60.1, February 2013

Current State of U.S. Undergraduate Degree Programs in Technical and Professional Communication

Lisa Meloncon and Sally Henschel

Abstract

Purpose: This paper updates Harner & Rich’s 2005 survey of undergraduate degree programs in technical and professional communication (TPC) in the U.S. and provides information about the current number of degree programs, locations of degrees programs, and curricula, both required and elective.

Method: We used course catalogs to analyze the curricula of 65 programs that offer majors in TPC. We employed qualitative inquiry methods based primarily on textual analysis and the deployment of codes to assign a summative attribute for course types.

Results: We located 185 undergraduate programs in TPC in the U.S. that offer majors, concentrations, emphases, tracks, and specialization, a 131% increase from the 2005 study, and restricted our analysis to 65 programs that offered majors in TPC. Degree programs no longer are predominately housed in English departments. The most significant gain is to the number of programs housed in Technical Communication Programs. The majority of programs require 30-36 hours of credit. A set of “core courses” are emerging in the field-wide curricula. There is a significant increase in the number of programs requiring document/information design, Web, internship, and capstone courses. In contrast, few require literature courses.

Conclusion:Curricular data show an emerging consensus on the core courses and elective courses within undergraduate curricula. In addition, for the first time, the field has data to assess trends over time.

Keywords: undergraduate degree programs, core courses, trends in U.S. curricula

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Affords hiring managers a better understanding of what it means to have a degree in TPC
  • Provides a better understanding of curricular practices and trends in U.S. undergraduate degree programs
  • Offers programs opportunities to collaborate with other programs and practitioners in updating or revising curricula

Introduction

In 2005, Harner and Rich completed an overview of 80 undergraduate Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) programs that offered majors, minors, concentrations, emphases, tracks and specialization. Since that time, we have identified 185 similar programs, an increase of 131%. However, scholarship about undergraduate degree programs has not kept pace. Other than an attention to assessment (Allen & Hundleby, 2010; Salvo & Ren, 2007; Thomas & McShane, 2007; and Yu, 2008), TPC scholars have not examined undergraduate curricula. This growth, combined with the dearth of scholarship, makes the timing right for an updated overview of undergraduate degree programs in the United States. We begin our report on the current state of undergraduate degree programs with a description of the study’s methodology, and then provide answers to the following questions:

1. How many undergraduate degree programs offer a major in technical and professional communication?

2. What is the breakdown of majors by degree type (that is, BA vs. BS)?

3. Where are those degree programs administratively located?

4. What are the names of undergraduate degree programs?

5. What are the course credit hour requirements of undergraduate degree programs?

6. What courses are TPC programs requiring their students to take and what elective courses are being offered to students?

7. How do our findings compare with Harner and Rich’s (2005) study?

We end by discussing the study’s findings and by including questions for the field to consider regarding growth and sustainability of TPC undergraduate degree programs.

Study Methods

The data presented here are parts of a much larger study of U.S. Programs in TPC. The study method followed the same process as previously described (Meloncon, 2009; Meloncon 2012) and included four stages: gathering programs and requirements, verifying programs, compiling courses, and coding the courses.

Gathering Programs and Requirements

We compiled a working list of U.S. institutions by combining the schools listed on the ATTW Web site, CPTSC Web site, and STC academic database; searching online using phrases such as “degrees in technical writing” (and various combinations of degree types, program names, and order) and scrolling through approximately ten pages of results to catch additional programs; cross-checking information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System listing of degrees awarded; following list-serv discussions that pertained to programmatic and curricular questions; and combing through conference proceedings for mentions of new programs and changes to existing programs.

With the final working list of TPC programs, we gathered the most basic information about the degree such as its type (that is, BA/BS), the institutional entity that administers the degree, and the degree name. For degree requirements, we followed previous research (see Harner and Rich, 2005; Meloncon, 2009 & 2012) and gathered information on hours to degree and required and elective courses, including required courses outside of the department. We also gathered information about online degree programs, since online education continues to be a topic of conversation within TPC and all of higher education. The final piece of degree requirements data we collected was whether the institution required courses outside of the department. This particular component arose from the data as it was entered and was not initially something we were looking to include.

Using each institution’s catalog or bulletin that was posted online, we collected data that represent either academic year 2010-2011 or 2011-2012. We saved the catalog or bulletin that was the most recent at the time of data collection (verified in December of 2011), and used this saved copy for data analysis. As the official declaration of an institution’s programs and curricula, the catalog serves as a quasi-legal contract between the institution and a student. As a public record, the catalog verifies and supports the legitimacy of the academic enterprise: if TPC appears in the catalog, it is a real category. Additionally, catalogs are a distinct genre with similar characteristics that make finding and comparing data easier (Frank, Wong, Myers, & Ramirez, 2000). As an institutional artifact, the catalog often is archived either electronically or in the institution’s special collections. Having these long-term records means our findings are based on documents that are not transient (for example, department Web sites or program checklists) and our research method is fully replicable (going forward and backward).

Verifying Programs

Unlike previous studies where the author first coded and then inter-rated the data (Meloncon, 2009 and 2012), in this study, each author independently verified that the degree program was a TPC program. At the program verification stage, our method is closely aligned to previous curricular work, especially the Academic Programs in Technical Communication series (Geonetta, Allen, Curtis, & Staples, 1993; Kelley, Masse, Pearsall, & Sullivan, 1985; Pearsall & Sullivan, 1976; and Pearsall, Sullivan, & McDowell, 1981) and the follow-up to these four texts, Keene’s (1997) Education in Scientific and Technical Communication: Academic Programs that Work. The primary criterion in all five of these works, as well as our own, is that the institution had to offer a TPC degree in a general sense (Keene, 1997, pp. xi-xiv). This means that the degree program includes a wide range of courses that would be recognized as courses appropriate for a TPC degree, for example, courses in technical writing, courses that integrate technologies used in the profession, and courses focused on genres common in the workplace. In the case of disagreement or when questions were raised, the authors worked together until an agreement was reached.

