By Chris Dayley
Purpose: Technical communication (TC) academic programs are responsible for training future technical communication practitioners. Increasing diversity in the field starts with increasing diversity in academic programs and helping students from diverse backgrounds to graduate. Previous research has shown a lack of diversity in technical communication academic programs and a lack of inclusive practices in higher education in general. This study seeks to show how technical communication program administrators can increase support for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds through better inclusion.
Method: I conducted qualitative interviews with undergraduate students, graduate students, and pre-tenured faculty members regarding their experiences in technical communication academic programs. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded for emerging themes.
Results: Interview participants identified several areas where TC academic programs can increase inclusion, including focusing on inclusion rather than simply increasing diversity, problems with microaggressions, lack of representation, and the complications brought about by intersectionality.
Conclusion: TC academic programs, like higher education in general, are interested in increasing diversity. However, rather than focusing on simply increasing the number of students from diverse backgrounds, TC programs should focus on increasing program inclusiveness. This includes actively including diverse voices in program decision making and being willing to make changes based on the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of traditionally marginalized people. These recommendations can also be used by practitioners to begin increasing inclusion in the workplace.
Keywords: Diversity, Inclusion, Academic Programs
- Focusing on inclusion rather than just diversity is an important factor in the success of marginalized people in an organization.
- Actively including people from marginalized backgrounds in discussions and decision-making processes will aid in inclusion efforts.
- People from marginalized backgrounds should not be seen as a monolith. Each person has a unique background and should be treated as an individual.
This article extends the research reported in a previous article in which I discuss the ways in which technical communication (TC) program administrators can increase their inclusion efforts to recruit students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds by implementing practices suggested by students who identify as people of color (Dayley, 2022). This article shifts focus away from student recruitment and focuses on how TC program administrators can increase inclusion in their academic programs in order to better support current students.
Diversity and inclusion have become an important part of American work culture. Many companies and organizations that hire technical communicators have stated goals to increase diversity and inclusion and have implemented initiatives to meet those goals. However, in the United States, the field of technical communication remains mostly homogenous. A 2018 report in Intercom on the demographics and characteristics of technical communicators stated, “Diversity appears to be a challenge in technical communication. Eighty-one percent [of survey respondents] identified as White. Association with other groups ranges from 2 to 5 percent.”
Along with many other characteristics of technical communicators, that same Intercom article also reported that 63% of technical communicators are currently holding or pursuing a bachelor’s degree (Carliner & Chen, 2018). Since most technical communicators are college educated, if one goal is to increase diversity and inclusion in the field of technical communication (TC) as a whole, some attention needs to be paid to increasing diversity and inclusion in TC academic programs.
Issues of racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in technical communication academic programs have gained recent attention from TC scholars (Dayley, 2020; Dayley & Walton, 2018; Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014; Popham, 2016; Savage & Mattson, 2011; Savage & Matveeva, 2011). This focus reflects the increased interest in diversity and inclusion in higher education in general. In today’s higher education culture, a diverse student body can be a form of prestige. The most racially and ethnically diverse campuses are ranked in U.S. News and World Report in the same way top academic programs are. However, traditionally white middle and upper-class social norms and values dominate the academy. Because of this, students of color at predominately white colleges and universities drop out at a much higher rate than their white counterparts (McClain & Perry, 2017).
Academic program administrators who are interested in the success of all students should think of diversity in their programs as more than a way to gain prestige or fulfill a mandate from upper-level administration. If students are not given the support to help them persist to graduation, then there is no point to bringing in diverse groups of students into an academic program. More than just increasing the number of diverse faces in a program, inclusion means intentionally seeking marginalized student perspectives and taking action to ensure those students have the best opportunity to be successful (Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016, p. 214).
This article seeks to address the question, “how can we increase inclusion in TC academic programs for students of color?” To address this question, I interviewed current TC students, pre-tenure faculty members, and identified influencers about their perception of the inclusiveness of their TC academic programs. The article reports three major themes that emerged from these interviews. These themes include: the lack of a focus on inclusion in recruitment efforts, the presence of microaggressions, and the complications of intersectionality.
Today, American colleges and universities almost universally recognize the importance and value of racial and ethnic diversity. Colleges now invest large amounts of time and money to try and bring in more racially diverse classes (Pippert, Essenburg, & Matchett 2013). Along with higher education, technical communication academic programs have also seen a growing interest in increasing diversity. Diversity is a broad term that can refer to many demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. For the purposes of this article, diversity refers specifically to racial and ethnic diversity.
