About the United Drill Case

The United Drill (UD) case is an excellent assignment for a number of reasons: it immediately places students within a workplace organization; it inserts students into an organizational problem they must write their way out of; it provides a structure to introduce and teach many of the conceptual and practical issues that will be used throughout the semester.

We might begin with what the case provides:

  • An introductory story (full of ambiguity)
  • Data from the EEOC (research that within the narrative of the case the student/worker has conducted)
  • A draft policy that includes the current policy (and a note about legal review)

This is all the material that a student needs in order to be successful with this project. By saying this, we are saying something important about the scope of the project, the work expected of students, and the ways in which you respond to student work (each of these will be discussed in time).

First, the introductory story. The narrative about UD provides students with a workplace, a hierarchy within that workplace, and their own location on that hierarchy. The subject of the problem at UD is the advisability of a new workplace bias policy within the context of an EEOC investigation and a pending lawsuit. The problems that this case poses for students are numerous and may not be obvious to them (in fact, an effective class discussion is one in which you tease out the complexities-and unknowns-of the case). Some issues students must deal with include the following:

  • Their own feelings about issues of bias and discrimination, both inside and outside the workplace
  • Their ability to decide "what their boss wants" (you/Pat)
  • Their ability to gauge who their boss is
  • Their ability to gauge the dynamics of the workplace (i.e., office politics)
  • Their ability to juggle all of these issues (and more) and to come to a recommendation that becomes the basis for company policy

Your role as a teacher is similarly complex. You must play the dual role of both teacher and Pat Chalmers. In most cases, I (Jeff) play the role of Pat Chalmers primarily, teacher secondarily. Like most workplaces, a "boss" is also an evaluator of work, much like a teacher. The biggest problem that students face with this case is the unknown-there is lots of information that would be nice to know, perhaps essential to know, but which is simply unknown. It is important that students be encouraged to proceed in the face of the unknown, to exercise judgement given incomplete and imperfect information. Such judgement and action (ethics and politics) is something we are trying to teach. However, by playing the role of Pat, you can also provide additional information that can assist your students (we will discuss some of this in our overview of actual writing assignments below).

So what, specifically, do you teach in this case? Consider the following:

  • Analytical skills: audience and workplace analysis as well as rudimentary statistical analysis

The analyses are the source of many if not all of the arguments students will make. Students should be expected to conduct some analysis of their audiences (there are many-we can discuss this), the workplace politics that seem to be in play (e.g., what is a department head like Pat doing challenging a Vice President?!), and the statistics that have been provided. Audience and workplace analyses are skills we want students to consider and complete with every writing assignment. This case serves as a context for introducing the concepts and one type of practice. The results of their analyses allow them to frame arguments (and as such, are themselves arguments) to particular audiences.

The statistics are ambiguous-they point in multiple and sometimes conflicting directions. Nearly all statistics do. Perhaps the most crucial issue this case raises is that statistics don't speak for themselves-people speak through statistics. Part of class time might be spent, then, going through the statistics in an attempt to understand what they "say."

  • Argumentation skills: models of argumentation, both verbal and visual

Learning how to construct arguments is an important part of every professional writing class. The UD case provides an excellent opportunity to introduce both the complexity of argumentation (particularly its situatedness) and strategies for constructing effective arguments.

As we have suggested, arguments can be constructed from the audience and workplace analyses that students conduct. Many teachers and students feel that, at best, such analyses provide frameworks for arguments or ways to speak to particular audiences. Others (Aristotelians, for example), see such appeals to audience and/or workplace values as coming from canonical topoi (e.g., appeals to ethos or pathos) and thus legitimate arguments. From our perspective, arguments can be constructed from audience/workplace analyses, data analyses, and an analysis of the current policy (some students will do extra research on policy writing and therefore will have material from outside sources, but this isn't necessary). Where the arguments come from begs the question of how to construct arguments.

