Using the EServer TC Library for Course "Outside Readings"
  • Almost two years ago, I posted a rough note here about teaching my intro to technical communication course using the TC Library as a supplement to the textbook. Here's a more detailed essay on the method, which is working quite well so far.

    The Problem

    Textbooks in technical and professional communication have numerous limitations in the contemporary upper-division classroom.

    One of these is a lack of clearly-defined standards within the field. A textbook with a chapter on creating effective PowerPoint presentations, for example, might find its authority contradicted by other voices the student will hear, including professors who use innovative/engaging PowerPoint techniques in other courses. A chapter on résumés and cover letters might find its authority undermined by advice the student receives from his/her college advisor. A textbook’s unitary (and necessarily simplified) representation of current thinking within the field may lose its credibility among students who encounter complex, multifaceted and multidisciplinary perspectives on practices in the rest of their life.

    Using a Supplement to Textbooks

    One possibility to adapt courses to this problem would be to complement the clear representations of various textbook chapters with a set of ‘further readings’ which might make more complex (and therefore sophisticated) the clear, simple representations students find in textbooks. Having students find primary sources to complement each week’s topics might lead to a more dynamic and interesting classroom experience for students, as well as teaching students how to find and rate primary sources from the field.

    Why Google Doesn’t Work

    Neither Google nor Google Scholar quite provides the sort of options that would be preferable for such a pedagogy. If one currently searches Google for ‘technical communication,’ the fifth result is a work entitled ‘Sexy girls Online on webcam.’ Google results also fail to differentiate
    between single primary texts and large sites which contain thousands of works; the first result for searches for ‘technical communication’ is the STC—the Society for Technical Communication—rather than any of the 2,500 papers open to the public contained within that site (some of which might be appropriate to any week’s topics, but all of which are hidden four levels deep within the site). This is further problematized by the fact that works in Google are ranked based upon their popularity, rather than by more nuanced or disciplinary criteria. Google isn’t ideal for students to find primary sources in technical/professional communication themselves.

    Google Scholar might be a better choice, but its attempt to index peer-reviewed scholarly works makes its resources better suited to a graduate-level course than a 300-level introductory survey of the field. Many of the areas covered in 302 and 314 are topics better described in trade journals such as the STC’s Intercom, rather than in peer-reviewed scholarly journals.

    An Alternative: The EServer TC Library

    The EServer Technical Communication Library is a website first created in 2001 by three undergraduate students at the University of Washington-Seattle and myself. The students were learning about library research into the fields of technical, scientific and professional communication and were surprised to learn how difficult such research could be.

    They proposed developing a database-driven website that would index writings currently available online in these fields, and within months the site was online, with catalogue of 1,000 works.

    Since relocating in 2003 to the ISU English Department, the site has been very successful. Today it indexes more than 21,850 works, and because it permits users to add new resources directly to the catalogue (subject to later approval by an eight-member editorial board), it now averages approximately six new works per day, and has relationships with major publishers such as Sage and Baywood, who add new works to the TC Library catalogue automatically as new issues of their peer-reviewed scholarly journals within the field are published.

    When one chooses one of the categories from the home page, or enters a search term in the upper right corner, the resulting page displays:


    Results may be sorted by date published, by title or author, or by ‘rating’ (the average of 1-5 stars submitted by other site users). Clicking any
    work in particular takes the visitor to the ‘detail’ page for that item, which shows the complete abstract, all available metadata about the work, and links to other works in the same category, by the same author, or published by the same publisher:


    The ‘detail’ page also permits users to post ratings or lengthier written reviews, and provides direct links to the works in question—which are
    available directly online. The site permits users anywhere to add new items to the catalog, to update the entry for any particular work (using
    a forms-based interface), to rate any of the works on a five-star scale, or to write a detailed review of any work. The site employs a ‘CAPTCHA’ random-text image at the bottom of each page to prevent ‘spam’ software from vandalizing the index, and has a system of editorial review to correct errors introduced into the listings.

    Teaching with It

    First efforts toward developing a pedagogy using the TC Library were undertaken in a fall 2007 section of English 507. This course, a
    graduate introduction to technical and professional communication for new MA students in the Rhetoric, Composition and Professional Communication program, used Moodle 1.8 for its course website. Students were given a ‘journal’ assignment each week, which involved each student finding and reading from the TC Library three primary sources on each week’s topic (in addition to their other assigned readings on that topic).

    Students were asked to post short discussions about their readings, particularly discussions about similarities or differences between the perspectives taken by the various required authors. The ‘journal’ assignment permitted students to read and comment on one another’s posts. All posts were due by the beginning of class, and in class time was always reserved for discussion of what the students learned from their readings. This discussion tended to be far more productive than some of the readings based upon the more conventional reading assignments, and several of the students expressed a wish that they could use a version of this assignment in their own teaching of English 150 and 250 courses.

    In Fall 2008, a variation of this was tried in a section of ENGL 314. Students were assigned a chapter per class from a widely-used textbook, then (in addition) were required to read three primary texts of their choosing from a specific category page on the EServer TC Library. The 'Technical Editing' category, for instance, holds 65 works—enough for students to choose selectively subtopics of interest, while limited enough to exclude off-topic or inappropriate materials. Students could choose which works to read after sorting by year published, date added to the site, mean (average)
    reader ratings, or by any other method of their choice. They could read any articles of their choosing—so long as each read at least three. And
    in discussion, students could refer to the textbook or to their outside readings.

    So here's an example of a section from the Moodle course website from week 3 of the course:


    We found initial skepticism about the additional outside readings, and curiosity among students about how the instructor would 'know' whether
    students had done the reading or not. But having this integrated into every week of the assignment, along with positive in-class reinforcement when students cited outside readings on the topic, led it to be, in my opinion, a success.

    What I found as well was that student engagement was increased significantly during discussion. Students wanted to discuss discrepancies between different authors' perspectives on the week's topics, and wanted help deciding what the 'correct' view might be. In discussion, students learned a variety of means to determine the credibility of authors, and to infer which perspectives were dominant, vestigial, or emergent in the field. They also began to understand how the field, in some circumstances, may have multiple ‘correct’ perspectives, as well as multiple uncommon or disliked views. Students who were less than excited by the textbook found outside readings more to their liking, and students who were dedicated to doing well in the course often read more than three works, in order to provide context for discussion. The caliber of discussions was enormously
    higher. These findings were very pleasant surprises.

    Can Students Handle It?

    One objection I've heard from colleagues is that "This method sounds like one used in graduate courses." Iowa State's courses on "Business
    Communication" (ENGL 302) and "Technical Communication" (ENGL 314) are taught to students who are primarily juniors and seniors, but still
    undergraduates. Can students in survey courses handle this level of additional work?

    In my experience so far, yes indeed they can. Some students seem happy to encounter the challenge. And those who don't do rigorous "further readings" aren't harmed by their existence; if anything, some students who are initially hesitant to invest time in further readings have been persuaded by vigorous discussion that there's utility in outside readings.


    I recommend that instructors who teach survey courses similar to our ENGL 314 or 302 consider implementing a version of this technique in their
    courses – or at least 'try' it in one or two classes. I've found it quite rewarding.

    Then — please — post responses here, about where they've had successes or problems? The TC Library's Editorial Board will be quite happy to do what we can to improve the site for classroom use.

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