Technical Communication at the Crossroads


This post is inspired by Jefferson Pooley’s recent article in Social Media + Society, a commentary critiquing the distinct yet overlapping cultures informing media studies in the US. Pooley’s article can also be found on his personal site, where he has enriched the article by embedding external links to sample degree programs that demonstrate the cultures he has identified.

Pooley’s commentary leads me to think about the similar problem in technical communication, a growing field that is seemingly struggling with a sense of disciplinarity due to the lack of national recognition and the muddling of approaches to teaching and research in the field.

Full disclosure: I contribute to that muddling of our field.

A Personal Anecdote

My college experience began with a double-major in communication and psychology. My first two years of undergraduate studies focused on a survey of the major contexts of communication: interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, listening, and organizational communication. I also took classes in cognitive psychology, child psychology, developmental psychology, and counseling. When I transferred from Malaysia to the States, my focus shifted from general communication studies to mass media studies. I enrolled in a mass communications program, renewed my major to reflect an advertising emphasis, and minored in psychology and communication studies (offered through a communication studies program that emphasized speech communication).

Later, when I continued on to graduate school, I was enrolled in two distinct programs: MS in mass communication and MA in English. The reason behind that decision was to keep my doors open for mass media-related job opportunities, but I was lured by the professional communication track in my then rhetoric-and-writing MA program. So I completed the MA and the MS concurrently, while constantly challenging my colleagues from both programs to think more like one another. My media studies colleagues would call themselves social scientists, while my friends from English insisted on being humanists. Torn between the two, I had used the scientific approach to research in my English courses and brought the humanistic rationale into my mass communication seminars.

As I came near to the end of my master’s studies, I knew I had to specialize in one field. I decidedly chose rhetoric because I found myself doing two things: 1) attending conferences where people call themselves rhetoricians, and 2) being attracted more toward books and writings that cite Aristotle, Michel Foucault, Kenneth Burke, and the like.

So, I applied to rhetoric and writing programs, and accepted the offer from a rhetoric-and-scientific-and-technical-communication doctoral program. Like many of my cohort members, we had little idea about technical communication. Most of us came in with interests ranging from visual communication, health and scientific communication, environmental studies, and internet cultures. What brought us together was the acknowledgment of rhetoric as a core of these subfields.

Now, as a second-year doctoral student in a department that is energized by faculty members of diverse expertise, and as I take greater interests in writing and technical communication pedagogies, I begin to realize the increasing challenge facing the field as it tries to establish its core culture(s). And as someone who has migrated from an associated field––versus those who are homegrown English/rhetoric majors––I am interested in learning more about the constituencies surrounding technical communication.

As evident in my quick Google search below, the most common terms associated with rhetoric and technical communication include professional communication, composition studies, digital and visual rhetorics, and the rhetoric of science.Such is an apparent divergence happening within the technical communication discipline, that the discipline’s image is unclear and, more often than not, removed from the true works it does.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.25.30 PM

Search returns for “rhetoric and technical communication wiki” on Google.

Following Pooley’s footstep, I take a shot here to identify the (more) visible strands that make up technical communication as a discipline, and attempt to distinguish these strands from one another. While I am not motivated by any goals to unify the discipline under a particular culture, I would like to clarify the distinct paths that depart from what we fondly know as rhetoric into camps that organize themselves into incoherent silos.

Surveying the Landscape

Perhaps a good starting question might be this: What are the leading technical communication programs in the US and how are they structuring themselves? 

Caveat: This is not a comprehensive study of the field of technical communication. My hope for this entry is solely to initiate conversations around the kinds of culture I see going on within the field. What I am presenting here/below are not born of a systematic study but rather based on personal observations and some informed instincts. In other words, take everything here with a grain of salt.

Among the most popular (not necessarily the largest) technical communication degree-offering programs under my radar have named themselves as the following:

A majority of these programs is housed in English departments, with few in engineering departments and some standalone or multidisciplinary programs.For a comprehensive listing of technical communication programs in the US, visit the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication’s website.

Based on my own review of the degree requirements for these programs, I see four big camps governing technical communication studies: 1) English and rhetoric, 2) science and engineering, 3) media and communication technology, and 4) business.

