Syllabus

Technical Writing


About the Instructor

Jim Collier

Summer I, 2014
Office: 252 Lane Hall (Bay 5, 2nd floor)
Cell: By Request
Office Hours by appointment
E-Mail: jim.collier@vt.edu

Welcome to Technical Writing. I look forward to working with you.

I designed this course to be largely asynchronous. We will not meet at a common time unless we make the necessary arrangements.

Most of our communication will occur through email. My email address is jim.collier@vt.edu. I will check my email at least twice a day — in the morning and in the evening. Please give me about 12 hours to respond to your e-mail. Likely my response will come much sooner. In addition, please feel free to use the Messages function in Scholar to contact me and your classmates.

I am happy to meet with you either face-to-face, if you are in Blacksburg, or virtually, real-time. We can use Skype. Please consider what mode of communication works best for you. I am willing to explore any possibilities you suggest for either asynchronous or synchronous communication.

Course Description

Principles and procedure of technical writing; attention to analyzing audience and purpose, organizing information, designing graphic aids, and writing such specialized forms as abstracts, instructions, and proposals. Junior standing required. Pre: . (3H,3C) I,II,III,IV.

Course Goals

• To understand the genre and manipulate the structure of selected technical documents;

• To convey clearly, cogently and correctly, through written media, the technical aspects of a practice to non-specialist audiences;

• To recognize and use the rhetorical and stylistic elements necessary for the successful practice of scientific and technical communication;

• To work collaboratively and individually to research, to analyze, and to write about, public debates regarding the conduct of science and technology;

• To appreciate your obligations as prospective practitioners in your chosen field to the laypersons affected by your work.

Course Logic

Let me offer some thoughts about the organization of the course in order to lend some advice for approaching classes and assignments.

Technical Writing is a field and a profession with a unique history and distinctive practices. Likely few, if any, of you will become professional technical writers. Still, you will become professionals possessing specialized knowledge and information. To convey your knowledge to diverse audiences in unique settings necessitates that you become accomplished technical communicators. As technical communicators you will craft messages using ever changing and increasingly powerful, integrated and convenient media. Within a digital media environment, writing remains the undeniable focus of this course. Through writing this course will prepare you to communicate knowledge and information through various means to audiences of experts, professionals and laypersons.

Regarding Online Courses

Online courses demand self-motivation, self-discipline and, perhaps, even greater focus and attention than traditional courses. Given these demands, here are my recommendations for taking the course:

    Meet deadlines.
    You must meet deadlines. Let me know immediately if personal crises, family emergencies, religious considerations, or severe illnesses need my consideration. Otherwise, I cannot accept late papers. You have the opportunity to revise any and all formal writing in the course until the final day of the term.

    Stay in touch with me.
    Communication in this course will be asynchronous unless you desire an alternative. Please let me know, at any time, if you have questions about any aspect of the class. Silence means assent.

    Get with Groups.
    At the beginning of the term, I will put you in groups (more about groups follows). I will set up groups and ways for groups to communicate through Scholar. Introduce yourself and get to know and work with your group members as early as possible in the term.

    Know What You Want.
    At the beginning of the course honestly assess your strengths and weakness as a technical communicator, generally, and a writer, specifically. The course assignments are flexible enough to allow you work on what you need and what you find stimulating. However, if you feel the course does not adequately address your personal and professional concerns, let me know. The course can be tailored to your needs and we can work together on any specific areas of writing and technical communication you desire.

    Keep Perspective.
    Consider the relative value of assignments. Do not spend an inordinate amount of time on the informal assignments. Formal writing assignments can be revised until the last day of the term. Get the most you can out of the course but keep your workload reasonable. The best advice I can give is to begin early on formal writing assignments, meet deadlines, and start the term strong by making sure you take care of informal assignments requirements. If you get informal writing out of the way you will have more time at the end of the term when time is of the essence.

    Have Fun.
    I know "fun" is not the first (or second) notion to leap to mind when you think of technical writing. Yet this class may be one of the last opportunities you have to creatively and rigorously work on your technical communication skills before your career begins in earnest. Try to work beyond the common wisdom and expectations that result in "gaming" a course to render it easy — and meaningless. A number of fascinating issues lie at the heart of technical communication — the nature of language, meaning and reference; the role of persuasion, moral reasoning and public deliberation; and the relationship of experts, professionals and the lay public in making decisions about science, technology and society. These issues, I believe, are fun insofar as they have direct bearing on our shared well-being. The joy of scientific and technical communication is in the challenge, in the puzzlement and in the effort of making meaning. Through the course structure, you have creative latitude in performing the assignments. Use it.

