Journal Entry: October 14, 2009

No, there is too much. Let me sum up….

It’s terribly frustrating to me that, as times get more and more interesting, I write less and less about it on my blog. That’s been true of every NaNoWriMo I’ve been through (and how many birthday parties and Thanksgivings have been lost because of it?), and it’s been true of both of my babies.

Admittedly, XP isn’t doing anything terribly newsworthy. He’s adorable, but that doesn’t make for great plain-text updates. It’s a shame, though, that when I look back at now three years from now, I won’t have a very detailed record of the semester I decided to work full time and teach a college course while participating in two different writer’s groups, having a new baby, and maintaining a 30-hour-per-week WoW habit. Oh, and writing. A little bit.

It’s not going to get any better, either, because in the midst of all that, a NaNoWriMo is looming. All I’ll have to look back on are these occasional complaints, and a word count ticker. I guess that’s something….

Anyway, I’ve spent the last two weeks with “blog journal” as the longstanding not-marked-out item on my rolling Post-It Note To Do list, and I decided to shed the guilt and stress of that unwritten post getting longer and longer, and just write a quick post about yesterday.

I made that decision three days ago. And here we are.

There’s been lots worth mentioning in the recent past, but the most exciting among them is probably B–‘s new job and the party that went with it. That’s more than a week ago, though, so it’s lost to history. Last Friday night AB spent the evening with Diana, so T– and I could have a date night. We went to Texas Roadhouse and then watched some TV. It was awesome.

On Saturday D– and I went over to B– and E–‘s, because he had missed the previous weekend’s party with some vile disease. Conversation and martinis, and about seven minutes of The Empire Strikes Back with RiffTrax.

Sunday the Cowboys barely beat the miserable Chiefs, and that gave us our first winning weekend of the season — or at least the first one where I got to watch both games. It was exhilarating.

Monday was Columbus Day, which is actually a holiday for people like me, so I went to the Science Museum with T– and the kids, then spent the afternoon preparing materials for my class.

Yesterday I woke up sick, but I went to work anyway. I did end up canceling my class, though, which gives the students a full week off because Thursday is Fall Break. Wasn’t the flu, though — I was better by bedtime. And today I’m back at work.

Other than that, it’s just things and stuff.

The OC (Weeks 5 and 6)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Week 5
Week 5 doesn’t get its own post, because it would be terribly uninteresting. I gave them the day off last Tuesday so that they could work on their semester projects. I did still require them to turn in their proposals before the class’s regular start time (by email), and I did still give them document assignments on both Thursdays. The first was some practical instruction on building a rudimentary, styled layout, and then filling in the paragraphs with your actual content. The second took that concept a step farther and built an actual Word template with custom styles.

Anyway, since we didn’t meet in class it apparently lifted the Curse of Mr. Pogue. I didn’t hear news of any life-altering drama that afflicted my students during week 5.

Life-Altering Drama
Week 6 was another matter entirely. We got the Swine Flu! Or technically (as I’m told), Novel H1N1. Anyway, OC canceled chapel this week in an effort to stem the spread of the disease on campus, and still I had two students miss class because of it, and another who left early (sniffling) for a doctor’s appointment.

As a deeply-concerned educator and a compassionate human being, I really hope these disruptions stop happening. As a storyteller, though, I’m anxious to see what’s going to befall my class next week. I’ve got sixteen students, and the class is sixteen weeks long. So far I took the bullet on week 4 (when it was the early birth of my son that interrupted class), and week 5 was a bye, but week 6 hit three students at once. So we’re still on track for the rest of them to get one event per week. I’ll keep you posted.

Handbook of Technical Writing
So I started my class by stepping out from behind the computer station and holding up a magnificent reference text, Handbook of Technical Writing, vol. 9. I showed it to the class, and said, “How many of you recognize this book?”

I got three or four raised hands. In the back corner, someone asked timidly, “Wait…is that the textbook for this class?”

I showed my teeth, in something like a smile. I asked, “How many of you have read anything in it?” One of them said he’d glanced at the section on copyright, out of curiosity. I shook my head sadly, and then I laid down the law.

Every one of the tutorials I’ve provided starts out with a list of “related topics,” which are section titles straight out of the handbook. It’s usually 6-10 pages worth of material, and I always read through those sections before writing my tutorials, so that I’m not repeating information. That means there’s some important technical information in there that’s the students aren’t getting if they’re not reading it.

And, I pointed it, it’s information that I’m going to expect in their papers when I grade them. If it comes to it — if I find myself having to hand out Cs and Ds because nobody’s reading their textbook, I’ll start having weekly reading quizzes. I don’t want to do that, because this isn’t information that needs to be memorized — rather, they need to know how to use the textbook as a reference. They need to get a feel for what’s in it, and how it’s organized, so they can go look stuff up when they need it. I deliberately picked a cheap reference book instead of a big expensive textbook so that they would keep it at the end of the semester, and have that info handy.

So I did my best to express that, and pointed out (by way of example) that none of the multi-page proposal memos they’d turned in had used a header on the second page — something explicitly stressed in the textbook. I saw some sheepish faces at that, but I’m not grading that one against them, because I hadn’t actually taught them how to do headers yet.

Document Headers, Page Headers, and Section Headings
One of the confusing aspects of technical writing, I admitted, is overlapping terminology. For an industry built on clarity of expression, technical writing certainly accepts its share of confusing expressions.

In their first tutorial, I introduced the students to the standard business letter header (which might be a stylized letterhead, or it might just be the sender’s contact info). Then the next week I showed them the standard memo header (which consists of four fields: To, From, Date, and Subject). I also asked them to divide their first memo into several sections, each labeled with a heading. Then this week I started complaining that their documents didn’t have headers.

For clarity, I refer to this last kind of header as a “page header” (since it essentially appears on every page in the document), and that first kind of header as a “document header,” since it only appears once at the top of the document. Actually after business letters and memos, the document header is mostly replaced by title pages, so it doesn’t matter.

Still, there’s room for confusion. I apologized for that, spelled out in detail what each of these elements is, and told them the trick to keeping it straight is learning the purpose of each element rather than its name. Because they serve clearly distinct purposes, and in context it’s almost always easy to recognize which one is under discussion at any given time.

Introductory Paragraphs
Context. That’s a word that’s come up again and again in the last few weeks. In their proposal memo assignment, I told them exactly which sections they needed to include: Introduction, Scope, Methods, Timetable, Qualifications, and Conclusion. I also reiterated from previous tutorials that every document should have an introductory paragraph. One of my students wrote me during the week to ask if I intended the section labeled “Introduction” to be the introductory paragraph (ah, these overlapping terms again…), and I wrote back that, in fact, no I didn’t. I sent that reply as a general email to everyone in the class, but still I got proposals that went straight from the document header into the section heading “Introduction.”

