Today’s post in this month’s series of guest posts is by Jason Tham, a graduate student currently pursuing a PhD in Technical Communication at University of Minnesota. I have studied Jason’s articles for the Research Methods in Tech Comm course for my Masters program and followed his academic career via social media. I am so excited you get to hear from him today. Here’s Jason’s post:
Collaboration is at the heart of technical communication, and I see at least two reasons to why that’s so: 1) technical communication materials are produced for human use and therefore always require human input; and 2) as cliche as it may sound, it remains true to me that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something––thus two or more heads are better than one when it comes to solving technical communication issues or tasks.
As a PhD student, my work in the past 4 years has been largely collaborative. Whether in practice or pedagogy, I have been acculturated to working with users, designers, researchers, and teachers. These interactions are often productive and rewarding; they help me create more effective documents, design and perform better studies, and deliver innovative instructions. In this guest post, I share some of my collaborative experiences in research, publishing, teaching, service, and professional practice.
Collaboration in research
After reviewing my CV, I realized more than half of my current projects are shared with other researchers in and out of my home department at my university. While I have worked in larger teams that ranged from four to eight researchers, my typical collaborations are in teams of two (myself and another researcher or scholar). Whether we are co-investigating a common problem or co-authoring a report, my experience with sharing a research project has been rewarding. I have always learned new research methods and strategies for communicating my findings. Furthermore, from a research standpoint, collaboration may boost the validity and reliability of a qualitative study if inter-rater reliability is utilized and achieved.
Collaboration in publishing
When publishing in technical communication journals (or any journal, I suppose), authors tend to work with journal editor(s) to identify the publication’s scope, standards, and other publishing specifications. I consider this interaction with journal editors and even responses to blind reviews as a kind of professional collaboration. Such collaboration ensures the quality of a publication––that authors produce scholarship that advance knowledge, reviewers provide feedback that enhance the scholarly merits of the refereed work, and editors ensure the integrity of the publication is preserved and supervise the production process.
I have also been blessed with the opportunities to co-edit some special issues of technical communication journals––most recently for the Journal of Business and Technical Communication and Computers and Composition––on special topics like “design thinking approaches for technical communication” and “immersive technologies and writing pedagogy.” In these co-editing experiences, I have collaborated with other academics to create calls for papers, review submissions, coordinate peer reviews, and work with authors and publishers. Special issue publications such as these tend to require a kind of collaborative dynamic that’s different from a regular journal issue as we had to draw resources from a select pool of experts and work within a specific publication timeline that complements the publisher’s workflow.
Collaboration in teaching
Based on my teaching experience, students find it more meaningful to work with problems that have tangible impact on their lives and those around them. As an instructor of technical communication, this means I need to work to bridge theory and practice in student learning. To achieve this goal, I have been collaborating with faculty members with other disciplinary expertise to co-design course modules and learning activities that benefit students in our classes. For instance, in the current (Spring 2018) semester, I am teaming up with a professor from mechanical engineering to create a learning unit for my business writing course where my students serve as press release writing consultants to graduate engineering students whom they are partnered with. This collaborative effort gives both my students and the graduate engineers in another course an opportunity to cross path and learn from each other.
Collaboration in service
As a member of the technical communication discipline, I am also called to provide services to the field that advance its visibility and wellbeing. In my opinion, these services are best done through collective effort and thus I have collaborated with other graduate students and scholars to co-organize events that led to the aforementioned goals. One example is the 21st Annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing Conference, where three active scholars in my department and I co-hosted in the Fall of 2017. Pulling together a regional conference isn’t a task that can be easily accomplished by an individual; by collaborating with colleagues and other graduate students, we were able to co-design a program that reflected the trends of the field and attracted presenters that had interesting topics to share.
Collaboration in professional practice
When not teaching or conducting research studies, I work as a leasing agent for a student housing provider. Collaboration is ingrained into my work routine; more often than not, I am working with other fellow agents to address leasing and marketing needs––we review our weekly leasing (sales) performance, discuss existing customer service issues, and come up with solutions to address these situations collaboratively. Also, part of my work is dedicated to maintaining a shared database of resident profiles and incoming prospects. Every leasing agent at my property plays a part in keeping shared notes and updating the database. Each year, it takes a team of six leasing agents, working very closely with a leasing manager, to fully lease our residence. While leasing and customer service may not be directly related to technical communication, they are communicative activities that require similar professional rigor.
