Columns September 2020

New Directions for the Academic SIG

By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow and Carol Luttrell | STC Associate Fellow

The path of SIG management never runs smooth, but always upward and always renewed. Seeing a need for effective leadership and possessing a wealth of knowledge of STC, technical communication, and industry publication processes and values, Carol Luttrell was a perfect choice to take over the manager’s role. In terms of industry credibility, Carol brings a world of knowledge from her work with Dupont, Independence Blue Cross, Motorola, and others over a career spanning four decades. A dedicated SIG member and STC Associate Fellow, Carol knows the workings of SIGs (having managed the International SIG for years), as well as training, marketing communication, and community work.

For the Academic SIG, the now Professor Luttrell—who teaches technical communication at the University of Delaware—takes on the work with a clear vision for moving the Academic SIG into the future. I had the pleasure of a long conversation with my new academic colleague in July, and this article will be dedicated to that vision.

In our discussion, Carol and I got to know each other a little better. I, of course, remembered her from her role as manager of the International SIG, and spending time with her in a Zoom meeting was a chance for me to relive and revive many great memories of STC from that era and to look at some of the challenges facing academic members today. Specifically, we had the chance to talk about important issues like the changing academic workplace, the evolving nature of SIG communication to address those changes, and, very importantly, the changes in instructional design facing so many Academic SIG members.

In the Workplace

The employment situation for academics today, as Carol takes the helm, is not that of the tweed-clad, pipe smoking, privileged, male-dominated environment of the past. The job path might not be directly from associate to full, but a convoluted path that offers a variety of roles, as adjuncts and sessional faculty enter the field in greater numbers.

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

TIAA, a major retirement insurance provider in higher education in the U.S. reports that “about 70% of faculty in U.S. institutions hold full- or part-time nontenure-track positions.” Almost half (44%) have more than one source of income. In some U.S. and Canadian colleges, up to 80% of “professors” work contract to contract, often hired after the term begins, requiring them to construct syllabi on the fly. As members of the gig economy, these academics often face inadequate support and are evaluated by inappropriate criteria. As a result, issues such as job satisfaction, diversity, equity, and inclusion are now playing a more influential role in hiring and retaining.

When Carol began her career at the University of Delaware, the academic workforce was becoming more flexible and more strategic, but also facing issues of evaluation, contract inequities, lack of support (which we will return to later), high turnover, and a culture of silence that’s unwilling to acknowledge, for various reasons, the shift to a less vetted—and in some ways—less capable academic workforce.

These realities of the academic workforce indicate that the potential member of the Academic SIG is an individual with different life experiences and different priorities than the academics of, say, 10 years ago. For one thing, current academics are not bound by publishing requirements of an earlier day, but nevertheless are equally driven to contribute to high-level intellectual conversations. They might be more comfortable with and capable of moving between the academic world and industry settings, but still see value in STC programs and messaging that supports the realities of their actual job.

In many ways, academia is not the same game as before. I asked Carol about the challenges that she saw technical writing instructors face at the University of Delaware. In that workplace, many of the instructors found they possessed the necessary teaching skills, especially in writing, but were not as strong in industry experience. On the other hand, Carol was quite capable of providing real-life examples, templates, and practical writing advice. Instructors with less industry experience found themselves able to help students do better in school writing but not so much on-the-job writing, relying on the textbook to convey much of the practical guidance in workplace technical communication that students craved.

SIG Communication

In the past, much community communication within STC was rooted in mailing lists and asynchronous messaging. Today, however, discussion boards are giving way to productivity-oriented platforms like Slack, Asana, Google, and Trello. Many professionals use ResearchGate and LinkedIn regularly.

Academics are pressured more and more to use social media platforms for professional communication. Pearson Education, a huge textbook company, did a survey of academics in 2011 and concluded that “faculty are big users of and believers in social media.” Such usage brings, the Pearson report says, issues of privacy (only 30% seemed comfortable using social media platforms in teaching) and integrity (only 20% trusted student submissions via social media). However, for collaborative learning and content delivery, most academics found social media sites “offer value” in teaching.

For many, social media offers new opportunities not just for teaching, but for disseminating research findings, mobilizing knowledge, and curating or incubating new research ideas. At my institution, the emphasis is on community engagement. As such, many professors regularly integrate Twitter and other platforms into their scholarly conversations. One writer on a ResearchGate forum made this observation:

I recognize the value of professional dialogue among academics, yet are we perpetuating the “ivory tower” problems by restricting access in places like this [ResearchGate]? Would this be a good place to enhance our research by interacting with the users of our research so that they might critique our work or suggest areas that they see as relevant for further study?

This was in 2016, and a lot has changed since then, opening up social media platforms for academic communication with all its varied audiences. The implications of these communication realities are not lost on Carol. She related to me the desire to accommodate the use of appropriate media—even the possibility of a SIG-sponsored survey of social media usage and effectiveness factors—to achieve the objective of facilitating and getting things done for this valuable STC constituency.

Instructional Delivery

Carol and I discussed some of the challenges facing the academic community of today, and as one might expect, the discussion focused on instructional delivery models. For many of us in the profession, the watchword for the spring and summer sessions is “emergency remote teaching” (ERT). The challenge is that, in this situation, student learning—and student perceptions that they are learning—is diminished.

Educause.com defines “emergency remote teaching” as a catch-all phrase to describe the varieties of COVID-enforced, socially distanced, Zoom-based learning that we are seeing today. There is a clear difference between quality online learning and ERT. Slapping a course online can represent the content and delivery, and even the evaluation of face-to-face teaching, but, as Carol pointed out to me, all the students she spoke to admitted that they felt they had “learned less” in the ERT condition.

Given the variety of hybrid online teaching, ERT, online education, and other forms of mediated instruction, a useful agenda for the Academic SIG might be to look to some of the factors of effective online teaching as watchwords for membership interaction. For example, in Learning Online: What Research Tells Us About Whether, When, and How, Barbara Means, Marianne Bakia, and Robert Murphy provide a useful nomenclature for that interaction, including online modality (blended, hybrid), course pacing, student/instructor ratios, pedagogy, assessment, instructor/student roles, synchrony, and feedback modalities.

A SIG on the Move

The history of academics in STC has, as many of us know, often been one of contention and worn out debates about the role of practice versus theory. Luckily, those days are fond memories. A glance at the changing nature of the academic workplace, the way academics communicate, and changes in teaching modalities—just to cover three broad areas—shows us directions in which the Academic SIG can forge ahead. As a facilitator at the helm, Carol Luttrell brings a steady hand and an amazing energy to the work. Academics, who see their reality gravitating toward that of their industry colleagues, can easily see how her leadership can send a message to its members: “This is a SIG on the move.”

 

References

Hodges, Charles, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust, and Aaron Bond. 2020. “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.” Educause. 27 March 2020. https://er.educause.edu/articles2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning.

Means, Barbara, Marianne Bakia, and Robert Murphy. 2014. Learning Online: What Research Tells Us About Whether, When, and How. New York: Routledge.

Moran, Mike, Jeff Seaman, and Hester Tinti-Kane. 2011. Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media. Pearson Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED535130.pdf.

TIAA. n.d. “Higher Education Workforce Trends.” Accessed September 4, 2020. https://www.tiaainstitute.org/research-area/higher-education-workforce-trends.

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