Path to Fellow: Carol Barnum, 1997

We return again with Path to Fellow, a recurring feature here on STC’s Notebook to highlight the rich contributions of our honored members. If you’re a Fellow or Associate Fellow and haven’t been contacted to participate in this feature, please email Kevin Cuddihy
Carol Barnum (left), with Ginny Redish (center) and Elaine Rainey (right)

About a year after I started teaching technical writing at Southern Tech (now Southern Polytechnic), I got a call that there was a meeting scheduled to try to restart the STC Atlanta chapter, which had gone into dormancy.  I went to the meeting to find out more, and the outcome was that the Atlanta chapter was reconstituted.  I liked going to chapter meetings, as I was a newcomer to the field of technical communication, and the meetings connected me to topics and people doing what I was teaching. 

That interest led to involvement in the leadership of the Atlanta chapter, where I moved up through positions as secretary and vice president to chapter president.  The year I was president, Saul Carliner, who had recently moved to Atlanta, proposed that we host an annual conference, which we called Currents.  I was concerned about whether we could pull off such an event, but, of course, we did with Saul’s excellent leadership.  The next year, as immediate past president, I was responsible for Currents, which grew bigger and better, and continued so with each passing year. 

It was Saul who invited me to run for the STC board in the position of what was then called Director-Sponsor.  I agreed to run but then had such strong second thoughts that I didn’t even vote for myself!  However, the three-year commitment in that position grew to four more years as Assistant to the President(s) for Publications.

Why did I do all of that volunteer service for STC over so many years?  Not to become Fellow!  But that was a lovely outcome of the volunteer contributions.  Rather, I did it to help me grow, which I did in so many ways—education, leadership, people skills, being mentored by the best—but also at some point to give back.  I wanted to show my appreciation and respect for STC for all that it helped me to become and I wanted to make STC as strong as helpful to other, increasingly younger members.

One of the most important introductions STC gave me was to usability testing.  I first heard the term used in an STC conference presentation in the early 90s, and I was hooked.  Usability and usability testing seemed a perfect fit for career expansion for technical communicators and for me as an educator.  As a result of that first exposure to the new term and young field, I attended other conferences to learn more and visited Judy Ramey at the University of Washington to see her lab and learn how she had introduced usability testing into the technical communication curriculum.  I also contacted Ginny Redish, who was working on the first book abut usability testing (with Joe Dumas) called A Practical Guide to Usability Testing.  Ginny graciously offered to let me see an advance copy of the chapter on report writing, as I knew this would be important in a course for technical communicators, but I didn’t know what such a report should look like.

Needless to say, my interest in usability testing was subsequently shared by many technical communicators, and my course in usability testing is now among many taught in numerous graduate and undergraduate programs in technical communication.  And what was once a session or two at the STC conference, then dominated by sessions on writing and editing, is now one of the central themes of every annual conference.

At this point, I guess I’m a “senior citizen” of STC, but that has in no way changed my enthusiasm for the strength of the organization to mentor and support its members.  Whenever I attend an STC conference, I always go to the Awards Banquet, because I love seeing those being recognized for their achievements, as reflected in the Fellow and Associate Fellow Awards, the Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication, and the Kenneth Rainey Award for Excellence in Research.  


Carol Barnum directs the graduate programs in Information Design and Communication at Southern Polytechnic State University, where she teaches Information Design, Usability Testing, Marketing Communication, and International Technical Communication.  She is the author of six books, the most recent being Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set . . . Test! (Morgan Kaufmann 2011).  In addition to being an STC Fellow, Barnum is a recipient of the Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication and the Rainey Award for Excellence in Research.  She remains active in STC, and regularly presents at the annual conference.