Together, all these experiences help me grow as a technical communicator, whether through research, publishing, teaching, service, or professional practice. Indeed, as my academic advisor––Dr. Ann Hill Duin––wrote with her collaborator more than 25 years ago, collaboration in technical communication is a research continuum, rather than a static phenomenon or theory. The motivation and techniques for collaboration in technical settings keep shifting according to the context within which the collaboration occurs. My advice for rising technical communicators is to dip their toes in multiple collaborative contexts as part of their training so they may be hone their skills in collaborating with others.
Contact: Jason Tham, firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: I had written the following article review as part of my Annotated Bibliography project during my graduate program.
Clark, D. (2016). Content Strategy: An Integrative Literature Review. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 59(1), 7-23.
Clark’s article looks at how content strategy is defined and discussed in scholarly and trade literature, and what do the discussions indicate about the direction of the technical communication field. Clark conducted an integrative literature review to find answers to the research questions. Clark traces the emergence of content strategy across multiple disciplines such as technical communication, marketing, knowledge management, and so on. Because content strategy is an integral part of several disciplines, an integrative literature review was the most suitable research instrument.
Clark selected the literature to be reviewed based on whether the work contributed to the knowledge about content strategy, if the work was published after 2009 so as to include recent publications, if the work had the potential of being widely cited and shape the conversation about content strategy, and if the work was publicly available. Based on these criteria, Clark narrowed down the literature to 37 publications comprising of 24 articles and 13 books.
To analyze the literature, Clark resorted to the Classical Rhetorical theory that provides the terminology for discourse analysis. Clark manually read the publications carefully. He noted the definitions and descriptions of content strategy in the publications, and the processes and tools they discussed to meet the content strategy goals. He also collected the employment history of the authors of the publications.
The analysis of the collated data suggests a lack of a common definition of the term “content”. The analysis reveals that content strategy is considered to be the process of creating and maintaining material, is integrated with business and technical needs, and is primarily focused on the customer. The literature promises content strategy as a viable career path for technical communicators, but lacks concrete, real-world examples of putting the concepts into practice. The literature related to content strategy is found in trade publications than academic journals. It indicates that though there is a demand for content strategists in the industry, faculty are not giving it due attention.
The audience for the article are content strategists, instructors of professional communication courses, and documentation managers. Clark discusses the relevant literature snippets thematically instead of presenting a patchwork of quotations and annotations from the literature. He presents a rich level of detail in the literature review. He analyzes the cited literature and provides suggestions for future research in the area of content strategy. He thus meets Hughes and Hayhoe’s (2008, p. 121) criteria of a good literature review.
Note: I had written the following article review as part of my Annotated Bibliography project during my graduate program.
Boettger, R. K., & Friess, E. (2016). Academics Are from Mars, Practitioners Are from Venus:Analyzing Content Alignment within Technical Communication Forums. Technical Communication, 63(4), 314-327.
Boettger and Friess’ article investigates the content misalignment in the technical communication publications for academics and practitioners. In this empirical study, the authors conducted a quantitative content analysis of 1048 articles published in four leading technical communication journals and one published magazine over a period of 20 years. The study confirmed the disconnect between the academic and practicing communities and helped the authors formulate recommendations to bridge the disconnect.
The authors sought to understand how is content broadly classified across the publications, what primary content areas do the publications address, and who are the primary audiences for the publications. The authors selected the four leading publications (JBTC, TC, TCQ, and TPC) based on previous studies which found these publications to be the leading publications in technical communication. They selected Intercom as the longest published magazine in technical communication. Because Intercom has been published as a magazine since 1996, the authors selected January 1996 as the starting time for the time period of analysis. They analyzed the articles from 1996 to 2015, when this study was published. The authors populated the 3605 articles published in all five publications in the 20-year timeframe in an Excel sheet and used a random number generator software to randomly select 30% of the total articles.
