TCR Grad Blog

Graduate director's blog for the Technical Communication and Rhetoric Program at Texas Tech University

What Do You Want From Life?

Posted by Joyce on November 20, 2011

This from an online doctoral student illustrates, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding about doctoral education:

Offer more courses that help students skills related to web pages and other technologies. I think there is too much emphasis on rhetoric, and not enough focus on technology. Many of us will graduate with significant student loans to pay back;in order to compete (especially during these tough economic times), we need to have a deep understanding of emerging technologies.

Similarly, here’s a master’s student with a similar complaint:

I wish I had more chances to learn about the latest trends and tools in multimedia interactive, web-based technical communication such as screencasting, voice-over narration, embedded user assistance. I’ve barely even touched tools that I think will be come more important in the industry, such as help authoring tools (HATs) and screencasting tools. When I did use those technologies, they were not very central to the requirements

Yes, it would be valuable to have many tools and techniques anchoring graduate classes, and it may certainly be the case that this program is deficient in doing so. But there is a danger, it seems to me, also about locating one’s program value in teaching the tools because we don’t feel that that’s really what we do, nor do we feel that’s what our graduate courses are designed to do. One could certainly offer classes in Wordstar, Lotus 1-2-3, or FrameMaker. You may ask, “what are those things?” and that’s the point. They’re defunct tools. Or you might consider offering a course in cut-and-paste, when all you do is drag-and-drop. Instead, I think we’d rather offer courses in design (not Frame, In-Design, PageMaker), editing, methodology, and so on.

It’s not unlike computer science, which doesn’t like teaching C++, Viisual Basic, COBOL, Java, or any specific programming tool, but prefers teaching algorithms for sorting and searching, artificial intelligence, pattern matching, robotics, or any one of a number of higher-level skills.

I could check almost half the list here but I am only allowed 4. Having said that, all of these things are things I’ve been teaching for 15+ years or with which I have career experience. It’s slightly insulting to sit through a class on these things when I already feel my expertise level is sufficient for — and I am already producing work in — the business world.

I think the best answer to this complaint is “don’t sign up for such a class.” If there is nothing to learn and you don’t want/need the graduate credit, please take some other course. If the problem is deeper, and if nothing we have to offer by way of coursework suits you, and all you want is the initials PhD after your name, then I’d further suggest you drop out and buy a doctorate from U of Phoenix.

While I think the history of rhetoric is important, my time was better spent on courses where I can actually apply what I learn.

Because of my comp/rhet focus, classes that are very focused on tech com are the least valuable to me.

This is a master’s student, offering a complaint that’s certainly not uncommon over time:

I have little interest in the theoretical classes. Although I realize they are a required part of the degree program, they offer little practical use in my everyday life as I am not planning to go into academia or research upon completion of my degree.

Yes, I know you don’t like theory and methods courses. However, since you came to us asking for a master of arts, and not a technical certificate from your community college, theory and methods are going to be a major part of your degree activities. And by major, we’re only talking a 3-course requirement (out of 12), so the theoretical footprint seems pretty paltry compared to what could be required in other circumstances. Why theory? Well, a theory is a story about why things are the way they are. It’s a worldview that helps us put our mundane and repetitive activities into patterns we recognize (and thus may manipulate to the benefit of ourselves and others). Without theory, all of our practical activities proceed randomly.

Rhetoric or Argumentation: How do we communicate effectively and how have we arrived at this point historically? How do we persuade and argue our cases effectively?

Feminism: What is the role of sex and gender in social activities, communication, design?

Methods: How do we make sense of stuff we see happening around us? What do we do about X?

Ethics: How do we behave in our organizations as communicators, designers, rhetors?

Theories of Technology: Why do we worry about tools and techniques so much? Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? What is my role as a communicator/teacher/citizen in a technical world?

Rhetoric and (Science/Healthcare/Law/YourFavoriteSphereInsertedHere): How does communication work in technical and specialized fields and spheres? What are the impediments to good communication when dealing with disparate technical realms? What is the role of communication as facilitating social action, knowledge creation, improved processes within this technical field?

As I write this list above, I find myself confused about the Theory/Practice dichotomy, or rather the label “Theory/Practice.” I am not at all convinced that these bullet points above do not also constitute a type of practical study. Isn’t the question “What type of argument is best suited to making my case in this multi-disciplinary group?” a practical one, not much different from “What typeface is most pleasing AND utilitarian given the publication I’m working on?” or any number of so-called practical questions? Unless you’re a trained monkey, how can you answer even the simplest practical question without understanding the context that gives rise to your question in the first place? And isn’t that context borne out of a theoretical understanding of culture, communication, rhetoric, economics, fields of discourse, quality of production, ethical practices, and fundamental differences among types of people?

If you want to learn specific tools, please go ahead and do so. Nothing’s stopping you. It’s just that we don’t want to give graduate credit for what can be learned from an Idiot’s Guide in a few weeks.

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One Response to “What Do You Want From Life?”

  1. I really didn’t know what to expect of courses when I started this program, but I know that I’m glad I went the route I did. Sure, a couple of classes were redundant with courses from earlier in my education, but in most cases, I found those either reassuring (the principles I’ve been using are still valid) or enlightening (attitudes have changed since my earlier studies). Most of the courses opened my eyes to theory that I either hadn’t studied seriously or hadn’t even considered before.

    What I didn’t realize was how much would change in the way I think about what I do and how I do it. I have increased my skills in using technology, but not because I took courses in it; I found that I had work to do that could be done better if I learned to use technology to do it, but I didn’t need a graduate course to learn those skills. But what has really changed is the way I think about what I am doing with technology (or with any other aspect of the communication process) and why the way I do it matters.

    That seems to me to be a whole lot more important than just picking up some skills that will be passe in a couple of years, and I’m glad those skills weren’t the focus of my degree.

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