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Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners in tech comm?

by Tom Johnson on Aug 5, 2015
categories: technical-writing academics-and-practitioners

Although the work of practitioners and academics should inform each other in mutually beneficial ways, these groups tend to be somewhat isolated and separate. Some reasons for the divide include lack of focus on tools, paywalls set up with publications, and the topics in journal articles.

The divide between practitioners and academics

TechCommGeekMom recently attended IEEE ProComm in Ireland and wrote an interesting post highlighting the divide that exists between practitioners and academics.

I’ve been interested in this divide for some time. In some regards, bloggers and academicians have some somewhat similar goals. Both groups desire to increase their learning. Bloggers write about their experiences, share what they’ve learned, seek to better their understanding, and grow their knowledge through this interactive medium.

Sure, sometimes bloggers are narcissistic, attention-loving amateurs who simply love to write, and who often generalize more from their own experiences than they should, but at heart bloggers are amateurs in the most literal sense — they love what they do.

Academics center their whole career around learning. They ask deep questions, set up experiments to test hypothesis, read extensively in the literature of the profession, and tackle difficult issues with detailed journal articles and other publications.

Sure, academics are sometimes stressed out with publish-or-perish mandates, which force them to swim in the jargon of thick academic journals to sound more sophisticated than they really are, but it’s the nature of being in the academia and not specific to our particular discipline.

Ideally, academics should feed off of information provided by practitioners, and practitioners should thrive based on the research published by academics. The two groups can mutually benefit each other. In reality, however, practitioners and academics often live on two different planets, with little interaction or contact between the worlds.

Why is there such a divide between academics and practitioners?

The question of tools separates the groups

First, the question of tools divides them. Academic rarely talk about tools (or even DITA, for that matter). Academics instead like to explore more conceptual, abstract, or method-based topics. Academics know that tools come and go like the changing tide. What’s popular today will not be popular tomorrow, so any treatment of tools tends to be so ephemeral that it rarely catches the academic’s attention.

Journal articles focus on theory, research, practice, etc., not tool tips or the best component content management systems. To thrive in their careers, academics must orient their research on topics that journals will publish.

Practitioners, on the other hand, must stay current with tools, because just about every job description filters out candidates based on the tools and technologies they know. Practitioners spend all day working in tools, so they have a lot to say about them.

For example, I had Jekyll open 90% of the time today, and I spent a good chunk of time refactoring absolute URLs into relative URLs to support a more flexible publishing model. I’m also trying to understand how web applications are put together in Visual Studio so that I can better document our reference implementations.

Paywalls with academic journals

Another reason for the divide is perhaps the paywalls set up between academic journals and practitioners. If practitioners in the U.S. are going to read any official publications related to their craft, they’ll probably need to belong to the STC. This membership would give them access to the Technical Communication Journal. But if you’re not a member of the STC, you have little chance of ever reading what academics publish.

There are other journals beyond the Technical Communication Journal. For example, the IEEE publications, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, and Technical Communication Quarterly. But accessing these journals usually requires you to have access to a library subscription that provides this access (often through a university library), or you can choose to pay approximately $30 per article.

As a result, the content that academics write rarely reaches practitioners, because who is going to pay $30 to read one article?

Academic journal topics don’t always seem relevant

More than cost, however, there are other reasons why practitioners don’t read academic journals. Even for the thousands of STC members who have free access to the Technical Communication Journal, many times the access is unused. Not so much because the content is written in a thick academic-style; it’s because the insights themselves don’t always connect with practitioners.

TechCommGeekMom explains her reaction to many of the IEEE conference sessions:

So, attending a mostly academic conference like the IEEE ProComm was a bit eye-opening. Many of the talks were summaries of research that had been done on a variety of topics, and peer reviewed, which was all well and good. I found that the sessions that I could connect best to were the ones that were given by practitioners, practitioners who were also academians, or academians who had a foothold as consultants outside of the academy. There were plenty of sessions whose topics were relevant to the corporate world, but they failed to deliver completely on something new or to provide any revelations to me. There were also summary sessions that provided research conclusions which were incorrect or inaccurate from practitioner perspectives, or elicited the feeling of “…and why are you researching this topic again, and what is its relevency?”

… Now, in saying all this, I don’t mean to step on ANYONE’s toes in this discourse. Far from it! While I’m sure you can tell that I lean on the side of being a practitioner, this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the academic side at all. I’ve been there. I’ve taught, too. However, there were just too many conversations in which I wanted to say to a few professors that only teach and do research, “REALLY?? Are you serious?”, knowing well that they were serious. I understand that many universities also have a hard rule about the need to do publish and research to keep one’s professorial job, so that can’t be easy to balance all of it.

In other words, many times the focus of research for academics doesn’t seem relevant or insightful to practitioners.

On the other hand, sometimes academics do publish many insightful and seminal works. For example, John Carroll (who was made honorary STC Fellow at the last STC Summit in Ohio) published works on minimalism in the late 80s that are still being discussed today. Marie Flacke pointed this out in a comment on TechCommGeekMom’s post:

Unfortunately, we practitioners are repeating our previous errors. John M. Carroll researched and developed the minimalism principles in the late eighties… and we are beginning to apply them NOW ;-(( — Marie Louise Flacke

I think many academic publications are overlooked by practitioners, to their own detriment. I decided to read the latest issue of The Technical Communication Journal this week, and I’m kicking myself for not having made this more of a regular reading regimen earlier. The topics in the latest issue — about the hybrid roles technical writers play, their context and identity within organizations, the titles for their role, and so on — are extremely relevant.

Solutions to bridging the gap?

How can we help turn things around? Here’s a list of possible solutions from a practitioner-focused angle:

  1. Practitioners can actually read the Technical Communication Journal (and other journals if you can find a way to get access to them).
  2. Practitioners can encourage more academics to blog about their work. For example, at the invitation of practitioner bloggers, academics could write guests posts on blogs that summarize or present their findings in an accessible, open way. Or academics can simply start their own blogs. Bob Watson does a great job with this in his Docs by Design blog, where he publishes his dissertation findings.
  3. Practitioners can help academics by helping providing information (such as from surveys, inquiries, and other information-gathering methods) back to academics for their research. Those long surveys you sometimes hear about are essential if academics are to get the research information they need.
  4. Practitioners can provide more feedback and interest in what academics are writing about. (In some ways, academics write for academics because only academics end up reading the journals, so it’s circular.)
  5. Practitioners should call out academic research that fails to deliver. If an academic writes a paper that has an uninsightful, inaccurate, or everyone-already-knows-this topic, practitioners should let the academic know. (In short, promote more cross-communication.)
  6. Finally, practitioners can record podcasts with academics about some of their findings. The previous podcast I published with Bob Watson is an example. Alternatively, practitioners can invite academics to present at local STC meetings.

What do you think? How can we bridge the divide?

By the way, I’ll be recording a podcast soon with Lisa Meloncon, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, exploring this topic, so stay tuned to my blog for more on this topic.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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