Monday, December 7, 2015

End of Semester Reflection

To reflect on my learning in Professional and Technical Writing this semester, I find it useful to glance back to where I was at the beginning of the course. Looking at my first assignment, the Response to the Syllabus, I was struck by how much I know now that I wasn’t even aware I needed to learn. I can see not only how my writing has improved as a result of taking this class, but also how much knowledge I gained about the field of technical communication - a field I knew almost nothing about at the beginning of this semester.

My primary concerns at the beginning of this class were adapting my writing style to a professional setting - a skill I was never explicitly taught - and preparing professional documents like resumes and cover letters. I shared through my Response to the Syllabus that I struggled A LOT with writing an effective resume when I conducted my first job search after college. I found How to Say it on Your Resume by Brad Karsh to be a helpful resource in writing my resume for the Assistant Editor job position. This easy-to-follow text helped me avoid some of the missteps I had made in the past, such as including irrelevant or outdated information in a too-long document, and taught me to tailor descriptions of my skills directly to the job I was applying for. With that text as support, I enjoyed completing the resume and cover letter assignment, and I am certain that the skills I learned will be very useful to me in the future.

One of the most challenging assignments for me was the Industry Report, which uncovered some misconceptions I had about technical writing as a field. My first Industry Report was a reflection (which sometimes bordered on a personal reflection) of how teachers and administrators in secondary education need to learn how to communicate professionally. Instead of focusing on the skills a technical writer must know to succeed in the industry of secondary education, I mused about how it was important for school employees to communicate in different situations. After some help from Dr. Bridgeford, I realized that I was not only going to have to revise, but I was going to have to write an entirely new paper. The result helped me reach a deeper understanding of how technical writers must learn about the industries in which they work and the level of collaboration required of technical writers to perform their jobs effectively. While it was the most challenging experience I had in this class, my revised Industry Report is now the product I am most proud of from this semester.

In addition to growing as a writer, I am also grateful for gaining a new appreciation of the field of technical communication. In my Response to the Syllabus, my concept of professional writing was simply “adapt[ing] my writing style for professional contexts.” As my first Industry Report revealed, instead of viewing professional communication as its own discipline, I viewed it as the way people write and communicate while at work. This class has taught me about the roles and responsibilities of technical communicators in organizations, how these professionals meet the communication needs of the organization’s stakeholders, and how they respond when those organizations face an issue or crisis. I also learned the definition of “profession” (and that it is not synonymous with “job”), and about the progress the field of technical writing has made toward achieving professional status.

The texts and movie lectures assigned in this class increased my understanding about writing and the field of technical communication, but I have also learned a lot from my classmates. Reading my classmates’ blog posts each week helped me notice important points and critiques about the texts that I would have missed without my classmates’ analysis. Their posts on my own responses also helped me to expand my understanding of concepts I had just begun to explore. This class has been a challenging and positive experience, and I am very glad that I chose to take professional and technical writing this semester.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Response to Kline and Barker 12/3/15

In “Negotiating Professional Consciousness in Technical Communication: A Community of Practice Approach,” Joel Kline and Thomas Barker argue that, to achieve a professionally conscious community of both academics and practitioners, the three dimensions of “joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire” must be present (42). To demonstrate the effectiveness of these dimensions of professional community involvement in technical communication, the authors describe a study in which a group of academics and practitioners volunteered to collaborate with one another on a series of tasks. According to Kline and Barker, this study illustrates the type of collaboration that might result in a shared identity between academics and practitioners, and bridge the ideological differences between groups.

I understand the desire for technical communicators to create a common body of knowledge and shared identity among practitioners and academics. I have written before about the importance of a common body of knowledge to technical communication’s attempts to professionalize. If different groups of technical communicators, separated by industry or ideology, cannot come to agreement on a shared professional identity, attempts to professionalize will fail. This is a crucial problem to overcome if the field wants to develop a common body of knowledge, agree on certification practices, and develop educational practices to solidify its professional status.

