Wednesday, April 15, 2015

URSP Student Larissa Schomaker Researches the Importance of Writing in Business Schools

When I decided to move from Europe to the U.S. to attend college, not being able to properly communicate was among my biggest fears. Without the ability to articulate information, ideas, and emotions, I was afraid to find myself at a loss. “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere” (Iacocca). I find this statement by Lee Iacocca, an American businessman, to be very true, especially, but not limited to, the field of business. Throughout my undergraduate degree program at Mason, I have been required to take general composition courses offering the analytical tools I need as a writer and effective communicator. It is important for faculty to connect class material of specific disciplines with professional writing experiences I will encounter in my career. Unfortunately, this is less often the case. An increasing number of employers have criticized college graduates’ inadequate communication skills. Companies have difficulties to fill job openings because of the candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly. Some blame technology; others blame colleges or even high schools for not focusing on written and oral communication.

This disconnect started to become very apparent to me shortly after my teacher for Business Communication (SOM 301), Jacquelyn Brown, asked me to assist her as a writing fellow (WF) in her class. As a WF, I attend SOM 301 labs to establish a relationship with students and actively support Professor Brown. Outside the classroom, I function as a tutor to clarify writing assignments, brainstorm ideas, and respond to students’ individual needs. By obtaining the position of a middleman, I have the opportunity to observe both, student and faculty perspectives. During tutoring sessions in particular, I witness students’ struggles more often than not. They have brilliant ideas, are committed to their studies, but lack proper communication skills. Because of my own background, I am able to understand the difficulties and frustrations that can come with writing and business communication. Being a WF gives me the ability to see both sides, which is why I started thinking of this research initially. The project intends to define the extent to which a gap between faculty and students exists. With the help of my findings, I will then determine whether or not WFs fulfill their role as middlemen sufficiently and therefore contribute to a closer compliance with expectations from both, students and faculty.

My position as a middleman between students and faculty is of essence in order to fill the gap between employer, student and faculty. As a WF, I have a great understanding of the class and assignments, as well as a great rapport with the students. Thus, SOM 301 students feel more comfortable addressing their questions and concerns with either faculty or WF. The opportunity to work closely together over an entire semester gets me significantly engaged in the writing process of students and also allows me time to observe approaches that work and don’t work. The same applies for WFs and faculty. Because I attend class, I see where students struggle, which gives me the ability to suggest different approaches for assignments to Professor Brown in order to achieve a better outcome. However, the writing fellow program also requires a significant investment on the part of faculty. WFs can only help students if all participants clearly understand the parameters of writing assignments, important matters of their discipline, and expectations of the individual instructor. Hence, a successful program raises faculty’s awareness of how writing is part of their disciplinary system. Ideally, they will engage in new practices that reflect responses to students and their writing, comply with definitions of their discipline, and match their students’ development.

A similar WFs program has been implemented by Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. It is based on the belief that collaboration among peers is one of the most effective methods of learning. Additionally, members of this program are committed to promoting a campus-wide culture in which writing and communication in its many forms is central to learning. In this culture, communication and inquiry are vitally linked, restraints on learning imposed by traditional disciplinary boundaries are eased, and students and faculty are all part of one vibrant intellectual community. Similar to Lehigh University’s approach to erase boundaries, I am pursuing the goal to evaluate the relationship between students and faculty. The main question hereby is the following: Can WFs fulfill their position as a middleman between students and faculty? Providing research-based answers to this question is significant, because it observes the stated disconnect from a new angle. Minimal research has been done from a WFs perspective. Although WAC faculty has conducted a fair amount of research, WFs have only been quoted sparingly, and they have not yet given their own voice. Looking at the WF program from a different perspective for the first time will increase its efficiency, but also takes significant steps to bridge the addressed gap. A better understanding of expectations from both, students and faculty, can contribute to the development of a more beneficial curriculum beyond the Mason community.

Throughout my research process thus far, I have come to realize that detailed documentation is essential for each individual step and sometimes more lengthy than initially anticipated. As I am conducting a case study where I interview a selected number of former and current SOM 301 students who have met with me as a writing fellow more than twice, I needed IRB approval in order to conduct individual student interviews. Going through the application process and describing specific processes to individuals unfamiliar with my research project has been a task that required me to invest a lot of time. Over time, this objective has become easier as I am more familiar with the process now. Yet, I am certain that conducting detailed documentation will continue to be part of my work as an undergraduate research scholar.