© 2011 Ugur Akinci
A distinguished panel of six academicians from the universities in the Washington D.C. region discussed the place of technical writing and communication in academia on January 20 evening. The English department professors who attended the STC-WDC sponsored event were:
UM = University of Maryland. GMU = George Mason University.
Among those present were Kathryn Burton, STC Executive Director; and Liz Pohland, Editor, Intercom, STC. The informative dinner-discussion was hosted and mediated by Marylyn King, President, STC-WDC and Carolyn Kelley Klinger, also of STC-WDC.
The highlights of the informative discussion are as follows:
There seems to be a growing awareness and recognition of the importance of technical writing and communication in the English departments across the Washington D.C. region. That’s great news, obviously. All the programs are not yet explicitly called “technical communication program” as such. Most of them are incorporated into regular English department curricula or packaged as “information technology” or “business writing” programs.
But the fact is clear: technical communication (no matter how you define the concept) is fast emerging as a specialization in which the college students of today are trained and educated. If not for anything else, the Washington D.C. is home to one of the largest employers in the world — the U.S. Federal Government. As more than one panel participant mentioned, the graduates of these fine interdisciplinary programs have an excellent chance of finding good federal writing jobs once they get their diplomas. So the cost-benefit equation seems to be strongly in favor of such academic programs, at least in the Washington D.C. region.
The agreement was unanimous among the participants that although the typical undergraduate student is plugged 24-7 into a vast communication network via computers, the Internet, and the mobile devices, that intense engagement does not necessarily translate into a comfortable command of English.
As one presenter put it, the typical college student of today is used to being “the star of his or her own multimedia show” on the Internet but still is not fully aware that there is also “The Others” out there with whom one needs to communicate in well-formed full sentences. Thus the importance of teaching the students the basic grammar and composition skills continues unabated.
However, two important developments that professional technical communicators face on a daily basis throw new “curved balls” (if you excuse the baseball metaphor) into the “academic game”: the increasing importance of graphics and visuals in technical documentation, on the one hand, and the ever changing landscape of tools and applications, on the other.
The first development is fueled by the twin drivers of globalization and localization. As someone who is personally involved in similar projects, I can say with confidence that the trend to replace text with graphics is here to stay and we all need to get used to it. The more goods and services are sold to consumers from different cultural backgrounds, the more the project managers will push for non-textual communication in user documentation. This is a topic that has been covered frequently in this blog in the past. Visit these “graphics” and “localization” links, for example.
Fast changing tools and software products of the trade present another challenge recognized by the English departments.
How do you teach the formatting tools through which the technical content is delivered when what you teach today will be irrelevant perhaps in six months or a year down the road? How do you plan for such built-in obsolescence and keep ahead of the “wave”?
One suggestion was not to worry about teaching the specific applications as such (like Photoshop, for example) but the principles that guided the application (like the concept of “layers” in Photoshop, for example). That’s an educational approach I wholeheartedly concur with.
One last thing I feel like pointing out is the apparent lack of emphasis on proposal writing in our local colleges.
Those of us who live in and around the Washington D.C. metropolitan region are neighbors to a unique consumer that purchases $ 400 BILLION worth of goods and services every year: the U.S. Federal Government.
Proposal writing to sell goods and services to Uncle Sam is such a vital exercise for so many companies and organizations around the Beltway that one can put together a certificate program in “Business Proposal Writing” and watch it become one of the most popular curriculum offerings on the campus in a hurry.
Perhaps such a technical writing program wouldn’t have the allure and scholastic patina of some other traditional English-department programs but in terms of sheer utility and popularity it would probably be an overnight hit.