So I took the chance to clarify that for them. The purpose of an introductory paragraph is to introduce the document that follows. This blog post starts with the simple, “This post is part of an ongoing series.” That’s not terribly telling, but it gives you some context. If blogs weren’t inherently sequential, I would feel a much stronger need to tell you, in each post, why I’m writing that post.

Memos aren’t inherently sequential. Most technical documentation isn’t. Emails can be (specifically when they’re replies), but most written communication ends up living a life of its own as an independent document. And, most importantly, it doesn’t die. Long after you’ve forgotten about it, long after you lose track of why you asked your boss for two hours’ leave in the middle of the day, the document you used to request it is still readily accessible.

More than that, it’s reusable. I left aside their proposal memo and turned to email, because it makes the point more effectively. Email is something we do so casually, every day. Half the time, even business emails are just a matter of the guy from the next cubicle asking you to send him something in writing so he can remember that thing you discussed at the water cooler. It doesn’t need to be anything more than, “Hey, remember that you agreed to review that document before Friday. –Aaron.” We all get in the habit of jotting off quick emails.

Documents that Live Forever
The problem is, even if you know this email only needs to get to the guy in the next cubicle, and only needs to live until Friday, it sticks around. And the Forward button becomes the easiest and most dangerous thing in the world. (That comment got a laugh.) I told them that I’d written hasty little reminders like that to my coworkers that came back to me, years later, and somewhere in the list of people who’d replied in the meantime was the Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Somebody needed my opinion to back up a claim they were sending to Washington, so he forwarded my email on up the chain and I got it back long after I’d forgotten all about the project under discussion (let alone that particular opinion).

I was in the clear, though. I did get brought back into the conversation, but I was able to participate because I’m a good technical writer. Even my quick reminder email included enough of an introduction, enough context that when it popped back into my inbox my own message brought me back up to speed.

Preserving Context
That’s exactly what documenting code is for, so I wasn’t surprised when the concept resonated with my class. It’s not an obvious concept, though. When you sit down to write a document, that’s all you’re thinking about. Why you’re writing this document is so abundantly clear, you can’t imagine a time when you would look at this document and not know what it was for. Writers run into this all the time when they try to write the cover letter to submit a novel to an agent or publisher. If I — a writer — am writing a letter to a literary agent, isn’t it obvious that I’m writing to ask him to represent me? Why do they want introductory paragraphs? Why do I need to come up with some clear way of saying, “I’m writing to ask you to represent my novel.” Shouldn’t that be obvious?

The thing is, that’s all dependent on information I have. I am a writer, and I’m writing to this person as a literary agent. I could be a salesman. I could be an assistant at a major publishing house. I could even be a literary agent. I could be any of those things and a writer seeking representation, or I could be any of those things and writing an identical-looking business letter to discuss something entirely different from a novel query.

The whole purpose of the introductory paragraph in a document is to provide the reader with the same context the writer brings to the document. So it always feels redundant and overdone and silly because it’s stating out loud exactly what you’ve been thinking about since the moment you first realized you needed to write this document. The thing is, especially the way we do things today, your reader could be anybody. It goes so far beyond the literary agent having to guess if you’re a writer or an industry professional or somebody trying to sell him vinyl siding. The way we save data today, the reader could be the literary agent, or it could be his assistant, or his boss. It could be one of his students decades from now, when he’s given up representation and become a professor. It could be a graduate student decades later researching how I got my start in writing. It could be me decades later, looking back on where I got my start.

I still have every submission letter I’ve ever written. Most of them have lousy introductions, by the way. I still have most of the business letters I’ve ever written, for whatever reason. And I’ve got technical documents that I open up, scroll through a long list of technical information, and have to wonder why I pulled this information together, what purpose it served. For me, as much as for my audience, I need to write clear introductory paragraphs to establish a document’s context.

Some Technicalities
All of that took about fifteen minutes. I transitioned from that topic into a discussion of page headers, which we use more than anything to stamp the document’s title (and sometimes author) on the top of every page. It does for the page what the introductory paragraph does for the document — provides context. Footers mostly carry the page number, but sometimes other legal or contextual text gets stuffed down there, too.

I pulled up the class syllabus on the projector and showed them precisely that — every page had my name, the class name, and “Syllabus” in the header, and “Oklahoma Christian University” and a page number in the footer. By way of another example, I opened a copy of Gods Tomorrow and showed them how I used my name and the document title in the header, as any literary agent or submissions editor would require.

(We diverted into a little discussion of whether or not I’d give extra credit to them for reading my novel, when I caught some of them paying more attention to the text on the screen than to the headers and footers I was pointing out. I said no, because I already have plenty of phenomenal reviewers among you, my loyal readership. They were most disappointed.)

From there, I opened up a document template I’d built over the weekend, which consisted of two pages, landscape, with three columns per page. I walked them through the process of how to do each of those things in Word. Along the way I tried to show them how to insert Section breaks (so I could explain how Word handles different sections), and discovered that the lower resolution my monitor automatically switched to when I plugged in the overhead had truncated my menu bars, and as a result I couldn’t find the command to insert section breaks.

That severely interfered with some of the other stuff I wanted to show them, so I had to go on with the lecture describing how this document would behave hypothetically if I had inserted section breaks. Frustrating, but I didn’t let it get me flustered.

In-Class Activity
The whole formatting lecture only ran twenty minutes or so. When I was done, I said, “Now we’ve discussed some of the most frustrating things to work with in Word (columns and section breaks). I’ve got them all packed together onto this two-page template. Does anyone recognize this particular layout?” The only guess I got was a newspaper, but I didn’t wait too long. Instead I picked up a blank piece of paper, turned it sideways, and said, “What if those columns were filled with text, and I folded along the gaps between them?’

I did so, and immediately they recognized the shape of a tri-fold brochure. So then I told them they would get to experience the agony and frustration of working with columns and section breaks, because they were going to build a brochure.

First I had them divide into small groups (3-4 each), and everyone shared with the rest of the group what his or her semester project topic was. They’re each developing a new document with a real-world use, so I figured one out of every three or four would be worth promoting. So each group picked the project they thought would best fill a brochure, and got to work.

What I liked about that activity, more than the experience of making a brochure, was the way it got the students discussing their projects among themselves. They’re going to have to make a presentation to the class later in the semester, but this way they were able to practice discussing the project out loud in a much less formal environment. More than that, they were asking each other questions and expressing interest in each others’ projects in ways that I think will really help them move forward. And, of course, it helped that I got to eavesdrop on all of that from my place at the front of the room.

