Unpublished, 2015. Excerpt.
This report is a survey of graduate-level professional writing programs in the U.S. The report provides a portrait of the state of professional writing programs today by way of curriculum and literature review. That literature examines the increasing relevance and long-term viability of professional writing, especially in today’s knowledge and digital economy. Ultimately, the report reveals professional writing programs that are transforming to adhere to the needs of today’s economy, as well as programs that are falling short of that goal.
The demand for knowledge is accelerating the demand for professional writers. As the U.S. economy continues its transformation from industrial to knowledge and service economies, that transformation has spurred the need for writers who can clearly communicate valued information to others. In this information era, writing is a valued skill, perhaps more so than any era in human history. It is in demand. It can also help secure success in the workplace. Writing can be “A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out” of work, according to the aptly titled 2004 study by The National Commission on Writing. That study found that writing ability and talent can determine who is hired and promoted in U.S. companies. Writing ability can be a “ticket to professional opportunity” or a “figurative kiss of death” for employees who cannot write (College Board, 2004).
It is also an expensive skill. American companies are estimated to spend up to $3.1 billion annually to improve poor writing in their workforce, the commission study found. Nevertheless, the investment is critical and highly necessary because “writing is at the heart of the knowledge economy” (Brandt, 2005). Proprietary and creative knowledge must be written so it is preserved and communicated. “Writing, we might say, is hot property” in today’s economy (Brandt, 2005). The shift from industrialism to knowledge economy represents a shift from the making of goods to the “transaction of powerful ideas” (Ferro & Zachry, 2014). In this dynamic, professional writers are “core participants in the knowledge-work economy” so long as they embrace the creative, intellectual, and informational work of the knowledge economy.
In this context, employers, particularly, value trained writers because they are a “major encoder of knowledge” (Kohn, 2015). Demand for trained writers is evident from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to their 2014 – 2015 assessment of the field, they project employment growth of 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, a growth rate that is “faster than the average for all occupations.” According to the federal agency, demand for skilled writers is being driven by products, services, and tools associated with advances in science, technology, and information technology.
Obsolete technical writer. Because of those advancements, BLS estimates that 7,400 new jobs in technical writing will be created from 2012 – 2022. However, their definition of a “technical writer,” which they also call a “technical communicator,” does not include the multitude of workforce roles now available to a skilled, professional writer. Their projection could arguably be underestimating the number of new jobs. Their definition is based on the traditional, 20th-century conception of a technical writer: one who writes “instruction manuals, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily.”
Though still valuable skills, a writer in today’s knowledge economy has to wear many more hats than their predecessors. Knowledge is delivered to customers and consumers in many forms, requiring specialization and skill development. A writer may have to know how to construct a persuasive tweet and a white paper, as well as having the ability to write a highly technical journal article and a persuasive blog. That message will also need to be tailored to different audiences.
The traditional definitions of a technical writer, technical communicator, and professional writer are obsolete in today’s knowledge economy. Those definitions, the BLS example cited above, have been irrevocably altered because of rapid advances in technology. In Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) note that writing has “always been multifaceted.” But a writer’s role in the workplace is becoming increasingly complex — and more multifaceted — because of technology and the expectation that writers know how to use that technology.
Jobs for professional writers that did not exist ten years ago — such as social media and content managers, among numerous other new positions created because of advances in technology — exist today because of a plethora of new and emerging technologies. (Blythe, Lauer, & Curran, 2014). Citing a message board comment they found during their study, “it is not enough in a Web 2.0 world to ONLY write effectively, you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.”
Social media, for example, has disrupted the field of technical communication, so much so as to spur the suggestion of new disciplinary distinctions in the field: traditional technical communication and social media technical communication, for example (Ferro & Zachry, 2014). Additionally, in the workplace, social media has added another layer of writing responsibility. Ferro and Zachry (2014) note that professional writers who use social media at the workplace “must now monitor the technological landscape and be ready to integrate emergent types of online services into their work.”
Contemporary professional writer. Today, writers need advanced training to succeed in a marketplace that demands their skills, as well as a diverse skillset. Schools of technical writing were created to train a generation of writers who could write materials that were needed for the country’s post-World War II industrial age. However, the shift from industry as commodity to knowledge as commodity has given rise to new methods of training for writers. Skilled writers are no longer just technical writers, charged with creating technical manuals and product documentation. Today, they are professional writers who have the ability to write technical documentation and copy for a promotional campaign. They may need to compose a persuasive tweet that does not exceed 140 characters or they may need to write a concise, 100-page manual that clearly describes how to build an aircraft engine.
Because of technological innovation in the knowledge economy, new forms of communication have been created. Today’s writers are expected to develop messages for those new, mostly digital, communication tools. Recognizing these trends, schools of professional writing have been created to train writers to be able to handle the multitude of communication tools and technology-centered writing contexts they will be confronted with on the job. Schools of technical writing are now competing with schools of professional writing, and other writing schools that are all attempting to keep up with the rapidly evolving definition and conception of a writer today (as well as evolving job titles, technical writer, professional writer, communication specialists, and so on).
