The role of generic communication in preparing students for engineering workplace practices : the contribution of the communication course towards the student's preparation in genre and contextualized language in the workplace.
This thesis argues that generic communication practice plays an important role in preparing engineering students for the workplace. Engineering courses, being contextually-bound, cannot prepare students in the same way as generic courses, which can be more flexible in being able to bring workplace practices, documents and artefacts into the academic domain. Therefore the thesis promotes the view that the communication course can provide a basic structure in terms of genre training and technical language from which the students may access further knowledge from the workplace. In an engineering faculty, the communication course facilitates the student’s interactions in classroom discourse. The course also plays a vital role in the student’s transition from academic discourse to the professional discourse of the workplace. This research views this transition from a social perspective, placing the student within the context of the engineering faculty’s discourse community, and, subsequently, sees the student-trainee in the workplace as part of a community of practice. The study concentrates on the contradictions between these two contexts in order to investigate how the communication course impacts on the progress of the student’s discourse practices between classroom and workplace. The observable features of discourse which the investigation focuses on are genre rules, the use of technical language, and the student-trainee’s interaction with colleagues, supervisors, and artifacts of the workplace. The study uses discourse theory with an academic literacy underpinning to establish a framework for the student’s interactions with academic language. These interactions are explored by means of 100 questionnaires administered to first-intake engineering students at Durban University of Technology. The findings reveal that, while students say they do not always understand what is expected of them in terms of using genres to produce documents assigned by the communication course, they appear to be capable of using genre rules when applied to group tasks. Furthermore, students do not seem to regard technical language in its wider context, as a feature of classroom discourse practices. Instead they see it narrowly, as a necessary but isolated skill to be learnt for workplace discourse practices. The research considers the impact of these perceptions and practices on the findings and analysis of workplace practices. The investigation into workplace discourse practices is guided by activity theory which sees a document’s genre rules in a mediating function, and community of practice theory, which places the student-trainee’s interactions within the construct, situated learning. The study used the participant-observer technique to explore workplace discourse in eight engineering companies in Durban and surrounding areas. The observations were complemented by follow-up questions in interviews with thirty six student-trainees in these companies. The findings have shown that, even though students said they had difficulties with technical language in the classroom, they were able to apply it adequately within the context of the workplace. Furthermore, genre rules needed to be adapted to suit workplace practices, therefore the rules of document design in classroom practices should focus on flexibility as well as structure. The findings also suggest that the communication course should see the classroom and the workplace as two activity systems which complement each other, and the communication course should be placed in close proximity to the student’s entrance to the workplace.