More Than Words

by Sharyn Kopf— Cedarville, Ohio

    Be careful what you say around technical communication students. They don’t take kindly to negative remarks about their chosen vocation. And considering those who walk such a career path tend to be excellent marketers and skilled wordsmiths, they certainly have the wherewithal to make their case with passionate intelligence.

    Still, you might ask, just what do technical communicators do? Well, their department T-shirt reads: “I’m a graphic designing, quality controlling, product supporting, project managing, engineer translating, technical editing, corporate branding, technical marketing, usability testing, document designing, Web site creating, manual writing major at Cedarville University. So … what does your major do?”

    Told you they had a way with words.

    Unfortunately, it’s not just on the Cedarville campus that tech comms feel they’re not quite getting the respect they deserve. The perception that it is an easy major leading to an easy career seems widespread.

    Professor Sandi Harner ’64 intends to help change that perception. When it comes to technical and professional communication, Harner is a lock. After all, she alone developed the TPC program at the University in 1984, transforming it from a minor in the English department to a full-blown major by 1992. She also was named a Fellow by the Society of Technical Communication in 2001 and served on their Board of Directors—as assistant to the president for academic and research programs—for eight years.

    So when the STC decided it was time to take the profession to the next level, they scheduled a summit—and invited Harner to participate.

    “Technical communication is fairly new,” she says. “It started its boom in 1985, paralleling the time when computers began to land on everybody’s desks.” Since then, the field has grown, developing into an umbrella term that covers all kinds of writing, publishing and editing for technical products and services. Still, no test has been developed for graduates of the program—the kind of testing required for other professions like engineering, nursing or teaching.

    The next step of the process—before a test can even be considered—is to sit down and determine what exactly technical communicators need to know. This list is called a Body of Knowledge. “Any profession with professional status has a BoK,” Harner says. “But we don’t.”

    Thus the Academic/Industry Leaders’ Summit in Houston this past September. Fifteen academics and 15 industry practitioners out of thousands worldwide were invited to participate. Harner believes her inclusion was due, in large part, to her eight years on the STC board. “That I was one of those involved in the summit,” she says, “that blows my mind.”

    The event began at 7 on a Friday morning and lasted until late that night. The participants were divided into groups—Harner’s was given the task of having a plan in place to begin creating a BoK by the end of the day. The plan was then presented to the STC board in November. Once it is approved, the team will work on defining the BoK using an interactive Web site called a WIKI. That will be followed by more meetings, more research and a lot more work, as they develop the top levels of knowledge that tech comms need. Harner and her team—who come from all over the U.S.—hope to have the first two levels done by the STC’s annual conference in June.

    In case you’re wondering, developing a BoK can take up to two to three years to complete.

    “It’s a mammoth task that will take a long time,” Harner says, “but having a BoK will, finally, bring us respect as a profession.”

    And, perhaps, silence the naysayers once and for all.