How reflection can help you apply critical thinking to even the most mundane communication activities.
By Daniel L. Hocutt | STC Member
In 1998, I swore off an academic career after completing my master of arts in literature. Nineteen years later, I earned my PhD in English with a technical communication dissertation. Along the way I worked for three years as an educational leader, ten years as a freelance web developer, 25 years as an online marketing content manager, and about five years as a technical communication scholar. Here, I offer takeaways from about 25 years of freelance web development and online content management through the lens of my academic experiences in technical communication.
Takeaway 1: Every skill you’ve learned matters.
When I graduated in 1998, critical literary theory was deconstructing itself and the practice of literary analysis, and I wanted no part in that destruction. I turned instead to educational leadership, directing summer residential governor’s school programs for gifted high school students in the humanities and in visual and performing arts. Supervising 400 high school students for a four-week residential experience on a college campus while managing a staff and faculty of 50 was more rewarding (and less destructive) work than critical literary theory, but with much greater liability and responsibility. But in my free time, I was becoming a self-taught web manager and freelance web developer, too. I came to HTML from desktop publishing as a yearbook advisor, using Aldus PageMaker (some readers will resonate) to teach print layout.
As I learned desktop publishing, I realized this emerging World Wide Web might enable similar approaches to publishing multimedia content. I used Notepad to write code and the free Mosaic browser to test my code, and from there I started designing simple web pages to parallel my wife’s curriculum development side hustle. A few years later, following my wife in relocating for her job, I gave up the educational leadership position and became a full-time freelance web developer, which included a part-time remote position as web manager on a marketing team for my previous employer. Ten years later, I returned to working in person as a full-time web manager on the marketing team (now “marketing and engagement”) for a continuing higher education unit of a small private university, where I remain employed.
As a leader, I learned how to communicate clearly and plan strategically. As a desktop publisher, I learned design fundamentals. As a freelance web developer, I learned time and task management. These are skills I use every day in my professional work that also influence my scholarship.
Takeaway 2: Focus on practical, hands-on skills.
Academic study and teaching have focused my learning on practical, hands-on skills. While I’m happy to discuss theories (and have been known to do so ad nauseam), my preference as a teacher is to develop assignments that seek to solve workplace problems, especially those related to communication. In my business and professional communication class comprised largely of working professionals, I ask students to propose a communication solution to a workplace problem. In my research methods class, I ask students to propose a formal academic research project that will contribute knowledge and understanding to a real-world problem in their sphere of activity, whether professional, paraprofessional, interest-based, or academic.
As a student, both my master’s thesis and my doctoral dissertation focused on ways of accomplishing especially difficult tasks — tracing surprisingly complex non-linear narrative discourse in an eighteenth-century British novel and tracing online network activity through web searches and results — using relatively straightforward, otherwise known methods.
For my master’s thesis on Tristram Shandy, my final chapter described hypertext-assisted browsing as a metaphor for non-linear narrative. For my doctoral dissertation in algorithmic influence in online search, I used commercial browser developer tools to mine HTTP archive (HAR) files to outline network activity. My academic and professional experiences work together and urge me to identify common sense, hands-on methods for advancing knowledge and understanding. In my daily profession, I’m focused on making progress on and completing projects.
While I appreciate a strategic approach to project planning, once the planning is complete, my primary desire is to deliver, preferably within our established timeframe.
Takeaway 3: Follow your professional pathway where it leads.
My formal training is in high school education. I graduated with a secondary teaching license, and I practiced teaching high school English, including yearbook journalism, for four years until I returned to full-time graduate studies in English literature. My spell as an educational administrator emerged as a result of my teaching experience and graduate studies, although my academic focus was on seventeenth-century novels rather than educational administration. Despite no longer working at the secondary level, teaching has remained an important part of who I am. I’ve taught as an adjunct professor every spring and fall, and many summers, teaching composition, research methods, and a class on the trickster in mythology and culture. When dwindling undergraduate enrollments made it clear that I would need to earn a terminal degree to teach cross-listed undergraduate and graduate classes, I finally reconsidered my stance on returning to the classroom to earn an advanced academic credential. Remarkably, I still held an extraordinarily narrow view of English studies. I considered marketing communication to be a business field, which I fell into as an organized, tech-savvy English major who could design and write for the web. I didn’t know technical communication existed as a field of study or as a profession. My application to Old Dominion University’s doctoral program was based on my stated interest in composition and rhetoric and my master’s thesis on Tristram Shandy as a writing sample. There was nothing to point me, my selection committee, or my future faculty mentors toward a focus on technical communication.