The Next Forty Minutes
I set them to work for the rest of the class period, and they took all of it. I’d intended to spend that time marking up the last of their proposals and then have them come to my desk one at a time to go over them, but I didn’t end up having enough time for that. In the end, I returned all but two of the proposals in the last few minutes of class, and those two I went home, marked up, and scanned in to return by email.

It wasn’t just time management that got me, though. I spent a lot of time interacting with the various groups, and they really got into the brochure project. I still remember trying to build my brochure from when I took the class under Gail Nash, and several of my classmates that I talked to about the class said that’s the only thing they remember from it.

Ten minutes into it, my class clown said to his groupmates, “To be honest, I’m not really a fan of the in-class activity.”

I looked up from the document I was marking up to hit him with a glare, and the English-major who’d joined his group went all wide-eyed and said, “Ohmygosh, he heard you!” Somehow, I didn’t laugh.

I shook my head and said, “Oh, he’s not scared of me. But, then, I haven’t picked his grade yet.”

That got a low chorus of, “Oooh,” but he immediately shrugged it off and said, “All I need in this class is a D. This is my last semester of my senior year, and I could get Ds in all my classes and still graduate, so there’s not a lot of pressure.”

Someone else jumped in to lament the fact that he was also in his last semester but he’d already hit his threshold of Ds, and from there the conversation turned to which classes had been cause Ds in the past — the primary candidates being “Western Civ” and “anything taught by Cami Agan.” That one made me smile.

Anwyay, in spite of his claim, he spent the full forty minutes putting together a great brochure, and I’ve seen no less effort on any of the papers he’s turned in. He admitted himself that he’s something of a perfectionist, so even if I don’t have a real threat to keep him in line, he’s still going to meet or exceed my expectations on all my documents.

In the end, I think his antics keep the rest of the students more engaged and casual, and ultimately I think that’s worth the little disruptions I have to deal with.

In the end, it was a pretty successful class period. I introduced Headers, Footers and Section Breaks in Microsoft Word (a topic that’ll also become a tutorial at some point later in the semester), and everybody practiced looking at their projects from a slightly different angle, which is going to be important moving forward.

More next week.

Journal Entry: September 23, 2009

On Monday I told a lot of people, “Oh, it’s so much easier with the second baby. With Annabelle we were up all night, every night, startling awake at every tiny sound. With Alexander, we’re a lot more relaxed. I’m actually getting a lot of sleep.”

On Monday night, he proved me a liar. Bigtime.

So, as a result, I woke up late yesterday and I was dragging. I went in to work anyway, and stumbled through the morning’s responsibilities, and then spent my lunch break grading papers, and then darted out to OC for my fourth week of class. I will, of course, tell that tale elsewhere.

I had several students hang around after class to talk with me, as I’ll mention in my recap. That was awesome, in the sense of making a connection with my students, but it was draining in the sense described in detail in last week’s link, Caring for Your Introvert. On top of that, everyone I interacted with at work all day wanted to talk about the baby (and, frankly, I did too…but it’s still tiring). Then I got home to a full house — T–, two babies, and two in-laws.

It’s nothing but whining about blessings, but all that interaction got to me yesterday. After three weeks of getting crippled before my classes by anxiety — for days on end — I managed to get away with fewer than three hours of anxiety problems this week, and they could be gone altogether by the next time we meet for class. But my night was still shot just from interaction exhaustion.

T– let me hold Alexander as soon as I got home, and I took him to the couch and AB came running up to see him, and I asked her all about her day. At the same time, T–‘s mom and dad got home from some shopping they asked me all about my day, and it was all perfectly nice but for some reason I just wanted to cry.

So I handed the baby off to his Papa, and then when no one was looking I slipped off to the bedroom to hide in the dark.

Karla and John naturally picked up that something was wrong, and they know me well enough that they were able to guess what, and they said they’d be willing to head home early if I needed a little alone time before my family showed up this weekend. I replied to that with an emphatic no, because they’re doing so much to make our lives easier. I really, really appreciate all their help. I’ve just got my own crazies, and the demands of the situation don’t really allow for any good outlets. It’s a pretty short-term problem, though, and one I’ve weathered countless times before. I’m not going to go turning away good help just because I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.

Anyway, there was bacon on the griddle and brisket in the crockpot, so I didn’t stay in hiding for too terribly long. I came out for dinner and then took sanctuary behind my laptop for the rest of the evening hours, while we watched Word World and Lie to Me. Then, when the rest of the family had gone to bed, I stayed up a little longer in the still silence and finished off Newsradio. Such a great show.

Ah. I did have one actual problem yesterday. T–‘s laptop is dying. It takes forever to boot into Windows (if it does at all, before locking up), and then when it loads it gives a complaint about accessing the user profile and loads a temporary profile instead. It seems pretty clear that it’s a hard drive problem — probably from AB knocking the laptop off an end-table last week while she was watching videos — but there’s a lot of photos and T–‘s work stuff on that hard drive that we’re going to be incredibly frustrated to lose. And, y’know, no laptop. I don’t cherish the idea of sharing mine with T– and AB. We all have very different ideas about what a computer should be doing, and how it should be handled.

So, y’know, that’s going to be a mess. Probably an expensive one, but sometimes we’re saved by hand-me-downs and free IT services from friends we’re all-too-happy to take advantage of. So I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Other than that, it’s just things and stuff.

The OC (Week 4)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Technical Difficulties
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….

Schedule Changes
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).

Hangers On
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.

Real Progress
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.

Journal Entry: September 21, 2009

I’ve gotten a little behind. Sorry about that.

Last Wednesday after work we got together with D–, K– and N–, and my sister’s family at Senor Tequila up in Edmond. I’m sure I’ve been to one before (the name is really familiar), but I don’t remember when. The food was really good, though (especially the salsa), and of course the fellowship was exceptional.

While we were there, I told a little story about two startlingly dramatic events in the lives of my students that have (in small ways) disrupted each of my last two classes. We wondered idly what would happen to disrupt my next class. We didn’t come up with anything.

After dinner T– took AB to church, and I went home to finish up some prep work for the Formatting Tutorial I needed to write for my students on Thursday. Got it outlined, got all my stuff together, and then spent the rest of the evening playing WoW.

Thursday morning I woke up early, got ready for work, then asked T– how she was doing before I headed out the door. Turned out, she was having a baby. So I spent a couple hours coaching her through contractions, making preparations, and alerting the internets that we were having a baby.

It turned out to be true. I’ve written up a detailed account of how the day went, but I feel like T– should get some of that attention, so I’ve given it to her. Watch her blog for more details.

Needless to say, though, we had a busy day. Alexander Lewis Pogue was born at 12:03 PM, and we all three spent the rest of the day recovering. We had a ton of visitors Thursday afternoon and evening, and every one of them asked, “Do you need us to bring anything?” before showing up. We were well taken care of.

