chapter11 - 11 Introducing a Technical Writing...

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203 11 Introducing a Technical Writing Communication Course into a Canadian School of Engineering Anne Parker introduction Introducing technical communication into the curriculum of a Cana- dian engineering school has created its own set of challenges, particularly when some of the engineering professors continue to believe, as Mathes, Stevenson and Klaver suggested in 1979, that the subject is best taught by engineers. Do- ing so proved to be only modestly successful at my school. Yet, even without the push to use engineering faculty as my assistants, establishing one’s authority as an expert in a non-engineering field can create a very real tension between the insider (the engineer) and the outsider (the technical communication in- structor). As a female and as a non-engineer, I have occasionally felt like the “outsider.” After all, a school of Engineering may well be the epicenter of what McIlwee and Robinson brand the “culture of Engineering,” a culture that is both male-dominated and seemingly closed to the outsider. The false perceptions of the engineering students only complicate the issue. On the one hand, many still perceive the subject as the study of “Eng- lish,” seemingly unaware that analyzing literature and writing essays about it is an activity quite different to writing engineering reports and giving technical presentations about technical problems and engineering designs. On the other hand, some students consider technical communication to be nothing more than grammar and composition, packaged though it may be in technical read- ings and exercises. Even some engineering professors also adhere to the latter view, and are surprised to discover that the field has grown to be such a rich and varied one (and one, incidentally, that demands the talents of a communication specialist). Nevertheless, in spite of these misconceptions and challenges, I have found that, if an instructor can focus on the application of the technical com- munication field to the engineering profession, then many of these erroneous ideas can be dispelled. Indeed, over the years, the technical communication course at our school has met, if not anticipated, current trends within the engi- neering profession, exemplified most notably by the expectations of the national
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Parker 204 accreditation board. And this growing awareness of its relevance to the profes- sion has resulted in the course’s becoming more and more integral to the Faculty of Engineering at the same time as I have become less and less the outsider. For example, in the 1970s, many potential employers simply wanted engineering graduates to be able to write more effectively, and the perceived ab- sence of such a skill prompted complaints to the administrators of our engineer- ing school. To address that need, our school then introduced a technical com- munication course in 1982, and students’ writing skills noticeably improved.
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