Reigniting the conversation: What should a Technical Communication course teach?

About a month ago, on August 7, I wrote a piece titled What should a Technical Communication course teach? It sparked an exciting discussion about reigniting a conversation, involving both academicians and practitioners, about how to design educational programs in Technical Communication.

Ivy covered buildingLots of people weighed in on the importance of having that conversation. Many of you said you’d be glad to take part.

Unfortunately, since the discussion died down, I haven’t heard anything more. So I write this in hopes that it’ll fan the flames and get things started again.

First, a disclaimer: I’m a practitioner. I teach part of a certificate course that’s designed to give students the skills and knowledge they’ll need to work in the profession. But I’m not an academic. As a result, the impressions and opinions I’m about to express might be incomplete or even totally incorrect. I welcome all constructive criticism.

First, a summary of points that were raised in last month’s discussion:

Kristen Moore rightly noted that we should be talking about curricula, not courses. Any course needs to fit into an overarching curriculum; even “standalone” courses like my certificate course need to align with the overriding objectives of the department and the institution.

Lisa Meloncon pointed out that there’s room for all kinds of courses: ones that emphasize theory, ones that emphasize practical skills, and practically everything in between. As before, it depends on the objectives of the department, the institution, and of course the students who take the courses.

Office buildingThere are infrastructures in place for holding these kinds of conversations — the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC) and the STC Academic SIG, to name two. And in fact the conversations have been going on for a long time. For the most part, though, the conversations have taken place within the academy, with little participation by practitioners. I know that CPTSC is composed mainly of academicians, and I think the same is true of the STC Academic SIG.

(Kristen also mentioned an upcoming podcast, sponsored by Women in Tech Comm, about the Practitioner/Academy divide. Can anyone tell me how it went, and — better still — post a link?)

Now, some suggestions intended to stimulate the conversation. Again, feel free to disagree and to add your own suggestions.

We need to find a venue for the conversation, where both academicians and practitioners can have access and feel comfortable. Perhaps the STC Academic SIG is that place — but I’m open to other ideas. Thank you to Pam Brewer, the SIG manager, for enthusiastically joining last month’s discussion and for pointing out that practitioners and academicians often talk different languages and should instead be looking to develop mutual understanding.

The academic community should lead the conversation. Compared to the practitioners, They’re better acquainted with issues related to pedagogy and to the goals of colleges and universities. They probably also have a better idea of what questions need to be asked and answered.

Let’s start small. If we say, “Let’s define the perfect model for Tech Comm curricula, based on the perfect balance between art and science,” the task will be too daunting. But if we say, “Let’s identify two or three primary issues, and let’s look at what the community is doing to address them,” that’s doable. By starting small we can establish some common ground and we can identify the people who want to, and ought to, be taking part in the conversation.

I’m ready to jump in.  Now it’s your turn. How can we make this happen?

3 thoughts on “Reigniting the conversation: What should a Technical Communication course teach?

  1. Mark Baker

    I think in any such discussion that it is useful to look at how things work in related fields. Two obviously related fields are literature and computing. In both we find that there are two educational streams, one scholarly and the other practical.

    In literature we find the scholarly study of literary criticism and the practical study of creative writing. In computing we find the scholarly study of computer science and the practical study of coding.

    Which is more valuable to the practitioner? In literature, we find the the study of literary criticism is chiefly aimed at training literary critics. (Why so many people take English degrees when we need so few literary critics is something of a mystery.) It is not aimed at teaching you to write literature, but to read it. Few literary critics are also writers of any note, and vice versa.

    The study of creative writing, on the other hand, is aimed at making writers, and while many successful writers clearly manage without any such training, it does also produce working writers.

    In computing, the case is more interesting. Many people can and do learn to code and make a living doing it. But there are computing tasks for which an understanding of computer science is essential. That is a pretty clear contrast from literature, where is there is no correlation between training in literary criticism and the production of great literature.

    So where does technical communication fall? Clearly people can be great technical writers without any practical training or theoretical education. That suggests that we are closer to the literature case. But it also raises questions about the the value of tech comm scholarship. If the world needs few literary critics, how many tech comm critics does it need? That suggests a more practice based rather than academic curriculum would be appropriate.

    But maybe there is a case to be made that tech writing is closer to computing than literature. Anyone care to make it?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. In this context I do think that tech writing is probably closer to computing than it is to literature.

      You can find — or at least you could find, 20 or 30 years ago — successful programmers who hadn’t been trained in the theoretical aspects of computing. They’d mastered those things over time, on the job. They could hone their craft by studying the theory.

      Similarly, while it’s true that some people can be great tech writers without practical training or theoretical education, tech writers who’ve had that training have a leg up. To use myself as an example, I’ve gained a pretty good grasp of things like rhetoric and communication theory through years as a practicing tech writer. But I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been more effective if I’d mastered those things early in my career, or even before my career began.

      As an aside, I also think you’ve oversimplified the English degree. Literary criticism teaches students learn how to distinguish good writing from bad, how to organize material, how to write clearly and cogently. Creative writing has less influence on a future tech-writing career; in fact many English majors don’t do creative writing at all.

      Even with all that, I think that education in tech writing might be more closely related to the Computer Science major than to the English major. But it shares things in common with both.

      What do the rest of you think?

  2. Pingback: Why is it so important that STC survive? | Leading Technical Communication

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