Week 4 – Resumes: Formulaic or Humanistic?

Popken, Randall. “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: Resumes in Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914-1939.” Journal of Advanced Composition 19, no. 1 (1999): 91-116. 

The development and dissemination of the résumé as a genre had unusual beginnings according to Randall Popken.  In fact, Popken suggests that what we today label as a “professional résumé” has greatly diverged from its original purpose and form.  Today’s résumé serve the purpose or eliminating the individual and establishing the self as a marketable commodity.

Popken discusses that before the early 1940s, the only people who had direct access to actual résumés were members of a small community of hiring professionals; therefore, the models from which the current standards were built, were just that—models.  They were not an accurate reflection of what actually qualified as an appropriate, functioning résumé in the “world of work.”  This less-than-authentic model of the résumé was disseminated largely due to the instructional context in universities where most of the instructors “scarcely knew what to do with a business course” or “[had] a superficial connection with a business” (97).  The few instructors who truly had business experience were viewed with skepticism by the English Department.  This distrust between literary scholars and the business world continues to be a point of tension today with technical communication: who, indeed, should teach a course of this nature?

In additional to a less-than-ideal instructional setting from which the résumé emerged, the textbooks for the courses represented an inauthentic depiction of the genre’s requirements.  Indeed, “like the instructors, many of the textbook authors had not worked in business contexts,” therefore resulting in theoretical discussions, stock phrases, and formulaic writing as the basis for writing résumés.  The end result consisted of résumés all uniformly equipped with headings, indented sections, phrases, subjectless sentences, and purely factual information (105).  I have been told by my professors (and by textbooks) that these are indeed the essential components of “the professional résumé.”  Additionally, the idea of “selling myself” through me résumé has been reiterated with indisputable certainty, asserting that this is the only way to craft a résumé if I have any hope of future employment.

(Interestingly, Popken’s reference to résumés which did not fit this formulaic model reminded me of a conversation with an older professor who used to work as a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard.  Though she was teaching us to construct the typical one to two page résumé, she informed us that her résumé consisted of a whopping six pages!  After having read Popken’s history of this genre, however, I wonder what form her “résumé” actually took.)

The end of Popken’s essay suggests a return to a humanistic résumé which could potentially include personal information.  In this day and age, do you think it would be possible for such a formulaic genre to evolve to include personal details?  Or, do you think that the danger of including details of religion, gender, national origin, or marital status would simply encourage job discrimination?


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