Future of the Field

Teaching Talk: Future of the Field

February 5, 2016

On February 5, 2016, Women in Technical Communication held its first Teaching Talk of the year. Teaching Talks are an opportunity for members of Women in Technical Communication to discuss teaching concerns, consider pedagogical innovations and approaches, and share their experiences in the classroom and out. The first Teaching Talk of the year cast a wide net, as Lisa Meloncon facilitated a discussion of the Future of the Field and how we can consider it in our classrooms and teaching practices. Because of the nature of this talk, we didn’t share syllabi or make plans–we mostly just talked, mused, and asked questions. Cagle Lauren and I took notes, and so I’m writing up the general themes and content of the Teaching Talk for those who couldn’t attend.

A Brief Introduction

Lisa began with a brief history of the field, trying to help us get our bearings on the present state of the field. Here outline is here, but I’ll summarize some of the major themes:

  • The field isn’t actually a particularly new field, though it seems like it. Although we are expanding programs, developing methodologies, and broadening our areas of research, we’re generally confronting the same old problems.
  • The problems that continue to re-emerge include theoretical concerns, like recognizing hyperpragmatism [a term borrowed from J. Blake Scott, Bernadette Longo, and Katherine Willis from the Intro to Critical Power Tools] and balancing the roles of emergent technologies, and curricular concerns, like acknowledging the dominant institutional cultures we work in and integrating research and an “real” projects into programs. These old-but-new problems require the updating of pedagogies that can be adapted.
  • Future concerns extend out of these existing problems, and they include curricular and institutional concerns.
    • Institutional Concerns included
      • Programs with unique outcomes and identities (and questions around this)
        This institutional concerns is felt in two ways. First, program outcomes may look quite different from other segments of the department or the college and questions are raised how to reconcile these unique program outcomes with more generic outcomes that may be present. Second, attention has to be paid as to how to market, develop, and nurture unique program identities in a way that make sense institutionally, as well as to outside constituencies.
      • Tension between marketing and doing
        In the current landscape of higher education, most programs must include ongoing marketing efforts to keep their enrollments steady or increasing. There is a tension between how we market programs (which is typically highlighting the skills, the hyperpragmatism, versus the actuality of a program that is much more nuanced and includes critical and theoretical discussions as well as practical emphasis on skills.
      • When, why and how to create new programs with no new resources
        When asked to create a new program or update an existing one, careful attention needs to be paid to what existing resources are availabe. See the questions at the end of this summary for more information.
      • Need for qualified faculty
        TPC is still not producing enough graduates trained specifically in the field to fill the number of job listings. This means some programs are hirign faculty they may not be the best fit for their program, but they do so in fear of not being able to hire or lose the line. The repercussions of this means programs have to develop ongoing professional development opportunities.
    • Curricular Concerns included:
      • More emphasis on the visual
        The visual component of our work is not going away, but in some cases programs have not kept up with this increasing demand. This particular need requires teachers who are trained both in the theoretical aspects of the visual and their incorporation into communication, as well as the technical aspects (the tools needed to create this information). This can be challenging and often requires finding creative ways to for professional development for current faculty.
      • Continuing concerns with how technologies mediate information
        We communicate through a variety of technologies and that mediation is only going to increase. There is an ongoing tension between the level of technological literacy we teach compared to teaching basic and advanced communication practices. In many ways, the issue of technology mirrors the field’s ongoing concerns between how to balance theory and practice.
      • New focus on ethics because of shifting in communication
        The issue of ethics has in some ways fallen off our radar both from a research and teaching perspective. While there is doubt many of us have units on ethics in our courses, it is clear we need to step up these discussions. Current students have somewhat different ideas about ethics because they have always lived in the age of the Internet where so much information is available. Old questions about ethical representation of information takes on new angles when considered in light of  public/private or big data (to name but two examples).
      • Continued need for clear communication of complex ideas
        We are still teaching students the art of communication and how to communicate complex ideas to a variety of audiences. Almost every report from all sorts of government agency, think tank, business consulting firm, etc., all list written and oral communication skills as something they desire in new employes. We sometimes lose sight of this with all the other pressures our programs are trying to accomodate.
      • Problem solving both locally and globally
        Along with communication, everyone wants a problem solver. This means that our programs need to present students with classroom material that challenges them to solve complex problems from both a local level, but a global one as well.
      • Match program to local markets
        While programs do have similarities, they also have differences that are specific to local markets. For example, the local market in Charlotte, NC leans heavily toward banking and finance, which means many examples or projects are focused in that direction. Other locations may have a strong market in pharmaceutical writing, which would require some attention to the particular nature of that writing and doing. This is ongoing challenge where the line is in balancing these needs (general versus specialized).  
      • teaching and putting programs online
        In the large majority of cases, putting a program is not going to make program a lot of money. But many administrator types believe that it will. Finances aside, moving a program (or course) online has many difficulties and challenges and needs to be a strategic decision that all faculty are invested in, that is, it needs more than a singular champion for long-term sustainability. A good place to start for instructors AND programs is Meloncon’s, 2008 articleon instructor preparedness (you can find it at tek-ritr.com/publications). The series of steps and questions still hold up.

