Week 6 – “How Technical Communication Textbooks Fail Engineering Students”

Wolfe, Joanna. “How Technical Communication Textbooks Fail Engineering Students.” Technical Communication Quarterly 18, no. 4 (2009): 351-75.


In the article “How Technical Communication Textbooks Fail Engineering Students,” Joanna Wolfe discusses how the nature of most technical communication textbooks are inherently geared toward humanities-based styles and genres, therefore limiting the effectiveness of such strategies in the field of engineering.  Additionally, there are four main areas of technical communication textbooks which directly conflict with the knowledge and practices of engineering students.  These areas include:  active versus passive voice, citation practices, data visualization, and presentation of data and results (354).

In engineering, passive voice is necessary to focus the reader’s attention on an object instead of on the person or force manipulating the object.  Using passive voice places the emphasis on the object and can often be more concise.  We often talk about how maintaining credibility with an audience is probably the most important element to consider in technical writing; however, advocating active voice rather than passive voice in an engineering field damages ethos.  In fact, “passive voice is often a deliberate rhetorical choice for engineers who strive to present an ethos of scientific objectivity rather than personal authority in writing” (357).  This notion echoes Miller’s stance when she claims that “scientists adopt [such] conventions [as] the obvious stylistic methods meant for staying out of the way . . . [such as using] subject matter third-person . . . personification, [and] passive voice” (Miller 4).  Miller goes on to assert that we, as teachers “place a double-burden on students by urging them to be impersonal on one hand, but denying them, in the name of stylistic grace, these obvious syntactic tools on the other” (Miller 4).  Surprisingly, Miller supports this idea that we are doing a disservice to students in certain scientific fields by providing textbooks which insist on syntactical form biased toward humanistic style preferences.  This is both unfair and unhelpful to engineering students.

Another element Wolfe notes is the bias in textbooks toward humanities citation practices.  Almost all textbooks advocate for APA, MLA, or Chicago style for documentation.  However, “emphasizing author’s names, titles, and direct quotes . . . focuses readers’ attention on authors and their specific words” rather than on the content itself being discussed (358).  Again, the importance of ethos flies into the forefront of my mind.  If we continue to disseminate the premise that most citation styles in the scientific field reflect APA or MLA, we “undermine our ethos as teachers” because the premise is simply not true (359).  Various numbered citation-sequence styles are more common in engineering, computer science, chemical engineering, medicine, and physics and well as other scientific fields (358).

Data visualization and the presentation of data and results are often ignored or completely eliminated from technical writing textbooks.  I believe this tendency is, again, directly linked to the humanities influence; indeed, Wolfe notes that some textbooks advocate certain types of charts (such as three-dimensional bar graphs) based solely on the aesthetic aspect.  Sacrificing clarify for aesthetics should not occur in a field which prides itself on clarity of information.  Additionally, the lack of clear visuals is directly related to the textbooks’ “general disregard for numbers and data” (364).  Teaching engineering students how to interpret results is a foundational skill for them to use their field; it is troubling that our textbooks fail to equip them for this task, especially since the ability to interpret results “is the primary rhetorical skill that separates ‘good’ from ‘poor’ engineering writers” (365).

This failure on the part of technical communication textbooks (and technical communication classes) to sufficiently equip engineering students stands out to me in the succinct response from an engineering student after taking such class.  According to a study by Ford, one student asked, “What’s the point of taking technical writing when all you are going to do is use templates afterwards?” (352).  This troubling statement reinforces the attitude held by numerous people in the scientific realm who see technical writing purely as a skill-set geared toward learning correct format; the problem-solving aspect and understanding of audience and purpose is completely eliminated when this attitude becomes the definition of the field.  How will improving technical writing textbooks geared toward engineering students affect the mindset of how those students perceive the value of technical writing?


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