Challenges for ABC Members in 2000.
Preparing for my talk as winner of this year's Outstanding Teacher Award forced me to look closely at my years as a teacher--my skills, my attitudes, and my growth over those years. It also gave me the opportunity to assess the profession of teaching business communication and the state of the field itself. I have examined what my own professional life has entailed and the discussions I've had with Association for Business Communication (ABC) members through the years. One overwhelming theme has emerged: many of us feel isolated and powerless as we fight administrations to keep our programs. Our business communication programs are regarded as weak and are susceptible to change more so than other disciplines.
I am challenging ABC to fill the void many of us feel. We need some strengths to fall back on when we are asked who we are and to support us when we are under attack. I have four challenges, each based on an attitude I have observed during my tenure as a business communication instructor. Meeting any one of these challenges would help us take pride in our profession. Meeting all four would empower us to stand up a bit straighter in the fight.
Support Plain Language Across the Continents
The plain language movement has no "academic sponsor," and I can think of no more appropriate group to endorse it than ABC. In some ways the push for plain language is much stronger in countries other than the US. However, this movement is deserving of serious attention everywhere. I would hope that the members of this association would be the flag bearers. In fact, back in 1985 Gretchen Vik wrote that "as business communicators we need to keep track of the movement's figures" (p. 66). She pointed to the interest of the Department of Commerce and the American Bankers Association in plain language as validation of "the concern we as business communicators have shown for the subject" (p. 66). However, we have not followed her suggestion and could do much more.
When I worked on my dissertation in the mid-1980s, I interviewed a vice president at State Farm about the rewriting of insurance policies into plain language. We first discussed the challenges of meeting the plain language requirements of 34 states' laws. He explained the company's drafting process and pointed out that the lawyers had lost some of their say in the writing of policies. The final step was to send the policy drafts to the Document Design Center for editing and help with the design of the policy.
Because the rewritten policies actually filled more pages, there was a concern with increased expenses in the printing process. So State Farm found a thinner paper that did not bleed, bought new printing presses, and decided to glue the spines instead of using staples. They now could fold the policies once and use a business-size envelope. They saved over a million dollars in postage simply by eliminating the staples.
The lengths the plain language laws would force a company to go were fascinating. Nowhere had I read any of those details. However, when I submitted an article with those details to one of our journals in about 1988, one reviewer wrote, "this old stuff again! I thought we were through with plain language by now." I had my doubts about an organization that had members with attitudes like that. Why wouldn't we want to know what lengths a company had to go to in order to meet the needs of its policyholders?
That was probably 13 years ago, and the plain language movement is more active than ever in 2000. The Security and Exchange Commission is probably the most visible proponent for plain language today; however, there is other activity as well. For example, I teach a unit on plain language in my corporate communications class. Just this semester, I have been able to make a very strong point to my class about the current activity. The Food and Drug Administration required Glaxo Wellcome to produce a document in plain language explaining the side effects of Lotronex because several women who had taken the drug for irritable bowel syndrome became extremely ill. So I downloaded the document and made copies for my class. On the same day, we discussed a policy for flood insurance written by the government that State Farm had revised and the rewritten proxy statement that Caterpillar had written following the SEC requirements. I reminded students that they were affected by plain language requirements if they bought st ock, if they bought an insurance policy, and if they took medicine. It was a powerful lesson that came from outside, not from any textbook. A new poster from Occupational Safety and Health Administration written in plain language came out just days after that discussion.
The plain language movement crosses many continents. The European Union (EU) has written a booklet entitled, "How to Write Clearly. Fight the Fog." It is designed for all writers of English at the European Commission. The first section is about the readers of Commission documents--EU insiders, outside specialists, and the general public. The public is to be considered the most important audience.
Last spring I attended an international plain language conference m Houston. I learned about the Plain English Campaign in England, which was rewriting the packaging for medicine for the EU while the Food and Drug Administration was rewriting the packaging for over-the-counter medicine in plain language in the US. Speakers from several countries detailed the rewriting of laws and financial documents in their countries.
This spring I was appointed to the Governor's Commission to Rewrite and Reform the Criminal Code of Illinois. The participants are 34 states attorneys, judges, lawyers, law professors--and one plain language consultant (me). The 1200-page Code has not been rewritten in 40 years and is most confusing. After looking at it, I believe the work is crucial and am happy to volunteer my expertise in clear writing.