Just like last time, I had my laptop and WoW to get me through the long, quiet hours at the hospital. So don’t feel too sorry for me. T–, of course, had a baby to serve the same purpose.

Friday morning I realized I had a bunch of unfinished work at work, so I slipped away around ten in the morning, when T– had a sister-in-law there to help her out and friends and parents on their way. I ran home to grab a shower and get cleaned up, then headed to work. I was only there for about an hour, but I got what I needed (to work on at home), signed my timesheet, and told Irene and Laveta a little bit about the baby.

Then I grabbed some lunch at Subway, picked up 17 Again so T– would have some entertainment for the afternoon, and headed back to the hospital. I spent some time in the afternoon writing up my account of Thursday for T– (see above), and then some more time agonizing over how to handle my class.

I’d told T– on Tuesday, “You have to wait at least two weeks before you have the baby.” The reason for that was a particular lecture I had scheduled for Tuesday, September 24: “Technical Writers as Subject Matter Experts.” The plan was to briefly lecture on the topic, then spend the rest of the class discussing their Semester Projects (which will require them to become Subject Matter Experts, but I’ll discuss that more tomorrow). Anyway, I’d always intended to have a work day sometime after the baby was born, so I could skip class and they could work on their projects. That doesn’t work if they don’t know anything about the project yet.

So I sent out a harried email Thursday afternoon warning them to expect a change to the schedule, then I sent out a new email Friday afternoon telling them to disregard their assignment for the week and instead read over a brief overview of the Semester Project assignment, and come to class Tuesday with three possible project topics.

I’m moving the S. M. E. speech up to tomorrow, and I’ll give them next Tuesday off. But, as I said, more on that tomorrow.

Friday evening was more like Thursday evening. My sister brought me Taco Bell for dinner, and John and Karla brought AB up to visit us. She’d spent twenty-four hours with her Nana and Papa, and she was sorely missing her Mommy and Daddy, so we kept her for a few hours, then I took her home at nine so we could go through her regular bedtime routine. I think that went pretty well.

And then I was back up at the hospital, and it was another night of talk shows and commercials and the gentle, soothing glow of WoW.

Saturday morning we got up early and got ready, then cooled our heels for hours and hours. Nurses and pediatricians made their visits, approving us to leave. They brought all manner of forms for us to sign, and lectured us on all sorts of terrors that could befall our baby, and then took him away for a discreet procedure that seemed to take forever. He seems to have come through it well, though.

Then, at last, around ten our nurse came by to discharge us. Except, she said that she wanted us to hang around another forty-five minutes after his procedure to make sure everything was okay. Forty-five minutes later she dropped by to say she was sorry, but another family needed to discharge too, and the father had tickets for the OU game, and he was frantic to get out. So we gave her permission to go take care of him, and waited some more.

I spent a lot of that waiting time moving all of our possessions out to the car. It took six or seven trips, not counting the one with the baby. When I wasn’t doing that, I was playing WoW while T– watched Food TV.

Then, at last, a little before noon our nurse came by to discharge us, and actually did. We got home to the delicious smells of a fresh-baked pizza, and with many helping hands got the car unloaded much, much faster than it was loaded. Then AB helped me put some stuff away (and got tickled for her efforts), and then we finally settled down to the serious business of lunch.

In the afternoon AB went down for a nap, and I settled down to get back to my real life — playing WoW — and turned on the OU game around three. Unfortunately, though my TiVo claimed to have access to the game, our cable package doesn’t actually include the channel it was on, so all I had was four hours of solid-black screen. In HD.

I didn’t feel like leaving the house, though, so I abandoned all hope of watching the game. Instead we turned on an episode of Lie to Me. A little while later AB woke up from her nap, and then T–, AB, Karla, and John all went for a shopping trip to Wal-Mart. Alexander was forbidden from going by his pediatrician, so I had the arduous task of watching him sleep while I played WoW. He was delightful.

Karla made us dinner, and we spent the evening watching TV and (me) playing WoW. The only difference from last weekend was the squeaky little baby in the room, and T– complaining less. It was a pretty pleasant day.

Overnight, the baby woke up a few times for feedings, and T– (of course) woke up with him, but the experience was radically different from our first night home with AB. Then we’d both been wide awake, all the lights on, frantically checking to make sure she was okay, any time she made the smallest noise in the night. This time T– waited until he was actually ready to eat, fed him, then put him back to bed and went back to sleep. Most of the time she didn’t even wake me up when that happened. It was, altogether, significantly less stressful.

Even so, at pretty much everyone’s recommendation, we skipped church on Sunday. John and Karla took AB, so T– and I had a pretty quiet morning at home. Then the in-laws brought us lunch from Taco Cabana, and afterward we watched an episode of Dinosaur Train with AB before her nap. Once she was down, we switched the TV to the Vikings game, which was awesome.

Then around 4:30 we had an accidental repeat of Saturday. AB got up from her nap, then went with T– and her parents up to the mall to do some shopping, leaving me home with the baby. I got a visit from B– (generously bringing us a lasagna to dine on sometime this week), and called up K– and N– to see if they could join us for the Cowboys game at eight.

When T– et alia got home, we had some incredible stew for dinner (beef broth, carrot, potatoes, and cubed brisket leftover from last weekend’s birthday party). I had a little bit of an argument with AB over that, because she didn’t want to sit in her chair — she wanted to sit on the floor and stare at Baby Alexander. After much discussion, we reached a compromise that essentially consisted of her sitting on the floor and staring at Baby Alexander. She’s a very persuasive orator.

Then we had guests, and we watched the disappointing first half of what turned out to be an even more disappointing football game. It was fun to have K– and N– over, though. We also made a start on a cheesecake and pumpkin pie that had come into our possession, but there is still much more work to be done on that front. So give us a call, and drop by for a visit. You won’t leave disappointed.

I went to bed pretty quickly after the game was over, though, because I had work in the morning.

More on that tomorrow. Everything’s going well, though. Mother and baby are both happy and healthy, and the rest of the family is ticking along nicely.

Other than that, it’s just things and stuff.

The OC (Week 3)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Video Lectures
I got to class about ten minutes early today, and spent that time setting up my laptop while the students filed in. I turned on the projector and got it ready to go, but I didn’t hook anything up yet because I didn’t want the distraction.

While I was getting that ready, though, one of my students spoke up from the back of the room and said, “Oh, hey, I tried to watch your video lecture online, but it wouldn’t work on my computer.” It’s a class full of Computer Science and Information Science majors, so of course suggestions were offered back and forth, but in the end I told him I’d been having trouble with it, too, so I’d keep looking into it and get back to him.

He said, “Well, anyway, it’s a good thing you also provided the written transcript. Keep doing that. Because that was really helpful.”

