What should a Technical Communication course teach?

Technical communicator, do you wonder why your SME treats you like a pencil-pushing drone? Maybe they took an undergraduate Technical Communication course like the one Becky Todd took.

Ivy covered building“I thought the class was boring,” Becky writes, “because we mostly wrote memos and learned how to format letters. Like any good college student, I completely forgot about the class and moved on with my life.”

But Becky knew that she liked to write. And fortunately, soon after embarking on a career in chemical research, she found the opportunity to enroll in a Professional Writing program where she learned the true nature of technical communication. It changed the trajectory of her career.

Now, six years into her new life as a technical writer, it turns out Becky didn’t forget that first writing course at all. Instead, she remembers it for all the wrong reasons — for how boring and unsatisfying it was.

And I can’t help wondering how many courses are like that one: reinforcing the stereotype that technical communication is dull and menial. And how many students take those courses and then go through their professional lives looking with disdain upon technical communication and its practitioners.

I’ll bet there are lots of courses like that. And I’m certain they do a lot of damage.

So how can colleges and universities ensure that they’re teaching technical communication the right way?

No writing memos. No formatting letters. Instead, a good course (or program) will cover all of the following, at a minimum:

  • Principles of good technical writing, like audience analysis and working with subject-matter experts
  • Exposure to different kinds of writing: technical documentation, reports, grant proposals, policies and procedures, and so on
  • The basics of information design
  • A brief survey of tools — just enough to develop some basic competency in writing documents, creating graphics, and publishing content
  • A practical project that students can use to build their portfolios

Finally, please read Danielle Villegas’ article, in which she pleads for academicians and practitioners to become friends. The best academic programs combine theory and research (the province of the academician) with practical know-how and business sense (the province of the practitioner).

What else would you look for in a good technical communication course or program?

Postscript: This post is intended to prompt discussion within the profession — not to be a commercial. However, I can’t help mentioning that I teach in a certificate program that I think satisfies all of the criteria I listed. If you’re looking for a good intro to technical communication, and you live near central North Carolina, I invite you to check it out.

31 thoughts on “What should a Technical Communication course teach?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      That’s not a bad comparison, Milan. In fact, some of the best technical communication programs include internships, so that the students are both doing it and thinking about it. Even without internships, the “thinking about” piece can be effective if the course/program is properly designed.

  1. TechCommGeekMom

    Thanks for the mention, Larry. It seems to be a tricky balance. Whereas I did have what I thought was a healthy balance between the theoretical and some practical hands-on projects during my grad school coursework in tech comm, some of it felt like it still wasn’t enough, or it would be slightly behind the times. Writing for web devices–both mobile and otherwise–changes and adapts as quickly as new technological advances are made, so it’s hard to keep up. I think if a more concerted effort was made to create open connections between industry and academia, some of these issues would easily diminish.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Danielle. I think your last sentence holds the key: we have to create open connection links, and we have to ensure that information flows in both directions along those links. Both of these will require deliberate effort — to get the flow started, and to keep it going. It doesn’t just happen.

    2. kristen4moore

      Yes!! I think this is a great comment. Also, I think it’s easy to lump all graduate work together — PhDs need to be producing new, innovative and unique research findings. Because of this, a sense of the theoretical and historical positioning is really important; this is less so with MAs.

  2. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

    Larry, the first module should be to prepare the candidates for the big picture of their role, the opportunities, the career path, the challenges, and what will the world be like if there are no technical writers! So, for example:
    – Candidates may belong to different backgrounds (culture, education, language skills), and so their perception of ‘technical writers’ may be different. The first objective of any TW course is to bind all candidates towards the common goal – the course itself.
    – What the world needs technical writers, what the organizations will do if there are no technical writers, and hence the responsibility on TWs
    – How TWs fit into any product life cycle (IT, aerospace, construction, healthcare, science, or anything), and TWs’ ownership for their role

    Then, we step into the core TW modules – audience and everything else that you listed.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      I couldn’t agree more, Vinish. If instructors will do as you suggest, then students who are intent on becoming technical writers will learn first principles. And other students (the SMEs of the future) will learn to appreciate and value the profession.

