This post is part of an ongoing series.
I had 13 of my 16 students at 1:00. I waited a couple minutes and a couple more showed up, but the rest were in full chatterbox mode by then. I’d spent the last ten minutes at the podium, getting my visual aids ready for the day’s discussion, but I figured if I waited too long, things would get out of hand.
So around 1:02 I stepped to the center of the room and said harshly, “Okay, okay, okay! Enough chit chat. It’s time to stop gossiping and talking about your other classes, and focus on this class! I’m going to start the lecture now.”
Then I stepped behind my laptop, and plugged in the cable to project my monitor onto the overhead. Nothing happened. I had my visuals all ready, but the screen kept displaying a blank screen. Some wiseguy in the back row said, “He probably just wants to show us pictures of his baby.” I unplugged it and plugged it back in. I punched buttons.
Finally I sighed and said, “Well, yes, that was the whole joke. But this thing won’t work.”
Just as I said it, half the class (I’ll let you guess which half) went, “Awwwwww!’
My first visual aid was this:
Someone immediately said, “Wow, she was born big.”
I smiled, let the laughter die down, and said, “This is a picture of my beautiful, happy family about a week ago. I call it ‘Before.'” Then I showed a couple I’d tacked together in Photoshop.
And I said, “And here’s a picture of my beautiful but oh-so-tired family now.” And then I said, “Of course, you can see the baby in both those pictures, but in case that’s not quite enough….
I’ve had three real classes so far (not counting day one, when we just went over the syllabus and the class schedule), and in each of those classes I’ve had to dedicate some portion of the lecture to changes to the class schedule. This week, no surprise, was no different.
I moved straight from the baby photos to business. I pulled up the revised syllabus, and explained that I had rearranged the schedule so I could talk to them about their Semester Project today and then give them a work period next week. In the process, we lost the Promotional Brochure (something Gail had already cut in between the time I took the class and the last time she taught it, but I’d added it back in). Now, instead, I think I’m going to use it as an in-class activity on the day we talk about templates.
Anyway, their job is now to come up with a proposal for their Semester Project, and then once that’s done we’ll move on to the Employment Packet.
Subject Matter Experts
From there, I transitioned (weakly) (deliberately) to a mini-lecture on the topic of Subject Matter Experts — a phrase (I explained) that they would encounter much in the business world. It’s a vague sort of title, but refers to the person you’d go to for clarification on any given topic. Here at the FAA, I explained, we all work on radars, but if I need to talk to somebody about the antenna sail for the ARSR-3, there’s one engineer I’d go to. He’s the expert on that subject matter. I’d go to someone else if I needed information on the air conditioner, and someone else still for details on the speed controller.
And I explained that there’s not really a scale to these things. For any given topic, someone either is a Subject Matter Expert, or he’s not. The interesting thing about Technical Writers, though, is that they almost always start out not, and end up Subject Matter Experts. It’s just part of the job.
By way of illustration, I pointed out some specific topics for which I’ve gone through that process:
- Industrial depthfinders
- Commercial fishfinders
- All manner of nautical and aviation sensors and gauges
- GPS satnav (straight-line navigation)
- Hiking and hunting personal GPS receivers
- Nautical GPS receivers
- Aviation GPS receivers
- Nautical vessel data networks (more on that later)
- Turn-by-turn navigation (driving directions)
- Automotive GPS receivers
- Automotive mp3 players (and audio interfaces)
And that, I said, was all at my first job.
I took a moment to point out some of the distinctions — how some of those might look like they overlap, but there’s a big difference between understanding how GPS satellites and receivers know where you are, and understanding how to operate the menus and screens of a particular type of GPS receiver.
I had another, similar list for my work at the FAA (8 items), and then listed three topics on which I’ve become a Subject Matter Expert in my free time: Novel-writing, Python programming for XBMC (I just rattled off that phrase and then held up a finger and said, “More on that later”), and Technical Writing (for this class).