When charted based on the programs’ emphases and their sponsoring departments, the landscape of technical communication studies looks something like this:

Landscape of RSTPC

The landscape of rhetoric, scientific, professional, and technical communication.

Divergent Constituencies

Like Pooley’s observation of the camps in media studies, each of the four camps diverging from technical communication studies is hermetically sealed from the other three counterparts. Technical communication delivered through an English or rhetorical tradition tends to focus more on the theoretical than applied. Their research and scholarly endeavors are usually informed by critical interpretive methods or qualitative approaches. Whereas, science and engineering folks would prefer to call themselves applied scientists who favor quantitative measures over other humanistic processes. These researchers usually study infrastructures of communication and usability issues. Over in the media and technology departments, scholars usually self-identify as social scientists who are interested in human behaviors and their interactions with communication technologies. Their research usually follows a sociological methodology and then to be more empirical than the English-rhetoric researchers but less quantified compared to their science and engineering counterparts. Lastly, the business folks tend to be more detached in terms of their object of study and research methods than the first three camps. Technical communication for business usually gravitates more toward professional writing, project management, organizational relations, and corporate identity.

Amidst this madcap, the four camps overlap through the discipline’s professional associations:

The IEEE PCS, ATTW, ARST, SIGDOC, and CCCC are populated by academics, whereas the rest of the list are more practitioners driven.

Scholars from English, rhetoric, and writing studies departments would also attend conventions from the following academic associations, given their often-interlacing interests in communication and rhetorical studies:

More recently, technical communication scholars are also seen dipping their feet into the emerging field of digital humanities and internet studies, going to meetings organized by:

As you can see, scholars are all over the place. Imagine the struggle for a new graduate student trying to find a group to identify with! What’s even more interesting is how technical communication scholars are comfortable with this kind of organizational madness. Many of us subscribe to multiple associations, present papers from one conference to another, and sit on committees that sometimes also represent areas we don’t consider as the core of technical communication. And as you would guess, scholars from the four camps of technical communication pledge allegiance to different professional groups, leaving students, and sometimes even newly-minted professors, perplexed by the fractal yet overlying cultures.

Beyond the Crossroads

To be fair, I admit there’s benefit to the plurality in technical communication studies and its curriculum. Scholars and students can study and practice a variety of interests and research agenda, not having to feel constrained by a disciplinary pigeon hole. Further, such multidisciplinary nature also adds colors to the field and helps in its expansion, making it easier to collaborate across departments and research centers. This interdependence leads to mixed methods in research, which can be benefiting to the overall advancement of academia.

Nevertheless, there a case to be made, I think. Something might be lost in the wrestling among four technical communication camps–something crucial to the value and public recognition of technical communication as a distinguishable profession. Without a centralized disciplinary arrangement to anchor itself, technical communication studies risks rendering its scholarship invisible not just to outsiders but between also the camps we have organized ourselves into. Worse, when these camps contest among each other to be the institutional face for the discipline, what gets affected first would be faculty jobs. When chemists or programmers start taking up tenure-line posts in technical communication programs, or when a business school overtakes writing courses for the college, the four-camps brawl would have a huge price to pay for their incoherence and indecisiveness. This would also give our would-be compatriots in media studies, design studies, and computer science a reason to stay away from our pretense.

Of course, there’s no quick and absolute solution to our sticky situation. In fact, what we need at this point is not a dismantling of the four campus–we still need these cultures to help support the legitimacy of the field. Rather, we need clear sign posts to mark up the terrains and give students a heads-up on what might be ahead of the path they choose to pursue. This is especially important for programs that embrace ambiguity and less-directive approach to technical communication scholarship. In the foreseeable future, my hope is to do away the camps by uniting them under a more prevalent umbrella of technical communication studies. Especially in an era of convergence and cross-disciplinary interests, we need to ask ourselves how we want to organize ourselves for a more productive future, and how much disparities can we tolerate for the benefit of academic divergence.

Useful Links

I am not the first to be troubled by the condition of our field; here are some links to articles and discussions on the state of technical communication (and writing studies/composition/rhetoric):

What do you think? Share your thoughts here!

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