Only after my first doctoral studies class did I realize there was room in the composition and rhetoric camp for technical communication, and only after my second class did I recognize technical communication as a subfield of English. And then, early into that second class, I began to recognize that I was solving many of the problems and practicing many of the techniques that technical communication texts referenced. As a content manager on a marketing team, I was serving as our team’s technical communicator. Because higher education needs to sell itself, my role as a manager was part of a marketing team, but my roles and responsibilities reflected the approaches, skills, and methods I was learning about technical communication. So within my first two semesters, I discovered a new field and that I practiced the skills and techniques of that field, even if my job description wasn’t “technical communicator.”
I’m understating the impact of this recognition. It was as if I finally understood my attraction to technology and the ease with which I picked up software and hardware use. My early studies in Pascal suggested I wasn’t a strong coder, but my experience in teaching and administration indicated I could communicate effectively in oral and written formats, and that I could explain the value of understanding symbolism in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage to high school students or the importance of shaping curricula to existing frameworks in gifted educational settings.
Recognizing the connection between my day job and my course of study came as an accidental revelation rather than intentional professional development. I didn’t seek to become a better technical communicator or to research technical communication through doctoral studies. Instead, doctoral studies enabled me to connect the dots of my professional experience to date, offering insights into my daily work. I was fascinated, even enthralled, by the work I was doing as a marketing communicator when viewed through the lens of technical communication, eager to conduct research and explore intersections.
Takeaway 4: Identify the intersections among the practical expertise you collect.
I’ve identified several areas where my marketing communications (marcomm) practice and my Technical communication (techcomm) research have intersected. I share these here in hopes to encourage ongoing examination of the ways practical experience and academic research can combine to make tangible, productive differences in the work of technical communication practitioners and scholars.
While I’ve collaborated with issue co-editor Nupoor Ranade on multiple projects related to data analytics for audience analysis, my first examination of data analytics focused on how data collection processes in Google Analytics relate to composition and rhetoric viewed through the lens of network. Because I regularly use Google Analytics to examine user behavior on the web content that I manage, I wanted to examine the process by which Google Analytics collects and reports data in order to shape insights for website managers like me. At the time, I was involved in using Google Analytics to contribute data points and related context showing progress on key performance metrics (KPM) to executive reporting dashboards, so understanding the rhetorical influence of Google Analytics as a network was useful to me professionally. The insights I garnered won’t surprise my readers: I discovered the deeply submerged black boxes of algorithmic activity in Google data collecting and processing activities that have the potential to impact everything from machine learning and artificial intelligence to knowledge discovery and generation. As a result of my research, I more critically approach web and data analytics platforms and investigate, to the extent possible, their data collection, configuration, processing, and reporting functions to better understand their strengths and limitations. I continue to use data analytics for audience analysis, but I do so better understanding shortcomings and better contextualizing results for decision makers. My techcomm research helps me better contextualize marcomm KPM reports as nuanced and multidimensional.
