First semester on the tenure track: Of research, teaching, and service

As many of you know, my partner and I moved to Lubbock, Texas this fall (July 2019) to start my first full-time faculty position at Texas Tech University (TTU). This week last year, I was just on my third campus visit and was worried sick if a delayed flight would have jeopardized my interview. To my relief, I was granted a job talk and 2-day interaction nonetheless, and I received an offer a bit less than two weeks later. This offer was from TTU.

Transitioning into this new role at a recently classified R1 institution (research focused per Carnegie standard), I was very anxious about the expectations for tenure and promotion. With new courses under my assignment, I was also nervous about teaching undergrads at a different university and teaching graduate students as someone who has only finished grad school a few months ago. I shared my sentiment on Facebook during the first week of class in August.

Cliche as it may sound, I have experienced so much change and growth this semester. I’d like to document here a few things I learned as as a way to memorialize this new chapter in life, and hopefully to serve as advice to others.

If there’s only one thing I could emphasize, time is an asset. Being on the tenure track means I work within a given time frame to meet the institution’s expectations for tenure and promotion (T&P). At TTU, my clock is 6 years. I am supposed to use my time based on the workload distribution established in my hiring contract, which is 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Translating this into a 40-hour work week, I get 16 hours for research activities, 16 hours for teaching-related work, 8 hours for service each week in a regular semester.

Research includes funded and unfunded scholarly activities that contribute to the growth of one’s field. Traditionally, the output for research involves peer-reviewed publications (articles, book chapters, webtexts, etc.), grant activities, and other significant projects. Based on my departmental expectations for research productivity, I have learned to really maximize the 40% time I have in all research related activities. Most of it is spent on writing, really. Still, meetings with research collaborators, setting up IRB (institutional review board for projects) proposal, and searching/applying for grants do take up a significant amount of time as well. One thing that worked for me is multitasking. Whenever I hit any kind of writer’s block or boredom in one project, I jump straight into another project quickly instead of sitting on the current one. It keeps me motivated and also moving projects forward. I know this doesn’t work for everyone. For me, though, the downside of this is I tend to lose my train of thoughts because I am jumping hoops… but I can deal with that.

Teaching is valued as much as research at TTU. Quality of instruction is reflected in student evaluation, course design, student achievements, and mentorship. My contract lets me teach 2 courses every semester (minus summer sessions). Each course is equivalent to 3 hours per week (so 6 hours for two), that means I have 10 hours each week to do course prep, grade assignments, meet/communicate with students, etc. Additionally, being in a PhD-granting program means I am expected to serve on graduate student committees and direct dissertations. The TTU T&P requires faculty to chair and direct at least one student through their entire dissertation project during the tenure-track period. For the sake of context, the technical communication & rhetoric PhD here is currently a 5-year program. Thus, some strategic planning is needed to meet this specific requirement. My current strategy is same as the one I used when completing my dissertation while teaching, that is front-loading all important lessons and assignment requirements at the beginning of each course. This helps me to focus on providing 1-on-1 feedback and less time on preparing lectures later in the semester. This also allows me to move some in-person class meetings online when I need to attend conferences elsewhere.

Service, while deemed least important for T&P purpose, is required of every faculty to show collegiality and support the function of the department/university. Associate and full professors (tenured) usually assume more responsibilities with the intention to free assistant professors like myself from time-consuming tasks that don’t weigh as much as research and teaching in my own tenure case. Although I was promised protected time early on, committee and many one-off service work still found their way into my calendar slots. I am now managing the social media pages for my program, serving on the graduate admission committee, and co-directing the UX Lab. I have created recruitment materials, represented the program at college major fairs, and volunteered to appear as guest presenter at various student development sessions and classes. I was told to say “no” to things that don’t benefit my T&P progress, but that’s really hard to do. One thing I have learned is to align my service to research and teaching interests. A wise person once said, don’t do anything you can’t write (and I add: teach) about. I take that advice to heart and strive to generate scholarship out of the service I perform. Well, for instance, I am asked to design a new program advert for our program; I am now writing a research article on programmatic strategies in advertising to graduate students. And since I am teaching UX and design courses, I also work to create synergy between my classes and the UX Lab I now oversee.

All that said, every institutional context is different and each position requires different time and energy investment. What I’ve shared here are my merely own experience. My hope is to demystify the faculty role and provide some clarity to what may be expected of a new faculty. I still don’t have the answers to many things but I am learning along the way. Thank you for indulging with me on this journey.

