Technical and Professional Communication vs. English Degree
Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer and Paul Curran’s (2014) article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reaffirms the breadth and depth of communication and web 2.0 knowledge that is needed in many job positions. However, this article specifically took account of Technical and Scientific Communication as well as Professional, Technical, Business and Scientific Writing degrees, but English degrees could also fall in this category. Since English majors potentially are doing the same types of writing, collaborating, and web 2.0 work, I’m not sure if employers valued a technical communication degree more than another English or related writing degree.
Methodology and Results of Survey
The authors surely provided an extensive methodology to discover the types of communication that TPC graduates used in their lives and the graphics equally supported their results of the study. Surprisingly, TPC graduates are employed (or studying) in “education, technical and scientific communication, and publishing and broadcasting” (p. 271) as well as more women were employed in the software, hardware, and network industries. However, the authors did say these numbers were “skewed” based on the number of male vs. female respondents. Other noteworthy statistics from this article was the most types of writing done and the ones most valued. These numbers were from the respondents; however, I wonder how their supervisors/managers’ opinions would differ? For example, Grants/proposals was eighth on the list of type of writing and sixth as most valued (proposal was not included on most valued list) and Definitions was fifth on type of writing and did not appear on the most valued list (I’m not sure what definitions means anyway). Would supervisors/managers agree with these statistics?
More Technologies Used in Writing Process
Email, not surprisingly, is the most popular type of communication written and most valued. Does this mean that colleges should teach students how to write effective email more and less about blogging? According to Russell Rutter (1991), college graduates discover that what they learned in college do not always correlate to the writing type/purpose/audience in the workplace (p. 143). On the other hand, as Blythe, Lauer and Curran (2014) noted, technical communication graduates use a multitude of technologies during the composing process from pencil and paper to social media (p. 275); likewise, Rutter noted, “technical communicators must know how to do more than write – do more than inscribe, type or keystroke” (p. 145).
I still argue that English and other related writing degree graduates could accomplish similar tasks with a similar amount of success. Writing skills can be taught, but writing seems to be a natural ability. Rutter (1991) asserts, “Education should seek to create sensible, informed, articulate citizens. Some of these citizens will want to become technical communicators…” (p. 148).
Blythe, S., Lauer, C. and Curran. P. G. (2014). “Professional and technical communication in a web 2.0 world.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:4, 265-287. DOI: 10.1080/10572252.2014941766
Rutter, R. (1991). “History, rhetoric, and humanism: Toward a more comprehensive definition of technical communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21:2, 133-153.
Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.
Image from Books by Audra. http://www.booksbyaudra.com/2016/04/18/considering-kafka/
Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.
Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.
The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?
Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.
Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data
The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”
Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.
Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016). Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/opinion/what-were-missing-while-we-obsess-over-john-podestas-email.html
Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016 https://www.gjopen.com/
Working together can create more meaning and bring more understanding of the world around us. The ideas in Chapter 4 of Net Smart by Rhiengold (2012) especially regarding collective intelligence and the function of the Internet to create communities, groups, and audiences that create a deeper meaning of what is happening around them is very powerful and applicable to our work with analyzing and reviewing social media principles as well as our work as technical communicators.
I have heard complaints from the generation before mine, professors, staff members, and students that came before, that the way we learn and take in information currently does not take the same amount of effort and time that it used to, thus we are as a whole not as smart as we could be, as they had to be in the world before the World Wide Web.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Are things different? Definitely. For the most part, we do not have to deal with card catalogs and worrying about not obtaining the library book we need because someone already has it out. But what we do have is mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed.
Thinking about it as the natural reaction our society has had to the advent of technology and connectedness, collective intelligence seems like a great place for us to be in.
“Now that we have gained access to digital tools that enable us to share what we know and aggregate small contributions into large knowledge repositories, a new level of collective intelligence is possible” (p. 160).
Just as a reality, it is fascinating how much I find myself depending on the opinions and knowledge of others in my personal and professional life.
