Education in Scientific and Technical Communication: Academic Programs That Work

This chapter is from the 1997 STC (Society for Technical Communication) publication:

Education in Scientific and Technical Communication: Academic Programs That Work

ISBN 914548972-6

—available through STC.

Chapter Two: Master of Science Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication

by Russel Hirst

pps. 29-54


The past decade has seen a sharp increase in the development and use of information technologies and in the need for managers (and skilled users) of information systems.  These and other factors have increased the popularity and number of master of science programs in scientific and technical communication in the United States. 


A few M.S. programs have been around for a long time: the M.S. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for example, began in 1953.  Others, such as the one at the University of Minnesota, started about 10 years ago with just a few graduates every year; it is now putting out about 10 a year.  Still others, such as the M.S. in Information Design and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are new to the scene, but are quickly establishing impressive reputations—especially for their expertise with cutting-edge technologies like multimedia, hypermedia, and various electronic communication technologies.  This is so much the case at Georgia Tech that its director, Peter McGuire, took pains to explain to me that rhetorical theory and other subjects are also central pillars of his program!  This is undoubtedly true, yet the proportion of “theory versus application” offered by a program is a key to understanding the nature of the M.S. and the ways in which it differs from the M.A. in the same field (see chapter 3 of this book).


At most universities, the M.S. in STC (Scientific and Technical Communication) differs from the M.A. in STC (alternately called “M.A. in Rhetoric,” “M.A. in Communication and Rhetoric,” etc.), in pretty obvious ways: 1) applicants to M.S. programs must be better prepared in science and technology, or they must beef up in science and technology while taking the degree, and 2) in the M.S., the proportion of instruction and research devoted to application is generally greater than that devoted to theory.  That is, the M.S. requires less pedagogical theory and less literary/rhetorical theory (especially in terms of historical understanding), and it requires more computer savvy, math, science, and hands-on experience.  The M.A. may or may not require an internship; the M.S. nearly always does, though exceptions may be made if the student already has equivalent professional experience.  The M.A. is less often a terminal degree; it is often taken by students on the way to a Ph.D. and a career in academia; the M.S. is usually a terminal degree[1].  Though I don’t have figures for this, my interviews with program directors indicate that the M.S. is taken by a higher proportion of non-traditional students: those coming back to school for education that will advance their careers as technical communicators in industry, government, and business.


As of fall 1995, 18 American universities offer the M.S. in scientific and technical communication:


•  Colorado State (Fort Collins, Colo.)

•  Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pa.)

•  Fitchburg State College (Fitchburg, Mass.)

•  Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, Fla.)

•  Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago, Ill.)

•  Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Ga.)

•  Mercer University (Atlanta, Ga.)

•  Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)

•  Michigan Technological University (Houghton, Mich.)

•  Michigan, University of (Ann Arbor, Mich.)

•  Minnesota, University of (St. Paul, Minn.)

•  North Carolina State University (Raleigh, N. C.)

•  Oregon State University (Corvallis, Ore.)

•  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.): two M.S. degrees offered

•  Southern College of Technology (Marietta, Ga.)

•  Utah State University (Logan, Utah)

•  University of Colorado (Denver, CO)

•  Washington, University of (Seattle, Wash.)


Most of these programs are not located in English departments, but are found in departments of Technical Communication; Communication and Media; Humanities and Communication; Humanities and Social Sciences; Language, Literature, and Communication; and Rhetoric.  The larger institutional setting (college or school) varies: these departments and programs are found in colleges of Arts and Sciences; Humanities and Social Science; Engineering; Agriculture; Literature, Communication, and Culture; Liberal Arts, and others.


In some cases, the name of the program and its institutional setting are indicative of variations from the general characteristics of M.S. programs in scientific and technical communication.  An example is the M.S. in Technical Communication located in the Department of Technical Journalism at Colorado State University.  It educates “people who have or aspire to have communication management responsibilities in technical and scientific communication, public relations, or public information for business, industry, government, and educational institutions” (Graduate Student Advising Manual, p.2).  While many of these goals are shared by many of the 17 programs, Colorado State is different because it relies so heavily on psychology, sociology, and mass communication.  It places unusual emphasis on surveys and analysis of empirical data.  Donald Zimmerman, director of this program (his Ph.D. is in Mass Communication) confirmed to me that his department does not take a “rhetorical theory approach” to research, but rather a “mass comm” approach.  This program is also unusual in that it has joined with the university’s English department to form a “Center for Research On Writing and Communication Technologies.”  The research areas in this collaborative effort are “Professional Communication, Writing Instruction, and Writing in the Disciplines.”


