These are remarks I made earlier this week at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration (with some local color edited out). I offer them as a salute, and an encouragement, to everyone in the technical communication profession.
Fifty years ago our forebears brought forth a new organization, dedicated to promoting and cultivating the profession of technical communication in this area.
It’s a testament to their vision that this idea – cultivating the profession of technical communication – sounds perfectly normal to us today. In 1967 it was crazy talk: technical writers were often an afterthought, subservient to the engineers and scientists they worked with. At universities, technical writing, when it was taught at all, was usually a little enclave within the English department.
The founding members
When I got here in 1983, I got to know three of our chapter’s founding members. Dr. Edmund Dandridge, professor of English at NC State University, made a name for himself as a teacher and researcher.
Richard Russell – Dick Russell – retired from IBM just about when I arrived. A whole generation of technical writers regarded Dick Russell as a trailblazer and a mentor.
Austin Farrell without a doubt was the chapter’s father figure. I don’t think he actually smoked, but I can picture him wearing a cardigan sweater, holding a pipe in his hand, offering fatherly advice and wisdom to the people who followed him as leaders in the chapter.
I was privileged to know these founding members, but here’s what I want you to know about them: they were pretty much the same as you. They believed that technical writers, designers, illustrators, and managers should be recognized as professionals – just like the engineers and scientists they worked with. They believed in sharing knowledge and helping people grow in their careers.
The legacy they started
Fifty years later, we look on the legacy they started, the legacy that you all have helped build. I’m grateful and proud that the Carolina chapter has always had strong programs and events, strong competitions, and, of course, strong people.
I keep coming back to the people. If this chapter has a proud history it’s because of its people. Because of all of you who cared. You cared about the profession. You cared about each other. You cared enough to share your skills and knowledge, to mentor, to celebrate each other’s achievements.
You cared. You served.
Even though I said we’re not subservient, our profession really is built on service. We serve our audience – the people who use the information we create. Service is the heart of what we do as technical communicators.
Some of you were active in the chapter many years ago. Some of you are longtime members and have played vital roles. Some of you are relatively new: your hard work, your inspiration, your caring and serving will write the history of our next 50 years.
So, from today onward, how will we serve our profession?
Serving our profession and each other
Our profession continues to evolve. Our audiences have new expectations for information that’s tailored to them and is easy to find.
Our content needs to adapt to new media. A year ago Pokemon Go took the world by storm. A year from now, you might be creating content for augmented reality.
Our working conditions are changing. Fifty years ago everyone worked for a single company. Today, like as not, you’re a freelancer or a contractor. Wherever you work you’re part of a global network.
To keep up with these changes, to meet the challenges they bring, we’ll need to work together, sharing our knowledge and our mutual support.
Why did Austin Farrell offer advice to chapter leaders? It was his way of serving the profession and serving its people.
Why did you give presentations, judge in competitions, serve as treasurer, communications director, president? You were serving the profession, and its people.
As we head together into the future, we need to keep serving the profession. We need to keep serving each other.
Finally, we need to serve the truth. Three or four years ago I never imagined I’d have to say this. Then came fake news. Then came people insisting that real news is fake. Then came “alternative facts.”
Serving the truth
Why do we need to serve the truth? Why does it matter?
Truth matters because our profession depends on there being a consensus about what’s true and what’s not. You can write a System Setup Guide because there are accepted best practices for setting up the system. You can write a scientific report because there’s accurate and trustworthy data.
Truth matters because the world can really use some critical thinking right now, and as technical communicators we have critical thinking in our DNA. Just because the chief engineer or the head of marketing tells you something, you don’t take it at face value. You ask whether it makes sense for your audience, for the people you serve. Will it help my audience reach their objective? Will it give them a better handle on the truth?
In today’s world, the truth is shrinking. The ground of commonly held truth on which we stand is melting away faster than the ice caps. If that common ground disappears, if you and I and our fellow citizens don’t share consensus about what’s real and what’s true, we can’t have a conversation about what anything means or about choosing the best way forward.
Without that common ground, without that conversation, we – all the people – have nothing left to hold us together. We lose the foundation for our (little R) republican form of government.
When we the people can’t agree on what truth is, then truth becomes whatever the people in power say it is.
Fifty years from now
Fifty years from now, I hope, someone will stand here again and look back on the history of the Carolina chapter. What will they see? Will they honor a tradition of people who served the profession, who served each other, and who served the truth? People who helped preserve the truth so that they, and those around them, would remain free?
It’s been my honor and privilege to be affiliated with the Carolina chapter for the last 34 years. I look forward to being part of this community for a long time to come.
Together let’s serve the profession. Let’s serve each other. Let’s serve the truth. For 50 years we’ve been doing it well. Let’s do it now with all our hearts.