59.4, November 2012

An Academic Ejournal As Technical Communication Client Project: Enculturation, Production, and Assessment

Julianne Newmark & Julie Dyke Ford


Purpose: This article focuses on the integration of a specific client project, the production of an issue of an established ejournal, into the Technical Communication major at New Mexico Tech. Students experienced a “workplace context” within their university classroom (replete with timeline challenges, requisite managerial decisions, and assignment delegation).

Methods: Students’ performance on required course documentation and ability to satisfactorily complete course goals were examined, and exit interviews were conducted and analyzed through the lens of theoretical frameworks offered by Cook (2002) and Blakeslee (2001) and correlated to previous research.

Results: Students in the course described developed new literacies (per Cook) and participated in a process of gradual exposure, experiencing “exposure, authenticity, transition, and response” as Blakeslee (2001) stresses, to professional, workplace communication genres.

Conclusions: This client project can serve as one model for the kind of bridge for which Blakeslee et al. have called. A critical part of any bridge is its two “destinations,” so our study points to both footings of such a structure—academic learning modules and workplace practices—both of which must be further explored by technical communication faculty and the technical communication professionals with whom they collaborate and with whom they confer about university program efficacy.

Keywords: client projects, publications management, workplace preparedness, enculturation, layered literacies

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • University client projects serve as effective bridges to “real world” scenarios in the technical communication profession.
  • Planning, marketing, editing, managing, and production activities undertaken by students reinforce key literacies necessary for successfully transitioning into professional roles.
  • Students strengthen social literacy skills through exposure to professional editors.


In Technical Communication Quarterly’s 2001 special issue devoted to blending school and work, Ann Blakeslee called for curricula in technical communication programs that would “bridge classroom and workplace contexts for students and expose them gradually to workplace practices and genres” (p. 170). Over a decade later, this call still resonates loudly with technical communication educators.At New Mexico Tech, technical communication faculty members have long worked to address this call by Blakeslee et al. Our program sought to “bridge” these contexts in a variety of ways, including mandatory workplace internships, workplace- and profession-oriented Senior thesis projects, and the regular input of the program’s corporate advisory board. Even with these efforts to “expose [students] to workplace practices and genres,” New Mexico Tech’s Technical Communication faculty were eager to continue to develop these efforts, to prepare students in novel ways for new workplace writing and technology scenarios. For this reason, we were eager to integrate the production of an established online academic journal into program offerings, as journal-production would be a unique kind of client project for our Technical Communication majors.

With her theoretical framework for technical communication pedagogy, Cook’s (2002) work supports instruction that enables students to develop basic, rhetorical, social, technological, ethical, and critical literacies. Classroom activities and assignments with rhetorical situations that extend beyond the classroom, such as those centered around client-based and service-learning projects, often lend themselves very well to helping to foster these literacies. As Cooke and Williams (2003) argue, “The applied nature of technical writing as a discipline makes the college classroom an appropriate forum for merging theory with practice” (p.1). Research studies by Ford and Newmark (2011); Ford, Bracken, and Wilson (2009); Ward (2009); Paretti (2006); and Blakeslee (2001) have highlighted the “heightened sensitivity to audience” students experience when working on communication projects with more than the instructor as the end user (Blakeslee, 2001, p. 181). As Paretti (2006) states, one of the advantages is that “content, organization, and document design become functions of how the audience uses the information, rather than decontextualized rules” (p. 191). Turnley’s (2007) work highlights the valuable role service-learning projects can play in helping students to examine and reflect upon the role of technology.

Such applied approaches to teaching technical communication do not come without challenges. As Paretti (2006); Taylor (2006); Wojahn, Dyke, Riley, Hensel, and Brown (2001); Taylor (2001); Kastman Breuch (2001); and Wickliff (1997) have noted, there are inherent difficulties for both students and instructors in client-based projects. Paretti states, “Locating community or industry partners, mediating between students and these client organizations, balancing organizational versus academic timelines, and related management issues often preclude successful implementation” (p. 190). These challenges also include tasks that are not as clearly described or as highly structured as typical course assignments. Yet, as Freedman and Adam (1996) and Grice (1997) argue, there are benefits to ill-defined tasks, as sometimes a highly structured environment “deprives students of acquiring skills and a flexible attitude toward their work they will need later in their careers” (p. 219). Experiencing the complexity of “real-world” projects and understanding the consequences of writing, editing, and producing communication products for an audience beyond the classroom provides students with essential project management experience and creates a problem-based learning environment “where students develop the kind of audience awareness necessary to successful workplace communication” (Paretti, 2006, p. 191). Such experience is argued by both Cooke and Williams as one of the most beneficial aspects of client-based projects.

The Technical Communication “Publications Management” course directly addresses these concerns, while pacing students through the process Blakeslee outlines (“exposure, authenticity, transition, and response”). In our “Publications Management” course, students were not only responsible for completing various writing projects related to the final completion of an online journal issue, but they were responsible, more importantly, for the project management aspect, with only basic “deadlines” predetermined by the course professor. The exit interviews, cited later in this article, reveal that the course taught students to have a flexible approach toward problem-solving. As measured through the student feedback collected in exit interviews, the course succeeded in reaching those objectives. Yet such a data-collection tactic is necessarily incomplete, and thus the lasting value, outside of academia, for students of this within-university learning opportunity can only be suggested here. We offer our findings as related to the ways in which students developed new literacies (per Cook) and participated in a process of gradual exposure, as Blakeslee (2001) stresses, to professional, workplace communication genres. We argue that a course like our “Publications Management” elective can serve as one model for the kind of bridge Blakeslee et al. have called for. A critical part of any bridge is its two “destinations,” so our study points to both footings of such a structure—academic learning modules and workplace practices—both of which must be further explored by technical communication faculty and the technical communication professionals with whom they collaborate and with whom they confer about university program efficacy.