And I said, “Umm…I’m a Technical Writer. That’s my job. So, yes, I will.”

Opening Questions
Five minutes later I had all the students I was going to have (two shy of a full roster), so I turned to my outline. The first item on it was, “Video lecture vs. written tutorial.” Half of the class had already heard the conversation, but I went ahead and revisited it, bringing the other half in. Turned out only two or three students had tried to use the video lecture, and only one of them had gotten it to work (and that one happens to work for the North Institute which is the non-profit group that designed and maintains the software all the rest of us are having trouble with). I promised the students I’d keep working on it, and let them know what I learned, and reiterated that the text tutorials will be available, and will be higher quality than my narrated slideshows anyway.

Partway through that, my helpful inside man piped up to tell me how to workaround the problems the others were having, and I made notes to myself to send out more detailed, step-by-step instructions later in the week. So my video lectures problem might be solved. We’ll see.

Syllabus Issues
I moved on from there to a discussion of the syllabus, which I opened up on the projector. We’d gone over it on the first day, briefly, but when we talked last week about due dates, I realized it was completely messed up. So I told them the new dates were available on the version of the syllabus online (and went over them in class).

I’d also forgotten to give them Fall Break — a fact which came to my attention while rearranging due dates, so I told them, “Oh. I’ve also graciously decided to let you to take Fall Break along with your fellow students.” That got a bigger laugh than it probably deserved, and then spawned some contention over one of the new due dates falling on Fall Break. Apparently they’re not happy with just getting out of a lecture and assignment. I told them I’d consider the issue and render my verdict next week.

One unexpected development in today’s class is that I stood up for most of my lecture(s). I’d decided after my first week that standing in front of the class was causing me anxiety issues (and then later Dad explained to me what was really causing it, but I didn’t think to correct my earlier assumption). Anyway, after that I decided to just sit at the teacher’s desk — front and center in the class — and deliver my lectures on eye-level with all my students.

Today, though, I was using my laptop on the overhead projector, which means I had to set it on the raised lectern off to the side, and I had to stand behind it to control the screen. I had been doing that while we discussed the syllabus — effectively hiding behind my laptop, which is precisely how I handle the anxiety at most family functions — but when I moved on to the mini-lecture I didn’t have any overhead material to back it up (at first).

So, without thinking about it, I stepped away from the computer, halfway between the lectern and my desk, and started talking to my students. It didn’t make sense to cross all the way to my desk, sit down and talk to them, just to jump up again two bullet points down so I could bring up my illustrations.

About midway between the first and second bullet point I noticed that I was standing up and lecturing, but I didn’t let myself dwell on it. When it came time for the big ugly main lecture at the end of the class period, though, I did the same thing deliberately, and I had no trouble with it. At least, not with the standing up part.

The Mini-Lecture
As I may have mentioned before, the course consists of Tuesday lectures on Topics in Tech Writing, and then Thursday tutorials and assignments that require the students to prepare specific document types (business letter, memo, resume, that sort of thing).

So today I brought that up — brought up that we’d been talking for two weeks about “document types,” and I said the reason that matters is because certain document types have an impact just by being that document type. In fact, I’d hinted at that in the tutorials for each of the documents types they’d done so far. Formatting a business communique as a recognizable Business Letter creates a certain expectation and context for your reader, before you ever convey the first word of your content. The same goes for a memo. I told them a good way to think of document types is by their “shape” — that is, the visual impact of a document that matches a particular style, and the response that style creates in a reader.

By way of illustration, I put some words up on the projector. It was a text document, in Notepad, so there was no formatting whatsoever. I’d even reduced everything to lower-case, at great personal pain. The first document looked like this:

schumann’s resonance
headgear for grasshoppers
eyes like headlights
october 5
9:00 pm
p. j.’s

I said, “Anyone know what this is?”

One of my Computer Science majors said, “A haiku?” I almost laughed at that. I’d actually had, “Gibberish? A poem?” in my own notes for possible student guesses.

I just said, “What about this?” and opened the second document.

the jackpot
10:00 pm
eyes like headlights
the remember
january 5, 2008

Somebody said, “An advertisement, maybe?” I heard whispery voices treading dangerously close to the right guess, so I went ahead and put up the third document.
eyes like headlights
cd release party
debut album
there’s no us in evolution
5909 johnson drive
mission, kansas
with left on northwood and rettig
friday, october 26
the mission theatre
all ages 21 to drink

That third line gave it away, and I said, “What I’ve got here is the text from a bunch of band flyers. That first one looked like complete nonsense when I showed you just the unformatted words, but you’d recognize the information instantly if I showed you this.”

“So,” I said, “what you can see here is that the words that go on a band flyer are totally meaningless until you put them in the shape of a band flyer.” And I hesitated for a beat, and smiled, and said, “So you’re going to put them in the shape of band flyer.”

The Band Flyer
I told them to divide into three groups — that I wasn’t playing the elementary school counting game this week — and none of them apparently learned from that last week because they opted to just stay divided up by their tables. So group one consisted of three English majors and a couple technical people, and then groups two and three were entirely technical people. It was incredibly lopsided, but it made for good teaching in the end.

I told them they could probably find the original flyer if they looked hard enough online, but that I didn’t want them to recreate the original. I wanted them to make their own. Each group quickly picked which software they were going to use to design the document (Picnic, Paint, and Word, respectively), and then selected one designer to actually build it.

Groups two and three mostly left their designers to do the design work single-handedly, while they went searching online — first for suitable background art, and then (out of sheer, perverse curiosity) for sordid details about the band Eyes Like Headlights (which, in case you’re curious, is one of Carlos’s old bands).

Time Management
I probably should have obfuscated my information before presenting it to the students. Some of the antics and lyrics associated with Eyes Like Headlights probably isn’t something I should be sharing with my students — at least from the Dean of Students’s point of view. They certainly didn’t mind. They found it hilarious.

I gave them twenty minutes, and group two dashed something off in Paint and were done in fifteen minutes (and that was just the designer — most of the rest of his group had tuned out around seven to eight minutes in, when they were confident in his work). Group three’s designer had a little more artistic input, and they took right up until the twenty-minute mark to submit their design. Group one, which boasted fully four designers overflowing with artistic vision, took most of thirty minutes to get their document submitted.

Sometime around minute twenty-seven, one of the girls looked up and said, “Wait, what kind of band are they?”

Everyone else already knew, because they’d been listening to tracks on myspace, but I looked at my cherished English major and said, “They’re progressive death metal.”

Her eyes shot wide, and she said, “Umm…well, we’re pretending that they’re Folk, for ours. Okay?”

