts.  Because of the enormous variety of written discourse, we suggest that experiential learning can be used profitably to teach students a body of skills and knowledge about writing to account for (and interact with) a variety of rhetorical situations, both in and out of the academy.  Through such teaching, students learn to write for audiences and purposes outside of academia, and to practice the conventions of a particular discourse community by collaborating directly with its members. And, as they work to address “real exigency in the community and meet their client’s expectations” (Williams and Love, in press), students frequently create writing that exceeds course expectations, since they begin to recognize the responsibilities they have to real-world audiences.


The Advanced Certificate Program in Technical and Scientific Writing

Our experience with pedagogical models in collaborative consultation comes from teaching in the Advanced Certificate Program in Technical and Scientific Writing at San Diego State University. To receive the certificate, students take a total of 21 units of core courses and electives, usually over a two-year period. Generally, certificate students come from three populations: advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and non-traditional Open University students. Most are interested in technical communication as a vocation either as full-time technical communicators or as consultants, and typically use the program as a means to train for a new career, increase the job skills needed for a promotion, and/or connect with professional networks. By balancing vocational needs with academic concepts, the certificate program can be said to resemble an extended corporate university (see Faber, Bekins, and Karis, 2002), as the classroom becomes the arena where like-minded students meet, share past and present workplace issues and problems, and learn from experienced colleagues, both peers and experts.


Most workplace writing is collaborative; collaboration research on workplace or professional writing assumes that language and knowledge are products of human interaction (Bakhtin, 1986; Rorty, 1979).  A primary purpose of SDSU’s certificate program is to train students to actively engage the community by having them collaborate with local organizations to create professional, effective documentation. Certificate students rarely enroll in the university as full-time students but come from the workforce as part-time evening students. As a result, they often choose to build collaborative academic projects with their home communities and/or constituencies in business, education, government, or the nonprofit sector. For these students, the classroom becomes a “portal” between the university and the community; students migrate in and out of the academic environment, bringing in as well as extracting professional experiences, networks, resources, and projects. Moreover, they often come to the program to validate, link, or expand their professional knowledge of the discipline and the university. By the end of the certificate program, students have created a portfolio of work to show prospective employers and are poised to enter the community as a paid communication consultant or expert volunteer. The program has a long history of collaborating with community partners, or “clients,” and relies on a teaching faculty active in both industry and research.


Experiential learning also helps students identify the skills they may already have and bring those skills to a mutually beneficial consulting relationship with a community or industry partner. All certificate course material underscores the importance of collaborative consultation. Since as much as 75 to 85% of workplace writing involves collaboration (Burnett, 2001), students in the core certificate courses develop writing projects as teams, and their public and private reflections on how those teams function become part of class discussion and assessment. Through structured, interactive classroom and workplace activities (e.g., collaborative writing, client interviews, user and task analyses, usability testing) students can test collaboration strategies in non-academic settings. They also teach their clients how to collaborate by creating supportive environments for active experimentation and joint problem solving.


The emphasis on collaborative consulting, we argue, helps students break the isolation, independence, and hierarchy of a traditional consulting relationship. Among our pedagogical goals is to inform students of the similarities and differences of academic and workplace writing issues, to perfect and model listening skills so that students may effectively learn to interact with clients, and to develop targeted problem solving strategies benefiting both students and clients, such as illustrating the interface between a business plan and a grant proposal. The experiential learning process results in a mutually beneficial solution: through their collaboration, the student/consultant develops skills and professional documents and learns about clients’ needs and problems; the client/partner learns how to communicate their identity effectively to outsiders and receives a model deliverable from the student, a professional and customized documentation project.


Technical Communication in Nonprofit Organizations

In the course we describe here, the teacher took full advantage of the potential of experiential learning, thereby helping students develop skills that challenge the traditional hierarchies of professor/student or client/consultant relationships to create win-win situations for both parties. The graduate-level course “Technical Communication in Nonprofit Organizations” has become a popular elective in the certificate program and is designed to help students develop specific written and presentation skills needed in nonprofit organizations (NPOs). In today’s competitive funding environment, these organizations require many of the same key skills and experiences developed by for-profit technical communications specialists, such as program and project management; documentation; writing for the media, the public, and specific constituencies; developing communication plans; etc.