Schools that offered general writings studies programs were excluded from this study. For example, several schools have degrees in writing and rhetoric that they advertise as preparing students for careers in technical writing, but an examination of their curricula shows the degrees are, as the name implies, in writing and rhetoric, not TPC. Other institutions that were excluded were those with named degrees in “professional writing” but a curricular focus in journalism or creative writing, or programs that include only a few TPC courses. In addition, we did not include schools that offer specialized writing degrees that fall within the larger category of technical communication. For instance, we did not include degrees such as those offered in science writing. While this type of writing is clearly technical communication, our analysis, as with previous curricular research, is on TPC degree programs in the broadest sense.

Once we had a final, verified list of 185 undergraduate degree programs in TPC, we made one of our most important decisions. Harner and Rich (2005) reported curricular information on 80 “programs” and used program to include “majors, minors, concentrations, emphases, tracks, and specializations” (p. 210). As a result of the field’s growth, and/or our method of data collection, we have data that enable greater precision in the analysis of undergraduate degree programs. Thus, we split the data set into two groups: institutions that offer a TPC degree (n=65) and institutions that offer a degree with an emphasis, track, or specialization in TPC (n=120). The findings reported below are confined to the 65 undergraduate degrees in TPC.

Compiling Courses

Again, replicating the compiling and coding method used by Meloncon (2012), our next step was to compile all the courses offered. Courses were divided into two main categories: required and elective. Required courses, as the name implies, include those listed in the catalog as required to complete the degree. The required course listing is comprehensive. The elective course category includes courses listed as possible electives or encompasses groups of courses from which students are asked to choose. The way programs address electives varies: At one end of the spectrum are programs that prescribe all courses to be taken in the major (that is, there are no electives). In the middle are programs that offer relatively few TPC courses and/or provide a comprehensive list of electives, which made data collection comparatively simple. At the far end were large programs with a plethora of electives, which required that we examine the entire list of course offerings from the university catalog and agree on the inclusion and coding of courses that we had not previously identified under required courses. Thus, the elective category is representative of courses across the field, but it is not comprehensive.

Coding Courses

In the final step, we coded the courses. The process of turning course titles into quantifiable data involved coding each course by assigning it a general category. We used previous scholarship to establish a baseline for general coding categories (Harner & Rich, 2005 and Meloncon, 2009). General coding categories (see Table 1 in Results section) are descriptive categories that capture the main topic or goal of the course. We wanted codes that accurately classified the type of courses offered, while limiting the number of codes to generate meaningful data. We relied on course titles and accompanying course descriptions to assign a course to a category. For example, many institutions offer an introductory course, but those courses are often named different things. Thus, a “foundations of technical writing” and an “introduction to professional and technical writing” were both coded intro. This enabled us to quantify the number of institutions that offered a particular course. In some instances to capture as much specific information as possible, we found it necessary to use a primary and a secondary code. For example, we wanted to capture the different types of genres being taught. Coding a course as genre captured the quantifiable importance of learning different genres. Adding a secondary code enabled us to be more specific as to the type of genre course being offered. For instance, a course titled “Grants and Proposals” was assigned the primary code of genre and the secondary code of proposals. We provide additional information on the coding of top or “core” courses in our study in the Results section below. After we agreed on our code categories, we coded the courses separately, discussed differences, and came to a consensus. Our entire process from validating the schools to the coding of courses was a form of “collaborative coding” that “provides a means through which levels of expertise may emerge through the process of discussion in relation to data” (Smagorinsky, 2008, p. 402).

Results

Overview of Degrees in TPC

Our research found 65 TPC degrees at 56 institutions, which are broken down as follows:

  • 34 Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • 31 Bachelor of Science (BS)

Nine institutions offer both BA and BS degree programs. Only three institutions offer fully online degrees.

Degree Location

Some scholars have argued “where a technical communication program is located within a university has profound impact on the nature of the program” (Davis, 2001, p. 19; c.f., Yeats & Thompson, 2010; Rentz, Debs, & Meloncon, 2010). The degree locations in Figure 1 reflect the name of the department or administrative structure that administers the degree. Previously, the term stand-alone or independent was used to demarcate that the degree was administered from a department or administrative structure that stood apart from English. With numerous degree programs now administered in a variety of departments and college-level offices, more specificity was needed in understanding location.

Figure 1. TPC Bachelor’s Degrees by Department or Administrative Location (n=65) Note: The plus sign (+) indicates the addition of another term in the degree name, for example, Technical Communication and Rhetoric.

Degree Names

Naming has had a long history within TPC. When performing the first analysis of degree programs and courses in TPC, Pearsall (1974) remarked, “Some 20 programs in Technical Communication (variously named) now exist” (p. 6). Since that time, naming has regularly popped up in the literature (Dobrin, 1983; Faber, 2002; Johnson 2007; Johnson 2009). Thus, we wanted to determine the “various names” used in TPC degree programs (see Figure 2 for an overview).

To visualize additional information about degree names, we show the percentage of programs that use Technical and/or Professional in their degree name, and the percentage that use Communication and/or Writing (see Figure 3). We found BS degrees are more likely than BA degrees to include the words Technical (45%) and/or Communication (81%) in their names, while BA degrees are more likely to include Professional (44%) and/or Writing (53%). In addition, there are four programs that use Rhetoric in the title of their degree, three of which are BAs.