Learn by Teaching
I said I knew they’d all heard, somewhere along the way, that teaching a topic is the best way to learn about it. I’ve certainly experienced that in preparing this class. I pulled up one of their weekly document-writing tutorials on the overhead and pointed it out as an example. I said that my group at work has to prepare a specific type of memo for every single project we release (the Safety Risk Management Decision Memo), and that we deal with lots of memos regularly. So when I wrote up my tutorial “How to Write Memos and Emails,” I shared it with my boss — Irene, our Documentation Team Lead — and asked her for feedback, knowing she was familiar with the topic.
She responded to say she was amazed how much she learned about memos from it, even though she deals with them everyday. I stressed her job title when relaying that to the students, and they were suitably impressed with the comment.
Python Programming for XBMC
As a better example, I told them about Python Programming for XBMC. I had to start out by explaining to them what XBMC was, although I had one student raise his hand to interject that his XBox had it on there. Anyway, I have a pretty technical group, so it didn’t take much to explain what XBMC was.
So then I told them how I’d first installed XBMC wanting to use it to stream media to my TV, but I was excited to learn it could run Python scripts — simple add-ons written in a programming language I was already learning. I went online to find out how to do that, and everyone pointed me to this one resource — a tutorial written by a French Canadian (that got a laugh), with no formatting whatsoever, and a lame attempt at humor (that got a laugh). So, in order to learn what I needed to know, I had to take this tutorial and translate it from English into English. (That got a big laugh.)
And I was only six months out from taking my own Technical Writing class at the time, so I decided that while I was doing the mental conversion anyway, I might as well fix the document for everyone else. And I had it up on the overhead so I was able to point out the specific formatting elements I’d used that I had already taught them in class (just last week).
Then I stepped away, and said, “I know it’s a pretty niche community, but if you go to Google and search for ‘XBMC Python,’ you’ll get my website.” That got some impressed nods. “Because of this document,” I explained. “It’s not great technical writing…it’s not even accurate anymore, because I haven’t touched it in six years. But it’s still the number-one-recommended, go-to source for information on this topic. Because of the research I did.”
That’s a certain kind of celebrity. It’s not a huge deal and (I pointed out) it’s not the biggest reward for doing this. The big reward is that, in the process of fixing that document, I learned what I wanted to know. I learned how to do everything with XBMC Python programming that I wanted to know.
Because I had to fully understand the material the original author was using, in order to translate it correctly — from English to English (that got a laugh again). Not only that, but when I took the time to format it properly, to set the information in a structured framework, it became clear what was missing, what was underrepresented, what was excess. I was able to see what extra information was needed, and research that on my own.
The NMEA Bible
Then I brought up a third example — the “nautical vessel data network” mentioned in my list of topics above. When I was working at Lowrance, big news came down from the head honcho that all of our products were going to become NMEA 2000 compatible. (It’s pronounced “nee-muh,” and don’t ask me to defend that. Actually, I said the same to the class and followed up with, “The pronunciation was picked by boat people,” no real emphasis, and it got a laugh.) But, yeah, our products were going to be NMEA 2000 compatible, and we needed a blurb in the front of each of our manuals expressing that and pointing the customer toward the sales department for more information.
We didn’t have the first clue how to word that, though, because the whole phrase was nonsense to us (the tech writers). Turns out NMEA 2000 was a hardware standard that created an information bus for boats. I asked what that meant and I was told it was “like a LAN for a boat.” Except that it had nothing to do with computers. After much investigation, I learned that it was used to connect sensors and monitors on a boat, so you could get a GPS signal at the front of the boat and share it to GPS monitors in three different places, or copy fish echoes from one transducer to multiple depthfinders — that sort of thing.
But it was more complicated than that, because the network cable could be split and coupled and daisychained and all manner of nonsense, and you had to have exactly the right cable for each device that you wanted to attach for each possible configuration of what you had on your boat.
So I went to the Subject Matter Expert — the one engineer in our company who really understood NMEA 2000 — and asked him to explain it briefly so we could come up with this one-paragraph blurb.
Three hours later we left his office so we could move to a conference room with a whiteboard. Three weeks later, I finally understood it well enough to write that one paragraph.
