Technical Writing Class Focuses on Community Based Learning

Business Partnerships Offers Students Authentic Technical Writing Experience

Professor Angela Laflen launches her Technical Writing class into a new semester by exposing students to her subject outside of the classroom. In this lesson, as she sends them out to find technical writing around campus, she establishes the accessibility of material and sets the tone for a semester of hands-on learning experiences.

The term "technical writing" refers to the text that makes up instructional material and any sort of technical communication. According to the course descriptions, the study of technical writing covers "the production of technical documents, including research and visual presentation of information."

Professor Laflen's first task is fairly easy since technical writing can be found in excess along hallways and among public life. "They photograph things like exit signs, emergency procedure instructions, bulletin boards, etc." Professor Laflen says of her first-day tradition.

Throughout the semester,"[students] learn to tailor technical documents in a variety of genres for a range of audiences and stakeholders, to understand the ethical implications of technical communication, to edit technical documents for sentence style and make rhetorical design decisions about technical documents," Laflen describes.

After the first day, they continue to gain first-hand, client-based experience from within the classroom. Professor Laflen has established a partnership with iFixit.com, a website devoted to reducing e-waste. IFixit publishes instruction guides for repairing electronics and has included Marist's Technical Writing class in their process.

Students receive electronic devices from the organization and have the task of writing instructional material on how to fix them. Along with a valuable experience and resume builder, "they get feedback throughout this project from iFixit staff members to help improve their guides."

Within this one unit of their English class, students learn about a variety of subjects outside of the field. The iFixit project educates on environmental issues, technology, and some of the most difficult parts of technical writing.

Technical Writing is listed as one of Marist's Community Based Learning course offerings. This means that the class is a platform for providing students hands-on experiences with clients and other local organizations within the professional world.

Professor Laflen spends the duration of the semester going above and beyond to create meaningful lessons for her students. Even outside of iFixit, she collaborates with other local nonprofits, such as Mental Health America Dutchess County, so that her students can work on their technical writing skills and then receive feedback from professionals.

From working on these projects, students learn to "apply strategies for successful teamwork, understand and use the research methods and strategies necessary to the production of professional documents, and use and evaluate the writing technologies frequently used in the workplace," explains Professor Laflen.

Some groups found success with a project for TryMyUI, a company that evaluates technical writing and the usability of their clients' websites. TryMyUI also offers partnerships with related classrooms, and Professor Laflen jumped on that opportunity and set up a competition with her own students. In partners, they compared the usability of two different websites, which was judged by representatives from TryMyUI. TryMyUI published the strongest report on their company's blog.

Before entering Laflen's classroom, students have spent most of their previous class time studying academic writing, without realizing that technical writing has been a comparably active part of their daily lives. At first glance, technical writing may seem like a very specialized course for a certain type of writer, but the subject is actually applicable to any major and any workplace.

Though it is not a required course for any major, those involved take Technical Writing as seriously as any upper-level course. The class can be taken as an optional elective for English majors and develops skills that pair well with other degrees.

Technical Writing teaches the valuable ability to translate knowledge from one's own expertise, into comprehensible terms for someone else. Basically, students learn to be chameleons with their own writing so that it can be interpreted by the public, in the forms of instructional signs, manuals or job pitches.

Professor Laflen indicates that the lessons taught in her course will carry with her students long after graduation. "All professionals today are expected to know how to communicate their knowledge effectively," she says, even if technical writing is not specifically part of their job description.

After their technical writing course, students report back to Professor Laflen with stories of great success in the workplace. "They are familiar with workplace genres, how to conduct research on the job, and how to polish their writing to meet professional standards," Laflen lists, among them many takeaways from her unique class.

 

Written by Sarah Gabrielli '18

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