Credit Requirements

Figure 2. TPC Bachelor’s Degree Names (n=65) Note: The plus sign (+) indicates the addition of another term in the degree name, for example, Professional Writing and Editing.
Figure 3. Technical and Professional (Left) and Writing and Communication (Right) Used in Degree Names (n=65)
Figure 4. Credit Hours Required for the TPC Major (n=65) Note: Quarter hours have been converted to semester hours.

Since all of the degrees are in TPC, we wanted to know how many credit hours were required to complete the major. In the United States, a credit hour is used as measurement for the amount of contact hours students should spend on a course. As a point of reference, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is usually converted as half (4 ECTS=2 US credit hours). See Figure 4. More programs require 30-36 hours than any other category, and over half (66%) of the programs fall into the range of 30 to 42 hours. BA degrees require a more consistent range of credit hours, with 83% requiring 30 to 42 credit hours, while 52% of BS degrees fall within this range.

Required and Elective Courses

Table 1 lists the required and elective courses for TPC degree programs. The percentages are based on the number of degree programs (n=65) that require the course or offer the course as an elective. In total, we examined and coded 636 required courses and 816 elective courses.

Table 1. List of Required and Elective Courses

General course category Required Elective
Advanced TPC 25% 12%
Basic 57% 26%
Capstone 57% 0%
Collaboration 9% 15%
Communication 17% 14%
Creative writing 5% 26%
Cultural 14% 38%
Document/information design 40% 29%
Editing 54% 18%
Ethics/law 20% 17%
Genre 40% 72%
Independent study 3% 20%
Intercultural/global 9% 18%
Internship 51% 32%
Introduction to the field of TPC 49% 0%
Journalism 15% 35%
Linguistics 29% 26%
Literature 6% 15%
Other 9% 23%
Persuasion/argument 14% 17%
Presentations/oral communication 25% 12%
Professional development 14% 3%
Project management 12% 6%
Publishing 3% 8%
Research methods 23% 15%
Rhetoric 32% 25%
Style/prose 6% 6%
Technology and tools 26% 26%
Theory 23% 26%
Topics 9% 48%
Usability 11% 8%
Video 6% 12%
Visual rhetoric 34% 28%
Web 45% 55%
Writing 31% 22%

Core Courses

Similar to Harner and Rich (2005), who identified the top five required and elective courses, we identified courses most often required by programs. We took the courses that were required by more than 40% of programs, and labeled these eight as our top or “core courses” (Meloncon, 2009), which are courses that suggest a commonality in U.S. curricula and indicate what courses TPC program administrators and faculty believe are necessary to earn a TPC degree. See Figure 5. In some cases, the general coding categories used to classify core courses are obvious (for example, editing), but because some are not as obvious, below we provide specific information about each core course code, and include representative course titles and descriptions from institutions’ catalogs.

Basic. Introductory courses to the practice of technical and professional writing and communication. In most cases, this course does double duty because it also is the “service course” for other departments. Our findings indicate 57% of programs require a basic course: 65% of BA programs and 48% of BS programs. Representative course titles and descriptions include the following:

Figure 5. Core Courses for Undergraduate TPC Degree Programs

 

 

  • Technical Communication: Theories, principles, and processes of effective written communication of technical information. Attention to major strategies for analyzing and adapting to audiences in various communication situations and composing technical discourse including organizing visual and verbal information. Extensive practice in many areas of technical communication, including instructions and procedures, proposals and reports, website analysis and design and individual and team presentations. (Iowa State University, 2011, n.p.)
  • Technical Writing: Theory and application of technical writing principles, culminating in the preparation of a research paper. Topics discussed include: definitions, instructions, processes, computer graphics and research strategies. Web site evaluation and research, along with writing for the Web, are covered. Course concludes with an oral presentation of research paper findings. (Madonna University, 2011, n.p.)

Capstone. Courses which provide students the opportunity to bring together all their TPC courses into a singular cumulative experience. Usually required in the final term of the degree program, the cumulative experience offers another and more comprehensive way to assess students’ competency of the program’s curriculum through a demonstration of the knowledge and multiple skills acquired throughout their course of study. The most common forms this requirement takes are either a portfolio of work or a course that includes a portfolio of work or a project. Because these courses usually are titled “Capstone,” we coded all cumulative experiences as such. A capstone is required by 57% of programs: 62% of BA degree programs and 52% of BS degree programs. Example course descriptions include the following:

  • Senior Portfolio: Professional Writing: Students work with a faculty mentor to revise and complete a portfolio of original professional writing. This portfolio is then presented to English faculty and other students. (Carlow University, 2011, p. 95)
  • Capstone: Development of a professional portfolio, creation of a culminating document, and synthesis of undergraduate experience. (Arizona State University, 2011, n.p.)

Editing. A general category for courses that focus on editing principles and practices. This category was the simplest to identify and code. An editing course is required by 54% of programs: 56% of BA programs and 52% of BS programs. Examples of course descriptions include the following:

  • The Editorial Process: The process of editing from typescript through final proof. (Pennsylvania State University Berks, 2011, n.p.)
  • Editing: Developing and applying principles of editing. Includes comprehensive editing (content, organization, forms, style, and visual design); sentence-level editing (clarity and conciseness); copyediting for correctness (grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and consistency); and preparing documents for publication. (Saginaw Valley State University, 2011, n.p.)

