Rhetorical theory vs. tech comm reality

ScriptoriumTech / Opinion12 Comments

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.

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12 Comments on “Rhetorical theory vs. tech comm reality”

  1. Having been in Tech Com for many years, and watching the the new technology, buzzwords, trends, and fads come and go, I got my BS in Scientific Writing before Tech Com degrees and most tech com technology were even available.

    My advice to those who want to enter this field is to get a good background of basic science and technical courses, so you’ll understand the concepts and jargon: basic physics, inorganic and organic chemistry, basic biology, a basic computer science course to learn how programs work, a basics statistics course, writing and literature courses, basic economics and project management, some calculus and matrices, and a mechanical drawing or CAD course to learn about technical illustration. Ggive yourself a technical platform to start with.

    Then you can add on appropriate electives or learning theory or usability or whatever. I had a literature of science course, where we read a translation of the Pricipia, The chemical history of a candle, and the Scientific American article that set out Watson and Crick’s DNA hypothesis. The teacher’s mantra was that technical doesn’t have to be dull and boring. Scientific advances are exciting!

    Then look for a school that provides real projects and internships to give the students an idea of what the real field is all about. I had an internship at an R&D institute on campus. I’m not impressed with some of the curricula I’ve looked at lately. You deserve to rant!

  2. To have academic rigour, university courses tend to be laden with theory. That can seem pretty useless in the real world, either too esoteric or stating the bleeding obvious. However, there are times when technical communicators need to ask ‘big’ questions, particularly at times of crises. Questions about the value and purpose of what they provide, for example. It may be, in ten years time, you find you need to question the assumptions we all make. It’s likely you’ll find the answers by looking back at what you studied at university. You may find that the profession has forgotton a key element in a theory or method, that a concept from one area can now solve a problem in a another, or that the reasons why x + y not longer equals z is because x and y are not the same as they used to be (our assumptions need to change).

  3. While I agree with Ellis that sometimes the bigger questions need reflection back on the theory we learned in college/university, I have to argue that tech comm programs focus heavily on the wrong theories. Before I continue, let me say that I obtained a science degree in communication from a predominantly math, science, and engineering college (which happened to have one of the top 5 communication schools in the US).

    My degree primarily focused on rhetoric, which was fine, but seemed very archaic to me (and still does). The classes I received the most value from were single-semester courses focusing on CAD theory, information design, scientific & technical writing, and HCI. Yes, only one course of each.

    I look back on the theory learned from those few classes and see that they completely overshadow all that I learned through 2-3 years of solid rhetoric studies. I imagine this to be for the very reason you state, Ellis; the heavy rhetoric focus was build to root the school’s curriculum in solid academic value, or, clout. The valuable theory from the choice few classes (electives, I might add) was what I built on in the real world.

    This speaks well to Ryan’s rant and his suggestion to offer theory on practical topics. The few electives of value I took gave me the fundamental knowledge and understanding upon which I’ve built over these many years. It’s why new tech doesn’t scare me, and why I’m able to chase a problem to its root fairly quickly. I’d like to think there’s some natural born talent there (heh) but I am pretty sure I owe a good deal to my non-rhetorical schooling as well.

  4. I do think a degree in writing is a good idea – to get the principles of good writing down. I’ve been a tech writer for almost 21 years. My degree was in writing with a technical writing minor (and a German one). Learning to write well has been the best foundation for what I do. Along the way, I have taken courses in electronics and programming, and those have helped stir up my curiosity and desire to learn – two very important qualities in technical writing. I’d say that getting a good foundation in a writing degree of any kind and supplementing it with technical courses is the way to go. And your right – much of what we do must be learned on the job. That’s what makes it great – we are always learning, and it helps us figure out the best way to pass on knowledge to those we are writing for.

  5. I did not arrive at technical communications through the front door. It wasn’t even the back door. It was more like I tunneled into the basement.

    When I wrote my first tech docs at Boeing around 1990, I didn’t even know that I was a technical writer or what one was. My thanks go to someone at Kelly Services that saw my education and background, her open req she couldn’t fill, and made a match.

    I haven’t looked back since.

    That doesn’t mean I haven’t moved along to new areas of tech comm, though.

