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.

SMAAASH: VR Entertainment Review

On Thursday, my friends and I went to check out the newly opened virtual reality games and arcade center at the Mall of America, SMAAASH. While many might be fooled by my studious outlook, I am actually a huge fan of arcade games. I have spent many hours in my teenage years in arcade centers and have always enjoyed new game stimulations. So, I was very excited about the chance to check out this new experience.

SMAAASH is an interactive gaming facility that is built around virtual reality (VR) technologies. Opened on Dec. 20, 2016 at the Mall of America, SMAAASH offers America’s first VR-driven “adrenaline arena,” coupled with sports, music, and bar dining experiences.

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When walked into the arcade arena, I was immediately drawn to the flashy LEDs and screens set up to get visitors registered for their play. My friends and I got an all-access pass that gives us unlimited access to all games and one round of Sky Karting (go kart). Main attractions include Finger Coaster, Exterminator, Vertigo, Art of Attack, X1 Simulator, Haunted Hospital, Hot Shot, Zombie Outbreak, and three sports based challenges namely Super Keeper (soccer), What the Puck (ice hockey), and Extreme Takedown Challenge (football). There is also a “smart arcade” with classics like race cars, skiing, and basketball ring toss, and other screen based games. You can read all game descriptions here.

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Having studied VR and wearable technologies since 2015, my colleagues at UMN and I have been intrigued by the potentials of VR in gaming and social engagement. SMAAASH embodies a combination of both. While back in our home lab there’s one set of HTC Vive for individual research and user simulation, SMAAASH offers interactive and communal participation in VR experiences. These experiences are made possible mainly by Oculus and Vive technologies. What’s interesting to me is how the player/user can be a part of creating their VR experience, and sharing it with their friends.

For instance, at Finger Coaster, players can design their own roller coaster tracks and bring up to four friends to share the ride they have invented.

^ This is one of my most favorite.

Another highlight at SMAAASH is the Vertigo experience. I’d say that simulation is indeed not for the faint hearted. Through the VR headset, the player is lifted to about 50 feet above ground to a single plank, with the mission to save a kitten at the middle of the narrow walkway. I almost chickened out of this particular simulation (although I actually did with the zombies), I am glad that I tried–and succeeded in saving the poor kitty–because it was something I would never have done in real life.

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VR does trick the mind into believing the simulation to be reality. What the Vertigo experience teaches me is that there are truly many ways VR can be used to simulate scenarios that are hard to create in reality, but might be useful in shaping or changing one’s perspective.

We ended up spending about 2.5 hours there, not including the time in the dining space (the wings are delicious, by the way). I think SMAAASH could be a great group trip for those who don’t mind spending a little more on the tickets that traditional entertainment. The ticket prices at the Mall are:

  • $5 per Active and Virtual Reality Game; $1 per Arcade Game, or
  • All Active & Virtual Reality Games: $28 for once; $35 Unlimited, or
  • All Arcade, Active & Virtual Reality Games: $34 for once; $40 Unlimited

I give this new arcade a 4 out of 5 stars for its innovative approach to social gaming. I reserve one star for when it lowers its ticket prices and for when the players can be even more involved in designing their own VR experience.

Agile Writing: Continuous Writing Process Improvement for Teams @ GPACW 2016

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Joe Moses and I presented at the annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing conference this year at UW-Stout, and here is our presentation abstract:

Drawing on pedagogical case studies, we explore how a common project-management framework used in industry supports learning in writing classrooms. The framework, called Agile Writing, forms a usable bridge between learning in academic settings and working in organizations. Our Agile Writing model is based on Scrum, an agile framework developed by software developers. In Agile Writing, students work in cross-functional teams in which they create both individual writing and team-written documents. Specific Agile Writing components give teams a chance to reflect on goals and achievements and to monitor progress on specific requirements and tasks. Those components enable instructors to measure individual contributions to team projects and to monitor team progress as teams pursue their goals.

We posit Agile Writing as a usable framework for instructors who have formerly rejected team learning because of challenges to measuring individual effort. In this presentation, we introduce and share our experience using Agile Writing in multiple writing studies courses––including first-year writing and senior-level technical communication courses––by referring to the empirical findings gained from surveys, participatory observations, and qualitative interviews with students in these courses. Based on our findings and classroom experience while piloting and developing Agile Writing over three semesters, we offer a set of specific guidelines for implementing Agile Writing in classrooms, including best practices involving project management technology in the writing process.

Feel free to contact us to visit further on this model.

