Lessons learned as a new instructor of Tech Writing

Susan Olson Lawson
Johnson C. Smith University
Fall 2011

In spring 2009, I taught “Introduction to Technical and Professional Writing” at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for the first time. I have an MFA, and while I took graduate courses in technical writing and rhetoric and had written proposals and press releases in a previous job, I had only taught first year writing courses until then. “Introduction to Technical and Professional Writing” held 25 students, few of whom were English majors, and most of whom probably didn’t want to be there.  Here are some lessons I learned along the way that other first-time technical writing instructors might find helpful.

Lesson #1: See Your Students as Valuable Resources

My greatest regret in looking back at my first experience is that I didn’t make enough of the opportunity available in a class with two international students. I provided the usual support: I worked one-on-one with the students, referred them to the Writing Lab, and pointed to the ESL section of a writing handbook. But I should have considered what our class could have learned from them. Had I extended an invitation for our international students to show us samples, the class could have easily compared and contrasted documents such as instructions to obtain a driver’s license. We could have analyzed the use of headings, diagrams, and white space in manuals from hometowns around the world. I also could have asked my international students if they’d like to share any technical writing pet peeves found in the English language, like formatting dates.

This missed opportunity prevented my students from expanding their reader-centered perspectives to a global level. Even if I didn’t have those two international students, it would have been globally responsible to have examined an international variety of technical documents. If strong comparisons were found, the students could have evaluated the significance of an apparent globalization of technical writing.

Lesson #2: Keep the Emphasis on the Portfolio

I thought it would be overwhelming for my students if I reviewed the syllabus, the course schedule, and the portfolio rubric all on the first day. So, I kept the emphasis that on what they’d need to do, not on what they’d know. Also, had  I emphasized the portfolio’s importance to their grade on the very first day, I might have avoided two issues which came up later.

One portfolio issue was that a few students didn’t keep all their initial draft work. Although I had followed each student’s work from invention through the final proofreading, projects without the prewriting and early drafts could not be included in the portfolio. 

The portfolio required a major reflection letter and the students had to demonstrate assertions about their growth through each project as well as from project to project. What I should have done to emphasize the collection of their process work was to set aside portfolio workshop time after each unit. Waiting until the brink of the mid-term portfolio was too late. 

The second issue was that only a small portion of the students came to claim their portfolios after they were graded. Although this may not be considered my problem, the portfolios were demonstrations of knowledge for potential employers or internship coordinators. Sure, they could easily have printed final drafts one more time, but I had written remarks on the reflection letters. Feedback that wasn’t received wasn’t helpful, and unread notes like “fabulous observation” wouldn’t affirm student improvement. Of course, the easiest solution is to move up the portfolio deadline and return them at the last gathering of the class. But convenience doesn’t ensure student learning.

To emphasize the relevance of the portfolio, I should have shown the portfolios of professionals working in Computer Science, Geology, Architecture and other fields that captivated my students’ interest. Better yet, next time I will host a series of professionals who can speak to the value of maintaining a collection of writing samples, experts whose opinion might be more meaningful than someone in academia.

Lesson #3 Incorporate Feedback Immediately

From the beginning, I consistently monitored the pulse of understanding. After every unit I asked students to anonymously respond to two questions: What am I doing right and what do I need to change? I provided index cards and asked students to create a T-chart with a plus sign and a delta sign at the top of each column.

I compiled the answers, and briefly reviewed them at the start of the next class, pointing out any changes in class routines or strategies that would benefit the entire class.  By presenting their feedback with a tone of gratitude, I modeled the professionalism I demanded of them after their usability test assignment.

I could have easily belittled any request for change with “This is a college course. Please refer to the syllabus.” For example, one index card at the beginning of the semester asked me to “speak slowly” when I concluded each class with a verbal reminder of the homework. Instead of becoming frustrated that I had already provided a detailed course schedule and had always posted approaching due dates on our daily agenda, I simply said that I’d remind students of upcoming deadlines at the start of each class when I was less inclined to be rushed. The daily agenda also reflected this technical detail, reinforcing the value of seemingly minor revision in documents.

Lesson #4: Require Risk-Taking

Students were required to get out of their comfort zones and to design real documents for real clients such as campus organizations, local businesses, or non-profit organizations. However, I had not anticipated one particular problem. Not all clients valued good technical writing. For example, creating a reader-centered brochure for visitors wasn’t the top priority for a church proud of several renovations and a newly designed playground. 

I should have made it abundantly clear from the very beginning of the semester that if the client demands something other than what our class considers good technical writing, the student will provide two documents: one for a grade, and one for the client. Although this is ultimately what happened, there was a lively discussion about the assumption that the client, as customer, was always right.

It is with gratitude to the students of my first technical writing class that I have become a much better instructor and look forward to learning from the next semester of students.

Susan Olson Lawson is an English Instructor and Academic Advisor at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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