Questions and Major Takeaways

The bulk of the Teaching Talk revolved around professional development questions, moving the discussion from “What is the Future of the Field?” to “How Should I Engage with the Future of the Field?” All scholars in Women in Technical Communication will help shape and change the future of the field and their own institutions, and so this shift seems particularly apt. And, of course the way TC looks in the future is context- and institution-dependent.

Questions from participants included:

There are a few of us who just finished a run on the job market and I just got a job offer yesterday when they said I can have as many course releases as I want to redo their English Department. On the market–there are a lot of TC jobs in traditional English departments. What do we as early career scholars do when we are tasked with everything in the department?

How do we plan our careers, given the future of the field? Where should we publish and how should we consider grants, books, and other important elements of the field?

What is the relationship between the Doctoral training many scholars receive in diverse fields and the kind of curricula developed for MS/MA, and BS/BAs in Technical Communication? Is there a need to “cross-train” scholars in order to accommodate these curricula?


Some Crowd Sourced Advice and Responses:

Plan Strategically & Craft your Persona

These two suggestions grew out of separate discussions and questions, but I’m going to put them together because planning strategically without a sense of how that plan will craft your persona is, perhaps, a bit of an oversight. So, first attendees suggested that we work with mentors [perhaps from #womeninTC] to consider your own professional future, and strategize about the kind of time you can commit to curricular and institutional projects. Because these projects often disappear into “service” categories, being mindful of the realities of time and tenure is essential.

In any given situation, how much time you can spend on projects depends entirely upon your Tenure and Promotion Documents.

Later in the discussion, grants, books, and publication locations were also discussed: where should we publish? How important is the book? etc., Of course, the answer to this was tied to the institution: Really, you have to consult the Tenure and Promotion Documents. Most attendees agreed that the field of technical communication isn’t a book field, but if your T&P policies require a book: you gotta write a book. Period.

Be Wary of Enthusiastic Support without Resources

Part of planning strategically is demanding resources–not just support. The term resource often gets used to mean just financial, but we also discussed time as an important resource. As enthusiastic as departments might be about your new digital humanities lab or your exciting new curricular initiatives, unless they’re also enthusiastically offering you course releases and/or more money, take care with projects that potentially draw your attention away from the work you’re already doing.

Importantly, these decisions must always be made within context. In some institutions, the curricular work is non-negotiable and really important both to your colleagues and to the program. In other places, these projects become invisible work that is unlikely to contribute to your success.


As we discussed maintaining our success [and our sanity], senior mentors recommended avoiding titles at all costs. The problem with titles, it seems, is that the programmatic work assigned can then become neatly brushed under the rug of the “Director of Running Very Important Programs” and “Coordinator of Big Huge Initiative.” It gets more difficult to say no when work seems to fall under the hat of the DRVIP or the CBHI.

There are, of course circumstances where [for whatever reason], pre-tenure faculty end up with titles. Unfortunately, this is happening more now than it did, say, 5 years ago. In these cases, consult 1 & 2, and be sure to map out exactly what activities fall under the purview of your title.

And, importantly, don’t innovate pre-tenure. Just keep things afloat.

Observe to Understand the Institutional Culture

The ways our teaching dictates the future of the field depend upon the institutional context. Senior members of the field recommended relying on observation to learn more about the possibilities, potentials, and expectations of the institution you’re working/learning at.

You are not a Unicorn. [Even if you are sparkly and new.]

Although participants joked about our talents and sought-after skills that may raise enrollments or bring dollars, but it is important to balance what is desired from your position by your institution and what is, for yourself, strategically feasible and rewarded by promotion and tenure committees. It is wonderful to be needed, but you will need to balance that need with your own career success and longevity. You CAN deliver unicorn items like digital curriculum or internship programs or labs, but you must plan with your mentors for the time, space, and support over time.


In truth, the Teaching Talk seemed, at first glance, to have less to do with teaching and more to do with how participants situate themselves as part of the field. But as we spoke, I realized that we had developed a series of heuristic questions that can be used when we get tasked with shaping and innovating a program. Here are some heuristic questions to think through that keep the future of the field of technical communication in their sights:

  • Who am I trying to serve?
  • Do I need separate tracks for these constituencies?
  • (How) can these tracks’ courses exist in f2f vs. online contexts?
  • What technologies do I need to serve these tracks?
  • Can I cross-train instructors to teach these courses f2f and online?
  • How does [thing you’re being asked to do] impact students, other faculty in the program and the department?
  • Do we have the appropriate resources to do this “right”? If not, what can we offer instead based on the resources we do have?

Sign up for the next Teaching Talk, to be held on March 4th at 2 pm ET. Michele Simmons and Natasha Jones will facilitate a discussion of Community Engagement and Social Justice in the Classroom. Even if you can’t come, we’d love to hear more about how Women in Tech Comm can help support you!