But, while I was at it, I wrote down everything he’d explained to me in a way that I could still comprehend six months after our conversations. I went ahead and put it into our manual format, because that was what I was familiar with. When I was done, it came to around eight to ten pages, all formatted and illustrated, and it explained exactly what a NMEA 2000 network was, and how to configure one. I saved a copy on my desktop, printed off a copy for Mark, and went on with my life.
Then six months later there was a big meeting going on, that involved all the senior engineers and the CEO of the company, and they were arguing about something in design and two of our senior engineers couldn’t agree on exactly how it was supposed to work, so somebody said, “Wait. Where’s the NMEA Bible?”
And somebody else pulled out a copy of my pamphlet. The NMEA Bible. That had become the in-house nickname for my personal cheat sheet. The engineers — the people who were designing these systems every day for years — were going to my little pamphlet for reference.
And that was my point. I started out as someone who knew nothing about the system, and in the process of filling out my document, I became the reference. I took the information that one person had, and translated it from English to English, and made it available to all the people who needed it. That’s what Technical Writing does.
The Semester Project
From there, I moved on to discuss their Semester Project. After all, I said, the purpose of the project was to take them through the same process I’d been through in each of those cases, and turn them into Subject Matter Experts through the process of documentation. I’d asked them last week (after the baby was born) to scrap their earlier assignment and instead read over a brief description of the Semester Project, and come to class with three possible topics that they could work on.
So after my mini-lecture, I said, “How many of you read the assignment?” and got all hands. Then, “How many of you understood it?” and got significantly fewer. “How many of you had trouble coming up with three topics?” got pretty much everyone. I paused a moment and said, “How many of you had trouble coming up with one?” That got more than I was hoping for.
Still, it was anticipated. I moved to the center of the room, and said, “The goal of this project is for you to make something of real-world use. That’s actually a requirement. So, to make that possible, I have to leave it a little bit vague. You don’t have a solid minimum or maximum word count, you don’t have a specific document type (although I want some sort of long-form document). You don’t even have a specified audience. You have to find an audience and then convince me they’re legitimate.”
I nodded, and said, “I understand all that. And I understand that’s not fair to you. The solution is for you to talk with me. Ask questions when you’re unsure, schedule an appointment if you need more time, email me, call me. Whatever. I’m deliberately leaving room in the schedule for you to request clarification, because you’re going to need it. And that’s what the rest of today is.”
Q and A
That was at 1:40. Frankly, I’d expected 1:30. Still, they could have gotten up and walked out, but I guess there was enough uncertainty that I had them scared. I said, “So…any questions?”
Five hands went up, and I turned to the first girl on my right. She said, “Umm…what are we supposed to do?” That was not a positive start. Before I could formulate an answer, she said, “I mean, what are we supposed to write about? I get the feeling it’s supposed to be technical, but I am so not a technical person.”
So I asked her, “What are you interested in?”
“Books,” she said, right away, and I froze. My mind started working frantically, trying to come up with something associated with books that could have a real client, and really match the framework of the document. Before I came up with anything remotely close, she said, “Oh, and baking.”
And I lit up at that. So much easier, because baking is a technical process. As soon as she said it, I thought cookbook. After a little discussion, I suggested she could find a ladies’ group for an area church that wanted to put together a cookbook for a fundraiser. That’s a pretty common thing. Her client could be the woman organizing the effort, her research could be the gathering of recipes (and any follow-up necessary to translate scribbled notecards into useable information). She’d have less writing to do than some other possible projects, but she’d have a whole lot more formatting than some projects would require.
She was perfectly happy with that. She loved the idea, and it gave the rest of the class some idea of what I was looking for.
Another girl in the back corner raised her hand to ask, “Can it be something for a musician?” I must have looked pretty blank at the question, because she clarified before I could ask her to. “I mean, like maybe a musician could use some sort of promotional material or something….”
I figured she was talking about a classmate or a roommate, some music major looking to strike it big, but that didn’t worry me. I ducked my head and said, “The problem you’re going to run into there is that promotional material is usually shorter, bite-sized. I want something that will generate a single, long-form document. That said,” and I addressed this more generally to the class, “you can always ask what they actually need. Because everyone has some technical writing that they need done, and there’s a chance you’ll find something that will work. I assume you can talk to…him?”
