Technical Communication Education Taking Roots in China

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Picture is taken from Weibo

Shannon Li, PhD student and intern at Sigma Technology China Beijing office, has conducted a research about Technical Communication activities in Chinese universities for the past 20 years. We are happy to share with you the results that Shannon summarized in the article.

With the rapid development of technology, technical communication (TC for short) becomes indispensable to the transmission, sharing and application of information, services and products. It’s playing a vital role in all-sides of our life, enterprise development and national economy. Therefore, the developed countries such as the States and Japan have been touching a high value to its practice and theoretical research, and many universities have developed related programs at different levels, from bachelor degrees to doctoral degrees, to train professional technical communicators. Since China’s entry to WTO, more and more international enterprises have come to realize the importance of TC, hungry for professionals to prepare technical documents. Meanwhile, some universities begin to develop technical communication programs and courses. When and where did such education begin in China? What are the results, the current status, the challenges and strategies? In this article, we try to figure out these questions by following its way of development.

From 1997 to 2000 The Budding Stage

Since 1990s, international technical communicators have begun technical communication education in workshops or seminars in some Chinese universities. Such efforts opened the door of Chinese technical communication education.

In 1997, with the lead of Sam Dragga from Texas Tech University, a delegation of 12 technical communicators from the U.S. and Canada visited China. In a series of professional meetings with teachers, translation companies and professional organizations in language, science and engineering, the delegation discovered a field at its early stage. With no profession and independent academic discipline here, China was hungry for technical communication education. At that time, the English department trained translators, interpreters and tour guides for business and government organizations. Although there were courses like professional English and English for science and technology, the focus was on professional vocabularies and terms instead of on technical writing.

In 1999, with the lead of Carol Barnum from Southern Polytechnic State University, a delegation of 5 technical communication professors came to Southeast University in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. 50 English teachers from colleges and high schools in Jiangsu took part in the lectures. Based on a literature review and their knowledge about the state of technical communication in China, they prepared 6-days’ courses, discussing topics like technical communication history, cross cultural communication in technical writing, audience, document design, types of technical writing, etc. Although the lecturers had no idea about the participants at the beginning and the working staff knew little about technical communication, the lecturing was fruitful as well through the efforts of instructors and students. Barnum suggested that English technical writing be offered in secondary and post-secondary vocational schools. However, it’s beyond the students’ English proficiency in such schools but may be more feasible in application-oriented universities.

In 1999, Daniel Ding and John Jablonski from Ferris State University learned that Suzhou University showed interest in developing technical communication programs. Then in August 2000, they came to this university for a two-week seminar. They shared some basics of technical writing with 27 participants: engineers, middle school teachers and students. Then the meeting with the teaching staff in English department showed that the teachers also had a vague idea about technical communication. Besides, they acquired four technical writing textbooks in the university’s bookstore and found that these textbooks focused on technical terms and expressions, not on rhetorical features such as audience analysis, social ramifications, and cultural context. Through this teaching experience, they learned that international technical communication courses should be established on a thorough understanding of Chinese educational system. Here they offered some suggestions from three aspects: technical communication and human values in China, rhetorical issues (audience, purpose, information selection, page layout) and textbooks.

Such early teaching attempts were successful at that time but failed to generate any long term effect. In 2006, two professors from University of Science and Technology of China pointed out that the research, teaching and practice of technical communication in China were almost in blank; the academic discipline was confined to English teaching as a minor course of ESP (English for Specific Purposes); with no systematic research and education but only courses set up in two universities, the popularity of technical communication in China had not yet reached the level of the end of 19th century in the U.S.

From 2000 to 2008 The Seedling Stage

In 2005, Jennie Dautermann from the University of Miami and some other instructors came to Changchun University of Science and Technology in Jilin Province. An 8-week summer seminar for 45 college teachers was held, during which Dautermann taught business and technical writing courses for 2 weeks. In the process, the then backward teaching equipment and cultural differences presented great challenges, but the instructors and participants managed to overcome them. This experience helped Dautermann to realize that educational practices and worldviews from each side of the exchange required significant compromise and that a negotiated, student-centered classroom environment might be a viable strategy for instruction in Chinese settings.

In the fall of 2008, Daniel Ding, on his sabbatical leave, taught a semester of technical communication at Zhengzhou University. He gave lessons to 300 students (200 graduate students and 100 sophomores). On his first time in Suzhou University, not a single university in China offered technical communication courses, but in 2008, at least two universities (Zhengzhou University and Capital Medical University) had developed their own technical communication programs. Textbooks, though general and broad in context, were being published. More and more faculty members tended to accept it as an academic discipline. Through 16 weeks of teaching, Ding found out that Chinese technical communication education had unique characteristics, as indicated in the way of teaching and learning, which was influenced deeply by Confucianism and test-oriented education system.

Therefore, localization is necessary in developing technical communication education, and international societies need to consider such contextual elements as social economy, history, politics, educational system, language and culture. Scholars both in the west and China have already realized this point. Some suggested technical communication programs be based on the existing disciplines, such as ESP, ERID (English Related to Individual Disciplines), MTI (Master of Translation and Interpretation), etc. The unremitting efforts and audacious experiments of scholars and teachers help improve the status of technical communication gradually.

From 2008 up to Now The Growing Stage

Nowadays more and more universities have recognized the potential significance of technical communication and attempted to establish technical communication courses, such as Peking University, Beijing Normal University, Nankai University and Xidian University, etc. Their participation heralds the Spring for technical communication education in China. Now let’s take a glimpse of the panorama through the case of Peking University.

Technical communication program in Peking University is housed in the CAT department in the School of Software and Microelectronics. Recently, a double degree program called Technical Communication and Translation has been under development in a close collaboration with the University of Twente. Basic courses are technical documentation writing, authoring technology and practice, communication design and communication research, the first of which has been offered in cooperation with industry partners: Motorola in 2008, Siemens in 2009, IBM in 2010, and Sigma Technology 2011 until today.

The present syllabus is as follows:

  • Introduction of technical writing
  • Document types and writing styles
  • Technical writing mindset
  • Methods, tools, and processes
  • DITA and its application in technical writing
  • XML and tools for technical writing and editing
  • The newest concept in technical writing (CMS management included)

Besides, Peking University also engages in deep collaboration with Sigma Technology and other companies. It has organized many translation and technical writing competitions and holds technical communication salon every year, all of which benefit the students and corporations greatly.

After three years of theoretical study and field practice, students are equipped with a good command of professional writing skills on their graduation and some are employed as technical writers in leading Chinese companies or international companies, such as IBM, Ericsson. Surely, such professionals can help improve document quality, promote company brands and sharpen international competitiveness, ensuring Chinese technical communication to develop in line with international standards.

Bright as the future is, the way is long to go. Now we are faced with great challenges: insufficient awareness from many stakeholders, lack of teaching staff and researchers, lack of teaching materials, inadequate laws and standards and so on. Therefore, a close collaboration among enterprises, universities, research centers as well as the government is needed to create an enabling environment for the growth of technical communication education and then a bright future of technical communication in China can be expected.

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