I read Yelp reviews and will search through a few pages for tips and tricks about shopping: how to do it effectively, where to go for the best prices, and when to go to avoid the most foot traffic.
I use my coworkers as sounding boards when working on projects, running edits, changes, style issues, and new copy by one or more people to see how they react, even when we’re working on completely different projects.
This trend is so important to the way we think about knowledge and learning. It may seem like an obvious idea. We learn currently from teachers and professors, those who go to school and study techniques specifically to learn how to instruct and impart knowledge on others, but to my mind there is still so much stigma associated with the spirit of collective intelligence in schoolwork.
Beginning your career as a student, you do not learn that it is your right, I would say responsibility, to question the font of knowledge: a teacher. In order to retain control over groups of wild children, teachers must be seen as the ultimate authority in their spaces. As you grow older and become more comfortable with yourself and the idea that you have to have your own opinions and thoughts about the world around you, you are inundated with cultural norms and taboos. They are subjects you can’t bring up in public without receiving a negative reaction: sex, politics, and religion. There are other subjects that only apply to you and place you into a subgroup: race, gender, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity.
By high school you have hopefully learned all the rules, overtly taught to you and covertly gathered by osmosis and have gone through puberty so hopefully you have become a version of yourself that can function in society. You have created PowerPoints and book reports and scientific models. But beyond being forced into groups by your teachers, it is still up to the teacher as the superior figure to create meaning and focus your attention on the facts and figures that you need to know.
That long analogy is meant to draw attention to the fact that with the Internet and social media, it is up to us to create meaning and monitor the information and knowledge being influenced and cultivated around us. I cannot say with complete certainty that children are reacting differently in classes. There are thousands of studies and reports about classroom teaching and management that are authored about the changes going on in classrooms because of technology and the Internet.
What works for me is the idea that we are demanding more of our teaching professionals and of ourselves than we have before. Yes, the Internet gives everyone a platform to shout their opinions from the rooftop (leading to a degradation of fields like traditional print media). It also gives us the ability to share what we know with each other, outside of the limits of a roundtables and desks with tiny chairs. Even outside the bounds of an online course taught by a PhD.
Rheingold, Howard. (2014). Net Smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold recognizes the same trend as Sherry Turkle of the historically unprecedented amount of available information through the Internet. However, Rheingold confronts the challenge of the volume and velocity of digital media with much more optimism. He sees it as a huge opportunity, if people understand the right strategies for managing it.
In his Tedx Talk “Attention: The New Currency,” Sree Sreenivasan argues that getting and keeping attention is critical for success in this world of overwhelming volume. Sreenivasan says, “It isn’t just that our attention spans are getting smaller and shorter but that there’s so much more stuff coming at us and so much more stuff competing for our attention.”
Rheingold makes the case that one way to handle the volume is increased mindfulness about what is getting our attention. He argues that the issue isn’t that multitasking is rewiring our brains, but rather that we do it without even being aware of it. The Washington Post article “Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD?” suggests that although rates of ADHD are steadily increasing and the Internet facilitates behavior often recognized as ADHD, there is no evidence for a causal link. As the volume of information on the Internet continues to explode, we don’t need to fear possible brain damage, but rather be mindful about where we are putting our attention. Sreenivasan quotes Les Hinston, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, as saying, “The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention.”
However, simply knowing where our attention is going is only the first step in managing information overload. In Chapter 2, Rheingold suggests a dashboard approach to “infotention.” Savvy users organize and manage content in a dashboard style so that they can easily access the most relevant and useful information. When you’ve decided how you want to prioritize your attention, the dashboard approach helps you organize the information that you’ve decided is worth your time.
A third strategy is relying on others as curators. Rheingold tells several cautionary tales about bogus websites and warns about the need for “crap detection.” However, being a “detective” and investigating the source for every website that you visit just makes the volume even more overwhelming. In my experience, leisure users rarely go through the trouble to research a site’s author and dig for source material. Instead, most users have the online news site that they always read, and they trust it — no further investigation necessary. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive study, but I’m curious about the percentage of time that people spend online on just a handful of favorite sites. I’m guessing that for most people, the majority of their time online is on just a couple of sites that they have deemed as passing the crap detection test.
