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Bruce Byfield wrote that many academic technical writing programs <<don't
seem to prepare their students very well. From all reports, many seem poorly
conceived and poorly staffed.>> (To be fair, he also acknowledges that the
real problem with such courses may be that classroom work can't prepare
students for the world of work, but that isn't the portion of his statement
Stephen MacDonald suggests that <<when the decline in student populations
>started a few years back [colleges] had to scramble to replace the lost
tuition >revenue. I suspect the weak tech writing programs are taught by
academics >who have never worked on a high-tech development project and are
teaching >from a tech writing text focusing exclusively on writing per se.>>
Bruce and Stephen, let me give you some perspective on this from a former
academic. I know personally of one such program that suffered from poor
conception, poor staffing, and a general desire to jump on the high-tech
bandwagon. In my previous life as a junior faculty member at a four-year
state college in another state, I fought the curriculum battle for five
years. In the late 1980s, the English department had decided it would be a
good thing to offer an option in Professional Writing [it was thought
Technical Writing would sound too narrow]. The department at that time had
one course in technical writing. A new faculty member was hired and she
developed one additional upper-division course. The following year I was
hired, and the year after that the other person left for greener pastures
and a fiction critic was hired to replace her. This left me as the only
faculty member (out of 26) with any special knowledge or much interest in
technical writing, and the department offering only two courses in the
field. Yet the department could and did advertise that it had this option,
and English majors were allowed to graduate with a so-called professional
writing option, after taking a curriculum cobbled together from those two
courses, grammar, and creative writing from the English department, plus
work in journalism and graphic arts.
In a particularly irritating twist, the upper-level course was open to
graduate students; however, the curriculum was defined in such a way that an
MA degree purporting to specialize in Professional Writing could be obtained
without it--hence without taking *any* work specifically in technical
writing. Unfortunately, one student (over my strenuous objections) actually
did so on my watch.
In curriculum committee meetings and performance reviews I repeatedly
described the additional courses and resources that we would need in order
to have a credible technical writing option, but got nowhere. During my last
semester at this institution, I finally was allowed to teach a Technical
Editing course I had developed as a Special Topics course, and I had to
argue with the department chairman not to cancel it because of low
Meanwhile, the technical writing courses, such as they were, were being
taught by--you got it--an academic with a specialty in rhetoric and
composition, plenty of enthusiasm about the field and a great deal more
interest in technical and scientific subjects than most of my artsy-fartsy
colleagues, but no experience working on a high-tech development project. I
will say in defense of technical writing textbooks, though, that most of
them are not limited to rhetorical theory; they make a real effort to
discuss rhetorical issues in terms of real-life work-related writing
situations. An ideal complement to me would have been a second faculty
member with employment experience outside academia, but the department,
since it was able to state that it offered a professional writing option,
was unwilling to make that kind of investment in the program to make it a
To give you further insight into a college administrator's understanding of
technical writing, during one of my annual reviews my dean told my
department chairman it was "ironic" that the faculty member who specialized
in professional writing had failed to publish any journal articles.
To be fair, I don't know how typical my former employer is, but even one
academic TW program not worthy of the name is too many. Still, those of us
who actually teach or have taught in such programs mean well, at least.
Steve Whitney suggested another definition of nontechnical: <<Writers who
have specialized in areas of technology can also be the
objects of the "you're not technical enough" formula too. There are two
organizations in my area that are populated with PhD-in-English types who
have stellar general publication credits.>>
Steve, I have a PhD in English. I hope that doesn't make me a PhD-in-English
type, as I get the feeling it is not a compliment.
Technical Writer, ProphetLine, Inc.
and Adjunct Instructor, Westark College
sarah -dot- bane -at- prophetline -dot- com
sbane -at- systema -dot- westark -dot- edu
Opinions expressed are my own and not endorsed by ProphetLine or by Westark.