She shrugged, a little uncomfortable, and said, “Well…it’s Hanson. So I thought maybe–“
She didn’t get to finish her comment because someone across the room shouted, “You know Hanson? Like, Hanson?”
She nodded and said, “I grew up with them.”
(They’re a boy band from five to ten years ago who you may remember as the perpetrators of “Mmm Bop.” They’re also Tulsa natives if I remember right, so there’s no huge surprise there. Still, she got a moment of celebrity there in the class.)
I said, “I can’t give you an A for cool factor alone, but I’d be interested to see what you could come up with for them.”
Plenty of Need
One of the grading criteria for the project, though, is that it meets a real need. I could tell that was bothering some of them, so I went back to that point. I said, “If you’re having trouble coming up with something to work on, find someone who could be a client and just ask them what they need. There’s always work to be done, and nobody wants to do it. Talk to your boss, if you have one. Talk to your church secretary.”
The problem with talking to your church secretary, I said, is that she’s going to have a list eighty items long of things she needs done, and most of them aren’t going to fit the shape of this semester’s project. Then I hesitated as a thought struck me, and I said ruefully, “Well, no, the real problem of talking to your church secretary is that once you do — especially if you do a good job — she is never going to stop talking to you.” That got a little chuckle, and I shrugged and said, “And…well, that’s your service to God.” That got a big laugh.
For those who just can’t come up with anything — or those who want to do something genuinely helpful — I pointed out that I have some extra options. This class has been doing this assignment for so long, that most of the churches and charitable organizations in town know about it. As a result, the school pretty regularly gets requests for student assistance with documentation projects, and those are now getting passed along to me. I let the students know about that, but I didn’t push it too hard. It’s enough of a challenge to put together a big document, I would prefer for them to work on topics they’re already interested in.
Although, to the girl who asked about promotional material for a musician (before she named the band), I did point out that once they’d finished this class, all of the students would be qualified and able to prepare and clean up documents — promotional material, resumes, business letters, whatever — even when it wasn’t for a class assignment. They could do it as a favor, or as a hobby (like I did with the XBMC Python tutorial).
There were a few more questions, mostly looking for clarification on the project — and a lot of them sort of unanswerable without specifics. I stressed again and again the need for them to maintain a line of communication with me, and I’ve already gotten a couple of emails from them since class on the topic.
Still, the questions trailed off around 2:00, and I dismissed them then. While they were packing up their stuff I distributed their graded memos from last week, and then went and sat down at my desk again, so I could address any last-minute discussion or help anyone who wanted to ask something face-to-face.
Turned out, there were a lot of them. Out of a class of fourteen (two never did show up), I had six or seven linger. Each of them had at least one question for me, but for the most part they stuck around and chatted even after their questions were answered. That caught me off-guard. I mentioned back in Week One that when I was panicking over time passing too quickly, all the veteran teachers I spoke with said that would get a lot easier once I had the students actually talking to me. They also all said that would probably happen sometime in November. I figured that was sort of an exaggeration, but I didn’t expect to be hosting a salon by the end of the fourth week.
Of those six or seven that hung around after 2:00, four of them were still there at 2:30 when my real life demands forced me to leave. That was pretty cool.
While I was packing up, one of those four (who had already chosen his own project topic), asked in idle curiosity, “What are some of the coolest projects people have done before?”
And I hesitated (mind racing again), trying to decide whether to admit to my inexperience. I decided relatively quickly, shrugged, and said, “Actually, this is the first time I’ve taught the class, so I couldn’t tell you.”
His eyes shot wide, and he said, “Oh really?” Genuine surprise. That caught me off-guard.
I can only really think of one other time in my life when two words meant so much to me. I said out loud, “Yay!” Four weeks ago I was standing in front of them, paralyzed with fear, and today they’re telling me I’m unrecognizable from a real professor. I call that real progress.
More next week.