Expanding practitioner

Something that developed as I went along working on this book project on TPC programs is the necessity for a kind of theory that can help guide programmatic work in ensuring we are preparing students for the world of work (and as informed citizens in the world).

So I started way back in the literature to the 1970’s and then marched forward to our present time (or the literature that was out in January and February of 2024). I matched that up with other sources as noted in Figure 1.

figure 1: data sources about skills and knowledges

All of this work was to find what different stakeholders were saying that students needed with their degree in hand. That inductively produced theory describes knowledges and skills that TPC program administrators and faculty need to attend to when building and sustaining degree programs. Figure 2 is the summary of that work.

Figure 2: TPC Domains of Knowledges and Skills

But coinciding with trying to synthesize what we knew about necessary knowledges and skills was also a necessity to expand how TPC (the academic field and maybe even working professionals) considered what a TPC practitioner actually is. What reading through all this literature underscored for me–and admittedly aligned with my own experience as a practicing technical communicator–too often we think of the work of technical communication in a limited fashion or it is misunderstood to simply mean related to hardware and software or to only the goals of capitalism.

Following is an excerpt from Programmatic Imaginations: A curricular history of technical and professional communication where I think through the necessity for expanding what TPC means by practitioner.

Although a number of classic works exist (e.g.,[1] Allen, 1990; Dobrin 1983; Faber, 2002, 2022; Henning & Bemer, 2016; Miller, 1989), TPC has not recently engaged in sustained conversations about defining, or not, the field. Relatedly, for too long, TPC has held too tightly to the historical connection with engineering and computer science (e.g., Conners, 1982; Kynell, 2000; Killingsworth, 1997; Malone, 2015), particularly in considering program design. Both fields are connected to the rise of the Internet and the plethora of practitioners that work to keep the myriad of applications and websites working. For example, the increase in research connected to aspects of user experience (e.g., Brumberger & Lauer, 2016; Gonzales & Walwema, 2022; Potts & Salvo, 2017; Turner & Rose, 2022) or an updated view of writing to content management (e.g., Andersen & Batova, 2015; Bridgeford, 2020; Clark, 2016; Getto et al., 2019) only goes to show one move to expand the work of TPC through expanding its definition while keeping the field closely aligned with traditional fields of TPC. Joanna Schreiber and I (2022) argued that TPC needed to move beyond definitions and to consider what components make up the field’s identity instead. For example, current trends of graduating students landing jobs in UX does not change the definition of the field, rather, it expands TPC to include UX as one of its components. The same is true for recent conversations about social justice and its role in TPC (e.g., Jones 2016; Walton & Agboka, 2021; Haas & Eble, 2018). Thinking in terms of components that make up identity means there is an expansiveness and inclusiveness to what TPC is and therefore, who that practices it. As noted in more detail in Chapter 2, much of how I approached this project is through a necessity to maintain a connection between academic TPC programs and the profession of TPC outside of higher education. TPC can maintain and enhance this relationship by ensuring TPC PAs and faculty expand what TPC means by “practitioner,” who are those people who practice technical and professional communication in a variety of organizations.[2] While in this section I use the term practitioner it is a synonymous term with technical communicator, professional communicator, and other titles for those who do the work of technical and professional communication in the workplace.

Historically, Paul Anderson (1984) attempted to create a model that addressed the typical work done by technical and professional communications across organization types. His work was one of the first I found to directly want to consider what TPC meant by practitioner. In another example, Mark Haselkorn et al. (2003) described the range of their current research projects and suggested that technical communication was expanding far beyond traditional areas of writing, editing and production.

One can also see the expanded work of technical and professional communication in some of the workplaces where research has occurred. For example, TPC has solidified work in non-profits (e.g., Hopton &Walton 2018; Melonçon, 2023) and more traditional technical organizations such as software and coding organizations (e.g., Friess, 2019; Rea, 2021), and health organizations (e.g., Gerdes, 2023; Renguette, 2016). In 2014, Emily January (nee Petersen) explicitly called on TPC to redefine workplace when she studied mom bloggers. I found resonances of January’s call for using households as a site of research similar to other scholars, such as Hannah Bellwoar (2012) and Prashant Rajan (2021) and complementary synergies with Laura Allen’s (2022) examination of Black family reunions. The inclusion of the household as a workplace or a location to research communication practices is a necessary expansion for TPC. Other scholarship that moves boundaries beyond traditional workplaces are small businesses such as an auto repair shop (Cushman, 2015) or worker cooperatives (Edenfield, 2017).

TPC also notable examples that explicitly consider practitioners and what practitioner could mean. For example, Matthew B. Cox (2019) considered practitioners in his workplace case study at a national discount retailer’s headquarters to directly address LGBTQ practitioners, while Stacey Pigg (2020) also focused on practitioners and their mobile work strategies and practices. Taking a complementary approach to examining workplaces and practitioners need to be noted, Yvonne Cleary (2021) took a global approach. In her book, Cleary discussed the future of technical communication in broad terms, and when read alongside the work mentioned here, an expanding picture of the work and those who perform the work of technical and professional communication begins to emerge. Relatedly, Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt (2018) found from his interviews with practitioners that there was confusion and sense of outdated ideas of what practitioners do. Moreover, Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer (2020) collected data on job types and responsibilities to “provide a picture of how typical roles in the technical communication field are likely to operate” (4). They ended creating six personas that encapsulated the everyday work of a different types of practitioners. All of these examples align with my insistence to expand what TPC means by practitioner.