Despite some differences in approach and emphasis, however, most M.S. programs in scientific and technical communication (or in “Technical and Professional Communication,” “Rhetoric and Technical Communication,” or whatever their creators have named it) have a great deal in common.  The following section of this chapter discusses the general characteristics of M.S. programs in scientific and technical communication.





General Characteristics Of M.S. Programs

In Scientific And Technical Communication


In their various publications—on the Internet, in mailings, and in catalogs—M.S. programs offer descriptions of their goals, of who will be interested in their degrees, of what these degrees prepare one to do.  These descriptions show that M.S. degrees are designed to produce technical communicators with a high level of technical competence in a variety of careers.  These are the people who will be managers, leaders of publication groups, designers of information systems, trainers of others.  They will be skilled with computers and various communication technologies, able to write and edit sophisticated technical documents, able to maintain the steep learning curve required for success in today’s technical markets.


Here are some examples of the descriptions I refer to:

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

[Our M.S.] combines work in theory, writing, document design, and analysis of communication systems and contexts.  The program’s immediate goal is to help students acquire the knowledge and abilities needed to begin a career as a technical communicator.  Our long-range goal is to enable students to grow as professionals and, ultimately, contribute to the field of technical communication.


Drexel University:

[Our M.S.] is dedicated to training students to communicate technical and scientific information to a variety of audiences.  . . . [it] directs students to careers in a wide range of professional activities, from technical writing to science writing, software documentation to user manual development, desk-top publishing to film and video production and scripting, medical writing to pharmaceutical advertising, and public relations to corporate communication.”


North Carolina State University:

“[Our M.S.] is designed to prepare professional communicators for a variety of careers that involve the relationships between people and technical systems  Such careers include those in software documentation, industrial training and development, medical communication, environmental and agricultural communication, technology transfer, organizational information management, and designing human/computer interface systems  In many areas, a master’s degree helps qualify professionals to move into management positions.”


University of Washington:

“[Our M.S.] is designed to prepare students to assume leadership roles in the field of technical communication.  Depending on their emphasis, graduates will be prepared to design, produce, and evaluate functional technical material; apply emergency technology to technical communication; improve human/machine interaction; assist in the development of information and communication systems; supervise a publications department; [and] pursue Ph.D. work in related disciplines.”[2]


Michigan Technological University:

“[Our M.S.] provides advanced class work and preparation for technical communicators, consultants, trainers, and instructors.  Students can independently conduct or participate in research projects, create communication products, teach a variety of courses, tutor in reading and writing or in foreign languages, serve as copyeditors or business managers on academic journals, advise other units of the University on document design and training, and serve as interns with businesses.  In all their work in the program, students are encouraged to investigate the theories that underlie communication practices.”[3]


The design, makeup of faculty, and facilities of the programs that produce such professionals share much in common: 


Hours required

Generally, 30 semester hours or 45 quarter hours beyond the bachelor’s degree.  Average time required to complete the degree is 2 years, although some programs (like Rensselaer) offer a marathon one-year schedule for hardy students who think they can endure the pace.  A rough breakdown of typical program proportions is this: 40% required courses (including internship), 40% electives, 20% thesis/special project.  Most schools allow some transfer credit if requirements are met.


Entrance requirements

These are generally high.  Most programs require between a 2.7 and 3.0 minimum GPA.  All programs look at GRE scores, but they balance these against other factors: GPA, experience, quality of written application statements, letters of recommendation, and so on.  Most have fairly stringent sci/tech prerequisites, and many programs prefer an undergraduate degree in engineering or science.  However, many students with humanities degrees are also admitted and allowed to take the sci/tech courses after starting the degree–thought these don’t count towards graduation.  The University of Washington’s requirements, for example, state:


Applicants for TC study must hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering or science, or present evidence of adequate preparation for graduate study in technical communication.  Students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields may be admitted into the graduate program if they have a minimum of three years technical communication experience, and undergraduate training relevant and applicable to the solution of problems in technical communication. (p.3) 


This allows the university some leeway in admitting promising applicants who may not have a sci/tech undergraduate degree–but the drift of the requirement is unmistakable: to do well in a Master of Science program, one must have a good foundation in science, or acquire it quickly. 


