what makes professional digital communication interesting?

First, a tangent. Over the last week I’ve been part of a listserv conversation that reprises the now familiar question about how English Studies majors should change (or not). As I noted there, this has become a familiar genre of academic clickbait, like this recent buffoonery from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  Among other things I pointed out that, from a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books). Anyway, in such conversations the prospect of teaching professional writing, technical communication, and/or digital composing is often raised. The predictable response is a rejection of such curricula on the grounds that it is instrumentalist, anti-intellectual, and generally contrary to the values of English Studies, both in terms of literary studies and rhetoric/composition. Though I have no interest in defending the kind of work I do, there’s really a more important response. First, nothing is going to “save” English. It’s over. Second, by over, I mean it will just be small, serving 1-2% of majors. It will probably remain larger than Math or Philosophy, and no one is say those fields aren’t valuable. English can be small and valuable.

That said,  I do find amusing the evidence such conversations (and clickbait articles) offer of the narrow utility of the intellectual capacity afforded by disciplinary thinking in English Studies. For example, I’m teaching a course called professional digital communication this semester and look to do so again in the fall in an online format. What is it? I suppose you  could imagine it to be an instrumental tour of how-to’s for various business-related digital genres: how-to make a brochure website, how-to design a powerpoint slide, how-to use desktop publishing to write a report, how-to make a professional web portfolio, how-to write a professional email, etc. etc. But think about these three words. Professional. Digital. Communication. What are they? Asking what communication is opens the entire field of rhetorical study. And digital? What does that comprise from technical answers to histories and cultural values/associations? How does “digital” modify “communication”?

However, I actually think it is “Professional” that is the most confounding. On first glance, it should be simple. It should just mean the kind of communication (i.e., the genres I guess) that “professionals” use (and, in this case, are “digital” somehow). Well… basically all workplace genres are “digital somehow,” even if that only means they are composed in MS-Word. I suppose, the implication is that professional also indicates some technical facility with digital tools beyond the typical office suite. These can, somewhat clumsily, be divided into two categories. The first contains genres that have been softwarized (e.g. reports, technical manuals, printed materials like brochures) that existed as genres 40 years ago. The second are born-digital genres and genres that have been significantly transformed by their softwarization (e.g., the way an instruction manual might become a how-to video/screencast or a brochure becomes a brochure website). So the first category might get one thinking about the role of XML/DITA in organizing content in large technical databases or visual communication principles deployed in InDesign or similar desktop publishing software. The second category is more elusive as the genres are fluid: video, podcast, social media, game, infographic, mobile app, website. Of those maybe the last has a stable genre. Furthermore, the changing nature of the work carried about by these professionals, the “adhocracies” in which they often work (to use Clay Spinuzzi’s term), and the continual churn of the technology makes it very difficult to define “professional.” In short, there’s a lot to investigate in those three words, which is why there is extensive scholarship across rhetoric, professional-technical communication, and communications faculty on these subjects.

But, in my experience, the most challenging part of running a course like this is the pedagogical shift into learning through cycles of experimentation and reflection.  Part of what I do is say “We will read scholarship from these fields for the purpose of understanding how it might inform the development of our own practices.” So we do read and talk. But mostly we are engaged in experimental composition. Through our experimentation with various digital tools and genres we aim to understand what “professional digital communication” might be, with the hope that our readings provide some useful terminology and apparatus for doing so.

And for me that’s what makes professional digital communication interesting. It’s not so much reading the scholarship and writing scholarly responses. (Though that interests me too; I am an academic after all.) Instead, it’s the doing of it, the composing, and the insight those experiences give me into the research we do and visa versa.

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