This course requires students to conduct research on a local organization and to help it with its documentation needs; the final writing project is a submitted grant proposal for the organization.  Since students undertake this writing in strategic consultation with their community partner, they learn to become well-rounded NPO consultants, familiar not only with typical nonprofit communication genres but with NPO organizational needs as well, and learn such skills as promoting volunteerism, interacting with boards, and adhering to state and federal regulations. To help teach such skills, the course relies on both presentations by regional experts and on the student’s public and private reflections about the direct experience of putting coursework theory into practice. On a pedagogical level, then, structured consulting allows students to test their academic abilities—both in interpersonal communication and in writing—within non-academic contexts and use the technical communication skills needed by community organizations to create lasting partnerships in the communities where they live and work.


Next, we provide an example of what we consider to be a successful student-client partnership, illustrating experiential learning activities and potential outcomes of such a pedagogical approach in the teaching of writing.


Case Study: A Paws’itive Experience

Akiko’s collaboration with an NPO is typical of the engagement students create and sustain with their community partners well after the end of the semester. During the second week of the course, she began researching local social service nonprofits and made several false starts until she found a cause she was interested in. Akiko trains dogs as a hobby and chose to work with a service-dog training organization. She selected and approached Paws’itive Teams, a local group that trains dogs for developmentally disabled clients.


During initial meetings, Akiko worked closely with the group’s Executive Director to prioritize needs and agreed to write a grant to a national funding organization. The result was a set of goals and objectives for the organization arrived at through collaboration. Moreover, in order to understand Paws’itive Teams completely, Akiko immersed herself in their work: she worked with the Executive Director to create budgets and strategic planning documents, then met with stakeholder families, actively helped train the dogs, and eventually participated in graduation ceremonies for the service dogs. In short, she became a volunteer who served in many areas of the organization rather than simply a grant writer.


Coursework supported her extracurricular work. Writing a grant comes only as a last step in a process that begins with the student understanding the needs of both constituents and funders, a fact our readings and presentations emphasize. That understanding is best reached by the active listening we believe is vital to effective consulting. Often, students undertake sometimes exhaustive and intense analysis of the various stakeholders involved, using principles presented and discussed in class. For instance, Akiko’s extensive interaction with her client enabled her to articulate the purpose of the NPO more clearly as well as identify potential audiences who might be interested in funding the NPO.  In other words, the process through which Akiko researched and wrote the grant represents her direct experimentation with rhetorical strategies she developed in class, strategies that helped her discover how best to tell the constituent’s story in a way that funders might hear amid the noise of many requests. Because she had a foundation in rhetorical principles that could be applied to specific contexts, she was able to approach her community partner as a budding communication expert and model the collaboration strategies within the organization’s stakeholder, constituency, and funder communities.



For teachers interested in preparing their students for “real world” writing situations, the challenge becomes how to train students as rhetoricians able to navigate among and within specific discourse communities. Experiential learning can achieve this. Akiko’s success, both as an academic and as a writing and communication specialist, demonstrates the power of collaborative consultation in institutional settings. Classes such as the one illustrated here provide students with direct experience in developing standards and regulatory materials, and develop their skills in planning, estimating, and/or managing complex technical documentation projects. Additionally, through the experiential learning process, students soon understand that knowing how to plan and format a report is not enough. As they discover how to conduct rhetorical analyses of documentation projects and to effectively interact with partners from varied backgrounds, they come to see that each project and genre is different in ways only direct community engagement can illuminate. Learning about, understanding, and practicing several basic rhetorical principles (e.g., audience, purpose, context) behind technical communication, and then putting those skills into practice in communities where students work and live helps them identify, communicate, and solve problems more meaningfully. We believe that experiential learning serves as an excellent model of collaboration and consultation between post-secondary educational environments and public communities outside the university.



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