Members of the ABC can do much to promote plain language. We can talk about it with students, alerting them to what they might expect in whatever industry they may work. We can discuss the ethics of unclear writing. Should the public expect to be able to understand their credit card statements, their loan documents, their apartment leases, and other important documents? Why are documents selling something so clear and the documents explaining the terms so unclear? At the very least, we can discuss the problems college students have with credit cards and the trouble they find themselves in if they don't read the fine print. We can react--tell the company if we cannot understand something. We teach the need for clarity, simple vocabulary, and readable document design. Why do we accept a document with miniscule print, legalese vocabulary, and half-inch margins?
I challenge the members of this organization to be at the forefront of the demand for plain language documents in all our business dealings and supporting those businesses and government agencies who are rewriting their documents. Don't ever look at it as "this old stuff." In fact, we could turn "this old stuff" into some very positive publicity for ABC and its members.
Strengthen Relationships with Practitioners
Because of geography, funding, or lack of time, it may be difficult for some instructors to have much exposure to business practitioners. The fact is, the more we all come in contact with people who actually do the writing and communicating in the work world, the more knowledgeable we become. However, there appears to be resistance to that concept in this association.
Several years ago, Deborah Bosley and I had the idea to start a committee to build alliances with business communicators, and most importantly to bring more practitioners to our conferences so we would have more exposure to business practices. Now, I know this wasn't a new or unique idea for ABC. I also know that there are fears that business people would want to control the association if given a chance. However, it had been years since there had been much of a business presence at any of the conferences. We were given permission to form an ad hoc group to address this issue.
At a committee meeting at the Chicago conference, an ABC member wandered into our room and asked what our goals were. When we explained, her response was, "Will they listen to us?" Someone replied, "Will we listen to them?"
But her reaction may not be so unusual. In "The Researcher as Missionary: Problems with Rhetoric and Reform in the Disciplines," Segal, Pare, Brent, and Vipond (1998) describe the need to interact with practitioners, not preach at them. They describe the "feedback loop" of academics analyzing professional communities and then writing about them for other academics. "Thus we adopt and defend a pedagogical position that suggests we know other people's rhetoric better than they know their own and that, moreover, they should want to know what we know" (p. 82). As an alternative to the teacher as missionary in the professional or business world, Segal et al. define the ideal teacher-researcher as "not just any teacher, but a thoroughly informed, ideologically critical, and most important, respectful teacher, a teacher who wishes to connect with, but not necessarily to convert her 'students' in the professional communities" (p. 83).
In his Outstanding Researcher Address last year, Jan Ulijn (2000) made some of these same points. He talked about ways to "make our ABC research more relevant to business and teaching" (p. 178). In making his points about validity and reliability, he asked what audience the research is intended for and if the research is based on real life or on a simulation. He also asked, "If once we have reached high levels of reliability and validity will the business community listen to us? Yes, if we listen to them!" (p. 184, emphasis added).
In October 1999 I attended a Corporate Communication Conference in New York, sponsored by the Conference Board. The Conference Board gives academics 50% off their registration fees. What a treat to listen to communication practitioners talk about what they do in their jobs. When I talked to people during breaks and lunches, they would ask why I was there, because I was the only academic. My answer was, "to listen to what you have to share about your jobs." Their response was always, "where is everyone else?"
I know money is tight for most people, and I was lucky to work out this trip economically. However, I also know that I am a stronger teacher for each contact I have made with practitioners. I can take that information into my classroom and alert my students to happenings in the real world. The more contact we have with practitioners, the more contacts we develop for real-life research, the more chances we have for guest speakers in our classes, the more ideas we have for case studies--and just for pondering what is going on in the real world. My most memorable ABC conference was the last one in Washington, DC, because there were many speakers from the SEC, the Plain Language Action Network, and other professional organizations. I went home energized with ideas for research projects, a pocket full of business cards and contacts, and many stories to share with my students.
Will they come if we ask them? Yes, they will. When I first made contact with the Plain English Campaign in England, I asked if they had ever met or talked with any ABC members. Amazingly, the reply was "No, but we'll be glad to come to a conference." And two representatives of that group planned to speak at a session in San Antonio. Because they were delayed by a snowstorm en route, they volunteered to come the following year to Los Angeles--all at their own expense.
Just last week I had a guest speaker for my corporate communications class. This woman designed the communication plans for Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America, in our own community of Normal, IL, when it planned layoffs of approximately 700 employees in 1999. She shared real events across real continents as she explained every memo, e-mail, and letter along with its audience, purpose, and content. The chronology between the activity in Japan and in Normal was problematic. The parent company in Japan would announce something 12 hours ahead of the plant's being officially told about it, but the media would have already run a story by the time her staff got to work. She said her task was very intimidating because she had to encounter the shock and wrath of the workers before she could do anything. She came with a PowerPoint presentation and a notebook with all the documents for the students to look at. I assure you that her talk was much more fascinating than my efforts to summarize it here. She would m ake a dynamic presenter for an ABC conference.