Kline and Barker propose using collaborative activities to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners in technical communication. My own experience with professional development and different collaboration scenarios in my own field make me wonder how they might establish meaningful, authentic tasks to that end. At the beginning of a facilitated collaborative project, participants often experience enthusiasm and excitement for the project. This was true in the experiment Kline and Barker describe, in which participants seeking to define a common body of knowledge experience a high level of engagement in their joint enterprise. However, once the initial intensity faded, participants became contributors to the project rather than collaborators. This resulted in the deterioration of engagement within the group. At that point, “one interviewee noted that efforts inside the project began to be eclipsed by efforts outside of the project” (39).

The fact is, collaboration takes more effort than working alone. Even though a person benefits from the different areas of expertise and strengths each team member brings to the project, collaboration requires time, effort, communication, and compromise. The intended product has to be worth this effort. I think that Kline and Barker propose some workable venues for this type of collaboration between practitioners and academics in technical communication, such as a professional conference. However, I wonder what type of authentic activity they would recommend for these collaborative projects and what product they would want these teams to create. Kline and Barker suggest that some of the big topics in the professionalization discussion would be a good place to start. A heterogenous group tackling the issues of the common body of knowledge, certification requirements, and creation of a shared professional identity would bring the discipline closer to achieving professional status in addition to building professional consciousness.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Response to Carliner 11/26/15

In his article, “The Three Approaches to Professionalization in Technical Communication,” Saul Carliner emphasizes that, although the discipline of technical communication is working toward achieving professional status, not all members of the discipline view professional status in the same way. Because there are differences in how people working in the field of technical communication perceive professionalism, there will be differences in which methods certain members will support to achieve professionalization. One example that Carliner gives is that of certification. Some members of technical communication support it, saying that “an objective, fair, and meaningful system of certification will greatly benefit the profession of technical communication as well as individual technical communication professionals” (50). However, others oppose certification saying, “There’s no evidence that employers will value certification.”Carliner uses this example, among others, to demonstrate that technical communicators "do not have a unified view of professionalization for the field."

According to Carliner, members of the technical communication field take three broad views of professionalization: formal professionalization, quasi-professionalization, and contraprofessionalization. These different views affect how members of the discipline view what Carliner calls “the infrastructure of professionalization:” professional organizations, a common body of knowledge, formal education, professional events, and certification. A person with a formal professionalization approach views the infrastructure of professionalization as crucial to obtaining professional status, and places high value on using the infrastructure to define the profession. A person with a quasi-professional view sees the infrastructure of professionalization mainly as means to an end, and usually supports professional organizations and formal education requirements as potentially beneficial but not mandatory. A contraprofessional is leary of any actions that would “restrict entry to the field” or prevent anyone from working within the field.

Carliner is careful to note that while his article explores the different viewpoints within technical communication, “it is not intended to advocate for or against any viewpoint” (63). However, his descriptions of the three approaches implies that the formal professional approach might be more effective than quasi-professionalization or contraprofessionalization if technical communicators want to professionalize the field. The formal professional approach places more emphasis on developing the profession as a whole, while quasi-professionalization and contraprofessionalization focus only on what most benefits the individual. Though the viewpoints that characterize each approach have merit, it will be much more difficult to agree on a common body of knowledge and method for certification if the majority of professionals in technical communication take a contraprofessionalization approach than if the majority adopt a formal professionalization viewpoint.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Response to Hallier and Malone 11/19/15

 Hallier and Malone’s introduction is a good companion to Israel Light’s “Technical Writing and Professional Status.” First, it establishes the legitimacy of Light’s opinion and explains Light’s prominent position in the early field of technical communication. Reading about Light’s various degrees, organizational affiliations, and academic achievements helped me to understand why Light was such an influential leader in the field. It also allowed me to see why Light’s writings are still used to justify the need to professionalize the field of professional communication and the importance of training in movement toward professionalization.

Hallier and Malone’s introduction to Light’s article also highlighted the training Light envisioned for technical communicators. In addition to writing skills, Light “recommends that at least half of the training should be in scientific and technical coursework” and include “exposure to methods of document design and of working with graphics and audiovisual material” (30). When I read Light’s article last week, I wondered how technical writers would choose their areas of specialty and whether those areas of specialty might confine them to one industry. However, after reading comments from my classmates and other blogs from last week, I can see how exposure to different scientific coursework can provide a technical writer with enough scientific background to succeed in many industries. After all, a writer with basic knowledge of scientific and technical industries would certainly be more valuable than a technical writer trained only in the mechanics of writing, especially one working in jargon-heavy scientific fields.

