62.4, November 2015

Re-Thinking the Context of Technical Communication

By Kirk St.Amant, Guest Editor

It’s been said that the only thing that is constant is change. While this situation might be true, that does not mean we shouldn’t stop every now and then to assess where we are at a given point in time. This checking the current context is important for a number of reasons. First, it can help us determine where we’ve been and why. Second, it can help us better understand where we are now and how we got here. And finally – and perhaps, most importantly – it can help us plan where we might go next. It all sounds so simple. Yet, in an age of globalization, social media, and rapid economic change, such contexts checks can seem incredibly complex – if not overwhelming. After all, what do we focus on? How do we examine it? And how can topics we review now provide us with insights for the future?

These questions are not easy ones. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for answers. It all starts with the process of thinking about – or perhaps re-thinking – the current context we are in and, based on such reflection, where we wish to be in the future.

One way to start this process is to look for themes or concepts to reflect upon. Such themes might be relatively broad in nature (for example, the context of the current job market) or more narrow in scope (for example, using visuals to convey data about risk). The key to selecting such themes is the potential they have to influence approaches and perceptions in our overall field. By examining such themes, we – as technical communicators – can re-think our perspectives of where we are at this point in time – the current context – and consider how technical communication might evolve in the future.

This guest-edited issue represents just that – an initial look at current themes that could affect practices and perspectives in the years to come. These entries also represent members of the field who wish to examine such themes at different points in their respective technical communication careers. These authors include more established researchers in the field, researchers who are just beginning their careers, and graduate students starting their studies. What all of these individuals have in common is an interest in exploring the current context of technical communication to help us consider how the field might evolve in the future. The perspectives they provide offer us, as technical communicators, topics to consider as we re-think where the field currently is and reflect upon where it may be headed.

To begin, what does it mean to be a technical communicator in the current workplace context? What kinds of knowledge and skills should one have to succeed in the field today – and in the future? The first entry in this issue, the article, “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings” examines this idea. In it, Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer present an analysis of recent job postings to try to determine what employers are looking for when they hire a technical communicator. To do so, Brumberger and Lauer reviewed roughly 1,000 job ads posted for a 60-day period in 2013. Their goal was to determine how organizations perceive technical communicators – who they are and what they do – when staffing positions. The results of their research provide important insights on how we might re-think what the field means to employers in this current context. These results also have important implications for how we might re-think technical communication education in terms of preparing students for both the current job context as well as that of the future.

A second aspect to consider is the context in which we share information. Often, technical communicators design materials for a specific audience. But in an age of global online media, who is our audience, and what implications are there for how different populations interpret and react to information? Candice A. Welhausen examines these ideas in her entry “Visualizing a Non-Pandemic: Considerations for Communicating Public Health Risks in Intercultural Contexts.” In this piece, Welhausen reviews images the New York Times used to convey aspects of risk (specifically, the 2014 Ebola outbreak) to readers. In so doing, she notes that the global reach of modern media means seemingly local presentations of information can easily reach broader international audiences. Through her analysis of this particular case, Welhausen prompts us to re-think how we view ideas of audience – and approaches to sharing information with audiences – according to the continually evolving context created by the global spread of online media.

The technologies we use to interact greatly affect our understanding of audience and design. They also affect how we think about the context in which we research such topics. If new forms of media are continually changing the nature of our interactions, what approaches can we use to re-think the research we do to better understand audiences? This idea of researching audiences is central to Benjamin Lauren’s article “App Abroad and Mundane Encounters: Challenging How National Cultural Identity Heuristics are Used in Information Design.” In this piece, Lauren examines how technical communicators can use different applications – or apps – to conduct research on audiences from other cultures. By examining this topic, Lauren also looks at how different kinds of interactions – such as study abroad experiences – can create a new context for thinking about and conducting research on users. Lauren’s approach prompts us to re-think both the context in which we can do research and the technologies we might use to do so.

A final item to consider is how we think of collaboration in our current context. Many technical communication activities, for example, require individuals to work together to produce a final product. One such collaborative activity is that of generating translations – a process in which technical communicators and translators often collaborate to produce documentation in different languages. In such situations, perceptions of what translators do affect how technical communicators think about the translation process. In this final entry, Laura Gonzales and Rebecca Zantjer’s “Translation as User-Localization Practice,” asks readers to re-think approaches to conveying meaning across languages. In particular, Gonzales and Zantjer note that, sometimes, the process of communicating ideas in other languages involves both verbal and nonverbal factors. Their research, which looks at how bilinguals convey ideas in translation situations, offers insights that can prompt technical communicators to re-think their perceptions of the translation process (and collaborating with translators). These insights can also prompt technical communicators to re-think how they interact with international colleagues who might be working across languages to share information and exchange ideas.

The themes examined in these four entries appear to be deceptively simple. Each article, however, addresses a larger idea that affects how we think about the current context in which technical communication takes place. Likewise, each of these themes merits reflection – or re-thinking – to consider how we, as a field, might be affected by and thus approach them in the future. Current job postings, for example, provide a valuable context for re-thinking approaches to education to better prepare future generations to be successful members of the field. Similarly, examining the notion of audience in the current context of online global media can help us, as a field, re-think approaches to sharing information in ways that can facilitate international interactions. Re-thinking research in terms of the technologies used and the contexts in which research takes place can provide new approaches to usability and lead to designs that better suit the needs of specific groups of users. And re-thinking translation from a context that is more holistic (that is, verbal and visual) can help us collaborate in different ways in the context of the modern – and future – global economy.

That said, the purpose of this issue is not to be a definitive collection of articles on the most important issues currently facing technical communicators. Rather, these entries should be viewed as starting points to prompt technical communicators to re-think the current context in which we work. Ideally, these starting points can lead to larger discussions of what the current context of our field is and challenge us to re-think current practices with an eye to how the field might change in the future.

It is true; change is constant. Therefore, we need to continually re-think our current context to be better prepared for such change.

About the Guest Editor

StAmantKirk St.Amant is a professor of Technical and Professional Communication and of International Studies at East Carolina University. His areas of research include international/intercultural communication, international aspects of online education, and health and medical communication in global contexts. He is available at kirk.stamant@gmail.com.