      Would you come and be guest lecturer for my first class session? 🙂

  3. Susan Carpenter

    I’m afraid I could rant for a while on this topic. Instead of putting you through that, I’ll make just a couple of points:
    – Regarding what programs should teach, development of interviewing skills would be great. J-schools do some of this, but I don’t get the sense that TechComm programs take it as seriously.
    – Forcing students through abstruse rhetoric courses is a waste of time. Instead, develop a syllabus with real-life working examples and get students analyzing why they do or don’t work. Just a few years ago, a grad student showed me what that class was reading: drivel. This is particularly alarming in light of the trend toward multi-channel content strategy. Rhetorical formation is a key enabler, and that student didn’t get the point.

    Software engineers call the code equivalent “patterns”; I really love that term. It gets at the heart of why anyone studies rhetoric anymore: a content pattern is viable when it achieves a certain result, whether it be informative, persuasive, and so forth. What differentiates the novice from the mature professional writer boils down to the ability to write to (1) the most appropriate pattern for the business need, and (2) house style.

    Okay, I’ll stop ranting now 😉

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. That’s a perfect example of why we need a marriage of academe (understanding rhetorical principles) and industry (writing for real-life audiences). Regarding the drivel: could it be that, in this case, the people in charge of teaching rhetoric had failed to base their teaching on sound rhetorical priciples?

      1. kristen4moore

        Regarding the drivel: I’ve been thinking about this. I teach so-called drivel to graduate students in our program to give context for the field, to provide them with texts that motivated change in our understanding of how language works, and to prepare them to be critical readers and thinkers. It is not enough for graduate students to be trained to do — they must also become master thinkers and problem setters. So, I keep honing and cutting my syllabi, looking for unnecessary drivel, should we need to call it that, but also keeping in mind that the purpose of graduate education is not expedience — it seems like the opposite: to slow you down, give you pause, challenge your thinking. I think (and perhaps I’m wrong) that this can sometimes be accomplished through texts that make the reader struggle to understand applicability, that present cultural considerations that need connectors and context for their use-value. <–this is my definition of drivel.

        But I'm really interested in what we're talking about in terms of drivel. Are there specific texts that aren't drivel? What texts might you assign for different levels of TC students? I'm happy to revise and integrate.

    2. kristen4moore

      Great to hear these ideas. Interviewing skills /are/ super important — I have my UG & grad students work on this. Maybe we need an Intercomm article on the basics — or a video that overviews them??? [In addition to classes].

  4. Yvonne Wade Sanchez (@ywsanchez)

    My husband’s much younger cousin was considering a career in techcomm, and he asked if he could interview me. I explained that I was a self-taught technical writer (I have a B. S. in economics, not English), but I would be happy to share as much information as possible with him. In addition, I referred him to a number of other techcomm resources. I remember very clearly receiving a message from the cousin a few years later. In the end, he had decided to major in criminal law, but because of our earlier conversations, he did decide to take a techcomm course as one of his electives. After he completed the course, he contacted me to express his confusing and disappointment about the class. He described one of the assignments as involving the creation of instructions for building a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was embarrassed and horrified because I knew he left that class with less respect for technical writing and technical writers, and that made me sad (and a little angry).

    I want to be part of the solution. I have an M.A. in education, so I could step up and teach, but I know that my 18yrs of anecdotal knowledge about techcomm is not enough, I need to balance that with some empirical knowledge about techcomm. Therefore, I’m currently taking graduate-level techcomm courses at Texas Tech, and the experience has been eye-opening. I have great respect for both practitioners and academics, and I have faith we’ll figure this out. I am also now aware (which provides some amount of relief) that people on both sides are working on this issue. We just need to support them.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      I want you to be part of the solution too, Yvonne. You’re uniquely positioned, as a practitioner who has the academic background, to contribute a great deal. I’m heartened to hear you say that people on both sides are working on the issue. I look forward to hearing a lot from them, and from you, as we go forward.

    2. Christina Mayr

      Yvonne – We did the PB&J instructions at ECU, and I loved it! It really showed me not to assume anything about your audience – particularly when the instructor dipped her whole hand into the jar because the instructions didn’t say how to get the peanut butter out (using a knife). It made an impression on me, obviously, as I can recall the lesson today — so I’m surprised to hear it wasn’t effective for your husband’s cousin.

      1. Yvonne Wade Sanchez (@ywsanchez)

        I take part of the blame. I filled the cousin’s mind with the idea that technical communicators work to improve efficiency and are dedicated to understanding the knowledge gaps of their intended audience based on the performance needs of their client.

