Collaboration and/in Technical Communication (from the Perspective of a Tech Comm PhD Student)

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:

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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,

Article Review: Content Strategy: An Integrative Literature Review

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 Communication59(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.

Article Review: Academics Are from Mars, Practitioners are from Venus: Analyzing Content Alignment within Technical Communication Forums

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 Communication63(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.

Technical Communication Journals and Publications

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))

Journal of Business and Technical Communication

Journal of Technical Writing and Communication

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.


Technical Communication Conferences and Communities

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:

For Practitioners

Online Communities


  • STC India
  • WriteTheDocs Portland
  • STC meetups in the Bay Area
  • tcworld

For Academicians

Online Communities

  • 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!

The Academic Life in Tech Comm

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)

Reflections on Finishing a Technical Communication Graduate Program by Fer O’Neil

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

Masters in Technical Communication: Ask Me Anything

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:

Masters in Technical Communication: Graduate Teaching Assistantship at the Missouri S&T program

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

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Masters in Technical Communication: Program at Missouri S&T

So far in this series, we have covered the general information about graduate programs in Technical Communication (TC). This blog post discusses the program details and my experience at Missouri S&T.

Missouri S&T is located in Rolla, a university town at a 2-hour drive from St. Louis. The MS in Technical Communication program is offered by the Department of English and Technical Communication, which resides in the Humanities and Social Sciences building. I enrolled in the program in August 2015 and graduated in May 2017 and took the following courses:

First semester:

  • Advanced Proposal Writing
  • Advanced International Communication
  • History of Technical Communication

Second semester:

  • Advanced Visual Communication
  • Web-Based Communication
  • Technical Editing

Third semester:

  • Help Authoring
  • Teaching Technical Communication
  • Research Methods in Technical Communication

Fourth semester:

  • Usability Studies
  • Thesis credits

My thesis topic was “Knowledge Management at Startups”. At the time, I was interning at Druva’s California office and was working on the Customer Education and Engineering documentation initiatives at the company. I conducted an auto-ethnographic research on how knowledge is captured, communicated, and managed at a startup. In place of doing a Master’s thesis, I had the option of taking two additional courses and taking a comprehensive exam. I chose the thesis route, and am so glad I did!

The courses were taught by three professors: Dr. Northcut, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Malone. Each professor brings their expertise and peculiarities to the classroom. My life is so much richer for having known my professors and learned from them.

Observing Dr. Northcut taught me how to be a professional, yet a empathetic human being. She has high expectations from her students, and leaves no stone unturned to help her students reach their maximum potential. Her drive and discipline might seem jarring at first, but as I got to know her, I saw the tremendous faith she has in us, and that just made me want to meet her expectations every time. I am a stronger woman and a better professional because of her.

Dr. Malone made me into a better writer. My undergraduate background is in engineering – I never had a formal writing education. Dr. Malone helped me overcome the lack of a formal writing education. I am in awe of his technical editing skills and attention to detail. He helped me understand the “whys” behind all the technical writing adages: Why we don’t say “please” and “you might” in technical writing, why localizing for an American audience is different than writing for an Asian audience, why use plain language, and so on (Hint: The answer to all questions lies in the theories of international communication).

Dr. Wright helped me lead a balanced, mentally stable life as a graduate student. He was my academic advisor, and later took on the role of my thesis advisor as well. His unwavering support and encouragement saw me through the stressful job-search process, navigating the Master’s thesis procedures, and just the general anxiety of living in a foreign country.

I genuinely believe the TC graduate program at Missouri S&T is a well-crafted and well-executed program that balances preparing students for TC jobs while also preparing them for an academic career. You get a real taste of the life of an academician if you are a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) under the tutelage of Dr. Northcut. For me, being a GTA has been the most significant experience at Missouri S&T that opened up a whole new career path for me. In the next post, we will deep-dive into the Graduate Teaching Assistantship program. Stay tuned!

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