How to Inform Your College-Level Technical Writing Syllabus

Casey Armstrong
Dec 3, 2018 · 7 min read

by Looking at Current Academic and Practitioner Attitudes and Opinions toward Tech Comm.

I don’t teach technical writing; I’m currently a copywriter, a tech writer intern, and a grad student. However, I am thinking that when I retire, twenty years or so from now, after a career as a “documentarian” (a.k.a. programmer-writer or software-documentation-technical-writer), I might like to teach technical writing in community college.

That is why I’m taking a course in teaching technical writing now, and this blog post is one of my assignments.

Now that we have been properly introduced, I can let you know that this post has one goal:

Synthesizing the current online conversations and surveys about the rift between academic and practitioner attitudes and opinions about tech comm in order to generate practical advice for those who are about to write or edit a college-level technical writing syllabus.

Let the sources begin!

The main source of this conversation comes from my favorite technical writing blog, by Tom Johnson. (However, I do include one piece of work from Communication Design Quarterly.)

Article 1: Results from my Academic/Practitioner Attitudes surveys now available (an article discussing a survey with 407 practitioner responses and 65 academic responses)

  • Audience: Despite some confusing results, the survey showed that many people disagreed with the statement, “ Industry practitioners (rather than other academics) are the primary audience for research.”
  • Understanding: The majority (41%) of practitioners were “undecided” when asked if, “ Academics understand the challenges and issues that practitioners face in the workplace.”

Article 2: The Academic/Practitioner Conversations Project

  • Different Worlds: “ (…) although practitioners and academics should be working closely with each other, they operate and communicate in independent spheres.”
  • Make the Divide Visible: “The Solution (…) requires exposure and visibility of ideas from each group to the other. If I’ve learned anything as one of the tech comm’s most visible bloggers, it’s this: the trick to visibility and influence is to merely publish (insightful) content in the same space over a prolonged period of time. It’s this sharing of content that will bring us together.”

Article 3: Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners in tech comm?

  • Tools: “Journal articles focus on theory, research, practice, etc., not tool tips or the best component content management systems. To thrive in their careers, academics must orient their research on topics that journals will publish. Practitioners, on the other hand, must stay current with tools, because just about every job description filters out candidates based on the tools and technologies they know. Practitioners spend all day working in tools, so they have a lot to say about them.”
  • Paywalls, such as an STC membership, often stand in between practitioners and the content produced by academics.
  • No connection: Academic insights don’t always connect with practitioners.
  • Blogging: Encourage academics to blog about their work.
  • Feedback: Intentionally give feedback across disciplines.

Article 4: What technical writing trends will we see in 2018?

  • Both academics and practitioners can agree that we both want to simplify complexity. Can we deliver on that promise?

Article 5: Theory to Practice: Negotiating Expertise for New Technical Communicators (p76)

  • “…budget, timeline, and resources become equal considerations to an ideal user experience. In the classroom, students are largely responsible for the constraints on their work. An example of this would be the amount of time a student dedicates to an assignment or the number of self-reviews before submitting their work. These are self-imposed constraints, whereas in the workplace, constraints are often out of a writer’s direct control. Even when assignments attempted to replicate a workplace situation or emerged from a student’s current employment, the moving pieces of the workplace were not always accurately discussed or represented.”

Article 6: (Podcast) The relationship between academics and practitioners — Podcast with Kirk St. Amant

  • Some Numbers: There are a few hundred full-time academics studying tech comm., and there are a few thousand professionals that teach tech comm but have a different focus for their career. There are around 7 major publications that focus on tech comm..
  • What Do Both Focus On? Both agree that the gist of tech comm. is how humans share information about science and technology and how technology shapes the way we communicate.
  • Different Agendas: Practitioners are looking for very specific answers to very specific questions, but, often, academics are looking for general Trends. Can we find where these quests intersect?
  • Both Groups are guilty of talking past each other.
  • Knowing where to look: Knowing where to find (free)published research is a challenge for practitioners.
  • Blogs help the two connect: Researchers should blog and be rewarded for doing so professionally.

Applying these lessons to creating a college level technical writing syllabus

So, now that we have the bullet points above, each pointing out how we are both getting-into-trouble and how-we-can-improve when it comes to the rift between professions, let’s think how we can apply it to the prototypical technical writing syllabus used in college.

  1. Don’t be afraid to focus on tools!

While tools change over time, and it is true that tools do not define what a technical communicator does, in the abstract sense, they do heavily shape the workflow for the average practitioner. So, talking about these tools in the classroom, especially game-changing tools like the version-control mammoth GitHub, cannot be a bad thing.

2. If possible, bring practitioners into the classroom.

They can be guests, or you can pair-up students for informational interviews in the community to see if what they learn in class has things in common with what the practitioner is doing. Another way to do this is to hire more current practitioners as adjunct staff. Then, the connection will happen more naturally.

3. Rewrite educational materials or show by-some-other-means how to apply theory and research into practice.

Use mock companies, etc., to tell stories about insights. Some technical writing research and textbooks are better at this than others. The professor might have to put in extra work to make sure the connection is solid.

4. Blog about your course content and what you’re teaching, parts of your syllabus, etc., and advertise your blog to practitioners.

This way practitioners can read and comment on your work and thoughts reasoning for teaching this or that, etc.

5. Talk about technical writing trends with the class and invite practitioners as guest speakers to get their take on those trends.

This would be to validate the existence of trends, such as Docs like Code, DITA, or chatbots use in support, etc.

6. Create a fake work environment in class.

Do your best to have an assignment mimic a modern technical writing “deliverable.” Have students use certain tools and project management methods found in the typical technical writing environment such as Agile, JIRA, Trello, GitHub, Freshdesk, etc.


The main takeaway is that in addition to creating an intellectual environment for discussing tech comm. topics, you should think of your students as being practitioners and working alongside practitioners.

  • Will your students be able to talk about what they did in class at a job interview (with positive results)?
  • Are your students able to talk about their use of specific tools that are en vogue in the industry they want to enter?
  • Are you presenting academic tech comm research to the students in a way that will later help them inform their decisions in the workplace?
  • Are syllabus items giving students a peek at what tech comm. decisions look like with real-world factors like budgets and deadlines in mind?

Depending on how you answer these questions, it might be time to revisit that syllabus!

The Documentarian Planetarium

News articles and blog posts about the universe of writing developer documentation….

Casey Armstrong

Written by

Technical Writer obsessed with #API’s, #VR, #Chatbots, #Crowdsourcing, #Microvolunteering, #PortableHomelessShelters, and the future!!

The Documentarian Planetarium

News articles and blog posts about the universe of writing developer documentation….

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