Relatively recent scholarship has explored the issues surrounding racial and ethnic diversity in technical communication programs. This scholarship includes program administrators’ perceptions of diversity in the field (Savage & Mattson, 2011), student perceptions of diversity in TC academic programs (Dayley, 2020), and recruitment efforts and stronger outreach to underrepresented populations (Dayley, 2022; Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014, Popham, 2016; Savage & Matveeva, 2011).
As Chong and Roundtree (2021) stated, “Our field has expressed a need for and interest in recruiting more diverse students as industries diversify, globalize, and tackle social justice policies and issues” (p. 1). However, for those interested in issues of diversity and social justice in TC programs, the goal should be not just to increase the number of people from different backgrounds but to foster more inclusiveness in the dialogue and ideas shared in TC programs (Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016). Here, the term inclusion “refer[s] to efforts to forward a more expansive vision of TPC, one that intentionally seeks marginalized perspectives, privileges these perspectives, and promotes them through action” (Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016, p. 214). In essence, just increasing the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds is not enough. Inclusion also encompasses support.
Although higher numbers of racial minorities are now entering college, fewer persist to graduation than their white counterparts (Casselman, 2014). This is largely due to the lack of inclusion efforts at colleges and universities (McClain & Perry, 2017). Technical communication academic programs also face issues of inclusion and may lack adequate support systems for students of color (Dayley, 2020).
Although references in the literature to inclusion in TC academic programs are sparse, inclusion is an important part of technical communication research—the professional practice of technical communication, at its core, is largely about inclusion. The humanistic nature of technical communication has been an important part of technical communication practice and research for many years (Miller, 1979). Technical communicators know that a focus on the user is imperative to successful technical communication (Acharya, 2017; Martin, Carrington, & Muncie, 2017). “In other words, people are at the center of TPC” (Walton, 2016, p. 407).
Much recent scholarship by technical communication scholars has focused on advocating for the inclusion of underrepresented voices (Edenfield, Colton, & Holmes, 2019; Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016; Matheson & Petersen, 2020; Sánchez, 2018; Zdenek, 2020) as well as advocating for inclusive language and practices in our praxis (Agboka, 2021; Bivens, 2019; Garrison-Joyner & Caravella, 2020; Li, 2020; Saru & Wojahn, 2020; Walwema & Carmichael, 2020). Technical communicators, by virtue of their focus on “producing communication that is easy to use and appropriate for the needs of users” (Walton, 2016, p. 404), have the opportunity to use their skills and training as user advocates to focus on issues that impact the lives of oppressed peoples by working with the marginalized to create solutions based on listening to their needs and following their lead.
This research project was a phenomenological study in which I used interviews to try to understand the lived experiences of people of color enrolled in technical and professional communication academic programs. The interviews were meant to produce data regarding participants’ experiences as technical communication students who identify as persons from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The study focused on persons of color living in the United States and participating in TC academic programs. Participants included five undergraduate students, six graduate students, and five pre-tenured faculty members. The initial student participants were identified from the participants in a survey I previously conducted (Dayley, 2020) who indicated they were a part of a racial or ethnic minority group. After completing the survey, participants were asked if they would be willing to participate in a follow-up interview. I identified each participant who indicated that they were willing to participate in an interview and also identified as a person of color. This resulted in a list of three undergraduate students, and four graduate students. Additional participants were identified through snowball sampling. Pre-tenured faculty member participants were identified through personal knowledge of TC faculty members as well as referrals from faculty member participants.
I contacted each student who identified as a person of color and indicated they would be willing to be interviewed. This resulted in three undergraduate and four graduate student participants. To increase the number of participants, additional students were identified through referral from student and faculty member participants. Faculty member participants were identified through personal knowledge of TC faculty members of color and through referral from other faculty member participants.
As part of the study, participants were asked to name a person who was a major influencer in their decision to study technical communication or who was an important person in influencing her/him/them to persist in a TC academic program. Six participants identified an influencer and gave permission for that influencer to be contacted.
