By RYAN WOLD, KATLYNNE DAVIS, ANN HILL DUIN | STC Member AND LEE-ANN KASTMAN BREUCH | STC Member
Each February, leaders from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Writing Studies host a roundtable discussion with technical communication industry leaders inviting them to share their insights as it pertains to our technical writing curricula. This year, the discussion focused on how to improve the way instructors incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into a technical and professional writing course popular among upper-level undergraduate students. This focus is tied to the Department of Writing Studies’ commitment to supporting DEI across our programs.
We see our work aligning with the statement from STC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Panel to “respect, encourage, and develop” the perspectives and participation of all students, faculty, and staff. Our focus is also reflective of a turn to social justice by many academics studying technical communication. We agree with scholars who argue that the field needs to dedicate more attention to power, positionality, and privilege, and that technical communicators might act as advocates for change (Walton, Moore, & Jones 2019; Jones 2016). As one part of this social justice turn, we wanted to ask industry leaders to share how they think about and encounter DEI in their work.
Here, we share key recommendations from these discussions. We believe these could be valuable not only to educators, but also to practitioners who are committed to making technical communication a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession.
About the Roundtable Discussion
Those participating in the roundtable discussions are members of the University of Minnesota’s Technical Communication Advisory Board (TCAB). Founded in 2014, TCAB works to build connections between industry and academia. The organization is comprised of an intergenerational group of 26 business and academic leaders who volunteer their time to provide exemplary networking and experiential learning opportunities to students across our BS, MS, Certificate, MA, and PhD programs.
It is important to note that neither TCAB members nor the authors of this article aspire to present themselves as experts on DEI or social justice. We also recognize that as white non-experts writing on this topic, we carry a position of privilege and have much to learn from those who are already doing this work who may be marginalized. The recommendations offered here come from our recognition that these are important issues that need to be discussed, and that anyone in a leadership position has a responsibility to contribute to these discussions. These are important steps forward that would benefit from additional feedback from students and industry leaders from marginalized identities.
In previous years, roundtable discussions focused on workplace competencies and integration of relevant assignments and experiences across required courses. For our 2021 Virtual Roundtable focus, we wanted to seize the opportunity to explore how our technical and professional writing course, listed as “WRIT 3562W,” could more clearly center diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In each one-hour roundtable discussion, we encouraged members to share their experiences. Prior to the roundtables, we circulated a document containing the meeting agenda and contextual information about the course, including the course description, objectives, and the assigned textbook. After an overview of the Department’s DEI efforts and DEI’s current role in the Technical and Professional Writing course, we asked members to provide their personal observations of DEI in technical and professional writing industries and any specific ways they see the course’s approach to DEI could be strengthened. In total, nineteen members attended. These participants represented a wide range of industries and expertise, including UX, proposal writing, content management, project management, and technical documentation.
The TCAB industry leaders provided four top recommendations for instructors of technical communication courses.
1. Instructors should be aware that diversity involves a wide array of differences across race, ethnicity, gender, disability, culture, age, etc.
In recounting their professional experiences, several members clarified that we should understand diversity as existing across many different types of groups, with many belonging to multiple groups at once. Members felt that technical communicators need to be cognizant of how to include and best represent these voices. They also recalled how DEI initiatives within their organizations often fail to capture the complexity of diversity.
One person reported that their company has come a long way in how it represents racial diversity. For example, their manuals and marketing materials always include racial and ethnic diversity; however, there may still be resistance to representing people of different ages and abilities. Embracing these other elements of diversity can also play a role in practicing anti-racism, because it leads people to consider how other factors—such as class, age, ability, and life experiences—are connected to race, and will affect how inclusive a classroom atmosphere might feel or how accessible a technical document may be.
Thinking about the various levels of diversity can also be a helpful teaching tool. For example, people that work in translation and localization are always thinking about the levels of diversity including language, regional differences, and individual characteristics. Language diversity influences the way a person experiences the world and a person’s primary language abilities affect what information they have access to. People may share similarities at a national or cultural level, such as things that all Americans might have in common, yet at a micro level we know there are differences from region to region, and that each individual is different.
2. Technical communicators should design and communicate for difference, diversity, and accessibility from the beginning.
TCAB industry leaders repeatedly emphasized that differences should be the starting point, not the end point, for all technical communication work. In our conversations, this meant acknowledging that white, non-disabled, English-speaking experiences should not be the “default.” Instead, technical communicators should begin by asking about the needs of those with marginalized, intersecting identities, such as people of color, indigenous peoples, those with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ people, or those who do not speak English.
