Author Archives: Emily Hayes
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.
It’s fun to ask kids this question. It’s even still fun to ask my husband this question sometimes. He’s on his third or fourth career change (depending on whether a return to teaching after leaving it counts as a new career) before 40. When my kids feel stressed because they don’t know where they want to commit their professional lives before they enter high school, I laugh and tell them, “That’s ok. There’s a good chance your job doesn’t exist yet.”
Technical writers might feel the same on any given day. As Saul Carliner proves in “Computers and Technical Communication” (2010), his contribution to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice, both the audience, the content, and the expertise required of technical writers has evolved as quickly as technology and the digital world has. From first needing to write the manuals on how to use the technology and needing the technical skills more than the writing skills, to writing for highly skilled professionals, to creating content for the average person with no technical experience at all, to managing branding and social media, it seems that the skills students planning to pursue their careers in this field will be better served to be taught how to write, how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to keep learning because any specific content they are given on technology is bound to be outdated by the time they graduate.
As if technology wasn’t moving quickly enough on it’s own, this global pandemic arrives to disrupt that flow and accelerate things like eCommerce, online education, remote learning, entertainment, socializing, grocery shopping, and health care. The World Trade Organization’s “eCommerce, Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic Report,” “spurred by social distancing and stay-at-home requirements, e-commerce in services that
can be delivered electronically has flourished, with demand rising sharply.” In response, Under Armor recently announced it “plans to prioritize direct-to-consumer sales and exit 2,000 to 3,000 wholesale locations by 2022.” Facebook says it’s messaging app, as well as video chat usage is up by 50%.
It’s not just all-digital business, either, though. Grocery store curbside pickup and delivery has achieved a level of integration it would have taken years to achieve without the stay home orders and other pandemic-related changes to our everyday lives. This requires the quick development and then maintenance and continuing evolution of webpages and apps. It requires blogging and social media coverage to communicate and generate attention for a specific company’s services over another’s. It’s new customers, new buying and spending habits, new organizational priorities.
In “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” (2014), Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran, conclude that students in technical writing programs “should be exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication in a given situation, … be exposed to a wide range of technologies that will facilitate that process, … [and] be versatile with multiple media.” This seems sound. This is not a list of specific technologies or skills to be mastered. Instead it’s much bigger, more abstract, and infinitely more suited to the nonstop changes that are to be the technical writer’s only certainty.
I would describe myself as an avid consumer of information. Following the example of my parents who read the newspaper cover to cover every evening and then sat down to watch a solid hour of nightly news, I make it a point to stay abreast of what’s going on in the world. Of course, I don’t have to wait for the paper to be delivered each day; I am not limited to one editorial board’s perspective, and if I have far greater access to information, I have to work harder to make sure it’s credible.
My first conclusion regarding my own experience with blogs is that in spite of how much reading I do online, I only follow one blogger regularly. Hungryrunnergirl has defined my view of the evolution of blogging. The author blogs about her running, her love of food, and her life. In the early years of the blog, she posted several times a day in colorful fonts. Lately, she’s dropped to six posts a week. She blogged through a divorce, adventures as a single mother, remarriage, blending a family, and more pregnancies, as well as an ultramarathon, breaking 3 hours in the marathon. Robinson Meyer’s take on “What Blogging Has Become,” I see this blog has also limited my appreciation for what blogging can be, perhaps what it must be, today, not the least of which because that article is already five years out of date. Meaning, if my ideas on blogging were outmoded in 2015, they must be fossilized in 2020.
In “Why We Blog,” Julie Nardi, Diane Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz say that “bloggers are driven to document their lives, provide commentary and opinions, express deeply felt emotions, articular information through writing, and form and maintain community forums.” That was in 2004, but it captures where my current appreciation of blogging stands.
I mentioned my news consumption earlier. I don’t pay to have the local news delivered to my doorstep, but I do pay to have online access to it. I am also a paid subscriber to Talking Points Memo, which is apparently also a blog. I guess the President of the United States also blogs given his affinity for Twitter, which I also learned is a thing called microblogging. Who knew? Well, you knew. Now I do, too.
When Meyer asks, “Is there a place for blogging online in 2015?” I begin to think that there cannot be a simple answer for that in 2020. Blogging certainly has a place. As it was defined even five years or 15 years ago? Perhaps not really. Can one simply start a blog and drive readers to the site on the power of their topic and personality alone? Can they do it without leveraging the power of centralizing sites like Medium? Without microblogging on Twitter? Without Instagramming content, as well? Without vlogging or podcasting on top of it all? Kyle Beyers reports that as of 2019, “there are over 600 billion blogs in the world.” That’s a big crowd.
As my appreciation for what blogging has become grows, I’ll make better use of that content and the strategies that inform the content and the format. What actually concerns me, though, is that much of the current practices surrounding blogging seems to devalue the individual behind the content. Joshua Benton thinks Medium “degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.” This is seconded by Robinson Meyer, who writes about Medium that, “Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about.” The implications behind that move need more exploration and consideration on my part.
Benton, J. (2012, August 13). 13 ways of looking at medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and obvious. Nieman Lab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2012/08/13-ways-of-looking-at-medium-the-new-bloggingsharingdiscovery-platform-from-ev-and-obvious/
Byers, K. (2019, January 2). How many blogs are there? (And 141 other blogging stats). GrowthBadger. https://growthbadger.com/blog-stats/
Meyer, R. (2015, February 26). Why no one blogs anymore. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/what-blogging-has-become/386201/
Nardi, B., Schiano, D., Gumbrecht, M., & Swartz, L. (2004). Why we blog. Communications of the ACM, 47(12), 41-46.