Summary, Conclusion, and Recommendations
The professional writing programs reviewed and evaluated in this report offer a diverse range of approaches to instruction. Their pedagogical philosophies and approaches are for the most part distinct. However, it is apparent that nearly all of the programs recognize the importance of building a professional writing program that emphasizes humanistic and complementary traditional approaches to writing, in addition to an embrace of new and emerging technologies. Only Eastern Michigan University’s program steered clear of technology, focusing exclusively on writing studies. This report cannot answer why that program and others made these particular pedagogical decisions. Its intention was not to answer that question, but to review and evaluate the particular approaches of each program through the humanistic and technological optics.
But it is clear from this review and evaluation that those optics influence the pedagogy of professional writing programs to varying degrees, slightly and significantly. On the other end of the spectrum, in contrast to Eastern Michigan University’s program, stand programs like Chatham University. That program’s web content development track is intensively driven by a technology focus, evidently a recognition of the need for professional writers to know these skills in today’s economy. However, that focus comes at the sacrifice of the study of writing, its traditional, rhetorical, and humanistic concerns. Despite their good intentions to create a program that coheres with the trends and needs of the knowledge economy, that is a grave error in curriculum design.
As Mezo (2001) notes in his call to restore a “classical humanistic approach to writing,” audiences are composed of humans. They are not just “buying units” or “consumers,” nor are they “radio receivers that detect ‘broadcast signals’ from a writer.” Writing, whether it is professional or literary, is a human act spurred by human agency to respond to a particular context or situation. A traditional study of that intention, the discipline’s roots, the various forms of rhetoric and style, execution of invention and creativity, and other deep dives into the traditional underpinnings of the discipline cannot be ignored. A writer must learn how to write by studying the writings of others, as well as the theory and history of the field. Their style must be shaped and influenced by the style of others. Otherwise, they will be a blank slate.
An overemphasis of technology will overshadow the heart of the discipline, the pulse that enables good writing that persuades and informs. Yes, technology is a creative tool. But a professional writer needs to know how to write well and use technology to disseminate their writings to others. The use of technology, especially visual design software, and the act of writing are both creative acts that complement one another. Carnegie Mellon’s program recognizes that inclusiveness. Technology is needed to elevate the writing: visual symbols are just as powerful as words. Placed together on a document using visual design software can led to the creation of a highly compelling and persuasive piece, the perfect marriage of text and graphics. Nevertheless, Carnegie’s program only dips its toes in technology, stopping well too short at visual design, avoiding immersing students in other technologies, such as website and app development. Carnegie is an example of a program that almost has all the right pieces in place to address the concerns explained in the introduction of this report. Ultimately, the program falls short.
Moreover, some programs are entirely too flexible to sufficiently address the dual concerns of tradition and new pedagogical approaches that embrace new and emerging technologies. Kennesaw State University offers a variety of courses, including traditional writing studies, information architecture, and visual design. But the options are so bountiful, so many roads, so many possibilities, that a student may not receive the professional writing education they need to meet knowledge economy employer expectations. A writer cannot just write today, especially with the continual profusion of communicative technologies (visual, web, networking). They may need to tweet, optimize copy for search engines, write a white paper, layout a webpage, manage content and social media, design a high-quality infographic, and develop an information architecture. Writers are not just writers in the traditional sense. They architect information from ideation to dissemination: creating the information, building the structures that support it, and using a variety of tools to distribute it globally.
Of all the programs reviewed in this report, the University of Cincinnati strikes the best balance among the group to address these varied — and arguably maddening — needs. The program is relatively rigid. All students must take a traditional professional writing course and a course in web design. That core requirement is a testament to their recognition of the new age of writing: paper is vanishing; pixels are proliferating. Today, most information is fit to print on the web, not the broadsheet. They recognize the need to bridge traditional approaches to professional writing pedagogy with new approaches, including technology. In addition to the required core web design course and foundational professional writing course, students are also required to take additional courses in genre, theory, and technology. However, this approach is not faultless. It is possible for students to sidestep critical and practical writing training — promotional and proposal writing — as well as visual design classes. Granted, that flexibility was built-in to pander to student preferences and career interests. While not as extreme as other programs, that flexibility, however, could make them less palatable on the job market. They potentially lack desired skills because they sidestepped courses that would ultimately benefit them.
Conclusion and Recommendations
There is no perfect professional writing program in part because the programs are always subject to constant disruption given the continuous innovation in communicative technologies and digital media. Today’s relevant program is tomorrow’s relic. Moreover, amid this environment, professional writing programs as a whole as we know them today are relatively new (Peeples & Davidson, 2012). In 1993, professional writing was an emerging field of study. By the late 2000s, it transformed from emerging to an established discipline in academia. They have just found their footing, unlike other disciplines that have been around for decades, if not centuries, and have overcome their growing pains.