This Technological Life: My Technology Literacy Narrative

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Google’s Blogger, aka Blogspot, one of the blogging platform I have used in my teenage years.

In his most recent work, Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, Douglas Eyman (2015) began his survey and critique of digital rhetoric as a field and methodological approach with his own technology literacy narrative. A variation to the traditional personal literacy narrative, the technology literacy narrative focuses on the writer’s experience with various technologies that support their acquiring of digital literacies.

As I spend more time this summer thinking about the theoretical landscape of digital rhetoric, I have decided to write my personal technology literacy narrative as I believe it might help with my understanding and locating of “digital rhetoric”––that my views and evaluation of digital rhetoric are rooted in the practices and disciplines through which I have traversed. So here goes.

My early encounters with computers happened both in school and at home. Along with other 10-year-olds, I was led into our school’s brand new computer lab back in 2000. At the turn of the millennium, Malaysia (my ancestral home) was picking up its pace in scientific and  technological development––especially within schools and governmental infrastructures––and there was a pervasive national narrative that promoted science education and computer literacy. Thanks to generous donors and state endowments, my friends and I were among the first few lucky groups of students who got to learn programs like Microsoft Paint, Kid Pix, and the Windows 97 Office suite while attending grade school. As part of the curriculum, we had about two hours each week dedicated to lessons on computer hardware and software, as well as typing and navigating the computer interface. While I don’t exactly remember much of what I did in the then-new computer lab, I cherish the memories when I “painted” abstract graphics on the computer, saved them on a 3.5” floppy diskette, and exchanged it with other classmates so we could view one another’s “artwork.”

Back at home, my parents bought our family computer soon after I turned 15, and I vividly remember how my brothers and I had spent the whole weekend figuring how to get the speakers hooked up to the CPU. We even drew up a who-gets-to-use-the-computer-when timetable so we would not fight over one another for some early versions of Solitaire. It was also then when my parents decided to get us Internet connection through a dial-up modem. Because the family phone would be disrupted when the computer is connected to the Internet, our use of the Web was quite limited. Nonetheless, it was then that I was introduced to the idea of blogging (around 2006) and I used the Web mainly for that purpose. I would write about my day in school, my feelings about the latest anime story on TV, and everything and anything that I thought someone out there might be interested in reading through my blog. In retrospect, it was since I began blogging that I developed a sentiment for writing. I was writing more than ever before and my vocabulary grew as a result. More than that, blogging also kept me reading (other blogs) and participating in a virtual community of bloggers who share common passions. I was so indulged in the act that at one point I thought I could make blogging my career. Sadly, that idea was given a pass after my teachers told me that it was not feasible. (Of course, they didn’t see Google and social media coming.)

The latter part of my technology literacy narrative wends its way into personal computing mainly for writing and communicative purposes, and then a deep dive into using the mainframe systems in college after I transferred to an American university. Before entering the second decade of the new millennium, computers were almost ubiquitous on campus. Email and online dashboards like Desire2Learn learning management system and e-Services portal were (still are, I think) regarded as “official channels of communication” between administrators, faculty members, and students. To my surprise, I became well versed in all these modes of writing and communicating rather quickly, and I was very watchful for communicative conventions and ethics across these platforms.

Continuing my studies at a comprehensive American university also gave me the opportunities to meet with people from different cultural backgrounds, education, and interests. Especially during my days in the student residential hall, where students would exchange and explore ideas in the middle of the night, play games, and share their respective interests with each other, I got to learn about computer programs and sites that I have never heard before (as most of them are popular within certain regions of the world). Although I did not get involved with computer games as much as most of my colleagues in digital and techno-rhetorics do, but I have always had a keen interest in visual display and computer programming. It might have been for this reason that I enrolled in a media studies undergraduate major with a focus in advertising and minor in psychology. Though not directly computer-related, most of my term papers share a common topic of technology and social behaviors. Upon completing my senior year, I went on to work in the madman industry for one short year, and returned to complete two master’s degrees––one in advertising and public relations, the other in rhetoric and composition, where I was first (or finally) introduced the concepts of writing and rhetorical theories.

It was through my rhetoric and composition MA program that I began to apprehend the facility of rhetoric and shifted my disciplinary identity from media studies to rhetoric. Two of the classes I took as a graduate student that made explicit the relations between the digital and the rhetorical were Matt Barton’s “Digital Rhetoric, Culture, and Discourse” and Judith Kilborn’s “Digital Rhetoric and Pedagogy” (which I completed fully online). It was then that my interests for digital rhetoric began solidifying and becoming a core of my research today.