It’s All Technical: Defining Technical Communications
Professional Communicator is often times referred to a skill, but not a profession. Within the field of Professional Communications, one may also discover Technical Communications. Depending on the context, Technical Communications may serve as a subfield to Professional Communications, thought to be limited to the creation of documents meant to instruct, manuscript editing, and corporate documentation. However, I believe that Technical Communications is a field that stands firm on its own. One who is a Technical Communicator also serves as a Professional Communicator, however, one who serves, as a Professional communicator is not always a Technical Communicator. Creating and thinking of this distinction allow me to separate the fields while recognizing that they can, at times, act as one in the same. In order to continue the process of defining, developing, and growing the field of technical communication, three vital aspects are to be “unpacked”; the current definition and history surrounding technical and professional communications, the current program availability in the field of professional and technical communication, as well as the current job market. All which, work within one another to continue the broadening of these fields, primarily technical communications.
This past May, I completed my MA in Professional Communications and Leadership. Feeling proud of myself, I thought, “ What do I do with a degree in Professional Communications?” Questioning, if the degree that I just put thousands of dollars into was worth no more than the paper it was printed on. For a year and a half, I was never had the pleasure of being granted the definition of Professional Communications. Even as I navigated through my writing process (the planning stage) to complete this defining assignment, I began to refer back to my course required texts and realized none of them explicitly define Professional Communications as a skill, profession, or simply in general. My curriculum was very leadership focused, however, I took the extra steps to ensure I enrolled in any Technical Communication course available to me. These courses included Social Media Writing, Writing for the Non-Profit Sector, Technical Editing, and a course based on Technical Communication skills within the workplace – that just so happened to be titled Professional Communications. Then one day as I thought about what jobs may be appropriate for my career choice, I was thinking human resources/ diversity training, I realized what was best, and I began to refer to myself as a Technical Communicator. Everyone can be or possess the skills it takes to be considered a Professional Communicator, but something about the difficulty and effort required of my Technical Communication courses, made me believe owning the title of Technical Communicator would set me apart. As well as, provide me thespace to continue to develop my communications skills and research focuses, rather it be in the work place or in academia.
Webster’s defines the term professional in three key ways, “ relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill”, “ done or given by a person who works in a particular profession”, and “ following a line of conduct as though it was profession”. Then defies communication as “ the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. to someone else” or “ a message that is given to someone: a letter, telephone call, etc.” What I find rather interesting about these terms, is that by definition, one should think of or assume that Professional Communicator serves as a title, rather than just a skill description based on their definition. However, I do recognize how it can represent a skill as well. Now, since we have already established the communication part of Technical Communications, it is only correct to take a moment to review how we define technical.
Webster’s simple definitions of technical defines technical as, “ relating to the practical use of machines or science in industry, medicine, etc.” , “ teaching practical skills rather than ideas about literature, art, etc.”, and “ having special knowledge especially of how machines work or of how a particular kind of work is done.” What I love about the final simple definition is that it mentions the special knowledge of how machines work. Even though Webster does not state so, but I believe that humans are machines as well. Based on this definition, I think it also establishes why not all Professional Communicators are Technical Communicators, because they may not poses the knowledge necessary to own the title. For example, in my original career choice, I wished to develop documents for diversity training completed by corporation human resource departments. Creating the documents would seem like the role of a Professional Communicator, however, I posses a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) entry certification, which would in turn, allow me to be considered a Technical Communicator Specialist in this case. Even though this still may not answer the direct question of what is Technical or Professional communication, the definitions provide a stepping stone to building towards a concrete universal definition, which is especially important in the development of Technical and Professional Communication programs.
In my research, methods class this past semester, with Dr. Eble ; I decided to perform my pilot research on the lack of African Americans in the field of Technical Communicators today. An issue that I was not aware existed, until I enrolled at East Carolina, hoping to earn my Ph.D. I reviewed the make up of Technical Communication faculty and those I discovered while I completed my pilot research. All through school, we never really think of the race of an author or our instructor, however, over the past 2 years, I have begun to pay close attention. To me, the faculty that I saw would represent the current state of Technical Communicators in the field today. Thus, I saw a problem, no one looked like me. In my research, I discovered that Technical Communications is an ever-evolving field that recognizes their lack of diversity, but have not been able to discover how to solve the problem. I suggested that by placing Technical Communication programs in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) the field would diversify itself in somewhat of a chain of events. Currently, in North Carolina, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College is the only HBCU that offers a Technical Communications minor. Out of the 140 Bachelor of Arts programs and 31 Bachelor of Science programs mentioned in the Society for Technical Communication technical communications database, none of the programs listed were located at HBCUs. One could personally interpret this as an attempt to keep the field primarily white males, or simply an issue of economics and curriculum development issues.
Yet, Professional Communication’s programs are lacking as well. After I realized I was struggling to find new employment, I figured it would be best to return to school to place in a position to be more qualified as well as employable. When I applied to Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia for my Master of Arts in Professional Communications and Leaders, I just happened to Google “ MA Communication”. I was not proactively looking for a degree in Professional Communications, but rather a degree that involved any aspect of communications. I reviewed the requirements for the degree and thought this program was best suited for me. Man was I wrong! Nevertheless, I made the best of it and make the program work towards my benefit. Just a surface comparison of Texas Tech’s Technical Communication program versus Armstrong State’s University Professional Communication and Leadership program, we can see that written communication skill is not valued as much in Professional Communication program. In addition, viewing the requirements of the Professional Communication program was much more broad, and not focused in a specific area. However, the Technical Communication program had a centralized focus on the effectiveness and creation of technical documentation. This is what separates Professional from Technical communication and additionally defies what is expected of programs developed for technical communications. Rather if the program is in the English, Business, or Engineering department, a centralized focus must go into the development of the curriculum and core-course requirement classes of these programs. At this point, you may be wondering how does this all tie into one another, especially when defining Technical Communications as a field? As Webster defined technical, it requires knowledge, as well as a centralized focus. The centralized focus of a higher education program of choice not only provides one with the knowledge needed to complete courses, but also continues to make them marketable.