Internships. Courses that allow students to gain valuable work experience and apply what they are learning in the classroom in a working environment. Internships are required by roughly half, 51%, of all programs: 44% of BA programs and 58% of BS programs. The majority of degree programs award 3 credits hours for an internship completion. Following are sample internship course descriptions:

 

  • Internship in Technical and Scientific Communication: Work-world experience within industry, government or the university in technical or scientific communication. Designed to allow students to incorporate field experience with the course work through internships in government, business, industry or education where they can observe communication processes and apply effective written, interpersonal, and public communication skills. (James Madison University, 2011, n.p.)
  • Internship: Practical experience in writing or literary study. Prior application required. Prereq: submission of an academic portfolio, approved by the academic advisor. (Dakota State University, 2011, p. 221)

Intro. Courses that are an introduction to the field of TPC. Unlike the basic course, the intro course establishes the history and theories of the field, and then prepares students to produce or create professional documents. An intro course is required by 49% of programs: 50% of BA programs and 48% of BS programs. Example course descriptions include the following:

  • Introduction to Professional Writing: Basic principles of rhetoric and composition applied to professional writing. Page design, definition of the field, research tools and practices, genres and convention, and professional style. (Michigan State University, 2011, n.p.)
  • Introduction to Professional and Technical Writing: An introduction to the Rhetoric and Writing major and professional and technical writing theory and practice. (University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2011, p. 97)

Web. An overarching term for courses that focus on providing students a background in creating content. We found 45% of programs required some type of web course: 41% of BA programs and 45% of BS programs. This category was the most difficult to analyze because of the many ways that the courses—and content—are approached. We created secondary codes to help classify these differences: production, write, multi-media, and content management.

In a Web/production course (63% of Web courses, required by 31% of programs), the emphasis is on the tools and technologies of content production. A Web/write course (21% of Web courses, required by 14% of programs) is a survey of practices or trends of “cybertext” or “writing in electronic spaces.” The focus is more on theory, less on production tools (that is, software and languages). A Web/multi-media course (9% of Web courses, required by 6% of programs) is similar to a Web/write course in its emphasis on theory; however, its focus is providing an introduction or overview of new and/or multi-media trends and theory. Students might be required to create online content; however, from the course description, such activity does not appear to be the primary focus of the class. The fourth category for Web courses is Web/content management. Similar to Web/production courses, Web/content management courses (7% of Web courses, required by 5% of programs) emphasize the use of tools and technologies; however, in these courses the focus is content creation and reassembly—either print or online—and knowledge management. Following are sample course descriptions from each type of Web course:

  • Web/production. Introduction to Web Design and Management: Presupposing only that students know how to use a Web browser, this course teaches beginning HTML, basic page layout and design principles, basic multimedia, and the structures of websites and also introduces students to WYSIWYG Web page generation software and FTP software. (Illinois Institute of Technology, 2011, n. p.). [Note that while management is in the title of the course, we did not classify this course as content management/web.]
  • Web/write. Writing for the Web: An introduction to writing for the web, with emphasis on structure, tone, voice, usability and navigation. (University of Houston Downtown, 2011, p. 153)
  • Web/multi-media. New Media Design I: Provides a survey of new media theory, applications, practices, and design principles. Students explore current communication technologies and trends. (Montana Tech, 2011 p. 224)
  • Web/content management. Writing for Content Management: Concepts and practices of content management systems for the creation and production of technical communication both in print and online. Includes document workflow, globalization and translation of content for assembly of relevant document. Uses case studies and client-based projects. (University of Wisconsin Stout, 2011, n.p.)

While we assigned secondary codes to the courses based on the general description of the course, we realize there is considerable overlap in course content. For example, it would be highly unlikely that a course in content management would exclude information about writing or other production oriented aspects, such as the place of the navigation bar. The broad category of Web, however, does document the importance of both the “front-end” and “back-end” work of TPC.

Document Design. Courses that focus on designing documents and information. These courses are generally a mix of theories of design principles and hands-on practice in creating different types of documents. Document design courses were required by 40% of programs: 32% of BA and 35% of BS programs. Sample course descriptions follow:

  • Computer-aided Publishing: The development of the ability to write and design documents using electronic publishing technologies. Student will receive instruction in writing, graphics, and publishing software and will write, design, produce, and critique a number of publications. (Purdue University, 2011, n.p.)
  • Desktop Publishing for Professional Writers: Graphic design principles and process. Strategies for integrating text and graphics. Workshop teaches desktop publishing program. Required laboratory. (San Francisco State University, 2011, n.p.)

Genre. Courses that focus on specific TPC genres. One or more genre courses are required by 40% of degree programs: 35% of BA and 39% of BS programs. As with Web Courses, we sub-categorized genre courses: primary genre (67% of all genre courses, required by 28% of programs), specialized-other genre (21% of all genre courses, required by 12% of programs), and specialized-technical genre (12% of all genre courses, required by 8% of programs). Primary genre courses include instructions, proposals/grants, and reports. Specialized-other genres are business oriented (for example, public relations, government, or marketing). Specialized-technical genres courses generally are focused on a specific type of writing, such as medical or environmental writing. Following are sample course descriptions for the primary and sub-category genre courses:

  • Primary genre, instructions. Documentation Procedures: Students learn to write instructions and explain processes in professional document. They review style, editing, desktop publishing skills, and the overarching importance of attention to purpose, audience, and task. (Farmingdale State College, 2011, n. p.)
  • Primary genre, reports and proposals. Professional Reports and Proposals. Preparation of professional and academic reports and publications through the use of communication analysis. (Lubbock Christian University, 2011, p. 163)
  • Specialized-other genre, marketing. Technical Marketing Communication: Students will learn to create marketing materials for the technical industry from design to completion. (Cedarville University, 2011, p. 283)
  • Specialized-technical genre, environmental. Writing for the Environmental Industry: This course presents communication models and techniques for reporting industrial and governmental information related to the environment for specialized and general audiences. The course includes discussions of ethical concerns related to environmental issues, analyzing the context of an environmental message for optimum reception, practicing different discourse strategies, and exploring readability for different audience levels. Students will examine the issue of credibility of statistical material, presented both in text and in graphic format. Researching the CFR database for specific regulations will be taught, with a secondary goal of revising these regulations for the targeted audience. (Metropolitan State College of Denver, 2011, n.p.)