Presentation and Discussion
So we finally got all three flyers in, and I put them up on the projector in order. Everyone was really impressed with group one’s heavily designed document, and no amount of prompting could get them to express what was wrong with it (apart from a couple elements that they’d forgotten). I had to point out that they got the band wrong. That, while they’d been determinedly working on the good design, good layout, good formatting that group two had just casually dashed off, group two had actually (goofing off) figured out what style the document should be. That’s research, and that’s a real, important part of Technical Writing.

Of course, the other groups caught on that group one’s flyer was beautifully designed. Ultimately, we decided group three had the best one for the band in question.

Object Lesson
One of the best lessons learned, though, came from a specific mistake the hasty group two had made. One of the lines on the poster, “with left on northwood and rettig,” referred to a couple other bands that were performing at the same show. Group two mistook that “left on northwood” bit as directions, and threw that line in the upper left corner with the address and the name of the venue. Same font, same style, and as soon as I put the flyer up on the overhead, someone from group three pointed out their mistake.

Honestly, when we got into the discussion stage, the designer for group two started looking a little sheepish, and I felt a little bad about that. Then we finished up the discussion and I launched into my big ugly lecture, where I was just trying to dump specific formatting rules on them.

One of the first points I made was that technical documents generally contain several discrete chunks of information, bundled together, and part of the purpose of formatting is to create a recognizable hierarchy to help readers quickly and accurately figure out which information belongs to which bundle, and to locate the bundle the reader actually needs.

And I’d said some words on the topic, then I pulled that group two flyer back up, and darted over to the screen, and said, “That’s what we saw right here. That’s what the flyers do, grouping all these individual sentences into sections, formatting them to show what is related, and how. And we saw that on this flyer. We all knew instantly that group two had gotten this wrong — had mistaken these two other bands for driving directions — because of nothing but the font and the position on the page. He grouped this line with these other lines, and that told us what he thought it meant.”

That was an excellent object lesson, that I could never have made up on my own. Even more importantly, though, the guy who had designed that document, who had been looking sheepish through all the ribbing over it, was nodding right along to my point. He got it, and that was awesome.

The Big Ugly Lecture
Dad told me not to do lectures — to focus on mini-lectures instead — and Gail said I’d done really well in the first week to focus on stories because students really connect to stories (and that’s great news, because I’m naturally a storyteller).

But in today’s class I needed to do an infodump. I needed to deliver certain rules, certain information, for them to use in all future classes. So after we’d finished our discussion of the class activity (which, I think, they really enjoyed), I stepped away from the lectern, turned to my notes, and told them how to format documents.

It was twenty minutes long, and I used their tutorial from last week for examples of every point I had to make. Apart from that one example harking back to their activity, though, I lost them for the lecture. They zoned out, and I could see it happen. I didn’t get panicky or anything — and I certainly didn’t get offended or deeply disappointed — but it was a little sad to see that happen when I’d spent so much of the last two class periods engaging them.

Still, lesson learned. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll address it in the future, but at the very worst, it was just a lecture. The sort of boring lecture every one of them has been through hundreds of times, in dozens of other classes. That’s not something I’m going to beat myself up over.

I ended the lecture at 2:12, and started to dismiss them before I realized I hadn’t returned their marked-up assignments from last week. Then I said, “Look, I’m terrible with names. I’ve tried to learn all of yours, but just in case, I’m going to call them out as I hand out your letters.” And I did, and they dutifully raised their hands, but I realized pretty quickly I needn’t have done that. I knew them all. That’s something I’d been worried about, and I managed to get them all down with about ten minutes’ effort today, using their student ID photos and the Introduction Letters they’d turned in as their assignments last week.

So that was a positive experience. Really, the whole class was. Another great week. And, not only that, but a source of real confidence. Because now I know last week’s success wasn’t because of the material, or because of the activity, but because of the method. I repeated the same method to design my class this week, and it went pretty much the same way. That’s good news for future efforts.

Awesome. Awesome.

More next week.

Journal Entry: September 15, 2009

Yesterday sucked.

I mean, actually, I had a pretty pleasant chat with Julie, and one with N–, too. That was nice. And I got a call from B– that was news-packed, and at least half of it was good! That was nice.

But really I wasted most of the day (and significant parts of each of those conversations) feeling sick about my class today. I’ve got to get over that.

On the drive home from work, I cranked up some inspirational music, and made plans to work out when I got home. AB wanted to play with her daddy, though, and that wasn’t something I could turn down. So we talked and read a book and watched TV for a while.

Then D– brought over leftover brisket from last Saturday’s birthday party. T– made up some homemade mashed potatoes for a side, and it was a phenomenal dinner. After that I moved to the couch and played WoW for three hours, hoping to distract myself. It didn’t really work, but I got a lot done in WoW. We also watched a new Leverage and a new Psych, both of which were great.

Then around ten D– went home, and I went to the office to do a little more prep work for my class. I spent about half an hour on that, then headed to bed.

And lay there. And did not fall asleep. My mind was racing, fixated on class and everything that could go wrong.

So after about half an hour of that I jumped up and went back to the office. I read through all my students’ business letters again, I watched Gail Nash’s online lecture on document layout and design again, I reworked my class notes extensively, and I prepped some exercise materials for class today. All told, it was well after midnight when I went back to bed.

And lay there. And did not fall asleep. I wasn’t really worried by that point — over the course of that last hour in the office, I’d completely worked through every minute of today’s class, and I knew I was thoroughly prepared. I’d go so far as to say scripted. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it — about which words to put with certain ideas, which ideas to cut if I ran out of time, and which ones to abbreviate, what sections of the discussion could (and should) be moved around and where, whether I’d captured all the necessary changes to the syllabus, and how to get that information across clearly.

Not just that, but I also found myself cutting material from today’s lecture and moving it forward to future lectures, and when I was working on how to adapt that material to the other lecture’s topic, I started working on those lectures, building them up. It was all useful work, but not at one thirty in the morning.

By that point, I wasn’t worrying about today’s class anymore. I was just wishing I could go ahead and give the class so I could get on with my life. Instead, I kept on obsessing.

I knew it, too. I kept trying to put it away, to stop thinking about it, and I kept failing at that. At two o’clock, AB cried out in her sleep and I went to check on her, thinking she’d woken up. At three, frustrated, I sat up in bed just to see how late it really was, and then lay back down. My alarm went off at seven, and I was already awake, but I got up and turned it off and went back to bed. Not to sleep, just to get a few more minutes of rest. Soon enough AB came to jump on the bed, and T– was getting ready to leave for a doctor’s appointment, and I was late enough for work that I couldn’t justify waiting any longer. So I got up, and I went to work.

I’ll let you guess what I’ve been thinking about all morning.

Other than that, though, it’s just things and stuff.