That the “Publications Management” course satisfied both student and New Mexico Tech’s Technical Communication program goals indicates that this elective course, which might be designed at other institutions as one that focuses on publications other than academic journals, satisfactorily served the needs of two constituencies: students and faculty.The third constituency, of course, is comprised of the professionals with and for whom these students will eventually work. The purpose of this article is to point to the extended worth of this course and to suggest other possible iterations at other institutions. Certainly, we hope that our analysis indicates potential relevancy of courses such as “Publications Management” for this third constituency: technical communication practitioners. Our findings further push open a window on a critical subject that academic stake-holders and technical communication professionals must examine:can client projects within a university setting serve as effective bridges to “real world” and higher stakes document- and publication-creation scenarios in the technical communication profession? Long-standing calls by scholars in the field to engage with these issues are the ones that we address and on which we expand in this study.


In this article we begin by providing background information about the Xchanges journal and the role it plays in our program. We then detail how Xchanges was tied to the “Publications Management” course through an overview of course objectives, requirements, and specific assignments. Our primary method of assessing student learning and measuring their “gradual” introduction to professional discourses and practices (and the “gradual” aspect is a feature that Blakeslee, for one, legitimizes as valuable) was the exit-interview process at the conclusion of the semester.These exit interviews, which were digitally recorded and later transcribed, were held in a faculty office setting, between the course professor and individual course students, and were comprised of a series of eight questions. These questions will be discussed further in a later section (see Table 4), but it is important to enforce here that while this means of assessment, the exit-interview, produced responses by students that might at first blush seem anecdotal rather than broadly applicable, we found that students’ feedback did indicate that their experiences of the academic-journal client project resonated with the data other scholars have collected regarding client projects and experiences that provide professional writing contexts (Cooke & Williams, 2003; Freedman &Adam, 1996; Harrison & Katz, 1997; Wojahn et al., 2001). Thus, despite the small sample-size of students in the study group, we found that their comments pointed to take-aways pertinent to other client-project situations and other university settings, thereby indicating that our findings were not isolated or idiosyncratic.

Thus, we assessed the Xchanges journal/”Publications Management” project, and its capacity to serve as a tool for teaching audience sensitivity and encouraging workplace preparedness, in three ways: a) through students’ performance on course-required document-creation and presentation projects, b) through students’ ability to complete the project required by the “client,” Xchanges, in a largely self-directed manner that honored the timeline set by the journal, and c) through the students’ feedback regarding the course’s applicability to their field of study and understanding of workplace expectations. Certainly, students’ understandings of “workplace expectations” may not match with the actual expectations of future employers. However, we contend that client projects—in this instance, the production of a journal issue—educate students about probable, certain, and assumed workplace scenarios. This collision of “actual” preparation with presumed preparation is yet another way in which client projects in university settings help to gradually—and in this case, in a student-led manner—acclimate students to the demands of a profession that they will enter upon graduation.Our students have knowledge of specific workplace practices not just via their coursework and specific contributions to faculty research initiatives but also as a result of the involvement of our program’s corporate board in annual meetings with students (for further discussion of both, see Ford, Newmark, & Lanier, 2012). From interactions such as those between board members and students, our students gain a sense of what will be expected of them in the workplace as writers, document-creators, and communicators. Because of the students’ expectations, as generated by their coursework and the feedback they receive from industry professionals, they are able to articulate whether they see journal-production work, such as that required in the “Publications Management” class, as relevant to their future careers. The assessment from the other side, from professionals themselves, is the obvious other part of this equation, something we call for as part of future research.

The Xchanges Journal: Producing an Issue From Within an Upper-Level Technical Communication Course, “Publications Management”

Xchanges Background

In 2008, Xchanges moved from its previous home at Wayne State University in Detroit to its new home at New Mexico Tech because of the relocation of the journal editor. The journal had long been invested in serving as a forum of scholarly emergence for undergraduate students and graduate students from American and international institutions. The journal’s mission was to serve as a professionalizing domain for these students, as the article-submission and review processes mirrored those of print and online journals that publish articles by senior scholars. As a consequence of conversations between the journal editor and the director of New Mexico Tech’s Technical Communication program, Xchanges reemerged with a modified thematic focus, conforming to the Technical Communication major’s goals.

During the 2008-09 academic year, the Xchanges editor worked to promote the journal’s move and its reinvention. She networked with technical communication and composition faculty at numerous universities to alert them to the journal’s existence as a possible publication venue for their advanced undergraduate students and graduate students. Also during this time the review board was created; the board is a collection of professors in the journal’s focal disciplines who serve as blind reviewers for the undergraduate and graduate-student submissions. This double-blind review process helps to further the journal’s audience-awareness mission, a key goal of the journal’s, in that students receive discrete feedback from faculty members outside of their own university who assess the efficacy of the writers’ rhetorical and aesthetic practices.

By Spring 2010, the re-invented Xchanges journal had published one issue and sent submissions for the next issue, the annual graduate-student issue, out for review. To address some of the time-and-staff resource deficits the journal faced, the Technical Communication program director and the Xchanges editor decided to push for the inclusion on the Fall 2010 class schedule of the Technical Communication elective “Publications Management.” Prior versions of the course emphasized reading and analyzing case studies of publications projects. The new course design for 2010 would seek to utilize Xchanges-journal-issue-production as the client project for the semester; a real-world, established publication would serve to enforce for Technical Communication students the time- and project-management skills that would be absolutely demanded in publication-production work.

Blakeslee’s case studies focused on students working on client projects involving off-campus clients and the client in our case was technically on-campus; our study and hers, then, cannot be described as exactly parallel. However, the fact that the Xchanges journal and its authors represented a distinct audience beyond that of the course, with specific writing projects and deadlines, allowed it to serve as a bridge between school and professional contexts, as described by Blakeslee.