You can teach argumentation in any way you are comfortable teaching it. One approach that often works is to use Toulmin's model:

Toulmin's model is effective for teaching argumentation because it provides a structure that is audience dependent-an argument only needs to be made if the audience rejects the claim; further argument is necessary, furthermore, if the audience rejects the evidence for the claim.

In Business Writing, however, argument is more than "verbal"; it is visual as well. The UD case is also a good way to teach the visual display of data. In fact, we encourage you to require at least one visual display of data within the final recommendation memo. We discuss visual design elsewhere, but here we want to emphasize the rhetorical functions of visual display: encourage your students to think carefully about what data to display (Their most effective? That which accompanies their strongest argument?), where in the document to display it, and what types of displays are most effective. In short, visuals are not supplements to verbal arguments. Visuals make arguments much differently-and sometimes more effectively-than verbal arguments.

  • Ethics: who benefits from our decisions? who gets hurt?

It is ironic, perhaps, that while there are numerous discussions of business ethics (your students have likely had portions of courses devoted to this), much of the public considers corporations to be unethical (at the very least, most accept half-truths and exaggerations as a normal part of advertising-even related law and regulation does). Yet perhaps nothing is more important as part of a professional writing course than ethics. In Business Writing, we want to think of ethics in terms of power, asking students to consider who benefits from their actions and who, either immediately or remotely, is potentially or actually hurt by their actions.

The UD case creates a potentially messy ethical situation.

Some class time can certainly be spent in useful discussions about the ethics of the recommendations students must make. While class discussions can be great places to consider and debate possible courses of action, be careful not to overdetermine or suggest a "correct" course of action. We don't believe there is one. In general, some students will decide to "give the boss what she wants," seeing that as the ethical course of action for an employee. Others will decide to support recommendations based on other notions of "the good." We see such debate and commitments as essential for the course. It is important for students to understand the fact that all decisions entail an ethical decision (a sense of the good), that deliberation and questioning are sound intellectual and moral activities, and that one must always make a commitment.

If you are so inclined, the UD case also provides space to discuss wider ethical issues related to professional writing. The Stephen Katz article that we have provided suggests that all technical communication is unethical. His arguments are drawn from technical writing that served to facilitate the holocaust; his suggestion is that the logics of efficiency and expediency that drive technical writing (all professional writing) make "evil" like the holocaust possible-both philosophically and bureaucratically. His arguments aren't easily dismissed. Because we teach professional writing, we believe it is possible to be ethical (or we wouldn't be here). But to act ethically requires the deliberation and action we hope this case fosters.

  • Policy writing: why is policy writing a part of business writing?

Another angle you may choose to pursue in teaching the UD case is policy writing. Often, teachers frame the question this way: why have policies at all? Some of your students will have had classes on policy, and you may want to encourage them to share cases, stories, and/or theories about policy. You can also do some research on your own about why policy is important and what makes a good policy. In our conversations together, we will cover this issue more fully.

  • The actual assignment: what will they write?

Students work individually and write two memos for the UD case. The first memo is written to Pat. In this memo, Pat asks them to provide a preliminary analysis of the data and some tentative recommendations about policy. The memo is also the place where students can ask additional questions of Pat (and a place where you as teachers have the most control in shaping the case). The second memo is more formal and extensive and is the full-blown recommendation memo.

Some notes about what students typically produce:

  • Students who do well on this project typically take full advantage of the preliminary memo: they provide some arguments and examples of data analysis; they provide a visual; and they ask good questions (as Pat, I [Jeff] always answer questions consistently across the class if I can answer them, and I refuse to answer those questions I can't answer. Some students ask good questions; others ask bad questions or none at all. After the preliminary memo, students have different information, both in terms of quantity and quality.).
  • Students who take full advantage of the preliminary memo treat it as a draft of the final memo (in fact, we encourage you to teach it this way and to talk about repurposing text).
  • Students who write effective final recommendation memos typically do the following: display evidence of thoughtful audience/workplace analysis; construct effective arguments, both verbally and visually; design a memo that can be read by different audiences (visual design). The most effective and thoughtful efforts often argue for novel but reasonable approaches and solutions, and such efforts should be rewarded.