59.1, February 2012

Light’s “Technical Writing and Professional Status”: Fifty Years Later

Patricia A. Hallier and Edward A. Malone

Abstract

Purpose: To present a significant historical document in the decades-long movement to professionalize technical communication

Method: Historical analysis and textual editing

Results: Light’s 1961 article applied then-current definitions of a profession to technical writing and suggested that technical writers could become professionals only through formal education and training.

Conclusions: On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Light’s article illustrates the tenor of discussions about professionalization in the early years of our profession and invites comparison with current professionalization discussions.

Keywords: technical communication, history, professionalization, technical communication education

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • This article provides an introduction to — as well as an edition of — Light’s “Techncial Writing and Professional Status” (1961).
  • It makes an important historical text more accessible and usable.
  • It contributes to a historical perspective of professionalization in technical communication.

The practice of technical communication has been undergoing professionalization since at least the 1940s. The men and women who created our first professional organizations and academic programs in the 1950s were trying to advance a profession that had begun to emerge during World War II and in the postwar years. Thus, for more than 60 years, we have been struggling to achieve mature professional status. Among the many attributes of a mature profession is a strong historical identity (Savage, 2003). By studying the earliest discussions of professionalization in technical communication, we can further develop the historical identity of our profession. This year marks the 50th anniversary of an essay titled “Technical Writing and Professional Status,” published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Chemical Documentation (JCD). The author was Israel Light (see Figure 1), a practitioner and member of the Society of Technical Writers and Publishers (STWP), STC’s precursor. Published in 1961, Light’s essay was one of the more scholarly considerations of the topic at the time.

Israel Light, c. 1964

Figure 1: Israel Light, c. 1964. Reprinted from STWP Review.

Like today, the 1960s were a period of evolution for the field. The self-described first generation of practitioners had newly emerged in the postwar industrial boom. The number of professional technical writers was on a steep ascent, as suggested by the 30% increase in STWP membership from 1960 to 1965 (Kynell, 2000, p. 106). In one of his later essays, Light (1967) pointed to the rapid change seen in practitioner roles, which had broadened widely as compared with a mere decade before. These changes inspired many poorly planned efforts at professionalization, symptoms of what Light (1967) described as “profession-itis” (p. 57). Professional status was a frequent topic of discussion within STWP, both at chapter meetings and in the Society’s publication, the STWP Review, but also on a much broader cultural scale (Light, 1961). Highly regarded and best-selling books, such as Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers (1959), pontificated on the subject of status and position. Other fields were also grappling with how to become full-fledged professions. It was against this backdrop that Light (1961) presented his perspective on the issue. His purpose was to address the implications, definitions, and relevancy of professionalism and ultimately to provide recommendations on achieving the goals of status and recognition.

It is likely that Light’s recommendations were carefully and widely considered by his peers. He was an accomplished and high-profile figure in the field. He held five degrees, three of which were in education, including a doctoral degree (“Israel Light,” 1967). His career roles ranged from speech writer to radio lecturer to technical editor, for organizations as diverse as the United Nations, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the National Institute of Mental Health (“Israel Light,” 1967). He was widely published. In July 1964, he was made fellow of STWP because of his “outstanding work as a technical writer, consultant, and speaker and his unceasing dedication to the profession of technical communication” (“Grade,” 1964, p. 22). In 1971, he was appointed fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute of Medicine of Chicago (“Members,” 1971). Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Medical School/University of Health Sciences hired him as dean of its School of Related Health Sciences (“Appointments,” 1969). He was a member of the Education Committee of the American Medical Writer’s Association, and through that group developed technical communication courses for the School of Related Health Sciences in 1973 (“AMWA education,” 1973). Just two years later, he died at age 59 (“Recent deaths,” 1975). Though his tenure at the university was short, his influence was such that the university, now Rosalind Franklin University, offers the Israel Light Award each year to a student displaying exceptional leadership qualities. One of the listed criteria is involvement in a professional organization (Student handbook, 2007).

Light (1961) proposes three broad components to training as a technical communicator. One encompasses writing skills and technical writing genres. He places greater emphasis, though, on a second component: the addition of a strong scientific background that could enable contextualization and higher quality output. He recommends that at least half of the training should be in scientific and technical coursework. His third component is exposure to methods of document design and of working with graphics and audiovisual material. The list is in some respects forward thinking. For instance, although he states that instruction in document production was “possibly not essential,” its inclusion bespeaks a broad understanding of the field at the time. He does not venture into greater specificity; instead, he advises that a survey of technical communication roles in industry be performed to identify clearly what competencies should be taught.

Whether viewed as a historical reference point to the current professionalization conversation or simply as an added voice to that discussion, 50 years later, Light’s perspectives on technical communication’s professional status remain compelling:

The search of the technical writer for professional standing and status has been examined from a number of points of view. The psychological, historical, and economic reasons for this striving have been noted and justified. It appears that “profession” and “professional person” are ill-defined. Even as variously stated, the current descriptions and definitions of “profession” seem increasingly outdated and meaningless. At the same time, the technical writer himself requires more specific delineation. The one major characteristic of the professional person to which technical writers can profitably address themselves is that of specialized, academic education and training. The important elements of such training must be more clearly identified, the particular skills defined, and institutions encouraged to provide the basic competencies agreed upon (Light, 1961, p. 9).

The edited version of Light’s original article can be found on the Technical Communcation Web site (E13–E21).

References

AMWA education committee aids communication courses at Chicago Medical School. (1973). AMWA Newsletter, 4(5), 1. Retrieved from http://www.amwa.org/default/history/newsletters/sept73.pdf

Appointments. (1969). Science, New Series, 164(3886), 1382.

Grade of fellow granted to two members. (1964). STWP Review, 11(3), 22.

Israel Light. (1967). In B. K. McKee (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1967 Institute in Technical and Industrial Communications (pp. 134–135). Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University.

Kynell, T. (2000). Writing in a milieu of utility: The move to technical communication in American engineering programs, 1850–1950 (2nd ed.). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Light, I. (1961). Technical writing and professional status. Journal of Chemical Documentation, 1(30), 4–9.

Light, I. (1967). Collaboratively planning the formal training of technical communication specialists. Journal of Business Communication, 4(2), 53–67.

Members in the news. (1971). AMWA Newsletter, 2(1), 4. Retrieved from http://www.amwa.org/default/history/newsletters/march71.pdf

Packard, V. (1959). The status seekers: An exploration of class behavior in America and the hidden barriers that affect you, your community, your future. New York, NY: David McKay Company.

Recent deaths. (1975). Science: New Series, 188(4191), 919.

Savage, G. (2003). Introduction: Toward professional status in technical communication. In T. Kynell-Hunt & G. Savage (Eds.). Power and legitimacy in technical communication: Vol. I. The historical and contemporary struggle for professional status (pp. 1–12). Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Student handbook: College of health professions. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.rosalindfranklin.edu/DNN/Portals/25/documents/Biomed/CHPStudentHandbook.pdf

About the Authors

Patricia A. Hallier is majoring in chemical engineering and technical communication at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T). Contact: Patricia.Hallier@mst.edu.

Edward A. Malone is an associate professor and director of the online graduate program in technical communication at Missouri S&T. Contact: malonee@mst.edu.