Interview participants were limited specifically to undergraduate, graduate, and pre-tenured faculty members who are majoring in or consider their primary research/teaching activities to be focused on technical communication. All of the participants attended or worked at public universities. Participants’ gender identity and specific racial/ethnic backgrounds were self-identified. I interviewed five undergraduate students, six graduate students, and five pre-tenured faculty members. Because of space limitations, three undergraduate students, three graduate students, and three pre-tenured faculty members are quoted in the report of the data. The participants included 4 who are African American participants, 2 who are Hispanic, 2 who are Native American, and one who is Asian. The names of each participant have been changed to protect anonymity. Interview participants are identified by a pseudonymous first name or with the title “Dr.” and a pseudonymous last name in the case of the pre-tenured faculty members. Influencers quoted in this study are also referred to as “Dr.” with pseudonymous last names. Of the six influencers identified, three are quoted in this report.
Participants were asked a set of questions focusing on how they each selected a major in TC and what factors influenced them. A subset of their answers is presented in this article. Interviews were conducted over the phone, and the audio was recorded with permission. Interviews were semi-structured to allow more leeway when asking questions to interviewees. I created a list of 11 interview questions. Each participant was asked all 11 questions, but occasional follow-up questions were asked when clarification was needed. The interviews included questions regarding strategies participants use to persist in their degree programs, what challenges they have faced, and how their programs can become more inclusive. When conducting interviews, I tried to create a space where participants felt they could openly express their thoughts and experiences (Shenton, 2004). I recorded each interview and created a transcription from the recordings.
After data collection, I used an in vivo coding method. This common qualitative coding method emphasizes the actual spoken words of participants. In vivo coding is used to “prioritize and honor the participant’s voice” by using words and short phrases from the participants’ own language in the data record as codes (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2020, p. 65). As part of my coding method, I used member checks. I emailed each participant their interview transcript and asked the participants to read over the transcript and let me know if any changes needed to be made. Any requested changes were made in the transcription document.
When quoting interview participants, I used exact quotations leaving in slang, alternative grammar usage, etc. If an interview participant used “filler words” excessively, such as “um,” “like,” or “you know,” I removed those words. This was meant to allow the words of participants to be understood clearly (Lindolf & Taylor, 2011).
Many of the faculty members I spoke to identified location as an important influence on the diversity of their institution. When asked if the location was a primary factor in the diversity of the students at her institution, Dr. Franklin, one of the influencers in the study, remarked, “I think it definitely helps because [the city where my institution is located] is more ethnically diverse than other parts of [the state].” Dr. Elion, another influencer interviewed, also believed the location was an important factor in predicting the amount of diversity in an institution’s student body:
When I was at [an urban university in the Midwest], I was there for three years, and that’s an urban university and so there’s just more of a mix of people in the city. In the program, we had African American students, and Latino students, and Asian students, and white students, and I mean it’s just like a big old melting pot. It was nice, you know, and so I didn’t really have to work at it that hard. And then at [a more rural midwestern university], I mean in the last couple of years we’re just talking about it like all the time. I mean, I think we really in a state like [this midwestern state] is it’s even worse. I mean it’s just it’s not very diverse around here so you know I think we’re always thinking about ways that we can try to bring in different cultures and different ethnicities.
However, the diversity of an academic program does not always reflect the diversity of the surrounding community. Of two of her previous institutions, Dr. Lessing said:
The idea of being in [a large midwestern city] at a school on the south side of [the city] and being one of the few black PhD students was mind-blowing to me. [The large southern institution where I previously worked] was also alarming to me only because I was in [a large southern city] in the heart of downtown… and quite often the only time I came across an African American student is because he was an athlete.
Dr. Lessing observed that even though the population surrounding the two institutions she mentioned was heavily populated by people of color, the universities she was a part of were not. For these institutions, in particular, the lack of diversity surrounding the area cannot be used as a reason for the lack of diversity in a program. Dr. Elion said of a previous institution where she worked:
When I got to [a large southern university], you know it’s in the South and the South has got some diversity, a lot actually, that wasn’t really reflected in the program. So one way that we tried to kind of fix that was to just try to make our program more recognized and really make it like we tried to sell it as a boutique program. I don’t mean sell it, I mean we just changed the way we thought of it, you know. The boutique program, it’s a professional program for master’s degree students. We would try to recruit people from all over the country rather than more locally like it has been. So that helped a bit like we were getting people from different states and then sometimes they would just add to the diversity of the student body in our program.