Featured image by TourTexas.com.

Dissertation acknowledgements: Thank you, a million times.

This acknowledgement was submitted as part of my dissertation in February. I can’t possibly thank everyone involved in my project, but I do my best. You all are stellar, and please know the difference you have made in me!


There are so many people to thank for the successful completion of this project. I begin with my adviser, Dr. Ann Hill Duin, who has provided me with acute supervision and timely connections to networks of learning since I joined the program. Ann, thank you for the wisdom you have imparted onto me in this last five years. I am amazed by your energy and spirit of excellence. I look forward to further collaborations with you.

I thank Dr. Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch, who chaired my dissertation defense and provided just-in-time mentorship when I was on the job market. To my dissertation and exam committee members, Dr. Donald Ross, Dr. Laura Gurak, and Dr. Tom Reynolds, thank you for your valuable insights and knowledge on the topics I am most interested in.

The heart of this project was about the students, volunteers, faculty, and staff members in the makerspaces at the Invention Studio (Georgia Tech), Think[box] (Case Western Reserve University), and Anderson Labs (University of Minnesota). Thank you for letting me observe your spaces and sharing with me your experiences. You all have increased my confidence in the future of making. I must also thank my WRIT 3562W students for being patient and engaged during the course deployment. You all rock.

My PhD journey was enriched by collaborative projects with Dr. Joe Moses, senior lecturer in Writing Studies, who has gone beyond his duties to provide mentorship to me. Joe, thank you for always believing in my work and letting me contribute as an equal partner in many of the projects you led.

The RSTC faculty––especially Dr. Pat Bruch, Dr. John Logie, Dr. Richard Graff, and Dr. Christina Haas (Professor Emerita)––has equipped me with knowledge and confidence to join the field as a junior scholar. Thank you for your guidance and directions on my projects. I remember Dr. Carol Berkenkotter, who passed away during my second year in the program. I thank her for introducing me to rhetorical genre studies. I give a shout-out to Dr. Molly Kessler and Dr. Daniel Card, who joined the department during my final year. Thank you for giving me fresh insights on approaching the job search process. Thank you also to Dr. Ronald Greene and Dr. Aaron Doering for giving me the experiences in learning about communication from another discipline.

My experience in Writing Studies has also been largely influenced by the amazing staff members in the department who are always responsive and helpful. I thank Nan Nelson, who retired in my third year, for being a lighthearted, genuine spirit while making sure all my paperwork are in place. To Emily Kort, who stepped into the role soon after Nan’s departure, thank you also for helping me with the pre- and post-final exams (defense) logistics and protocols. To Michelle Lubbers, thank you for helping with all my course evaluations. And Bill Fricke, thank you for helping with my reimbursements! Of course, I must express gratitude to Shannon Klug, who has been there whenever I needed technical (and non-technical) support–– whether it’s setting up a room for web conferencing, copying a course shell from the learning management system, or getting back into my office after locking myself out (more than once).

I thank Nicole Montana and Barb Horvath, associate directors in the first-year writing and advanced writing programs respectively, for supporting my teaching throughout my time in the department. My teaching experience has been enhanced by the opportunities to work with international and multicultural students. I thank Dr. Sheryl Holt and Dr. Anne Fretheim for training me in supporting these students.

My dissertation project would not have been a reality without the inspirations from Dr. Jonathan Koffel, librarian turned emerging technology specialist at the UMN Biomedical Library. Thank you, Jonathan, for connecting me with so many valuable resources that made my project possible.

I want to call out my fellow graduate colleagues––Juliette Lapeyrouse-Cherry, Ryan Eichberger, Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt, Eddie Nevarez, Katlynne Davis, Ryan Wold, Danielle Stambler, Nathan Bollig, Kari Campeau, Evelyn Meisenbacher, Niki Ciulla, Chakrika Veeramoothoo, Mckinley Green, Alexander Champoux, Megan McGrath,  Brandi Fulsby, and Ellen Dupler––for being a community of care and support.

I thank RSTC graduates––Dr. Brigitte Mussack, Dr. Sarah Puett, Dr. Chris Lindgren, Dr. Kira Dreher, Dr. Jarron Slater, Dr. Rachel Tofteland-Trampe, Dr. Ashley Clayson, Dr. Ed Hahn, Dr. Jacqueline Schiappa, Dr. Timothy Oleksiak, Dr. Joe Bartolotta, Dr. Dawn Armfield, Dr. Kenny Fountain, Dr. David Beard, and Dr, Kirk St.Amant––for being sources of inspiration to me. You are my role models, and I am proud to become an alum of the same program as yours.

