We're excited to share a new Q&A format here on the University Press of Colorado blog. These Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. If you're just joining us, please see part 1 of the conversation here as today we're concluding our conversation with Jason Swarts, professor of technical communications.
What is your research process? Do you have a specific writing strategy?
My research process almost always begins with reading on and around the subject of interest. Sometimes, I will be reading about a particular problem that I want to study or I will be reading around theoretical frameworks that seem as if they would offer some insight to the issue. Once the reading helps me crystallize what I want to study, I figure out what precise questions I want to answer. I work through what Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams advise for honing research interests into research questions.
With the questions in mind, I go in search of the best data possible to understand the phenomenon. If I can find data in a naturalistic setting, so much the better. But if need be, I’ll start talking to people to see if I can get into a location where what I want to study is happening. From there, I spend a lot of time gathering documents, interviewing, and writing field notes that I then later transcribe in order to understand what people are doing with their words. I often apply techniques of corpus analysis to see what patterns of language use are present or I code the data according to descriptive codes that I take from my readings. My analysis is always based on observations of the quantitative patterns of code distributions in the data set that I then contextualize based on my field notes.
Have you observed that your discipline has had an impact on current events, or vice versa? If so, how?
It is a little difficult to separate the contributions of my field (technical communication) from those made by other fields, but one area of influence I would point to is the continuing importance of plain language efforts at the level of local and federal government.
More generally, I would say that the development of technical and professional communication as an academic discipline has done much to raise the profile of everyday writing and communicating in the workplace. My colleagues and I just finished doing a comprehensive survey of the state of writing in the workplace. Of course, writing has always been a significant part of many professions, but where I see the influence of people in my field is in the awareness that people have of writing and communicating in their fields and the insistence that their supervisors hold that effective writing and communication mean something important in the workplace.
If you had to pick a single question for everyone in your field to attempt to answer going forward, what would it be?
It might not be a question that has a specific answer, but rather think of it as a heuristic for leading us to ask meaningful and impactful questions in the field. What are the when’s and where’s of technical communication? In other words, what are the occasions when technical communication is called for? And where is technical communication found? It may not be found in texts, but it might be embedded in the built environment or contained in the interactions between people or layered onto social spaces like a transparency. People depend on information for a great many things that are worth paying attention to.
What prospective directions for your discipline most excite you?
I am most excited by user-generated content and the DIY ethos that is coming up around maker communities. I am seeing citizen science collaborations, maker spaces, open source, and mass collaborative big data projects that are incubators for entrepreneurial activity. As I see it, technical communication practices are very important to both formulating objects of work and creating/sustaining the conditions by which people can work with each other. We are seeing technical communication in a position of invention, which is an exciting thing.
What do you think is the most common (or most irritating) misconception about research in your field?
That we only study and teach people how to write software manuals. It doesn’t help that I do research on software manuals, but that’s beside the point.
What are the most critical current ideological divides in your field?
One that has been brewing for a while concerns social responsibility, social justice, and technical communication. The historical origins of technical communication as a vocation and as an academic field are in efficiency and effectiveness of communication, and for a while the focus on efficiency and effectiveness obscured issues related to the ethics of our communications. And while we have made progress on being conscious and aware of ethical dimensions of technical communication practice, I think we have been less collectively aware of social justice issues when it comes to sharing information and creating access to technologies, to data, and to other technological areas that depend on technical communication.
Another ideological divide that I see in the field concerns the relationship between the academic mission of technical communication as a field and the connections that the field has to the vocation of technical communication in industry. There has long been a gulf between the concerns of industry and the concerns of academia, and this gulf is widened by differences in questions that animate research and in the speed of the cycle for knowledge development. I see the aims of academia and industry being connected to each other and I feel that there is a lot that we have to learn from and teach to each other, but we have to start listening.
Jason Swarts is professor of English at North Carolina State University, specializing in the field of technical communication. He is a core faculty member in NC State’s MS program in Technical and Scientific Communication and in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media PhD program. His work has received numerous awards, including the 2009 NCTE Award for Best Book in Technical or Scientific Communication, and he is the author of Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain: User Support in the Wild and the Role of Technical Communication.