Overview of Technical Communication 371 Course and Xchanges Issue 6.2

The Xchanges journal editor served as the course instructor for the “Publications Management” course, which began in August 2010. The course sought to exercise certain principal Technical-Communication-program learning objectives through the specific but multi-dimensional task of journal-issue production. Specifically, in the “Publications Management” class students would work to satisfy TC program goals while honing skills related to document creation and editing that are vital in workplace settings. In the “Publications Management” course, students were required to develop proficiency, as related to electronic publication production, in:

  • Editing
  • Critical thinking
  • Oral presentation
  • Research
  • Interactive group work
  • The creation of annotated bibliographies
  • The creation of observational reports

Certainly, the last two items listed above are assignments native to academia; these exercises seek to help students to locate and deeply understand research sources so that their own work will be informed by best practices in the technical communication field, as undertaken by academics and practitioners alike. The first five items are capacious indeed, but in their specific relation to practices of document and whole-publication production, these course requirements provide specific, targeted practice that, the goal is, can be transferred to a workplace setting.

Table 1. Part “A” of Student-Assessment Criteria: Written Assignments Required of Students, Fulfilling Academic Requirements

Assignment name



Journal research report


  • Overview of Xchanges and its production history
  • Overview of other journals in focal area
  • Description of academic journal “industry”
  • Based on findings, recommendation of area of Xchanges to improve to aid journal’s future growth and relevance

Annotated bibliography


  • Provide citation information, summaries, and evaluations of at least fifteen scholarly articles related to Journal Research Report

Observational report


  • Attend three in-person and Skype presentations by journal editors from New Mexico Geology, New Mexico Law Review, and Kairos.
  • A two-page report that documents the main tenets of one journal editor/journal’s production process, with full descriptions of each element

Weekly activity reports and textbook reading log


  • An activity report detailing hours in and out of class dedicated to work planning, editing, producing, corresponding for, promoting, or researching about aspects of the Xchanges journal, supplemented by a brief summary of the week’s reading

Final group oral presentation and procedures proposal, with digital accompaniment


  • A final oral presentation, employing the appropriate technology, to demonstrate progress on assigned component of Xchanges production

Xchanges production work


Each component worth 10%:

  • Project management (of group’s designated area: editing, technical design/management, correspondence/promotion)
  • Documentation of process in designated area
  • Team planning and group/self assessment
  • Effort

The course design of TC 371 was informed by the assessment framework outlined by Blakeslee in 2001—”exposure, authenticity, transition, and response”—that academics can use to measure the efficacy of client-project pedagogy as used in classroom settings. As Blakeslee notes, a goal of technical communication professors is to provide our students with “useful transitional experiences that bridge classroom and workplace contexts” (p. 189). As a transitional experience, the “Publications Management” class sought to fulfill Blakeslee’s call for “gradual” enculturation of students to “workplace practices and genres.”

From the academic side, students were still expected to perform tasks for which they would receive grades. Table 1 shows the written and participatory work required of students in “Publications Management,” work that constitutes student-assessment Part A, the part of their overall course grade determined by their course professor.As the information in the “Description” column shows, the students’ engagement with the journal-publication field was extensive during the class, ranging from their own research into and reading of academic journals for their annotated bibliographies and journal research reports to their participation in Q&A sessions with academic journal editors from various disciplines and the resulting observational report their subsequently crafted. Because of this exposure to the field of academic publication, an exposure that certainly pushed the substance of the course beyond the confines of New Mexico Tech’s institutional boundaries, students were introduced to the meaning and professional context of the journal-production work they would also perform in the course.

Table 2. Part “B” of Student-Assessment Criteria: Group Projects Leading to Ultimate Journal-Production, Fulfilling Client Requirements

Group name

Group deliverables


  • Correspond with accepted authors regarding revision/editing requirements per readers’ reports
  • Craft and distribute “editing checklist” to accompany acceptance letters to authors
  • Perform first-pass copy-editing on completed manuscripts
  • Format all articles for multi-page appearance in Web-interface and for single-text appearance as printable PDFs
  • Format author bios for Web sidebar
  • Proof all text content on site for current issue

Web design/management

  • Assess pre-existing Xchanges Web site for sitewide concerns
  • Assess three content management systems (CMSs) for possible adoption by Xchanges (Joomla!, Drupal, WordPress)
  • Upon choosing CMS system, create new Xchanges design and integrate archive into new system
  • Trouble-shoot design and modify CSS of Joomla! template to suit Xchanges‘s needs as a multi-modal journal
  • Craft permanent menus and sitewide frameworks for Issue 6.2 and future issues
  • Collaborate on solving multi-media integration problems as deadline approaches


  • Create contact list of all Xchanges stake-holders (past authors, faculty review board members, program directors at other universities, home institution media and administration contacts)
  • Collaborate with New Mexico Tech media officer on articles for New Mexico Tech Web site and publications
  • Collaborate with editor on “accept” and “decline” letters for submitters
  • Contribute to cross-group online “to-do” list as deadline approaches (GoogleDocs)
  • Oversee cross-group project-management spreadsheet on GoogleDocs

While 60% of students’ course grades were comprised of written and research work commonplace in university classes, the 40% allocated for journal-production work represents the tasks that students performed both in class and on their own time on the “real” client project around which the course was designed. Students in the small course (of six students) were divided in three teams for the journal-production work: the editorial team, the redesign team, and the promotion/correspondence team. Table 2 shows the deliverables with which each group was charged by the journal editor; these tasks constitute assessment Part B, for which the audience was the journal readership, authors, and faculty submission-review board. The degree to which the students served these audiences’ needs determined their performance on Part B. Before students could begin work on the above-named tasks, certain decisions were made across groups, a practice that parallels one common in workplace settings: in-group and cross-group collaboration (Cooke & Williams, 2003; Wojahn et al., 2001). One of the class’s first tasks was to assess and decide upon a project management tool to use to plan, chart, and indicate the completion of the necessary “steps” along the way toward the launch of the Xchanges issue they were required to produce: Issue 6.2, the “themed” graduate student issue. Ultimately, the class decided to use a GoogleDocs spreadsheet to identify and schedule the necessary parts of their own projects and to see the other projects with which the other two teams were engaged.

