Reading Summary for March 24

This post provides us an opportunity to cover and discuss readings that we planned to discuss during our in-class session on March 17. That session was suspended as a result of the University’s decision to suspend all classes the week of March 16-20 to give students and faculty time to adjust instructional and learning environments to remote modes.

Please review the summaries I offer below, which attempt to cover only the highlights of each readings through the lens of understanding the field. After reviewing these summaries, please contribute your own thoughts, ideas, questions, and feedback using the comments feature. You have a blog posting due on March 27; an extended comment tied to this post will certainly count for that requirement.

Key Skills in Technical (Business & Professional) Writing

I’m using Open-TC‘s section “Let’s Take a Look at Characteristics of Technical Writing” in Chapter 1: Introduction to Technical Writing (screen 2 in the chapter) as the primary framework for addressing what is meant by “technical writing.” As you know, I’m using the terms business, professional, and technical as well as writing and communication to refer to the topic of this course, business and professional communication. This chapter’s focus on design for usability and user experience (UX) reveals my tendency toward the “technical” aspects of technical communication; UX is not generally included among business and professional writing skills, although I think usability is a key component of any writing that is audience-centered. Nevertheless, I wanted to share (again) why I’m using a technical communication textbook and section to address business and professional writing.

Open-TC authors identify the following characteristics of technical  writing:

  • Focused on audience
  • Rhetorical, persuasive, purposeful, and problem-oriented
  • Professional
  • Design centered
  • Research and technology oriented
  • Ethical

To this point, we’ve addressed the focus on audience, the rhetorical and problem-oriented approach to communication, and the professional aspects of technical writing (we used Plain Language guidelines as one way to represent the professional character of technical prose, primarily in opposition to the kind of writing we often practice and teach in English classes).

Design centered: I think of this term in direct opposition to the incredibly dull documentation styles (MLA, Chicago, APA, CMS, ACM) that we use in academic writing. TPC (technical and professional communication) highlights style and design, flowing content (text) into that design; academic writing highlights content and applies minimal styling to the design. As a result, TPC content across all modes and media centers design. There are thousands of things to consider about design, and this is not a class on design. However, it is a class that encourages you to think carefully about the design and style in conveying useful information. The primary focus in TPC is audience-centered communication, which means the design and the content need to work together to convey information plainly and succinctly. One of the (many) reasons I hate Blackboard is that its design bores and frankly baffles me. I prefer a blog where design templates can be applied that communicate something about the subject being discussed. In my case, I’ve selected a template that highlights text-heavy content, but one that enables imagery and focuses on readability. Each communication genre has effective design principles, and you should be sure to review those in Open-TC Chapter 4 starting with “Report Design” and ending with “Indexing.”

Usability: My dissertation hinges on usability testing methods. As a result, I could spend a lot of time talking about usability and user experience. I’ll do my best to rein in my desire to overshare! Usability testing is a set of methods used to assess user experience — of a document, of a product, of an experience, or of any aspect of a user’s journey you’d like to assess. UX and design go hand in hand: usability testing should provide feedback to designers, and designers should use feedback to revise designs for testing. Usability reinforces audience in design-centered communication practices — the design must communicate effectively so the end user can easily and efficiently understand the communication artifact. Whether that artifact is an infographic, a web page, a PDF flyer, a poster, or a massive corporate website, the focus of usability is UX. The text covers methods for usability testing, many of which I’ve used. Some of those methods include focus groups, surveys, ethnographic interviews and observations, think aloud protocol, and more. Much focus on usability centers around websites, but usability is broadly applied to all communication practices and many design principles. I have a colleague who wrote a book, Communicating Mobility and Technology: A Material Rhetoric for Persuasive Transportation, that implements usability testing and user experience principles in explaining the rhetoric of, among other things, the design of car dash elements. Trained technical communicators are expected to have experience in usability in addition to design.

Research and technology oriented: While this aspect of technical writing has become evident throughout the semester, it’s important to note that “research” doesn’t necessarily mean textual research. It often involves research in the form of usability testing. Again, I’ll bring up my dissertation, which is built around a modified web page usability test that collected data and sought to produce new knowledge and understanding of rhetorical agency by interpreting the data I collected through the lens of rhetorical agency described by actor-network theory. It’s also important to recognize the role that literacies play in technical writing. Information literacy, the ability “to find, evaluate and use information effectively,” is essential in technical writing (and many other fields). But technological literacy is also important in technical writing. More often than not, technical writers are writing about technologies using technologies. Understanding both the technology we’re describing and the technology we’re using is critical to getting it right. In our current moment, the importance of technological literacy in communications can’t be understated. Without the ability to navigate our technology-based communication tools, we’d lose our minds. Every tutorial, every video, every help file was written by a technical communicator. That may not be what they call or consider themselves, but that’s what they are composing: technical documents that seek to explain technical concepts to a non-technical audience, communicating using the same or alternative technologies for achieving that goal.

