67.1 February 2020

Research and Realities

By Sam Dragga, Editor

Each issue of Technical Communication offers a variety of articles by a variety of authors, with each author usually contributing a single article to the issue. This important and historical practice of virtually every scholarly journal gives voice to the diversity of research in a field, but it does obscure a key trait of this research: None of the articles exist in isolation from the author’s earlier or later research projects. Obviously, each article must be a separate and independent study that is itself worthwhile reading, but each is also a piece in the mosaic of the author’s research profile, and each asserts and acquires meaning from its position in that mosaic.

This portrait of the author’s interests and efforts, however, is usually unavailable in the pages of a single issue. The biographical paragraph that accompanies each article offers only the briefest of glimpses. And citations and discussions in the article of the author’s pertinent published studies are distributed among citations and discussions of studies by other scholars, thus offering a disjointed depiction of the author’s research profile. I think we would more thoroughly appreciate the merits of a given article if we could know more about the bigger research profile to which it contributes and point the spotlight forward as well as backward at the author’s related projects.

In this issue of the journal, I thus invited the authors to answer three questions:

  • How does this research project fit in the totality of your professional profile or research agenda?
  • What projects (in research, teaching, or practice) came before it and brought you to it?
  • Where will you go with your research from here?

In “A Values-Driven Approach to Technical Communication,” Josephine Walwema studies the communication practices of GiveDirectly (GD), a nonprofit organization that uses digital technologies and its uniquely innovative networked infrastructure to facilitate direct giving from donors to recipients, thus revolutionizing and revitalizing humanitarian aid. Josephine focuses on the organization’s six core values as identified and explained on the GD website (i.e., honesty, ambitious goals, quick and decisive actions, problem resolution, celebrate and reward, evaluate ideas based on their merit), and she analyzes the exercise of these values as displayed in GD’s unconventional day-to-day operations. Josephine’s case study unveils the important contribution of technical communicators to the clear articulation of the organization’s values and how this clear articulation serves to drive and reinforce the vital mission and ongoing creativity of the organization.

She explains how this project fits in the research profile she is building:

This article is a first in my pivot to understanding technical communication in the Global South (GS) and in people’s everyday lives. It is a marked shift from my previous work on information design and intercultural communication in that it specifically examines the enactors of technical communication and the impact of technical communication on real people.

I struggled with this article to figure out what angle to take, and I consulted widely in my attempt to develop an applicable approach to study this organization and its website. That consultation led me to focus on values and how they motivated this particular case of technical communication. I hope to research ways in which values and technical communication intersect, of course, connecting to and building on the work of many others.

I am working on another avenue to build on this project for an edited collection on international professional communication and design. I am excited to revisit the work of Give Directly to see what, if any, lessons have been learned since this particular approach to humanitarian aid was first launched. I also just co-edited a special issue of a journal on user-generated content and its effect on the profession, and I have several manuscripts under review that also consider how technical communication enables interactions among people and institutions. Examining technical communication and how it relates to individuals in the practice of their everyday lives still drives my research.

In “Fertile Grounds: What Interviews of Working Professionals Can Tell Us about Perceptions of Technical Communication and the Viability of Technical Communication as a Field,” Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt reports on a series of conversations with individuals working inside and outside the field of technical communication regarding their sense of the reputation of the profession. Jeremy’s findings indicate that perceptions of the field by those outside it create challenges for those inside it: That is, outsider perceptions of the field are positive but impoverished, with a limited appreciation of the skills and abilities of technical communicators, inadequate recognition of their contribution to the success of organizations, and little inclination to hire technical communicators specifically to address communication duties. In addition to doing their jobs, according to this study, technical communicators must continuously affirm—by word and action—the legitimacy of their profession, but meeting this ongoing obligation will require better training in organizational dynamics and more deliberate alignment of academic and industry definitions of the field.

