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Addressing Wicked Problems in Technical Communication Pedagogy

As I have forecasted in the opening of this chapter, technical communication pedagogy faces challenges in staying relevant to industry trends and market needs, resulting in a need for the field to reinvigorate its pedagogical frameworks to include current methodologies and philosophies such as design thinking in technical communication programs. Here, I trace the cause to these challenges by looking at our resistance to new technology (mainly out of fear and discomfort), the rise of multimodal composing tools, and the “wicked” difficulty in delivering multimodality and design-centric learning in technical communication courses.

Any envisionment of a future technical communication instruction needs to recognize a major shift in how we compose and consume texts in this age of information technology. Through advancing web platforms, social media, analog and augmented realities, and other virtual interactive tools, writers are moving beyond using just alphabetic texts to access information and communicate with others. Yet, in our classrooms, many instructors still resist teaching with new technolog)' for various reasons (Hickey, 2000; Hart-Davidson, Cushman, Grabill, DeVoss, & Porter, 2005; Kemp, 2005; Knievel, 2006; Hewett, 2015). In technical communication, we still question whether we should teach specific technology (Garrison, 2018). Bonita Selting (2002) addressed this question by surveying ATTW members regarding their roles as teachers of technical writing in relation to demands to also teach technology skills, concluding that “technological determinism—shown by a tendency to turn a technical communication course into a software tools course—can be seen as a threat to effective teaching of complex workplace rhetoric” (p. 251). In addition, our discipline often aligns with a view reticent toward teaching tools: Reporting on behalf of the College Composition and Communication Conference Committee for Effective Practices in OWI (Online Writing Instruction), Beth Hewett shared OWI Principle 2: “An online writing course should focus on writing and not on technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies” (2015, p. 45).

Such resistance has led to challenges in infusing up-to-date tools and digital literacies into our pedagogy, including understanding and producing multimodal texts. Aaron Doering, Richard Beach, and David O’Brien (2007) argued that given the ready access to Web 2.0 tools and worldwide audiences, we need to infuse multimodal and digital literacies into writing instruction so students could learn to use media tools to “effectively attract, engage, and influence their audiences,” and “foster constructivist, inquiry based learning related to fostering critical thinking” as well as effective writing/communication practices (pp. 41-42). Karl Stolley in his “Lo-Fi Manifesto” (2008, 2016) encourages writing instructors to assume such responsibility:

Those who teach have an even more pressing responsibility to learn and then engage students with digital approaches and technologies that students themselves would not likely discover independently. Students must be afforded the opportunity to write markup, programs, APIs, and commit messages in the same range of learning situations as they write essays and exams today. They must be encouraged, supported, and even joined by their instructors in failed first efforts. The richest learning experiences reveal how failure and crude initial work transform to something better only through ongoing research and revision.

(2016, n.p.)

Earlier, Marback (2009) argued that the concept of design can be appealing to writing studies, particularly for those “teaching writing in digital media” (p. 397), and Leverenz (2014) consider multimodal/multimedia composing as “wicked” tasks that require design thinking as a generative or productive approach to the composing process. Purdy (2014) observed that writing studies programs are, institutionally speaking, moving closer to be associated with design disciplines due to the growing demand to teach information design, writing for new media, and visual rhetoric or communication. Scholars from computers and composition as well as technical communication would agree that traditional writing instruction does not always fit the needs of these new domains.

Like Leverenz and Marback, I consider technical communication pedagogy' a “wicked problem” beyond its procedural complication (Marback, 2009, p. 400) into how instructors could teach students to move across and beyond linguistic resources to solve communicative problems they identify and consider as important, in innovative and effective ways. Such wickedness requires us to treat the technical communication classroom not just as a site for information delivery and proficiency testing, or merely a place to practice producing various genres, but a space for practical guidance—through instructor facilitation and peer support—to solve technical communication problems through direct experience with tangible materials. This is particularly important for teaching in an information age, where students are equipped with cutting-edge tools and inventive methods that allow them to create content with ease and efficiency. For instructors, this poses new challenges in terms of fostering rhetorical awareness as well as technical knowledge in students such that they are able to utilize all available means of communication to achieve their goals.

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