Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm
This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.
When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.
When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.
At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and
marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.
Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.
No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is.
Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.
P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.