    About Course Rhythm

    At the beginning of the course, examine closely the course calendar. The calendar is key to getting a sense of the course's rhythm. You should get a clear sense of the progression of course assignments — we move from singular individually authored, documents (e.g., cover letters) to integrated, collaboratively produced, documents (e.g., the Wiki Article) — and the timing of due dates. With a few exceptions, I have given the course a constant rhythm. The At a Glance section of the calendar should give you an overall sense of the rhythm of the course.

    Reading

    The reading requirements for the course are manageable — even, if I may dare say, reasonable. Certain days, however, demand a heavy reading load. All of you have developed strategies for dealing with the amount of reading required by courses. You have learned to skim, to read closely certain parts of a text, to review subheadings to get the sense of an argument — steps necessary for you to deal with the rising tide of text-based information you encounter now and will encounter in the future. In fact, many of you may completely abandon the convoluted prose of your textbooks to locate relevant formulas or illustrations. With respect to the course requirements, let me offer a brief guide:

    Looking at the class calendar you will see that I use three verbs in referring to preparation for a given class — 'read', 'review' and 'consult'. Here, I am signaling an order of priority — what is designated to 'read' is of the greatest importance to that day's tasks; what is designated to 'review' is of less importance, and what is designated to 'consult' is helpful but not required.

    You will also see a subheading — Supplemental Resources — for most days on the calendar. Reading or viewing the supplemental resources is not required. Rather, these resources lend context to the course topics and offer ideas for assignments. If you use Mike Markel's book (see below) as an aid, you will see I peg the recommended reading to the genre we are analyzing and reproducing.

    Of course, if you closely read all that is assigned you will take away more from the course. But if you must make choices you can prioritize, and adopt reading strategies, according to the above guide.

If you have any questions at any time, please let me know.

Peer Reviewing

Peer review, when required, can be performed by a member of your group or by any one that can provide a timely, honest response to your work. Peer review sheets are available for download online linked to each assignment.

A Word on Rhetoric, Science and Decision-Making

"... On the one hand science is urged on us a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature. In the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand. Anyone who has ever served as an expert witness in a judicial proceeding knows that the court may spend an inordinate time "qualifying" an expert, who, once qualified, gives testimony that is not meant to be a persuasive argument, but an assertion unchallengeable by anyone except another expert. And, indeed, what else are the courts to do? If the judge, attorneys, and jury could reason out the technical issues from fundamentals, there would be no need of experts.

What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance. In Plato's most modern of Dialogues, the Gorgias, there is a struggle between Socrates, with whom we are meant to sympathize, and his opponents, Gorgias and Callicles, over the relative virtues of rhetoric and technical expertise. What Socrates and Gorgias agree on is that the mass of citizens are incompetent to make reasoned decisions on justice and public policy, but that they must be swayed by rhetorical argument or guided by the authority of experts.

    Gorgias: 'I mean [by the art of rhetoric] the ability to convince by mean of speech a jury in the court of justice, members of the Council in their Chamber, voters at a meeting of the Assembly, and any gathering of citizens, whatever it may be.'

    Socrates: 'When the citizens hold a meeting to appoint medical officers or shipbuilders or any professional class of person, surely it won't be the orator who advises them then. Obviously in every such election the choice ought to fall on the most expert.'

Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power."

— Richard Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons"
New York Review of Books, (28-32) January 9, 1997.

Assignments

Grade percentages for assignments follow:

Résumé/Cover Letter or Statement: 15%
Policy Memo: 15%
Process and Description: 15%
Proposal: 15%
Wiki Article: 20% (collaborative grade)
Informal Writing Assignments: 15%
Participation and Groups: 5%

I will assign a collaborative (one) grade for the Wiki Article Assignment. While I know well the vagaries of collaborative work, I believe that mass collaboration may well be one future of scientific and technological research and communication. However, I am mindful that creative and stylistic differences occur. Consequently, I ask each group member to submit a group evaluation, at the end of the term, that will enable me to make fair judgments about the strengths and limitations of each group member's contribution to the assignment.

Informal Assignments

I use the term "informal" in referring to these assignments to note that your grade is determined solely by the number of assignments you complete. I will not comment on these assignments, although I will respond to the informal proposal. You will not have the opportunity to revise informal assignments.

The requirements for the informal assignments are as follows:

• I will ask you to perform revision exercises. There are five exercises;
• I will ask each group to submit an Informal Proposal defining your contribution to, and exploring resources for, the Wiki Article;
• I will ask you to respond to articles posted on the wiki.

The table below breaks down how grades are determined based on the number of assignments completed.