Even so, there are exceptions to this general rule: the M.S. at Rensselaer, for example, “presumes an undergraduate degree in a discourse-related field such as English, communication arts, or journalism.”  At Rensselaer, it is the student with a sci/tech degree who is the exception: “Qualified students with undergraduate degrees in other areas (e.g., science or engineering) are welcome in the program but may need more than a single academic year to complete it.”  However, Rensselaer still wants its M.S. students to come in with “technical competencies” if they have the “undergraduate degree in a discourse-related field”–competencies such as “computer applications, biology, or some other scientific/technical area.”  Lack of preparation in either category (humanistic or scientific), the program description warns, will increase the time required to complete the degree. 


Required Courses

Here too we find important similarities.  All programs have “core requirements” that function, as Georgia Tech puts it, to “establish the theoretical and research frameworks for the analysis, interpretation, and design of communication” (p. 2).  Most of these courses involve some combination of the following topics: technical writing, visual communication, technical editing, rhetorical theory or communication theory, management of technical communication, and computer-aided communication.  Practicums or workshops (hands-on lab classes) in document design/production are also commonly required.  These courses go by a variety of names, but the subject areas are fairly standard. 


Elective courses

Here, as one might expect, we find more variety, but still a significant overlapping of the great Venn diagram of common ground among M.S. programs.  Many programs require students to choose electives so as to form a sub-specialty.  Drexel’s M.S. students, for example, commonly take sub-specialties in “computing, management, cognitive psychology, international affairs, or environmental policy studies” (p. 2).  Georgia Tech requires “interdisciplinary clusters.”  The list of electives for most programs is lengthy, especially since many programs enjoy good interdisciplinary relations with other departments, such as departments of information science, journalism, speech, composition, English, and computer science.  Here is a very short list of examples: Video in Business and Industry; Advanced Typographic systems; Research Methods and Analysis; Environmental Policy; Risk Assessment; Interviewing and Information Gathering; Science, Technology, and the Public; International Communication; Usability Testing; Presentations in Business; Telecommunications; Communication in Technology Transfer.



Because students benefit greatly from the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to technical communication tasks in a business environment,  M.S. programs require internships (or equivalent experience).  Typically, an internship affords the student about three semester hours of credit for taking on a part-time technical communication position somewhere at the university or at a local business, industry, or government site.  This amounts to about 120 to 150 hours of work.  Students are often paid for internship work, but sometimes they are not.  Usually, they complete the internship while carrying a full course load.


Co-ops, or cooperative education assignments, are less frequent but still common in M.S. programs.  They generally extend the time needed to complete the degree, and they often lure students away into continuing full-time jobs before graduation. 


Thesis/Project/Oral Exam Requirements

All M.S. programs require some kind of capstone research project wherein students demonstrate mastery of their analytical powers, communication abilities, and the technological skills they’ve been developing.  However, this research project may take many forms.  At some schools it must be a formal write-up (thesis) that displays theoretical understanding as well as practical application; other schools offer a “project” option.  North Carolina’s M.S. program, which requires the thesis, describes its requirement this way:


This requirement provides the opportunity for the student to apply theory to practice through a supervised research project.  The thesis synthesizes and applies what the student has learned in the coursework to a communication problem in the student’s area of interest.  The written thesis is approved by a faculty committee after a final oral exam in the research project. 


Most programs do require an oral defense of the thesis or project.



M.S. programs are staffed by faculty with diverse kinds of degrees and experience.  You will find faculty with degrees in, for example,  English literature, computer science, education, American Studies, mathematics, mass communication, journalism, theater, engineering, rhetoric, history, fine arts, sociology, and business.  Their scholarly interests are as diverse as their degrees suggest, although the degree is not necessarily an intuitively obvious guide to their current research. 