I challenge ABC to adopt a policy that every international and regional conference should have sessions with practitioners. Invite and welcome practitioners and listen to what they have to share with us. Promote those sessions so members know ahead of time what topics and companies will be represented. Get as much publicity out of these contacts as possible, both for the company and for the association. Why not include a "press packet" in our convention materials so each of us could promote the conference when we get home? Publicity would help instructors prove that our conferences are far more than an academic "feedback loop."
Cut Us Free
In 2000, I challenge this association to work diligently to remove the "basic skills yoke that we have been burdened with for so long" from those of us who teach business communication (Suchan & Dulek, 1998, p. 107). We have lived under its weight long enough. I believe that the attitude of others toward many of us is that we teach only commas and periods. For example, when I gave our associate dean a copy of our three-page guidelines for our required course, he remarked that he thought we taught only grammar.
We need for the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) to cut us loose from business education. For those of you who do not teach in American business colleges, the AACSB is the accrediting agency that strikes fear in the hearts of those who do. The entire world of about 300 schools revolves around maintaining that accreditation. For years, the AACSB has included business communication in the same category as business education--hence any statistics, including salaries, are based on studies of business education departments. In reality, however, business education programs are disappearing and present too small a sample to base any statistics upon.
I tried to track the association between business communication and business education; however, none of the materials about ABC's history mention it. When did business communication become part of business education in the AACSB categories? Why were the two paired? Did the ABC have a say at the time? Why are they still connected? The only reference I can find is in a special 50th anniversary booklet for the ABC (Pettit & Bruno, 1985). The last section is about the future of ABC, and one article predicts the future of business education and one the future of English education. So as recently as 1985, the two were connected in our literature.
My story of teaching business communication covers about 17 years. I love going in my classroom, closing the door, and interacting with students. It is the rest of my professional life that is ugly and sometimes debilitating.
When I was hired to teach business communication, I became part of the Business Education and Administrative Services Department (BEA). I have never taken a business education course, nor have I ever taught one. In our school, the attitude toward business education has always been negative. By association, I've always been relegated to an inferior position. I could never understand why this attitude spilled over on me, but it did. Awards, yearly evaluations, publications--nothing really made any difference.
Several years ago, the college talked about getting rid of BEA, and we in business communication were told we had to find a new home. Iris Varner and I met with the computer science, finance, and even marketing departments, but to no avail. No one wanted to take us in. Can you imagine how demoralizing it is to go begging to find a home for a program which one believes is a very good one?
Well, four years ago BEA was finally disbanded and we were transferred to the management department. Naively, I thought I would finally be seen as an equal now that I was separated from business education. However, in an organizational meeting with my new chair and the dean, I quickly learned that nothing had changed. The dean kept saying that I was classed as business education even as I protested that label. I reminded her that I taught only business and corporate communication classes. But she had the final word by saying that since the AACSB has business communication in the business education category, my salary and other indicators of my status would be based on business education statistics.
I challenge ABC as an organization to help us remove that "basic skills yoke." Until we have our own AACSB classification, we will continue to be considered weak and vulnerable.
My fourth challenge is to abolish the attitude "it will never happen to me." It is based on my personal experience and on those of many other ABC members who have shared their stories, frustrations, and feelings of helplessness throughout the years I have belonged to ABC. There are many instructors who need help to survive.
In her 1998 JBC article, Kitty Locker has a section entitled "Providing a Voice for the Profession" in which she details the activity of ABC through the years as an "authoritative voice." In 1989, Bob Gieselman, then Executive Director, recommended that ABC issue a white paper about standards for business communication faculty and classes. He wrote that "ABC can and should add a powerful voice to the other voices that are now being raised" (quoted in Locker, p. 29). The white paper was never written, and the reality according to Locker is that today perhaps no professional organization can redirect major trends in academia. However, ABC's voice still matters, especially in light of the AACSB's push to have writing and speaking across the curriculum, which could eliminate some stand-alone courses. Locker concludes that ABC's "challenge for the next decade may be to hold on to business communication's current territory" (p. 30). I, too, challenge ABC to work diligently to hold onto that current territory, whic h I feel is already slipping away.
