Field naming-degree naming

In another excerpt from Programmatic Imaginations: A curricular history of technical and professional communication (TPC), I include here a short section from Chapter 2 (Methodologies, Methods, and Practices) to explain why I settled on the name of TPC. I follow that with one of the visuals from the text that shows the names of degrees at the field-wide level, which means all the degree program names (n = 712) analyzed together.

Why did I settle on TPC?

In his commentary on program trajectories, Robert Johnson (2009) explained that his piece was one of meditative craft. He used meditation as a fruitful inventive technique to “craft some questions about RTPSC [rhetoric, technical, professional, and scientific communication] programs as a way to think through the trajectory of the field and how it might continue to trace its arc into the future” (p.45), as well as to connect to a “sense of civic activity, communal knowledge and ethics” (p. 47). Johnson’s meditative move aligns with my own in that programs have always been a reflection of the academic field and should continue to consider its relationship to the professional field (outside of higher education). Meditative considerations of the present and future start with how I reference, or name, the academic field. I have to agree with Kitty Locker (2003) when she wrote, “I’m in favor of anything that gives us more courses, more students, more programs, and larger political presence in the academy” (p. 123). Thus, from almost the beginning of this project I have used technical and professional communication (TPC) as the stand-in name for courses, programs, and for me, the academic field in which I participate.[1] Particularly in light of the data that follow, it would be wise to explain my use of technical and professional communication—TPC—as the umbrella term for the academic field. Let me admit up front that I am not entirely comfortable with the phrase, but I have also made some peace with it.

There are three primary reasons for my choice of TPC:

  • Acknowledging the academic field’s history
  • Aligning with changes in programs
  • Continuing a relationship with the professional field

As the academic field developed in higher education, the earliest courses and programs used technical. For example, one of the first textbooks in the field was titled, A guide to technical writing (Rickard, 1908), while the first edition of Academic Programs referred to programs as technical writing/editing programs (Pearsall, 1976). Even the field’s two academic organizations, ATTW and CPTSC, use technical in their names, and these organizations were founded in 1973 and 1974 respectively. More so, it is important to remember that technical is not simply confined to a relationship to technology, but rather, technical points to a defined expertise around a specific subject. Thus, keeping technical not only recognizes the work of those early teachers and scholars, but it also keeps programs connected to technology and to a specific expertise. Both of which are key identifiers of the diverse work that is done outside of higher education.

When it comes to the distinction between writing and communication, as I have admitted elsewhere (Melonçon 2009), I started my career as a technical writer, but shifted my stance sometime in the late 1990s as the scope of what I did broadened much beyond simply writing. Finally, the use of the word “communication” in many of the descriptions points out that professional writing often entails more than writing” (Werner, Thomson, & Rothschild, 1988, p. 215).

The inclusion of “professional” aligns with more current trends of naming degree programs using professional, and as composite interviews revealed, the choice of professional made creating and sustaining programs easier because the term is not as controversial as business or technical particularly in English departments.[2] I also include professional in my sense of the field because that term explains part what it is that our programs do. While Kitty Locker identified Kathryn Riley’s use of professional in a 1988 article as the first person to use professional to mean both business and technical writing there is a previous precedent. In 1957, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication was started, and in 1963, Herman A. Estrin edited a book with professional as a key word in the title. Professional[3] is often used in at least three different ways: professionals who write (e.g., engineers, doctors, etc.); writing professionals, i.e., people who are paid to paid (e.g., journalists, technical writers, novelists); and professional as an adjective for a kind of writing (and as a difference from creative writing). The work we do in academic TPC programs prepares students to function in any of these capacities.

Academic TPC cannot lose its connection to the professional field, that is, to the idea that TPC programs are preparing students to find success in the workplace (and in life). Even though the Society for Technical Communication (STC)[4]is not as closely aligned to the academic field as it once was, TPC PAs and faculty cannot discount this professional connection or with other related professional organizations.[5] Simply through its existence, STC helps to professionalize and legitimize the work that academic programs do. Since STC uses “technical and “communication,” it remains prudent to discuss the field by including these terms. </end excerpt>

The name of what I refer to as the academic field intersects with discussions of names of degree programs. Figure 1 is a field-wide view of the names of degree programs.

Bar graph that the percentage of all degree programs and the names of those degrees. Professional writing far out weights other names with it at 37% of all degrees and the next highest percentage, technical communication at 13%.
Figure 1: Field-wide degree names across all types of degrees (N = 712).

The use of professional is an  increase in the use of professional that is driven mostly by minors and undergraduate emphasis degrees. But I’m still working on trends at the degree level, i.e., looking at data from previously to now at the level of different kinds of degrees.

This idea of professional and practitioner complements the forthcoming special issue of TCQ on professional (which I have not had a chance to read).

Of course, any rhetorician, knows there are stakes with naming, as well as many local issues that drive names of things based on departments, histories, territories, and such. But as a field–both academic and professional–there needs to be ongoing conversations about what is the name of this thing in which we all participate.


[1] Refer to Chapter 3 for a more in-depth discussion of names as they appear in programs and curricula.

[2] Refer to chapter 3; English departments still house the majority of degree programs.

[3] Refer to Brenton Faber’s (2002) classic article, “Professional identities: What is professional about professional communication?” and it’s follow-up in (2022). “Visualize a triangle.” What’s professional about professional communication? In J. Schreiber & L. Melonçon (Eds.), Assembling critical components: A framework for sustaining technical and professional communication (pp. 119-136). WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. 

[4] I cannot deny that the STC is still too associated with communication practices in specific industries that it does not easily align to what many TPC programs do. Students are finding value and employment in wide variety of industries. Chapter 10 discusses the expansion of professional and practitioner. And I have posted about on this blog.

[5] Other related professional organizations include ACES: The society for editing; UXPA: user experience professional association; international TPC organizations such as Tekom or the European Association for Technical Communication; AMWA: American medical writers association; PRSA: Public Relations Society of America; Interaction Design Foundation; AIGA: American Institute of Graphic Arts; AMA; American Marketing Association; Grants Professionals Association; American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council and the vast number of subject matter organizations such as those in engineering, planning, science, and project management, to name but a few.