JoAnn Hackos, PhD
Publications departments always seem to get the run-around. One day we find ourselves reporting to engineering. The next day the powers that be have shifted us to marketing, operations, or customer service. Finding and keeping a desirable and supportive home base is a constant dilemma for information-development managers everywhere.
Well—it turns out that our academic colleagues suffer from the same problem. Often unwelcome in departments of English, they look for new homes in engineering, business, communications, or other academic locations that given them a supportive and professional environment in which to thrive.
I had an opportunity to talk with the directors of many of the US and some international programs in technical communication at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Council on Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC). They asked me to deliver the keynote address for the conference, an address that I focused on the changing professional market for technical communicators worldwide. I describe my talk, “Information Development in a Flat World,” in the December 2006 issue of Best Practices. You’ll also find the slides from the presentation available to download here.
In an opening panel at the conference, department chairs from Texas Tech, the University of Minnesota, North Carolina State, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute described the problems associated with locating technical communication programs in various other departments. They noted that departments such as English or Communications are not always welcoming. They often view technical communication as a “practical” field, lacking the official credentials of the traditional academic disciplines. The leaders want respect for their students and their own work in the same way that managers seek recognition and respect for their staff. I learned that some of the departments that function well are either autonomous or allied with others in an interdisciplinary arrangement. For example, the University of Minnesota department, which for nearly a hundred years was part of the College of Agriculture, is moving to a new central academic united located inside the College of Liberal Arts. It will combine technical communication, rhetoric, composition, and all writing instruction into an integrated unit.
Teaching technical communication in a global economy was the focus of a panel that included faculty from institutions in the US, France, Russia, and Germany. The common theme was the lack of attention to international, intercultural, and global-marketplace issues in most of the programs today. However, several universities are trying to move ahead. At the University of Wisconsin—Stout, their students interact with translation and localization students in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, and Italy. They learn how to prepare texts for translation, edit text in a global context, and pursue minimalist instructions for international use. Sounds like a well-prepared group of students.
Programs in France and Germany are looking for US students to attend their programs. Lucy Veisblat, professor at Etudes Interculturelles de Langues Appliqués in Paris, is interested in finding US companies that would sponsor and pay an intern in France so that they can earn some money without a French work permit. All their courses are conducted in English. If you are interested in sponsoring a student, contact Lucy at email@example.com.
Various faculty members pointed to problems with the quality of offshore writing programs. They find that students have good English skills but lack any experience or knowledge of the technical communication field. They know nothing about technical writing, no matter the language. I find this observation in line with our research into hiring writers in countries where technical writing is not a recognized field of study or a profession. New employees need training in technical writing, even if they pass basic English tests.
Finally, I attended a session on tools and technology. DITA and XML are just now being recognized as an essential part of the technical communications curriculum. Other technologies that are often better understood by the faculty have come first, including blogs, forums, and wikis on line. Many faculty are using these tools as part of their instruction programs. Others, notably Becky Jo McShane from Weber State University, are adding XML and content management to their curricula. Students are learning to handle structured writing, single sourcing, and modular writing.
I am encouraged by the interest expressed in new technologies, especially when they are tempered with an understanding of their value and their limitations. We do want new writers to know the technologies we use in the workplace; we don’t want another generation of writers who find tools more intriguing than customers or content.
I hope that CIDM members and friends consider seriously these excellent programs as sources for new staff. We have always found it difficult to hire well-trained, resourceful, and innovative people. Perhaps the academic institutions offer more of what we need today.
Here is a short list of some of the programs represented in CPTSC and at the conference. These are programs that I’m familiar with:
University of Minnesota
University of Washington
Texas Tech University
North Carolina State University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Michigan Technological University
East Carolina University
University of Delaware
New Mexico Tech
San Francisco State University
Illinois Institute of Technology
Southern Polytechnic State University
These programs offer certificate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and an increasing number of PhDs.