Features January/February 2024

Making Stories Make Meaning

Using Industry Experience in the Technical Communication Classroom.

By Allison Durazzi | STC Member

Like many professionals, I have my share of “you wouldn’t believe this…” stories, including an event I produced during which people walked through plate glass windows—twice, in the same hour (thankfully, without injury). Or when I found out I had twenty minutes to brew tea for a performer—a specific brand, an exact temperature, with a particular kind of honey—while I was stage-managing at an outdoor festival with precisely none of these items on hand. Stories like these can entertain our students while also giving them insight into the importance of technical and professional communication. Because, as it turns out, those plate glass windows were not marked at eye level as required by building codes. And contract riders are helpful only if you communicate requirements to everyone involved in the production.

These stories illustrate the implications of technical communication course topics, but sharing anecdotes still leaves students with a gap that they have not yet learned to bridge—the gap between understanding and practical implementation. To bridge that gap, I started a practice of using my experiences like these to create relevant in-class activities and small-stakes assignments. Regardless of how much industry experience you may or may not have, transforming your experience into lessons for students is a valuable skill as a trainer, teacher, instructional designer, and more. In this article, I offer a few workplace stories that connect to technical communication courses, my process of developing them for use in the classroom, and outlines of each that can be adapted for other classes.

Most of the anecdotes I bring into the technical communication classroom are not from conventional technical communication positions, yet technical communication was ever present in those roles. For example, the winter I spent on a commercial fishing vessel in the Bering Sea is not apparently technical communication. However, written and oral technical communication examples abound, including training on how to assess roe quality, safety instructions for survival suits (aka “Gumby suit”), and directions to repair boat machinery. Back on land, I built a career in nonprofit management, primarily working in the arts and in legal aid. Almost all my jobs involved event planning, something that features in some of the following discussion.

Teaching Context

As a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa State University, I’ve taught a number of technical and business communication classes in the university’s communication-across-the-curriculum initiative. For consistency across multiple sections of a class, the course director provides a template learning management system site, lecture slides, sample activities, and assignments, along with guidelines on how much we can alter the syllabus while still maintaining the integrity of the course. For example, an instructor may assign different readings but not a different textbook. An instructor may create our own lecture slides, in-class activities, and alter or swap out some assignments, but for all sections, the final project is a recommendation report and it is a group project. Students in the Technical Communication course are typically third-year undergraduates in a wide variety of majors.

Helping students see how the course concepts will bear on their careers is a key part of my role as an instructor. The primary way that I go about this is to look for ways to illustrate theories or concepts as I review course materials and plan lessons. In this article, I share a bit about four of my professional stories and how I used each to develop an activity or assignment in technical communication and technical editing classes (Table 1 shows an overview of each).

Collaborative Work

In a previous job, I had an opportunity to lead a project that was usually handled by a more senior staff person. I led an in-house planning team comprising managers and directors—all of whom ranked higher in the organization than I did. Given our relative ranks and institutional power, we each had different stakes in the success of the project. The months of planning were filled with conflict: one manager kept missing and resetting a funding deadline; another manager refused to commit the staffing hours previously agreed to. I felt like I was in a school group project for which I needed an A and the rest of my team could pass with a C. As the conflicts arose, though, I spoke with each colleague and referred back to the project parameters. Though not all conflicts were resolved, we did complete the project on time and budget.

It was an obvious plus that the project team had project parameters to reference and the technical and business communication courses already use an assignment called “Team Charter” in which teams articulate their divisions of labor, meeting schedules, and so on. Despite the team charters, though, I noticed my students struggling with team conflicts, things like a team member skipping meetings or failing to submit work. So I revisited my project lead experience to see how I could use it to help students both write and enforce team charters. I developed an activity that generates conflicts. In class, I call it a brainstorming activity, but it is really a role-playing activity that is designed to fail. It is the failure that gives students a starting point for considering the pros and cons of addressing conflict and how they codify these ideas in their team charters.

Meeting Planning and Documentation

As both a staff person and a volunteer with nonprofit organizations, I’ve seen a fair amount of confusion over roles. However, nothing could have prepared me for the time a volunteer obligated us to a service contract that could potentially cost several thousand dollars.

In a committee meeting, a volunteer offered to approach a consultant. The committee wanted to consider other vendors and ultimately delayed action until after the next meeting—all reflected in the meeting minutes. A day or two later, the volunteer had not only approached their contact, they reported on. The official record protected the organization from liability and also defused tensions while we worked out a solution that worked for all parties.

