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The Academic/Practitioner Conversations Project

I’m engaged in a year-long experiment to see if we can change attitudes in the industry that practitioners have toward academics in the same field, and vice versa. The project is called Academic/Practitioner Conversations. By breaking down the barriers that separate the two groups, I hope to encourage more interaction and knowledge sharing between tech comm academics and practitioners.

Project Overview

For more background around the divide between TC academics and practitioners, see the November 2016 issue (Volume 63, issue 4) of the Technical Communication Journal. (The issue is dedicated to this entire topic.) Essentially, although practitioners and academics should be working closely with each other, they operate and communicate in independent spheres.

In July 2018, I published a survey gathering a baseline of attitudes that each group has toward the other. The survey results indicated two concerning trends: (1) practitioners are mostly undecided or disagree as to whether academics understand the practitioner workplace issues, and (2) Academics aren’t writing for practitioners as their primary audience despite the journals’ stated goals. The survey’s results are posted here.

Both of these results pose serious consequences — the main consequence being that each group becomes irrelevant to the other. This mutual irrelevance can cripple each group’s progress in the field, since both academics and practitioners need each other to move forward.

I believe we can break down the content barriers between practitioners and academics, and in doing so, help the two groups start to operate in the same sphere. If practitioners could be exposed to more research from academics, would this change practitioner attitudes towards academics? Would it deepen their appreciation or would it heighten their disdain for the research academics do? On the flip side, would this increased interaction with practitioners help academics understand their practitioner perspective and workplace issues more? Would it sharpen their awareness of real issues, of topics that are relevant and actually in demand in the workplace?

To lessen the divide, I’ll be publishing “conversations” with academics focused on their research, usually as expressed in a recently published journal article. The format of the conversations follows a dialectical exchange, a back-and-forth approach (or thesis and antithesis moving towards synthesis) interview. More than any other format, this dialectical format can help bring perspectives closer together.

Also note that my research project isn’t to simply discover information but rather to create social change. It is writing meant to change attitudes, to shape directions and long-held positions. Ideally, the social outcomes of these conversations might include more partnerships between academics and practitioners, more cross-sharing of ideas and information, and ultimately more relevance toward each other’s concerns.

More than 5,000 tech comm professionals subscribe to I’d Rather Be Writing, and my site receives approximately 1,500 hits a day. Each article offers commenting features for discussion, and social media buttons make it easy to share articles. More than any other site, I’d Rather Be Writing is positioned to serve as a communication bridge between academics and practitioners.

Phases of the project

The Academic/Practitioner Conversations project has three simple phases:

  • Phase I: Capture a baseline of attitudes that each group has toward the other.
  • Phase II: Launch a series of posts and podcasts that follow a conversational format between practitioners and academics. See Guidelines for Academic Guest Posts.
  • Phase III: After a year, perform the same survey as in Phase I, looking to see if the increased content moved the scale on any of the attitudes each group has toward the other.

In my surveys, I’ve decided to measure attitudes, using an agree/disagree spectrum (the Likert approach). I’m hopeful that attitudes can be representative of more concrete results. A sour attitude likely indicates little interaction or benefit from one group to the other, whereas a glowing attitude indicates a more healthy relationship. At any rate, perhaps something larger will come about from this effort — I’m not sure.

Overall, a lot has been written about the practitioner/academic issue but with little change or effect. Yet, in my mind, the solution doesn’t involve rocket science. It merely requires exposure and visibility of ideas from each group to the other. If I’ve learned anything as one of the tech comm’s most visible bloggers, it’s this: the trick to visibility and influence is to merely publish (insightful) content in the same space over a prolonged period of time. It’s this sharing of content that will bring us together.

I will try to consume a steady diet of TC academic articles and invite the authors of the articles I read to engage in conversations with the topics in their articles, somewhat following a Q&A type format but more intertwined and reciprocal. (Academics don’t always steer the conversation where practitioners want it to go.) This stream of practitioner/academic conversations on my site will hopefully deepen and enrich the content that practitioners (at least those who try to keep awake and updated in the industry) are exposed to.

With each conversations post published, I’ll include the same survey as before, but focused specifically on the academic author. As practitioners give this feedback, it will give academics (particularly the guest author) clear feedback about how his or her writing matches up with the audience’s needs and expectations.

After about a year, I’ll evaluate the outcomes. In a best case scenario, the campaign of academic/practitioner conversations will have contributed to a healthier relationship between the two groups. But even if it solidifies a sense of disdain between the two groups, perhaps stirring this issue up will cause some actionable outcome.

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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