Not being marketable drove me to return to school. I knew I did not possess what some may qualify as work experience, I only had a broad degree, English, that did not have a focus. Unfortunately, I made the same mistake twice, and did the same when I enrolled into my MA in Professional Communications program. However, I continue to see the benefit in this because I discovered technical communications, and decided to continue my education one more time, but this time, focus my studies in Technical Communications. I wanted to make sure that when I graduated for the final time, I would be able to operate in both academic and corporate spaces as a Technical Communicator, wherever I saw fit. A quick visit to the Glassdoor website, a websites who’s mission is to “ help people everywhere find jobs and companies they love” (Glassdoor, 2016), you will be able to view several variations of job descriptions containing “technical” in the title if you search “Technical Writer”. Some examples include; Technical Account Manager, Technical Writer, Technical Recruiter, and Technical Director, to name a few. However, other positions that do not include “technical” in the job title are Manager Product Support, Regional Sales Director,and Campaign Manager; Digital Marketing were listed. To me, it appears that Glassdoor may not be fully aware of the criteria associated with a Technical Communicator, and may possibly need to take additional steps to fix the glitch within their system. Then a trip to Indeed.com “ the world’s number one job site, with over 180 million unique visitors every month from over 50 different countries” (Indeed, 2016) shows completely different results. I did not expand neither search outside of Greenville, so assumed results would be low, but fairly the same. Indeed returned; Junior Technical Writer, Graphic Designer/ Technical Writer Dish Development, Principal Technical Editor, and several other positions that appeared to be much more suited for one interested in serving as a Technical Communicator. These differences in results appear as a curve ball for me. Typically, employment databases offer the same results no matter the subject on inquiry. They may have an additional one compared to others, but the results are consistent. As we continue to try to define the field of Technical Communications, this leaves me questioning if the field exists universally. As discussed in the beginning, Technical Communications fall within the umbrella of Professional Communications, but I wonder how many people or organizations are aware that Technical Communications as a field and Technical Communicators as a position on their payroll can stand alone from Professional Communications.
Where this concept may turn and differ is in academic spaces. In most cases, a new position for an instructor only happens when someone is fired, died, or decided to move on to other things in their career. I think this can be both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that one has a sense of job security, most specifically those who are working in Tenure track position. I find this negative because it does not allow for new people or ideas to enter into the field. Often times, we discuss what do we do with the knowledge or the discourses had in the classroom spaces. This is hard to decide because it is the same people in those classroom spaces. Even with their journal articles and other publications, I dare to challenge what about those who do not have access or unaware of publications available about the field. It’s as if the academia world creates a generational gap within itself, and this can be very dangerous. Again, thinking of my current professors, I believe they all are working in tenure track positions, and I do not think they will be dying or moving to another institution anytime soon. This leaves someone like me on the outside trying to find a seat at the institutional table. However, with the field continuing growth, we may see a ramp in Technical Communication programs offered across the nation, hopefully, leaving a seat for students like myself at the table, at least in faculty positions. Institutions of higher learning need to have a strong Technical Communicator within their administration to secure funds, support, and curriculum development. Even though, these positions may not have “ technical communicator” in the description or the job title.
I hope to work in the corporate as well as academia world. I have had a continued battle within myself with which may be best for me, but I acknowledge that the skill I possess as a Technical Communicator are valuable in both sectors. One of my key goals would be to return to Elizabeth City State University, one of North Carolina’s oldest HBCUs and where I received my BA in English, to create a Technical Communication program that would help revive the school to it’s old glory.
Through all of my examples, definitions, job market, and personal experiences in this project, I think everything comes down to it is all a technicality when attempting to define Technical Communications. One cannot talk about the field of Technical Communications, without acknowledging the presence of Professional Communications looming above. The conversation is based out of different contexts as well as different experiences and personal values. There is power in being a technical communicator. We have all heard that writers change the world, but I’m pretty sure they meant technical communicators. Technical Communicators possess a wealth of knowledge that can be applied in different spaces, but strategically. I cannot say this is the same for Professional Communicators, as they may not have an area of expertise outside of communication. Technical Communications requires rhetorical analysis, Meta thought, and most important to me, to “ no, your audience”. All of these tools help defy Technical Communications as more than just a plant under the shade of the Professional Communication tree. Professional Communication should be respected as well as highly regarded. Sometimes, people fail to acknowledge that operating, as a Professional Communicator requires rhetorical skill, which I believe is varies from rhetorical analysis as needed in Technical Communications. Neither field can be placed into a box of one person or body; thus, my analogy of the Professional Communication tree and Technical Communication plant. The Professional Communication tree provides some key nutrients or in this case theories to the Technical Communication plant. As time goes on and continues, the Technical Communication plant will continue to evolve to be as big as the tree while it grows and stands on it’s own while being rooted in the Professional Communication tree.