But what does it really mean to expand what TPC means by practitioner and thereby, what does it mean for students who graduate from TPC programs? Practitioner knowledge is communal brought out of the community the organization’s knowledge. Community then can mean any organization, corporation, local non-profit, or a group of community activists. Expanding what TPC considers to be a practitioner opens new avenues to recognize tacit and everyday knowledge from more diverse locations and peoples. Binding together multiple views of practitioner knowledge from different and diverse “organizations” means that TPC has the potential to expand existing knowledge structures with those that are more inclusive.  Thinking of expanding practitioners takes into account the word’s association with practice, and as an “exercise of tendencies to activate greater capacities” (Boyle, 2018, p. 5).  If as Boyle claims, practice creates greater capacities then reconsidering what a practitioner is and can be creates greater capacities for TPC’s understanding of the work that it does. My aim of expanding practitioner runs complementary to Temptaous Mckoy and her collaborators (2022), who made similar claims about wanting to engage more stakeholders in public feminist projects. Expansion by its very nature means more and different views are included, and expanding how the field understands practitioner is a vital consideration when building, growing, or sustaining TPC programs.

Do I propose a definition of practitioner? No. I don’t think a specific definition of practitioner is useful much like a specific definition of the field is not useful (Meloncon & Schreiber, 2022). Is everything technical and professional communication?[3] No. Should the field take up a nuanced version of this question? Yes. For my purposes in this chapter, practitioner is much more expansive than it ever has been. The majority of students graduating from TPC programs in the US are not working in industries related to hardware or software; most are not working in engineering; many are not landing user experience jobs; most do not need some of the specialized skills (like DITA or programming languages) that they may have needed 10 or even five years ago. Students graduating from TPC programs are working in expansive positions called everything from technical writer to social media manager to grant writer to copy editor, and even broader titles such as communications manager project managers, web developer, content writer, promotional writer, distance learning director medical writer.[4] If jobs are indeed changing, how can programs better prepare students be dexterous, agile, flexible, and prepared to be lifelong learners with skills that will always be needed.

Drawing from TPC’s own history, Anderson (1984) argued, “although advice from practicing professionals, articles on program design, and the literature about existing programs can help educators, these resources do not provide a sufficiently sound basis for designing academic programs. Educators need, in addition, a general model of the profession… a model will focus on the radical similarity of the jobs performed by the wide variety of the people in the profession” (p. 162 emphasis added). Considering similarity more recently, Brumberger and Lauer (2020) found that while there are some similarities among job categories, “various career paths within technical communication may feature rather different skill sets and daily routines, and these differences may be further exaggerated by differences in the workplace environment” (17). The different skill sets offered by Brumberger and Lauer are not sufficiently different to warrant concern within the TPC program design. Rather, what TPC PAs and faculty should take from their research is that a strong foundation of skills prepares student to become a wide variety of practitioners.[5] TPC PAs and faculty need to be certain that we’re asking the right questions about skills and how those skills are taught to students in our programs.

Expanding what practitioner means ultimately expands whose knowledge and practices are included in research, and more so, expanding what TPC means by practitioners opens up binary thinking. Graduates of TPC programs can work effectively in their organizations and understand how their skills and knowledge are “critical tools for citizen action” (Grabill & Porter, 2003, p. 58) or TPC program credentials should validate and show the value of practitioners in the corporate world but also in to show the value of the practitioner in the good work they do in the world. Both-And. [6]. <end excerpt>

With time and energy available, I’ll be posting other excerpts from the analysis and the data itself. And also pieces of data that may not go into the book!

Wishing you health, peace, and joy!


[1] Since there are different interpretations of what the citation stylistic, e.g.., means, I want to make clear that the citations that follow for example (e.g.) are what I perceive as representative examples of the point being made. The citations are not comprehensive.

[2] Practitioner can also mean those that write as part of their jobs, those whose job is writing or communication, and those who do this work without realizing the importance of it. I also want to thank Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt for many conversations about practitioners. As someone else who came to higher ed after a career as a technical communicator, our conversations were helpful in expanding in my own thinking.

[3] Yes, this is indeed a play on and off the book Everything is an argument, which is a classic (and critiqued) text used widely in composition studies to teach first year writing.

[4] This abbreviated list of job titles comes from localized program work and alumni placement data at the University of South Florida and University of Cincinnati. The statement of expanding practitioner comes not only from job titles, but also from additional student focus groups.

[5] Refer to Saul Carliner and Yuan Chen’s two Intercom articles (2018a, 2018b) that provide insights into the current roles of practitioners (from a distinct approach to what practitioner means).

[6] For those not reading the text in a linear fashion, both-and refers to an extended point made in Chapter 1.