Re: In defense of tech doc education

Subject: Re: In defense of tech doc education
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000 12:14:19 -0500

Tim wrote in defense of tech doc education. I respond with a defense of real

The debate about whether tech comm degrees are useful or not seems to me to
miss the point. If you learn something you didn't know before, then to that
extent they are useful to you. If you didn't learn anything you didn't know
before, or could not have learned more quickly and easily by reading or
experiment, then they are not useful to you.

The real question is, are they an appropriate educational strategy?

The classic professional degrees exist largely to impart a large and highly
refined and structured body of information. Lawyers learn the law. Doctors
learn anatomy and body chemistry, engineers learn about materials, stresses,
and loads.

Technical communication has no content. Andrew suggests basic technology
courses, but that is not a rigorous and well defined body of knowledge. As
others have pointed out, the list he suggest does not necessarily apply to
the areas they work in. Nor could any list. Skimming the surface of a dozen
disciplines does not enable you to write effectively about any of them. If
it did, we would hire tech writers right out of high school.

Technical communication is not a profession, it is a job title. To succeed
as a technical writer you have to be able to:

* do research
* learn a subject in depth
* analyze and understand the needs of an audience
* select and organize material to express an idea clearly
* write clearly and idiomatically

These are not specialized skills. They are general skills that should be
required to earn a degree in any discipline and to practice in any
profession that is based on any substantial body of knowledge.

Any graduate of any academic or profession program should therefor have
mastered all the skills required to become a technical writer.

More to the point, they will have mastered those skills by immersion. By
actually doing research, actually learning a subject in depth, and actually
writing clearly and effectively about that subject. If they haven't done
these things, then they don't deserve a degree.

The problem then, with a tech com degree (even one based on Andrew's fairly
rigorous curriculum) is that the students study these skills but do not
exercise them in any but an artificial way. And at the end of their program
they have not learned any subject in depth. By studying these skills in
abstract instead of exercising them in practice in a real degree program,
they have had an education of less value generally, and also of less value
in preparing them for their chosen profession.

Now we must admit that most degree programs do not enforce the kinds of
standards I have set out for earning a degree. So you might argue that
technical communication degrees at least serve a remedial function, either
for the individual student, or for the university system in general.

But if so, why should we expect that the universities that could not provide
these fundamentals in their regular degree programs will be able to provide
them in their tech comm programs? And why do expect that students who could
not acquire these skills in a regular degree program will be able to acquire
them in a tech comm program?

Technical writing is not a profession. It is a job title. It is a job (like
many other jobs) that requires the exercise of the common skills of every
properly educated person. Conceivably you may acquire those skills by being
trained in them rather than acquiring them as a result of being properly
educated, but why would you choose that approach? It is so obviously a less
enriching way to go about it.

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