In Figure 6 we summarize the breakdown of required core courses by degree type.

Figure 6. Distribution of Core Courses by Type of Degree (n=65)
Figure 7. Hours Required Outside of the Home Department (n=38)

Required Courses Outside the Home Department

Requiring courses outside of the home department would suggest that programs are concerned with students obtaining a particular subject matter expertise in another area of study. We found 58% of programs require courses outside of the department either as a minor, subject matter focus, professional expertise, or similar term. Figure 7 illustrates the number of required hours outside the major for these programs. Of the degree programs that require hours outside the home department, 42% are BAs (47% of BA degrees in the study) and 55% are BSs (71% of the BS degrees in the study).

Trends in Undergraduate Curricula

In the discussion that follows, we compare our data, where appropriate, to that of Harner and Rich (2005). We understand that this comparison is not completely accurate or precise because, as we already have noted, there is a difference in the types of programs being compared. However, together the two studies afford a unique opportunity in the curricular history of TPC to show trends in the TPC undergraduate curricula. Even though TPC has historically gathered curricular data, the field has never had data precise and comprehensive enough to point to curricular trends. Harner and Rich’s study is based on data gathered in 2003. Thus, when their results are viewed next to the current data, the field of TPC can get a sense of what has occurred in the curricula from 2003 to 2011, a period of tremendous technological and communication change.

Degree Location and Distribution of BA and BS Degrees. In order visually to compare Harner and Rich’s (2005) findings with ours, we combined a few of our categories before placing the two data sets into a graph. For example, from our study, we grouped English, English +, and Language and Literature under the category English Areas. We then compared program location and distribution of degree by type.

Harner and Rich found the majority of programs were housed in English departments (60%). By combining degree programs housed in English, English +, and Language and Literature, we found 34% of degree programs are housed in the equivalent of Harner and Rich’s “English” category. The most significant gain (from 9% to 20%) is in the number of programs housed in Technical Communication Programs, which included one Professional Communication department, and the new category of Writing departments. Another increase (from 6% to 11%) was in the number of programs we classified as Other, which included those in Harner and Rich’s General Studies and Engineering categories. We also show slightly fewer programs housed in Communication departments. These findings reflect the on-going changes in the location and naming of programs.

Trends in Required and Elective Courses. Table 2 presents Harner and Rich’s required and elective courses next to our study’s required and elective courses. Because our study only included programs that offered a degree, not a minor or emphasis, this might account for the large number of course categories (15) that appear for the first time in our study. This latter issue also can be potentially explained by the growing maturity of the field and the need to provide a vast array of elective possibilities that match the interests of faculty and students, as well as changes in the professional field. The differences in course coding categories also can be attributed to differences in data collection. However inelegant the data comparisons, Table 2 (along with Table 3 in the following section) does provide the field its first opportunity to compare curricula over time and to highlight trends and changes. This is particularly important as the data highlight the basic skills (such as editing, writing, and a technological proficiency) that remain essential to technical communication, while also pointing to changes within the field (such as the growing emphasis on the visual).

Figure 8. Trend of Degree Type, BA/BS, by Administrative Location from Harner & Rich (2005) to Present

“Top” Compared to “Core” Courses: Even though Harner and Rich (2005) did not use the phrase “core courses,” they did identify a set of courses that appeared most frequently in their data sets (p. 211 and p. 213). Historically, scholars consistently have praised the diversity of the field (for example, Keene, 1997; Killingsworth, 1999; Yeats & Thompson, 2010), perhaps this is due to an over-riding concern to neither constrain the field’s ability to adapt and grow nor limit its interdisciplinary nature. From this examination of curricula of TPC degrees, we note that TPC curricula are more defined than previous research has identified. Table 3 shows the top courses from Harner and Rich’s study compared to our core courses.

Table 2. Comparison of Required and Elective Courses 2005 to 2011

Course Required Elective
2005 2011 2005 2011
Advanced TPC 34% 25% 18% 12%
Basic/ TC 78% 57% 14% 26%
Capstone 14% 57% 1% 0%
Collaboration n/a 9% n/a 15%
Corporate culture 3% n/a 1% n/a
Communication n/a 17% n/a 14%
Creative writing n/a 5% n/a 26%
Cultural n/a 14% n/a 38%
Document/information design 4% 40% 10% 29%
Editing 52%* 54% 14%* 18%
Ethics/law 3% 20% 4% 17%
Genre 32%* 40% 18%* 72%
Independent study n/a 3% n/a 20%
Interactive media 8% n/a 10% n/a
Intercultural/global 1% 9% 5% 18%
Internship 39% 51% 36% 32%
Introduction to the field of TPC n/a 49% n/a 0%
Journalism 13% 15% 6% 35%
Linguistics n/a 29% n/a 26%
Literature see below 6% see below 15%
Online information 11% n/a 3% n/a
Other n/a 9% n/a 23%
Persuasion/argument n/a 14% n/a 17%
Portfolio 10% n/a 1% n/a
Presentations/oral communicatrion n/a 25% n/a 12%
Professional development n/a 14% n/a 3%
Project management 8% 12% 3% 6%
Proofreading 1% n/a 0% n/a
Publishing 5% 3% 2% 8%
Research methods 18%* 23% 5%* 15%
Rhetoric n/a 32% n/a 25%
Style/prose 13% 6% 5% 6%
Technology and tools 20% 26% 5% 26%
Theory n/a 23% n/a 26%
Topics n/a 9% n/a 48%
Usability 1% 11% 10% 8%
Video n/a 6% n/a 12%
Visual rhetoric 29%* 34% 13%* 28%
Web 9% 45% 18% 55%
Writing n/a 31% n/a 22%