The three groups needed to make one more collaborative decision before each group could embark on its own work. Based on an assessment of the existing Xchanges site’s usability, all students agreed that another design was necessary. For this decision, the Web redesign team led the way, employing feedback from the other two teams, to build a model new site using Joomla! as the content management system. The Web design team, along with the editing team, also decided that, for accessibility reasons, all articles, “skinned” Web sites, and presentations in each Xchanges issue would also need to be available for download as PDF, for those users for whom reading or viewing Xchanges content on a monitor screen was not ideal or possible.

With these decisions made, the groups embarked on completing the required projects necessary to bring the myriad sub-components of the journal issue together by the pre-set launch date. Informed by their “academic” course-requirements (the research, writing, and observational exercises described in Table 1) related to journals in general and Xchanges specifically, the groups spent the second half of the semester in a largely self-directed manner, collaboratively working and regularly consulting with their course professor with the mandate of fulfilling the client’s directive: to release Issue 6.2 of Xchanges.

Cook’s “Layered Literacies” in Action

The Xchanges journal possesses multiple audiences simultaneously: the multifaceted readership, the twenty-member national faculty review board, the undergraduate student submitters and authors, and the graduate student submitters and authors. Because those involved with the production of the journal need to serve all of these groups, the practice of producing journal issues is a practice that uniquely addresses both “audience” and “rhetorical situation” from a document-production standpoint. All involved with the journal concern themselves with the end-users, those who read and publish in (sometimes an overlapping audience) the journal. By its very nature, then, the practices of production of a publication like Xchanges afford those involved with this production the opportunity to think about the needs of the audiences and the tactics one might use to appropriately serve them via rhetorical decisions related to both text and images. So, Xchanges-journal production is ultimately audience-oriented. But in serving this audience, those working on production can simultaneously improve multiple literacies at once. The multiple literacies for which Cook (2002) calls—”basic, rhetorical, social, technological, ethical, and critical literacies”—are taught, then, in a course like “Publications Management” in a lasting and professionally preparatory way. As other scholars have amply noted (Blakeslee, 2001; Freedman & Adam, 1996; Harrison & Katz, 1997; Paretti, 2006; Wojahn et al., 2001), integrating activities into the classroom, such as client-based projects that introduce professional rhetorical situations and bridge across the university/workplace divide, is useful in the development of dexterous technical communicators who can eventually enter various professional settings with greater ease.

As Cook notes, the above-named “layered literacies” “can be applied to a program of study or an individual course” (p. 11). In this section, we hope to show how “Publications Management” necessarily reinforces these literacies in students, as students have already been exposed to each in other Technical Communication program courses. The particular benefit of “Publications Management” for layering these literacies is that it is the essential nature of journal-issue-production that literacies will cross over and be simultaneous. “Basic literacy,” the first-named in Cook’s list, is most usefully developed, as she writes, when it is layered with other literacies rather than taught in a rote fashion (in the form of basic grammar and structure exercises). When students are working with a journal as the editorial and production staff, as they are in our “Publications Management” course and as they would be in other institutions’ courses focused on single-client document production, students come to question their own “basic literacy” practices by reading the work of the accepted authors. In the case of Xchanges, the students in “Publications Management” came to see the variety of tactics the four graduate-student authors used to deliver their arguments, a variety that was particularly marked by the graduate students’ particular areas of focus (for example, rhetoric or writing center work, and the requisite vocabulary in these areas) and the English-as-a-second-language features of certain submissions. Students were not reading about this variety in a textbook, but were engaging closely with the “basic literacy” variety from their new vantage as editors and journal-issue producers, and thus stake-holders. By researching the standards and customary rhetorical style of other academic journals with similar thematic foci to Xchanges, the students came to better understand what the rhetorical situation of the journal was and how to help bring the journal’s authors closer into conformity with that standard. In this way, the students simultaneously engaged with Cook’s first literacy, “basic” and the second, “rhetorical.”

Cook notes that the third literacy, “social literacy,” might be measured by students’ “team reports” or their participation in “electronic discussion forums” (p. 12). “Publications Management” aimed to improve students’ social literacy by helping them to better understand “organizational settings”; employing a suggestion of Cook’s, students participated in versions of “interviews” via visits with three editors of established journals. The editors of the journals New Mexico Geology (a print journal), New Mexico Law Review (a print journal that is developing a Web component), and Kairos (an online-only multimodal journal in the Rhetoric and Writing field) visited with “Publications Management” students in person and via Skype. Further, we aimed to integrate this literacy-enhancement activity with our specific client-project exercise through a Q&A session intended to allow students to learn specific tactics used by established journal editors that they might employ in their work with Xchanges. To follow up on this Q&A, “Publications Management” students wrote their own reports on the journal-editor visits and talks, their individual “Observational Reports” (see Table 1), and used the information they gleaned from these talks in their collaboratively devised plans for their groups’ achievement of its deliverables (see Table 2). These exercises very much strived to improve students’ “social literacy skills” in that the students, as Cook calls for, “[worked] effectively with others in a variety of capacities” (p. 12).

In regard to “technological literacy,” students in “Publications Management” received wide exposure to aspects of this layer. Students engaged with tools that required them to develop technology-program literacy (ranging from their use of GoogleDocs to their use of the Joomla! CMS). Students also moved from these “local” in-lab technology experiences, to which Cook refers, to “wide-area” technological eXchanges that required of them further new literacies. Their wide-area exposure included their long-distance editing and distribution experiences with Xchanges writers, faculty review board members, and the other journal editors. This broad exposure to the technological literacy layer was a direct attempt to prepare students for future Technical Communication workplace scenarios.

