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Publications > Dateline Houston > March 2003 > Feature Article

Volume 42, Issue 7

March 2003

Book Review

Book Review

Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century

by Jeff Staples, Senior Technical Writer, Kitba Consulting Services, L.P.

Barbara Mirel and Rachel Spilka, eds. 2002. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. [ISBN 0-8058-3517-2. 216 pages, including indexes. $59.95]

Ever wonder about the relationship between academia and the corporate world? Or, maybe if you are on the corporate side (as I am), have you wondered why academia operates as it does? (And vice versa.) If so, this book offers great insights that can help you gain an understanding of how each world operates, why they operate as they do, and how the two worlds affect and can alter the future of technical communication.

This book is not what I expected, based on the title. I thought the book would explore technical communication developments and prognoses in the corporate environment and offer suggestions for ways that technical communicators might align themselves to be in sync with future developments in the field. Even though I found the title to be misleading, exploring the book was a worthwhile experience.

I was pleasantly relieved that though the text was written by academics, only two chapters are written in academic prose. Most chapters are written in a very straightforward, practitioner-focused style and tone.

In the Foreword, Ginny Redish sets the tone of the book with an enticing discussion of communities. We exist in various communities such as home, work, and professional organizations, and the new century will require that we broaden our community interactions. "Isolation breeds sterility. Overlapping and intersecting communities bring new ideas" (p. x).

The Preface conveys the editors' intent in creating the book and their resource methods for acquiring the various contributions. Simply, the editors hoped to inspire change by having the book focus on a larger scale, grasping "nontraditional ideas for moving the field forward in new directions" (p. xv).

The Introduction is a brief discussion of the parts and chapters in the book. The editors provide a historical recap of technical communication: where we have come from and what lies ahead. The observations are thought provoking and will pique your interest for what lies ahead--both in the book and in the technical communication field.

Part I focuses on the relationship between academia and industry. The chapters in this part explore the gap that exists between the two environments.

Part II branches out into the practitioner's environment, conveying the knowledge and skills that technical communicators bring to their work environments. The text in this part explains the need for technical communicators to expand out of their traditional roles of writers and editors.

Chapter 1 identifies differences between academics and practitioners. As a nonacademic, I inhaled this chapter! It provides outstanding clarity and explanation for actions and processes that I have encountered when dealing with academics, as well as why such actions and processes occur as they do.

Chapter 2 addresses the positive ties between the two groups. Deborah S. Bosley discusses commonalities between the two groups, such as use of teams and committees, administration and management, and status. Bosley recommends that academics focus on working relationships with practitioners as an outlet for getting their research efforts accessed, understood, valued, and used in the workplace structure.

Chapter 3 advocates research to identify the areas where the two fields overlap--the common ground. Ann M. Blakeslee proposes methods of research that "will help us understand better the differences and similarities between the two worlds and to develop more productive strategies for communicating across them" (p. 53).

Chapter 4 explores workplace communication and how academics can effect change in the workplace if they respect the social nature of the work environment. Anthony Paré offers information for academics on ways to improve their influence on workplace literacy, such as using a participatory approach to let workers indicate what they need.

In Chapter 5, Stephen A. Bernhardt examines cultural factors that continue to bring a separation in the two groups such as "the alignment of technical communication programs within traditional English departments" (p. 82: academics) and "the place or value of technical communication research" (p. 85: industry/practitioners).

Chapter 6 focuses on the need for professionalization of the technical communication field. Spilka advocates that, instead of trying to define the field based on a commonality of its representation, we should embrace the diversity that exists and grasp that diversity as a strength for fostering a defined vision and goal.

In Chapter 7, Karen Schriver questions whether existing research, specifically in the information design field, has been effectively conveyed to practitioners. Why else would practitioners view the research as unresponsive to their needs? She advocates that better conveyance of research findings might lead to more organizational awareness and thus may propel organizations to put more focus and priority on writing and design.

Chapter 8 confronts the realm of globalization and the global effects on technical communications on both growing and struggling economies. Brenton Faber and Johndan Johnson-Eilola "urge us to envision ourselves as `hybrid professionals' who combine product knowledge and strategic design and business knowledge" (p. 95).

Chapter 9 presents several case histories of individuals who began in technical communication in the traditional roles of writers and editors and then expanded their professional scope into other areas such as usability manager and web content writer.

In Chapter 10, Mirel continues the theme of technical communicators advancing out of traditional roles into roles of influence in software design and production. By assuming leadership roles in design and production, technical communicators will be positioned to build usability into the software at inception.

In Chapter 11, Russell Borland implores that the technical communication focus conveyed by academics and employed by practitioners be more in the role of a product author developing documentation rather than the current role of documentation developer interpreting the developers' intent/product functionality. According to Borland, without changes "technical communicators are likely to devolve into obsolete appendages to high technology, consumer devices, and software" (p. 194).

Many thanks to Mirel and Spilka for an enlightening and fascinating look into the future of technical communication. They provide an experience in which both academics and practitioners can find thought-provoking data to help them shape the direction and grasp the challenges that face technical communication in the 21st century.

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