The authors coded the 1048 articles for four content variables: forum, broad topic, primary topic, and primary audience. Over six norming sessions, three raters used an independent sample of articles to test and refine the coding categories. Then over 10 coding sessions, three raters coded the sample set of 1048 articles. Inter-rater reliability was calculated with Krippendorff’s alpha coefficient. The results of the agreement were: forum (100%), broad topic (80.2%), primary topic (82%), and primary audience (76%).
The authors analyzed the data through descriptive statistics and correspondence analysis (CA). CA is a geometric technique used to analyze two-way and multi-way tables containing some measure of correspondence between the rows and columns. CA reveals patterns in complex data and provides output that can help researchers interpret these patterns.
Based on the analysis, the following results were obtained: Intercom published more process-oriented articles, whereas the journals published more education-oriented articles. There was a strong association between the following forum and broad topic: Intercom and profession, TCQ and education, and TC and product. As for primary content, professionalization and technology content areas were prominent in Intercom, whereas content on pedagogy, rhetoric, assessment, comprehension, and design were prominent in the journals. Rhetoric as a topic was identified only in journals. A strong association was found between the following forum and primary topic: Again, Intercom with professionalization, TCQ with rhetoric, and TPC with pedagogy. With respect to the primary audience, the primary audience for the journals were academics and managers, while for Intercom, the primary audience was writers, content developers, managers, and so on. There was a strong association between the following forum and primary audience: Intercom and writer/content developer, JBTC and TCQ with academic, and TC and manager.
Based on the results, the authors verified the disconnect between the publications and recommended remedies to bridge the disconnect. They recommend unifying the existing forums, identifying new audiences, and involving practitioners in technical communication research.
The main question about the study is the premise that the content forums for technical communicators need to be unified. As we learned in the History of Technical Communication course, the different publications were started to serve different audiences and meet their varied requirements. Unifying the forums would defy the original purpose of the publications. Another concern is the publications excluded from the study. Not all academics and especially practitioners read the publications studied in this article. In today’s Internet age, popular online blogs such as I’d rather be writing and ffeathers need to be considered to ensure maximum readership is accounted for.
Before I started my graduate program in Technical Communication, I had no idea about the immense wealth of knowledge that are the Tech Comm publications. This post provides information about the Tech Comm journals and publications that helped me in my graduate program as well as thesis. Following are peer-reviewed quarterly journals published in the field of technical communication:
Technical Communication (Published by STC)
Technical Communication Quarterly (Published by ATTW)
IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication (Published by the Professional Communication Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE))
In the upcoming blog posts, I will review articles from these journals to give you an idea of the type of articles published in the academic tech comm world.
One of the benefits of being a part of the academic as well as practicing circles of Technical Communication is that I can participate in conferences and communities in both domains. This post lists the conferences and communities that I find useful:
- WriteTheDocs Slack
- STC India Facebook group
- Technical Writers United
- Information Developers Foundation
- STC India
- WriteTheDocs Portland
- STC meetups in the Bay Area
- WomenInTC Slack and Twitter
- ATTW mailing list
- CPTSC mailing list
- ATTW conference
- CPTSC conference
- GPACW conference
- STC regional conferences (I attended two: one in Springfield and another in Missouri State University)
Update: Came across this incredible list of conferences. Check it out!
Since I published the Frequently Asked Questions blog post, I have received several questions about what the academic life in Technical Communication looks like. Instead of me answering the question from my limited perspective and experience, I thought it best to share resources that give some insight into the academic life in Tech Comm:
Life at a Teaching School by Ashley Patriarca (@aspatriarca)
Expertise and Service by Michele Simmons and Pat Sullivan
Strategies for Writing Every Day by Kristen Moore
A Preview of the Luncheon, Sort Of by Lisa Meloncon
Last Monday, I asked you to send me your questions about pursuing a Masters in Technical Communication in the United States. Thank you for the incredible response to the blog post. Following is my attempt to collate and answer the frequently asked questions from my limited perspective as an International student in Missouri S&T’s Tech Comm grad program. Let’s start with the most repeated question:
Job prospects after graduation?
As an international student, if you are looking for a conventional, user documentation-oriented tech writing job, the prospects are quite dim. Think about it from the US companies’ perspective – they have access to native English speakers who they can hire without any visa hassles. Why would they hire us (non-native English speakers) who have just one year of work authorization after graduation? It does not make business sense. Also, to be fair, they need to give preference to their citizens, just like we would want to have preference in our home countries.
