The Shared Nature of Teaching and TPC

Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The first time I heard this quote paraphrased I was being instructed to explain the concept in a way that even a six-year-old could understand. That idea has shaped the way I take any idea or skill in my curriculum and work to translate it into what my students will actually see and hear. For example, before I cover advanced punctuation issues in my students’ writing, I have to go back and review the parts of speech. Do I think (and maybe do you think) it’s a little ridiculous to be covering nouns and verbs in higher education? Sometimes I think that, yes. Does it change the fact that it makes a noticeable difference in whether or not students are able to grasp the other more “college-worthy” topics that we shift to within the same class period? Yes. It does. In the end, what I, a professional with nearing decades of experience in the content, think doesn’t trump what my audience (students) needs. If my objective is their learning; my product must meet them where they are. 

For teachers, it should go without saying that the audience determines how the required curriculum is communicated. I’d bet, though, that anyone reading could share stories of teachers who seemed unable to bridge the gap between their own content-area expertise and the lack thereof in their students. 

Technical writers have the same challenge. If they cannot access the needs of their audience, their products will fail. And, as much as a classroom is made of individual students with unique needs, those who engage with the technical products of TPC professionals have just as many idiosyncratic demands. Anne Blakeslee writes in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” (2010), chapter 8 in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience” (p. 201). It might seem that teachers have the advantage over their technical communicator and writer peers here because they do work personally with their students, but what advantage they’ve ever had, if there was one, is disappearing in online classrooms.  Essentially, everyone has to find out “after the fact… and from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). In both cases, these come in the form of personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success. 

Interestingly, it seems that the same procedures and practices to address this issue serve both professions. Blakeslee offers three pieces of information that writers [teachers] should seek out regarding their readers [students]: “How readers [students] will read and interact with their documents. How and in what contexts readers [students] will use their documents. What expectations readers [students] will bring to their digital documents” (p. 213). Whether we read these suggestions from the perspective of a technical writer crafting documents for the user of a new pressure cooker or a student in a math classroom, the deliverables crafted and shared in either case will be more successful for having the information listed above about their specific audiences.

The recent disruption to traditional education has accelerated the overlapping spaces like these between the professions of education and technical writing. These new digital spaces that have merged with and sometimes replaced our classrooms will never go away entirely. In “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communication Practices,” Ferro and Zachry assert that, “extending the field’s longstanding concern for people and their informed engagement with the products and processes of technology, technical communicators have a role in ‘the new work processes’ wherein individuals are ‘cooperative and flexible’ with the ability ‘to act as an interface between new technology and human interaction’’’ (p. 18). As students of all ages learn to navigate various online learning management systems, work their webcams, blur their Zoom backgrounds, and still learn the assigned content, teachers are pulled in to support all those elements. Now, regardless of their subject, they are teaching their students how to engage in and build shared knowledge via technology. 

Dr. Stacy Pigg highlights similar ideas in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” writing “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests and sense opportunities for future action and consider when and how to shift practices or discourse in response to them” (p. 70). If that’s not what a teacher is doing within their classroom, then I don’t know that it’s actually happening anywhere. 

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms. For those teachers struggling to find their new groove in this remote/hybrid/synchronous/asynchronous environment,  an acknowledgment of the very real, very professional and technical, and very valuable realities of their work could likewise help them find their teacher identity in these new responsibilities. 

In any event, regardless of the context and the content, the needs of the audience have to rule the priorities of the communication in both formally recognized professional and technical communication as well as in teaching. Maybe those professional communicators can learn from the attention good teachers have always paid to their students’ needs, and teachers can benefit from viewing their work through a TPC lens of supporting technology integration and modeling, as well as practicing, knowledge work.

Posted on November 15, 2020, in Society, Teaching, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Emily,
    As a language instructor, I deeply empathize with your writing. It might sound ridiculous to the third party to go over the parts of speech for the students in higher education. However, we, as instructors, know that will give them the ultimate help for their writing in the long term. Although our students do not insist that that’s what they need, we are supposed to notice the needs of our audience and provide timely and efficient resources for them. In that sense, I think it was a great idea for you to go over the parts of speech again with your students. That will pay off in the future! I contend that the same goes for the audience in cyberspace as well. Since we cannot see our audience in person in a digital communication environment, we first need to analyze the types and the needs of our audience so that we are to upload content that meets our audience’s purpose and expectations.

    Thank you,

    • To teachers (and I assume other professionals whose careers center around communication), it seems obvious that the intended audience is an essential starting point. Given the messages I receive from students and the types of communications I see on social media, it’s not as obvious a starting point as I (we?) think!

  2. Emily,

    The timeline for finding out that a work effort failed is interesting to consider. You mentioned that the feedback teachers and communicators will receive includes personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success. I always felt the rate my professor tool was a bit unfair to teachers who were trying hard but fell short. As a student, I would always disregard the one star rating based off a single occurrence. A publicized one-time failure should not mean that teacher will never achieve a favorable rating. The reviews that mattered to me described a pattern of behavior that showed a lack of professionalism or something like that. The other “objective measures of success” reminded me of teachers told to teach for the standardized tests, which goes against the positive forces of mentorship that exist outside of ensuring every student answers questions correctly. Analyzing the audience can also be impossible because one approach will not accommodate or benefit all. For me, points are earned on effort and from a willingness to meet the students or audience halfway.

    • I have lived in fear of rate my professor. I refuse to check because, while I appreciate constructive feedback, revenge taken in the form of anonymous “feedback” can mess with my head for weeks. If I know this from my experiences with end-of-semester student evals, I can’t imagine what a public shaming like that might do to me!

  3. “Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms.”

    I love that, Emily! This year, my professional goals include making more positive phone calls home, and giving feedback on my student’s writing assignments more quickly. I hope these goals will make my classroom more student-centered.

    Regarding using simple language: have you read Thing Explainer, by Randall Monroe?

    • Thanks for the book suggestion, Leanna! I’ve requested it from the public library already. Good luck with your professional goals this year. Those phone calls and additional feedback pieces add significant time to your workload; I hope they make a noticeable, positive difference for you.

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