Week 13 – The Filing Cabinet Has a Sex Life

Johns, Lee Clark. “The File Cabinet Has a Sex Life: Insights of a Professional Writing Consultant.” In Worlds of Writing: Teaching and Learning in Discourse Communities of Work, edited by Carolyn B. Matalene. New York: Random House, 1989.


In “The File Cabinet Has a Sex Life”, Johns discusses the nature of writing models which dictate the way in which documents are written in the workplace.  He identifies the four “parents” of this problem as the academy, the profession, the organization, and the supervisory review and details how each “parent” contributes to the models most people use to write.

Because people learn to write in school, it makes sense for writers to default to an academic writing style by way of an academic essay for a research paper.  As a result, people tend to write “long, rambling reports” of information; for example, in the banking industry, it is not uncommon for writers to break the text into a “short introduction, background, a story about the company’s operations and financial position, etc., until they reach the conclusion about credit risks involved in the loan” (156).  Such writing is ineffective for helping senior executives make important decisions about the organization as a whole.

Professional discourse also has roots in academia; however, some models arise from specific profession requirements.  Johns establishes three examples of professional discourse communities including the patent application (emphasis on the claims section as the “bottom line”), the internal audit report (establishes information of primary interest to the accountant before information of primary interest to management), and the certification report (used by a judge in deciding whether or not a juvenile offenders should be certified in a trial as an adult). 

Additionally, the organization model (one-page memo or corporate style sheets) and the supervisory review (supervisors who dictate requirements based on personal preference or company tradition) also explain where these “models” of writing originate. 

Ultimately, people write within these parameters or with a specific tone and style because “they think they are supposed to” (181).  Johns prompts a response to the old, dated styles of writing by challenging everyone to “clean out the file cabinet” in order to “replace archaic models with superior descendants” (183).   He claims that teachers need to focus on testing students’ problem-solving skills and should create assignments to duplicate the context of the workplace by “writ[ing] for real audiences, for real purposes” (183).  The academic world needs to duplicate the workplace environment and re-visit the traditional approaches to scholarly papers.  In the workplace, companies should “evaluate the supervisory review process . . . to improve it” (185).  Finally, writing consultants should think of themselves as “change agents” and accept their roles as being central to a company’s success (185). 

Johns’s frustration with the tendency for writers to automatically default to traditional writing models reminded me of Popken’s article on the dissemination of the résumé in textbooks over the years.  The idea of following models for the sake of having no other point of reference harkened back to the textbook-methodology Popken disparages in his article; and, much like Popken, Johns advocates a move away from this standard, formulaic methods of writing within the frameworks of certain genres. 

Additionally, I was intrigued by Johns’s emphasis on how people have been steeped from an early age in the models of writing taught in English classes:  personal essays, arguments on public issues, literary analyses, and term papers (155).  As an English teacher, I constantly battle with this issue myself.  Even as I’ve graded stacks of poetry analysis essays this weekend, I’ve thought to myself, “Sure, these kids can write a stellar analysis of William Blake . . . but will they be at a complete loss when it comes to writing for ‘the real world’?” As someone who became a teacher with the aspiration to equip adolescents for success in my classroom, in their academic career, and in their future professions, I struggle with the impracticality of some of the course curriculum offered in the public school system; I struggle with the knowledge that the skills I teach my students (though helpful with building a strong work ethic and developing critical thinking processes) will do little to shape their writing for anyone other than an academic audience.  Therefore, I appreciated Johns’s section titled “The Challenge for Teachers” which emphasized how the classroom should duplicate the context of the workplace.  Though teaching students to write letters and memos is not part of the high school curriculum, I do believe that teaching collaborative writing, engaging students in the writing/review process, and having students pay a penalty for sloppy or poor writing would be highly beneficial.  What are some other ways to incorporate the broader needs of students into the current high school curriculum?  Additionally, what are methods for helping bring change to the writing styles of other institutions as well?


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