Where Practice Meets Theory: Adjusting Classroom Pedagogies for a Globalizing Technical Communication Field

By Tiffany Price

The future of technical communication is expanding to include elements necessary for the globalization of the field. Technical communication can be used as a means of communicating across cultural boundaries in order to accomplish the rhetorical goals of particular documents (Campbell, 1998). Professors of professional and technical communication are called upon to teach tech comm students the elements of appropriate communication in the global world.

As the globalization of technical communication evolves, pedagogical adjustments should be made to ensure that all students are prepared to adequately communicate across cultural boundaries. Accomplishing this task is best advocated when exploring the balance between theory and practice in a classroom.

Instructors in the 21st-century technical communication classroom need to evaluate their pedagogical approach to teaching communication that includes cross-cultural paradigms. This change can be done by balancing theory and practice in order for technical communicators to be prepared for globalization.

Importance of Theory

As the technical communication classroom develops, instructors are called upon to incorporate lessons on theory. The theory of the profession can often be exemplified while focusing on the research of the field. To balance theory and practice in a technical communication classroom, Graham Nuthall (2004) examines the importance of research and how research can relationally bind with practical experience in order to enhance teaching. Nuthall is referring not only to the research that applies directly to the subject the instructor is teaching, but also to the ways in which theory can be emphasized in the classroom.

One end of the educational spectrum encourages the importance of theory, which attests not only to the crucial push to incorporate topical research in the classroom, but also to the use of appropriate textbooks that will adequately permit the development of theory. Thomas Barker and Natalia Matveeva (2006) suggest that instructors choose appropriate textbooks as a way to teach theory, which can prepare the 21st-century student for globalization and their professional position in the field.

Barker and Matveeva also explore the awareness, information, and practice of textbooks as a guide for analyzing whether or not the material is appropriate for the classroom. The critical elements to consider, which may call for a pedagogical adjustment on the instructors’ behalf, are to include adequate research on the topic and to choose textbooks that enhance theoretical aspects of learning within the technical communication classroom. By utilizing both research and appropriate textbooks, theory can help prepare technical communication students for globalization.

Importance of Practice

Although theory is essential, it is only one half of the equation. Putting theory into practice is the other critical half that allows tech comm students to understand the field’s globalized position in the 21st century. Practice can be categorized under many different educational approaches, but it is a way in which students are able to implement theory in a probable manner.

Activities for Practice

Barker and Matveeva encourage instructors to adjust their pedagogies to include practice through methods of assigned projects, games, or activities that help break the bias students’ cultural experience or background naturally creates. The call for such activities allows students to break free from the binding of their cultural mold, and in turn learn that certain cultural standards are often what drive intercultural communication. Furthermore, these activities allow other students in the classroom to better understand mannerisms of unfamiliar cultures, which in turn helps them in the global technical communication profession.

Writing for Practice

Writing assignments, as a way of combining theory with practice, can be used as a means of exploring the cultural differences of those in the classroom. Writing assignments highlight the differences of diverse writing styles to the way technical communication is growing around the globe. Students of an intercultural classroom who are assigned to put theory into practice through instructor-requested writing opportunities will surely learn how to incorporate theory into practice. Also, the instructor can use the writing assignments as a way to introduce the class to the potential cultural differences of composing technical documents.

Marie Paretti writes, “Cooper and Holzman, in Writing As Social Action (1989), elaborate on the complexity of this situation by exploring the ways in which ‘writing is located in the social world, and, thus, is fundamentally structured by the shape of that environment’ and delineate the ways in which the act of writing is always situated in a complex set of interlocking systems of ideas, purposes, interpersonal interactions, cultural norms, and textual forms” (2008, p. 492).

Applying theory and practice through instructor-assigned writing assignments may ultimately allow students to grasp the understanding of intercultural communication, especially as it applies to the globalized movement of technical communication in the 21st century. This incorporation in the classroom will prepare students for the development of technical documents that meet the rhetorical purpose necessary for reaching across cultural boundaries.

Balancing Theory and Practice

Instructors will need to adjust their pedagogies when approaching a technical communication classroom that balances theory and practice in order to prepare the 21st-century student for the profession in a globalized workplace. Theory is essential, and choosing the correct textbooks and exploring the appropriate research venues will help emphasize the importance of theory in the classroom. However, practice is just as important, and applying theories to assignments that allow students to explore intercultural relationships and techniques used to accomplish rhetoric is crucial in the learning process.

Figure 1. Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning (Nuthall, 2004, p. 290).
Figure 1. Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning (Nuthall, 2004, p. 290).

Graham Nuthall claims that activities implemented in the classroom are best interpreted by students when there is a direct relation to their goals, interests, and background knowledge, allowing the activities to become relevant for them (2004). It is the instructors’ responsibility to find material that will explore theory that is relevant to the students so they can then apply that theory in practice and use those experiences as a means toward learning technical communication. Nuthall created a chart, seen in Figure 1, that shows what methods permit student accomplishment when considering the instructors/teachers’ roles in the classroom.

Instructors are called on to adjust pedagogies to ensure student achievement, and the flow of learning from Figure 1 reveals the importance of balancing theory and practice in order to adequately prepare the technical communication student for the work field.


Much change in the field of technical communication is directly related to globalization. Instructors should be required to prepare technical communication students by adjusting their pedagogies to incorporate a balance of theory and practice, and to ensure that students are adequately using theory while practicing the art of rhetoric, the communication standards for a cross-cultural technical document, and the elements of communicating adequately in a global workplace. As the technical communication field expands, a tech comm student should be prepared to work in global technical communication through balancing theory and practice.


Barker, Thomas, and Natalia Matveeva. “Teaching Intercultural Communication in a Technical Writing Service Course: Real Instructors’ Practices and Suggestions for Textbook Selection.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.2 (2006): 191–214.

Cambell, Charles P. “Beyond Language: Cultural Predispositions in Business Correspondence.” New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology (1998). Accessed 2 March 2016 from http://infohost.nmt.edu/~cpc/internationalethos.html.

Cooper, Marilyn, and Michael Holzman. Writing as Social Action. Heinemann, 1989.

Nuthall, Graham. “Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning: A Critical Analysis of Why Research Has Failed to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap.” Harvard Educational Review 74.3 (2004): 273–306.

Paretti, Marie C. “Teaching Communication in Capstone Design: The Role of the Instructor in Situated Learning.” Journal of Engineering Education 97.4 (2008): 491–503.

TIFFANY PRICE is currently pursuing a Masters in technical and professional communication with a certificate in multicultural and transnational literature through East Carolina University’s distance education program. Tiffany has taught at the high-school level, but is currently in a transitional phase as she has recently accepted an online teaching role at the University of the People. Tiffany intends to use her graduate degree to teach English at a higher-education level.

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