This article intersects with Jeremy’s experience as a technical writer as well as ongoing research about perceptions of the field and the teaching of technical communication. He explains:

I was a practicing technical writer for nearly 15 years, and that experience led me to a strong interest in topics such as professionalization and legitimacy that impact the value and long-term viability of our field. My article fits with this agenda because it looks into perceptions of technical communication and its (perceived) value in a number of workplace settings among people who are not themselves technical writers yet have the ability or potential to influence the work or utilization of technical writers, now or in the future. This research and much of the work I’ve done since has shown me that scholars in the field have a lot of work to do in advancing the conversation about professionalization, professional identity, value, and legitimacy of practice, and I’m glad to be able to contribute to that conversation.

One of my related interests is to study teaching practices and ways to enhance technical communication pedagogy for the benefit of students—both in the service course and in major and certificate courses. I have another article with Lisa Melonçon and Kirk St.Amant in which the three of us report on an analysis of a five-year corpus of pedagogical research. My Technical Communication article, while offering implications for instructors, focuses on the practice-oriented part of the field—specifically on workplace practice and its relationship to practitioner value.

I am also definitely building on this project. In fact, the work in this article represents a pilot study on which I am basing research toward a dissertation. My plan is to contribute to evolving lines of thought on professional identity and legitimacy of technical communication as a field of workplace practice; at the same time, I hope to help place the academic and practical parts of the field into continued conversation with one another.

In “How to Better Prepare Technical Communication Students in an Evolving Field: Perspectives from Academic Program Directors, Practitioners, and Recent Graduates,” Lindsay Moore and Yvonne Earnshaw analyze their interviews with 15 practitioners, program directors, and new graduates in the field of technical communication—all residing in the United States. The interviews focused on perceptions of the direction of the field and appropriate education and training for it. Lindsay and Yvonne find considerable diversity in definitions of the field and the skills essential to its practice, discovering that academics and practitioners are united in their sense of the field’s changing identity but divided in their opinion of necessary topics for classroom training. A disturbing finding is that the new graduates who were interviewed voiced little appreciation for the merits of joining professional organizations, including STC. This study thus identifies important challenges of no little urgency for all parties in the field to address.

According to Lindsay and Yvonne, this research project about changes in the field started several years ago while the two were colleagues at the same institution, teaching upper- and lower-level courses in technical communication, and it constitutes a pivot point in their evolving research profiles:

Though we were both full-time faculty teaching in a department of technical communication, our expertise was in disciplines outside of tech comm (literature and instructional design, respectively). As “outsiders,” we were interested in employing a wide-angle lens to examine the discipline as a whole: opinions from leaders in academic programs, practitioners who had been in the field for years, and also new graduates.

Lindsay had previously done pedagogical research in how practitioners and academics view grammar error differently and how these differences might impact how we teach grammar in tech comm programs. Yvonne’s experience as a tech writer and her expertise in instructional design and user experience prompted us to consider the different roles of practitioners—both well-established practitioners and recent graduates who had just come out of our courses. This previous research and experience along with the changes in our department helped us to think further about how practitioners and academics consider the changing identity of tech comm and how programs like ours were changing.

This article is much more extensive than our previous articles, and the difference is really in the research method. We delved into qualitative research through extensive interviews. We wanted to ensure that we weren’t getting just one perspective from students or faculty or practitioners, but the combination of all three that really tells the bigger picture.

We hope to use this interview method in future work to contextualize existing research about non-tenure line faculty in technical communication. We are also interested in doing more work that looks at the discipline as a whole, specifically how tech comm programs in the U.S. differ from one another in how they incorporate client projects and service-based learning.

In “A Review on Error-Inclusive Approaches to Software Documentation and Training,” Hans van der Meij and Marie-Louise Flacke categorize the existing studies of using error information as error-tolerant (with either just-in-time information for noting and fixing errors or “training wheels” that block certain advanced options), error-induced (with errors recognized as learning opportunities), and error-guided (with explanations of correct and incorrect solutions). Their analysis covers the key principles, design traits, and empirical findings related to the various approaches and advises technical communicators to adopt error-inclusive training because it cultivates superior knowledge, attitude, and skills for identifying, managing, and correcting errors.

