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November 11, 2010

Rhetorical theory vs. tech comm reality

Let me qualify (heavily): this is, seriously, a rant.

I started at Scriptorium in June (2010), and since then I’ve learned more than I did in my entire time in the tech comm MS program I was enrolled in. And what’s more, the knowledge I’ve gained here has been useful.

That’s not to say that tech comm programs are impractical or whatever, because they’re not. It was through that program that I found this job. Otherwise, they’re good for putting you in a tech comm frame of mind, I suppose, and provided there are sufficient opportunities, they’re good for networking. But as far as the day-to-day practicalities of my work in tech comm go, I’ve learned it all here.


Collision (between rhetoric and reality) // flickr: sludgegulper

Not to equivocate, but that’s not the fault of the program either, but rather the nature of the business. Tech comm is a craft and not an art. Anyone who claims it’s an art needs to stand in line with the rest of the frustrated poets, the (bread)line that stretches back to the Industrial Revolution.

The problem comes when people stop treating it as a craft, which is inevitable when you build a degree around it. Because it’s the focus of a degree program — especially a graduate program — it necessitates a heavy theoretical component. And that’s basically what makes up the content of most programs (I assume). Unfortunately, tech comm, as a craft, can’t really sustain the same level of inquiry as the classic humanities and sciences. The meat just isn’t there, and it doesn’t work for the same reason a class on, say, the theory of auto repair wouldn’t. People are inclined to look for this deeper meaning, however, and as such the curriculum of tech comm programs tends to get stuffed with a bunch of really non-essential, pretty silly stuff. In fact, the only bits I learned in the program that I actually use were from my one required business class on project management.

This emphasis on the theoretical comes, I suppose, from the fact that tools evolve, and the faculty wants the program to be timeless. They’re hesitant (for the most part) to teach any particular technology, which is ironic, considering that the work I’ve done in the real-world tech comm situation I find myself in has all been heavily technological.

So, yes, tools evolve, technologies become obsolete, practices change. Fine. However, this doesn’t mean that tech comm students shouldn’t be taught the principles behind the technologies. Wary of offering a class on XML or XSL transformations? Well, how about a class on markup languages and how they separate content from layout. That’s useful. Hesitant to offer up a class on FrameScript? How about a class on the principles of scripting and graduated object models. You can apply these ideas to any scripting language, and once you know them, you’re fairly apt to jump into whatever language presents itself. JavaScript makes some people pee themselves (and with good reason, to be fair), though it’s not something to be avoided entirely. Instead of throwing up one’s hands and saying, “I don’t do JavaScript,” the tech writer or content manager who’s had the class on scripting would be much more likely to actually think about what’s going on and perhaps take a look at the code.

People in these programs tend to want to shy away from what seems to me to be the actual work of figuring out how to make it all come together. They want to concentrate on their writing, which, let’s face it, is a total cop out. Malcolm Gladwell made the case in Outliers that Michael Jordan, at 6’6”, wasn’t really all that tall. However, he was tall enough. Likewise, writing in tech comm doesn’t make that much of a difference, as long as you write well enough. Further, writing isn’t even a very big part of the job for most of us. The fact is, working in tech comm is kind of like taking the SAT, every day. What you need in order to learn this type of highly logical problem solving is practice, and in order to get this practice you need to work. This would seem to recommend the apprentice model over the get-another-degree model, and I don’t think I’d disagree.

The plea that tech comm is an art is just banal. There is no glamour in it. There’s art in it in the way there’s art in navigating your way through any business scenario. If you work in tech comm, you should, like the rest of the world, do your work, get paid, and write your novel in your free time.