IA and Content Management
My technical communication coursework led me to recognize that developing and revising information architecture (IA) on a website is a process involving multiple stakeholders, not simply a product of market research. It’s user-focused, not product generated. As our campus communication department upgraded our website to a mobile-first interface, it offered an opportunity to engage stakeholders in card sorting exercises to determine whether major revision to our IA was palatable to our internal stakeholders. As any higher education web manager knows, while prospective students are an outward-facing website’s primary audience, its internal stakeholders wield considerable influence in determining the extent to which data-centered and market-centered changes to visible infrastructure can be made. I faced the question of whether our internal stakeholders would tolerate shifting our IA from a product-centered structure (e.g., degree programs, noncredit programs, personal enrichment programs, summer programs) to a topic-centered structure (e.g., teacher education, information systems, HR management, nonprofit management). While I could make the case with web analytics data that user behavior supported, or at least didn’t contradict, the value of a topic-based IA, a formal, two-tiered card-sorting exercise involving our internal stakeholders revealed little tolerance for revising the IA in ways that might call into question governance over specific areas of study. As a result, I made minor revisions to our IA using different vocabulary, but retained in large part the original product-centered structure as we incorporated the updated design. Methods from marcomm and techcomm combined to make fundamental decisions about website IA and content strategy.
Single Sourcing Content
I’ve attended the Symposium for Communicating Complex Information (SCCI) annually since 2017. Doing so has emphasized the importance of single-sourcing content for clarity using content management systems (CMS) for web and component CMS (CCMS) across platforms. In our commercial CMS, I’ve taken these lessons to heart in developing online marketing tools for our degree programs and professional certificates. Best practice in web marketing is to develop custom landing pages for specific products that focus visitors’ attention on a single call to action. In our case, combining our customer relationship manager (CRM) software’s inquiry forms into our custom landing pages required a separate landing page per product per online advertising platform (i.e., Bing, Facebook/Instagram, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter). Each platform-specific landing page for an individual product (e.g., bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, master’s degree in liberal arts) requires identical content with the exception of the inquiry form, which is platform specific. Single sourcing content using copy blocks inserted using PHP inserts (coded and managed through our CMS) enables me to develop extensive sets of HTML components that can be deployed across the site as needed without introducing the possibility of contradictory or mismatched content. Combining techcomm single-sourcing best practices into marcomm landing page best practices enabled me to streamline deployment, simplify revision, and improve the accuracy of web content across dozens of individual web pages.
Takeaway 5: There’s strength in joining the academic and professional.
This serves as both my final takeaway and my primary point. My purpose in sharing this reflection is to emphasize that intersections of practice and research, of academic and professional, represent areas of strength and growth. Furthermore, different approaches to communication, like marcomm and techcomm, may also generate growth and development when overlapped. As I continue working as a web manager, I continue researching algorithms and platforms that influence the behavior of users online. I find in technical communication research and scholarship the answers to questions raised through marketing communication practice and techniques. I’m a better professional because I conduct research, and I’m a better (and better-equipped) researcher because I work in the field.
On the day I’m composing this sentence, I spent the better part of the morning examining the Google Ads interface to provide screenshots of specific ways that generative artificial intelligence is being incorporated into ad copywriting. I’m using those screenshots in a research article encouraging the fields of rhetoric and computers and writing to pay careful attention to the changing role of online advertising copywriters, who find themselves writing less and critically curating more of their ad copy. Skills needed for marketing communicators and technical communicators are changing rapidly, and academic programs that train technical communicators need access to cutting-edge technological advancements in the field. I’m in a unique position, because I have access to those cutting-edge tools because I actively advertise online. I also have the theoretical knowledge to apply frameworks — like ethics or social justice or diversity, equity, and inclusion — to this hands-on work toward a more critical approach to mundane activities. Getting the work done is important, but doing it within ethical and responsive frameworks is vital to retain human-centered approaches to users and customers.
This capability — of applying theoretical and critical interventions to mundane communication activities — is at the heart of the intersection between the academic and professional. I encourage exploring this intersection as a means of retaining technical communication’s focus on meeting the needs of human users.
Dr. Daniel L. Hocutt serves as the Web Manager on the Marketing & Engagement team at the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies in Richmond, Virginia. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Liberal Arts in the same school, teaching composition, technical communication, and research methods. As a technical communicator, he applies his research interests in digital literacy, the rhetoric of algorithms, and the influence of machine learning and artificial intelligence to the web and social media platform activity required of his marketing role.