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Composition Forum 14.2, Fall 2005

Bridgeford, Tracy, Karla Saari Kitalong, and Dickie Selfe, eds. Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2004. 368pp.

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Matt Willen

When I first received Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication , I expected a collection of practical exercises and activities designed primarily for teachers in the tradition of Dwight W. Stevenson’s 1981 anthology, Courses, Components and Exercises in Technical Communication. While the emphasis on providing a variety of best practices is similar, this collection offers much to the broad array of individuals associated with the instruction oftechnical communication, including those responsible for curriculum development and program administration, as well as teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

The eighteen essays that comprise this collection each discuss a project, an activity, or a pedagogical focus that attempts to address a long-standing or emerging issue in a theoretically informed and “innovative” manner. Innovative here refers to a pedagogical approach that “introduces, rearticulates, or creatively juxtaposes theories or practices, especially those not currently or commonly used within the context of technical communication” (5). Given the consistently changing nature of the field in response to developments in technology, transformations in workplace culture and economic realities, the editors correctly assume that technical communications is a discipline which demands innovation in its practices and theoretical underpinnings. This anthology, then, serves to set a standard for others to follow.

Innovative Approaches is divided into three sections of six essays each. The first section, “Pedagogical Perspectives,” offers a selection of essays that address generally programmatic issues and which encourage different forms of reflective pedagogical practice. The topics of the essays are diverse. Sam Racine and Denise Dilworth offer a discussion of their attempts to overcome the typically passive viewing experience of students using interactive television technology (ITV) common to the technical communication and distance learning classrooms by investigating and revising, along with their students, the norms and assumptions that inform the use of ITV (“Breaking Viewing Habits”). Elaine Fredericksen discusses the development of the bilingual professional writing program at the University of Texas-El Paso which draws on their students’ multilingual expertise (“Bilingual Professional Writing”). And the faculty of the professional writing program at Clemson provide a collaborative discussion of their attempts to enact Russell Durst’s idea of “reflective instrumentalism” in the process of program revision (“Notes Toward ‘Reflective Instrumentalism’”). To illustrate these attempts their essay documents the discussions involved with generating a revised graduate program reading list, as well as the revised list.

Two outstanding essays in this section which complement each other well are James Dubinsky’s “The Status of Service in Learning” and Jeffrey T. Grabill’s “Technical Writing, Service Learning, and a Rearticulation of Research, Teaching, and Service.” Both offer very important critiques of the role of service learning in technical communication pedagogy and effective suggestions for recasting the nature of service activities. Dubinsky presents the problem posed by the use of service projects in technical communications courses as manifesting itself in the nature of the relationships that form between students and the organizations for which they do projects. Too often, explains Dubinsky, the nature of the service project is prefigured by a notion of charity, where the student enters into a superior role (often as consultant) in their relationship with an organization, as someone who has answers to its problems. Here the organization is cast as the client and is characterized by some sort of social, financial or personnel deficit. The situation is often exacerbated by the fact that understaffed and underfunded non-profit organizations often become the sites for service projects. Instead Dubinsky explores a notion of the relationship that underlies service learning as one of partnership, which allows students to “view problem solving and their roles as problem solvers and members of a community” more effectively than the consultant/client relationship allows (22).

Grabill, in a related vein, views the problem of service learning as stemming from the institutional relationship with organizations, particularly when there is a lack of continued institutional commitment to those organizations. For Grabill, “the primary goal [of servicelearning] is to help community-based organizations help their communities; it is to participate in community change. Yet, when the primary motivation and concern is student agency, student learning, and student growth, I think service learning runs a risk of doing serious harm” (85). Grabill’s essay, then, explores his efforts to develop long-term institutional relationships with community organizations and offers a model that helps to frame service learning experiences as contributing equally to the long term goals of the organization, the educational institution and the student.

The second section of the collection consists of essays that focus on “Pedagogical Practices.” These are the most germane for those looking for practical ideas for projects and exercises to use in their classes. For instance, one of the innovative approaches to an old standard is explored in James Kalmbach’s “Hypermediating the Résumé.” Here he discusses how different technologies have created the demand for different types of résumé, both print and on-line, yet the résumé project has remained largely unchanged since the seventies. In response to the technological changes, he has created an approach to the résumé project that asks students to build three and four different versions of a résumé (print and on-line) that play off one another.

It should not be surprising that a prevalent theme of the second section is that of audience and the problem of how to best help students to imagine the nature and influence of a particular audience. Again, the approaches are diverse. Karla Saari Kitalong discusses how asking students to analyze media representations of technology and its users can help writers to develop a more comprehensive sense of the ways their audience handles technology (“Who Are The Users?”); Barry Batorsky and Laura Renick-Butera demonstrate how asking students to role play personal incidents of failed communication allows them to transform their teaching role into that of editors working between writer and audience (“Using Role Plays to Teach Technical Communication”); and Dickie Selfe explains how he uses “technology autobiographies” to better prepare students to anticipate the problems technology users will have (“Learning With Students”).

The final section of the collection, “Pedagogical Partnerships” offers essays that explore a variety of collaborative enterprises between higher education and different community organizations. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this section is that each of these essays demonstrate the sort of partnership and sustained commitment that Dubinsky and Grabill respectively call for in their earlier essays. Among these six essays, Christine Abbott discusses the affiliation between Northern Illinois University and the Chicago Chapter STC Institute for Professional Development and the ways this affiliation has enriched the university’s technical communications program (“(Re)Connecting Theory and Practice”); Professor Annmarie Guzy and high school English teacher Laura A. Sullivan explain the collaborative efforts between Guzy’s technical writing students and Sullivan’s students in her high school English classes (“Making Connections in Secondary Education”); and Gary Bays calls for sustained research of workplace communication skills by technical communication instructors to help create curricula that are more responsive to the needs of industry (“Ongoing Research and Responsive Curricula in the Two-Year College”).

By selecting essays that address this range of topics and offer such diversity in approaches the editors have hoped to compile a collection which “offers the discipline an opportunity to energize its pedagogy and to critically examine current teaching practices” (5). The extent to which this book will do that remains to be seen. I suspect that some readers might find some of the projects discussed in the collection a little impracticable for their contexts and situations,which one would expect with a collection of approaches that are classified as “innovative.” Some of the more practically-minded might be put off by some of the theoretical discussions, especially in those two or three chapters that get a little dense; although much of the theoretical basis should be familiar to those in composition. Most readers, however, should find this to be an important collection if not for the approaches that the authors offer then for the intelligent and concise analyses and considerations of issues that those of us who work in the discipline contend with.

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