In 2008, when I began assembling a dossier for job applications, I wrote a teaching philosophy that described my role in the classroom as that of a facilitator or guide and my philosophy as “pragmatic teaching grounded in theory.” Periodically, I review this statement to update it as needed. When I applied for tenure and promotion to associate professor in 2014 and again as I applied for promotion to full professor in 2019, I realized that these statements still ring true.
Technical communication sits a bit uneasily within the Department of English and the College of Arts and Humanities. We are certainly concerned with the human condition and culture, although we are more likely to talk about “audience” and “users.” We construct documents as carefully as creative writers or literary theorists, carefully choosing precisely the right word, revising and rearranging …and then we usability test it and revise it again. Our work is described by words like practical, accurate, concise, correct, and usable. Instead of moving readers to emotion, we try to move them to action or decisions.
Because we are teaching a process more than a subject matter specialization, and because our students come from disciplines across the university and jobs across the spectrum, I see myself as a guide or facilitator, helping the students discover information and resources that are available to help them become better communicators. When they leave my classroom, they will have to rely on themselves and their peers or colleagues to get the information they need. If I have done my job well, they will have the confidence and the experience to do just that. Therefore, I see my class as “practice” for life outside of college. I emphasize the need to make choices that will clarify the message; offer the readers the information they need to understand topics, take action, or make decisions; and establish their credibility as an author. These choices include the rhetorical strategies they use to express ideas, including the word choices, the document format, the organization of the material, and the visual design of the document.
In my technical and business communication courses, I have three primary goals for the students.
- To acquire writing skills that will take them beyond the university and into the work place.
- To develop their collaborative work skills.
- To think critically about the world around them and the documents—both text and visual—that they encounter.
To meet the first goal, I must help students adapt the writing skills they learned in high school to the demands of college and the work place. For most of my undergraduate students, technical or business communication is the second (and last) writing course they will take in college. My students will enter the work place and find themselves writing documents of various sorts. They will discover that the five paragraph essay and the academic term paper are not acceptable or applicable to their work.
To this end, I focus on audience, argumentation, and persuasion in my courses. In the introductory business and technical communication course, assignments and genres are specific to work place writing. I also continually remind students to be aware of the audience, purpose, and context of their writing, to think of the people outside the classroom who will use their work to accomplish as task or answer a question. In doing so I believe that it is essential to address the ethical issues of being a communicator. As Steven B. Katz argued in “The Ethic of Expediency,” even communication that adheres to the technical communication principles of clarity, conciseness, and accuracy may not necessarily be ethical. Students must understand that rhetorical awareness also includes a personal awareness of their role as the authors of documents.
I am a firm believer in the value of group work and group discussion. While I value collaboration for constructing knowledge, exchanging feedback, and practicing writing skills in a safe environment, I often encounter resistance to group work. Some simply learn better on their own while others prefer the traditional lecture format either because it is familiar or because they have not prepared sufficiently for class and don’t want to be discovered. In the work place, however, people rarely work alone and may even work with people they do not like very much. My classroom is a place where students can experiment with techniques and strategies for working with others.
The resistance to collaboration is particularly strong in online courses. Students find collaborative work difficult to coordinate and trust difficult to build when they are never in the same place at the same time. But technical communicators, perhaps more than most other occupations, must be able to work remotely, within teams of varying backgrounds and expertise, and while juggling multiple projects.
Finally, I want all of my students to think critically about the documents that surround them every day. By presenting students with readings and documents from the world around them (such as photographs of billboards, letters from local companies, brochures, websites, newspaper or magazine articles, and chapters of popular press books), I ask them to think about the author’s rhetorical strategy and I challenge the students to question the effectiveness of the document. Focusing on the classical tenets of ethos, logos, and pathos, I repeatedly ask them to identify the goals of the document and the ways that the author tries to accomplish those goals. While students may feel shy about using the foreign words in their discussions, they do understand the nature of ethical, logical, and emotional appeals. Once they begin thinking in this way, I hope that they will then turn the lens upon themselves and analyze their own rhetorical strategies.