Ethical: Technical writers are responsible for representing the technical information they understand to an audience who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge. Implicit in representation is an ethical imperative to represent the original technical concept or information faithfully. The small field of technical communication has a strong leaning toward social justice projects: we often seek to assess and critique the usability of products and services, especially when they are publicly available, through the lens of access. Social status, racial background, disability, and economic reality make products and services less accessible to some than others, and that’s a social justice problem that technical communication research often addresses. This social justice imperative comes from the field’s ethical imperative. When highly technical knowledge is knowable to only an elite few, the probability of exploitation is high, especially in a capitalist system. Consider the black box of online search (I know, also the subject of my dissertation), where the algorithmic processes and calculations that generate search results are intentionally obscured to protect intellectual property. Search is big business, and the less a lay person knows about the assumptions made algorithmically about you as a user, the better for the bottom line. While that’s a gross exaggeration, as a technical communication scholar, I would argue it’s the responsibility of companies like Google and Microsoft and Facebook to make as clear as possible the way that user information is used for developing search and advertising results.

Remapping Curricular Geography: Professional Writing in/and English

This article highlights the tensions that exist between English departments and technical and professional writing programs in college curricula. While this article is dated, the tensions persist today. Last year, I went on the academic job market and received interviews at 9 schools. Each of those 9 schools does technical communication differently. I’ll highlight the three where I went on a campus visit (i.e., an interview). I share this because each of these three schools shows the vast differences among institutions in the way technical communication is handled. For the sake of reputations, I’ll not actually name the institutions.

At a Research 1 southwestern institution, the English department contains a technical communication and rhetoric (TCR) sub-department; while English “owns” TCR, TCR operates largely on its own, making its own hiring and tenure decisions without direct input of the English department. At a northcentral Master 1 institution, the Writing department is a separate department from English. English teaches literature and literary analysis, while Writing teaches professional writing, creative writing, and composition and rhetoric. And at a Research 1 southeastern institution, technical communication remains embedded in the English department while the department of rhetoric and communication is its own departmental entity.

My point is that tensions remain present. Given its druthers (although a gross generalization), a traditional English department seeks to focus largely on literature and literary critique, paying lip service to creative writing and composition and rhetoric. There’s little room for technical writing in such a department. So the question of what technical communication is and to whom it belongs at an institution remains contested. At UR, there is no technical writing. The English department (of which I am not a part, although I am a product) focuses on literary analysis and cultural studies, with minor attention paid to journalism (which in most institutions goes to Mass Communications or Communications departments) and creative writing. “Composition” as a concept is now largely owned by Rhetoric and Communications because the Writing Center, once housed in the English department, shifted to RhetComm. But we don’t offer composition classes in either department because it’s assumed UR students can write upon arrival. We offer First Year Seminars, which include an emphasis on academic writing supported by the Writing Center (and therefore the RhetComm department, not the English department).  If I were to choose, I’d likely ally myself to the RhetComm department. Then again, I think my space in the School of Professional & Continuing Studies may be more apt: TPC focuses on professional skills. I wish we had more technical programs that a technical writing course could support. Perhaps that will come.

In the meantime, what’s useful about this reading is its use of geography as a metaphor for understanding the precariousness of academic fields, disciplines, and departments. Also useful is the closing argument about what makes the field of “professional writing” — which is itself a contested term, as the article highlights — a distinct field from English. I especially appreciate this statement from the conclusion:

Our claim is that professional writing is an emerging field—its status is under review right now precisely because it is emerging—that focuses on the role of writing in the workplace, both by specialists in writing itself and by specialists in other areas who write in the workplace. (Sullivan & Porter, 1993, p. 415)

I love the focus on the workplace, and that’s (at least in part) why your final writing projects are centered around your own professional workplace practices. And your own workplace communication practices are part of the curriculum of a technical communication class, because those practices dictate, to an extent, the form, content, and design of communication artifacts. In other words, you’re writing your projects for people in the field, not for me. And to me, that’s among the greatest distinguishing features of technical communication in academia: rather than focused on the professor as audience, the focus is on the workplace. And perhaps that’s why technical communication belongs in a division focused on professional education.

Now it’s your turn

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image credit: Samuel Chandler Earle, The Theory and Practice of Technical Writing (1911), Wikimedia, License CC BY-SA

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.

