Re: On degrees and the like...

Subject: Re: On degrees and the like...
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2000 13:17:30 -0500

Different institutions emphasize different things. That sounds trite, but
it's true. Some emphasize theory and research, others the ability to perform
a job. Educational institutions sometimes resemble radio stations, in that
there's a "format" that attracts a specific audience.

You should know, too, that for many years educational institutions, even
major universities, used only internal standards for performance. The
various accreditation organizations generally counted easily quantified
things, such as books in the library. The standards for overall performance
were similarly overly simplistic, like placement numbers. That's changing.
Today most institutions are moving to what we might recognize as continuous
improvement, or "quality". Industry knows the concept well. In this
paradigm, you establish measurable goals, but they're tied to an overall
strategy. The idea is that you scribe a baseline, then institute
measurements. These metrics are much more complex than simple placement.
Then the feedback loop operates, telling the school or university whether or
not they're on track. Most such programs have several interrelated metrics,
rather than one or two separate ones.

Another major point, I think, is that all institutions of whatever purpose
are not run for the convenience of the inmates, but for the convenience of
the staff. It has to be so. There are many times more inmates than staff, so
there have to be formal processes. Formal processes produce linear, rigid
methods. When a student is exposed to them, he can also become linear and
rigid. But that's not inevitable, especially if the institution is careful
to maintain a good stable of feisty, independent instructors. The only way
to do this is to maintain academic freedom, which is anathema for some
communities. On the other side of the table, it's also the responsibility of
the student to stretch his mind.

I think it's generally true that the more abstract the job becomes, the
greater is the need for a formal education. Lawyers are often called upon to
analyze real-life situations and apply a set of legal principles to them.
That takes education, not rote memorization or even rough OJT. The same is
true of doctors and pharmacists, engineers and systems analysts. Yet in each
field, there are people who need only deal with the concrete, and for that a
shorter, more pragmatic training is required.

The same holds true in our industry. At the concrete levels, it's relatively
easy to spend a few years learning to write about some technology or other.
There's little need for esoteric knowledge. Indeed, such knowledge is often
unwelcome at that level. This is where tools are king and experience is good
enough to get a job.

At the abstract level, though, the need for esoterica is acute, and the best
place to acquire it is in a college. It's also imperative that the student
learn how to apply the esoterica, just as a doctor learns to apply general
medical principles to specific cases. A proper curriculum teaches it. In our
industry, the abstract level includes the design of single source systems,
management of multiple projects, document and information design, and
continuous-improvement programs.

This division also affects such issues as certification, and how we
introduce newcomers into the business. Historically, we've just brought
bright people in and let them discover the abstract for themselves, if they
chose. As the need for effective technical communication grows, I think it
would be good for us to give some thought to both levels, and how they
should be expected to interact. Right now the two are blurred, partly
because of the few practitioners who have college degrees in technical
communication. Perhaps a sharper distinction would help clear up the endless
wrangling over whether or not tools or layout principles are worth knowing.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

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