Department March/April 2024

A Global Education Journey of Transformation

By Xiaoli Li | Member

My career path that started 26 years ago as a technical communication educator was significantly transformed by my global education experience. Here I share my stories of being inspired and empowered by STC members and carrying on the tradition of paying back to the STC community by guiding and mentoring students.

Global education has been an important part of my life journey and my career! I’m very grateful to Dr. Bill Coggin, STC Fellow (and former STC Director), who taught at Xi’an International Studies University (XISU). In 1996, he offered a technical writing seminar to English department faculty and graduate students. It was the first time we had ever heard of technical writing, who technical writers are, or what they do. When Dr. Coggin returned to Xi’an during another sabbatical, he offered a similar seminar.

Over those years, he maintained connections with many of those who attended his seminars. He would most likely be surprised to learn that the seeds he sowed in China years ago brought flourishing results (eight of his students received a master’s or a doctoral degree in technical writing in the United States), and two of his Chinese students have become staunch technical writing evangelists. In China, they sustain the profession by writing technical writing textbooks for Chinese students, teaching technical writing classes, and organizing workshops to train more English professors in China to teach technical writing in universities.

In 2000, thanks to a Bowling Green State University (BGSU) scholarship, I was able to come to the U.S. to start my graduate studies in technical communication. In addition to taking technical writing classes and completing a few internships as an international graduate student, I had an opportunity to join a five-week study abroad program in Burkina Faso, West Africa. While there, I stayed with a French-speaking host family with three kids. The husband worked for a computer company in Nigeria, and the wife taught English at a technical school. I learned from them how educated African families use modern technology. On the way back to the U.S., I stopped in Germany and visited a technical writer in Augsburg and toured his company. Even today I have a vivid memory of the layout of that factory floor and how he communicated with SMEs, colleagues, and other workers.

With a Master’s degree in scientific and technical communication from BGSU, in August 2002 I went back to my Chinese university in Xi’an and resumed teaching. This time my department chair encouraged me to offer Technical Communication to our third-year students. It was a year-long curriculum. At the end of the 2003 academic year, two technical writers from a Florida-based digital camera manufacturing company with manufacturing facilities in Shenzhen came to my campus to interview for summer interns. Three of my students were recruited and spent the summer in Shenzhen to create quick start guides. It was the first time a formal, paid summer internship program in technical writing was established. When I wrote an article for Intercom on the topic of technical communication programs in Asia a year before, I didn’t foresee that it could happen so soon. In the summer of 2017, three of my former students from that 2002–2003 Technical Communication class, including one of the first interns, showed up at my technical writing college teacher training workshop. It was such a joyous reunion.

As an international faculty member at my current position at University of Dayton in Ohio, I have had opportunities to engage in global education in many capacities. I have participated in University of Dayton China Institute (UDCI) summer programs and led our UD students to Germany, England, Ireland, Austria, and China for faculty-led study-abroad programs or winter intersession immersion programs. I have also facilitated orientation for engineering students from China about how to approach U.S. culture; collaborated with a professor in Beijing on a collaborative online international learning (COIL) class; and hosted international visiting scholars.

During winter breaks in 2019 and 2020, I took University of Dayton students to explore professional and technical writing practices in China. Each time, we stayed for more than 10 days, and we visited two universities and eight companies in four different cities. Our students attended lectures and presentations by Chinese professionals on translation, localization, technical writing in China, information development processes at Chinese companies, structured authoring, user experience design, and global communication. They interacted with Chinese students and technical writers through brief conversations and discussions. They reviewed technical writing artifacts. They spoke with a handful of non-natives who currently work as technical writers in Chinese companies—these foreign residents described their experiences and perspectives on working in China and working for a Chinese company. One student commented, “I have heard of localization many times before my trip, but only here could I really understand what it means and how it works.”

Modeling what Dr. Coggin did 20 years ago, I have been promoting technical communication education in China during the last decade. Together with Dr. Dan Wu (a former student of Bill Coggin, and a professor at Xi’an International Studies University), we have organized three nationwide technical writing college teacher training workshops in the summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018. We invited Doug Eyman from George Mason University and Quan Zhou from Metropolitan State University to facilitate our workshops. A 2016 participant was so inspired that she decided to come to the U.S. to pursue her graduate studies in technical writing. A few months ago, she secured a tenure track teaching position at Towson University in Maryland.

In 2019, I invited Sam Dragga, Tharon Howard, Jason Tham, and Curtis Newbold to Guangdong University of Foreign Studies to run a five-course certificate program in technical writing. One of our certificate students is now a practicing technical writer in Shenzhen. In recent years, I have also hosted visiting scholars from China who have come to UD to research and learn about technical writing education in the U.S. One is writing a technical writing textbook for English majors in China. Two more scholars are coming to University of Dayton in 2024.

After I taught for a year in China, when I came back to the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D in technical writing, I reported to Dr. Coggin from my teaching experience my frustration about the U.S. technical writing textbook I used, because it didn’t work for my Chinese students. He replied, “Don’t complain. If you don’t like that one, write your own textbook. Do something!” I always kept his words in mind. Eighteen years later, his words resounded. “Do something! Write your own textbook!” Finally, collaborating with three other authors, in 2020 we published the first English technical writing textbook titled Becoming a Technical Writer designed for Chinese graduate students in translation studies. With the growing popularity of this textbook, we began to offer summer teacher training workshops to those who are interested in using our textbook to teach.

Over my teaching career, I have networked with many technical writing professionals to learn more about current industry trends and best practices. Special thanks to Jack Molisani for offering my students free access to LavaCon 2023. Many STC members (Lisa Melonçon, Saul Carliner, Mordy Oberstein, Michael Opsteegh, Brian McCaleb, Carrie Chambers, Bianca Ragsdale) have also helped my students with class projects. They joined my class as guest speakers or interviewees. The best news I received this Thanksgiving break is that one of my current students had decided to attend the Texas Tech graduate program in technical communication, and he “think[s] this is going to be a good path for me in life.”

I have been fortunate to get assistance, encouragement, and guidance from many technical writers and professors in my professional journey. What a community! With the network and support we’ve built, both nationally and internationally, I know we are all committed to elevating and sustaining technical communication as a profession. Together we will make a difference!

Xiaoli Li is an associate professor of professional and technical writing at University of Dayton, Ohio. She teaches technical writing, business writing, reports and proposals, writing for the web, usability, and UX. Her research interests include technical communication in global contexts, technical writing pedagogy and program development, and collaboration between academia and industry. You can reach her at: