59.4, November 2012

Technical Communication Practitioner-Student Interaction: An Opportunity for Students to Learn from the Practitioners’ World of Work

Ann Jennings

Abstract

Purpose: This article informs practitioners of the types of interactions that their peers prefer to have with technical communication students and of ways that those interactions can be arranged to the benefit of all parties.

Method: I conducted a survey of STC members regarding interactions between practitioners and students. A total of 480 practitioners responded. I analyzed and presented the responses.

Results: Practitioners are interested in and experienced at interacting with students in both company-sponsored activities, such as internships, and personally initiated activities, such as mentoring and part-time teaching. Practitioners acknowledge that students and employers benefit from these and other kinds of activities.

Conclusion: Practitioners can interact with students in ways that help the students and that honor the interests and time constraints of the practitioners. Practitioners and academics can initiate activities that bring practitioners and technical communication students together.

Keywords: internships, mentoring, practitioner-student interaction, academic programs

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Practitioners who want to interact with technical communication students can do so through many types of activities and in various venues.
  • With or without corporate sponsorship, practitioners can arrange student interactions by contacting academics who have access to students.

Introduction

In the field of technical communication, practitioners largely lack contact with university students. Yet part of the professional development of students is interaction with experts (Savage & Seible, 2010) so that the students can acquire the skills, knowledge, and values crucial to their success in the profession.

Academics (university professors) are the intermediaries who provide pre-professional training to students. Academics may also introduce practitioners and students to each other before the students apply for paid positions in the field. The importance of pre-professional contact between practitioners and students is acknowledged among professional communication academics, who have devised numerous ways to bring the two groups together (Little, 1993), including those ways most often written about: internships, review of student portfolios by practitioners, and participation by the practitioners on the boards of technical communication programs.

An early step in professional development is the socialization and acculturation of students in the workplace, an activity that may begin while the student is still enrolled (Lutz, 1989; Southard, 1989; Tovey, 2001; Yungmann, 1989). The primary vehicle for socialization is the internship, an activity whose significance has been widely researched regarding professional communication programs in the United States (Coggin, 1989; Heiken, 2004; Henze, 2006; Little, 1993; Meloncon, 2009; Munger, 2006; Rehling, 2000; Savage & Seible, 2010; Smith, 2003; St. Amant, 2003) and abroad (Alred, 2001; Smith, 2003). Internships bring students into the workplace where, ideally, they will observe and interact with technical communication practitioners.

Other forms of practitioner-student interaction—not necessarily face-to-face—that have been investigated by academic researchers are practitioner review of student portfolios (Dillon, 1997; Thomas & McShane, 2007) and practitioner participation on the supervisory boards of technical communication programs at institutions of higher education (Dillon, 1997; Sides, 1998; Yee, 1994). Partnering by corporations and the professional communication programs of multiple educational institutions to expand online learning opportunities has been proposed (Duin & Starke-Meyerring, 2003). Practitioners may also interact with students by teaching technical communication courses or serving as guest speakers for classes (Rogal, 1986; Thrush & Hooper, 2006), common practices at some institutions such as mine. Additional ways in which practitioners may encounter students include “field trips…student interviews of firms concerning communication and skills needed… [and] videotapes of real-world activities shown in classrooms” (Little, 1993, pp. 424-425).

A thorough search of the literature on practitioner-student interaction reveals that the majority of commentaries on this topic have been written by academics. For instance, an edited collection of articles on internships published in 1989 (Coggin) contains three articles by practitioners, eight articles by academics, one article by a combination of practitioners and academics, and a bibliography compiled by academics. The bibliography lists 27 articles by academics (including students), one conference paper by a combination of two practitioners and an academic, and one conference paper by a practitioner.

Several accounts have been written by co-author groups consisting of current and former practitioners, some of whom have become academics or were formerly academics. Other accounts have been written by individuals who have been practitioners and academics. Examples include discussions of internships by a group of three practitioners and four academics (Applewhite et al., 1989); a group of two practitioners and an academic (Caruthers, Caruthers, & Schmidt, 1989); practitioners (Felton, 1989; Heiken, 1994; Hogan, 1989); and two practitioners who are former academics (Mancuso, 1989; Murphy, 1989). Team-teaching is the topic of a study by an academic and a practitioner (Thrush & Hooper, 2006). “Bi-directional educational exchanges” between academics and practitioners is the topic of a study by an academic who is a former practitioner (Rehling, 1999, p. 385). Beyond these exceptions there seems to be a void of comments from the point of view of practitioners. I undertook a survey of technical communication practitioners as a way of filling that void.

Key Considerations Regarding Practitioner-Student Interaction

My survey sought the answers to three questions from the point of view of practitioners:

  • What variety of experiences have practitioners had with students?
  • If practitioners do not interact with students, why not?
  • What types of activities would practitioners engage in with students if circumstances permitted?

This report is of potential value to practitioners interested in shaping the next generation of practitioners—students; to academics who work with practitioners for the good of students; and to professional societies such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC), which can be a powerful force to encourage liaisons that will contribute to the professional development of students and thus contribute to the future of the field of technical communication.

Method

In order to contact a substantial number of technical communication practitioners, I created an online survey using SurveyMonkey. I tested it on an academic; a practitioner who had also been an academic; and three additional practitioners, one of whom had recently been a student. Three staff members of the Society for Technical Communication vetted the survey for compliance with the organization’s requirements. I revised my questions using the feedback from these individuals.

The remainder of this report is based on material regarding technical communication practitioners extracted from a larger survey that also included separate feedback from academics and technical communication students. Only the feedback from and point of view of technical communication practitioners are presented in this report.

Questionnaire

The questionnaire consisted of the following questions, the answers to which are discussed later.

  • Has the organization where you work now or where you worked formerly sponsored any of the following activities?
  • Why does your organization support this activity or activities?
  • What other activity does your organization support, and why?
  • If one or more of these activities used to exist but have stopped, what are the names of those activities?
  • Why have those activities stopped?
  • If your organization has wanted to start one or more activities but has not done so, what are the names of those activities?
  • Why have you not started those activities?
  • Have you as an individual practitioner performed any of the following activities with students?
  • If you [as an individual] used to perform the previously named activities with students but have stopped, what are the names of those activities?
  • Why have you [as an individual] stopped activities with students?
  • If you as an individual have wanted to start activities with students, but have not done so, what are the names of those activities?
  • Why have you not started activities with students?

When compiling the data contained in the results section of this report, I analyzed it in two ways. I computed the percentages of responses to predefined answers that I supplied in the questionnaire, and I categorized and computed the frequency and percentages of answers to questions for which the respondents provided their own answers.

Respondents were encouraged to check all answers that applied, which explains why the percentages occasionally add up to more than 100%.

Distribution and Response

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) generously agreed to distribute my survey to its members and did so in September 2010. The survey was distributed to 6,829 members who had agreed previously to accept STC-originated emails. These members represent 87% of the total of 7,841 STC members in 2010.

The survey was also distributed through the discussion forums of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) and the Council on Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC). I do not know how many, if any, practitioners were contacted through those two listservs; however, 78% of my survey’s respondents stated that they were contacted about the survey by STC headquarters and 4% by a Special Interest Group (SIG) of STC. Thus 82% of respondents were contacted by STC. Some respondents may have been contacted in more than one way; the survey question instructed respondents to indicate all of the organizations or individuals, for instance, professors, who contacted them regarding the survey.

The rate of response to my survey drops off after the demographic segment. With the exception of a noticeable lessening in the number of responses as the survey questions progress, there is no apparent pattern to the surging and ebbing of responses to the questions that follow the demographic segment of the survey. Survey fatigue is a known phenomenon (Sinickas, 2007), and those who answered my survey exhibited a sign of it—slowing down or dropping out as the survey progressed.

Demographic Information

In the demographic section of the survey, 480 of the respondents declared themselves to be practitioners of technical communication. Of those, 90% stated that their primary occupation was that of practitioner, and 10% stated that their secondary occupation was that of practitioner.

These 480 primary and secondary practitioners represent 6% of the total 2010 membership of STC. This number is low and thus may not be generalizable to the whole of STC or to the larger field of technical communication beyond STC. The Occupational Employment Statistics publication of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the number of technical writers in the US in 2010 was 43,990 (May 17, 2011). It is not possible to know whether that number includes individuals who identify themselves by one of the numerous other titles listed in the demographic section of my report. Nevertheless, the 480 technical communicators who answered my survey constitute only 1% of 43,990.

Despite this small percentage, my survey reveals the experiences, motivations, and desires of practitioners interested enough in the topic to participate in the survey. Their ideas and experiences can be the spark that encourages a greater number and range of contacts between practitioners and students and inspires academics to create atmospheres and connections that make practitioner-student interaction likely.

Location. Of the 480 technical communication practitioners who responded to the questionnaire, 475 named their geographical location. Of the 475 respondents, most named the US with 83% or Canada with 10%. The remaining 7% of respondents named 21 other countries: Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Job Functions. When asked to select one or more of the nine answers that I supplied to the question “I work as a…,” respondents answered as follows:

  • Technical writer/communicator (85%)
  • Technical editor (45%)
  • Information designer/architect (31%)
  • Consultant (20%)
  • Instructional designer (17%)
  • Graphic designer (12%)
  • Computer programmer (3%)
  • Engineer (1%)
  • Other (23%)

The comments regarding “Other” to fell into two broad categories:

  • Managers and owners holding many different titles: owner, vice president, director, manager, project director, or supervisor overseeing personnel as varied as technical writers or teams of writers; editors; instructional designers; and trainers. This same group of managers also reported that they work with communications, documentation, e-learning design and development, government proposals, health research, knowledge, localization, unspecified projects, and usability. (8%)
  • Other job titles: trainer; worker in information development, quality assurance, translation, usability, and various aspects of the Web; and writer specializing in business, marketing, magazine writing, proposals, real estate, and scripts. (Less than 2% for each job title)

Results

Practitioners were asked to provide information about both employer-sponsored activities and activities undertaken by the practitioners as individuals. In both cases practitioners responded to questions about their interaction, lack of interaction, and desire for interaction with students from technical communication programs. In the interest of limiting the results to responses of reasonable size, I have presented responses made by a minimum of 5% of those who responded to individual questions. As noted below, in some instances I provided answers that respondents could select, and in other instances, I offered the opportunity for respondents to supply their own answers. In several instances, the answer “Other,” accompanied by respondents’ comments, was of meaningful size. Those instances are included below.

Has the Organization Where You Work Now or Where You Worked Formerly Sponsored Any of the Following Activities?

I asked practitioners what types of student-related activities were supported by their employers. This question drew 338 responses to the eight answers that I provided. Student internships (36%) were the activity most often sponsored by employers. A second popular activity (19%) was contact with academic institutions regarding technical communication or related jobs available for enrolled students or recent graduates. Staffing a booth at a student career fair (13%) and hosting site visits from technical communication students (6%) were the final activities with a strong response.

Why Does Your Organization Support this Activity or Activities?

The reasons that organizations support student-related activities are of interest, so I asked practitioners their opinions of the motivations of their employers. For this question, I provided two categories of answers: benefits to the organization and benefits to the students.

Benefits to the Organization. This topic drew 269 responses. The benefit most often chosen was identifying potential employees (48%). Aiding students in completing their education (31%) was next. Contributing to the growth and development of the profession (30%) was also considered important, as was contributing to the growth and development of the educational institution (11%). According to respondents who stated their own answers in the category “Other,” the final benefit to the organization was that interns are a source of “cheap” or “inexpensive” labor (5%).

Benefits to the Students. Of the 237 responses to this question, six benefits drew the most uniformly strong responses of the whole survey. Practitioners believe that the most important benefit to students is learning skills and techniques currently in use (57%), followed closely by gaining knowledge of industry or organizational best practices (54%) and by learning how to interact with professionals in a professional setting (53%). Practitioners identify three additional benefits to students. Organization-sponsored student activities encourage students to enter the profession (41%). Organizations potentially provide students with an offer of full-time employment (40%), and organizations aid students in completing their education (38%).

What Other Activity Does Your Organization Support, and Why?

(The activities were named by the respondents; I did not provide answers in the survey instrument.) I was interested in other activities supported by employers, and I asked practitioners to name those activities. This question attracted 43 responses. The sole strong response focused on practitioners rather than students: employer-paid or employer-sponsored education for technical communication employees (12%).

If One or More of these Activities Used to Exist But Have Stopped, What Are the Names of Those Activities?

(The activities were named by the respondents; I did not provide answers in the survey instrument.) The names of student-related activities that organizations have stopped supporting indicate past employer support for various interactions between practitioners and students. The question drew 64 responses. The activity that was ceased the most often was internships (48%), followed by corporate participation in career fairs (8%), and job recruitment through educational institutions (6%).

Why Have Those Activities Stopped?

The reasons that employers have stopped supporting student-related activities could be a key to understanding the lack of contact between technical communicators and students. This question drew 74 responses. The loss of funding was the major reason (54%) for ceasing activities with students. The lack of suitable work for a student intern (22%) was also important, as was the company’s loss of interest in the activity (15%).

As revealed by respondents who provided their own answers at “Other,” corporate constraints (11%), including reasons as diverse as budget cuts, a merger, a company going out of business, and work being sent overseas, were a major reason that organizations’ activities with students had stopped. The cessation of hiring because positions had been filled and the companies had no need of additional employees was cited (8%), and so were university-situated reasons, including changes in university courses, a lack of requests for site visits, and a lack of applicants for internships (7%).

If Your Organization Has Wanted to Start One or More Activities But Has Not Done So, What Are the Names of Those Activities?

(The activities were named by the respondents; I did not provide answers in the survey instrument.) I wanted to know the names of student-related activities that organizations have wanted to start but have not started. This question drew 45 pertinent responses, only two of which were mentioned in meaningful quantity. Starting a student internship (65%) was mentioned the most often, followed by speaking to students about the field of technical communication and jobs available (9%).

Why Have You Not Started Those Activities?

Respondents were asked to name the reasons that their organizations had not started student-related activities. The seven answers that I provided drew 178 responses. Five of the answers attracted a meaningful number of responses. Lack of funding (29%) and lack of time (26%) were the most often mentioned answers. They were followed by lack of contacts at a college, university, or technical school (9%), lack of appropriate staff (8%), and lack of appropriate students (6%). Of the responses categorized as “Other,” only lack of support from management (6%) was of significant size.

Have You as an Individual Practitioner Performed Any of the Following Activities with Students?

This question attempted to determine the student-related activities that individual practitioners have engaged in. The 322 responses to the 12 answers that I provided indicate varying degrees of involvement. Nine of the answers drew a meaningful number of responses. The most popular answer was acting as a mentor to a student (28%), followed by making a presentation to a technical communication class or a related class (25%). Other important activities were serving as a part-time faculty member by teaching a courses or courses in technical writing, technical communication, or a related subject (12%) and making a presentation to an STC student community (12%). Activities performed by fewer respondents were staffing a booth at a student career fair or similar event (7%), judging students’ technical communication portfolios (7%), and serving on the advisory board or governing board of a technical communication or related program (7%). Finally, a smaller number of respondents had performed two other activities with students: acted as a mentor to an STC student community (5%) or judged a student contest such as a technical writing contest or a poster contest in a technical or scientific area (5%).

If You [as an Individual] Used to Perform the Previously Named Activities with Students but Have Stopped, What Are the Names of Those Activities?

(The activities were named by the respondents; I did not provide answers in the survey instrument.) I asked individual practitioners to specify student-related activities that they had stopped performing. This question drew 68 responses. Three activities were mentioned frequently as having been discontinued: teaching part-time at the college or university level (27%), serving as a guest lecturer or speaker at a university or college or at an STC student community meeting (24%), and mentoring students, some of whom were interns (16%). Serving on an institutional advisory board (6%) was another discontinued activity.

Why Have You [as an Individual] Stopped Activities with Students?

I questioned why practitioners had discontinued student-related activities. This question garnered 163 responses to the nine answers that I provided, but only three answers were selected by a meaningful number of respondents. The most frequently selected answers were that the educational institution stopped inviting the technical communicator (10%) and the educational institution stopped sponsoring the event (7%). One answer supplied by practitioners in the “Other” category was substantial: lack of time (10%).

If You as an Individual Have Wanted to Start Activities with Students but Have Not Done So, What Are the Names of Those Activities?

(The activities were named by the respondents; I did not provide answers in the survey instrument.) Practitioners were asked to specify the student-related activities that they had wanted to start but had not started. The 62 responses named the activities that practitioners would like to start. Mentioned most often was mentoring students (34%). Also mentioned were becoming involved with internships (16%), making presentations to students at universities or to STC student communities(15%), and teaching technical communication part-time or fulltime (13%).

Why Have You Not Started Activities with Students?

I asked practitioners to specify the reasons that they had not started student-related activities. This question drew 171 responses to the six answers that I provided. Four of the answers were selected by a meaningful number of respondents. The lack of time (41%) was the most frequently mentioned impediment to starting activities with students. Also important were the lack of contacts at an educational institution (21%), the lack of funding (19%), and the lack of appropriate students (6%). In the category “Other,” respondents provided only one answer of meaningful size, the lack of company interest (8%).

Discussion

This discussion covers the implications of the answers given by survey respondents to the three questions I asked earlier in this report: What variety of experiences have practitioners had with students; if practitioners do not interact with students, why not; and what types of activities would practitioners engage in with students if circumstances permitted?

Interactions That Occur between Practitioners and Students

Practitioners described student-related activities sponsored by their employers as well as activities that they engaged in on their own. Internships and mentoring ranked highest in frequency, followed by presentations to a class, and recruiting and information sharing. This hierarchy reflects the emphasis on internships in a number of sources, notably Coggin’s edited collection of articles (1989) that focus on internships. Other popular activities are participating in career fairs, serving as a part-time faculty member, and making presentations to STC student communities. These activities and those performed less frequently offer a glimpse into the interests of individual practitioners, who are in a position to offer insights, advice, and career examples to students; and into the interests of employers, who are in a position to offer jobs to students upon graduation. However, despite the articles published by academics on two additional topics, participating on technical communication advisory boards (Dillon, 1997; Sides, 1998; Yee, 1994) and judging student portfolios (Dillon, 1997; Thomas & McShane, 2007) are of only slight interest to practitioners.

Both academics seeking the involvement of practitioners and practitioners seeking ways to interact with students can benefit from the activities named above. Academics can approach appropriate companies regarding the availability of practitioners willing to attend career fairs and to speak to students in classrooms or at STC student community meetings. University placement offices may be able to recommend corporate contacts that can be approached by academics. Practitioners can contact educational institutions. Those who lack contacts can call the office of the Provost/Academic Vice President or the office of the Chair of the Department of English and ask for the names and contact information of appropriate faculty members or for a referral to a different department that may house the technical writing program. The faculty members can locate appropriate students, thereby removing another impediment to practitioner-student interaction.

Reasons that Practitioners Do Not Interact with Students

The lack of time, lack of contacts with educational institutions, and lack of funding prevent many willing practitioners from interacting with students. The percentage of responses citing lack of time is high. Because of this situation, academics will need to be inventive in their requests—so that they attract the attention of busy practitioners—and economical in the amount of time they request from these professionals. To counter the lack of time, academics can stress that the identification of future employees is worth the time expended. To counter the issue of lack of funding, some academics may point out that interns often are not paid for their internship work, especially if they are earning academic credit, just as they are not paid to attend a history class for which they are earning academic credit.

Academics will also benefit from recalling the most frequent reasons that organizations have stopped sponsoring student-related activities: loss of budget, lack of suitable work for an intern, and loss of interest in the activity. Due to the seriousness of these reasons, academics will need to apply imagination and persuasiveness to encourage the reinstitution of dropped activities or the establishment of new ones.

