Article Review: 350-word summary of “The Big Chill: Seven Technical Communications Talk Ten Years After Their Master’s Program.”

Wilson, Greg, and Julie Dyke Ford. 2003. “The Big Chill: Seven Technical Communications Talk Ten Years After Their Master’s Program.” Technical Communication 50 (2) (May): 145-159.

This “Applied Research” study uses an interactive qualitative method and what the authors define as an “autoethnography” to critically examine the culture of technical communicators. The authors posed questions to stimulate an unstructured conversation on how technical and professional communication (TPC) Master’s programs prepared students for the workplace.  The four topics addressed in this survey were: expectations versus reality, lessons learned, burnout, and what roles technical communicators fill in organizations.

Research methodology

This study is out of date, especially since the responders were from TPC programs in the early 90’s and a lot has changed in TPC programs: such as technology, TPC programs themselves, and even the workplace. However, the methodology and research questions are still relevant and provide a great baseline to compare with current results as well as providing a methodological structure that can be used for current research on this topic.

Limitations of this study

Surveys are a snapshot in time and offer important data that can help a researcher narrow a research problem and focus the direction of a study to “begin to understand the challenges.” Although, surveys and this study in particular do not offer a great sample with which to examine program topics in the technical communication workplace. Another limitation of this study is that having the answers public could be a threat to validity because the participants may not offer honest feedback—a “drawback of attitudinal measures” (Creswell 2012, Chapter 10). However, the authors are explicit in their acknowledgement and response to potential criticisms (Booth, Colomb, and Williams 2008, Chapter 10) such as how representative the survey sample is to the general population.

TPC curriculum — practical skills and company politics

The primary background of this autoethnography concerned TPC curriculum and how some practical skills just cannot be taught in a program—skills such as “politicking”. Additionally, the responders indicated that the curriculum of the core courses in TPC programs were very project driven and when combined with the mandatory internship, offered a lot of “industry” experience in the classroom.

The other important discussion and analysis from this study included the expectations that TPC students have when entering the workplace.  Two relevant points are made about this that relate to my research and are the following:

  1. That undergraduate degrees in TPC should focus on the “skills” so that the MA/MS TPC programs can not only build on the skills but also add a deeper theoretical  perspective. This will allow TPC workers to challenge current modes of thinking/work and make them better by either building them up or breaking them down.
  2. The expectations of how they will fit into workplace dynamics, while recognizing variables such as  a “changing technical economy where often information is the key component of the technology” (Wilson and Ford 2003, 153) and how TPC workers see themselves within this framework and (perhaps more importantly) how others see them.
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