It is difficult to generalize about technical communication faculty, but here are a few safe generalizations: 1) Many of the newer faculty in these programs are themselves graduates of Ph.D. programs in rhetoric and technical communication (see chapter 9 of this book).  2) Faculty who teach in M.S. programs in this field tend to be very active professionally.  3) Faculty who teach in M.S. programs in this field tend to publish a good deal.



Most technical communication programs running an M.S. have access to, if not “ownership of,” extensive computer facilities.  Such facilities have long been important for creating and editing technical documents, but the new information technologies have inspired technical communication departments to increasingly greater heights of hardware and software frenzy.  Many programs now boast well-equipped video and multi-media labs as well as the traditional computer-based writing labs.  Networking to other labs and to the Internet is standard.  Although many programs have well-stocked on-site libraries, Internet access is significantly supplementing–in some sense also supplanting–such a feature.  What becomes more important is quality and power of computers, access privileges, and availability of well-trained information specialists.


Financial Aid

Most M.S. programs provide some kind of financial aid for a majority of students who need it.  This may be in the form of 1) the gift outright (scholarships of various kinds), or 2) research or teaching assistantships, part-time work for the department, or part-time/freelance jobs that the department helps the student to find.  Help in category #2 is much more common than help in category #1. 


These are general characteristics of M.S. programs in scientific and technical communication in the United States.  The following section profiles a successful, representative program to provide a closer look at this type of program. 



The Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication (MSSTC) at the University of Minnesota[4]


The University of Minnesota is one of the nation’s biggest universities, with a student body population of nearly 50,000.  Located in the Twin Cities, the campus occupies large tracts of real estate along both the east and west banks of the Mississippi and, three miles east, of higher ground in St. Paul.  The St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses are connected by “Speedy Busses” that allow students to travel nonstop between campuses.  The metropolitan area has a population of two million.  A graduate school brochure declares,


Minneapolis (the largest city in Minnesota) and St. Paul (the state capital) are thriving centers of commerce, with major food processing and milling, retailing, transportation, and forestry.  The area consistently ranks near the top on quality-of-life and residential satisfaction ratings, thanks in part to an extensive park system that covers 12,500 acres and includes more than 200 lakes. 


True, all that water is nursery to billions of mosquitoes, but residents find this an acceptable price to pay for the beauty and recreational benefits of the area.


If you’ll fire up your favorite World Wide Web (WWW) browser and access “,” you’ll find the University of Minnesota Rhetoric Department’s home page.  There you’ll hear a digitized welcome from Billie Wahlstrom, department head, and there you’ll see a digitized photo of Haecker Hall, the department’s HQ.  Haecker Hall is located on the university’s St. Paul campus.  The St. Paul campus, sometimes called the “farm campus” (although some other colleges besides agriculture share the locale) is in my opinion the more attractive, and without doubt the more tranquil, of the two campuses. 


The Rhetoric Department’s HQ is on the agricultural campus because the department is part of the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences–the acronym for which, unfortunately, is CAFES.  The rhetoric department began offering the Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication (MSSTC) in 1986.  But the department has a much longer history than that.  Since that history is vital to understanding why the department’s programs in scientific and technical communication work so well, I’ll begin this section with a few historical facts. 



Most of my understanding of the history of Minnesota’s department of rhetoric comes from Art Walzer.  Art started in the department as a teaching assistant two decades ago and has been with the department ever since.  I also gathered historical facts from Keith Wharton, a former associate dean and acting dean of the college of agriculture (now he is rhetoric department faculty) and from Billie Wahlstrom, formerly of Michigan Technological University, who has been head of Minnesota’s department of rhetoric since 1986. 


The department of rhetoric opened in 1908 within the university’s school of agriculture.  It taught writing and speaking skills to the agriculture students.  It was never part of an English department, it never existed in a college of liberal arts; it was from the beginning conceived as part of an integral education for students in a scientific field: agriculture.  The department was also, from an early date, conceived of as an important component of the land-grant mission of the university: it was a key element in making the research of the college of agriculture available to farmers and others in the state of Minnesota (and beyond).  It did this by making its graduates good communicators and by functioning to “translate” and disseminate the college’s research through extension faculty and extension programs.  All of this was a separate enterprise from the missions to teach literature, composition, mass communication, and speech that went on across the river in the college of liberal arts.  The college of agriculture, because of its highly visible and practical service to the state, has enjoyed good funding over the years, and the department of rhetoric has prospered along with it. 