Students in the Xchanges “Publications Management” course had experience in all three levels of technological literacy that Cook mentions: “As rhetoricians who study audience knowledge, preferences, and requirements for technology; as architects who take this research and use it to construct technology documentation to meet audience needs; and as usability researchers who take their written product back to the audience to critique how well the documentation and the technology work for the audience” (p. 14, italics added). To clarify, “Publications Management” required that, prior to site-wide journal redesign with the Joomla! CMS, students study the usability of the previous Xchanges site. Subsequently, students continued into the second “technological literacy” stage: recognizing the process they would need to use to document their group’s use and/or revision of preexisting Xchanges components and their group’s use of multiple technologies to complete their required journal-production work. All groups had to complete a documentation project (their “Procedures Manual,” see Table 1) that explained their group’s deliverables and their accomplishment of goals, a task that required them to think of their experiences with multiple literacies at once. Table 3 shows how their various technology-engagement practices in “Publications Management” indicate the responsiveness of the “Publications Management” course design to calls such as Cook’s for multi-level technological literacy.

The final stage noted above, when students enter the role of “usability researchers,” is a stage that the Xchanges journal-production client project serves particularly well. Students need to determine not just what an audience would “prefer,” but what kinds of journal-design elements will be most usable to various journal readers and what technological details, delivered in what format and design, will be most useful to future New Mexico Tech students who might need to use their “Procedures Manuals” for Xchanges production on future issues. Thus, students conduct usability tests for two user groups: journal readers/writers and future journal-issue producers. The reality of the bifurcated nature of journal-use and -production requires that students constantly concern themselves with the needs of multiple audiences.

In terms of the “ethical literacy” layer, students in “Publications Management” engaged with ethical concerns particularly in regard to site design, journal-article document creation, and interactions with their peers and with field professionals. Following on Cook and Wahlstrom’s suggestions, and building on the STC Ethical Principles for Technical Communicators that Cook also notes, students came to understand the “ethical implications of their decisions” regarding “legality, honesty, confidentiality, quality, fairness, and professionalism” (Cook, 2002; STC, 1998). In regard to confidentiality, students worked carefully to honor Xchanges‘s confidentiality practices in regard to double-blind submission-review, by protecting the anonymity of the review board members who reviewed particular submissions and protecting authors from having identifying information revealed to review board members. Also, students discussed the ethical implications of including author photos in the Web site sidebar, along with author biographical information. Ultimately, students decided it would be unethical to include photos, as the purpose of Xchanges is to provide readers with new scholarly research information and an author photo would not enhance the delivery of this information.

Table 3. Cook’s Three Levels of “Technological Literacy” and Commensurate “Publications Management” Course Activities Designed to Teach These Literacies

Three levels of technological literacy,
via Cook

Student activity

“As rhetoricians who study” audience’s needs for the technological product: each article published in Xchanges

Attending to Xchanges‘ writers’ grammar and editing issues; scrutinizing design, format, and pagination issues in the Xchanges Web site

As “architects who take this research and use it to construct technology documentation to meet audience needs”

Creating documents for two audiences: Xchanges users (the Web site and its included articles) and future New Mexico Tech students who might work on the Xchanges project (each group’s “Procedures Manual”)

As “usability researchers who take their written product back to the audience to critique how well the documentation and the technology work for the audience”

Corresponding with Xchanges‘ writers during final editing; testing site for usability across groups; presenting and testing “Procedures Manuals” across groups

Note: Italics added to Cook

“Critical literacy,” the final layer Cook notes, is one that Cook identifies as the “most difficult” to integrate, yet it is essential, in that this literacy enables technical communicators to see themselves as those who give voice to people who might not have access to communication domains, whether because of gender, religion, race, disability, or class. Students in “Publications Management” did see that the freedom afforded by the electronic nature, as opposed to a print nature, of Xchanges gave the journal a certain unique capacity to serve many more groups of readers, and writers, than other modalities might. For example, because of the Web-interface chosen by the students (the new design and the Joomla! CMS used to archive old issues and prepare new ones), students realized that Xchanges could further its mission of “inclusiveness,” to welcome new voices into the research and professional conversations in the fields of technical communication, writing, and rhetoric. The constituency served by the journal, graduate student and undergraduate student writers and researchers in these fields, traditionally are kept out of the professional scholarly conversation in these fields and are the consumers rather than the producers of new research. Because Xchanges‘s mission is to function as a space for these scholars to equally participate in scholarly innovation, the “Publications Management” students deeply engaged with the “critical literacy” layer, in that these students served to promote and propel the sometimes-silent scholarly voices of undergraduate and graduate-student writers in the meta-domain of the “academic journal.”Further, students worked to ensure that the ejournal could serve as many users as possible. Students’ critical awareness of the limitations users might have, limitations that might impact their enjoyment of and interaction with the journal, guided their decisions, specifically those concerning color-choice, font-size and face, availability of PDFs for download, and the inclusion of stand-alone “audio” tracks for the multi-media research included in the issue (in the form of one published Prezi presentation).

As the following section will examine, in course exit interviews students reflected on these multiple literacies, though they did not use the terms Cook offers. As Cook used a TC-major capstone course at her institution to examine the possibility of integrating these literacy layers into course-design and technical communication curricula, at New Mexico Tech we also used one course to examine how a client-project-based course could serve to support this integration, with the goal of further professional preparedness for our students. In exit interviews, students became the commentators on and assessors of the merits of the simultaneity of their “literacy” education in the “Publications Management” course, indicating that their sensitivity to technological, social, and rhetorical literacies was improved and demanded by the ultimate deliverables each group and the whole class had to achieve for the Xchanges journal.

As Cook’s experience and our experience both support, different iterations of courses and client-projects might be used in university settings to improve student literacy sensitivity, with the aim of preparing students for the layers of literacy they will need to employ simultaneously and naturally once they enter the workplace. As Cook and her colleagues sought to redesign a course within their curriculum to prominently feature the teaching of these literacies so as to “prepare students . . . more fully for the transition from their undergraduate studies to the workplace,” at New Mexico Tech we also strived to offer the “Publications Management” elective as an instance wherein “preparedness” and “transition” would both be central as necessitated by the unique nature of the client project (p. 18). Thus, a capstone course model and a client-based elective model are just two examples that can be studied by academics and professionals both as attempts on the part of university-based technical communicators to prepare students to transition into the profession. Industry professionals might glean from this material that students are increasingly being prepared by their technical communication programs to enter the workplace having had such client-based experiences and having been exposed to the multiple literacies “throughout their courses of study,” as Cook urges (p. 7). Such exposure will benefit their professional output, their companies, and their clients in the future.