This dissertation was partially supported by the UMN Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services (thank you especially to the amazing Sam Porter, as well as Rebecca Moss and Ann Fandrey), the Center for Writing (thank you, Dr. Katie Levin, Dr. Kirsten Jamsen, Dr. Matt Luskey, and Dr. Dan Emery), and the Center for Educational Innovation (thanks, Dr. J.D. Walker and Dr. Paul Baepler). These services have provided the generous resources I needed to complete my project.

Outside the program, I was morally supported by the Council for International Students (CIGS), and I especially thank its adviser, Dr. Noro Andriamanalina, and my friend Keven Joyal-Desmarais, for the opportunities to create something bigger than just completing a degree at the university. I have truly enjoyed and learned from the events we co-organized for the international students community here at Minnesota.

As I was finishing up in the PhD program, I was introduced to many important organizations in the field that help translate my research into larger scholarly output. I thank Dr. Isabel Pedersen and Sharon Caldwell from the Fabric of Digital Life (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) for collaborating with me to design pedagogical activities using digital archives and emerging technologies. I want to acknowledge the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC) for letting me contribute to the growth of our field. I thank Dr. Claire Lauer for introducing me to SIGDOC. Thank you especially to Dr. Emma Rose, Dr. Kristen Moore, Dr. Rebecca Walton, and Dr. Derek Ross for your leadership in this organization. To the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative (DRC), I thank Dr. Anne Gere, Dr. Naomi Silver, and all past and present DRC Graduate Fellows for mentoring and collaborating with me on projects that push the boundaries of our field’s scholarship. To everyone in the Computers and Writing community, thank you for your expertise and the often-critical feedback on my projects.

Finally, thank you, Kamm, for everything.

Featured photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Learning by Designing & Making: A Design Challenge Project in TWC

SIGDOC 2018 - Learning from Making [Poster]

This is a project I sliced from my dissertation study and presented at the 2018 ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC) annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I participated in the Microsoft Student Research Competition and was awarded 2nd place for this project. 


This study shares the story of a design challenge a semester-long maker project where students dedicated themselves to team-based learning, ideating, and prototyping tangible solutions for wicked problems in technical writing and communication (TWC).

There are two key words to my project that I think are helpful to begin with: design thinking and the maker movement.

Design thinking is essentially a methodology and a philosophy for problem solving. It usually manifests in a 5-step process that focuses on understanding user experience and creating innovative solutions.

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Source: https://denovo.dwt.com/

The maker movement is a recent educational phenomenon that is gaining popularity across K-12 and college settings. It feeds on the latest development of modeling and prototyping technologies that afford instant creation of mock-up ideas using cheap materials. Making is slowing becoming a pedagogical strategy to engage students with hands-on research and problem solving. It puts design thinking to work, cultivate meaningful collaboration, and help develop students’ multimodal literacy.

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Source: https://www.steelcase.com/research/articles/topics/active-learning/making-way-making-education/

I see an opportunity for technical writing and communication curriculum to leverage the affordances of the maker movement and design thinking.

In Fall of 2017, I integrate a semester-long design challenge with my technical communication course, and studied its viability. A design challenge is a signature activity of design thinking. A design challenge activity presents participants with a complex/wicked problem, and lets them undergo the phases of design thinking to propose a tangible solution.

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My research questions were: 

  1. What resources & tools do students need to succeed?
  2. What key challenges do students face?
  3. What literacies do students develop?

I’ve used mixed methods to collect student learning data. First, the design of this course was informed by my visits to three makerspaces in the US and conversations I had with students and makerspace managers there.

During the course, I have administered surveys, students self-assessments, interviews, and students’ rating of teaching (course evals), plus my own teaching observations and reflections.

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Through the pre- and post-course surveys, I have learned that students enjoyed working in teams to tackle a complex problem. Their attitude toward team-based project increased significantly (positive) at the end of the course.