Quite a few members discussed how accessibility was one area where technical communicators needed to better incorporate diverse perspectives. As an example, one member pointed out that while many websites were being created to help citizens locate COVID-19 vaccines, some designs clearly did not consider those who are unfamiliar with computers, who don’t have consistent computer access, or those with sight-related disabilities.
Members also noted that in some cases, concerns for difference were tacked on at the end, rather than being brought to the forefront of the writing or design process. At times, technical communicators might have to advocate for the inclusion of diverse perspectives in development processes. This by itself was a skill that members felt students needed ample practice with, especially considering some organizations’ reluctance in addressing social justice. Students need to think of strategies for promoting inclusivity in their organizations.
3. Audience analysis can be a way to question implicit or confirmation bias and learn from various communities.
As technical communicators, it was not surprising that members emphasized the importance of audience analysis. However, they shared that through experience they realized that implicit bias could have a major impact in how audiences are studied and what technical communicators conclude about the needs of the audience. When talking about the importance of interviewing audiences that are representative of end-users, one member recommended slowing down to confirm that what the interviewers heard matched what the interviewees were saying. Incorporating practices such as asking, “Here’s what I heard. Is that what you meant?” can help practitioners ensure they are accurately reporting the desires of their audiences and not accidentally using the interview process as a way of confirming their existing biases.
Asking these types of questions requires humility and patience. One member insisted that being able to ask these questions and listening to the answers should not be viewed as personality traits that some people have and some people don’t, but as skills that can be taught and learned.
And the last aspect of audience analysis is always asking, “Whose voices are missing?” “Who haven’t we considered?” “Who else might be affected?” A technical communication team might not always be able to fully answer these questions, but it is important to train students to practice asking and exploring new ways to answer them.
4. Developing “soft” skills in active listening and interpersonal communication are key for building mutually beneficial connections with diverse groups.
Our roundtable conversations always circled back to the importance of interpersonal communication skills in building respectful relationships with others. Building these relationships was seen as setting a strong foundation that would, in turn, promote goals for diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces and work practices. Many described efforts to foster relationships as acts of equity and inclusion. In talking about their work with stakeholders from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, one member mentioned how it was crucial to take time to learn how to correctly pronounce colleagues’ names so that everyone felt comfortable and respected. Devoting time to these types of interactions was a way to establish inclusive norms that would then set the tone for future interactions.
In a similar example of establishing norms, another member explained how they gave colleagues from global teams additional time to process what was being said in meetings. Through their experience working with global teams, they observed that colleagues who did not speak English as a first language needed this time to absorb information communicated only in English. Observations like this were evidence that listening skills are an inherent part of working towards DEI. As a key component of audience analysis, listening was described as being necessary for fostering mutually beneficial relationships because it meant respecting speakers and giving them space to participate in conversations.
As we continue our departmental work with DEI, we’re grateful to have TCAB as a resource that contributes to how we think about social justice in technical communication teaching and practice. Many of the topics that came up in our conversations echoed those already underway in our department, further underscoring the need and significance of bringing DEI to the forefront of our courses. However, TCAB industry leader insight, particularly on accessibility and audience analysis as DEI considerations, is invaluable to our thinking about the course’s future development. We plan to share these takeaways with instructors teaching Technical and Professional Writing and other advanced writing courses in order to continue dialogue about what DEI means and looks like in technical communication.
RYAN WOLD (TCAB@umn.edu) is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Scientific & Technical Communication at the University of Minnesota. Ryan’s work focuses on the intersection of technical communication and entrepreneurship. He also works as a research assistant to the Technical Communication Advisory Board.
KATLYNNE DAVIS (TCAB@umn.edu) is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric and Scientific & Technical Communication program at the University of Minnesota. She studies professional social media writing practices and digital literacy, and currently works as a research assistant to the Technical Communication Advisory Board.
ANN HILL DUIN (TCAB@umn.edu) is a Professor of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota and Co-Director of the Technical Communication Advisory Board. She is currently working on a book about the future of algorithmic writing.
LEE-ANN KASTMAN BREUCH (TCAB@unm.edu) is a Professor of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota and Co-Director of the Technical Communication Advisory Board. Her recent work focuses on how social media insights can be used to improve website usability.
Jones, Natasha N. 2016. “The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 46 no. 3: 342–361.
Society for Technical Communication. n.d. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Panel.” Accessed 27 March 2021. https://www.stc.org/committees/deiap/.
Walton, Rebecca, Kristen Moore, & Natasha N. Jones. 2019. Technical Communication After the Social Justice Turn: Building Coalitions for Action. New York, NY: Routledge.