Coursework: Checked. Next Steps!

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The trees are green and the grades are in!

As of this morning I have completed the coursework requirements for my doctoral studies. This is a little milestone to celebrate as I won’t be taking any classes for formal degree purposes in the foreseeable future. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that.

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So, what happens next? Friends and families alike are curious about my plans following the completion of coursework. Here’s a snapshot:

Exams

This summer I am reading and preparing for three exams that will take place this Fall in October. The three papers will be on rhetoric, technical communication, and a specialty area on pedagogy, respectively. I plan on posting my reading lists on my blog here soon-ish so you might look at them and recommend resources for tackling them!

Prospectus, or dissertation proposal

In the Fall, I will also start drafting my dissertation proposal, also known as the prospectus. I have been wrestling with different ideas for my dissertation project and various collaborative works in the past few months have helped me think about the direction for the dissertation. In terms of timeline, the prospectus will be submitted to my dissertation committee  (chaired by the wonderful Dr. Ann Hill Duin) and there will be an initial “defense” session for the prospectus. Once approved, I will proceed to outlining the dissertation and work closely with my committee members in the drafting, researching, and writing of the actual dissertation.

Researching & writing

I plan to begin the research process in Spring 2017. The research and writing should take about one year to complete.

Defending

By Spring 2018, I should be ready to defend my dissertation and complete any final formatting requirement for the work. Since my department will continue funding me through my fifth year, my goal is to go on the job market by Summer 2018 and spend the year looking for a job.

There you have it, a quick glance over my next three years. Meanwhile, I will continue to teach and work on smaller projects–individual and collaborative–and publishing them to keep up with the competitive PhD grad market.

Technical Communication at the Crossroads

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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.

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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):

Persuasive-Pervasive Composing: Multimodality, Virtual Reality, and Google Cardboard

(Multi)Modality

Cheryl Ball and Colin Charlton, in their encyclopedia-like entry in Naming What We Know, state that “all writing is multimodal” (2015). Further,

rhetoric and composition’s historic approach to the teaching of writing has almost always included the production of multimodal texts. This understanding can be traced from classical rhetorical studies of effective speech design including body and hand gestures, to current concerns with infographics and visual rhetorics. (Ball & Charlton, 2015)

Typically associated with new media and new communicative affordances in emerging technologies, multimodality refers to the use of multiple modes of communication to creative, maintain, and convey meanings. In a previous post where I have attempted to differentiate “multimedia” composition from “multimodal” composition, I contended that the emphasis in “multimedia” is the technological form or the medium of presentation, whereas the emphasis in “multimodal” is the means to persuasion.

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Since that writing, it has become central to my research activities to examine the roles, functions, and forms of persuasion afforded through rising communication media, including embodied technologies such as wearable and biometric technology, as well as virtual and augmented reality environments, where persuasion can be pervasive and ubiquitous. I am interested in learning how persuasion works in new immersive environments, i.e., how new modes of meaning making modify the arrangement of arguments (logos), heighten the credibility of the source (ethos), and create impacting experience for the user (pathos).

Google Cardboard & Virtual Reality

To begin explicating the possibilities of integrating virtual/immersive reality as a pedagogical tool for teaching persuasion, I introduced Google Cardboard in my first-year composition class this semester. (Watch this video to learn more about Google Cardboard and low-end virtual reality.)

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What I am interested in having my students explore using Google Cardboard is the element of “reality” in composition.

As writers we have been taught many ways to create a sense of reality (some scholars call them context) for our audience: the 5Ws & 1H, the rhetorical situation, the Burkean pentad, etc. These strategies aim to construct the circumstances in which persuasive communication takes place, as audience tend to be more persuaded by arguments that are made as close to actuality as possible. In fact, arguments are more persuasive if they provide more sensory stimuli to the audience.

In other words, people prefer to believe in things that seem or feel real.

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By providing its user an immersive experience, virtual reality seems to afford pseudo-realistic argumentations. Such realization opens new grounds for the theorizing of virtual spaces as rhetorical spaces that can be used for pervasive-persuasive composing.

Today, my students and I got to experience virtual reality through Google Cardboard, and we discussed how virtual reality redefines writing and persuasion. We also talked about the following:

  • What is made possible through virtual reality?
  • How might virtual reality enhance arguments and persuasion?
  • What are some limitations to communicating via virtual reality?

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The Fun Factor

Needless to say, virtual reality is fun! Watching students experiment with Google Cardboard for the first time reminds me of the goals of active learning––authentic, engaging, and valuable. And the Cardboard activity seems to allow students to participate and contribute more earnestly than the typical lectures on rhetoric and persuasive writing. The energy was off the roof when our class session ended this morning; and for a teacher, this is humbling.

I will continue to design lessons around Google Cardboard and deploy them in class so students can get early hands-on experience with this emerging communicative technology. If you have suggestions for deployment activities, or ideas for collaborative projects, please feel free to comment here or contact me directly.

Digital Collaboration Etiquette: Three Tips

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In the advent of digital innovations and the rise of interdependency in research, scholarly activities are becoming increasingly collaborative. It is not uncommon to find students, faculty members, staff, and administrators working together via face-to-face as well as online methods. Since moving to the University of Minnesota, my collaborative work has been largely facilitated by cloud storage and activity synchronization services such as Google Apps, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Doodle. In using these applications I have come to realized some desirable practices that may elevate collaborative activities and enhance productivity. These codes of conduct–mostly implicit/unspoken–are becoming common expectations for workgroups, yet aren’t usually taught to new members of those groups. Given my own experience, here are three collaboration etiquette pertaining to digital activities that I think are important for new and current collaborators to follow. I call them digital collaboration etiquette.

Be an initiator

Whether online or in-person, meetings are the engines of collaboration. If you are requesting for a meeting with your collaborators, be the one to look into others’ calendar and propose a date and time, instead of waiting for someone else to do so. Google Calendar is great for this purpose. Doodle can also help to gather people’s availability information without needing them to share their calendars. Whichever app you use, acknowledge that people are generally busy and appreciate those who take the initiative to make something work. This also means following through with people’s responses to the proposed meeting date/time and confirm it as soon as possible.

Send reminders

On following through with ongoing and future activities, it is a kind gesture to send out reminders before the upcoming event. For shared tasks, Wunderlist is a good app for keeping to-do lists. If you would like to stay within Google Apps, Google Calendar has a wonderful feature that allows you to add reminders. I find it commendable when collaborators help one another to remember key tasks and forthcoming activities. It helps one to avoid missing an important event just because he or she forgot about it, causing shame and deterrents to achieving a common goal. Of course, no one likes to be nagged nor bothered too often. So, be courteous when sending reminders to your collaborators and be appreciative of their contributions to the task at hand.

Keep things organized

A lousy file system and disregard for organization make the basic recipe to disaster in any collaborative activity. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to retrieve a file or folder at a time when you need it. Thus, strategic data management should be one of the foremost habits of a workgroup. In fact, a proper data management system is required by most funding agencies or institutional authorities especially if a group works with human subjects and sensitive or subject-identifying data. Good collaborators would always help one another to keep track of their work and store them securely and systematically. I think every member of the group should strive to keep files organized and not simply leave that to the group leader.

What other tips would you add to these? Feel free to share your advice and ideas for making collaborative work more efficient and enjoyable!