ERIC Identifier: ED326906
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Kelley, Rebecca
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
Teaching Technical Communication. ERIC Digest.
In the early 1900s, technical communication was a burgeoning professional
field, represented in academe by service courses taught primarily at engineering
institutions. By the 1980's, however, it had become a significant professional
and academic discipline in its own right. James Souther (1990) offers the
following as evidence to support this assertion:
*the expansion of professional organizations, in particular, the Society
for Technical Communication
*the growth of academic organizations like the Association of Teachers
of Technical Writing and the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific
*the quality of research, for business through the Document Design Center,
and from academe, particularly at Carnegie-Mellon
*representation on the programs of conventions of major academic groups
like the Modern Language Association and the National Council of Teachers
*an increase in the number of offerings, both in terms of classes and
degree programs, at colleges and universities
Often colleges and universities that are just beginning to include technical
communication in their curricula do so using faculty trained in traditional
English doctoral programs. This ERIC Digest examines several areas of concern
for such institutions and discusses 1) characteristics of technical communication;
2) issues in teaching technical communication; and 3) resources in teaching
WHAT CHARACTERISTICS DISTINGUISH TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION?
Five characteristics distinguish technical communication from the more
traditional composition courses in college curricula. Technical communication
*is situation oriented and often directed to very specific audiences
*has a strong visual component
*has ties to other fields, including psychology and computer science
WHAT ISSUES CONCERN TEACHERS OF TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION?
Chief among the issues of concern to teachers of technical communication
is the importance of real-world application and practice. Sometimes these
real-world experiences must be simulated experiences, or "cases," such
as those devised by Gifford (1983) or Smith (1990). Another technique is
to adapt real-world situations, as Morrow (1988) does with cases in operations
management. Faculty may also try to get technical documents from industry
(Mancuso, 1984), for samples to work with or examples to illustrate writing
In addition, degree programs must establish and maintain ties with industry
so that curricula meet industry needs and expectations and graduates are
prepared for careers in the field. Internships that allow students in such
programs to work in industry may be particularly valuable (Bosley, 1988,
and Norsworthy, 1988).
Process Versus Product
Another issue revolves around the process/product debate that came out
of research concerning composition instruction. Is it better to teach various
"forms" used in technical communication; or is it better to teach a process
of analyzing and composing, which leads to forms appropriate for the communication
situation? Bishop (1987) describes a process-oriented course with an emphasis
on peer interaction. Roundy (1985) argues for the efficacy of combined
methods. In tracing the history of technical communication textbooks, Souther
(1990) notes that for the most part, a compromise has been reached with
texts he calls "hybrids." These books combine process and product approaches.
They include models but take students through typical writing processes.
They may also note rhetorical strategies and include sections that emphasize
language usage and style.
Oral and Visual Components
A third issue for teachers of technical communication is the importance
of oral and visual components. Desjardins (1987) points out that in business
and industry, those responsible for producing technical documents often
have to present them orally and need preparation to do so.
With the increasing accessibility of desktop publishing, the technical
communicator's role is expanding to include graphics, document design,
layout, and the publication process. Gadomski (1988) discusses what can
happen when a technical writer takes on the role of graphic designer. He
also offers some resources for the writer in that new role.
The Importance of Computers
With the increasing use of computers, technical communicators will certainly
be called on to use word processing and possibly desktop publishing. As
Farkas (1988) points out, computers can alter, for the better, composing
and editing techniques.
In addition to perhaps altering their composing, writers may be called
on to write for a new medium. For online documentation or computer-based
training materials, the "page" is not the printed one but a computer terminal
Those who write computer manuals, argues Oram (1988) need an understanding
of computer systems, both to understand the product and to know what to
include in the manual.
WHAT RESOURCES ARE AVAILABLE FOR TEACHERS OF TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION?
Teachers of technical communication may become active in several organizations
that provide contact with professional technical communicators and academicians
who specialize in the field. The Society for Technical Communication (STC),
815 15th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005, is the largest organization and
includes professionals from both industry and education. The Association
for Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW), c/o Dr. Carolyn D. Rude, Dept.
of English, Box 4530, Texas Tech. University, Lubbock, TX 79409, is strictly
academic, and the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication
(CPTSC) is a small organization concerned with academic degree programs.
Journals, Proceedings, and Textbooks
A number of journals provide articles on professional issues, comparison
of academic curricula and programs, and specific assignments for the classroom.
Although they are not discussed here, textbooks abound (Rainey, et al,
1990). STC publishes Technical Communication quarterly. Most of the articles
are directed to the professional technical communicator, but such information
is essential for the academician who wants to stay current. ATTW's journal,
The Technical Writing Teacher (soon to be Technical Communication Quarterly)
includes teaching-related articles and results of research in the field.
It is an excellent source of ideas for the classroom. Other important journals
are the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, IEEE Transactions
on Professional Communication, and the Journal of Business and Technical
In addition to the journals, proceedings from the CPTSC and STC (International
Technical Communication Conference, ITCC) annual conferences are valuable
Bishop, Wendy. "Revising the Technical Writing Class: Peer Critiques,
Self-Evaluation, and Portfolio Grading." Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, State
College, PA, 1987, 26 p. [ED 285 178]
Bosley, Deborah. "Writing Internships: Building Bridges between Academia
and Business." Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 2, January
Desjardins, Linda. "Speech and Technical Writing: A Combined Approach."
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association,
Boston, MA, 1987, 16 p. [ED 286 227]
Farkas, David. "A Course on Computer-Based Composing Strategies." Proceedings
of the 35th International Technical Communication Conference. Philadelphia:
Gadmoski, Kenneth. "When the Technical Writer/Editor Becomes a Graphic
Designer." Proceedings of the 35th International Technical Communication
Conference. Philadelphia: STC, 1988.
Gifford, James A. "Individualized Report Assignments via Computer,"
1983. [ED 239 269] Document not available from EDRS.
Mancuso, John. "Requesting Sets of Documents from Industry to Teach
Technical Writing." Technical Writing Teacher 11(3) Spring 1984, 208-209.
[EJ 315 132]
Morrow, John. "Approaches to Teaching: Adapting Cases in Operations
Management for Use in the Technical Writing Classroom." Technical Writing
Teacher 15(2) Spring 1988, 154-57. [EJ 371 849]
Norsworthy, Abigail. "Internships: The Benefits for All Involved." Proceedings
of the 35th International Technical Communication Conference. Philadelphia:
Oram, Andrew. "Essential Computer Training for Writers of Software Documentation.
Proceedings of the 35th International Technical Communication Conference.
Philadelphia: STC, 1988.
Rainey, Kenneth et al. "Resources for Teaching Technical Communication."
Proceedings of the 37th International Technical Communication Conference.
Santa Clara, CA: STC, 1990. (Forthcoming article, "Resources for Training
in Technical and Scientific Communication," IEEE Transactions on Professional
Communication, includes evaluations of texts listed.)
Roundy, Nancy. "The Heuristics of Pedagogy: Approaches to Teaching Technical
Writing." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference of College
Composition and Communication, Minneapolis, MN, 1985, 19 p. [ED 257 095]
Smith, Herb. "The Company Profile Case Study: A Multipurpose Assignment
with an Industrial Slant." Technical Writing Teacher 17(2). Spring 1990,
119-123. [EJ 410 074]
Souther, J.W. "Teaching Technical Writing: A Retrospective Appraisal."
In Technical Communication: Theory and Practice. B. Fearing and W. Sparrow,
Eds. New York: MLA, 1990, 2-13.