I attended the IEEE ProComm at the University of Limerick, in Limerick, Ireland last week. I was absolutely gobsmacked months ago when a presentation proposal I sent in for this conference was actually accepted. I figured, why not? I’m always looking to expand my tech comm circle, so I had hoped that this would help in this endeavour. I made some great new connections, and I was glad for that, and I certainly enjoyed the sessions I attended.
One thing that was very different about this conference, unlike the other tech comm conferences I’ve attended thusfar, was that this particular conference focused more on the academic side of tech comm. I found out, through inquiry, that while all were invited to this conference, there was definitely a very strong bent toward academia. There is nothing wrong with that, but the depth of this academic frame of mind is not something I’ve dealt with since I graduated from NJIT three years ago. I understand that academia has its own rules and ways of doing things, but it was definitely…different. Not in a bad way, but different.
Up until this point, I had attended what I’ll call “practitioner” conferences. I’ve chose the word “practitioner” rather than “professional” because in the end, we’re all professionals at what we do in the technical communications, whether we teach and do research, or are out in the corporate world making things happen. Thus those out there in the corporate world I’m choosing to call practitioners. Some practitioners do teach, and some academians do corporate work, but they don’t always overlap. I wanted to clarify this before I move on with my narrative here…
Anyway, as I started to say, up until this point, I had attended conferences that had a stronger practitioner’s bent to them. Most speakers would be people who had been out there battling it out in the corporate masses, and sharing their experiences and knowledge attained from those experiences with others. I often attribute the fact that I got my last job with BASF because of information that learned through one of these practitioner events, because it was something that the company could use beyond analytical theories. Speakers at these practitioner conferences are those who are in the trenches every day, putting to practice all those theories about content strategy, revising them, applying them to businesses globally.
So, attending a mostly academic conference like the IEEE ProComm was a bit eye-opening. Many of the talks were summaries of research that had been done on a variety of topics, and peer reviewed, which was all well and good. I found that the sessions that I could connect best to were the ones that were given by practitioners, practitioners who were also academians, or academians who had a foothold as consultants outside of the academy. There were plenty of sessions whose topics were relevant to the corporate world, but they failed to deliver completely on something new or to provide any revelations to me. There were also summary sessions that provided research conclusions which were incorrect or inaccurate from practitioner perspectives, or elicited the feeling of “…and why are you researching this topic again, and what is its relevency?”
I spent a good part of my time networking with people who happened to be practitioners studying for advanced degrees or had an advanced degree. I particularly connected with one woman who happened to come out of the same NJIT program that I did. (We weren’t classmates, as she started the semester after I graduated, but we knew or had many of the same professors.) She’s been a practitioner much longer than I have, and as she had recently graduated from the NJIT program. NJIT people rarely attend these conferences, so if we do find each other, we tend to flock together a bit. She and I spent a lot of time comparing notes from our experiences and concerns that we had not only about our own program, but other programs as well.
The main gist of our conclusions was that this disparity between the academy and those in practice was discouraging. We both felt that while there were several technical communications programs that did help with job placement and practical experience while still in the studying process, not enough were. Additionally, some of the information that was being given to students about the realities of working in tech comm weren’t accurate or up to date. This is a disservice to both those who do research and especially to students who have to go out in the “real world”. In order to not make it sound like I’m placing any blame on academia alone, practitioners also have a responsibility to be active in helping to groom future technical communicators as well. My NJIT colleague and I talked about we might be the first two members of an alumni advisory committee that we’d like to start (of course, NJIT doesn’t know this yet), because we felt that we could bring back our experiences either as instructors or merely as advisors to help professors and students keep up to speed with what’s happening outside the virtual or literal campus walls.
Now, in saying all this, I don’t mean to step on ANYONE’s toes in this discourse. Far from it! While I’m sure you can tell that I lean on the side of being a practitioner, this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the academic side at all. I’ve been there. I’ve taught, too. However, there were just too many conversations in which I wanted to say to a few professors that only teach and do research, “REALLY?? Are you serious?”, knowing well that they were serious. I understand that many universities also have a hard rule about the need to do publish and research to keep one’s professorial job, so that can’t be easy to balance all of it.
When I first started meeting people at the ProComm conference, they assured me, as a first-time attendee, that this was a friendly group and it was easy to get to know others. This proved to be true. Just like the STC Summit and other conferences I have attended, the people were friendly, helpful, intelligent, and eager to “talk shop” with each other. I welcolmed that, and have found that these sentiments seem to be universal with all technical communicators. However, as time went by, that difference and angst between the academians and practitioners, while mild, was still palpable. The entire conference, I had a song running through my head from the American musical, “Oklahoma” called, “The Farmer and The Cowman (Territory Folk)”. (If you haven’t seen the musical before, you can watch the YouTube video of the song.) Essentially, the message of the song is that the two groups really had the same interests at hand in the end, and they needed to learn to cooperate more to make the goal of being the new state of Oklahoma work. I’m hoping that my role in this, on some level by opening up this conversation, is that I play the role of Aunt Eller from the same musical. She gives the advice at the end of this song by singing,
I’d teach you all a little sayin’
and learn the words by heart the way you should,
I don’t say that I’m no better than anybody else,
but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!
While I don’t think our difference as as strong as the farmers or the cowmen of Oklahoma, I’d like to think that we can come together much more easily and bridge that chasm more quickly and completely. We all have the same goal, after all–to continue to make technical communications a top notch field and create superior technical communicators. How can we go wrong with a goal like that?
My own view is that more needs to be done to connect academia with practitioners. I know that the STC-PMC, for example, has been very active in the past year working with technical writing students at Drexel University in Philadelphia. They are always looking for more local schools to connect with. I’m sure there are other outreach programs out there, but how many exactly, whether it’s through STC or IEEE or any other professional group out there? I know that I’m going to try to reach out to my own program at NJIT in the next week and see if I can offer any help. What can you do?
What do you think? I know a lot of my readers fall on both sides of this issue, and several straddle both. I’d love to hear what you think, and let’s get the conversation started on this!