* indicates combined course categories

While all of the courses that appeared at the top in Harner and Rich’s survey appear in our study, there are some notable similarities and differences. We believe the technical communication course identified in their study (required of 78% of programs) is most likely the basic course in our study (required of 57% programs). However, Harner and Rich might have included in this category some of the courses we identified as intro, or introduction to TPC. The decrease in the percentage representation also could be attributed to the diversity of recent course offerings and to the fact that many of the basic skills covered in this course could be divided and completed in other courses. In the 2005 study, advanced technical communication was required by 34% of degree programs, and currently is required of only 25% of degree programs. This decrease might be attributed to the adoption of specific course titles and descriptions as the field has matured over the last several years. For example, as program offerings increased, an advanced technical communication course could have evolved into one titled “Online Documentation.”

Editing and internships are the most similar in nature between the two studies in description or coding, but not necessarily in rankings. The high occurrence of editing in both studies (52% and 54%) can be attributed to the ongoing importance of editing to the work of technical communication, which is illustrated through its inclusion in job ads.

When compared to Harner and Rich’s findings, the number of programs requiring internships has risen from 39% to 51%, and the number of programs that do not specify anything about internships has decreased (from 25% to 17%). See Figure 9. The large increase for internships may be a result of programs understanding the importance of workplace experience for students and/or might be attributed to the inclusion in our study of only programs that offer a major (that is, not a minor or emphasis).

In an attempt to compare findings on genre courses, we combined Harner and Rich’s totals for advanced technical reports, instructional design, manuals, technical marketing communication, and technical reports into a single genre category. After doing so, we show genre courses were required by 32% of degree programs in their study as compared to 40% in 2011. However, again, this comparison might not be accurate. Our figures indicate how many programs require one or more genre courses: we identified 26 programs (40%) that required one or more genre courses. In contrast, by combining the totals from Harner and Rich’s study, we might be duplicating program representation (that is, one program could be requiring several of the courses represented).

Table 3. Comparison of Required Top or Core Courses 2005 to 2011

2005 2011
Course % (n=80) Course % (n=65)
Technical communication 78 Basic 57
Editing* 52 Capstone 57
Internship 39 Editing 54
Advanced technical communication 34 Internship 51
Genre** 32 Introduction to TPC 49
Visual communication 29 Web 45
Production tools 20 Doc/info design 40
Genre 40

* Combined editing for publication and technical editing.

**Combined reports, manuals, instructional design, marketing communication into a single genre category to match the methodology of 2011.

 

 

Figure 9. Comparison of Internship Requirements from 2005 to 2011

 

 

While document design was not a general course category that appeared in Harner and Rich’s top five, visual communication was (required by 29% of programs). The courses included under this category could be equivalent to some of those we coded as visual rhetoric (required by 34% of programs in 2011) or they might have been coded in our study under document design. In either case, the requirement for courses in designing the visual aspects of technical communication has increased in importance in the last several years as witnessed by several categories that have an emphasis on visual communication (for example, the requirement by programs for document/information design grew from 4% to 40%).

Harner and Rich’s category production tools (required by 20%) is not as easy to compare with the current data: production tools could easily be equated with the technology and tools category of our study, or it could include the tools for desktop publishing (document/information design) or Web production. Consequently, TPC’s current recognition that tools are important is reflected in multiple categories: technology and tools (required by 26% of programs, offered as an elective in 26%), document/information design (required by 40% of programs, offered as an elective in 29%), Web/production (required by 31% of programs, offered as an elective in 32%), and Web/content management (required by 5% of programs, offered as an elective in 6%).

Courses not represented in the top required courses by Harner and Rich, but present as core courses in 2011 are introduction to TPC, capstone, document design (discussed above), and Web. We found ourselves pleasantly surprised at the number of programs that offer an introductory course designed to introduce students to the field of TPC. It was heartening to see a concerted effort by programs to begin to establish a core set of scholarship that would “define” the field for students encountering it for the first time. The appearance of this course as a requirement indicates a further maturation of TPC as a distinct field.

When compared to Harner and Rich’s study, in which 14% of programs required a capstone, our data indicate a significant growth in the number of programs that require a capstone (required by 57% of programs). In addition, Harner and Rich showed a portfolio was required by 10% of programs and offered as an elective by 1%. We were hesitant to add these figures as there might be some overlap between programs; however, even if there were not, the capstone and portfolio data combined would indicate 24% of programs in the 2005 study required what we coded as a capstone, that is, 57% in 2011. This increase can be attributed to the growing assessment culture within higher education or it might point to the restriction of our study to degree programs (that is, not including minors or tracks).

In the 2005 study, Web courses were required by 9% of programs and offered as an elective by18%. In addition, interactive media was required by 8% and offered as an elective by 10%, and courses in online information were required by 11% and offered as an elective by 3%. The interactive media category is parallel to our coded course Web/multi-media, and online information could overlap with any of our coded Web categories. We did not combine these findings under the general category Web for comparison purposes as, again, it is not clear how many programs were offering these various courses (that is, between 8-11% of programs were requiring one or more of these courses, but were 28% requiring one?). We do know, however, that in 2011, Web courses were required by 45% of programs and offered as electives by 55%. The jump in the document/information design and Web categories probably is not surprising considering the growing reliance on visual communication and Web delivery to the work of technical communication.