Beyond curating your own list of favorite sites, people turn to social curation. Just as Google uses the PageRank algorithm (Rheingold, pg. 83) to boost search results based on links from other sources, so we turn to the wisdom of the crowd to help us determine which information in the sea of possibilities should get our attention. I saw this article “Social Curation in Audience Communities” about how a Finnish newspaper deemed the participation of their readers in”liking” and sharing articles as one of the most critical factors to their success and how they used strategies to begin leveraging this social curation. The article includes the statistic that up to 75% of the online news consumed by American audiences is forwarded through email or social networking sites. You could argue that this is because of peer pressure, the desire to read what our friends are reading, or other social motivators, but I think it’s also a coping mechanism to handle the volume of information available. When there are too many options, one way to decide is to take the recommendation of others. I think it’s the same as asking your dinner date what you’re at a new restaurant and trying to pick from a huge menu.
Finally, Rheingold pushes us to go one step further: “Google itself is not the curator; we are. Every time a person references a link, they help to curate the Web.” (pg. 127). After we’ve waded through the huge amount of information and deemed what is reliable and attention-worthy, we can participate by becoming the curators. Theses 72 in the Cluetrain Mainfesto gets at this: “We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.” As a community of curators, we’re no longer just consumers of corporate rhetoric, but we are empowered to determine value for ourselves.
Three sails to staying afloat in information overload. Drawing from Coloring Son
Actually, Rheingold’s principles for being a “filter blogger” bear a surprising resemblance to what we do as technical writers. We take on a huge amount of information and distill it for what is important. Although technical writing then moves to the next step of content creation, it begins with managing and curating available information. We daily practice the skills of culling information and can appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet without being swept away.
Dewey, C. (2015, March 25). Is the Internet giving us all ADHD?. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/25/is-the-internet-giving-us-all-adhd/
Sreevnivasan, S. (2015, April 20). Attention: The new currency.” Tedx Broadway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I4WkhG_GRM
Villi, M. (2012). Social curation in audience communities: UDC (user-distributed content) in the networked media ecosystem. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 9.2. Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume%209/Issue%202/33%20Villi.pdf
As technical communicators practicing or in training, I’m sure most of us understand the importance of audience in our work. We are taught to anticipate the audience and any secondary (tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary…) audiences. Who are they? Why are they using our documentation? What do they need? How will they use it?
Chapters 7 and 8 of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication both consider audiences. In Chapter 7, “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher develops a framework and lexicon for communicating with audiences from other cultures. In Chapter 8, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” Ann M. Blakeslee considers traditional audience analysis and discusses what may need to change as technical communicators’ products become increasingly digital.
Communicating Across Cultures
In Chapter 7, Thatcher recounts the challenges he has had working with teams in South and Central America. While ordinarily one would assume challenges across borders would be due to language barriers, Thatcher’s problems went more deeply than that. Although communications and instruction were in the correct language, they were not written with the target cultures in mind.
As a result of this experience, he has created a framework of cultural traits and communication recommendations (oral, writing, e-mail, or hypertext) that can be used to effectively communicate with other cultures. These traits are:
- individual (p. 176)
- collectivist (p. 176)
- universal (p. 176)
- particular (p. 177)
- diffuse (p. 177)
- specific (p. 178)
I have worked on international teams before, with members in Europe, South America, or India. Language and time zone were issues, but there were other problems (especially with the South American and Indian teams) that I just could not figure out what was going on. Thatcher’s observations rang true with my experiences working with these other cultures, and his recommendations for communicating make sense in retrospect.
Most recently, I worked on a project with team members in India, as well as locally based team members from India. The problems mostly came from e-mail miscommunication and their struggle in understanding our expectations for their product. Thatcher asserts that Asian and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures tend toward collectivism, with particular and diffuse characteristics – so I am assuming these traits for India.