The OC (Week 2)

Someday, one of my students is going to call me “Professor Pogue” (or maybe someone who really hasn’t been paying attention will even call me “Doctor Pogue”), and I’ll say, “No, please, call me Mister Pogue. Professor Pogue is my father.”

I’ll be the only one who laughs at that, but I will find it hilarious.

Seventy-five Minutes
As I mentioned before, my first week of classes probably felt like a wild success to my students, but I came out of there shocked and terrified about how I was going to fill seventy-five minutes with lecture every week.

And, of course, the answer I got repeatedly from seasoned professionals was, “Don’t.” Gail Nash recommended a short twenty-minute lecture to start the class, a half-hour in-class assignment, and then another twenty minutes at the end of class to discuss it. Dad recommended mini-lectures, no longer than fifteen minutes each, broken up with other activities and discussions.

One thing everyone told me, when I was panicking about how poorly that first class went, was that it would get easier once I got the students talking back to me. The problem I was running into was lecturing. It’s always difficult to deliver a message to a silent, unresponsive crowd, and especially so for somebody with no experience in public speaking whatsoever. One and all, they told me that if I could get the students to talk to me, it would be a breeze.

Getting Them Talking
Dad even told me how. Drawing on years of experience and a nuanced understanding of the student psyche, he said to start off your class by asking, “Okay, how do you guys feel about last week’s assignment (or lecture)? What didn’t you like about it?” That gets them talking, because everyone is more interested in complaining about something than in praising it. Give them a chance to vent (and provide what will be useful feedback to you as the teacher), and then follow up with, “Okay, and what did you like about it?” Then the students who had a positive experience with the assignment (or lecture) but otherwise would have remained quiet will chime in, partly because they’ve spent the last however many minutes listening to their classmates bash on it, and they feel a need to defend it. By that point, though, you’ve got everyone in your class talking, and comfortable with each other, and you can launch into new material and get good responses.

That advice struck me as so sound that it directly increased my confidence going into that class. I bragged about my dad’s genius to several people, for days before the class started. Then I showed up, put it into practice, and got…nothing. Not a word. No complaint, no praise. Nothing.

So I looked around the room, shook my head sadly, and said, “Guys, you’re going to have to talk to me. Otherwise it’s just me sitting up here at the front of the class, lecturing you about writing for seventy-five minutes. And you don’t want that. You know why? [Brief pause.] Because it’s seventy-five minutes.” That got a laugh, and it worked. After that, I got answers when I asked questions.

Business Letters
For their first assignment, they were to write me a Letter of Introduction, telling me a little bit about themselves and following the standard business letter format. To facilitate that, I prepared an online lecture (that ended up being just an illustrated tutorial, for technical reasons) going into detail on how to design a business letter.

So I started out the class lecture by talking to them about business letters, and why they’re useful. One of the things I discovered last week is that none of my students (not a one) has any intention of becoming a professional tech writer. That doesn’t bother me, but it means I’ve got to spend the semester demonstrating to them why this material matters to them.

For a first stab at that, I led off with three short stories, from my personal experience. I told them about the time I bought my first house, and along with it came the high pressure sales pitch to renew the security system that the previous owners had used. We’d initially agreed, but when we looked at our budget and saw how much they actually wanted per month, we called up to cancel it. The person on the other end of the line said, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to need that in writing.”

So I wrote a business letter.

Then, a few months after we moved to Tulsa, someone stole a bill for our Best Buy credit card out of our mail, and used it to ring up several thousand dollars in fraudulent claims. Freaking out, we called up Best Buy’s customer service and said, “Hey, someone’s stealing your stuff and trying to charge it to us, and you’ve got put a stop to it!” and the guy on the phone said, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to need that in writing.”

Then I told the students a little bit about the writing experience, the process of trying to make it as a novelist, and the unending string of query letters — every one an invitation for rejection. I told them about the importance of presenting the richness and beauty of a lovingly-crafted work of art in a sterile, one-page business letter. And then I told them how I’d finally landed a literary agent, and then had to fire her a year later, and when I contacted her to let her know I was no longer interested in working with her, she said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to need that in writing.”

That got a big laugh. I really think it got my point across well, too. I told them that in each of those situations, in different ways, I was stressed out, and needed to communicate specific information clearly and quickly. And already having a set format, an easy template that just required me to fill in the blanks, made it far easier for me to do exactly that, and save my energy for the other things I needed to be worrying about.

Due Dates
We talked briefly about our class schedule — my plans for Thursdays and Tuesdays, and how the individual documents they’re producing fit into the document packets that I’m going to be grading. In the process of that, I discovered my timetable doesn’t work at all. I stumbled over that a little bit, thinking out loud, and that got some laughs. I think that’s a good thing. I do need to get the details worked out before next class, though….

Group Work
Next we moved into the in-class assignment. I said, “Okay, we’re going to work in groups now, and to divide up, I think we’ll use a method that I found to be very effective in grade school.” That got groans and chuckles, but they obediently counted off in threes, and then divided up into three groups per my instructions. Then I had everyone (for the first time) introduce themselves with name and major. Then I admitted why I’d had them count off in three — because my three English majors were all sitting right next to each other. As a result, I had three groups with each one consisting of four Computer Science or Information Science majors, and one English major. Or, in other words, four technical people and one writer person.

Not entirely fair to the English majors, but that’s how technical writing goes. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with another English major. I told them as much, and paused to double-check myself, and then nodded and said, “I’ve worked with a Journalism major, but never an English major. Don’t work with a Journalism major!” That got a laugh.

Technical Writing
Their assignment was deliberately vague. Every student at OC is issued a laptop, so I told them, “You’ve got twenty minutes. I want you to write me step-by-step instructions for how to do something useful on your student laptops.”

Then something amazing happened. I’d guess that half of my students probably work with OC IT, and most of the rest of them are computer people. So in each of the three groups I heard the computer people tossing ideas out. “We could do this.” “We could do that.” And in each group, I heard the English major say, “Wait, what? What is that?” And then the computer people explained it to them.

And then the English majors wrote it down.

Or, in other words, Tech Writing happened. It was a thing of beauty.

Graded by the Ridicule of Their Peers
I did warn them, just after they’d divided up into groups, “We’re going to go over these once you’re done, so you’ll be graded by the ridicule of your peers.” That got a laugh (which was a very good thing), but we all followed through on it. As they finished, they emailed their tutorials to me, and I put them up on the overhead.

We briefly analyzed each one, pointing out what was done well, and what needed work. I talked a little bit about audiences, and I told them about Mark at my first job starting off every software manual with a section explaining how to use a mouse and what “click” and “double-click” meant. That got astonished, disbelieving stares, and I think I was able to make a good point there.

Out of Time
I had a lot more to say about the usefulness of written tutorials, with some heavy emphasis on all these computer people who had to give family and friends instructions on simple tasks all the time. By the time we were done critiquing, though, I was down to five minutes left in class, so I rushed through that material and let them go.

