70.2 May 2023

An Interview with Dr. Natasha N. Jones

Miriam F. Williams, Editor

To introduce this issue of Technical Communication, I am honored to interview a brilliant scholar, Dr. Natasha N. Jones. Dr. Jones is a technical communication scholar and co-author of the book Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn: Building Coalitions for Action. Her research interests include social justice, narrative, and technical communication pedagogy. She has received national recognition for her work, being awarded the CCCC Best Article in Technical and Scientific Communication (2020, 2018, and 2014) and the Nell Ann Pickett Award (2017). She currently serves as the President for the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW).

Miriam: Hi Natasha. First, I’d like to thank you for your many contributions to the field of technical communication and your work as an editorial advisory board member of Technical Communication. Most readers of the journal are familiar with your work, but they may not know how your career in technical communication started. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did your career in tech comm begin?

Natasha: Thank you, Miriam, for giving me the opportunity to speak with you! I’d say that I kind of fell backwards into technical communication. In undergrad, I majored in Print Journalism and minored in English. I always thought that I’d be a magazine editor and had started on that path after I received my Bachelor’s degree. However, life has a way of always surprising us. After the birth of my daughter, and as a single mom, I found myself working a corporate job when my sister told me about Auburn University’s Masters of Technical and Professional Communication program (MTPC). I had no idea what technical communication was, so I did some quick research and discovered I could do editing and content creation. It sounded like I could draw on the skills I learned in print journalism. I applied and was accepted!

Graduate school was a challenge! New city, single mom, and a whole new way of engaging with texts. Luckily, Dr. Michelle Sidler helped spark my interest in thinking about technical communication beyond editing (which is what I’d always thought I wanted to do). One year, she offered a course in Biotechnology. At first glance, I couldn’t understand why a course in Biotechnology would be relevant to technical communication, but once I started in the course, my entire perception of the field changed. I began to learn about how we understand, communicate about, and engage with scientific advancements like DNA forensics and nanotechnology. It was in this course that I began to understand the role that technical communication can play in justice work (specifically, how the ways that we understand, communicate about, and employ the use of DNA forensics could help exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals). This was a game-changer for me and I realized I might be interested in pursuing a doctoral degree. My original plan had been to earn my MA and go into industry. To help facilitate that, I’d even taken on a job as a technical editor for a mechanical engineering journal. After Michelle Sidler’s class and with her support, however, I applied to PhD programs and was accepted into the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design & Engineering Program (then it was the Technical Communication Department). I was off to Seattle and that is how my career in technical communication began!

Miriam: I didn’t know that! Speaking of graduate school, in my work as a professor at Texas State, I’ve had the pleasure of having you visit several of my classes and I include your award-winning research on social justice, including your groundbreaking book with Dr. Rebecca Walton and Dr. Kristen Moore, Technical Communication After the Social Justice Turn, in my students’ assigned readings. My former students who have studied your research have gone on to work as Lead Technical Writers and UX designers in companies in Austin and San Antonio, TX including Tesla, VISA, IBM, and Google. I know that instructors around the country who have had the same experience. Still, I know some technical communication teachers are still skeptical about teaching social justice in their undergraduate and graduate curriculum. Why do you think some view social justice as tangential to teaching research methods, UX design, content strategy, editing, proposal writing, and other coursework, but not ethics?

Natasha: Honestly, I think that some folks believe that social justice is too “political.” I’ve been told directly and indirectly that “politics” do not have a place in technical communication and should not be engaged in our research, pedagogy, and programs. For me, and as I’ve argued before, technical communication is not neutral, objective, or apolitical. The ways that we engage in our discipline and do our work, whether we acknowledge it or not, is laden with political and ethical implications. Further, the refusal to acknowledge the political and ethical implications of our work and pedagogy in itself is, to me, a political stance. It’s a privileged stance that chooses an illusion (of neutrality, of peace, of collegiality, of “niceness”) over engagement. Our research has political implications and our classrooms, as much as we say they aren’t, are also political spaces. bell hooks, Black feminist scholar and icon, in her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, reminds us that “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (hooks, p. 12) and she links her classroom practice to political activism. Similarly, I see the work that I do—engaged pedagogy, justice-centered, advocacy work—as necessarily political. When I step into the classroom as a Black woman, single mother from Southeast Georgia, this is a political statement. I choose not to ignore that and I strive for all of my work to make clear, not only who I am, but who I hold myself accountable to and how I choose to resist and subvert certain neoliberal trappings of the academy. For me, being silent about how I perceive the work that I set out to do will not protect me from any oppressive practices, so why not make evident the role that justice-oriented work can play in redressing injustice? I always remind myself of Audre Lorde’s words that, and I’m paraphrasing, silence will not save us.

Miriam: That advice is useful for the academy and industry. So, what is your hope for the future of technical communication for teachers, students, researchers, and practitioners?

Natasha: Whoa, that’s a big question. For me, I think I’m already seeing hopes that I had for technical communication as a field come to fruition. First, my hope is for a more inclusive field and I think we are starting to see that in the ways that folks take up technical communication as an interdisciplinary, advocacy-oriented discipline that, at its core, concerns itself with people. I think folks are beginning to understand that, as technical communicators, you must be concerned about and address things like race, gender, disability, sexuality, access, inclusion, ethnicity–I could go on, but all the things that impact human experiences. I see more and more folks speaking up and speaking out about the varied ways that our positionalities and privileges affect how we do our work and who we are accountable to in our work. In essence, I suppose my hope is for honest acknowledgements of how who we are shapes our experiences in personal, political, and professional ways and the realization of the myriad ways that technical communicators can engage in and commit to justice work.