Student Exit Interviews: Assessing the “Publications Management” Course as a Professionally Preparatory Client Project

In 2001, Blakeslee formulated a process of “gradual” exposure to professional practices that might be delivered through technical communication client-project courses. “Students and newcomers,” she writes, “may benefit from experiences that bridge the two contexts [classroom and profession] and that facilitate this graduate entry” (p. 172). Client projects can serve to introduce students to the demands and kinds of response/feedback they will receive in workplace settings. Both of the case studies Blakeslee discusses involved a technical communication course’s work with an outside-of-classroom client; in her first-mentioned course, the client was “three technical writers from a large computer and electronics company” and in her second-mentioned course, the client was “two linguists who had founded and who administered a large Web-based listserv for their discipline” (p. 174-5). Both clients gave the respective courses a series of deliverables. Blakeslee’s concern in this well-known research project was to assess the benefits of these kinds of “classroom-workplace collaborations.”Her framework consisted of four issues – “exposure, authenticity, transition, and response”—that could be specifically examined as they relate to student learning in these client-project-based courses.

“Exposure” served as Blakeslee’s identifier for the practice of introducing students, exposing them, to “workplace practices and genres,” even though such exposure, given its “school” setting, can’t necessarily be immersive. The second issue, “authenticity,” concerned students’ impressions of their client-project experiences as either accurate or artificial representations of workplace projects and demands.Blakeslee studied the issue of “transition” as it related to the ways in which client projects might “facilitate students’ transitions to the workplace”; of particular interest to her was the notion that such classroom-situated client-projects can serve as bridges to the expectations of the workplace while still being rooted in the “supportive environment” of their university setting. Finally, by analyzing “response,” Blakeslee scrutinized the feedback students received both from the clients and their course professor. Blakeslee identified many notable issues with “response” type and quality, particularly as related to the sometimes “very critical” feedback students received from their clients.

As in Blakeslee’s study, at the conclusion of the “Publications Management” technical communication course, students completed interviews. Because the “Publications Management” course was small, the concern that their responses might be merely anecdotal might arise. However, some of their responses correlate to those offered by Blakeslee’s students in her client-project-based technical communication courses. The difference with the “Publications Management” course, though, was that the students had regular and direct access to one of their clients, their course professor who was also the journal editor. Also, their entire course (rather than two-thirds of the semester) was dedicated to tasks associated with the completion of this single client project. The explicit purpose of our students’ course was to serve a client’s needs and thus, their expectations were to produce incremental and final deliverables for a specific, client, the Xchanges journal. This singularity of purpose is one notable difference between our students’ experiences and those of students in Blakeslee’s study, in which the client projects took place in two courses designated as, respectively, an “introductory” “300-level” technical communication course and a “computer documentation” “400-level” course. Because students’ pre-selected themselves forthe “Publications Management” course by enrolling in it as a technical communication elective, they knew in advance that the expectation was for them to perform both written assignments to be assessed by their professor as technical communication professor and to produce deliverables related to a journal-issue release, which would be assessed by their professor as journal editor, a key representative of the larger “client,” and by the more diffuse collective of journal stakeholders.

Because of the access they had to their client, students certainly felt a degree of comfort, an idea Blakeslee also mentions related to the university setting, that they may not have in a workplace upon graduation. The information gathered during exit interviews, though, shows that students believed that the Xchanges journal-project was indeed an “authentic” experience, despite the familiarity of the university setting. Regarding Blakeslee’s other criteria—exposure, transition, and response—the exit interviews provide useful insight into how the “Publications Management” version of a client project produced responses from students that differed in notable ways, and correlated in notable ways, to previous studies concerning the integration of client projects in TC curricula as means of preparing students for workplace scenarios and expectations.

In exit interviews, students were asked a series of eight questions (see Table 4).The responses to these questions had no impact on students’ grades and were collected in computer files that bore pseudonymic identifiers rather than students’ actual names. Institutional Review Board approval was received for this component of research. As the first few questions reveal, the course sought to expose students to a field, the scholarly publication field, as an example of a type of industry that has a specific documentation and publication history, standard, and practice. By meeting with journal editors, students had individual contact with producers of publications. By crafting their own annotated bibliographies, students came at the field of academic research publications from a different angle, as researchers themselves who sought to recommend changes/improvements for Xchanges based on their own research into best practices concerning design, CMSs, copy-editing, promotion, and editing. The fourth question gets at another issue of Blakeslee’s: authenticity. In interviews, students were asked to speculate (based on their knowledge from other TC classes, research-group participation, internships, and contact with New Mexico Tech’s Technical Communication corporate advisory board) on the authenticity of their Xchanges journal-production experiences and its relevance for future work in the profession. The issue of “transition” is also at the heart of interview questions concerning the relevance of the “Publications Management” class to future workplace scenarios. Regarding “response,” students did not address this component of Blakeslee’s four-issue analytic frame in their interviews, as no interview questions specifically asked them to comment on the feedback and critiques they received from each other in class, from their course professor, or from other Xchanges-journal stake-holders. Students did receive “responses” throughout the term (on the items in student-assessment Part A, their written assignments for the course, and on Part B, the component of journal-production for which they were responsible). But, unlike in Blakeslee’s study, students did not indicate frustration with “overly” critical feedback from their client. The workshop-nature of the “Publications Management” class and their regular contact with the journal editor (as their professor) and with the article writers via e-mail perhaps caused this difference in student attitudes regarding the nature of “response” as compared to Blakeslee’s study. The fact that the course professor also served as the journal editor eliminated the constraints noted by Taylor (2001) of lack of awareness of client standards and by Kastman Breuch (2001) of students failing to understand how to interact with the client “to discuss differences of opinion or clarify client needs” (197).