        What audience (who will also require the ability to read and write) would ever need detailed text instructions on how to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? That’s not a documentation issue. It might be a child abuse issue, which would be better served with psychotherapy, or brain injury that would be better served with occupational therapy 😉

  5. kristen4moore

    I love this discussion — thanks for linking to it Yvonne. Some of the curricular problems being discussed here really need to be parsed through carefully and collaboratively.

    As I read this thread, I was thinking three things:

    1) What kind of change could we/should we enact? And what do practitioners need to know about the academy in order to help us enact these changes? Curricular changes are more difficult than they seem and tied to political expectations in different ways across the university. A class has to be careful not to take “ownership” of ideas (like design) that get taught in other places of the university, and some courses have to fulfill requirements for other degree plans and programs. We face two other problems: the cost/quick turnover of software/tools and the values of the university. We often don’t have the $$ to to purchase the kinds of equipment (broadly construed) needed to teach tools and by the time we get the $$ through grants there’s a new version or tool. Because of this, folks have taken to teaching technological adeptness rather than specific tools. (Not sure if that works…but there you have it). The second problem is that consulting work, staying up on the latest technologies, etc. is not a standard by which we keep our jobs in the academy. When asked if I could begin consulting, I was (rightly) advised to wait until after tenure and to focus on publishing articles (which, of course, practitioners don’t have access to and often don’t read).

    2) Can we talk about curricula instead of courses? TC curricula are built holistically (mostly) so thinking about teaching a single course that does all of these things is tough. Critiques of one course as the sole content of a TC program don’t help curricular planners. I wholeheartedly agree that — yes! — we should be teaching some tools (though one might ask how a program in TC might pay for these tools) and that we should take care not to over-theorize a TC class. Most programs in TC include all of the topics discussed above — and so I’m wondering: how do we integrate these? Connect them? Get a better balance among them so that students walk out feeling they’ve understood these principles in context?

    3) Where is the best place for these conversations to take place? Women in TC will be posting a podcast about the Practitioner/Academy divide next week, and I know we have these conversations frequently in the classroom/curricular planning. Where’s the best place to share ideas?

    Our program has an industry advisory board, and I think we should build a more robust network to support this work. I’d love a space to have practitioners look at, comment on, critique my syllabi.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Kristen, thank you very much for sharing your several comments. I appreciate your insights and your thoughtful questions. Let me try to answer them briefly:

      1) I’m sure I gave short shrift to the complexities that are involved in designing courses, to say nothing of designing whole curricula. As to tools: it’s almost, but not quite, more trouble than it’s worth to integrate them into a curriculum. While I’d never expect a course to teach proficiency in a particular tool, I think it would be very valuable for students to have some experience with tools as part of a practical or capstone project. Many tools offer 30-day free trial versions; some even offer deep discounts for students who purchase a full license.

      2) Let’s talk about curricula first, but let’s also talk about courses. The thing that prompted me to write this article was a single course that was ill-designed and that was not part of a curriculum. (At least, it wasn’t part of a Tech Comm curriculum.)

      3) Where’s the best place is to have the conversation? Somewhere that both academicians and practitioners feel comfortable. I’m not certain where that is, but I think Lisa Meloncon makes a couple of good suggestions in her comment below. And I’m happy to make this blog available for guest posts by members of the academic community, any time.

  6. Lisa Meloncon (@lmeloncon)

    Every time a discussion like this gets started I have to a laugh a little. Why? Because it does illustrate that many practitioners have little idea of what it is we do in our programs, which is not surprising because most practitioners also don’t know all the nuances and differences among the many types of technical communication jobs. And it’s also true that a lot of academics don’t really know what’s going on in other programs.

    And these conversations date back to the early days of academic programs. In the 1970’s there was much more crossover and conversations between academics and practitioners, and that generally happened at the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC), which is an organization of faculty and administrators who work in academic programs. Those cross over connections sort of died through the years, but in the last 4 years, CPTSC and the STC Academic SIG have been trying to revive these sorts of conversations. (Full disclaimer, I am president of CPTSC and assistant manager of the STC Academic SIG)

    We need to take a thousand steps back and make some distinctions. First, for institutions that offer degree programs in technical communication, faculty in those programs rarely, if ever, talk about a single course without considering the full program and it’s curricula (that’s the point Kristen makes). Second, there are a different kinds of degree programs (PhD, MA/MS, BA/BS IN technical and professional communication, BA/BS with an emphasis in technical and professional communication, minors, graduate certificates, and undergraduate certificates.) Each of these types of degree programs has a different set of objectives (in academic language that’s also known as learning outcomes). So for example, a PhD does look WAY different than an undergraduate minor and an undergraduate minor looks way different than the continuing ed certificate program that Larry teaches in.