E-mail: Thatcher observes that e-mail can be too ambiguous for a collective target audience and too nonverbal for a diffuse audience (p. 185). Often I would send an e-mail that seemed, to me, perfectly clear – only to receive responses (in the case of offshore teams) that didn’t seem to match my email, or simply confusion from the recipient. The local teams would almost never respond to my e-mail; they preferred, instead, to come to my desk and talk to me in person, where we would hash out any confusion.
Work product: One of the biggest frustrations I had working with this team was that no matter how much guidance we gave (style guide, examples, templates, etc.) for how we wanted their finished product to look, feel, and sound, they struggled to meet our expectations. I chalked it up to the fact that English was a second language for the offshore team and most of the local team. However, in retrospect, I realize it may have been more cultural than linguistic. Thatcher’s observations illuminate two critical cultural differences that may have cause these issues.
First, particular cultures are much less likely to use signposting, templates, linearity, uniformity, and consistency – which are traits that technical communicators value in our writing (p. 188). While cultural important to an American audience, it was less so to the offshore team who produced the documents – they didn’t realize their importance and didn’t emphasize those traits.
Second, writing style was a huge issue. We wanted “plain language,” but we ended up with meandering sentences with too much jargon and context. Of course, this is partially due to nonfluency in English, but I think a large part of it was cultural. According to Thatcher, Americans (individual, universal, and specific) emphasize writing that is “reader friendly” (p. 176) and targets the “lowest common reading style” (p. 109). Meanwhile collective cultures prefer “writer-friendly writing patterns” (p. 176); particular cultures prefer writing that is more based on social relationships as context and uniqueness (p. 177); and diffuse cultures prefer more indirect and holistic writing (p. 189).
In short, the cultural expectations driving their output were completely different from the cultural expectations driving our requirements. It wasn’t simply a communication barrier; it was cultural as well. I still work with teams from India and the Middle East, as well as teams from Asia (particularly China). Moving forward, I’m sure I will refer to Thatchers wisdom again when attempting to communicate with other cultures.
Before airing a new T.V. show, networks and studios test the pilot on an audience focus group. The audience members turn a knob based on their reaction to different parts of the episode, and their response can determine whether the show makes it to the screen or dies right there (“Test Audiences Can Make or Break New T.V. Series”).
In the technical communications world, understanding our audience and receiving audience feedback is also vital to creating high-quality documentation, but it’s much harder to achieve. Blakeslee writes about “the importance for technical communicators of continuing to give careful thought both to identifying their audiences and to accommodating their audiences’ needs and interests” (p. 200), yet she says that our industry has failed to investigate audience needs in the digital age. It seems to me that we misunderstand our audience in several ways, including their relation to technology, and the lack of audience awareness can severely limit our documentation.
One pitfall of not appropriately understanding our audience is falling into the activity theory framework, where we narrowly define our audience based on a single task instead of a comprehensive cultural understanding. As Longo states,
“If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not of the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future” (p. 160).
At the company where I work, we constantly walk the line between specific task-oriented instructions balanced with a larger understanding of strategic and operational needs. Here are the steps to set up XYZ printer. Why? Because a certain type of medication label only prints on XYZ printer. Understanding that context, can we also guide readers about how many printers they’ll need and where to place them?
Not only do we need to learn about our audiences’ situation and goals, but we also need to learn about how the audience approaches the documentation itself based on their cultural context. In “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher gives several warnings about how the culture of our audience changes their approach to documentation. Although his main example is about internal communication, the same principles apply to customer-facing documents, as reflected in the school websites that he analyzes. By knowing more about the culture of our audience, we can tailor tone and content to appropriately address an individualist vs. collectivist mindset, or universalist vs. particular understanding. I shudder sometimes to think about all the things that I ignorantly say just because my perspective is so limited. The American Marketing Association actually published “The Olympics are Coming: Lessons for Cross-Cultural Advertising” to head off some foot-in-mouth moments.