The goal of pursuing a Masters degree, not only in Technical Communication, but in general, needs to be reconsidered. The conventional reason for completing a Masters degree as a pathway to a job in the US and earning in dollars is becoming irrelevant by the day. Yes, it is still possible, but in different ways than before. The industry is maturing and is becoming very specific in its requirements. It is also branching out at an astounding rate.
So let’s reframe the question: Which skills and experiences can help me become a valuable contributor to an organization so that they find it worthwhile to invest in me and take a chance on me? Now that’s a better question.
Here’s how me and my coursemates tried to answer it:
- Over the course of my career, I developed expertise in the niche and deeply-technical domain of software architecture documents. I proactively sought out challenging technical communication positions, especially at startups, and built a strong portfolio around it. I maintained my interest in the changing technological landscape by contributing to open source projects and participating in on-campus engineering projects. And I never burned any bridges – the professional rapport and reputation I developed at Druva while working in Pune led to a summer internship in our California campus. And that internship prepared me for my current position at Cockroach Labs in New York. So my answer to the question of how to become a valuable member of an organization: Find your niche and develop expertise in it.
- One of my coursemates leveraged the teaching assistantship experience into the position of a Technical Writing Instructor at another university.
- Two of my acquaintances at other universities have enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Tech Comm. The academic positions in technical communication are competitive, yet highly viable.
- I have met international students who have leveraged their academic careers into opportunities in allied fields such as usability and accessibility, human-computer interaction, international communication, medical and scientific communication, wearable tech comm, VR comm, and so on.
What about campus placements?
In my experience, campus placements are non-existent for technical communication students – especially international students. Don’t rely on campus placements.
What are the living costs of pursuing a Masters degree in the US?
The cost of pursuing a degree in the United States varies drastically depending on the location of the university, financial assistance you get from the university, and the program you choose.
The university I went to – Missouri S&T – is located in a small university town called Rolla, which is at a two-hour drive from the nearest city (St. Louis). It is a quiet little town with not much to do, but my living expenses were a fraction of my friends’ expenses who lived in major cities like Chicago and New York. I had comfortable accommodation in a shared house where I had my own room and bathroom, and it cost me $750 per month. Add to that groceries, utilities, internet, etc. and my total monthly expenses figured around $1250. I got paid $1600 per month as stipend for being a Teaching Assistant.
I would recommend going to university in a small town to keep the cost low, and move to a big city for work after you graduate.
Can I do part-time job outside of the college campus? If yes, how many hours per week can I work?
Not in the first year. In the second year, you can do a part-time internship for up to 20 hours per week. But that has to be related to your field.
Is it worth doing an online degree?
Yes, if your company pays for it. For instance, back when I was working at Symantec, they had a policy of funding a major chunk of an online degree. If your company provides similar benefits, definitely consider taking advantage of them.
Is it worth taking out a student loan for a Masters degree?
No. Absolutely not. I would not recommend taking out an education loan for any degree, not just a Tech Comm degree. But good Tech Comm grad programs do have financial assistance available, so if you get decent funding, then I would highly recommend pursuing a Masters degree.
Changing fields and moving to tech writing: Is the degree worth it? Am I eligible?
I think so. None of my coursemates had any background in technical writing. They all came from different backgrounds: HR, English, BioScience, to name a few. They chose the degree because they wanted to move into a practical, job-fetching field. And they found their own paths after earning their Masters. So I have seen it done, but it will be up to you to figure out how to make the most of your degree.
What about the scary political climate?
If you are on social media or listen to the news, the current political climate in the US definitely sounds scary. But in my experience, it does not affect my everyday life. The people in my life – be it in Missouri, California, or New York – are the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met. Yes, there’s racism and sexism, but it’s similar to the casteism and economic discrimination in India. The upheaval you hear about now is not unlike the upheaval we experienced in our previous election. This is democracy in action, and many good people are fighting the good fight. Don’t let the news and fear-mongering scare you away from experiencing a vibrant and evolving culture.
