• On 28/07/2018
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ADE report and TPC

tl; dr

  • without doubt TPC tracks and minors (and even degrees) are the largest growth segment for English departments BUT those of us in TPC already knew this cause our data is a whole lot better than what the MLA generated
  • understand the differences in the types of undergraduate writing programs. not only are there differences between majors, not all tracks in “professional writing” are the same and those differences really do matter
  • creating new majors either as full fledged majors or tracks exacerbates the contingent labor problem. So unless you have adequate staff at this moment (not in the future, right now), just stop.


The recent publication of the MLA/ADE Report on the English major (opens in new window) made a sort of splash in composition, composition & rhetoric, and writing studies. It did so because one of the big takeaways is that the English major is surviving because of tracks in writing, mostly technical and professional writing.

But those of us who work in technical and professional communication (TPC)  already knew this. Because unlike the larger parts of writing in higher education, we have a pretty good sense of the data behind our tracks and majors. (see the publications page for a number of these. And also see TechComm Programmatic Central.)

I’ll start with the most surprising thing about the MLA/ADE report. The research methodology and method was shoddy or weak or poor or whatever you want to call it. I so hope no one shows that report to a Dean or VP or someone else with a title who is from a discipline or field that is not humanistic because they will laugh at the methodology and then dismiss the findings. One of the reasons I have bemoaned the state of research in TPC is because if we ever want to share our research it needs to hold up to standards recognized across most disciplines in higher education. This report does not.

Let me preface the next statement with this: my programmatic methodology can be criticized and likely improved, but I can assure you it has more rigor and would stand up to scrutiny by others. One can never make pronouncements about programs by using website information unless that website information is the course catalog, which by its very nature is a pseudo-legal type of document that actually guides degree programs. Secondly, it shows how out of touch the MLA/ADE is with what is going on in their own departments that they didn’t update their survey instrument to include professional writing. I understand and know  the history between the MLA/ADE and the technical writing. But when the MLA quit inviting a tech comm scholar to these discussion they lost track of what was really happening. Fortunately, I was trained by one of those early tech comm scholars (Bill Rivers), which is why I know and consistently talk about the importance of understanding the differences between types of writing degrees.

It’s shocking to me that with the resources of MLA/ADE all they could do was there was an increase in writing tracks. I can tell you without doubt that there is an increase in writing majors (of all kinds) and actually give you a specific growth rate for TPC majors (17% just in the last 5 years, which is a number you’ll see forthcoming in Meloncon & Schreiber. See Meloncon and Henschel for the rate before that.) From 2005 to 2013, the growth rate for emphasis degrees in TPC was 86% (see Meloncon emphasis). From 2013 to now is roughly 13% (I’m still working on updating this data.) And this is only for TPC emphasis degrees that have been verified as TPC by at least one other academic and two practitioners. My educated guess that general writing degrees have grown by much more than that. I have a list of at least 100 schools with a general “professional writing” degree. (See how the MLA/ADE report looks so sparse now.)

When you add in minors and undergraduate certificates, the numbers are really, really robust and that’s just in TPC. And here’s the thing. While most full-fledged degree programs are no longer housed in English departments, emphasis degrees and minors are predominately (upward of 75%) still housed in English departments.

One of my major complaints is with the use of terminology, but this is something that I’ve complained about before particularly in regard to the relationship between composition and technical and professional communication. Not all undergraduate degrees or tracks in writing are the same. And professional and technical—when you look at the requirements—are for the most the same degree which is why you see the field labeled as “technical and professional writing/communication.” The reason the degrees, even with different names, are often similar is that these degree programs are focused on writing in the world of work. Work here means anything from the largest fortune 500 companies to the smallest non-profits. Technical writing has always been about writing in the professions and work, and it has morphed for all sorts of reasons to professional writing (that is not creative writing per se). My good friend Blake Scott and I tried to point to some of these distinctions because they are important, (opens in new window) and one of the last chapters of my book also talks more about these by laying a number of curricula to show some of the differences.

Understanding these differences and how to craft something writing related in departments is key. For TPC, curricula need to be aware of both workplace trends and academic filed-wide trends.

But here is something that I really, really want folks to think long and hard about when it comes to a rush to create a track or minor or even a degree program. Without added staff, tenure line staff, the only thing you’re doing is exacerbating the contingent problem all of writing studies face. Please, you cannot start a program with two faculty. You can’t. You shouldn’t. It’s not fair to the students, to yourselves, and to the contingent faculty you’re going to have hire because now you’re only teaching majors. And please don’t shake your head and say that wouldn’t happen at my place. Of course, it will. It has. I have data to prove it.

I can say this about the MLA/ADE report. Much of the general stuff holds true and I’ve found similar in my analysis of TPC degree programs (like the emphasis on skills or diversity or common courses). And I applaud them for trying to think of ways to invigorate an important major on campus. But it surely didn’t go far enough nor did it adequately represent what is happening in departments. More importantly, it didn’t address the need for caution and the importance of understanding the full landscape of English studies before making changes to a degree program.

P.S. I hope that the reason someone from TPC wasn’t invited is because so few of us still belong to the MLA, just like so few composition folks belong. I would gladly re-up my MLA membership to help with more rigorous and more complete data collection.

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