The preceding examples from faculty members regarding the way TC programs are trying to recruit students of color are admirable; however, their primary focus seems to be increasing the number of diverse students rather than creating an inclusive environment where students of color can find the support they need to be free from marginalization and persist to graduation. For some institutions, location will be a difficult factor to overcome if they are simply trying to get more diverse faces in their classrooms. For others, it’s less about their location and more about institutional and cultural barriers. However, as discussed previously, the goal should not simply be diversity. The goal should be empowering students who are traditionally marginalized through inclusion.
Dr. Elion lamented about the fact that her institution is in an area where little diversity exists, so it is harder to find students of color. She did not mention any steps they were taking to help the few students of color at her current institution feel valued. Dr. Elion’s example from her previous institution is especially telling in that, rather than utilizing local recruitment strategies to draw in students of color from the community, the institution instead would search nationally. This is a reflection of that institution’s lack of commitment to inclusion in that they did not think to make the necessary changes to bring in and support students from the local area, but rather decided to look elsewhere for students who were likely better able to adapt to the institution’s culture as they were actively seeking an education from a reputable school and were mobile. Instead of looking at how their program could seek to empower local students through seeking out their opinions, listening to their challenges, and making changes, Dr. Elion’s institution is seeking an easier route that emphasizes diversity rather than inclusion.
It should be noted that the previously mentioned TC programs are likely not purposefully avoiding creating inclusive environments (Savage & Matveeva, 2011). Most program administrators likely have their programs’ students’ best interests at heart and are often given a goal of increasing certain metrics (like diversity) with little to no resources to do so, much less the resources it would require to create inclusive spaces for all students. The main problem lies in institutions’ tendencies to look for easy metrics for gauging success. This focus on numbers rather than inclusiveness is part of the culture of higher education. The distinction between seeking diversity for numbers sake instead of seeking to create an inclusive environment for students of color is likely invisible to most program administrators. They believe they are doing the right thing but are not aware of the problems they may be ignoring or causing.
Interview participants were asked if they had faced any challenges or barriers while earning their degree that related to their racial/ethnic identity. Some reported specific experiences, but many initially reported no problems at all. Often participants who reported facing no difficulties related to their racial or ethnic background would then go on to talk about incidents or experiences that made their degree program more difficult that are linked directly to their race and/or ethnicity.
Two of the participants in the study identify as mixed race and reported that they present as white. One of these participants, Amber is a woman who identifies as Native American and white. She attends a midsize southern university. Amber identifies with her Native American heritage and is bothered when people speak disparagingly about Native people. However, she reported that she does not feel like she has faced direct hardships because she presents as white. According to Amber, she looks white so she doesn’t generally face direct racism. When asked if she has faced challenges because of her racial identity, Amber said:
I would say not really. I mean, I do hear people talk about, you know, American Indians and not really understanding that when they talk about American Indians this is like talking about any other nationality. You know, whatever you joke around about could be sort of offensive, and whenever people look at me they, you know, they just see just a regular looking person… I mean not regular looking, but I do look like I’m Caucasian, you know, but I haven’t really seen any real hardship. The only time I’ve ever heard anyone say anything that was even close to offensive was at the University. I was the only person left in the computer room late at night working away on some project and the people who worked in the lab, the students who worked there, were saying some different things about American Indians and, you know, it was just they didn’t know I was there. I was a little [offended] but they were very young and so you know I just chalked it up to them being ignorant.
Although Amber initially reported not facing any hardships, her comments about people making racist jokes around her point out a hardship that is compounded by her multiracial background. The racist jokes Amber heard are microaggressions she has learned to dismiss or ignore over time. People may feel free to tell jokes like this around Amber because they assume she is white. This means that Amber is subjected to offensive jokes that might not have otherwise been told around her. She then must choose whether to speak up and possibly have to endure a more difficult situation, or to ignore the offense. Although Amber has had to endure offensive jokes during her time in her degree program, she still said she has not “seen any real hardship.” This may be a clue to why students sometimes report that they don’t see any problems with diversity in their academic programs. Perhaps they simply brush off any offense they experience the same way Amber did. Joan, a woman who identifies as African American, Native American, and white and attends a mid-size midwestern university, also found that the fact that people only see her as Caucasian was a challenge:
Like when people look at me, they just see a Caucasian. They don’t know I’m mixed with anything else so in a way that is its own barrier because I love all the races I’m mixed with, you know? I claim them all equally so in a way that was kind of a barrier because when people assume that you’re something just because of how you look, whether it’s getting extra privilege or less privilege, it’s still a barrier.