In the classroom, I bring this experience to teach documenting team meetings. After a short lecture discussing my experience and the financial risk involved, I connect it to the group project and the list of group project “dislikes” from an earlier lesson. The volunteer who overstepped could be a group member who rewrote everyone else’s contributions. I then introduce low-stakes assignments to help them practice documenting their work in meetings.


A few years before graduate school, I took on freelance work in digital marketing and editing. I worked with creative professionals such as graphic designers, video producers, and photographers, many of whom were also self-employed. For my own rates, I considered market analysis based on total compensation packages, not just take-home salaries. This allowed me to anticipate self-employment tax rates, however I made some missteps along the way and was surprised by a hefty tax bill my first year.

Self-employment is not exclusive to creative professionals as technical editors, web developers, and business consultants are self-employed. Indeed, Freelancers Union estimates a third of the US workforce is self-employed. In 2021, during online teaching due to the pandemic, contract work came up in our Technical Editing class. Facing an uncertain job market, students brought up the idea of taking contracts or freelancing until they found permanent jobs. Telling them my cautionary tale about taxes might shock them into remembering the point, but it wouldn’t help them prepare. I wrote a research memo assignment for them called “Editor for Hire.” The first year, it was an extra credit assignment. In subsequent semesters, I offered this assignment as one of several options from which students could choose.

To develop the assignment, I reviewed the materials I collected from my own self-employment, my time working in a program that coached lawyers on setting up their practices, and my volunteer experiences helping nonprofit organizations file for tax-exempt status and mentoring artists in marketing their work. I identified the materials most relevant to a potential freelance editor. I also reviewed common questions across a variety of editors’ message boards, online groups, list servs, and association meetings. I made a list of questions to research before deciding to take contracts or set up shop as a freelancer. Ideally, a student could use this assignment as a starting point for writing a self-employment business plan.

Inclusion Language in Technical Editing

The technical communication field has long been concerned with matters of inclusive language. Talking with my freelance editing clients about inclusive language was made easier with references to resources about usage and not just my assertion that a term was outdated or problematic. To prepare students for dealing with these issues, I built on an existing assignment about mechanical editing. The original assignment asks students to apply different styles to the same sentence. For example, “’The meeting will be held on January 4.’ How should ‘January 4’ be written in AP Style? Chicago? MLA?”

Each of the comprehensive style guides offers direction on inclusive and bias-free language. In practice, though, editors often need more information and increasingly refer to The Conscious Style Guide, a peer-edited inclusive language resource created by editor Karen Yin. In this assignment, students gain awareness of differences between comprehensive style guides, read suggestions authored by people affected by language choices, and access resources they can use in their careers.


These are a few examples of how I developed my work experience into more meaningful learning activities. It’s worth noting that there is no shortage of stories to use from case studies and news media. The Association of Teachers of Technical Writing members often email ideas about how to use recent news in technical communication courses. The email list is open to members and non-members alike. I hope reading these examples sparks some ideas for using your own experiences in your next workshop, training session, or class.


Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. n.d. “Subscribe to Mailing List.” Accessed October 9, 2023. https://attw.org/about-attw/subscribe-to-mailing-list/.

Editorial Freelancers Association. n.d. “Editorial Rates.” Editorial Freelancers Association. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.the-efa.org/rates/.

Freelancers Union. n.d. “Freelancers Union.” Freelancers Union. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://freelancersunion.org/.

Internal Revenue Service. n.d. “Topic No. 762, Independent Contractor vs. Employee.” Internal Revenue Service. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc762.

Nolo. n.d. “Nolo.” Www.Nolo.Com. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.nolo.com.

O’Moore-Klopf, Katharine. n.d. “Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base.” KOK Edit. Accessed October 9, 2023. http://www.kokedit.com/ckb.php.

“STC Salary Database.” n.d. Society for Technical Communication. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.stc.org/publications/salary-database/.

Upwork and Freelancers Union. 2019. “Freelancing in America: 2019.” https://www.slideshare.net/upwork/freelancing-in-america-2019

U.S. Small Business Administration. n.d. “Choose a Business Structure.” Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.sba.gov/business-guide/launch-your-business/choose-business-structure.

Yin, Karen. n.d. “Conscious Style Guide.” Accessed October 9, 2023. https://consciousstyleguide.com.

Allison Durazzi (allison@durazzi.com ) is PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University. She researches technical editing, style guides, and feminist rhetorics. Prior to graduate school, she worked in a variety of settings including, in no particular order, nonprofit organizations, state government, poetry slams, and a factory trawler in the Bering Sea, and finds ways to draw from each of them when teaching technical communication courses.