Case studies, used extensively in business communication classes, offer an advantage by presenting students with real-life situations to which they can respond using written business genres. Cases, however, limited by their cryptic and condensed nature, may not fully communicate the context of the event. Understanding context has become increasingly important as issued of race, gender, and multicultual communication have emerged approach offers a solution by asking students to write a context memorandum along with their response to the case protagonist.
Short cases have been employed for a number of years in teaching business writing. For example, Babenroth's Modern Business English (1931) used a number of page-long scenarios or cases for business communication students to practice writing sales and followup sales letters, credit letters, and order, collection, and adjustment letters. Similarly, more recent texts have provided cases for student discussion and written response (Bowman & Branchaw, 1987; Brown, 1961; Lesikar, 1972; Locker, 1992; Murphy & Hildebrandt, 1988). Also, books devoted exclusively to cases have provided a wide variety of real-life situations (Coture & Goldstein, 1985; Jameson, Locker, & Weeks, 1987).
Cases allow students to practice business genres using realistic situations. Rather than engage in academic writing, students often write a memo or letter directly to an individual in the case. Instructors are then able to evaluate students'writing not only along the academic aspects of mechanics, grammar, and style but also on the content of their response. The advantage to genre writing over an academic description of what the student might do in a given situation is considerable. Instructors see the actual product a student proposes to send and can center the critique on genre. Additionally, cases may work as transformational vehicles by casting students into roles they may not initially perceive for themselves. Communication cases may confront students with interpersonal situations involving race, gender, and cross-cultural issues which challenge their traditional notions of communication.
With cases, students also need to consider appropriate communication medium, multiple audiences, different cultural interpretations of the message, and the possible legal implications of the message. This latter concern is especially important since business writers need to expand their concept of writing to include the constraints of the law (McCord, 1991).
LIMITATIONS OF CASES
Cases, however, can be one-dimensional and don't always contain enough information for the students to fully grasp the social context or for the instructor to evaluate the student's response. For example, cases where an employee is not performing as expected are problematic, especially when the student is asked to write a memo as the supervisor. Often key questions are left unanswered. Is the writer trying to motivate the person to change or trying to document his poor performance? Should the writer (supervisor) tell the employee exactly what is wrong and what needs to be changed? Or should the supervisor be motivationally focused and use gentle, encouraging language? How do instructors grade the student who chooses the first option over the second or vice versa?
As a former director of human resources for a large nonprofit organization, I found these assignments very difficult to evaluate because context plays a significant role. Communication occurs in complex social environments which usually are not fully delineated in a case. As communication instructors, our main concern frequently centers around teaching students to open lines of communication, use a positive tone, and be sensitive to the reader's feelings and point of view. These, of course, are key concepts for a business communication student. My role as a human resources director, however, was sometimes different. …