Today, undergraduate, graduate, and PhD programs can be found across the U.S. Some others include: New England College, Master of Arts, Professional Writing; Towson University, Master of Science, Professional Writing; University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Master of Arts, Professional Writing; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Master of Arts, Professional Writing and Technical Communication; West Virginia University, Master of Arts, Professional Writing and Editing.
It has not been an easy road to achieve that extent, albeit the profession is far from prevalently established. There are a few key reasons for the lack of prevalence, even though professional writers are in vogue and in demand today. University of Cincinnati professional writing instructors Kathryn Rentz, Mary Beth Debs, and Lisa Meloncon chronicled their struggle to lift their professional writing program out from obscurity in their essay Getting an Invitation to the English Table—and Whether or Not to Accept It. For years, their program was overshadowed by the university’s English Department, unable to grow or innovate their curriculum, hampered by the overwhelming needs and desires of the literature faculty. In their essay, they described that struggle and how they eventually overcame their challenges to develop a program that this report considers a model approach. However, not all professional writing programs, especially programs placed within English Departments, have achieved that level of independence and curricular autonomy. Porter and Sullivan (2007) note that professional writing programs still occupy “the same (queasy) space it did in 1993” within English Departments.
Unequivocally, these bureaucratic and ingrained institutional perspectives have hampered many professional writing programs ability to innovate and even expand, thus harming students who want to become professional writers and not literature professors. Conversely, there are a myriad of other considerations that have shaped the respective curriculums that were reviewed and assessed in this report. If a school lacks faculty trained in technology, such as website design or Adobe Creative Suite, it is incredibly challenging to expect them to teach technology-oriented courses. For better or worse, resources shape curriculum, program philosophy, and desired student outcomes.
In addition, there is the most perplexing issue: time. A master’s level professional writing program must cover a breadth and depth of theory and practice — not to mention contending with incorporating new and emerging technologies — in approximately 33 to 39 credits. Because of those time constraints, they face difficult decisions when it comes to course selection. That must be balanced against developing a program that is relevant (digital media emphasis) while also teaching their students how to write well (traditional/humanistic emphasis). Constantly shifting marketplace expectations that a writer should be more than just a writer create additional pressures. By marketplace and knowledge economy standards, they should be a hybrid-tech writer who can write, design, and code. Such is reality and professional writing programs have to contend with it and adapt to these forever-evolving conditions. Otherwise, the programs will become, like old technology, obsolete.
How is this conundrum overcome? Porter and Sullivan (2007) note that “typical” academic department arrangements may fall short of providing for the “array of needs” that arise from this context. However, they believe the “most interesting places for curricular action and innovation and for institutional change are in the cracks, the ambiguous spaces between departments and outside of conventional disciplinary departments.” That interdisciplinary, integrative approach may be the only way professional writing departments can stay abreast with a riptide of pedagogical disruption due to technology and still stay true to the humanistic-oriented training of writing. They believe students will only thrive in the 21st-century digital economy if they are exposed to “multimodal approaches to knowledge.” For a digital media student that means learning about rhetoric and style and how appealing language can be created for digital platforms. It also means learning how to use audio, video, and architecting information for digital media and the web.
Can one instructor teach that in one course? Potentially. That depends on the knowledge and experience of the instructor and the capabilities of the students. However, to achieve that multimodal approach, it will involve sweeping a wide breadth of disciplines and true expertise in all those disciplines into one course. That also means designing the course to be able to apply theory to practice in order to train students to write “real-world” professional documents that are relevant to unique professional contexts, including the myriad of new contexts created by technology. In this model, for example, an introductory professional writing course may involve writing for traditional genres, writing for business, writing for web, writing for social media, writing for marketing, all guided by classical interpretations of rhetoric and an understanding of logic, fallacies, et cetera. The sweep of knowledge, informed by multiple disciplines, may need to be this wide for each individual course so that students receive the relevant training they need, as well as to conserve limited time.
Arguably, even the model University of Cincinnati approach is piecemeal. A student selects promotional writing and studies promotional writing. A student selects information design and studies information design. For a professional writing curriculum to stay current with trends that keep expanding the boundaries of the discipline, programs may need to integrate, as an example, information design, promotional writing, and graphic design in one course. It is a daunting challenge. However, an integrative, multimodal approach may be necessary to ensure students receive the increasingly wider sweep of knowledge they need to remain relevant and thrive in the knowledge economy of today. Hybrid courses that integrate cross-disciplinary theory and knowledge (technology and humanistic, for example) will lead to the convergence of those two optics, or influencers, that are currently forcing professional writing programs to adapt to disruption. Time is, indeed, of the essence.