The Invisible World of Tech Comm

When you think of studies in English, what do you think of? Thick, dusty books. Old libraries. Shakespeare, probably.

Now, what about technology? I bet you’re imagining complex software. Maybe a bright, modern office filled with screens and tablets. Probably some kind of lengthy code.

So, now I want you to think about how English and technology work together.

I’m guessing you had a hard time coming up with that image, right? That’s because these fields often seem like a contradiction. One represents traditional humanities, the other futuristic science. Most believe that they don’t have anything to do with each other. English and technology seem like they are on totally opposite ends of academia. But are they?

Where technology meets the humanities.

The field of Professional and Technical Communication, or tech comm, encompasses the writing that surrounds technology, science, and other professional fields. The goal of this writing is to help consumers’ use technology. Tech comm is an emerging field that manages to combine the written and rhetorical skills of English with the realm of technology.

Yet, while there is plenty of need for this field, tech comm often faces opposition from traditional English departments. It appears as though some academics find it to be inconsistent with the department’s core curriculum.

This discrepancy has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it has become an issue for many members of the tech comm community, including employees, professors, and students. Lisa Melonçon, an Associate Professor of Technical Communication in the Department of English at University of South Florida, has even spoken out against this divide.

What do the experts have to say?

I’dRatherBeWriting’s very own Tom Johnson recently sat down with Melonçon, to talk about her article Getting an Invitation to the English Table—and Whether or Not to Accept It, and how she seeks to address the question of how tech comm fits in with traditional English academia. In her article, Melonçon is imploring faculty and scholars within the English department to consider professional and technical writing as a practice grounded in rhetoric. She continues by adding that writing is a social act, and that tech comm is a means of producing writing that will contribute socially to the world of technology. These efforts also translate to the working world, as tech comm is trying to define itself within the context of scientific and technological industries.

In their conversation, Johnson and Melonçon take an in-depth look at the argument presented in the article to address what can be done in the field going forward. As they converse, Melonçon offers some additional insight to how professional and technical writing can take shape in the humanities. She says that “English departments have historically been the home of literature scholars who were and are concerned with having students understand social, political, cultural, and economic views through the lens of literature.”, and literature alone. Melonçon emphasizes that the only writing students did was to engage with or critique a literary work.

However, she marks the 1950’s as the emergence of professional writing, which designated writing for the working world for the first time. This movement rose again in the 1980’s and has been growing steadily since then. Melonçon notes that this rise in professional and technical writing programs has received resistance from the Humanities and English academia, as scholars see it as a counter to the department’s goals. There seems to be a tension between how to align the goals of a liberal arts education with the aims of technology, business, and other capitalistic organizations.

What can be done?

Johnson and Melonçon discuss some solutions to this rift during their conversation. Melonçon describes her aims for the professional and technical communications program at the University of Cincinnati, where she previously worked. She mentioned that her efforts there sought to “[balance] the ideals of humanism with the need to teach sophisticated problem solving skills and technologies”.  This included grounding the program in the social and ethical concerns of the humanities to ensure that students were not just learning skills, but also values. Melonçon believes that integrating tech comm into the goals and missions of the English department will build a foundation of understanding within the two fields.

Johnson and Melonçon’s discussion here is an important one, and one that resonates with me as a professional and technical writing student student.

As for the tech comm students..

In my sophomore year as an English major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I decided to enroll in the certificate program for Professional Writing and Technical Communication (PWTC) because I felt boxed in by literary studies. I began to grow tired of endless literary analysis and critique. I struggled to see how these studies would be translated to a career that stretched beyond academia. I was even beginning to doubt my choice in major, wondering how I would continue my higher education in a seemingly static field.

When I discovered that my university offered a certification for a different kind of writing, one that did not involve me reading stories or writing poetry, I rejoiced. Finally, I would have the opportunity to write for a future career. This field would involve me in the future of society, grounding me in both my love for the humanities and my interest in technology and innovation. Suddenly, I felt as though my major was leading me towards something tangible, and I was so grateful to have a professional and technical writing program included in the English department.

So, alongside Johnson and Melonçon, I too advocate for the inclusion of professional and technical communication in the English departments of all universities. It is a valuable field that brings writers to jobs that integrate their skills and humanitarian values with the needs of technology and science. It is a program that provides our society with hybrid employees who can help us in better understanding our world. And it provides students with a chance to see themselves in a career that stretches beyond the reach of traditional English academia.


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