    The biggest problem with University degrees is that the unwashed masses tend to think the purpose of one is to teach you how a specific skill, or at least the skills for a specific type of job.

    I don’t mean this as a joke, but a University isn’t supposed to teach you a marketable skill. To oversimplify, a University degree is supposed to teach you how to think. (There are times I wonder if thinking is a marketable skill, but I digress.)

    If you want a specific skill, take a cetificate program.

    That being said, why are there tech comm curriculums? That is a good question. At its core, technical communications is translating the logical into the grammatical ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A425431 ). A technical communicator needs to know how to:

    * Communicate. This is a two-way process. It involves visual, oral, and written skills. But, I will emphasize, it is a two-way process. Forget that, and you useless are unemployed.

    * Educate. We are all teachers, at some level. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Education Objectives for the Cognitive Domain is your friend. And, for material meant for adults, you highest aim for analysis and application–at the most. People come to us to learn how to do something, not think.

    * Understand. We all need to know how to take in raw knowledge and quickly understand it. If we can’t understand it, we can’t do anything else with it. This means we probably need some background in the area for which we are writing.

    * Write (and edit). We need to know how to effectively convey facts and attitudes using the written word. Yes, there are rules to follow, which includes the rule of knowing when to break the rules. Combined with our communication skills, people pay us as technical communicators to write.

    (If they are paying us more than to write or edit, we have probably crossed lines from technical communicationsn into things like marketing communications, scientific writing, journalism, or the like.)

    There are other skills we need to acquire, particularly if you want to move beyond entry-level work. Project management is one of those skills. Human relations is another.

    It would seem to me that a technical communications bachelor degree program would best be served as something that is more like a bachelor of science in a English, History, or Journalism program. In other words, a person needs enough of a technical background to commuicate with the technical and enough of an arts background to communicate with the non-technical. Even then, it would probably come up short.

    My own background is 75% of an Electrical Engineering degree, a History degree, and then going back later for teaching certification with some work on an M.Ed. as a special ed/reading specialist.

    I had over 200 semester hours of college work, experience as a safety engineer, classroom teacher, and computer operator before I wrote my first technical document.

    People call me a natural at technical communications. I don’t think there was anything natural about it. If you expect to get my background in a University degree, forget it.

  6. Pingback: How a degree helps a technical writer « Kai's Tech Writing Blog

  7. I’ve got a professional writing masters and an information systems bachelors and out of all the courses, only a handful were valuable in that they encouraged both thinking and doing. Internships. Jobs. Trade journals. Mentors. Message boards. Much better use of your time than “learning how to think.” work through enough professional work with a few sharp friends and run through some implementations and do proper post mortems and you’ll have learned how to conceptualize what you do. The classroom is largely irrelevant and is frequently directed by those who can’t do. And they’re arrogant douchebags with no idea that spewing theoretical crap at you without a real context is nigh worthless. Do something. Write for work. Write for open source. Reflect. Do more. Don’t pay good money for hours of bad PowerPoint and simple operational concepts belabored to the point of incomprehensibility.

  8. A tech writer needs to know how to think, ask the right questions, communicate well, plan a project, obtain information, and write well -using whichever tool – that is – to borrow the phrase from the rant – using whichever tool well enough.

    Knowing a tool “well enough” matters. Knowing it superbly/programming superbly is not required. Tools come and go. Writers who write well and think soundly are still around.

  9. techcomm,

    And they will always be around (hopefully). I take it as a given that anyone working in this field should have certain faculties already, critical thinking and clear communication skills among them, and that these should result from a well-rounded education. Tools are necessary, but secondary (and dependent upon those faculties). There’s quite a difference between knowing how to drive a nail and knowing how to build a house.

  10. I teach technical writing in a university program (offering BA degrees), and I totally agree with this article. Our program is always in the midst of an argument between the camp who wants a heavy theory base and the camp who wants to teach students practical knowledge they can use in the workplace. The problem with incorporating theory in our instance is that, at the undergraduate level, there are no rhetorical theories that apply to technical writing very easily. We’ve been working with stasis theory, which doesn’t feel like the right “fit” to me. I’ve been working also with Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation, and we’ve been doing research into procedural rhetoric, but overall, the heavy rhetorical basis for technical writing classes has not been successful for me.

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