Table 4. Interview Questions for Twenty-Minute Student Exit-Interviews


What knowledge did you have of academic journals prior to this class?


How did your TC 371 experience change the way you view academic journals?


How did your TC 371 experience change the way you view research and the communication of it?


If you were on a job interview and asked to speak about how your TC 371, or Xchanges journal, experience prepared you for a job in a professional environment, what would you say?


What did your experience in TC 371 teach you about project management?


As you reflect on the goals of a TC class or a TC curriculum, would you say that TC 371 effectively addressed these goals? How so or how not?


If you could change one thing about the class, what would it be?


What do you think the class’s greatest strength is?

Particular student answers, of course, warrant focused attention, such as those concerning “authenticity” and “transition.”The most revealing answers concern the journal-work’s significance to students’ curricular progress and future fulfillment of career goals, which came in answer to the question “What do you think the class’s greatest strength is?”One student contended that the Xchanges-production project “[a]ccurately model[ed] a management project. [It] shows you exactly what it’s going to be like.”This student, who had prior work experience in the advertising field, felt that the production process that the class experienced resonated well with the “realities” of the workplace, thus proclaiming that the Xchanges client project was “authentic.” The student added that “the presentations” by visiting editors were particularly edifying and reinforced the persistence of deadline-stress to all journal editors and staff members. “We did get behind on the project,” the student stated, “but when we talked to” the editor of Kairos “we realized that even if it takes longer to get it out, it matters that when it finally gets out that it’s correct” and error-free. This comment reinforces students’ developing knowledge of the mandates of the editing process, a process that tracks alongside the design process, vying with it for priority. Through their experiences of “exposure,” via the journal-editor visits and their own research about and by using scholarly journals, students recognized that their own experiences were not dissimilar from those of other, more senior journal stake-holders. As the interview-question responses show, the issues of “authenticity” and “exposure” are necessarily related, as the broad “exposure” to a field students received in a course like “Publications Management” helped them to understand whether their experience was “authentic” or not.

The realization that the quality of the final product mattered more than adherence to a deadline indicates the special quality that the Xchanges journal project lent to the “Publications Management” class; in a university setting, deadlines are typically non-negotiable and are set not by students, but by their professor. Indeed, with the production of a project for a client, there are also deadlines, but students in “Publications Management” themselves felt the stress of the approaching deadline and knew that they might be the ones who determined whether it would be met or extended. When students realized that they were “behind” and thus had to re-assess, they learned a valuable lesson about workplace projects that is quite different from university-setting projects. If the journal came out a week late, the readers and authors would not penalize them, though the journal’s credibility might suffer to a degree. The journal readers and authors would likely be more critical, though, if the issue came out “on time” and in a flawed format.

Another student stated that the class required students to practice “Time-management and [the] delegation of duties”; this comment resonates with an answer another student gave to a question concerning the relevant future-profession skills students learned in the “Publications Management” class. The student explained “The course prepared me to work in a complex self-paced collaborative environment. Many tasks needed to be accomplished simultaneously without direct and constant supervision,” a theme other students addressed as well, specifically in regard to their belief that they would now have the courage to seek collaborative contributions from team-members in a workplace setting and have the confidence to problem-solve on their own in order to reach the team goal.

Students made many comments in the exit interviews concerning technology usage in the journal-issue-production process, thereby addressing their exposure to the “technological” literacy layer in Cook’s framework. Students felt that, regarding technology, they would be able to ask questions of the “right” people or problem-solve on their own to reach a desired goal. Such technological success (or confidence in future success) contrasts with Wickliff’s (1997) study that named competence in using workplace computer applications as a difficulty experienced by students. Several students commented that the “remote visit” with the Kairos editor via Skype was a highlight of the course, particularly as this ejournal editor shared with them considerable valuable information and reinforced for them that the problems and triumphs they were experiencing were very similar to those experienced by the staff members of journals with much larger back-issue archives, more extensive technology integration, and wider circulation.

Also concerning technological literacy and “transition,” in the exit interviews students also repeatedly mentioned their happiness at using GoogleDocs as their central document repository. In response to the question “What did your experience in TC 371 teach you about project management?,” one student answered:

There’s a lot more groundwork that needs to be done with respect to the management and organizational side than I realized before. I thought that if you got a project, you started working on it, but there’s definitely work that needs to be done before you can start working on the project, getting things set up so it will run as smoothly as possible. GoogleDocs was really helpful, just to be able to manage everything in one place…was really helpful.

In the exit interviews, students referred to the class as more like “work” (seemingly in a positive sense) than a “class.”Students unequivocally viewed the Xchanges client-project as one that authentically replicated scenarios they were bound to face in future professions, likely because of the autonomy they had in reaching their own group’s deliverables and the responsibility they were given to solve problems without constant professorial oversight or the limiting structure of a more typical course. Students seemed buoyed by the degree of independence the class gave them to learn the nuances of publication-production and to problem-solve on their own, with their groups, and across groups.Students commented on the enhanced state of their understanding of the “world” of academic journals (a variant of what Blakeslee calls “exposure”), particularly in regard to the relationship between the research produced by scholars in a field and the publication of that research in journals. These findings suggest that students appreciated the incidental learning opportunities that happened and welcomed the chance to problem-solve.

In answer to the question “How did your TC 371 experience change the way you view research and the communication of it?,” one student remarked that “research,” in general, is a “a lot more detailed than I expected.”Possessing “the knowledge” isn’t enough for a researcher; “the transfer [of that knowledge] has got to be meticulous in how it’s approached and conveyed.”This student felt that Xchanges‘ multimodality was especially helpful—in fact essential—for the conveyance of some critical ideas in a researcher’s work. Some ideas, the student claimed, “cannot be relayed in one media… The multiple media is really an enhancement.”From the production side, one student commented that the journal-issue production process is “more collaborative than I thought it was,” beyond just the reality that many scholarly papers have “several authors working on” them. Many journal staff members also contribute to the emergence of research in print or online, the student realized. Based on the presentation to the “Publications Management” class by the editor of a regional geology journal, this student realized that “there are all those other people providing maps, illustrations, charts – another level of firsthand knowledge that supports that research. [All of this] makes the whole thing stronger. When you look at it from the outside, though, you see just one level.”

