Spending one’s time in the tech comm classroom

As I’ve been writing about recently, I’m teaching an undergrad tech comm class for the first time in a long time. We’re now a couple weeks in, and here’s my primary observation. It’s probably fairly obvious and not only to teaching technical writing but to almost any writing focused class.

There really isn’t any time to focus on matters that are not directly related to the task at hand. 

Fundamentally I think of writing-focused classes as learning through practice/experience. I don’t think that’s radical. There are some observations I can make from my experience (and through some readings) that can contribute to making the task at hand a little easier and navigate past some of the more predictable pitfalls, but mostly it’s about doing.

For example, over the last week or so we’ve been working on the first assignment, which is making an infographic. Wednesday is our workshop day, and it’s due in a week. Basically this is what we’ve done class-by-class

  1. Looked at some infographics and tried to figure out what the genre was.
  2. Experimented with some freely available tools and discussed what topics we might select.
  3. Did some short readings from Slide:ology that discussed different strategies for the visual arrangement of information and ways to display data graphically.
  4. Discussed the sources that we’re planning to use and our initial plans for how we’re going to turn them into infographics.

Typically we spend 10 minutes or so with some in-class writing, work in small groups on a task extending from that writing for about 15-20 min, and then end with some class discussion. It’s a 50 minute class.

In the context of this work we discuss issues of accessibility, of cultural differences, of ethical, social, and political concerns. We take up rhetorical analysis in introductory ways to think critically about the information we are using and the way it is presented to us and give some thought to how that might inform our own compositional decisions. But all of that is folded into the activity of the projects themselves. The students develop declarative knowledge (i.e., what they know about rhetoric or technical writing) through procedural knowledge (i.e., the development of know how). I don’t really think of this as a “process approach” as stereotypically defined, which, for good or bad, often devolves into teaching declarative knowledge, i.e., aiming for students to know about the writing process.

Instead, for me, having a practice/experience based approach means relying on the experience of doing (and reflecting) as the primary means by which learning occurs. The consequence is that the classroom activity is aimed at always pushing that doing forward by being a time/place where the doing happens.

Am I anticipating scintillating infographics? No. The constraints of these free tools are fairly significant, and the students have little or no prior experience with doing this. The aim of the assignment (as part of the larger aims of the course) is two-fold. First, through this experience students will hopefully gain an introductory understanding of the rhetorical and compositional challenges of visual communication: What questions need to be asked and answered? What processes are involved? What tools would I need to use? Second, again hopefully, students will find themselves on a path that they might choose to pursue. Maybe their infographics are not going to go viral; maybe they aren’t even as good as some of the others in the class. But they will have an idea of the path, at least the general direction, they’d need to take to improve and a solid notion of the next steps. In other words, they shift from infographics being something they generally give little thought to (even though they probably see them often) to something about which they have some know how and as a genre that is available to them, at least provisionally.

I know a lot of writing courses are thematically and topically structured. I’ve taught that way myself–sometimes as a product of programmatic requirements. While I’m not in business here of telling people how they should teach, what I’m experiencing right now at least is a sense of how hard it would be to help students work through this infographic assignment and spend several classes critiquing infographics, discussing readings that critique the increasing role infographics play in our society in journalism, government, and so on, or more generally studying the cultural-rhetorical dimensions of visual communication.  Those are all crucial topics, each worthy of their own courses. I’d be happy to teaching a humanities general education course on visual rhetoric or offer courses in a professional writing major along these lines. So this is really about a choice I’m making to make this course of composing these various things and seeing what we can learn from the doing.