Incubator Info Sheet Assignment

Black fingers typing on a computer keyboardIn my last post, I described my plan to organize a series of assignments for my technical writing course around a fictional business incubator. This week, I have the first of those assignments to share with you.

For the series to work, I need students to choose a company that they will focus on for the assignments they will write. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo. In the scenario, their information will be combined with that of other new companies that are joining the incubator for a presentation at the first meeting of all the members of the incubator.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Background

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes. You can read more about the incubator and how the projects connect on the Writing Projects Overview page.

The Scenario

During your first week as an Ut Prosim Incubator member, you receive the following memo:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: CEOs of New Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Your Company Info Sheet

Date: August 27, 2018

Welcome to the Ut Prosim Incubator! We are all so happy to have you join the Fall 2018 class of entrepreneurs.

I know you are still settling into your office, so our first all-company meeting will not take place for a few weeks. At this meeting, you will introduce your company to the other members of the Incubator.

The meeting will be informal, but we do want to prepare handouts and slides to share with attendees. We will also post the basic information that you provide on the Incubator website, for the possible research partners on campus, potential investors, and the public.

Please send the following information to me by September 7:

  • Your Company Name
  • Your Company CEO (use the name you want to appear in official documentation)
  • Your Company Mission Statement (a statement of your company’s goals and values)
  • Your Company Overview (explain what you company does, including whatever research you do, products your create, or services you provide)
  • Your Company’s Target Audience (who are the customers you serve or hope to serve)

Do not worry about formatting or design in your response. We will format the information for all the companies according to the Incubator’s branding and style guidelines.

We will send out a meeting announcement once a place and time have been confirmed. In the mean time, if you need any help settling in, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your business.

Decide what your company will do—will you focus on products or services? You will focus on the company that you imagine for the entire term, so choose something that you know well. Sure, you can be creative, but create something doable that you have experience with (or at least strong knowledge of). Additionally, your focus must directly relate to your major.

As long as you comply with those two stipulations, you can focus on anything you want to. You have capital, staff, and resources to do whatever you set your mind to.

Step 2: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
Review the memo above and decide who the audience is for the memo you have to write and for the information that you have to gather. Use the information from Markel, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 3: Determine the information that the memo requests.
Work through the memo above and find the information that you have to provide in your response. Once you find the list of requested information, decide on your responses. You are creating your business, so you get to create the answers for all the requested information. Don’t get stuck on perfectionism at this point. Compile your ideas, but know you can always come back to revise.

Step 4: Write a memo to me with the details.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Even though sophisticated formatting is not required, ensure that your answers are easy to find and read.
  • Check your draft for the use of plain language.
  • Ensure that you follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you create your responses, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 2.
  • Be sure that your memo makes a good impression with accuracy and correctness. It should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft for correct use of memo format.
Be sure that you include the memo headings (To, From, Subject, and Date). For more details on memo format, consult Chapter 14 of Markel.

Step 6. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 08/29 Peer Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your memo by August 30. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group by September 4 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in Steps 4, 5, and 6 above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your response in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Info Sheet memo finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

Your project should meet the following criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Uses memo format with the appropriate headers.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

Credit: Ut Prosim Incubator logo created with “Incubator” by lastspark from the Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

So far the assignment has gone well. The biggest challenge I have had to deal with (other than the typical questions about due dates and the like) has been ill-chosen companies that do not actually relate to the student’s major. Many of the students are new to the memo format, but the peer feedback activity and the revision time they have should take care of any issues that come up.

In my next post, I will share a correspondence assignment that is the next step in the course. In the meantime if you have any comments to share on this assignment of the series in general, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Updating Your Word Cloud Tools

Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Asking Students to Visualize Their Progress

Since I am currently teaching technical writing, progress reports are on my regular list of assignments this term, but I also use them in both my first-year composition (FYC) and my digital media classes. The assignment works well in the middle of a longer project, be it something like a research project in FYC or a documentary video project in a digital media class.

At its most basic, the progress report is a simple genre with a organizational structure that makes sense to students. I ask students to focus on three sections:

  • Section 1: Tell me what you have done
  • Section 2: Tell me what you still need to do
  • Section 3: Tell me how you will get the remaining work done and let me know about any of your concerns

Students can often accomplish the task in a quick one-page document. The activity works well as an in-class writing exercise, since it requires no research and has a set structure with clear requirements. When students work on progress reports outside of class, I can step up the expectations. For instance, I frequently ask students to include a calendar or a table that shows their remaining milestones or to add specific information that shows their progress.

One of my favorite additions focuses on using visual elements in their progress reports to demonstrate something about the work they have completed or the work they plan to complete. To explain the expectations for this visual addition to the assignment, I post the following description and example on the course website:

Visualize Your Progress

You can often show trends and comparisons with graphical elements better than with text descriptions. Consider the difference between describing the performance of a stock or a portfolio during the last year and showing that performance with a line graph. Here’s an example from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report [an investment portfolio managed by a student at Virginia Tech]. Which seems easier to read and process to you?

Text Description

The portfolio performed relatively in line or slightly below the respective benchmark until the final quarter, as shown in Exhibit 1. We included the Consumer Price Index as a preservation of spending power benchmark to monitor changes in our real returns. From mid-November to year-end, the portfolio significantly outperformed and finished 2016 with an active return of 5.13%. In order to calculate our risk-adjusted return, we incorporated our portfolio’s beta of 1.2 and historical average for yields on the 1-Year Treasury note (1.84%) in order to compute a CAPM-based implied alpha. This calculation resulted in an implied 2016 alpha of 3.11%.

Line Chart

SEED 2016 Performance

For my money (pun intended), the line chart is much easier to understand quickly. In many circumstances, you will include both a text description and a graphical representation, which helps ensure accessibility for all readers. The point of today’s post is that the graphical version is not just an illustration. It is critical to showing the reader information about the topic.

Think about how you can add graphical representation of information in your progress report. The infographic How to Think Visually Using Visual Analogies from Anna Vital to see a collection of charts and graphs you can use to communicate information. Once you explore the options, add a pertinent visualization to your progress report.

After this reviewing this information, students have improved their progress reports by adding visual elements like pie charts and timelines as well as photos and screenshots that show their work. It’s definitely one of my favorite class activities because it takes students from reflective text descriptions to considerations of visual rhetoric in just one class session. Have you tried an activity that teaches students to make and use visual elements in their writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below. I’d love to hear about what works for you.

 

Image credit: Graph from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.