No one ever teaches you how to teach technical communication, or at least that’s how it used to be. When I was at Michigan Tech (1995–2001), graduate teaching assistants were required to take a three-credit seminar in composition pedagogy, which was considered sufficient training for teaching any kind of writing. This training was extensive, including a two-week orientation the summer before one started teaching, a three-credit seminar during the first term that focused on theoretical and practical aspects of teaching composition, and significant discussion.
Once that requirement was met, we were then allowed to teach HU333 Technical Writing. If we were assigned to teach that class, we were then also required to register for a mere one-credit pedagogy class focused on technical communication, at least when teaching it for the first time. At that time, none of the technical communication programs included a designated three-credit comprehensive pedagogy class in technical communication, not only because the field was relatively young but also because composition preparation was considered sufficient for pedagogical training.
This required one-credit pedagogy class was run like a weekly business meeting and most of the GTAs teaching HU333 attended beyond the required one credit for two reasons: the lack of other sources of pedagogical training related to technical communication and the community engagement that developed in this group during that time among the participants who came and went as time and necessity dictated.
Although a few more pedagogy courses designed specifically for technical communication have appeared in recent years, the majority of programs still rely heavily on composition training. A survey I conducted a couple years ago revealed that 80 percent of the participants did not take a pedagogy class specifically designed for technical communication.
The value of the “business meeting” at Tech surpassed any of the time and effort it took to participate because we were hungry for knowledge about teaching technical writing, especially the practical aspects, which worked to alleviate the fears of walking into a classroom and not knowing what to do. Not only did we develop a camaraderie in this group, but we also developed special professional relationships that some of us continue into our teaching lives today.
I have always wanted to create an expanded pedagogy class like the class at Tech, but circumstances at my university do not necessitate the existence of that kind of course. My ideal pedagogy course would begin with a seminar focused on the theory of technical communication and class observations. As in any field, new teachers of writing would need to know how to put a syllabus together, how to write an assignment description, how to design classroom activities, and, most important, how to evaluate and assess student writing. But in Tech Comm, they also need to know how to teach and evaluate the various content areas such as audience and situational analysis, document design, graphics and data displays, genre knowledge, collaboration, and so on.
Although the pedagogical design of this course may mirror composition in procedure, the content and style are significantly different enough to warrant its own three-credit seminar. During this three-credit seminar for technical communication graduate teaching assistants, I would require students to read the theoretical context that frames our field, chronicled in landmark collections such as Central Works in Technical Communication, Solving Problems in Technical Communication, and Teaching Technical Communication—all of which were edited and written by the folks who lived and wrote our history (Dubinsky 2004; Johnson-Eilola and Selber 2004, 2013).
In the introduction to Teaching Technical Communication (2004), Jim Dubinsky (Virginia Tech) called technical communication a “pedagogical discipline” referring to it as a techne, a process of not just “knowing how” but also “knowing how to.” Although there might be some argument with that perspective, I suspect that we can all agree that process is part of the theories and practices of pedagogy vital to the technical communication field not only because it characterizes the field’s professional history and practices that define us to this day but also because it helps us rethink, retool, and repurpose our assignments and classroom activities. Because we’re in a field that is constantly changing, it is important for us to understand the foundation of our history—especially where we came from and the battles fought and lost and won—as well as new trends in the field.
What’s next? It’s content strategy and content management.
Dubinsky, James M., ed. 2004. Teaching Technical Communication: Critical Issues for the Classroom. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber, eds. 2004. Central Works in Technical Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber, eds. 2013. Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tracy Bridgeford is professor of technical communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she directs the Graduate Certificate in Technical Communication. She is the editor of Teaching Professional and Technical Communication (August 2018) and coeditor of Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication. In 2015, she coedited Academy-Industry Relationships: Perspectives for Technical Communicators and in 2014 Sharing Our Intellectual Traces: Narrative Reflections from Administrators of Professional, Technical, and Scientific Programs.