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)

Article 2: The Academic/Practitioner Conversations Project

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

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

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

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

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.

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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