teaching technical communication again for the first time

As I’ve recounted here, for the last seven years I served as WPA in my department. As a result I was working almost exclusively with graduate students and teaching undergrads only during the summer and then the course was online. So this fall finds me back in the classroom with undergrads for the first time since the Spring 2010 semester. I’ve been told the nature of undergrads has changed a great deal since then. I guess I’ll find out. After the first week though I’m not sure I see a great difference. Perhaps it’s because my own kids are 16 and 18, so I have some idea of “kids these days.”

The bigger change for me is that I’m teaching technical communication, which I have taught many times over my career but not since before the release of the iPhone. In some respects, teaching a 200-level gen ed tech comm class is not that different. It’s still about process; about audience, purpose and genre; and learning to work collaboratively. But in many other respects the content has changed significantly. The other course I’m teaching this semester is a grad seminar on advanced writing pedagogy that’s focused specifically on technical-professional writing pedagogy, so I’ve been thinking about this question from that angle as well.

These are now all familiar considerations of both digital rhetoric and technical communication: the proliferation of data, the explosion of options for media and interactivity; the shifting rhetorical nature of collaboration and community via online networks; the implications of mobility for data gathering, use, and interaction; and the growing capacity of machine intelligence and agency. Quite obviously this is not all turning out well for us–worries about attention and cognition; fake news, etc.; social media community shit show; privacy and surveillance; cybersecurity black swans; the uncertain future of work, of community, of nation. One might say there’s a fair amount to discuss that goes beyond how to write a clear set of instructions (or whatever one might imagine as the most tepid interpretation of technical communication). Although that said, there can be a lot at stake in clear instructions.

The current situation on the Gulf Coast is so emblematic of this. And I don’t want to get into that here right now because currently there are people in danger. However, years ago, I did a little presentation about Superstorm Sandy and new materialism, which basically asked what is Sandy saying to us? That is, thinking about Sandy as a rhetorical performance, a kind of Latourian moment where the storm was a constituent in the parliament of things. So much data, so much capacity for analysis, so many avenues for discussion and collaboration, so many design tools and options, and some series of activities that result. Technical communication is all mixed up in that.

Getting down to brass tacks, the first assignment in the tech comm class is to create an infographic. Could one devote an entire tech comm class to visual data representation? Of course. This is really about calling some attention to this growing if not ubiquitous genre, getting some taste of what might be involved in making one, and thinking about audience, purpose, and genre once again. You can go look at the rest of the syllabus if you like. I’ll probably be writing more about it as the semester moves along. In some respects it seems like business as usual–a proposal, some instructions, etc. On the other hand, while the genres are abstractly familiar, it seems to me they’ve moved around quite a bit. Now we’re doing instructions on Instructables.com. They’re user generated content rather than some corporate document. They involve taking pics or videos with your smartphone. They’re accessed by all different kinds of devices. They call upon a whole new maker community, as well as many traditional hobbies from cooking to gardening. In a techno-cultural, ideological context where the state macro-infrastructure is increasingly disinterested in supporting citizens but hypothetically individuals and small communities have unprecedented access to data and industrial capacities, do instructions become political action?

It all seems a little vertiginous to step into after a decade, but I hope to get my bearings.

  • stevendkrause

    I’m not teaching this fall for the first time in (I think?) 29 years, counting my time as a grad student and part-timer. I had a sabbatical in the winter term a few years ago (what everyone else calls the spring term) and I’ve had other sorts of releases and breaks and stuff, but never a complete fall term off. So I read this simultaneously wishing I was preparing to teach this fall and being glad that I’m not. 😉

    PS, the “kids today” are the same– almost EXACTLY the same– as they were almost 30 years ago, just with different tools/technologies at hand. I think you know that too even not dealing with undergrads a whole lot for 7 years. The only (subtle) thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is the increasing reliance/need/demand for a “rubric” of some sort for every writing assignment. My theory is these students, who are a product of the public school nonsense known as “no child left behind,” cannot imagine completing some kind of assignment– particularly one with a grade!– that doesn’t have the assessment mechanism spelled out in exacting and cookie-cutter detail. Other than that, the “kids today” are just like their parents (e.g., the “kids” when I started teaching in college).