Electives. Harner and Rich had 29 course categories compared to the 35 in the present study. Our need to create additional course categories and/or adjust the original categories arose from the growing number of specialized courses across the field, which in turn is a result of the field’s better understanding of what curriculum is needed to prepare students. In 2005, the internship was the most popular elective, offered by 36% of degree programs. The second most popular elective course offerings were Web design, advanced technical communication, and genre courses combined, each offered by approximately 18% of programs (p. 213). By 2011, a number of elective courses had risen in popularity. In addition to genre (offered by 72% of programs) and Web courses (offered by 55%), we identified a great number of topics courses. Topics courses (for example, “Special Topics,” “Topics in Online Publication,” and “Topics in Technical Communication”) are offered by 48% of programs and can be employed to address the changing curricular needs of the field.

Program Location’s Influence on Curricula. Harner and Rich found the location of the program influenced the number and kinds of courses offered (p. 214). They found that English and Humanities departments required “the highest number of advanced literature” courses (p. 214). In their study, 61% of programs were housed in English, and they required up to 8 literature courses (p. 215). In our study, literature courses are required by 6% of the programs, much lower than the previous numbers. Of the 4 programs that require a literature course, 3 are housed in English departments. Part of these findings could be attributed to the lower number of degrees being awarded out of English and Language and Literature departments, and part to the field’s insistence on requiring courses more directly related and relevant to a TPC degree. One of the hallmarks of studying literature is to expose students to a variety of perspectives and views, and while TPC degree programs may not require literature courses, they offer them as electives (15%). In addition, they offer a robust and diverse set of course offerings we coded culture (required by 14% of programs, and an elective in 38%), which included courses that require students to read, analyze, and critique work on the cultural implications of technology on society.

A second difference is that English and Language and Literature departments require more rhetoric and advanced writing courses, while Technical Communication departments require more design and visual-centered production courses. This difference could be attributed to the backgrounds and technical skills of the faculty. Technical Communication departments might have more faculty who can teach design and visual centered courses, while English and Language and Literature departments might have more faculty interested in teaching courses in advanced writing and rhetoric.

Other then these differences, we did not find a strong correlation between the department location and other areas of the curricula, that is, English and Language and Literature departments do not require substantially different courses than Technical Communication departments.

Discussion

Degree Type

One of the future research questions that Harner and Rich posed was “how do names of programs differ by location within the institution and type of degree?” All of the degrees named Professional Writing or Professional + are awarded out of English, Language and Literature, Humanities, or Writing departments. Over half (54%) of the degrees named using Technical are awarded out of Technical Communication/+ departments, with the remaining are awarded out of Humanities departments (17%), Writing departments (11%), and English departments (17%). The only substantial conclusion about names of degrees and locations is that English and related departments prefer the term Professional. A stronger correlation of names occurs in the type of degree.

While Farkas (2004, as qtd. in Harner & Rich, 2005, p. 215) believes that “the BS reflects a significant amount of coursework pertaining to science and technology,” our results do not support this assertion. Other than courses required outside of the home department, overall we found no significant difference in program requirements and curricula between the BS and BA degrees (refer to Figure 6). Even though BS degrees required more outside courses, the difference was not substantial enough to justify the “significant amount of coursework” championed by Farkas. This finding when read against Farkas’ assertion raises questions for the field. Should there be a difference between a BA and BS degree? If so, what should those differences be? This finding also raises the question about employers’ perceptions of the BA/BS, which also was a concern of Harner and Rich. What is the importance of the name of the degree, especially to stakeholders outside of the university? Do employers favor one type of degree over another? Additional research is needed in this area.

Courses Not Highly Represented

While not a direct criticism of programs, the low number of required courses in essential aspects of technical communication also warrants additional discussion and research, for example, research methods (23%), ethics (20%), project management (12%), usability (11%), intercultural communication (9%), and collaboration (9%). These areas are vital, even if covered through tight integration in a variety of courses. The problem with a study of this nature is that such integration is not visible through a textual analysis of course descriptions. For example, Harner and Rich’s course category corporate culture did not appear in our study. Corporate culture could be represented in project management, ethics, collaboration (all courses we coded specialized-other genre), or found in descriptions of other courses. While knowledge of business operations and culture has been reported as lacking for graduates of TPC programs (Whiteside, 2003; Wilson & Ford, 2003), our data provide limited information on how degree programs are dealing with this lack, which appears to be problematic. How might programs better equip students with information on business culture and practices? If this information is being integrated into programs, how is it accomplished? These are areas in need of additional research.

What Occurs in the Classroom?

The field needs a better understanding of what occurs in required and elective courses. For example, take collaboration: what does collaboration look like in our courses? How is collaboration discussed in the multiple courses that include group projects? What do we mean when we incorporate and highlight collaboration in our classrooms? What theories or fields are we drawing from to teach collaboration? Are we teaching with outcomes that make sense for the workplace? We have few doubts faculty include collaborative components in courses, but the field knows very little about the answers to the questions raised here. These sorts of probing and in-depth questions are necessary to broaden and deepen the field’s understanding of the content of curricula.

We found interesting the large number of programs that required courses outside of the department. This requirement suggests that TPC programs take seriously the need for students to have additional technical skills or to obtain additional subject matter expertise. Usually, this type of requirement only can be stipulated for degree programs (rather than for certificate programs or minors). However, little is known about these requirements. In many cases, the information in the course catalogs was not descriptive. What types of courses outside of the department are students taking? Are they taking courses in one general area to gain expertise or are they taking courses in multiple areas?

In addition, Table 1 makes clear the popularity of topic courses, courses that emphasize the impact of technologies on culture (that is, coded cultural), and courses that focus on journalism and creative writing. Additional research is needed into what “topics” are being covered in topics courses, which are offered as electives by 48% of programs. More information is needed about the impact of technologies on both society and our curricula, as well as a better understanding of how these courses fit into the overall aims and objectives of TPC programs. And the large number of creative writing and journalism courses raises questions about what types of writing experiences are most beneficial for students in TPC.