In the students’ self-assessment, I learned that students acquired 7 out of the 10 core career competencies outlined by the college of liberal arts at our university. They are:

  • Analytical & critical thinking
  • Applied problem solving
  • Innovation & creativity
  • Oral & written communication
  • Teamwork & leadership
  • Engaging diversity
  • Digital literacy

Through the students’ rating of teaching, I found that students most appreciated the application of technical communication concepts in real-world problems. Although sometimes that connection is faint, students said they can rely on the instructor to give them motivation.

In the group and individual interviews, students revealed that they learned quickly how to find support from their team members and those outside the classroom to accomplish their design project. Students also mentioned how they appreciated the learning of non-textual communication strategies as they realized persuasion is multimodal.

To answer the three research questions I have posted earlier, I first learnt that a design challenge project in a technical communication course can be best supported by institutional units such as the university’s IT and innovation services. It is important to identify key collaborators and partner with them to enrich the course. Together, the instructor and the institutional units can co-create learning objectives/outcomes, course projects, and evaluation strategies.

Second, it is important to help students find motivation in the design challenge by guiding them to the benefits of the framework and helping them identify their inspirations. Engagement is a subjective term, and needs to be made explicit between the students and instructor. Any sources of resistance can be opportunities for conversation. The instructor has to be ready to listen to students.

Finally, it is important to figure out ways to capture students’ development of multimodal literacy. As far as tech comm pedagogy is typically concerned, we want to know how students developed rhetorical awareness to social problems and the ways they address them. How are students investigating and using different genres? What do they learn about material rhetorics? I think there needs to be a strategy for documenting these.

I believe making and design thinking can greatly enhance students’ learning in technical writing and communication courses. My study opens new spaces for scholars and instructors of TWC to incorporate hands-on problem solving projects in their classes as an innovative way to engage students meaningfully.

Collaboration and/in Technical Communication

Rowers on a boat. Image by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash.

I was invited by the amazing Amruta Ranade over at the New York based Cockroach Labs to share my experience being a graduate student in a technical communication program. I decided to talk about collaboration. The following is originally published on Amruta’s website.


Collaboration is at the heart of technical communication, and I see at least two reasons to why that’s so:

  1. Technical communication materials are produced for human use and therefore always require human input; and
  2. As cliche as it may sound, it remains true to me that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something––thus two or more heads are better than one when it comes to solving technical communication issues or tasks.

As a PhD student, my work in the past 4 years has largely been collaborative. Whether in practice or pedagogy, I have been acculturated to working with users, designers, researchers, and teachers. These interactions are often productive and rewarding; they help me create more effective documents, design and perform better studies, and deliver innovative instructions. In this guest post, I share some of my collaborative experiences in research, publishing, teaching, service, and professional practice.

Collaboration in research

Upon reviewing my CV, I realized more than half of my current projects are shared with other researchers in and out of my home department at my university. While I have worked in larger teams that ranged from four to eight researchers, my typical collaborations are in teams of two (myself and another researcher or scholar). Whether we are co-investigating a common problem or co-authoring a report, my experience with sharing a research project has been rewarding. I have always learned new research methods and strategies for communicating my findings. Furthermore, from a research standpoint, collaboration may boost the validity and reliability of a qualitative study if inter-rater reliability is utilized and achieved.

Collaboration in publishing

When publishing in technical communication journals (or any journal, I suppose), authors tend to work with journal editor(s) to identify the publication’s scope, standards, and other publishing specifications. I consider this interaction with journal editors and even responses to blind reviews as a kind of professional collaboration. Such collaboration ensures the quality of a publication––that authors produce scholarship that advance knowledge, reviewers provide feedback that enhance the scholarly merits of the refereed work, and editors ensure the integrity of the publication is preserved and supervise the production process.

I have also been blessed with the opportunities to co-edit some special issues of technical communication journals––most recently for the Journal of Business and Technical Communication and Computers and Composition––on special topics like “design thinking approaches for technical communication” and “immersive technologies and writing pedagogy.” In these co-editing experiences, I have collaborated with other academics to create calls for papers, review submissions, coordinate peer reviews, and work with authors and publishers. Special issue publications such as these tend to require a kind of collaborative dynamic that’s different from a regular journal issue as we had to draw resources from a select pool of experts and work within a specific publication timeline that complements the publisher’s workflow.

