RE: Skills vs educaton (was: Senior technical writer?)

Subject: RE: Skills vs educaton (was: Senior technical writer?)
From: mlist -at- safenet-inc -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Mon, 2 Oct 2006 11:31:25 -0400

England, Peter [mailto:peter -dot- england -at- ttu -dot- edu] stuck his toe in:

> 1. We've recently seen a great deal of traffic on this list about
> respect. Wouldn't a diploma and perhaps a nationwide certification
> process add to that respect? I'm thinking along the lines of
> the legal
> profession--attending school and then taking the bar exam. The reason
> for the comparison is that attorneys often do the same sorts of things
> we do: make information and documentation processes available to the
> lay public.

The legal profession is a profession. That truism carries meaning,
in that lawyers (like doctors, engineers, etc.) have to be well
trained and then must take responsibility for what they do.
It goes beyond simply being fired for screwing up.
Not many technical writers are open to lawsuit, as well as
to escalating degrees of censure/reprimand by their
professional association and licensing bodies in case
of error or omission.

Not many employee tech writers have to carry "malpractice"

The professional associations and licensing bodies cost
money to run, and they attain a great deal of power over
both members and others, usually by getting into bed
with government.

Of necessity, this then makes them very political organizations,
and lowly members find their lives constrained and buffetted

When looking at regulated professionalism, there's also
the aspect that doctors and lawyers don't become those
with just Bachelor degrees. Their qualification takes
some years of post-grad study, followed by (effectively)
apprenticeships. As an aside, would you like to be legally
prevented from coming out of school and taking a job
with a startup, but rather have to get in line for a
position at a big company that can have you supervised
for a year or two of ... um... articling.... residency?

Engineers can become pros with only an engineering
undergrad degree, but if you want the same respect
as engineers, you need a course of study that's
equally intensive and deep. Where are we going
to _get_ that kind of content? How many of us
need tensor calculus, or more advanced stuff in
our work? Engineers need that just so they can
talk about and understand the theoretical and
practical stuff they study in senior years.

> 2. We've also seen traffic on the definition/perception of what a TW
> does, or can do. It seems to me that a formalized education, with its
> accompanying advantages and disadvantages, increases the
> opportunity for
> visibility. If the TW degrees get out of the English departments and
> into, say, the Business and Engineering colleges then maybe we'll have
> more awareness of our field. With that might come the opportunity for
> increased pay and a decrease in the necessity of having to justify our
> existence.
> So both of these wind up having to do with respect. Anyhow, I'd be
> interested in hearing some thoughts on the subject. You can
> tell by my
> sig that I'm heavily interested in academics, but I'm also
> interested in
> closing the distance between the classroom and the cubicle.

As we mention whenever this thread rears its ugly head,
taking this route in formal fashion (as opposed to just
letting people either get degrees or not and seeing
what the market says) leads to politicization and
credentialitis. Somebody has to be in charge of the
whole edifice, which leads to purely political machinations
having little to do with actual technical writing.

A lot of older techy writers don't have TW degrees
because those didn't exist when the writer started,
or because - for most of us, I daresay - we just
slid into this trade/craft (not profession) sideways,
and our unofficial skills, knowledge, and proclivities
were good enough for the companies that employed us
and for those that employ us today.

One day I was an electronics tech and third-line
support person, and the next Monday I was a novice
tech writer at the same company. Years later, and
a few companies later, my employers stick "Senior"
next to my title, and I don't argue.

I don't see the added value to me, to take a big
chunk out of my employment life at this stage, to
go back to school full-time, or to sacrifice my
evenings for the next several years to a lot of
redundant study. That would happen if a certain
clique (notably some already in possession of
the certification and wishing to imbue it with
greater value than it turns out to have so far...)
were to succeed in entrenching formal credentialism
and some form of guild.

Yes, some of the training would be beneficial, but
a feature of formalized training/education regimes
is that they need to force everybody to be on the
same page in order to control and standardize
advancement, which often requires the student to
take courses as pre-requisites where none of the
content, or very little, is relevant or useful
to the person who just needs a box checked
on the application for the third- or fourth-year
course that's mandatory for graduation.

Yes (looking at it from the other direction), it's
often suggested that experienced applicants can
be credited/grandfathered with life/business/
trade experience, and thereby streamline both
their class-time requirements and their costs.
But that usually runs up against the problem
of course content and curriculum design. It
doesn't matter if they're willing to credit you
with 2/3 of the content of ToC-mangling204, if
they still require you to take the whole of
ToC-mangling204 to get the 1/3 (or less) that
they deem you to be missing. And watch how
that "deeming" swings when it means they
can make you pay for yet another course or

When you are not yet a working stiff, it can
be attractive to have "easy credits" in the
form of required courses to which you know
most of the content. You can then afford to
party (if that's your inclination) or devote
more time to mastering the material from
other courses that you haven't previously
encountered. But when you are a "pro" at your
trade and a family person and mortgage holder
of long standing, you really want there to be
a strong payback for jumping through a bunch
of newly imposed formal hoops.

So, in summary, for most of the "old guard"
journeyman tech writers, I suggest that it's
in our interest to keep this whole notion at
bay until we are safely retired, then the
younger crowd can straight-jacket themselves
as much as they like.

My own opinion is that technology is going to
overtake more and more of what we do, just
as there'll be more and more "expert system"
physician assistants (robo-docs), law clerks,
engineers, etc. From the standpoint of the
depth of profession-specific knowledge that
must be absorbed, I think that what we do
will succumb to automation long before what
true professions do. In other words, I
suspect that a four-year TW degree would
be less of a mental and physical strain than
an electrical or mechanical engineering

Maybe formalization and certification can
be adopted as a way of protecting writers
from that kind of encroachment - allowing our
political masters (those who have the politician
gene and rise to the positions of power in
the proposed hierarchy) to set up roadblocks
and mount legalistic rearguard defenses against
robo-writer... but that's just tacky, really.

Meanwhile, what metal shall our guild pinky ring
be made of? Engineers have iron locked up.
How about depleted uranium? :-)

By the way, I've got no problem with ongoing
upgrading of skills and tool knowledge, but
I'd resent hell out of somebody taking a
philosophical discussion that we have on
Techwhirl and making it into a course that I
have to take if I want to be considered for
my next job. "Progressions" like that are far easier
to nip in the bud than to dismantle after they've
gathered steam (to mix several metaphors... but
hey, I already know that I'm doing it; I don't
need some academician taking my money (and time)
to tell me about it...)

OK, if somebody can help me down off this
soapbox... ?

Kevin (who may just incorporate under "The Uninsured Scribe"... don't steal
Copyright 2006)

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