As a form of experiential learning, internships provide students an opportunity to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to actual projects. However, as one of us is painfully aware, internship programs are notoriously difficult to manage and sustain. Thus, questions for the field include: What are best practices in managing internship programs? How do TPC program administrators handle common issues such as locating new internship sites? How can internship programs be expanded to match demand and stay sustainable in terms of high quality and management? Also, what are the best practices for starting an internship program? This latter question is raised because the field should be concerned that only roughly half (51%) of programs require an internship.

Additional research should focus on analyzing syllabi and talking with instructors to gain a better understanding of what happens in the classroom.

Theory Courses

A course category that did not appear in Harner and Rich’s (2005) study but did in ours was theory. Courses coded theory include a variety of courses in communication theories; in contrast, those coded rhetoric specify in the course title or description an emphasis on rhetorical theory. Rhetoric courses are required by 32% of programs and offered as an elective by another 25%. Theory courses are required by 23% programs and offered as an elective by 26%. A focus on theory, be it rhetorical or other, at the undergraduate level is often a subject of criticism, one that warrants discussion by TPC program administrators and faculty. In the case of “rhetorical theory,” in all its many guises, the question becomes should “rhetoric” be the predominate theory in TPC? Included in such discussions should be the necessity to make clear connections and distinctions between courses in theory and those with focus on practice or application, an observation we discuss in greater detail below.

Differentiating Course Titles

When we were coding courses, a question arose as to how the field differentiates course titles. For example, one set of courses that was difficult to differentiate included courses in the design of print documents and those in the design of information or content (for example, text, visuals, or video) for multiple outputs and/or for reassembly. “Document Design” is becoming an antiquated, albeit still popular, course title. Even though “Information Design” is used by only a few programs (the term is used in two course titles coded document design and two courses coded Web), that title, arguably, is more applicable a description for courses in which the design of text, content, information, and/or graphics—for both print and online delivery—is the focus.

Similarly, the general course categories Web and visual rhetoric warrant additional research. Courses broadly coded Web include an array of approaches to the creation of online content: with a focus on theory, trends, software and languages, or content management. Courses titled “Visual Rhetoric” are as varied in content as those broadly coded Web. Courses coded visual rhetoric have as a focus on visual design and theory, and often are introductory courses. In this study, a course in which the course emphasis is software application and the creation and manipulation of graphic content (for example, “Digital Fundamentals and Imagery”) is coded technology and tools with a secondary code of visual. However, many courses with a technology focus do not necessarily address cutting-edge technologies. For example, only a handful of course descriptions specifically address XML, DITA, or single sourcing. Such findings raise additional questions about what technology and technical mean in the TPC curricula.

These differences in course content lead us to suggest that the field needs to discuss how we can better differentiate titles for courses with these different focus areas, perhaps by clearly marketing courses or using subtitle courses. For example, a theory course could be titled or catalogued as “Visual Rhetoric: Theory,” as compared to a production-oriented course that could be catalogued as “Visual Rhetoric: Specialized Technologies.”

Sustaining Program Quality

The questions that arise include asking in what ways can academics and practitioners collaborate to create, revise, and sustain academic programs? Further research needs to include the practitioners’ view on current practices and skills needed by new technical communicators. For example, in many cases, the capstone course requires students to complete a portfolio as part of the coursework, which raises the question, How do potential employers use electronic portfolios in the hiring process? What can programs do to ensure students are preparing professionally relevant portfolios? Moreover, how many programs are too many, and what considerations are being made to ensure qualified faculty are available to teach in degree programs (Meloncon, 2009 and Meloncon & England, 2011)?

Finally, the data and subsequent analysis suggest that some programs are closer aligned, perhaps have a clearer sense of purpose and outcomes, than others. Issues of programmatic quality and value have long been debated (Keene, 1997, p.183-196), and it is important that program administrators and faculty work toward creating and sustaining programs that meet local needs, but keep an eye toward field-wide trends and discourses. In this sense, field-wide encompasses both the academic and the professional fields, especially since the data and discussion also intervene in ongoing conversations about the professionalization of technical communication (Coppola, 2011 & 2012; Pringle & Williams, 2005) and what that means in preparing students for the new economy.

Looking Forward

TPC has experienced dramatic growth since the last overview and survey of U.S. undergraduate degree programs. From this examination of curricula of TPC degrees, particularly of core courses, we find TPC curricula are more defined than previous research has identified. The information presented in this report provides an update on the number of programs, the names and location of degrees, an overview of degree requirements, and an in-depth look at required and elective courses. The comparison between the findings from 2005 to 2011 provides the field the first detailed examination of trends over time. The subsequent discussion offers numerous questions and suggests additional areas for research. As faculty, we teach our students to be reflective, critical practitioners of technical communication. In a similar way, we hope these data and our analysis will encourage and challenge the field, academics and practitioners alike, to be reflective and critical of our curricular practices.

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About the Authors

Lisa Meloncon is an STC senior member and associate professor of technical and professional writing. Her main interest is in health, environmental health, and medical communication, and the impact of communication in delivering complex information to lay audiences. She also owns a technical communication consulting firm. Contact: meloncon@tek-ritr.com.

Sally Henschel is an STC senior member and serves as the Student Liaison for the STC Academic SIG. She is an assistant professor of English at Midwestern State University, where she teaches courses in digital rhetorics, online pedagogies, technical and professional communication, and information design. Contact: sally.henschel@mwsu.edu.

Manuscript received 19 May 2012; revised 5 January 2013; accepted 7 January 2013.