Lois, a woman who identified as a South Asian person from Palestine and attends a mid-size southern university, also said that she never really felt out of place but did want someone she could connect with in her program:
Most of the time, no, I didn’t really feel like there were students I could really connect with. I did kind of feel distant. I’m not saying like “oh I’m out of place I don’t belong here”—not like that, but yeah, I did feel that there weren’t really students I could connect with.
Although Lois reported that she never felt out of place, she said she did not feel like she could relate to the students in her program. This contributed to a feeling of being “distant.” Like Amber, Lois dismissed the difficulties she faced in her program. A similar example comes from Dr. Yates, an African American woman working at a large southern university.
Dr. Yates reported that she did not face barriers because of her race, but like Lois, also felt like she did not have someone to relate to in her program. Because of this, she actively sought out a mentor outside of her institution who she could relate to:
I don’t know if there were like blatant barriers, but I definitely noticed that I was not learning from people that look like me, you know? So when in 2010 [a notable African American female TC scholar] published [a book], I don’t know what I was doing at the time. It was during the summer and I think I was supposed to be writing my dissertation proposal or something like that. I came across her book and I googled her name and her face came up and I was like “Oh my gosh, a black woman!” you know? Oh my gosh, I was freaking out and so I reached out to… the editor of [a] journal in our field, and I said I will write a review for this book. I read the book, wrote a review, and after that reached out and was like “Hey, I just reviewed your book…” She was the first black woman in our field that I was able to see myself in because there was no one else. Just to see that she was a full professor, she was well respected, she has a book out–that meant a lot, it really meant a lot. Basically, I was like “Okay, you’re going to mentor me like you just are.” She’s so kind and that year at [a conference] I made it a point to introduce myself to her, but even like going to… conferences it was very clear that black women were not represented in the field and I don’t mean like oh there’s only like a handful of us I mean there was so few of us at that time… I want people to be able to see themselves represented in the field, and when I say represented, I mean visibility matters, you know?
Not having a mentor to relate to can make the college experience more difficult for students. Dr. Yates’s proactive approach in seeking out a mentor was likely aided by the fact that she was a PhD student and felt free to reach out to a fellow scholar. This would be more difficult as a younger undergraduate student.
Brooke, an African American woman and PhD student who attends a large southern university, reported that she did have supportive faculty. Like Dr. Yates, Brooke needed someone who she could really relate to. She had her cohort, which included a few African American students who supported each other, but she wanted a mentor to truly be able to guide her:
As sad as it is, I have faculty support, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have like a mentor that has shaped me if that makes sense. I think my cohort has probably shaped me more than any faculty member could have possibly shaped me. If anything, they’ve probably helped me find the tools to navigate through tech com and the academy, but the things that have made me me, that I follow, have mostly come from my cohort more than it has from faculty. Because I feel like with faculty, they care in so many ways, and I love that they’re willing to hear us, but I feel like sometimes they become more of the student when I need them to be my teacher. [My faculty mentors are] great. They’re fabulous people. I mean, I work with great people, but there’s just sometimes where I’m just like I need someone to really get what I’m saying.
Brooke did receive support from faculty members but felt that her most important relationships came from her fellow students. Not only did Brooke lack a mentor she could relate to, but she also was tasked with additional labor having to teach faculty members how to be more inclusive. Though the type of challenges and microaggressions described above are sometimes less obvious, others are more overt. When Brooke was asked if she ever felt out of place in her program, she said:
I don’t know if out of place would be the best term to describe that, but it’s more so we always say like “Y’all hear me, but do you really hear me?” The example is microaggressions right? We can talk about those things in theory but what I notice is a lot of times the people I’m working with don’t get them in practice. So a presentation I’ve given before is on privileged socialization practices. So an example of that would be at one point [my program] would have like little gatherings and would have alcohol be served. It was just a very informal type set up and I had to bring to their attention that as a black female, I’ve been taught to not do any of this. So it’s more stepping into those socialization practices that are very different culturally and trying to make sure everyone understands it. Like, this is what you’re doing and this is the problem. And even making sure that I take the stand in saying you’re not going to use my labor. Like y’all going to do the work, too. You’re making me mad, here’s why, now you need to go research why this makes black people mad. So that’s that finicky line where I’m trying to make sure they’re made aware of where they messed up, but I’m not teaching the whole lesson either. Like there has to be some accountability on their end, too.