To summarize my thoughts:
- Pursue a Masters degree in Technical Communication after you have considerable experience in the field already. Find out if you really like the field, which parts of it do you like the most, and build your expertise in those areas. Then seek a degree that helps you specialize in those areas.
- Secure scholarship and financial assistance at an accredited university.
- Be open to opportunities and allied fields that you might not have even heard of till you enter the academic circles of tech comm – I certainly hadn’t! Consider fields like communication in medical sciences, or usability and accessibility, or data science. Or consider an academic career (definitely on my horizon).
- Your goal should be to step out of the comfort zone, experience living in a different culture and country, contribute to projects you deeply care about, and open your mind to global issues and perspectives.
- At any point in time, be ready to go back to your home country – and be grateful we have a safe and welcoming country to go back to. Everyone’s not that blessed. (Side note: Volunteer or donate to organizations that work with refugees. We all need to help in any way possible).
Since I started the Masters in Technical Communication series, I have had repeat questions about campus placements, if the tech comm grad degree is worth the investment, will the degree help me switch fields, and so on.
I think these are important questions and should be answered publicly. So I am planning a Frequently Asked Questions post to be published on February 12th. If you have a question you would like to have answered, submit your question here:
This blog post gives you a peek into the life of a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) in the Technical Communication graduate program at Missouri S&T.
The Graduate Teaching Assistantship comes with financial benefits. In my first year, the out-of-state fees were waived and I had to pay partial fees for in-state tuition. I was also paid a stipend. In the second year, all the fees were waived. Such a blessing!
A Graduate Teaching Assistantship usually involves conducting labs and assisting a professor with grading, and so on. However, in the Technical Communication program at Missouri S&T, being a GTA means that every semester, you teach a section of the technical writing service course. Each section has 20 undergraduate students. As the GTA, you are responsible for the section for the entire semester – right from writing the course syllabus (based on a syllabus designed by Dr. Northcut), teaching the class, planning the assignments, designing the grading rubrics, grading the assignments, taking attendance, raising academic flags – the whole deal. You are the instructor-of-record for the section. It was the highlight of my experience as a grad student.
The GTA program is driven by Dr. Northcut. My GTA program started with a full-day GTA Orientation on the Friday before the first semester started. During our orientation, Dr. Northcut discussed essential things like FERPA, academic flags, health and support resources for our students, and so on. I had no clue being an instructor involved so many crucial responsibilities! She also taught us about dailies (daily lesson plans), taking useful peer observation notes, handling difficult students, and so on. It was a deeply informative and slightly intimidating session.
For the first semester, my fellow GTAs and I observed Ms. Roberson’s class. We attended each of the lectures, completed the assignments, and took copious observation notes. Each of the GTAs taught one topic – to help us get a feel for teaching a class and getting feedback about our teaching styles from each other and Ms. Roberson.
At the start of the second semester, we took the SPEAK test (similar to the speaking section of the TOEFL exam) and gave a mock lecture to a panel of students and instructors. Only if you pass the tests are you allowed to teach as a GTA. Thankfully, I passed 🙂 The second semester onwards, each of the GTAs taught a section of the undergraduate course in technical writing. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. My students of all three semesters were co-operative, understanding, and brilliant. They appreciated my industry experience and engineering background, which sparked interesting discussions about how things work in the real-world job situations. All our assignments were geared towards real-world scenarios instead of hypothetical ones. I learned from them as much as they learned from me.
We also had hour-long weekly GTA meetings, where Dr. Northcut provided a platform for the GTAs to share and learn from our fellow instructors. In each meeting, all GTAs individually shared how we were planning to approach the upcoming assignment, and Dr. Northcut, Ms. Roberson, and the senior GTAs used their experience to corroborate our approaches or point out the possible problems we could run into. If we had difficult students or situations that were beyond our purview, we informed Dr. Northcut and she would handle it for us. We also had grade-norming sessions, wherein all of us graded a set of assignments individually, followed by a discussion of why we graded the way we did. This helped us normalize our grading across sections. We attended the meetings all through the two years of the graduate program.
I did not realize the value of the training until I interacted with faculty from other universities at the ATTW and CPTSC conferences. That was when I realized that Dr. Northcut had set us up for successful academic careers, and I am so thankful to her for it.
If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at email@example.com