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Technical Communication In A Required Engineering Course: Practical Guidelines For Instructors

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.968.1 - 6.968.11



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Paper Authors

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Jeffrey A. Donnell

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The integration of technical communication into a large technical course requires instructors to develop simple and practical answers to three very complicated questions: • What language structures are of most importance in conveying technical information? • Can we evaluate writing and technical substance together? • How are informational graphics to be used in technical documents? These questions come to the fore each time we deliver instructions and each time we mark a report. The way we answer these questions directly determines how long it takes us to mark a set of student reports and how much time we must later spend explaining our marks to students. Our answers to these questions also impact our students’ perception of how technical substance and technical communication pertain to each other. Our problem is, of course, that answers are not easy to formulate because of the complicated relationship between words, substance and graphics. Of late, technical substance and its expression in words and in graphics have been treated as slightly different subjects 1. Perhaps in order to avoid discipline-specific questions about substance and about standards for graphics, the best guides for technical writing treat graphics and text management in separate chapters 2, 3, 4. Relatively little space is devoted to the concrete discussions that should integrate informational graphics with the text of a report. It falls to faculty members in the student’s professional discipline to clarify the fit between informational graphics and words, and they are often uncomfortable in this role. To solve this problem, technical faculty have traditionally looked beyond their departments in search of some sort of additional writing or presentation support for their students. At some universities, this assistance comes in the form of tutoring or recitation sessions provided by the personnel at a campus writing center 5. Some departments provide separate technical writing or speaking courses, which may run concurrently with certain required technicalcourses. Anotherwaytoprovidecommunicationinstructioninthetechnicalclassroom arises when student projects are sponsored by industry. Here, the industrial sponsor receives written and oral reports and suggests modifications to the students based on experience with the norms of communication in a particular field 6,7,8. Unfortunately, these approaches to communication instruction do not solve the integration problem so much as they reproduce it. When technical students are sent to consult with writing center tutors, for example, that tutor may be placed at an information disadvantage and may deliver writing instructions that are colored by the student’s account of the writing issue and of the project being described. At the other extreme, students may find that industrially sponsored projects effectively speak to substance, but that sponsors are not always selected for their skills in writing instruction, making even the best of experiences hard to interpret. When we integrated technical communication into a sophomore design course at Georgia Tech, we addressed substantive information directly, using a concrete approach to both graphics and text. In doing so we simplified the task of marking papers while emphasizing the integration of informational graphics. This paper will focus on the way we mark large volumes of reports, outlining the thinking that underpins our methods. The integration and presentation of graphics will be described first, followed by a description of our concrete approach to language and information. We will illustrate the discussion with annotated samples from our teaching packages, in order to demonstrate how this approach to information and graphics can ease the instructor’s burden.

Donnell, J. A. (2001, June), Technical Communication In A Required Engineering Course: Practical Guidelines For Instructors Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 10.18260/1-2--9890

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