I will evaluate the informal assignments according to the following table:

    • Informal Proposal AND Wiki Response AND 5 exercises: A
    • Informal Proposal AND Wiki Response AND 4 exercises: A-
    • Informal Proposal AND Wiki Response AND 3 exercises: B
    • Informal Proposal AND Wiki Response AND 2 exercises: B-
    • Informal Proposal AND Wiki Response AND 1 exercise: C
    Neither the Informal Proposal NOR Wiki Response AND any number of exercises: F

Of course, this table does not account for all possible combinations of the assignment. But please note the correspondence between grades and the three elements comprising informal writing (the exercises, informal proposal and wiki response). If your work on the informal assignments is not reflected exactly in the table, I will use my discretion to determine a grade based on the assignment priorities illustrated by the table. If you have any questions about your grade on the informal assignments, please let me know.

Participation and Groups

"Eighty percent of success is showing up ..." — Woody Allen
" ... especially online." — Anonymous

Many of you are taking this course because it is required or because someone told you it would be "good for you." Technical Writing, you may have surmised, is a class you must, at best, endure. On the one hand I sympathize with your plight — I've taken my share of required, gut-it-out, courses. On the other hand, I truly feel that technical writing is an interesting and useful subject. With your help, I want to create an online atmosphere where being mindful, responsible and energetic about learning is rewarded. Here's how I need you to participate:

    Stay With It: Online courses move quickly. Summer online courses move even more quickly. Initially, then, I need you to participate in the course by orienting quickly to its structure and resources, by understanding its rhythm, and by keeping pace with your work.

    Cooperate with Groups: Group line-ups will be posted on the wiki and I will enable group communication through Scholar. Groups provide three important functions: 1) Personal resources for the class; 2) Peer reviewing — peer review can be performed by a member of your group or by any one that can provide a timely, honest response to your work — you need only one peer review on a given formal writing assignment; and 3) Necessary collaborators for the wiki article and associated assignments. Get in contact with your groups as early as possible and maintain the lines of communication. If you have problems at any time, let me know.

Assessment Particulars

I will use rubrics as the basis for grading formal papers. Grading rubrics are linked to the formal assignments and are available for you to download. The rubrics are based on the goals for the assignment. Given the rubrics — and the peer reviews conducted by class members — my comments on your assignments will be concise and will assume your desire to revise the paper.

If you wish additional feedback from me about any aspect of the assignment, specifically, and your writing, generally, do not hesitate to:

1) Ask for additional written comments on the papers;
2) Ask for an appointment — online or in-person — where we review the paper and your work.

Again, do not hesitate to request additional feedback. I believe that well-designed rubrics can cover the vast majority of issues arising in the assignments and, frankly, they allow me to get papers back to you more quickly. Still, if the rubric and my abbreviated comments are not sufficient, I will be happy to offer a more detailed written or oral response.

Unlike essay writing, technical writing is defined by a set of standards often rendered as document templates. Faithfully following prescriptions for documents is often portrayed as the exclusive goal of technical writing. It is not. However, document templates will help you organize your ideas by offering a working outline. These templates also provide for transitions among ideas. As you will see in the following grading criteria, emphasis is placed on the writer clearly defining the audience, development, purpose and presentation of each document.

A paper

    The overall presentation shows a high level of understanding and perspective. Well-conceived and descriptive. A clear understanding of the audience. The work's purpose and objectives are clearly and convincingly stated. Concise background material clearly sets the context, frames, and introduces the subject. Technical content themes are logically stated and organized and support the overall objective. Data and descriptions are objectively stated and separated from interpretations Content is detailed and suggestive. Conclusions are persuasive and well-supported by the data. The prose is easy to read. Exhibits a defined sense of unity and purpose. Includes topic, paragraph, and sentence transitions, and contains no major and few minor grammatical or technical errors. Graphics, when used, are highly informative, well-designed, and easy to interpret. The document template is used flawlessly.

    A- Generally means you meet all criteria for an 'A' except presentation and problems with one or two criteria. Audience and purpose may be clear, for instance, but you failed to develop an idea. For example, a proposal that addresses the criteria provided in an RFP (Request For Proposal) but fails to develop a section pertaining to the budget.

B paper

    Paper presents content clearly and displays a firm grasp of the material but without as much focus and perspective as an 'A' paper. Successful effort is evident throughout the paper. Slight inconsistencies in identifying audience. The work's purpose and technical objectives may be somewhat ill-defined. Background material sets the context, frames, and introduces the subject. While well-written and adequately detailed, some sections may lack complete development and coherence. Unevenness in presentation and content. No major grammatical errors; some minor grammatical errors but none that disrupt an easy reading of the paper. Graphics are informative, intelligible and support the content of the paper. The document template used may be missing a minor element.