While Hallier and Malone provide the context and background for “Technical Writing and Professional Status,” they don’t seem to take the discussion of professionalization further than Light did in his article. I expected a conclusion that reiterated Light’s vision and offered an update on the current status of professional communication, but Hallier and Malone chose to end the article with Light’s views on training technical communicators. I wonder if this is because the article was intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Light’s article, or because the authors feel that the same barriers to professional status that existed in Light’s time still plague the field of technical communication today.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Response to Light and Malone 11/12/15

The articles by Israel Light and Edward A. Malone addressed many of the issues I wondered about after reading Savage. More specifically, they delved into the history of the profession, motivations behind why technical communicators want to be considered professionals, and the specific barriers to certification and consensus on a single body of knowledge.

Light began his article with a frank explanation of technical writers’ desire for the social position conferred by professional status. He says, “After all, in a status-ridden society, one’s ‘label,’ one’s ‘position,’ one’s ‘standing’ is important” (E13). However, I doubt that professionalization is merely a matter of pride for technical communicators. Especially in academic settings, I would imagine that more widespread recognition as a profession would increase opportunities for course offerings, funding, and certification programs at the university level. One can infer that academics who seek to improve the quality of the technical communication field require professional status to establish training and preparation programs to prepare students for success in the field.

While lamenting that “technical writers are a bastard group of uncertain origin, with no conventional or legitimate genealogy, and with no current widely accepted or enforced benchmarks and standards of competence” (E14), Light also offers clear reasons why technical writing is a valuable profession. He describes a technical writer as “an interpreter” who translates the technical jargon of the sciences into comprehensible language for the masses (E17). This definition of the technical writer introduces the interesting component of scientific knowledge to
the job description. To successfully translate scientific information into layman’s terms, Light believes that “a sophistication in the semantics and nuances of the English language is not enough. At least half of the technical writer’s academic training should be in
scientific and technological subject matter” (E19).

If knowledge of a specific body of knowledge is necessary for a technical writer, I wondered which bodies of knowledge would be preferred as preparation for technical writers? Malone states that the first president of TWE, Robert T. Hamlett, “was a firm believer that technical writers should have engineering degrees” (292), However, such a requirement could require a technical writer to limit himself or herself to a specific industry before even entering the workforce. How common is it that a prospective technical writer would know, as a college student, exactly which industry he or she wants to specialize in? Could requiring a specialization limit a technical writer to one specific industry and shut him or her out of others.

I wonder whether the expectation of a technical writer to possess scientific knowledge is part of the problem with establishing “a well-developed, specialized body of knowledge and core competencies” (Malone 299). Because technical writers work in such a wide variety of fields, from computer science companies to nonprofit organizations, it is almost impossible to define the exact body of knowledge a professional writer must have to be successful. Consequently, it is difficult to agree on one process of licensing technical writers if a common body of knowledge has not yet been established. Despite the difficulties, Malone writes that “the McGraw-Hill president believed that a system of certification or licensing would ‘go far to convince military procurement officers and other customers’ to use bona fide professionals rather than amateurs” (295). He also implies that industries have expressed interest in hiring certified technical writers, which answers my question from the Savage article. There may be market interest in certification, but how would you go about writing a comprehensive system? Malone includes certification criteria proposed by A.M.I Fiskin in 1965 to give the reader an idea. According to Fiskin,
The candidate for certification would have to demonstrate (1) knowledge in three scientific fields; (2) competence in the use of English grammar and writing;
(3) knowledge of illustration, blueprints, and reproduction; (4) proficiency in editing (e.g., revision, rewriting); (5) ability to work within given formats (e.g., military
specifications); (6) in-depth knowledge of two of the scientific fields from Step 2; and (7)    
ability to manage a large project with many participants. (296)
While this proposed certification system was clearly designed to produce stellar technical writers, I wonder how much time and money a student would have to invest to acquire knowledge in three scientific fields in addition to learning the craft of technical writing itself. And, a bigger question - would such an investment pay off once the student entered the workforce?

