On degrees and the like...

Subject: On degrees and the like...
From: Eric Ray <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2000 08:39:43 -0700

On degrees and the like...

You know, it occurs to me that we're (collectively, as a
profession) facing an interesting problem here.

Point 1) For a variety of reasons, university degrees, particularly
at the BA/BS level, are often being perceived and marketed
as trade schools. When universities emphasize and publicize
the placement rate into the corporate world, only a Pollyanna
would think that awareness of placement rates does not also
play into curricular decisions, and not always for the best.

For example, an aspiring technical writer fresh out of
college with a degree in "technical communication" would
have far better chances to jump right into a tech comm
position if the resume shows Frame, RoboHelp, and HTML
skills. A tech comm degree program that teaches useful
skills but does not necessarily leave a student with
specific marketable toolsets is likely doing the
job-hunting student a disservice--at least in the short

Point 2) Historically, a university degree is for _education_,
not training. If you want to learn how to think, you get a
degree, while if you want to learn how to do, you take training
courses or go to a trade school. Where does technical writing
fit into that schema? Good question, and one that doesn't
really have a good answer, but any degree program that takes
the time to teach Frame and RoboHelp must, necessarily,
_not_ use an equivalent amount of time in teaching rhetoric,
design, technology basics, business fundamentals, or how to
effectively target your audience.

(The amount of time in a curriculum needed to teach even
enough Frame or RoboHelp or HTML for _all_ students to be
marginally functional is decidedly non-trivial...)

In other words, the degree programs that most effectively
prepare students for _getting_ a job may not be the ones
that most effectively prepare students for _excelling_ in
a job in the long term. Or they may be--I don't know for sure.

Quite frankly, I won't pretend to have the answers. My MA
program was very focused on academic issues and almost
devoid of tool-related coursework, but I was also working
full time while going to school, so I got my fill of tools
and technologies there. Had I completed the degree without
concurrently getting lots of practical experience, I'd quite
likely have had some obstacles in getting a job. On the
other hand, if my MA program had been heavy on tools, I'd
have a magnificent skill set of PageMaker 4.0, Frame 3.0,
and Doc-to-Help 1.0 to show for my efforts.

As it is, it's nice to see that every day or two, even
now, something comes up that I can say "hey, I remember
that from the <blah> class I took during my first year
in the MA program, or that relates to <blah>, which
I am familiar with"--and that's the real value of
a degree in any field, not just tech comm.

Granted, it's possible to use tools to teach principles,
thereby giving students Robohelp.latest _in_addition_to_
sound knowledge about developing online help and online help
principles, but that's darn hard to do--getting bogged down
in the minutiae of the tools and losing sight of the real
goals is quite easy to do and happens to the best of us.

Do I have a proposal or answer? No. But I think that there's
more to being a really good technical writer than can come
from any program, any certificate, and any specific set of
requirements, and I think that we'd be doing ourselves and the
profession a service if we were to focus our energies on how
to help people enter the profession and on how to prepare
people to succeed in the profession, rather than beating the
dead horses of STC, certification, degrees, and the like.
There must be an answer beyond serendipity and relying on
the good fortune to stumble into the right internship or
mentoring relationship, but I don't know what that answer is.

Any other thoughts?
ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com

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