All three of these presenters assumed from the start that computers were already an on-going part of many technical writing programs. Technical writing has always been more directly tied to the business world than the world of academia. Because of this tie, as an academic field we tend to be slightly ahead of our literature and composition colleagues when it comes to the use of computers. In industry, computers are a vital part of all business communication; therefore, as technical writing instructors we tend to be sure that computers play an equally vital role in our classrooms. This said, as a discipline, we still tend to lag behind the constantly changing dynamics of the non-academic workplace, and sometimes find ourselves teaching our students techniques and ideas that have already been surpassed in the "real world" by new computer-driven innovations.
Many of us have been teaching our students how to prepare visually appealing resumes that also present all their important information in a direct and easy-to-understand manner. We have assumed that these resumes are being read by human beings first, then possibly being filed and put into an electronic database later. In the last few years, just the opposite has been taking place. Teresa Burns ( Staying Ahead of the Job Tracking Computers: How OCR Software Upgrades Keep Changing What Students Need to Know About Resumes) notes that much of what we have been teaching in the past needs to be re-evaluated because computers are now "reading" resumes long before any human ever sees what the applicant actually wrote about herself.
The old rules of using verb-driven sentences, creating appealing visual designs, and the continual avoidance of using jargon in prose descriptions have all been subverted by OCR (optical character recognition) systems that look for nouns, are confused by any "extraneous" elements of visual design, and actually search for thousands of jargon terms in order to properly place resumes into a database file. Teresa Burns has done a good deal of research into the methodology behind the use of OCR systems in large corporations and has come up with a good list of suggestions for how to approach design for an OCR-based selection system. Her presentation also sparked an interesting follow-up discussion about the ethics of teaching students how to produce documents that are an anathema to humans who have to read them but are ideal for a computer program set on searching for vital "chunks" of information. The question, that often arises in technical writing, was how much should we prepare our students to compete in a sometimes shoddy workplace, and how much should we teach them ideals that will ultimately (we hope) improve workplace communication? We came to no conclusions, but the post-presentation discussion left many of us talking about the same group of subjects for the rest of the day.
The other two presentations, while covering different subjects (how to introduce the Web in a technical writing class, and how to restrain students from over-using the graphic capabilities of their computers), also came back to the same topic -- how much should we teach for the marketplace, and how much should we teach beyond it?
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