Many thanks to Dr. Natasha N. Jones for taking the time to share her experiences and advice with Technical Communication!

In this Issue

As important as the information shared by Dr. Jones, this issue of Technical Communication is filled with exciting research that explores technical communication strategies that served as the launch pad for Oxycontin, the convergence of technical communication and marketing communication in DIY videos, the content marketing strategy for a start-up company that sells DIY solar products, a comparison of corporate websites in China and the U.S., and a comparison of students’ perceptions of EFL language learning in WeChat and Moodle in a Taiwanese collaborative learning context.

In the first article, “What They were Thinking: Communal Rationality, Strategic Action Fields, and the Launch Plan for Oxycontin,” Michael J. Madson uses strategic action field (SAF) as a heuristic to investigate the 1990’s launch plan for Oxycontin in the United States. In doing so, the author asks: What is going on? What is at stake? What interpretive frames are constructed? and What are the rules of the game? The author writes, “The communal rationality expressed in the launch plan involves a complex tangle of cultural knowledge, including state and national laws, guidelines, classes of analgesics, and industry practices. The writers effectively translate this knowledge into opportunities, positioning statements, strategies, and tactics. In some ways, the launch plan is an exemplary piece of technical and professional communication, but its treatment of ethics and risk is highly problematic—arguably making it an example of communication failure as well.” In this article, the author acknowledges previous research in technical communication, which explores this public health crisis and concludes, “[e]fforts to address the opioid crisis must remain a high priority however long it lasts, being ‘one of the largest and most complex public health tragedies that [the United States] has ever faced…’ The launch plan for OxyContin provides a valuable point of entrée.”

In the case study, “Convergent Practices in Social Media Videos: Examining Genre Conventions in Business-to-Consumer Content,” Brandon C. Strubberg and Chase Mitchell analyze tech comm, marcomm, and convergent social media videos “to delineate genre conventions across genres.” In their examination of DIY videos, they find that convergent characters are “distinct from tech comm and marcomm.” The authors write, “In this article, we present a case study of select videos from the Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts of Home Depot and Lowe’s. We first examine videos that align with genre practices for both tech comm and marcomm video content creation. We then use those examples of instructional and marketing videos to compare with apparent convergent content—as defined by Samuels and Aschwanden (2017) and Urbina (2017)—to discuss how the traditional genre conventions are used in convergent content. Our goal is to illustrate the differences between traditional genres and convergence and aid technical communicators in understanding the genre and how to think strategically about convergent content.”

The third article is another case study that examines technical communication surrounding DIY content. In “Strategy of Technical Content Marketing in an Entrepreneurial Tech Company: Using the Funnel-Bucket Model to Guide the Message and Media,” Scott Mogull writes, “In this article, the content strategy for technical content marketing (TCM) is examined for a start-up tech company, Terra Solar, commercializing a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) home solar power kit that makes clean energy more affordable and accessible to a wider range of consumers. Notably, this article illustrates the role of technical communication in technical content marketing using the funnel-bucket model, a framework for implementing content strategy for new products, to inform the communication goals of an entrepreneurial technology company and provides a framework for implementing content marketing publication strategy for new technical products…This article situates strategic marketing plans with the theory of content strategy and includes a review of the latest research in content marketing to provide readers with a research-based guide for planning the commercialization strategy for technology products.”

In the fourth article, “Comparing the Multimodality of Chinese and U.S. Corporate Homepages: The Importance of Understanding Local Cultures,” Wenjuan Xu and Xingsong Shi develop a framework for annotating multimodal elements on corporate websites and use this framework to compare 35 Chinese and 35 U.S. corporate websites. The authors write, “First, in the study, we construct an annotation framework for systematically analyzing the composition and arrangement of multimodal resources on corporate homepages. The framework has been tested and verified in this research and can serve as the annotation instrument for other varieties of digital documents, such as social media platforms and mobile apps, to name a few. Second, departing from the traditional qualitative research approach, we adopt a quantitatively oriented method and provide a more nuanced and objective picture of the multimodal nature of corporate homepages. Third, rather than limiting the analyses in a single cultural context, we conduct a comparative study on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages. The findings, based on a genre-sensitive and empirically grounded approach, verify the influence of culture on business online communication, and further attract our attention to cross-cultural variations in the verbal-visual interfaces on online communicative platforms.”

We conclude this issue with “Incorporating Computer-Mediated Communication in EFL Reading,” by Hui-Fang Shang. In this article, the author conducts a comparison of students’ perceptions of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learning using WeChat and Moodle in a senior-level undergraduate English course at private university in Southern Taiwan. The author writes, “The study’s findings will provide insight about what happens in online peer CMC environments for EFL teachers and curriculum designers. It also recommends that instructors consider balancing the use of different CMC modes, not only to increase students’ motivation in collaborative peer learning environment but also to satisfy individual preferences and needs by understanding the benefits and drawbacks of using online CMC modes.