What Video Games Taught Me About Teaching
In 2006, I read What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee. His premise is that all video games have an instructional component—how to navigate the world, how to follow the rules, and how to win—but the player never feels like overt training is taking place. He developed a list of 36 learning principles that can be applied to education, too. When I began teaching ENG 676 Instructional Design for Technical Communicators in 2010, Gee’s book became a staple in the reading list. For the past two years, his principles have influenced many of my instructional design decisions.
I do not mean to suggest that I’m developing games for the classroom (although I have certainly done that, too). Instead, I think about concepts like simulating a workplace situation or context, offering plenty of opportunities for practice, keeping students at the edge of their comfort zone, and creating a space where failure is kept in perspective: a natural part of learning, a chance for a “re-do” or to learn lessons that will increase the chance of future success. I explained this in the article "Gamification in the Business Communication Classroom" published in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. My work in this areas was also the basis of the Game-Based Learning Mini Grant Cohort, a professional learning community that I led through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
Methods & Strategies
I strongly believe in social constructive theories of learning, particularly active learning methods:
- People learn by doing.
- People learn by exercising basic skills in new ways.
- People learn by talking with others and by explaining to others.
My goal is to incorporate each of these methods into my classes as much as possible, although I am aware that I must adjust the frequency and intensity of each method depending upon class size, topic, and chemistry. In smaller classes, both traditional and online, I generally use mini-lectures of 10-15 minutes followed by small group activities and large group discussions to report back to the class at the end of the meeting. I also extend the small group discussions onto online discussion lists so that students can see what others think and brainstorm ideas while they encounter a professional use of technology that they use in their private lives. In courses that have a lab component, I schedule regular workshops to practice our skills and help each other troubleshoot problems.
Learning Environment: Online and On-Campus
During my probationary period, two-thirds of my annual course schedule was synchronous online courses and one-third was traditional (face-to-face) courses. For the past few years, I have taught an asynchronous online course. Over the years I have experimented with a variety of software and course management systems, including Moodle, WebCT, and D2L Brightspace. I have even taught courses using only Google applications. I select technology that offers features that we need to do our work, and I enjoy experimenting with new applications or ways of solving our communication tasks.
The online classes in the Technical Communication program include a weekly 90 minute synchronous chat and asynchronous discussion forums between chats. We believe that contact with students helps build rapport, and studies have indicated that such rapport increases retention and student success. Anecdotal feedback from students indicates that the studies are correct. Plus, I like talking with my students. They're fascinating people with wonderfully diverse experiences. In MBA 610 Writing in the Workplace, we rely on discussion boards and email to communicate with each other, and developing and maintaining social presence is even more crucial to providing a positive experience for the students.
Technical and professional communication teachers won't be surprised to learn that I have adapted elements of online pedagogy into my on-campus courses, creating a “flipped” classroom experience. Lectures are recorded as podcasts and students are expected to watch and take notes on their own. Our time together in the computer lab is a combination of discussion, Q&A, and writing workshop. I want to be available to answer questions while students are working. I want to be able to see the development of their projects in real time. Gathering research from the web, performing collaborative writing, or experimenting with elements of visual rhetoric are all activities that lend themselves well to a computer classroom. Whenever possible, I project my screen and model the writing experience for the students. They help me with ideas while I struggle with word choices and cringe at misspelled words. But they see that writing is messy and recursive, even for someone who is sort of an expert at writing. We all have room for improvement.
I like to incorporate technology into my class—after all, it’s technical communication—but I also think that too much technology can overwhelm the purpose of writing courses. With the computer screen in front of them and a superfast connection to the internet, students often forget that they are in the classroom in order to learn to communicate professionally. Classes—on-campus or online—typically begin with a warm-up activity or small group discussion. This activity serves two purposes. First, students have the opportunity to discuss what they read and ask each other questions or, if they did not get a chance to complete the readings, learn enough from their partner to participate in the day’s discussion. Second, it encourages students to meet their peers, and I have discovered that students often develop informal learning communities or friendships that help them in my class as well as in other classes.
 Katz, Steven B. (1992). The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust. College English 54(3): 255-275. http://www.jstor.org/stable/378062
 An ongoing debate in our field: Is it communication about technology or communication using technology? The answer is a bit of both.
grounded in theory
In a nutshell, my philosophy of teaching is that students know things that they don’t know they know. My job is to help them realize that and help them see how the work that they do in my classroom forms the foundation of the communication they will do when they walk out the door.