8 thoughts on “Reading Summary for March 24

  • March 23, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    First, I love that we are “sexy” technical communicators. (And some people assume tech writers lack humor. Au contraire!)

    Second, I wish I had time to field test every Google site or interactive assignment I ever gave, rather than making sure 3 Even is the first to see it because they are my calmest and smartest group. (eyebrow raised)

    Finally, did anyone – anyone – test Canvas for usability. I love that the Conference option only works if no more than ten people are on the conference at the same time… good to know, but not especially helpful.

    • March 25, 2020 at 1:20 pm

      Turned on its head, the answer to your first question might be that 3 Even is your field test. And because LMS like Canvas and Blackboard do so many things, I’m guessing they are only able to field test portions of their functionality. It becomes a systems management problem — there may not be any one person who can identify all of the functions that need to be tested, so testing is completed on an ad hoc basis for new features without fully testing the functionality of the entire product as a single entity. That’s a guess, of course, but seems to reflect the reality of using LMS as a classroom management product — there are aspects that are brilliant and work well, but they don’t all integrate or work as a whole.

      • March 27, 2020 at 2:00 pm

        This integration idea is the same thing that intimidates me when it comes to professional technical writers. Thorough field testing seems impossible in any field, which is why I think so many people become so easily frustrated with technology. Tech writers anticipate as many issues as they can, but (just like teachers) you don’t know what you don’t know until someone points it out.

        • March 29, 2020 at 2:34 pm

          Missing from our understanding of a software tool like Canvas is a knowledge map (see Wilson & Herndl, 2007, for an example). Software engineers should be developing knowledge maps that help various teams working on Canvas understand the project from many different perspectives. If knowledge maps are incomplete or lack sufficient detail, there’s no rhetorical exigence to test functions that may be interrelated, but aren’t documented. In general, I would argue that the law of unintended consequences almost always stems from an incomplete knowledge map. And unintended consequences can’t be documented or tested, because they are unforeseen.

  • March 24, 2020 at 11:20 pm

    My thoughts for March 24:

    Since taking this course, I have expanded my thoughts on how much of everything in college is the same.

    • There is no sense of expression.
    • We are constrained to write in a specific format, which there should be some flexibility. We often. have to write in the format of professors.

    I can recall my first semester of college. My first semester English 101 professor challenged the class to use “one” in all papers. Different than how I had ever written in High School, I was now challenged with creating sentences in my writing, such as “One thinks of herself.” This was different than before and challenged me, but the harsh penalty for not using language that she frequently spoke in life, was not necessary.

    • Blackboard and many resources on Bannerweb are constraining and not user friendly. There should be more solutions.

    In college, much of the college experience is learning who we are. Part of this learning should be the use of many different writing styles. Not everything in college should bound by the structures of academia. Free choices should be more viable. Many individuals will not have the chance to write later in life, as much as they do in college.

    • March 25, 2020 at 1:26 pm

      Your post points to a conflict currently raging in higher education: should the role of higher education be to produce free thinkers or to produce job-ready employees? While the argument is never that simple, most ideals of liberal education have the goal of producing contributing members to a free (as opposed to autocratic, despotic, fascist, or tyrannical) society. The corporate world, however, decries the widening gap between the skills and abilities they need in new hires and the skills and abilities recent graduates acquired in college. Much retraining is required, according to business leaders, because students have not been prepared for the modern workplace. But democracy requires intelligent and thoughtful participants, and that’s what many universities seek to produce. There are no easy answers, but your post describes well the symptoms of this problem — training in school-specific technologies and skills that are expected, without much evidence or support, to transfer to the professional world.

  • March 24, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    I have been thinking quite a bit about professional writing lately. I read an article about serological testing for Covid-19, and I noticed that the author not only has a journalism degree but also a Master’s degree in some kind of bio-science. Of course she does!

    It seems that a professional writer often needs to prove him or herself in the field in more ways than one. People likely took her writing about Covid-19 seriously not only because of her background but also because that background allows her to make connections that perhaps a non-scientific writer would have missed.

    This brings up the question of whether or not professional writers must also have expertise in other areas.

    • March 25, 2020 at 1:30 pm

      There’s not a ton of literature that I’m aware of about the expectation that technical writers have specialized or advanced expertise in the fields about which they write — but that may be because such expertise is either assumed or developed through training and experience. I don’t have a degree in technology applications or computer science, but I write regularly about highly technical subjects. I don’t understand the math, but I start to understand the underlying logic behind the algorithms that are built. That understanding doesn’t come from training, exactly, but it does come from experience — I regularly use the tools I study. I think use, practice, and training all contribute to technical writers being able to write about their subject. The more technical the subject, the more expertise may be required to understand the topic in order to communicate it to a lay audience.

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