In the preceding quote, Brooke voiced her concern that the faculty and administration at her university aren’t trying to create an inclusive environment for the students of color who are there. Brooke’s statement reflects her frustration with constantly explaining her culture in the context of the dominant culture. People who do not understand Brooke’s cultural influences expect Brooke to explain why a certain behavior or practice is not okay when they believe it is perfectly fine. Brooke either must go along with the dominant culture or try and justify why she is not. This reflects the cultural commodity that is whiteness. As a part of the dominant culture, a white person is not asked to justify a cultural practice against the practices of another culture. A white person is not asked to explain or educate others about their social norms. In her quote, Brooke brought up a good point. Part of the work should be done by the people in power to understand where she, and other students of color, are coming from. Program administrators can take initiative and show students of color that their cultural ideas are important and valued by listening, researching, and validating.
Dr. Munro, a Hispanic woman working at a large western university, faced challenges while navigating her degree program and throughout her academic career when people made assumptions about her because of her racial identity. Dr. Munro said of the challenges she faced:
I think there’s challenges daily that we’ve kind of just become accustomed to. I think when I first learned to speak English, for example, there was a lot of stigma about what classes I could, you know, partake in. Even from early on in elementary school, my teachers were like “No, you cannot be in advanced English classes or language arts classes because English is not your first language.” They would say that to me and so of course, me being the stubborn person I am, I would try to counter that by saying “I’m gonna study English and make it my major.” I think, in a way, those kinds of microaggressions and that kind of prejudice has led me to where I am because now I can kind of counter those perspectives in teaching my own students. I do think that there are struggles that we face in the field on many different degrees. So in some ways people want to keep us out of specific conversations in projects but in other ways people want to bring us in to specific conversations and projects just because they want to check off that box that says do you have diversity here, you know? So I think I faced a lot of that too where people are just looking for some more diversity. It doesn’t matter who it is, and they will reach out to me because they know that I fit that category. So there’s been a lot of that lately. There’s also been some of like attributing my success, not that I have a lot of success, but any success that I have to “Well you know you fit the diversity category so that’s why you got published,” or “That’s why you got a job,” or “That’s why” whatever. I think those are things that we face consistently which is why we need those support networks.
Like Brooke, Dr. Munro was also forced to justify herself within the context of the dominant culture. When she is accused of having advantages because of her race, she is being told that she could not possibly be successful on her own merits. The implication of statements like “Well, you know you fit the diversity category, so that’s why you got published” is that only white people can legitimately publish, and she needs help because she is Hispanic. This is a symptom of the embedded racism in our society. If a white person receives help because they know someone or because they have a connection, then they are just “well connected,” but if a person of color receives help from an affirmative action program, then that is unfair. Seeing ingrained hypocrisy like this will be a difficult challenge for administrators who want to create more inclusive academic programs; however, the success of students of color in TC academic programs depends on efforts like this.
Although many of the interview participants did not initially name specific challenges they faced because of their racial or ethnic identity, each described an experience in which they faced some obstacle because of their racial identity. These unnoticed microaggressions may be a result of students simply doing what they need to do to survive and graduate. This may be a contributing factor to why fewer students of color persist to graduation (Casselman, 2014; McClain & Perry, 2017).
Whether the microaggressions found in TC academic programs go unnoticed, as in the first four examples in this section, or are blatant, like the last two examples, working to remove these obstacles is an important part of creating an inclusive program where students can talk about the challenges they face in an environment where people will listen, believe, and act. This is a cultural change that will take more than a few strategies to implement. As program administrators begin to make the smaller changes necessary to create an inclusive environment, this type of cultural change can be made over time by emphasizing the importance of listening to the students in their programs, believing them, and taking action.
Critical race theorists recognize that oppression experienced by racism is compounded when combined with other identity markers such as gender, sexual orientation, and ability (Crenshaw, 1991; McCoy & Rodricks, 2015). Intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes how the different identities of multiple marginalized individuals intersect to create unique burdens for those who are subject to more than one type of discrimination.
