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User Experience in the Classroom and Beyond

Through the collection of qualitative data from professional writers (e.g., corporate employees, freelancers, students), I seek to reorient the relationship between technical and professional writing (TPW) pedagogy, skill acquisition, and job placement by considering user experience (UX) as both a pedagogical tool and a skill set to teach. I define myself as a researcher in technical and professional writing foremost, though my publications and presentations make significant contributions in the areas of writing program administration, writing studies, career centers, and student internships.

UX as Pedagogical Tool and Skill Set

A good UX begins, at the most foundational level, with acknowledging the presence of a user, a stakeholder who engages with our deliverable to better understand something or complete a task. The students who enter our classes should, by this definition, be classified as users. My research views students as users and the classroom as a UX landscape in which I ideate, test, and develop best practices for teaching TPW to STEMM students. Not only does this research advance conversations about TPW programmatic administration, but it also adds to the dialogue surrounding social justice and equity within TPW.

My 2018 pilot of Microsoft Teams for Higher Education, which began as a classroom UX intervention, has advanced our knowledge of how writing infrastructures impact STEMM transnational learners. During my time teaching in higher education, I noticed that fewer and fewer students seemed to be reading my email messages and LMS reminders. Given the research done on the use of app-based messaging systems in business communication (Kiddie), I wanted to test if using a similar communication approach in the classroom would yield comparable positive results. Upon piloting Teams, however, I discovered that my attempt to alleviate one UX pain point had unintended consequences for some of my transnational learners due to the infrastructure at the heart of the Teams user interface (UI). Writing infrastructures, such as the ones I describe in Teams, are not “neutral substrates that support other practices” but instead mediate communication, privileging and sanctioning particular interactions while invalidating others (Frith, 406). This becomes communicative privileging, which poses significant problems regarding equity (Walton, et al, 83). The Teams UI dedicates a significant portion of its screen real estate to text-based communication, privileging the short form message as the primary form of communication. The removal of well-known professional writing conventions and tools (e.g., paragraph structures, ordered and unordered lists, highlighting) in the original interface launch—a problem marginally addressed in the Winter 2020 update—caused significant problems for my transnational learners, who had been taught to rely on those conventions to make meaning. With this experience at the forefront, my article “UX and Microsoft Teams for Higher Education: Infrastructure as Communication Mediation” (under consideration as part of a special issue of Communication Design Quarterly) builds on the research done in the field of writing infrastructure by demonstrating both the potential benefits and liabilities of tools like Microsoft Teams, and discussing how we as professionals can help mitigate said liabilities to facilitate equitable communication.

My research also focuses on best practices in the teaching of UX to STEMM students, furthering discussions around social justice and equity by advancing a pedagogical framework that emphasizes a partnership between subject matter expert and user. In my article “Technical Writing Pedagogy and Empathetic Medical Intervention: Using Design Thinking to Teach Wholistic Patient Care,” forthcoming in the May 2021 issue of The Medical Humanities Journal – Stimulus—I explain how I teach the importance of the partnership between subject matter expert and user to the nursing students in my Introduction to Technical writing course. The project described in the paper, born from the interaction between my students and community “guest” users in our Teams account, teaches my students that though they may be experts in a particular field, that expertise is not enough to ensure that they produce the best deliverable, whether that be a medical, production, or writing intervention. Though I have not received the typeset version of the article, the accepted version of the paper can be found here. My findings expand our understanding of how teaching design thinking in conjunction with experiential learning can help our students understand the mission critical role played by the user, a concept that many of my STEMM students find puzzling at the beginning of my course. The article also builds upon and extends the field’s turn toward social justice, offering ways to teach students to engage users who have been traditionally marginalized in the TPW process.

In addition to my UX research, I have also made more general contributions to the field of writing instruction by addressing the shame that many student writers feel in the classroom. In my article “A Pedagogy of Mentorship: Removing Academic Shame by Helping Students Reach Their Goals, Not Ours”—which is currently under consideration with Hybrid Pedagogy—tackles the tough problem of student shame. After unpacking the student shame experience, I leverage my time in the corporate world to discuss how we as educators can address the shame often felt by students in the writing classroom through the implementation of corporate mentoring strategies, an approach I call “a pedagogy of mentorship.” Corporate mentorship, which focuses on the professional aspirations of the protégé rather than the objectives of the mentor, serves as an adaptable relationship structure that allows for a more equitable rapport between teacher and student, one in which the learner is empowered to seek their own professional goals. At the end of the article, I offer simple ways to implement this novel pedagogical approach, offering teachers of TPW a way to create excitement and exigency in their classroom. Additionally, the article expands our understanding of the purpose of teaching, particularly for those of us who teach writing.

Next Steps – Expanding UX Education for STEMM Students

Given the strong emphasis placed on STEMM education in our world— from STEMM labeled toys for toddlers, to STEMM elementary academies and career high schools that focus on applied scientific skills—there is a need to better understand the three-part intersection of STEMM education, technical and professional writing instruction, and social justice. My long-term goal is to produce a book length project to be published as part of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) book series on how the principles of UX, when properly taught and applied, can help alleviate much of the inequitable interactions between STEMM subject matter experts and users. Leading up to this book project, I plan on gathering data on writing practitioners in different STEMM areas, publishing a series of articles that build on my past publications and form the intellectual foundation for the book project.

In the summer of 2021, I will begin field research for this project through a partnership with the Lynda Nix Clinic, a free medical clinic serving un-insured adults in Mansfield, Texas. The clinic, up to this point, has relied upon paper charts to track all its patient interactions. The organization will be switching to an electronic health records (EHR) system, Athena Health Records. I have volunteered to help move the paper charts to the EHR, allowing me to combine my background in TPW with first-hand experience in medical writing. My data collection goals for this project are twofold. First, I want to better understand how nurses use the principles of technical writing to communicate effectively with highly technical users—the primary audience for the charts. This is particularly interesting within this data set as the nurses and providers work on a rotational, volunteer basis, making the written records vital for follow up and consistency in care. Second, I want to compare my findings in the charts with the patient informational sheets handed out at the end of clinic visits, investigating the way professional communication strategies change when interacting with a non-technical user—the uninsured, low-income patient. My aim is to discover how professional communication structures might facilitate both consistent care for patients in the free clinic setting, as well as ensure an equitable partnership between provider and patient. I plan to publish my preliminary findings with the ATTW flagship journal, Technical Communication Quarterly.

I plan to then branch from my medical focus toward engineering, enabling my book to have a broader scope. Partnering with one of the companies associated with my internship program— TransSolutions—I plan to investigate the writing practices of engineers involved in industrial manufacturing and systems management. Through my discussions with Gloria Bender, TransSolutions managing partner, I have found that the newly minted engineers she employs lack an understanding of UX, drafting documents with little to no concern for how they will be perceived by different user groups. After observing her engineers, I will apply my research on teaching the principles of UX to medical professionals to professional development workshops I will deliver for the Trans Solutions engineering team. My aim is to see if I can replicate the success that I have seen with my medical students, which would have implications for understanding the nature of user-based writing, as well as equitable professional communication practices, across STEMM fields. With the data gathered from my time at TransSolutions, I plan to publish my findings in IEEE: Transactions on Professional Communication.

Through this research agenda, I advance our field’s understanding of UX both by helping alleviate student user pain points through testing innovative pedagogical strategies and by pioneering new ways to teach UX to professionals. TPW administrators and teachers, by engaging with my research, can develop and deliver the strongest courses possible, ultimately leading to greater student success and a stronger relationship between higher education and the corporate world.

Let’s make history together!

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