On the level of student learning, the students appeared to assess the class as a successful one, in the sense that it revealed to them many aspects of document creation and dissemination that they had no clear knowledge of prior to the course. Many students suggested that the course became a kind of “awakening” for them. They learned about the publication process (as it involves researchers, often as collaborative teams, plus many journal staff members) and the project-management process (a skill that many thought was easily transferable from a journal-production context to other workplace contexts). Students were clear in their indication that they learned management and technical skills that were transferable, thereby offering in their own words that they felt that they practiced multiple “layers” of literacy at once in “Publications Management.”

The students also speculated on the relevance of the “Publications Management” course to New Mexico Tech’s Technical Communication program goals. One student contended that the class was primarily helpful because of its insistence on quality writing practices (Cook’s “basic literacy”) in a context where the clarity of communication was quickly measured by readers, the journal editor, or the “strangers” who would read Web copy on the site or who would receive e-mails written by students asking for “support” of the journal (such as e-mails written to faculty at other institutions suggesting that they encourage their students to submit work). As clear and usable communication in text and graphic forms is, of course, paramount to our Technical Communication program, this student’s declaration that he took “Publications Management””to be a better writer” and to develop “better writing habits” clearly reveals the student’s expectation. In his exit interview this student felt the class fulfilled Technical Communication program goals via its insistence on the practice of “editing concepts” as a means of reinforcing that “even if you do it a ton of times, it might [still] be wrong, in the wrong format”; the student believed that a clean and correct final product must emerge (also noted above in regard to the editing team’s work). While editing concepts and practices were not introduced in this course (an earlier course focusing solely on editing is required of all TC students), indeed students had ample opportunity to apply prior-learned editing skills.

Another student felt that the course reinforced “a lot of aspects from other TC courses I’ve taken,” such as “structure [and] layout of docs themselves.”This student’s feedback reveals a feeling that the ancillary course requirements also helped to bring together the skills they were practicing in their Web-related work on the journal site. Their audience was not only their professor but the entire readership and “community” of the journal.

Importantly, all students realized that one particular audience was depending on them in a unique way: the graduate-student writers whose work had been accepted for publication. These were key stakeholders and the “Publications Management” students very much wanted to present these graduate-student scholars’ work in the journal in a manner that was aesthetically strong and implicitly functional. For instance, if something did “not work” on the site, such as file-transfer-related language/text problems, these students were deeply committed to fixing these flaws before release, not just for themselves, but for the writers whose work they were responsible for presenting. The students were certainly aware of the multiple layers of audiences with whom they were simultaneously striving to communicate clearly. As their comments indicate, they felt they achieved the course goals but, as importantly, they felt they achieved many personal goals related to their suitability and preparedness for a future career.


By viewing New Mexico Tech’s “Publications Management” course through critical lenses offered by Cook’s and Blakeslee’s research and through the specific lenses of our own institution’s TC program goals, we conclude that our particular version of a client-project-based course amply served our institutional needs and our students’ professionalization needs.Of course, further research is needed to buttress this final claim, that the small group of students from “Publications Management” were, indeed, well prepared for similar document-production projects in future workplaces. A longitudinal study might be one that we consider beginning with the next iteration of the “Publications Management” class. We would also like to include involvement of members of the Technical Communication program’s corporate advisory board, as additional voices in the conversation to examine the relevance and “authenticity” of this client project and the degree to which it improves students’ literacy in critical areas necessary in professional settings.

Despite our recognition of future steps that might deepen this research, we are confident in the learning opportunities it has afforded our students already. We feel that our “Publications Management” project, specifically in regard to its multi-dimensionality and its ability support the “gradual” professionalization process that scholars such as Blakeslee support, is one that might be usefully modified to suit other institutions’ students, faculty interests, and available possible clients. As the information from this article reveals, the learning opportunity presented to students through this experience was both a structured and flexible one for students, since a principal goal of the course was fostering problem-based learning. The Xchanges project required students to use what Paretti (2006) describes as the “higher level analytical skills needed to connect…content and format with the needs of specific audiences seeking to accomplish specific tasks” (p. 189). It also provided students with the opportunity to practice authenticity and employ “rhetorical sophistication” that many communication assignments lack. Iterations at other institutions might similarly afford students the opportunity to sophisticatedly respond to a client’s needs while learning process-based strategies for management and adaptation.

Through the technological decisions students were required to make and the challenges presented by the production of the ejournal, students in “Publications Management” achieved the level of “critical reflection on the rhetorical and social dimensions of technology” Turnley (2007) calls for (p. 103). Through exposure to professional editors students strengthened social literacy skills, reaping the benefits that Cook outlines of learning more about organizational culture and identifying similarities and differences with professionals (p. 12-13). In short, all of the planning, marketing, editing, managing, and production activities undertaken by the student teams in the “Publications Management” course reinforced key literacies students will need to successfully transition to the professional roles they will play in the future. The integration of Xchanges-journal production into this course has enabled us to further our Technical Communication program’s goals as well as satisfy the overall goal articulated repeatedly by our field’s educators and practitioners of helping students gain practical experience and successfully transition to professional settings.


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About the Authors

Julianne Newmark is an associate professor of English at New Mexico Tech, where she serves as writing program coordinator. She teaches courses in the writing program, the technical communication major, and the literature minor. She is the founding editor of the Xchanges journal. Contact: jnewmark@nmt.edu.

Julie Dyke Ford is an associate professor of technical communication and mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech. Her research interests include technical communication pedagogy and engineering communication. Contact: jford@nmt.edu.

Manuscript received 21 March 2011; revised 30 May 2012; accepted 15 June 2012.