In a history too involved to report in detail here, there were over the years various additions to the rhetoric department, many of them hired from liberal arts to teach western civilization and other general education courses.  The department became fairly diverse: it included people with specialties in rhetoric, speech communication, linguistics, composition, literature, technical communication, and other fields.  These research and teaching interests coalesced into “divisions” within the department: nearly always collegial, Walzer assures me, yet functioning almost like autonomous mini-departments to get new hires, organize curriculum, and so on.


However, this friendly-yet-fragmented state of affairs changed significantly under the leadership of department head L. David Schuelke and the creative impetus of professor Thomas Pearsall (now retired).  In 1971, while continuing its service courses to the students of agriculture, the department established its undergraduate major in technical communication.  Walzer said that once the decision had been made to propose the degree, the department carefully engineered the degree to draw upon the resources of the entire faculty.  There was a strong desire to end the rule of divisions and bring the department together.  A few faculty resisted this development, but to a great extent this step did unite the members of the department: all were necessary to make the recipe complete for the technical communication major.  Management, ethics, and oral communication were no less vital than rhetorical theory, composition, or visual communication.


The success of the undergraduate major spawned an M.S. in technical communication, the Master of Agriculture in Technical Communication, in 1974.  In 1986 this degree gave way to the Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication, or MSSTC, with Victoria Mikelonis and Laurie Hayes taking major roles in conceptualizing and promoting the new degree.  Now, under the leadership of Billie Wahlstrom, the department has started M.A. and Ph.D. programs in scientific and technical communication (initiated fall 1993).  There are currently 100 students enrolled as undergraduate majors, 39 in the M.S. program, 4 in the M.A. program, and 14 in the Ph.D. program (with 7 more arriving fall 1995).  The department also provides service courses open to the entire university, and this allows many of its graduate students to obtain teaching assistantships. 


In 1983 the rhetoric department’s Victoria Mikelonis took over editorship of The Technical Writing Teacher, journal of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.  In 1992, editorship passed into the hands of Billie Wahlstrom and Mary Lay, and it became Technical Communication Quarterly.  Under both names, this journal has been one of the most valuable and respected journals in the field.  The rhetoric department now has a full-time faculty of 17 and includes many high-profile people in the field of technical communication.  


The evolution of Minnesota’s department of rhetoric teaches some important lessons.  It is the story of a department functioning within a college and a university that highly value its contributions and have therefore supported it with the resources it has needed to grow.  This is perhaps the fundamental reason that the program works: it has marshaled its resources, organized its teaching, service, and research, to advance the mission of its college.  It is now regarded as indispensable to the health of the institution, a point I will expand upon shortly.




Seated at a large table surrounded by computers and overflowing with documents, Billie Wahlstrom explained to me that the MSSTC was carefully crafted to demonstrate to her college and to the university that it would provide something no other degree was providing.  She said,


There’s a mass comm. program here, and speech and composition and American Studies–all kinds of programs.  It becomes critical to define what you’re doing that nobody else is doing.  For example, mass comm. has a science component; you can do science writing in mass comm., but that’s not for the kind of specialized audiences we have.  Speech communication deals with different media and different sized audiences from ours.  We have emphasized strongly that we are Scientific and Technical Communication, not professional communication or anything else. 


She went on to describe the balance of science and communication offered in the department, and then the background of students who enter the MSSTC program:


Our entering requirements in both science and technology and advanced communication reflect our student body.  About a third of them come from science and engineering and technology, about a third from humanities, a little less than a third come from technical communication programs, and about ten percent or less are miscellaneous.  One of my students, a woman from a class last year, is a member of a sailing crew and is now traveling around the world.  You can’t pigeon hole them.  So we have to force, in a sense, that the people who have science and technology backgrounds also develop strong communication and writing skills.  If they don’t have it we require that they make it up before they graduate; same thing if humanities people don’t have science.  . . .  We want to graduate people who are comfortable with science and technology and are also good communicators. 