Maggie is a Hispanic woman at a mid-sized western university. In addition to being a student, she also works professionally as a technical communicator. She provided a reminder that although race and ethnicity are the central theme of this study, intersectionality is at play in the lives of every interview participant:
Honestly, [Author’s Name], I see it more being female, not being Hispanic. I look Hispanic, and from time-to-time people will approach me and because I look Hispanic and will immediately begin speaking Spanish. Then I correct them and say “No, no–I don’t fluently speak Spanish. I understand it. My family speaks Spanish. I do not.” But I think in [TC], it’s more biased to females. I have found that just in in my workplace (I’ve been with the IRS for almost 15 years) and in our workplace the majority of those positions are held by men and it’s very rare that women are in those positions … Our technical manuals are filled with $10 words that are absolutely unnecessary, and there’s a lot of direction that is absolutely unnecessary. It’s as if they’re just repeating the same thing 16 times to get the result that a sentence would have taken care of and it would have been more concise and clear. A lot of those things just aren’t clear. When we, as the clerks that have to use these manuals to do our jobs, when we approach it and we suggest changes, I mean it’s immediately shot down. I’ve sat in roundtables where there have been maybe two women to 14 men and we’re kind of immediately shoved aside like our opinions aren’t as maybe intelligent as some of the others. It’s not a fun position to be in so I find it more on the female side. I don’t know that I would say race or ethnicity has ever had much to do with it on my end.
Maggie must face challenges related to both racism and sexism. Not only does she have to consistently explain to people that being Hispanic does not mean that she speaks Spanish, but she has to deal with the problems that come from working in a male-dominated workplace. In her interview, she said that her motivation to complete a degree partly came from her desire to be respected in a workplace that does not respect women. Although she faces challenges as a person of color in her degree program, those challenges are compounded by the sex discrimination she faces at work.
Milton, an African American man who attends a mid-size eastern university, was often singled out as the “liberal voice” in his program. When asked if he ever felt out of place, he said:
Not really. Out of place might not be the word that I’d use. I certainly felt outnumbered in some of our discussions. I’m a fairly confident student and so “out of place” I’m not sure if that’s what I would say, but some of our classes, you know when you’re talking about teaching college composition, especially as who’s going to college changes and the theory kind of surrounding that, and equal access to education, of course it’s very difficult for those conversations to not slip into the overtly political realm. So often, whether or not other students agreed with me or not, I was often required to speak as the only voice of like, ya know, liberal opinions whether or not I was actually… the only one that has liberal opinions in class.
As Milton stated, he was likely not the only one with a liberal mindset in his class, but he was likely the only African American in his class. When an issue like equal access to higher education came up, he was immediately singled out. Although being liberal is not necessarily a marginalized identity, because Milton is black and holds politically liberal views, he was singled out to represent left-leaning opinions because of his race. This type of singling out put an undue burden on Milton, one that his other classmates did not have to bear.
The participants in this study face an intersection of challenges based on many personal characteristics. This makes implementing inclusion strategies difficult. What might be inclusive to one student might not mean anything to another, and efforts to include some students may exclude others. Program administrators cannot simply apply broad changes once and be done. They need to build flexibility into their programs and be willing to adapt to each student.
As you can see from the examples shared in this article, increasing inclusion requires an intentional focus on the needs of individual students. Although this article is limited in scope, participants’ responses offer several insights into how TC academic programs, or organizations that employ technical communicators, can be more inclusive.
Don’t focus only on numbers
When considering increasing diversity, the focus should not simply be on the number of people from diverse backgrounds. As pointed out by Dr. Elion, one of the influencers in the study, the number of people from diverse backgrounds at an organization can be influenced by many factors, such as that organization’s location. It may be that an organization in a certain location is always going to struggle with diversity. However, that organization can take steps to be more inclusive so that they can support the people they currently have from marginalized backgrounds and create an enticing environment for future students and/or employees.
The easy way is not always the best way
Another example also comes from Dr. Elion’s second institution. Her current institution is located in a diverse area. The program was having trouble recruiting students from diverse backgrounds. Rather than figure out why this was, the program began looking to recruit nationally. Likely it’s easier to bring in students who are actively looking to relocate than it is to bring in students from the local area who are not currently looking at the institution as a possibility. Recruiting nationally brings in students who are already used to higher education’s social and cultural norms. The program does not need to change much to recruit and support these students. However, this is not inclusion. Program administrators who are committed to inclusion should look at why local students are not enrolling and the changes that can be made to attract these students and support them to graduation. Likewise, other organizations outside of higher education may be tempted to hire only people who best fit their company “culture” rather than looking for ways to bring in people with new ideas and perspectives.
