near futures of professional-technical communication

Over the last few months I’ve been going through the process of proposing a graduate certificate in digital communication and professional writing. It’s a long bureaucratic slog in the SUNY system but, with fingers crossed, we’ll have full state approval in the next few months. In any case, it certainly has me thinking about what it is I’m getting myself into.

First, pragmatically speaking, this certificate requires students to take four graduate courses. The idea is to attract students graduating at UB–and at other regional colleges–who might stay one extra semester, current grad students who might fit this into their stay here, and possibly professionals in the local community. The university has had a recent interest in professionalizing and skill-building curriculum at the grad level, related to a kind of general alt-ac movement (it’s not just English Phds who struggle on the academic job market).  Second, as we know, there really isn’t a specific degree or certification one requires to pursue a career as a professional writer, technical communicator, etc. On the other hand, something on paper might give one a leg up, especially if one can back it up in an interview. That said, while I’m imagining some of the people who might pursue this certificate will be thinking specifically of linking the certificate to a job title, I’m also envisioning students who recognize that developing their communication skills will aid their employability and potential for advancement in related careers as a kind of secondary expertise.

I was reading Miles Kimball’s “Golden Age of Technical Communication,” which appears in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (actually I was reading a pre-print version on his site). I was struck by his analysis about the stagnating prospects for technical writers as a profession. As he points out, the predictions for the demand for technical writers doesn’t really cry out for the creation of more academic programs. That said, at the same time, he argues that more people take on technical writing practices everyday, even outside the workplace where they make how-to videos, wikis, and so on. In short, he ends up arguing for an more expansive technical writing curriculum, integrated with general education and composition. I think there’s some good insight there, and one might say my own career is reflective of Kimball’s observations. I’ve never called myself a technical communication scholar, nor have I published in tech comm journals. Instead I’ve been a new media/digital rhetorician. Long ago, I did some work as a technical writer, and throughout my academic career I’ve done my share of professional and technical writing, as many of us have: policy manuals, procedures, reports, promotional materials, web content, proposals, etc., etc. I’ve also taught technical and professional writing at the undergraduate level and ran a professional writing major for a few years. I’m also like those people Kimball describes who have taken on aspects of technical writing in an extra-professional way–this blog, for example.

As we’re just starting out at UB, I’m thinking that while our certificate certainly does link to careers with titles like “technical writer,” since it is clearly a secondary kind of degree, I see the curriculum as equally linked to careers with different titles where communication is a critical skill. That might not fit neatly into a BLS job category but might instead be a subset of jobs within each category. For example, “computer systems analyst” is a career the BLS identifies as one that will see significant job growth: 118K new jobs over the decade. Do you need some CS/IT degree? Probably, but not necessarily according to the BLS. I’m betting that some portion of those jobs involve writing/communicating as a primary, daily activity. This is Kimball’s point, I think, or at least part of it: the amorphous, spreading nature of technical communication. When I think about a certificate with four courses in it, that’s what I think I’m creating–an add on to an existing set of qualifications that targets a particular set of careers within a profession. Even with 10-12 courses in an undergrad major, I’d still be thinking about how students combined it with something else.

However I don’t want to miss Kimball’s main point about the broader educational role of tech comm. Institutionally speaking, in order to make that happen you need to have faculty with expertise in the field, and in order to have those faculty, you need students in tech comm writing programs generating credits. That is, I don’t think you can get to what Kimball wants without a major. Composition is the cautionary tale in this regard. That said, just as tech comm spreads as a practice across professions and into extra-professional and non-professional spaces, so too these interests spread across campuses and faculty. In my view, the challenge is linking faculty in STEM interested in tech/scientific comm with those in business interested in professional comm with those in art/media interested in visual comm with those in education interested in digital literacy with those in English and communications, etc. etc. What can be built there? Are the interests too tertiary and weak to form bonds? I’m not sure.