    B+ Exceeds the criteria for a 'B' in one or more areas. For example, the purpose of the paper may possess greater clarity. Audience is clearly identified and the contexts governing the explanation and interpretation of the information are well-detailed. Greater consistency in execution than a 'B'; better paragraph development and coherence among sentences for example.

    B- A lack of connection among, for example, audience and purpose. A number of presentation errors affect the meaning of the sentences or structure of the text. A somewhat stronger relationship among the elements of the paper -- audience, purpose, content, style -- than a "C" paper. Still, the paper lacks full development of ideas and demonstrates some problems weaving together a complete understanding of the content with a clearly identified audience, purpose, and context.

C paper

    Displays a reasonable grasp of the technical content but little original thought. The purpose of the work is inconsistently presented. The audience cannot be clearly identified. While understandable, the purpose and objective are not presented in relationship to the context set in the opening. Treatment of the topic is general. Lapses exist in coherence, organization, and development. Contains errors in technical content. Technical content marginally supports the conclusion. Some major grammatical errors and frequent minor grammatical errors. The paper is difficult to read and lack flow. Graphics do not support content objectives. The document template used may be missing a major element; a required section of a proposal for example.

    C+ Exceeds the criteria for a 'C' in one or more areas. Perhaps more imagination in thought and explanation. Greater consistency in determining audience, purpose and objective. Fewer errors in technical content and somewhat greater coherence in the presentation and the conclusion. Fewer grammatical and cosmetic errors. An easier read than the 'C' paper.

    C- The elements of the paper -- audience, purpose, content, style -- are unclear and appear unrelated. For example, a final report about a weapons controversy may deal with a number of different systems in only a cursory way. No explanations are given about how the topics of the paper lead to one another. Presentation errors suggest no revision.

D (of any variety) or F paper

    I will ask you revise 'D' or 'F' papers until you receive, minimally, a 'C-'. You have the choice of whether or not to revise. If you choose not to revise, you will receive a failing grade.

Late Papers

Meeting deadlines must be an absolute priority in an online course. Let me know immediately if personal crises, family emergencies, religious considerations, or severe illnesses need my consideration. Otherwise, I cannot accept late papers. You will have the opportunity to revise formal writing in the course until the final day of the term.

Revision Policy

You may revise any formal writing assignments as many times as you wish during the term. In revising assignments that originally required peer review, you do not need another round of peer review for your revision. I will average the grade on the revision(s) with the original grade. I will take revisions until the last day of the term.

Texts

All materials for this course are available online. This course does not require you to purchase a textbook.

Still, if you prefer a textbook for reference, I recommend the 10th edition of Mike Markel's Technical Communication (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012; ISBN-13: 978-0312485979). Topics covered in the course, as shown on the course calendar, refer to specific chapters and pages in Markel. And you can refer to the Google books edition.

Finally, I cannot recommend more highly Joseph M. Williams book Style: Toward Clairty and Grace, (any edition) if you wish to learn to write clearly. Here resides a pdf of the entire book.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask me, consult Student Information from Undergraduate Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

A Final Word

"... I worked for three years in an environmental engineering firm. When I joined the firm (part-time) I was changing careers, and working in an office environment for a large company was totally different than working in a small service-oriented business - the environment in which I had worked for the previous 20 years. I vividly remember the first time that I was assigned to write a brief technical report (about two pages). My exposure to technical writing, prior to that assignment, was to proof read documents before they were delivered to the client. I had begun to feel some level of comfort about how a technical document should be constructed. However, reading a document and writing a document are two very different processes, as I soon found out. After diligently working on the report for at least three hours, I turned it in to the project manager. About an hour later, he returned the document to me, and I honestly thought he had used it as a bandage to stop someone from bleeding. There was so much red ink from his corrections, the paper was literally red ... I have heard you comment during your lectures that many students do not consider technical writing to be an important course, or that it is perceived as a "secondary course" to the main body of their educational experience ... I agree with you that some students have this attitude ... However, I would like to stress the following to some of the younger students who have no experience in a professional work environment. A significant amount of how an employee is evaluated by an employer is based on how well they can write. This is particularly true with a consulting firm or any scientific company that has to provide technical reports and other technical deliverables to their clients, regulatory agencies, or to the general public. If you cannot write clearly, concisely and in a manner that is understandable to the client and other lay-readers, you will not be successful in your professional career."

— R. Michael Lowe (December 1995)