Promotional material for the MSSTC gives a fairly standard description of who this M.S. degree is for and what it equips one to do:


The MSSTC addresses issues of communication in a technological world. Scientific and technical communicators work in many roles in business, industry, nonprofit organizations, education, and government as writers, editors, technical video producers, and technical trainers.  The MSSTC may be the right program if you are interested in science and technology and have good communication skills. This degree program provides you with opportunities to apply theoretical concepts in practical situations and focuses on educating communication professionals for business and industry.


Admission to the program requires the following (remember, credits here are quarter credits):


•  30 credits in science, technology, mathematics, and/or engineering,

•  12 credits in advanced communication (e.g. writing/editing, oral communication, visual communication, organizational communication, or communication theory),

•  8 credits in computer science or management information systems.


The booklet adds that “Professional experience in scientific and technical communication is desirable but not required (p. 3).”  As in most programs, some otherwise well-qualified applicants have not filled all the entrance requirements and are still admitted–but they must fill the requirements at the front end of their studies (“before registering for more than 20 credit hours”), and they may not apply these make-up hours towards graduation.  The rhetoric department has support faculty from other departments who teach some of the classes that fill these requirements.  These support faculty are on periodic faculty exchange with the rhetoric department.  The support faculty were listed in the proposal for establishing the degree ten years ago; they are an important component of a successful M.S. program in technical communication. 


Also required for admission is, of course, a bachelor’s degree (unless the graduate school has already admitted a student who lacks only a few credits to graduate).  The degree may be either a B.A. or a B.S.  Typically, the BA students need more orientation to computer technology and science than do the B.S. entrants, but the B.S. entrants need more work with writing and speaking.


MSSTC applicants must have an upper division GPA of 3.0 or above.  They must submit the standard supporting documents (statement of purpose, letter of application, samples of writing and visual communication, description of work experience, letters of recommendation) and have minimum GRE scores of 500 verbal, 500 quantitative, and 450 analytical.  As in most programs, some exceptions are made for deficiencies if the applicant seems to be especially promising.


The degree itself requires 44 credits and has two options: a thesis option (Plan A), and a project option (Plan B).  Plan “A” requires the following:


•  9 credits in rhetoric exploring theory and research in audience analysis, media selection, and designing messages.  [These are the “core courses.”]

•  An additional 11 credits in rhetoric (including 4-6 credits of internship).

•  8 credits in one or more related fields.

•  16 master’s thesis credits.


Plan “B” requires this:


•  9 credits in rhetoric exploring theory and research in audience analysis, media selection, and designing messages.

•  An additional 19 credits in rhetoric (including 4-6 credits of internship).

•  8 credits in one or more related fields.

•  8 Plan B project credits.


Students following both plans undergo a final oral examination that embraces both coursework and thesis/project. 


Both the M.S. and the M.A. offered by the rhetoric department can be pursued under the thesis option, and both can be pursued under the project option.  The thesis option is generally taken by those who “wish to teach, do research, or pursue a Ph.D.,” and therefore wish “to gain a richer background in theory and research.”  Most MSSTC students (80%) elect plan “B.”  At first blush this might seem to indicate the ubiquitous student fear of writing.  But in fact, both plans require a long final document.  The major difference is that plan A is more theoretical, while plan B is more applied and therefore has greater appeal to many students.  Applicants are often professional technical communicators returning to college for education that will enhance their careers–but even most of the younger students have this same applied focus.


The department’s Internet advertisement states,


If you wish to tailor a program of interest that you will apply in a non-academic setting, or if you are a professional communicator returning for continuing education and do not plan to teach or do research, you should consider the Plan B project option.  If you plan to pursue a Ph.D., you may also wish to consider the Plan B option.


The Plan B project may take varied forms:


•  Feasibility reports

•  Case studies

•  Formal reports

•  Training proposals

•  Development of assessment tools


During the course of the project you will demonstrate familiarity with the tools of scholarship in your field, the ability to work independently, and the ability to present the results of your investigation effectively by completing a design project.  For two quarters you will work closely with your advisor and a cooperating business or industry on a communication problem. Your Plan B project will include your assessment of the communication problem or situation and your proposed solution.  Your Plan B project should be completed in 240 hours and be approved by your examining committee.


