• On 21/10/2018
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More on research and practitioners

When Tom Johnson released his results from a survey about academic/industry views of research in #techcomm, I had promised him a reply or rather, am engagement with some of the things that his survey revealed.

In some ways, Tom’s survey was a follow-up to some of my work on trying to understand the value of academic research to professionals who practice technical and professional communication (TPC) outside of the academy. While I appreciated that he took the time and energy (something I have always admired and respected about Tom), his results caused me to pause and reconsider some larger issues within the broad field. That’s why it’s taken me so long to respond. I had some thinking to do and when a blog is gonna take more than an hour or so, that has to be scheduled into my life.

Let me start with something of a boundary marker. When I use the word field, I am referring to the academic field of those people who identify as technical and professional communication scholar/teachers. This is an important mark because over the last 5-7 years, there are folks who may publish in the field’s journals, but they are not actively engaged with the field nor would they identify themselves as TPC scholars. This is an important point and one that needs to be part of the foundation of what follows.

The other part of the field—when I use the term—are working professionals. For the longest time most folks (inside and outside of the academy) have conflated working professionals with those who are members, or should be members, of the Society of Technical Communication. This is not a bad thing at all, but it’s something that we all need to reconsider because it limits the view of all the actual technical and professional writing going on in the workplace. It’s time for all of us to expand what me mean by working professional. So when I use the term field from the perspective of working professionals, I am considering that much broader to include folks in STC, UXPA, AMWA, PMI, IDA, PRSSA, and so many others. When I was still at Cincinnati, we asked our recent graduates (round 50 people over 8 years or so) what their job titles were. Of the 36 folks that answered this off the cuff question, there were 30 different job titles. This expansion of professionals is in large part a result of my longitudinal study of academic degree programs and a greater understanding of where graduates of those programs work. (Not understanding the expansion of the field leads to poor research and conclusions. See Golden Age for a classic example of this problem.)

The research that academics in the field do can apply across all of sorts of industries, occupations, and organizational roles. So one reason for moving outside of the view of just STC is because of this fact. I go to all the trouble to say this because my own research and Tom’s and much in the field is driven by the professionals in and through STC, which is part of our over arching problem with understanding how to make research more applicable to practice.

But we have to understand (all of us academics and the expanded view of practitioner) that a lot of academic research is not meant (no matter what that concluding paragraph may say) for practitioners. It’s meant for other academics. For example, in Tom’s attempt to start conversations after he posted his survey results, he interviewed a handful of academics about their work. The piece he picked for me to talk about was interesting on a number of levels, most importantly because the primary audience for that piece were other academics. While there could be a partial argument made that the piece could generally help professionals view their workplaces differently, the main point of writing the article was to talk to other academics about programmatic location. This is not a trifling point. If we are ever to have better conversations around the role of academic research in the lives of practitioners, we need to be honest and direct about the role of academic research and more importantly figure out ways to get the research that is applicable in to the hands of practitioners.

And like most things written, academic research has multiple audiences. Here’s another example. I wrote this theoretical thing about how to expand the ways we do research around health and medical communication. I would never in a thousand years expect a practitioner to pick that up (even someone like Liz Herman who works in this exact area) and expect her to see the value in it. Cause there isn’t any. Not at this minute. Did that conceptual, little “t” theory come out of an actual research project? Yes. The practical part was cut from the chapter due to length considerations, and more so, because it needs to be tested again and then those results written up with practitioners in mind. And here’s the ironic part, Tom’s research actually found this exact point (that much of academic research is not for practitioners) but the connection as to what to do about seems lost in both the rest of the questions and in follow-up conversations.

Not fully understanding the practitioner audience is one of the primary problems with academic research not being picked up. It goes beyond the difficulty of academic prose. It’s more of a fundamental misunderstanding of what practitioners need in research, which is something Tom’s survey also highlighted (The most interesting response (for the practitioner survey) was regarding the statement that academics understand issues that practitioners face in the workplace. Most (42%) were undecided while 36% disagreed or strongly disagreed.) Academics may think they understand, but few actually do because few have actually worked outside of higher education long enough and in diverse settings to understand how and when and why research is needed in the workplace.

Finding out how and why working practitioners would read or seek out research seems to be the more important question and not one adequately addressed at the moment. Our work started this process but recent work (see Andersen and Hackos, 2018) missed the boat basically because of their research study design. Improving our research questions and research study design is a first big and important step in gaining a more nuanced understanding of research and its application in the field.

This idea of research questions and research study design is key. Because any next steps involve a conversations and extended definitions of what counts as research and/or what folks think research is. This is the fundamental question we were trying to answer and while we have some good data on it, we weren’t satisfied that we could publish these results in a way that would advance conversations. Thus, we still have the data and have been pondering what the next steps may be. This is why ongoing conversations and work with folks like Tom are so important.

That’s the key. Figuring out how to help practitioners find and potentially use the research that is actually or potentially for them and also to help academics (those who see this as part of their job or mission) to perform more useful research. Then there is the question of defining research in more useful ways for all involved.

Because as I’ve recently written about research and continue to research about research, it seems that academics are having trouble identifying what is actually research and more importantly, what is good empirical research. What stands in for good empirical research is important because that was a clear finding (and one we probably didn’t make clear enough): practitioners want empirically based results from the audiences that aren’t students.

So while Tom took the step of interviewing academics to try to make connections for practitioners, I’m going to follow-up with some summaries of research specific to the practitioner audience. The point of which would be to see if we can figure out how we can get more academic research being used by practitioners and/or to gain greater insights into how to conduct more relevant research for the field as a whole.

We’ll see if this important conversation can work in multiple directions.

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