    Just gave a talk at the STC Summit about programs and the need for more conversations. But if you’re curious to get some insights about programs and some of the courses in them, go to the May 2009 (masters degrees), August 2012 (certificate programs), and February 2013 (undergraduate degrees) issues of Technical Communication. Yup, when it comes to degree programs, curricula, and courses, I would say that I am an expert. (If you’re not an STC member or don’t have access, just email me at meloncon at tek-ritr dot com.)

    I’m all for constructive feedback on what we’re doing in academic programs. Ready to answer any questions you may have. Ready to have constructive conversations.

    1. Yvonne Wade Sanchez (@ywsanchez)

      Lisa, thanks for sharing that information and some history. I’m not sure why the “cross over connections sort of died,” but I’m sure it had to do with interest. In the last few weeks, three well-respected practitioners (Danielle Villegas, Tom Johnson, and Larry Kunz) have shared blog posts about this topic, so interest is rising again (at least on the practitioner side), so I love that Kristen Moore is taking advantage of this interest and attempting to further engaging this audience with questions like, “Where is the best place for these conversations to take place? Women in TC will be posting a podcast about the Practitioner/Academy divide next week, and I know we have these conversations frequently in the classroom/curricular planning. Where’s the best place to share ideas?” I also love that you have offered to answer questions as well.

      Here are a few questions I have:

      1. What is the process that CPTSC uses to engage practitioners in discussions about techcomm programs (i.e., how are practitioners selected, recruited, engaged, etc.)?
      2. Why does CPTSC think the cross-over connections died?
      3. What actions has the CPTSC performed to revitalize these connection?
      4. What success stories can you share about bridging this gap between practitioners and academics?
      5. If CPTSC feels practitioners and academics lack information, then what is CPTSC doing to increase awareness and share information (i.e., recommend removal of paywalls temporarily or permanently for important journals, produce informative, paywall-free blog posts on this topic, produce freely accessible educational videos on this topic, meet with local chapters of different techcomm organizations–not everyone has the resources to attend national conferences, etc.)

      I’m honestly interested and am in need of an education on this topic.



    2. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your perspective. I was hoping that someone from the STC Academic SIG would join this conversation – because the SIG is the first place I thought of for carrying on — or broadening — this conversation. (I say “broadening” because, as Kristen Moore pointed out in her comment earlier, educators have been talking about these subjects but practitioners either don’t, or can’t, read their articles.)

      When I say the STC Academic SIG is the right place for this conversation, I don’t mean to discount CPTSC. I just don’t know as much about that organization. I do know that CPTSC has long been an influential voice in our profession.

      Regardless of where the dialog takes place, I’m eager for it to happen, and (echoing what Yvonne said earlier) I’d love to be a part of the solution. Although I read several blogs by practicing technical communicators, I’m not aware that there are any blogs by educators. I invite you — or anyone else in the academic community — to guest post on this blog whenever you would like.

  7. Pam Brewer

    Hi all. I have enjoyed reading this thread and appreciate Larry for bringing it to my attention. I’m not sure how I’m going to jump in, but I serve as Manager of the STC Academic SIG and am also a member of CPTSC and IEEE PCS. The mission of the Academic SIG is to build bridges between educators, students, and practitioners.

    I cannot speak to the history of the separate trajectories of academy and industry, but I do know that I and many of my colleagues have worked for a number of years to bring the trajectories back together. As Lisa points out, the Academic SIG Pre-Conference just before CPTSC each year is one of our efforts to provide a place where these bridges can be built and the conversations had. At the most basic level, industry has much to teach the academy (e.g., practical application), and the academy has much to teach industry (e.g., reliable research and effective education). Professionals in both camps cannot hope to do everything, so the synergy between the two is important (an understatement) to the field. We should collaborate in our research, in our classrooms, in our offices, and in our virtual teams. The Academic SIG is only one place to do this, but I can tell you that we are group whose mission is focused on this issue.

    My best guess is that at the heart, practitioners and educators are not speaking the same language in the same places. We need the conversations to develop mutual understanding. Interestingly, you will find people who support this effort and others who oppose it and still others who don’t yet understand that it’s important.