So, while I still have questions, a lot of my curiosity about the professionalization of technical writing was satisfied by reading the articles by Light and Malone. I feel more comfortable with the assertion that technical writing should be considered a profession after learning more about the history, ideology, and nature of the field. Furthermore, it seems as if the law is on the technical writer’s side when it comes to the question of professionalism. According to Malone, two court cases ruled that technical writing is a profession because “‘The type of work performed by a technical writer is predominantly intellectual and creative, rather than routine,’ requiring ‘judgment or discretion,’” (301). While the field can certainly point to these rulings as evidence of their professional status, it seems that professional writing still has a long way to go in terms of agreeing on a common body of knowledge, establishing viable preparation programs in universities, and developing a certification system accepted by both technical writers and the industries that employ them.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Job Ad Analysis


Companies seeking professional writers look for competent communicators who can effectively communicate with internal and external stakeholders, collaborate with managers and other communications staff, and work well under pressure and deadlines. In this memo, I analyze five job ads seeking professional communicators. In addition to providing detailed descriptions of the job duties and skills required of a professional communicator, these ads also include language that seeks to attract and inspire talented, enthusiastic applicants. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Response to Savage 10/29/15

Gerald J. Savage’s “The Process and Prospects for Professionalizing Technical Communication” raised some interesting points about the process a discipline must undergo to be considered a  profession. Savage makes some aspects of this process very clear, such as the market, socio-political, and ideological factors involved in a field becoming professionalized. However, the chapter raised more questions than answers in regards to why technical communication needs to become a profession. At this point, I do not feel that I have enough knowledge to determine whether or not technical communication should be considered a profession,

As Savage points out and previous articles have stated, a profession must provide a service that is marketable, and professionals providing that service must occupy a relatively unchallenged place in that market niche. The professional’s corner on the market is protected by gatekeeping strategies such as college degrees and certification programs. However, certification programs are validated only if the companies who hire technical communicators are willing to hire only certified technical communicators for their positions. If companies remain perfectly happy employing ex-journalists or English majors in technical communications positions, a technical communication certification may not be worth the time and money it takes to obtain. Savage does not imply that companies are dissatisfied with the employees who are currently working in professional communication - many of whom received training in other fields. Many companies may take the viewpoint that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In addition to providing a marketable skill, a field must gain socio-political status to be considered a profession. This level of status is conferred by the perception that the professional has a specialized skill or level of expertise that laypeople do not possess. Savage claims that this expertise is legitimized by certifications, academic programs, and the idea that the professional acquired his or her skills “by personal discipline and effort, a characteristic that is highly valued in the traditions of American culture” (149). At the moment, Savage laments that professional writing is usually underappreciated by laypeople who have wildly different opinions about document quality, and who believe that anyone who is “good with words” can function as a technical communicator. While it is clear that Savage does not see the field’s current socio-political status as desirable, he does not make a clear argument for why the quality of professional communication would improve if its socio-political status were elevated. Why would it benefit current and future professional writers to be seen as expert consultants, and would hiring only licensed technical communicators significantly improve the quality of corporate communication?

The last feature of professionalization is the ideological factors that professionals in a particular field share. These ideological factors shape certification requirements, goals of professional organizations, and the actions of individual professionals. However, while I read Savage’s description of the importance of a common body of knowledge within a profession, I wondered what ideology professional writers share. Because professional writers work for a vast variety of companies and in an array of environments, it is difficult to pinpoint one uniting ideology among professional communicators. As Savage states, “the knowledge that is often perceived as most relevant for technical communicators is subject matter knowledge, which necessarily makes the communicator subordinate to engineers and other subject matter experts” (157). Although he addresses the difficulty of finding a shared body of knowledge to unite the profession, Savage does not propose an ideology professional communicators should adopt.

After reading “The Process and Prospects for Professionalizing Technical Communication,” I was skeptical of the claim that professional communication needs to undergo the changes necessary to label it a profession. That is not to say that the field is unimportant - excluding professional communication from the ranks of “the professions” is not necessarily an elitist distinction. I am simply not convinced that professional communication meets all the criteria that Savage argues professions must meet.