What I didn’t get to was another personal anecdote, a story demonstrating the popularity and usefulness of tutorials, especially online. I was all prepared to tell them how I achieved some level of fame because of a short tutorial online. (If you search Google for “Alexpoet,” my onetime web moniker, my website is the top of the list because of a tutorial I wrote for XBMC Python scripting — which is another phrase that points directly to my page on Google.) I didn’t get to that, but next week’s class is about formatting technical documents, and most of what I did with that tutorial was take a flat text tutorial some Canadian dude had written, clean up the English, and apply the formatting rules I’d learned in my Tech Writing class. So, in other words, the material I didn’t get to this week becomes the object lesson next week.

The Teaching Experience
When I talked to Dad about my rough experience last week, one of the things he pointed out was that my sheer terror when I stepped up to the podium was caused by an acute awareness of myself. He said that would happen to anybody — even the most experienced public speaker, the most outgoing teacher — if he stepped in front of a crowd and spent the whole time paying close attention to what he was doing right or wrong and analyzing it. We’re too good at recognizing our own faults, we blow them out of proportion, and if that’s what you’re thinking about, you’re going to shut yourself down.

Dad said everything I described about my first experience fell perfectly into that condition, and I couldn’t argue with him. He said the way to fix it is to think about the students instead. Think about what they need to know, what I can tell them to make their lives better, and focus on their responses. I had my doubts about how easy it would be to follow through on that, but I spent the whole class trying to put it into practice, and it worked.

And I think it worked for everyone, not just for me. I mentioned the laughs I got, as often as I could, because they weren’t nervous laughter. I can be a funny guy, and when I made a sarcastic comment and the students laughed at it, I could tell they were at their ease. I think that happened as a direct result of my being more at ease, and it built on itself, so by the end of the class we really were just talking back and forth. I spent two days before the class wrestling with intense anxiety, and it was brutal right up until I cleared my throat and stammered awkwardly, “Umm, okay, I guess we should get started.” Then I took a breath, started with Dad’s question, “What didn’t you like about last week’s lecture?” and instead of feeling nervous that I’d asked a question they couldn’t answer, I just got irritated at them for not speaking up.

And from there on, I was fine. It was a great class period, and I think the lives of everyone involved are better for it.

More next week.

The OC (Week 1)

Class Begins
I got to the school half an hour early. That gave me time to figure out how the projector worked before I got around to realizing I didn’t really have anything to project. My students started filing in fifteen minutes early, and kept on filing until about ten minutes into the class.

Ten minutes into the class….

Public Speaking
Okay, as a long-time Tech Writer and successful co-host of a couple Writer’s Groups (forgive me, Courtney, for bestowing the title on myself, but it was a source of some confidence), I was confident I could just show up and talk, and that would fill up the class. Whenever we get together for one of our Writer’s Groups, I try to come up with a topic or two worth discussing, and somehow two hours disappear and I’ve barely even gotten started!

Technical writing isn’t quite the same, as far as discussion goes, and I wanted to come off professional so I felt like I needed a little bit of organization to it. To that end, I drew up a list of topics I wanted to hit. Just a little outline. So one o’clock rolled around, and I stood up at the front of the class, and my well-behaved students immediately fell silent….

And I discovered that nothing has changed since college, as far as my public speaking goes. And, no, being the professor made no difference whatsoever. My heart raced, I couldn’t form a coherent sentence, and every third word out of my mouth was “umm.” Dad would’ve been mortified.

Introduction to Technical Writing
Somehow I got through that, though. I gripped my outline for dear life, and launched into my first topic. I asked them about their majors — three English, four Computer Science, and six Other. I asked how many of them thought they might want to be Tech Writers someday, and the answer to that was an easy zero. I told them a little bit about myself, my time at OC, my experience in Tech Writing class, the sudden, desperate realization on graduation day that I’d never thought about getting a job, and then my two jobs (and seven years’ experience) in Tech Writing.

I told them a little bit about what Tech Writing is like — interacting with engineers and programmers, constantly working behind deadline, researching things you know nothing about in a desperate effort to make the inscrutable make sense. At one point, trying to stress the collaborative challenges of Tech Writing, I told them that one of the hardest parts is that you’re always trying to get information from a programmer or an engineer, but everywhere I’ve ever worked the engineers are just constantly hammered.

And then I stopped, and said, “And by hammered, I mean busy. Not drunk.”

That got a good laugh.

I got nods from the CS students when I said that software isn’t finished until it’s documented. I got nods from the English students when I said most of all the writing they’d ever done so far was either creative or academic, and (except for hobbies) that mostly ended at graduation. I got nods all around when I suggested, offhand, that most of them probably had no idea what Tech Writing was, or why they were in this class.

Scheduling Issues
So I was trucking along through my outline, doing pretty well, and all I had left to do was go over the syllabus (including the homework schedule). Curious, I glanced up at the clock to see how much time I had left in my seventy-five minute class session.

And the answer was sixty-five minutes. Give or take one. I’d never intended to keep them for the full class on the first day (nobody does that), but I sure thought I had more than ten minutes’ worth of material!

So I started doing what I could to stretch it out, borrowing desperately from topics I intended to discuss later in the semester, expounding on things that didn’t need expounding on, and making my already-flustered speech even more so. I somehow dragged the class out to twenty-five minutes, and then I let them go. Of course, none of them complained.

As I was packing up my stuff, I spotted Gail out in the hall — the professor who’d taught my Tech Writing class way back when, and a friend of ours from church. She asked me how it had gone, so I ducked into her office and told her all about it.

She was sympathetic. She later told me the first day of teaching is always BRUTAL, and she had some good, specific suggestions for dealing with the big block of time. After that I seriously considered slipping out and going home, but I’d spoken with Dr. Agan (the department chair, and the one who’d hired me) before class, and I was pretty sure she was expecting me to stop by again. So I slunk up to her office, and she asked, “Well, how was it?”

And I said, “About a third as long as I expected it to be.”

She was just as encouraging as Gail had been, but I still drove home feeling miserable. Partly it was my physical response to standing up at the front of the class — I’d somehow convinced myself it wouldn’t be like that, so when it was…that was devastating. Not just for those ten minutes, but because it means I have that to look forward to for the rest of the semester. That’s daunting.

Then…well, to fill time, I’m going to have to do a lot more work than I’d realized. That’s not a terrible thing on its own, but I’ve been dreading how busy this fall was going to be for months, and that was before I learned how much more effort I’m going to have to put into my classes. I spent my drive home trying to figure out how I was going to even manage it, let alone find the time for my writing, for catching some football games, for playing a little WoW to unwind….

More next week.