Collaboration in teaching

Based on my teaching experience, students find it more meaningful to work with problems that have tangible impact on their lives and those around them. As an instructor of technical communication, this means I need to work to bridge theory and practice in student learning. To achieve this goal, I have been collaborating with faculty members with other disciplinary expertise to co-design course modules and learning activities that benefit students in our classes. For instance, in the current (Spring 2018) semester, I am teaming up with a professor from mechanical engineering to create a learning unit for my business writing course where my students serve as press release writing consultants to graduate engineering students whom they are partnered with. This collaborative effort gives both my students and the graduate engineers in another course an opportunity to cross path and learn from each other.

Collaboration in service

As a member of the technical communication discipline, I am also called to provide services to the field that advance its visibility and wellbeing. In my opinion, these services are best done through collective effort and thus I have collaborated with other graduate students and scholars to co-organize events that led to the aforementioned goals. One example is the 21st Annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing Conference, where three active scholars in my department and I co-hosted in the Fall of 2017. Pulling together a regional conference isn’t a task that can be easily accomplished by an individual; by collaborating with colleagues and other graduate students, we were able to co-design a program that reflected the trends of the field and attracted presenters that had interesting topics to share.

Collaboration in professional practice

When not teaching or conducting research studies, I work as a leasing agent for a student housing provider. Collaboration is ingrained into my work routine; more often than not, I am working with other fellow agents to address leasing and marketing needs––we review our weekly leasing (sales) performance, discuss existing customer service issues, and come up with solutions to address these situations collaboratively. Also, part of my work is dedicated to maintaining a shared database of resident profiles and incoming prospects. Every leasing agent at my property plays a part in keeping shared notes and updating the database. Each year, it takes a team of six leasing agents, working very closely with a leasing manager, to fully lease our residence. While leasing and customer service may not be directly related to technical communication, they are communicative activities that require similar professional rigor.

Together, all these experiences help me grow as a technical communicator, whether through research, publishing, teaching, service, or professional practice. Indeed, as my academic advisor––Dr. Ann Hill Duin––wrote with her collaborator more than 25 years ago, collaboration in technical communication is a research continuum, rather than a static phenomenon or theory. The motivation and techniques for collaboration in technical settings keep shifting according to the context within which the collaboration occurs. My advice for rising technical communicators is to dip their toes in multiple collaborative contexts as part of their training so they may be hone their skills in collaborating with others.

A Design Thinking Orientation

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

This semester, my students are engaged with a design challenge project where teams will identify wicked problems related by students at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, and devise and prototype human-centered solutions for campus users.

To help orient students to the design thinking process, I led a 50-minute activity today using resources provided by the Stanford d.school. Students were asked to bring scrap items and craft tools to class while I provided some random materials such as crayons, boxes, strings, tapes, stickers, and glow sticks.

The goal of the activity was to introduce students to the ways they could observe and identify wicked problems. The “mission” of the activity was for students to redesign the campus experience for a partner I had assigned to them.

To start, students were asked to sit with their partner. Then, they began by reflecting on their own campus experince (1 terrific experience, 1 terrible experience). After that, students were asked to interview their partner. They took turns doing so. Following the interviews, students wrote a user-story statement (“X needs Y so that/because Z”).

Next, students were asked to observe their classroom setting (and beyond, thinking about the campus in general), and to pay attention to ways we interact with objects and spaces.

Using the user-story statement and observation of classroom spaces, students were asked to generate at least 5 radical solutions to meet their partner’s needs. They then shared these ideas with their partner, and spent a few more minutes selecting one “big idea” to refine and prototype.

Students then spent the next 8-10 minutes building a model for their “big idea.”

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

When the time was up, students paused their prototyping, and began sharing their prototyped solutions to their partner. They were asked to focus on what worked, what needed to be improved, and to take questions from their partner.

This was also when our class time was up.

So, I collected the prototypes from students and asked them to reflect on this activity by responding to the following questions:

  • How is design thinking similar or different from “traditional” research process?
  • How did you approach your partner’s problem(s)?
  • How did you come up with your “radical” solutions?
  • What does your partner think about your solutions?

In the next class session, I will return the prototypes to students and ask them to share their insights from this orientation. My goal is to have students reflect intentionally on the affordances and limitations of design thinking, and how this process might be used in their design challenge project this semester.

What I have learned from leading this activity (and participating as well because a student’s partner was absent today) is that design thinking is more than just “thinking.” It is very action-driven, human-centered, and project-focused. When applied to a technical communication course, design thinking could be a useful framework to help students make their ideas/solutions tangible.

I look forward to seeing what students make of the design thinking framework and the projects they choose to engage with this semester. I will share them in a timely manner.