Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Department

English

First Advisor

Keith Grant-Davie

Abstract

One of the most significant challenges for professional communication educators is identifying and providing the skills students need to succeed in their careers. The rapidly evolving professional landscape complicates this identification; the skills a college student needs when she enters the program could be dramatically different from what she needs when she graduates. A crucial change in the past decade is the shift from a largely solo composing environment to one featuring distributed work, in which professional communicators “find themselves becoming "dividuals" – one part writer, one part project manager, one part programmer, one part student”; this has them involved in activities including “information sharing and community forums, project management and content management” (Spinuzzi, 2007, 273). The workplace setting has become so diverse that Jim Dubinsky (2015) has described professional communicators as “facing an identity crisis— trying to decide what defines them. Is it products (what they create)? Processes (what they do)? Where they fit in the overall scheme of the development cycle—the process of bringing products to market?” (131). How can academic programs provide the skills professional communicators need when those skills are so hard to pin down?

This challenge has led to a steady stream of research aimed at closing the gap between academic objectives and workplace needs. The last dozen years have seen several such studies appear in peer-reviewed journals, including Carliner, Qayyum, and Sanchez-Lozano (2014), Lanier (2009), Bekins and Williams (2006), Rainey, Turner, and Dayton (2005), Kim and Tolley (2004), and Whiteside (2003). And though there is no unanimity on exactly which skills employers want professional communicators to possess (project management, subject-matter knowledge, and business-operations expertise were routinely mentioned), one consistent thread runs throughout the literature: more proficiency in audience analysis.

One of the most recent of these studies was directed by Miles Kimball (2015a) and published in Technical Communication in May 2015. Kimball (2015a) and his team aimed to discover “what technical communication is today, how it works, and who does it, from the perspective of the people who manage technical communication practitioners in successful, highly prominent companies” (89). The study explored numerous aspects of professional communicators’ strengths and weaknesses; of particular interest to this project was “What kinds of education and training do these companies value in their technical communicators,1both in terms of qualification for hiring and in terms of continuing professional development?” (Kimball 2015a, 90). The respondents noted a number of strengths, including the ability to communicate complex topics to a variety of audiences, especially in writing (Kimball, 2015b, 138). There were a number of weaknesses apparent from the survey results as well. Several of the participants “valued relatively traditional education credentials and skills, while at the same time holding basic writing skills are no longer sufficient for success in the profession” (90). The participants identified a number of specific problems with the way professional communicators are trained, but three issues emerged as themes:

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