Provide clear resources for people who may experience problems
Several students reported not facing any issues or barriers in their programs just before mentioning a microaggression or difficulty they faced. Many people have been trained throughout their lives to ignore difficulties related to their racial and/or ethnic background in order to survive in school or the workplace. Although employers and program administrators likely can’t eliminate every microaggression a person may face, they can create an environment where students and employees understand that they do not have to ignore or accept those microaggressions. Deliberate efforts to incorporate inclusion in orientation, onboarding, messages, meetings, curriculum, etc., will help students and employees know where they can go if they are experiencing problems. Taking action based on student/employee feedback will help people of color know that their voice matters.
Provide opportunities for strong mentoring
Some students spoke about the need to go outside their program to find a mentor to whom they could relate to. Ideally, a student or employee should not need to go outside of the program or organization to find a mentor to whom they can relate. However, if this is not possible, then program faculty and administrators or organizational leadership should proactively work with students and/or employees to find mentors and resources.
Be flexible when making changes
Every student in every program is different and faces different challenges based on multiple factors influencing their lives. The same goes for the employees in every company or organization. Employers and program administrators may look to form committees to discuss ideas and make permanent changes to increase inclusion. Though permanent changes are necessary, no solution is going to work for everyone. Programs and organizations need to build flexibility to address the unique needs of each student/employee with the goal of supporting everyone.
LIMITATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
There were several limitations to the present study that may have affected the results. The first is that the number of participants in the study was limited. As with most qualitative research, the number of participants was not enough to yield generalizable results. Also, because of the amount of data collected in this study and the limited space of a journal article, I was only able to share a portion of my findings. As more studies like this one emerge, we will get a clearer picture of the challenges people of color face when enrolling in TC academic programs.
Another limitation of this study was that all participants were either current TC students or graduates of a TC program. These students are successful in persisting in their programs which means they have likely had a good experience and would have fewer criticisms related to exclusionary practices.
Each of the participants in this study knew beforehand that the study was about diversity and inclusion. They likely deduced that the study would focus on the benefits of diverse and inclusive environments, and may have altered their answers because of this knowledge.
Recommendations for Future Research
To address one of the major limitations of this study, students who have dropped out of TC programs should be contacted to learn about their experiences in the program and why they left. This information may be difficult to get and would require cooperation from university registrar’s offices and carefully thought-out questions to avoid possible trauma. This kind of research project could yield very interesting results regarding why students leave TC programs and offer recommendations for changes that make programs more inclusive.
A more targeted study focusing specifically on the undergraduate experience or specifically on the graduate experience may help yield more generalizable results. In a study with a broad scope focusing on undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate populations, it may be difficult to ascertain what factors affected the population most. A more focused study could help identify specific issues in a more specific population.
In the future, researchers should begin narrowing in on the experiences of people of color at different kinds of institutions, such as community colleges and people working in industry at various companies and organizations. It may also be beneficial to conduct a longitudinal study following a group of students as they progress through college and into a professional career.
Although a diverse community would be advantageous to TC programs (Gurin et al., 2002; Terenzini et al., 2001), administrators need to keep in mind their motivation for creating a diverse environment. In pointing out the lack of diversity in technical communication programs and devising strategies to increase diversity, administrators often fail to mention why they want a more diverse group of technical communicators in the first place. Are TC faculty and administrators interested in including diverse viewpoints in program dialogue? Are they concerned with creating a more well-rounded experience for students? Do faculty and program administrators want to create opportunities for underprivileged individuals? Do program administrators and TC faculty want to redress the inequality present in TC academic programs? Do faculty and administrators want to bring the voices, contributions, and experiences of the marginalized to the forefront? Or do they simply want the prestige that comes with creating a diverse population?
Faculty and academic departments play a large role in student success. Involvement by faculty members can make the difference between a student dropping out or persisting to graduation. Creating an environment where students feel comfortable and supported by faculty and other students can help students thrive. If TC program administrators recognize embedded practices that marginalize students, such as negligent recruitment practices, the microaggressions students of color face, and the intersectional nature of personal identities, TC programs may begin to address these weaknesses and start creating inclusive departments that not only attract students of color but also support their success.
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Chris Dayley is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Master of Arts in Technical Communication Program at Texas State University. His research interests include social justice, ethics, and issues of diversity and inclusion in technical and professional communication academic programs. His work has appeared in Programmatic Perspectives, Technical Communication Quarterly, and Communication Design Quarterly. Dr. Dayley can be reached at email@example.com.