Taking Up Technical Writing: An Exciting Course Opportunity for English Majors
“This is real-world writing.” According to Fran Smith, teaching assistant of Dr. Jordan Frith’s technical writing course, this is the reason students want to enroll and work hard in the class — it teaches them invaluable communication skills they will surely need in the future.
Frith is teaching a large, lecture-based course specifically on technical writing that includes a balance between learning about different contemporary technologies and using them to produce digital text. A portion of his undergraduate students are majoring in English, while many of his teaching assistants come from the English department. These include Smith, John Gorton, and Gabrielle Wilkosz.
Frith developed his own education first as a student of English — his undergraduate degree is in literature, while he obtained a Master of Science in technical communication and then his doctorate in communication, rhetoric, and digital media. Frith is now in his second year at Clemson, and previously he has worked in the technical writing department at the University of North Texas.
Frith said that teaching his class during the pandemic has been a “challenge, but no more so than other courses.” Each week there is a new module and students listen to the pre-recorded videos by Frith. There are no daily class meetings, but students keep up with the reading and work on upcoming assignments independently. He believes that the students have adapted well to this format.
Other adjustments Frith has made include having his teaching assistants help with grading and giving feedback to the students, which allows for them to receive more individualized attention on projects and other assignments. “It takes hours to grade and comment on all my students’ assignments,” Smith said. “That is because I not only make corrections, but explain the reasoning behind each one so the student learns the proper writing guidelines.” It also gives the teaching assistants a chance to connect with the undergraduates they are not getting to see during in-person classes. Frith said he would have the graduate students hold labs, but since there are no required meetings to conduct at the moment, he has shifted their responsibilities to allow them to manage content and the larger student body during the asynchronous interactions.
Frith’s students are engaging with several different exciting projects throughout the semester. One assignment they have is to write up mock course proposals. They are split into three groups depending on major and design a plan for two classes they think should be included in the Clemson curriculum. All students will also complete a lengthy white paper, or professionally oriented research report, about an emerging technology and its ethical concerns.
“Examples of these technologies include facial recognition, location tracking, CRISPR (a gene editing technique), and different kinds of crowd-shared labor like Uber,” Frith said. Frith assures that students of English can adapt quite well to the technical writing field despite its scientific topics.
“Technical writing is not as different as it seems from other courses [English students] may be taking,” Frith said. He emphasized that they are well set up to succeed in technical writing “thanks to the skills they have developed in their excellent other courses.”
English majors can take skills like critical interpretation and writing they have practiced in literature classes and extend them to a slightly different field. Frith stressed that there is definitely room within technical writing for English majors to express their creativity. They should not be afraid to sign up for a technical writing course and explore what possibilities the field can offer them both within and beyond Clemson!
Frith reiterated that his students have been doing well and the course continues to run smoothly. “The large format is working out great thanks to the excellent teaching assistants that I have from the English department,” he said.
Smith added, “Dr. Frith explains things so clearly in the lectures and really drills into the students the importance of the skills they are learning. When I found out I was going to be a TA for his class this semester, I broke into my happy dance!”
Written by: Kelly Waters