  8. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks very much, Pam. I can see from the response here that a lot of people want to have those conversations. Let’s all work together to find that common language, and that place where we can talk openly.

  9. Ray

    Hi all, I have been both practitioner and teacher in tech comm for more than 20 years, all of it in Europe. I think the experience here (and I should specify that my teaching experience is really limited to France) may have something to offer to those of you in North America who have been discussing this issue.

    Europe has instituted a new kind of Master’s degree, called a “Master Pro.” This is a terminal degree, and does not lead to PhD studies. It is intended to provide post graduate professional training that qualifies the student to go out into the field and work. There are also, of course, research Masters and they have a different purpose.

    I taught information architecture and content strategy in the programme at the Université de Paris Diderot. It is housed in the Language and Linguistics department. A prerequisite for admission is fluency in English. There are two specialization: translation industries, and technical communication. The first year of the master is common for both, and specialization occurs in the second year. Most of the teachers in the tech comm specialization are, in fact, practitioners who bring their experience of practice to the classroom. At Paris Diderot, the courses are taught “en alternance” – that is, students spend two weeks in class, and two weeks in an internship that lasts for the full academic year. Some other French programmes do it in blocks. I rather like the “alternance” model, myself, but results seem to be good either way.

    An important component of all this is to also work with a mentoring programme. A few years ago, when I was on the STC France administrative council, I started a mentoring programme that has recently been revived; Today, I mentor a student in Brittany who is in a programme that is very different from the one I taught in. I think she gets too much language orientation, not enough practical – but she uses me to help her understand what’s going on in her placement, and to get the most from her internship. We’ve done role playing for job interviews, and we talk about career management, and other things that a formal academic course cannot deal with effectively, even when the teachers are practitioners.

    I think that any serious university programme in tech comm must find a good balance between academic information (especially, in my view, epistemology and related fields), practical training, and mentoring. I know that at Paris Diderot, each year, the graduating class (20 students) succeeds nearly 100% at finding jobs, in a market that is very difficult for young graduates – so that should indicate something.

    The university also sponsors a “research day” that is open to the public, once a year, usually in January, where bleeding edge subjects are exposed, debated and discussed. I know of no other university programme that is doing this, but my knowledge is limited.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Ray. I like how the program at Paris Diderot not only combines the theoretical with the practical, it also provides separate paths for students who want to emphasize one or the other.

      I wonder why more academic programs don’t emphasize mentoring. Perhaps they think that mentoring relationships are a natural outcome of professor/student interaction and/or of internships. But I don’t think I agree.

  10. Pingback: Reigniting the conversation: What should a Technical Communication course teach? | Leading Technical Communication

  11. B.G.

    I’m a technical writer. I majored in English (although my original major was Engineering).

    My husband is an engineer/developer/manager. We actually met in college, when I was still an engineering student.

    I never studied Technical Writing in college. He, however was required to study it, and hated every minute of it. I still remember him ranting because he was required to write directions for something. In his answer, he used the word “barcode.” His instructor told him that “barcode” was “too technical,” “jargon,” a word that “most readers wouldn’t understand. His instructor penalized his score on that assignment, because she didn’t understand the word “barcode.” In reality, most people who purchased something, probably have a basic understanding that “those lines on the package of the thing you’re scanning = barcode.” I know I learned that term as a kid in the grocery store with my mom. (Conversely, “UPC” would actually be a confusing term.)

    With an experience like that, it’s no wonder that he and other students from computer science hated the technical communication class.

    Ironically, he now loves and respects the technical writing team at his office, where I also work. He often tells new devs about the value good technical writers bring to the product and the users. He usually explains what we do as “object oriented authoring” rather than “single source, topic based authoring.” When other devs learn that technical writers at the company do “object oriented authoring” they usually become a lot more interested in how the technical writers actually manage our content.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story, B.G. That’s the best way I’ve ever heard to overcome the effects of a poorly-taught Tech Comm course: marry a technical writer.

  12. Pingback: Living and Learning | Leading Technical Communication

  13. ikhwanalim

    Until now, I never take a course about technical writing. But my experience as a serious-topic blogger and three years as a business analyst in consulting office lead me as a copywriter in a software house.

    I think the most experience that influences me the most is my writing book experience. Unify the writing style and tone, collection related-data and facts to support the book hypothesis, and make the writing just as long as I could to enrich the reader experience; maybe those courses that I really needed.

  14. Pingback: Industry-Academic Collaboration - Improving TechComm Education

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