For instance, the loss of a corporate budget can be addressed by academics who offer low-cost or no-cost university facilities for company-student or practitioner-student events. The lack of suitable work for an intern may in some instances be overcome during a clear and thorough discussion about the types of activities that are suitable for interns, the skills that an intern can bring to a company, and the kinds of problems that interns can solve (Heiken, 2004). For example, I recently received a request from a major hospital for an intern who could create a social media presence for the hospital’s outreach program.

As to practitioners’ loss of interest in student-related activities, academics can contact sources of alternative practitioners through area chapters of the Society for Technical Communication and similar organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America, the American Medical Association, the American Society of Business Publication Editors, the American Society for Training and Development, and organizations related to technical communication, such as the American Society for Indexing, Inc.

Student Interactions that Practitioners Want

Unexpectedly, internships did not surface as practitioners’ top choice for interacting with students. The weighty number of articles on the internship, especially in the collection edited by Coggin (1989), had led me to expect that activity to dominate the poll. Instead, it was dominated by the desire to become a mentor. Although a meaningful percentage of practitioners wanted to work with interns, a nearly equal percentage wanted to become presenters to groups of students. Many also wanted to become instructors. When planning practitioner-student interactions, academics should remember the popularity of the role of expert informing non-expert, an attitude alluded to in publications written by practitioners (Felton, 1989; Heiken, 1994; Rehling, 1999; Thrush & Hooper, 2006). This enthusiasm can be tapped by inviting practitioners to speak to technical communication classes (Rogal, 1986) and to act as advisors to students and by hiring suitably qualified practitioners to teach technical communication courses. Local chapters of STC could collaborate by pairing willing practitioner members with students.

Ways to Increase Practitioners’ Interactions with Students

Because they are the likely approvers of student-related activities in their organizations, interested managers may want to reach out to nearby educational institutions to offer internships or other types of student involvement with practitioners. The reverse is also true, that academics who arrange student internships, guest appearances by practitioners, and the like, should consider identifying and approaching managers as well as individual practitioners.

Academics who intend to approach organizations about starting or continuing student-related activities should examine the portion of the results section that describes the benefits that organizations receive by sponsoring such activities. The list can be the source of talking points. The three benefits that practitioners consider to be the strongest are identifying potential employees, aiding students in completing their education, and contributing to the growth and development of the profession. Mentioning these benefits could result in the establishment of a student-related activity.

Additional Recommendations

In addition to considering the suggestions made above, practitioners who want to engage in student-related activities could identify existing activities within their organizations by approaching colleagues or managers. These individuals may know of current or past student-related activities in their own or other parts of the organization. Practitioners may also be able to create within their organizations opportunities to interact with students. A key to persuading managers to inaugurate student-related activities could be the list of benefits to organizations stated in the results section of this report. Managers might be convinced of the wisdom of using internships, for instance, as a way to identify potential employees, which survey respondents named as the top benefit to organizations of sponsoring student-related activities. Less complicated and less time-intensive ways of identifying potential employees could be started, such as staffing a booth at a career fair.

Practitioners who lack the backing of their organization can also achieve their goal of working with students. Mentoring students can be done on one’s own time. If the amount of time available is short, students can travel to the practitioners’ location to take advantage of a lunch break. Time-strapped practitioners who want to teach can teach at night, on the weekend, or online. Teleconferences can lessen the time problem of practitioners who want to speak to classes. Practitioners can also participate in STC-sponsored activities for students. For example, a local STC chapter holds periodic lunch meetings at the university. Several interested members attend and make short presentations to students. The meeting room is free, the chapter provides sodas, and the cafeteria is available for members and students to purchase inexpensive meals.

Finally, a useful study could be written of the impediments academics face in valuing and locating practitioners and organizations that are interested in interacting with technical communication students. Such a study could identify activities that would satisfy the desires of practitioners and organizations while enhancing everyone’s understanding of the significant value that practitioners can bring to students who plan to enter the field of technical communication.

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About the Author

Ann Jennings is Professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, Houston, Texas. She is a senior member of STC and has initiated numerous interactions between practitioners and students. In 2009 she received the Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication. Contact: jenningsa@uhd.edu.

Manuscript received 15 June 2012; revised 5 September 2012; accepted 1 October 2012.