Think Outside the Dodecahedron Part 2

by Anna Atkinson, Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Vancouver Island University

If you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a secret:

I don’t find business writing all that interesting.

But I teach it, all the time . . . it’s one of the courses that our faculty offers as a service to other departments in the institution. And in spite of the fact that I often struggle to engage with it, I’m also absolutely convinced of the need for it to be done well.

In the last post, I detailed some of the problems I’ve seen my students have with writing their formal reports, and I described the success that resulted from simply moving the due date of the assignment.

However, I think the depth of engagement that the students had with the reports came from two other places. One of them is the students themselves, of course. We have amazing students, and in this case, I was working with students from two outstanding programs that I always enjoy working with: Forestry and RMOT. (I have other favorites too! These just happened to be the ones I was working with at the time).

But the other reason had to do with my recognition that for students to be engaged, I had to be engaged, and so I needed to find a way into business writing that ignited my own interest as well. This is actually a principle of writing that I teach regularly: if you aren’t interested in what you’re writing about, it’s very difficult (nearly impossible, in fact) to write something interesting at all. The same, I think, goes for teaching. Unless you’re interested, you’re probably not going to be interesting.

I’ve tried various different approaches to this, and have changed the topics any number of times, all with some improvements—but nothing quite seemed to work entirely the way I’d have liked it to. So I kept looking.

Then I found this Ted Talk, by Zoe Weil:

And then I went to her website:

And suddenly realized that the problem I was facing was simply this: I was teaching the tools, not the lesson. As an educator, my “job” is not to teach how to write a business report. It goes far beyond this. My job is to teach students why writing business reports can help them save the world, one piece at a time.

This academic term, I implemented a version of Zoe Weil’s “True Price” exercise as the business report topic. Groups were randomly assigned a number of items that we rely on or purchase (usually) without thinking about it: cell phones, cheap coffee, disposable diapers, etc. The task was to write a formal business report detailing the true cost of these items: not the price we pay out of our pockets.

I’ve never seen students engage more with a project. I’ve never been more engaged myself. Even more importantly, I’ve learned some vital things about my own teaching:

  • Instinct is important. If it doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t.
  • Therefore, there’s a need to keep looking for the thing that is right.
  • When that thing is found, it offers as much to the teacher as to the learner.
  • Skills are a means to an end. Period. Teaching is about the reason that means is necessary.
  • For me, there is no greater calling than to assist students, in a darkening world, to become the “solutionaries” that Zoe Weil is calling for.
  • If I could, I’d go study at her institute right now.