Hans and Marie-Louise explain the relationship of this project to their earlier and forthcoming research:

We are advocates of a minimalist approach to documentation and training, and a cornerstone of minimalism is the advice to support error handling. Practice has been slow on the uptake, however, as two consecutive inventories of existing documentation revealed (Van der Meij, 1996; Van der Meij, Karreman, & Steehouder, 2009).

We have conducted empirical research that contrasts documentation with and without error information and found substantial evidence in favor of the error-inclusive minimalist design approach (e.g., Lazonder & Van der Meij, 1995). The new article in this issue further elaborates this line of research with a literature review of the main error-inclusive approaches to software documentation and training, and we are currently conducting follow-up research on the error-guided approach. One ongoing experimental study compares correct-only to correct-erroneous video-based instructions. The study investigates how to create effective videos that teach people about error prevention and error-handling.

“Techniques for Introducing Unfamiliar Terms” by David Farkas delivers everything its title promises. David uses linguistic analysis to cover a wide array of techniques and he systematically identifies, classifies, and explains each with vivid examples. He focuses on the typical ingredients of term-first, class-first, and characteristic-first constructions but also examines variations in the exercise of assurance signals (i.e., visual or verbal indicators that a term is unfamiliar and will be defined), especially distinctive marking (e.g., italics) but also parenthetical and extra-linear displays. This thoroughgoing and meticulous review of defining techniques offers technical communicators important insights with which to build their practice or guide their teaching.

David describes the position of this article in his wider research profile:

During my 40-plus years as a technical communication researcher, my aim has been to investigate important aspects of professional practice so that my work might have broad and perhaps lasting value. I have investigated procedure writing, the design of slideware (PowerPoint, etc.), techniques for summarization, the organization of lengthy documents, and other topics—almost always in the same way.

I start with what looks like a problem (or a possibility for improvement), and I examine an appropriately selected set of sample documents looking for significant text features in the documents and identifying concepts that seem to get at the core of the problem. If there is useful theory, applicable empirical research, or relevant scholarship, I certainly study and apply it, as an academic researcher should. Then I attempt to classify and systematize what I am investigating in order to produce useful insights.

In writing the article on introducing unfamiliar terms, I made good use of a short article by W. Earl Britton that appeared in the predecessor to this journal way back in 1964. Britton did not apply any kind of theory or any identifiable methodology. His ornate, elegant writing style and his use of literary references (Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Mark Twain) are no longer in fashion. But his careful analysis of technical documents yielded some significant insights that remain valid despite the vast changes in text production, reading habits, and methods of inquiry we have seen since his time. Britton demonstrates, I think, that it is possible to contribute to this field by simply focusing intensively on a problem.

I should note that the topic of unfamiliar terminology intrigued me from the very beginning of my career. I published an article on one small aspect of the topic (the use of boldface and italics for unfamiliar terms) in 1981. But my interest continued, and I gradually broadened the scope of my understanding so that I could write this more comprehensive article.

As is evident from looking only at the authors of the five articles in this issue of the journal, the scholars engaged in the research of this field bring a vigorous repertoire of skills and experiences to their every effort. Each new project inherits the insights of its predecessors and informs the theories, methods, and analyses of its successors. In a series of singular or collaborative studies, each scholar develops a portrait of the researcher that guides, agitates, and inspires a new generation of students to take up the challenge of examining and explicating the teaching and practice of technical communication.

This is how we build a discipline, a history, a profession—article by article but also individual by individual. We appreciate interesting and important articles but we prize the researchers who excite us with their findings and insights. We look for their names in journals and in the programs of conferences. We read their previous and subsequent articles and books, looking for equally gratifying information.

The names of the scholars in this issue of the journal might be new to you or altogether familiar, but I hope their provocative articles in this issue (and their candid detailing of their research profiles) will encourage you to put their earlier and forthcoming projects on your list of required reading.