Perks of Teaching Technical Writing

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More and more colleges are giving communications courses for students whose major fields of study are engineering, science, and liberal arts. At the University of Florida, for example, all future engineers are required to take basic technical writing: This alone has increased the enrollment in the course by some four hundred students a year.

We mention this to indicate that colleges teaching technical writing need more teachers. Some of these teachers have already prepared themselves by obtaining special degrees at such schools as Rensselaer, Carnegie-Mellon, and Colorado State. Others are branching out into what is a completely new field for them.

Schools of journalism are now recognizing that their graduates may get jobs in science writing for newspapers and journals. They also may end up in publicity or advertising with a heavy science slant. All of these students of technical journalism must be instructed by qualified teachers. For this reason, openings for technical communication instructors are multiplying.

You will find that most positions require an M.A. or Ph.D. degree, and that administrators favor applicants with some experience in teaching technical writing. The problem may then be how to qualify for these positions, especially if you are coming from a traditional English department.

Some universities are now developing and offering courses, particularly on the graduate level, in the practice and teaching of technical writing. This is usually the result of an English department's awakening to the opportunities open to its students in this area, especially to students who already have some expertise in technical writing. A typical graduate-level course of this kind would offer instruction in business and technical communication, providing you with basic texts, study outlines, and assorted assignments and exercises.

If departmental courses are not available, you have other options. Several universities, among them the University of Michigan, MIT, and Rensselaer, offer week-long institutes and seminars. Here are opportunities to network with many people, both experienced and inexperienced, trade ideas, and get a real feel for this comparatively new discipline. These institutions and seminars regularly cover useful classroom topics, such as types of technical writing courses, designing objectives for technical writing courses, report writing topics and assignments, evaluation and grading of student papers, and computer-assisted instruction. Frequently these programs will include information about resource material available to technical writing teachers, areas of needed research, and consulting possibilities. Most of the programs will include workshops in which the participants practice various technical writing skills to give them a better understanding of some of the problems their students may face. Any technical writing teacher will gain valuable experience and acquire much useful information by attending such a program, and the teacher seeking a technical writing teaching position will enhance his or her credentials by participation.

The annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) is also a valuable source of information. What better way to learn than to talk with professional writers and with well-known teachers? At the STC conference you also may learn about the prevailing job market and meet with potential employers. Of late, associations such as the Modern Language Association and the Popular Culture Association have been including panel sessions on various aspects of teaching and research in technical writing in their national and regional meetings. This is concrete testimony of an increased awareness of the importance of technical writing teaching at a time when there are many cutbacks in other teaching areas.

Once you have gained a position teaching technical writing, you do not need to struggle along unaided, even if you are the only per-son in your school teaching the subject.

Teacher Resources

A basic exposition syllabus, coupled with a reliable technical writing text and any supporting materials gathered from the sources already mentioned, is a starting point. The new teacher can draw on a variety of resources. The Technical Communication Quarterly, a journal, provides many useful suggestions contributed by experienced teachers. In the same category is the Journal of Technical Communication. Perhaps the most attractive feature of this publication is the mixture of articles by both teachers and industrial writers. You can easily carry over into your classes many of the ideas suggested by practicing writers.

The STC provides much useful information through its magazine, Technical Communication. STC also publishes a series of specialized collections including Teaching Technical Writing and How to Teach Technical Editing. The National Council of Teachers of English has put out several pamphlets on teaching technical writing, and their journal, College English, publishes some fine articles on technical writing that the new or experienced teacher will find useful. A bibliography of references for many areas of technical writing, as well as a list of periodicals and journals, is included in Appendix B.

New teachers of technical writing will often have the benefit of working with an experienced technical writing teacher, who will provide direction and useful materials to support the new teacher. Without such help, a new teacher can survive by relying on his or her background in English composition along with the realization that technical writing is practical in nature (there is no place, for example, for the leisurely essay we may find in a composition text). The new teacher, supported by a good technical writing text, should assign written exercises that reflect the real needs of his or her students. Some brief reading in technical journals or in Science or Scientific American may be especially useful in making the technical writing class more relevant to students.
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