Finally, as Blakeslee alludes to, we need to understand how our audience approaches documentation differently when it’s digital. This goes directly to Katz and Rhodes discussion of six different ethical frames through which audiences might approach technology. I might seek ways to optimize electronic document delivery, seeing it as both a means and an ends. My reader who gets the document likely sees the delivery process as only a tool and having value only as a delivery mechanism. Similarly, if we approach our documents assuming a sanctity frame, we could alienate task-focused readers who have a “us and them” mindset to technology.
Technical communications doesn’t get nearly as much help in understanding our audience as T.V. shows. Instead of focus groups, we get occasional blog comments. However, I think the more we know about our audience, the more we can create content that addresses their specific context, culture, and relation to technology.
- Digital literacy has different interpretations. According to Barry Thatcher (2010), it means “accessing, understanding, and appropriately using digital media in specific situations” (p. 169). While Bernadette Longo (2010) defines culture in the context of digital communities as, “ways in which people relate to each other within a particular social context” (p. 149) and technical communicators can learn about digital cultures by “studying the language and the social relationships embedded in how people use it” within these communities (p.149). Ann Blakeslee (2010) delves further by explaining that digital media audiences can be targeted for a specific situation or reader; however, she explains there hasn’t been enough research to understand the unique needs of readers with digital documentation (p. 204). (Refer to #3 for digital audiences.)
- Digital media literacy is not universal. What is understood in one country is not true for another. Thatcher’s experience working with Mexican and U.S. collaborators clearly identifies that digital literacy has differing rhetorical and cultural traditions that require greater understanding for cross-cultural projects (p. 169). Technical communicators should research and collaborate with other technical communicators and translators in other countries if the another country will be one of the audiences targeted. By due diligence, Thatcher “developed a framework to compare features of human life that all cultures share regardless of their value(s)” (p. 175) rather than follow an ethnocentric methodology – an assumption that another cultures uses digital media the same way that another does (p. 170). Specifically, Mexican culture and their rhetorical traditions regarding digital media.
- Digital media audience needs are specific. The internet is vast and digital media provides many outlets for various audiences to interact with media besides reading. Consider online documentation to operate your mobile phone or troubleshoot your PC. While this documentation is available to everyone, it also has a specific audience – those seeking answers for the equipment. Ann Blakeslee (2010) explains the characteristics of digital documents have implications “how audiences perceive the documents, how they use them and what expectations they bring to them” (p. 220). It is the responsibility of technical communicators to research intended audiences as well as tertiary audiences when they are creating digital documents (media). Audiences who not only read, but use and respond to digital media. Blakeslee states that to understand audience needs in response to digital literacy more research is needed (p. 222-223).
- Digital media needs to be user-centered. The shift from paper to digital documentation requires a “seismic shift” from system to user-centered. Documentation, to be useful and effective, requires consideration of its audience, their needs and digital literacy knowledge. This is difficult to acknowledge and understand since paper documentation was always one sided and did not receive much feedback from the user. However, almost all digital media requires a user-centered approach.
- Digital media literacy has its own rhetorical genre. Longo, Thatcher and Blakeslee (2010) all reference “rhetoric” or “rhetorical genre” in their articles and the importance of understanding and/or researching digital media rhetoric. Digital rhetoric, a definition evolving as much as digital media, is “the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances” (Eymand, 2012, Digital Rhetoric Collaborative). Longo asserts that technical communicators contribute to digital rhetoric with identifying audience inclusion or exclusion as well as understanding the “human+machine culture” (p. 147). While Thatcher says to develop cross-cultural digital literacy, technical communicators must, “adapt their communication strategies to the different rhetorical expectations of the target culture” (p. 169). Finally, Blakeslee identifies that content and context need to be continually revised so that the application meets the needs of the end-user thus changing the role of rhetoric with each type of digital medium.
The list above provides a few key takeaway points from Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (Ed) (2010) Chapters 6 – 8.