We need a database for the profession. Exactly what percentage of the courses are taught in English departments and what percentage in business schools? What percentage of the courses are in management departments, business education, or other departments? Where are the programs housed in other countries? What are the salary ranges in all these locations? That information would help in many situations, not the least of which would be determining salaries for business communication instructors. We have no current data on salaries, and what little we do have is in bits and pieces.
Because we have little data, we do not know which programs are dying or have completely disappeared. There is an attack on many business communication programs, but we don't know how many. For example, after a four-year struggle, our program at Illinois State last year was cut from a three-hour required course for all business majors to a one-hour required course. The rationale was that the college needed two hours for an introductory course for first-year students, and business communication was the most vulnerable. My use of peer-editing sessions was viewed as a waste of time by our associate dean who believed we could cover as much material in one hour a week. I've found it most ironic that just as I received the award for outstanding teaching, our program was being destroyed.
At the 2000 Midwest Regional Conference I sponsored a session entitled, "Alert: Could Your Business Communication Program Be Down-sized?" The stories that participants shared were frightening. Programs are disappearing, or will when some of us with the most seniority leave, as a woman from a community college in Iowa predicted for her school. I predict the same for mine. Because, in many cases, business communication is viewed as weak and vulnerable, those of us caught in the middle find the fight overwhelming at times.
I challenge ABC to become proactive. How many programs are gone, are going, could be helped to survive? When all of this was happening to us, we had nowhere to turn. We needed help, handholding, support. For four years Iris and I responded to summonses from the college curriculum team to attend their meetings--where they asked us to research this and that for them. We always did, thinking we could save the program. Each time, however, our shoulders sagged more and we were more disheartened as we would leave the meetings. ABC should be there to help save these programs and have the tools ready to help the instructors fight.
One ABC member sent us material she had collected to save her own program. Aside from that, we had nowhere to turn. After the last curriculum meeting we attended, we knew our fight was over. Some ABC members have saved their business communication programs by some ingenious and sometimes rather devious methods. We need to know who and how and where. Some members have told me they renamed courses to preserve them. We need a list of all the course names--I think we would be amazed to see the variety and creativity of some of them. We need to build an arsenal to equip us for the fights. We cannot become complacent.
I know that my challenges to ABC are large--perhaps overwhelming in scope. However, something must be done to support business communication teachers and programs. Positive publicity would come from aligning ourselves with a cause like plain language. What could be more powerful than being part of an international cause? Likewise, inviting communication practitioners to our conferences would broaden our professional contacts and strengthen the image of ABC and its members. Convincing AACSB to set us free would give us a new dignity in the eyes of our colleagues. And, lastly, we must have an association that we can turn to for guidance and support when we need help.
If we, as an organization, worked to strengthen our image and to support our members when they struggle, more of us could hold our heads higher at our own schools. We should be able to put our energies into our teaching rather than fighting to save our programs. We need to get that "basic skills yoke" off our necks and finally feel a sense of security.
I urge you to open your eyes, monitor your attitudes, and accept my challenges.
Dr. Pomerenke's teaching career spans 15 years of teaching high school English, many years teaching composition and literature in community colleges, and about 15 years teaching business communication at Illinois State University. Her research interests include plain language issues and crisis communication. Her consulting and training experiences include many businesses and government agencies.
Locker, K. (1998). The role of the Association for Business Communication in shaping business communication as an academic discipline. The Journal of Business Communication, 35, 14-49.
Pettit, J. D., Jr., & Bruno, S. J. (Eds.). (1985). 50 years: Golden anniversary commemorative edition: ABWA-1936, ABCA-1969, ABC-1985. (Association for Business Communication)
Segal, J., Pare, A., Brent, D., & Vipond, D. (1998). The researcher as missionary: Problems with rhetoric and reform in the disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 50, 71-90.
Suchan, J., & Dulek, R. (1998). From text to context: An open systems approach to research in written communication. Journal of Business Communication, 35, 87-110.
Ulijn, J. (2000). Innovation and international business communication: Can European research help to increase the validity and reliability for our business and teaching practice? Journal of Business Communication, 37, 173-187.
Vik, G. (1985). The changing role of English education in business communication. In J. D. Pettit, Jr., & S. J. Bruno (Eds.), 50 years: Golden anniversary commemorative edition: ABWA-1936, ABCA-1969, ABC-1985 (pp. 65-68). (Association for Business Communication)
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|Title Annotation:||Association for Business Communication|
|Author:||Pomerenke, Paula J.|
|Publication:||The Journal of Business Communication|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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