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:

josh-calabrese-236920-unsplash
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, thamx007@umn.edu

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

Conferences

  • 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

Conferences

  • 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 hello@amrutaranade.com

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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!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: How to apply to universities

In the previous post, we discussed how to choose a graduate program. This post discusses how to apply to Technical Communication (TC) graduate programs in the United States.

A seminal resource to study when applying for TC graduate programs is Dr. Angela Eaton’s article. In this article, Dr. Eaton rightly points out why the generic advice about applying to grad schools is so unsuitable for TC grad programs. She then discusses the behind-the-scenes action of how TC application review committees evaluate and select candidates for the graduate programs. She describes the application materials in detail and how to explain any weaknesses in your application.

Dr. Eaton’s advice is particularly helpful for non-US applicants, who might not be aware of the cultural and contextual expectations in graduate applications. I sure wasn’t aware of the expectations. This article proved eye-opening for me. For instance, as an Indian student, I was prone towards opening my Statement of Purpose with a quote or a childhood memory, which is considered a curt no-no in the US academic system. I can’t stress enough how important this article is. Before preparing your application materials, study this article thoroughly. Print it out, annotate it, follow her advice religiously.

In addition to Dr. Eaton’s article, I want to point out the additional steps international students have to undertake before and after applying to TC grad programs in the United States:

Transcripts:

In the Indian education system, we are given marksheets after we pass an exam. I was under the impression that marksheets are the same as transcripts – but that’s not true. I had to request University of Pune to issue my official transcripts – and the process is supposed to take up to 60 days! Thankfully, I got my transcripts in time. Lesson learned: Request your official transcripts well in advance.

Snail Mail:

Most universities require that you send your application materials by actual, physical mail. Make sure you mail the application materials in advance and keep a time buffer to account for international shipping.

Student Visa (F1 Visa):

Once you are admitted into the TC grad program, the university will issue your I-20, which is one of the key documents required to apply for the student visa. This document will be mailed physically to you, so while scheduling your visa interview, ensure you will have received your I-20 by then. The student visa application process is same as that of other majors. The official US Travel site <http://www.ustraveldocs.com> has all the information required for the process.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: Choosing a Graduate Program

Choosing the program that’s right for you is a daunting task. This blog post discusses how I chose the graduate program at Missouri S&T.

As we discussed in the previous post, I had worked for 5 years as a Technical Writer in India. I had worked with multinational companies and startups, on user documentation as well as developer documentation. By then, I had realized my strengths as a tech writer and identified my knowledge gaps.  I realized the need for formal education in writing in general, and technical writing in particular. So I Googled “technical writing degrees,” not expecting to find any. To my utter surprise, Google returned 5,790,000  results.

Thankfully, the search also directed me to Fer O’Neil’s blog post on choosing a technical communication program. In this outstanding blog post, Fer discusses the criteria and selection process he used to narrow down the choice of his graduate program, as well as analyzes several graduate programs. I cannot recommend this blog post highly enough. It is an excellent starting point for anyone serious about pursuing a TC graduate program in the United States.

Studying Fer’s blog post helped me come up with my criteria for choosing a graduate program. The first criteria Fer discussed in his blog post was MS or MA, so naturally, this was the first one I evaluated as well. Being an engineer, I was inclined towards MS rather than an MA degree. I thoroughly researched the programs Fer had listed in his blog post, as well as the programs listed in Dr. Angela Eaton’s article and in STC’s Academic Database. The MS programs seemed to have a real-world focus instead of a theoretical approach to technical communication. I perused the syllabuses and courses of several universities before finalizing the program at Missouri S&T.

The Technical Communication graduate program at Missouri S&T aligned with my expectations – at least from the course descriptions. For example:

  • Help Authoring – I was already doing it all day every day at my job.
  • Web Design – I knew I wanted to make time to learn it while I was working but couldn’t find the time. It seemed like a great opportunity to finally learn Web Design.
  • Visual communication and Usability were topics that were coming up frequently at STC India conferences and other industry interactions.
  • International Technical communication – Localization was taking off in a big way when I was working at Symantec.

I could relate to almost all the courses. I emailed Dr. Wright at Missouri S&T to get more information about the program, and within a few email conversations, I knew I had found the right program for me.

Dr. Wright informed me that I am eligible for a teaching assistantship – I didn’t even know that was an option! An assistantship would mean a part-fee waiver and a monthly stipend. I was mentally prepared to put in all my savings and borrow money from my parents to fund my graduate education, but the assistantship would lessen the burden considerably. (In the second year, the entire fee was waived off. I really hit the jackpot with Missouri S&T).

What sealed the deal for me was Dr. Wright’s response rate. He was always helpful, always prompt – it was almost as if he could sense my anxiety and questions and respond to them. (His empathy and unwavering support would later prove invaluable when he took on the responsibility of being my thesis advisor). Another person responsible for my choice is our brilliant administrative assistant, Ms. Linda Sands. She was an immense help in getting the paperwork in time, signing up for classes, all that good stuff. People usually suggest that you research 10 universities and apply to 5. I didn’t. I was sure about my decision and applied only to the Missouri S&T program. And I am so glad I did!

Though I got lucky with my choice, I now have a better understanding of the factors one should consider while selecting a program:

Location, location, location: One of the factors I didn’t consider at all (because I didn’t know any better), was location. This means finding a school in a location in which you’ll be comfortable. Missouri S&T is in Rolla, a university town at a 2-hours drive from St. Louis. Coming from a crowded city in India, Rolla seemed isolated and empty. It took me a semester to get used to it – and once I did, I fell in love with it. However, small-town universities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t neglect to research the demographics of the area when identifying graduate programs.

Find Support to Cover the Costs: Many universities offer assistantships. An assistantship is an arrangement between the student and the university where the student is given financial support while teaching or conducting research for the university. Ask if your program of choice offers assistantships.

STEM versus Non- STEM Courses: This is an important criteria for international students that I had absolutely no idea about. International students who complete graduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs in the U.S. can apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. The OPT extension allows people who qualify to work in the U.S. for 3 years. Students of Non-STEM courses get an OPT for only a year. FYI:  Most Technical Communication graduate programs are Non-STEM.

Once you decide to pursue a graduate program in Technical Communication and finalize your program selection criteria, go through the following resources to analyze graduate programs:

In the next blog post, we will discuss how to apply to TC graduate programs in the United States.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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