Mary Lay, co-editor of Technical Communication Quarterly, has directed many students through both projects and theses.  I asked her to give me the big picture about projects and how they fit into a plan of study. Here’s a paraphrase of Mary’s reply:


The lower-division undergraduate courses teach students the tools for technical communication: writing, graphics, oral communication, computer literacy, and so on.  The upper-division courses begin to teach them how to use those tools to solve problems.  At the master’s level, we focus on teaching students to solve problems for other people.  In essence, Ph.D. work continues this kind of instruction and research.  Students become experts in what I think is the purpose of technical communication: to help others make decisions and solve problems.


At the M.S. level, people mostly want to work in industry.  A project is designed to send somebody into a business environment and solve a specific problem for someone in that environment–and then come up with general guidelines to help people solve those kinds of problems themselves.


For example, my student Valerie did a project based at the aquatic center on campus.  These people were thinking of buying “point light” technology: light-emitting, self-sticking dots that one attaches to arms and legs and joints in order to make a certain kind of videotape of swimmers–swimming in dim light so that the points of light stand out–and they use it then for instruction and research into body movement and feedback for athletes and clients.


Valerie posed the general research question, “How much information do you need in video to understand what you’re seeing?”  She conducted a study using both experts (coaches, trainers) and novices (people “off the street”)–to see how much information they needed to recognize various strokes and movements.  Tangentially, she made some discoveries about who was right and how much information they thought they needed versus how much they really needed.  Her project discussed the point light technology and its capabilities, and it provided some guidelines for technical communication–and concluded that you don’t need much data to convey certain things.  So, perhaps when we make videos, we don’t need as much information as we think we do.


So that’s a project.  A thesis struggles more with theory and makes contributions to theory, but our students like to do something.  They like to test theories against cases.


Mary added that this problem-solving approach was a hallmark of instruction and research in the department, and that in her opinion, one of the department’s special features was the degree to which students learn to teach others.  Most MSSTC students are either teaching assistants or research assistants.  Even as research assistants, they learn about teaching, since very often their work for their professor involves creating tutorials for various kinds of communication technologies, or helping plan syllabi for courses.



The department’s Graduate Student Handbook lists about 40 courses.  Here are half of them:

Theory and Research in Audience Analysis

Review of research on human learning and understanding.  Theories of audience analysis and the preparation of written messages to reach defined audiences.  Application of problem-solving strategies in technical communication.

Theory and Research in Media Selection

Decision making for technical communication problem solvers.  Students survey the media available for transmitting messages between communication sources and receivers, and analyze the factors that influence media choices.

Research Methods in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication

An introduction to the discipline of scientific and technical communication.  Emphasis is on the nature of professionalism and research in the field.

Corporate Video for Technical Communicators

Video production, including video team roles, production technology, and the development process. Students apply rhetorical principles in analyzing video, develop a treatment, write a script, and prepare an annotated bibliography on a video-related topic.

Studies in Organizational Communication, Conflict, and Change

Roles of internal and external organizational communication, conflict-problem organizational development; problem identification and diagnosis. Change processes and applications to organizational settings.

Managerial Communications

Analyzing manager’s position in organizational communication network.  Possible forms, contexts, and functions of manager’s communication.  Emphasis on assessing and developing personal competence and confidence in  managerial communication. Lectures, discussions, readings, experiential exercises, and field research.

Scientific and Technical Presentations

Presentations for specific situations related to technical or scientific topics.  Audience analysis and adaptation, techniques of support and visualization, organization for clarity and accuracy, and techniques of interpreting and answering questions. Students make and evaluate technical and scientific presentations. Emphasis on seminar reports and professional conference papers.

Interviewing: Dynamics of Face-to-Face Communication

Improving interpersonal and interpersonal skills in interviewing situations.  Participation in appraisal, reprimand, complaint, persuasion, and problem solving techniques; counseling interviews; and a research interview project.  Equal emphasis on the interviewer and interviewee roles.

Communication Program Planning and Evaluation

Examples, materials, and resources for planning, budgeting, and assessing organizational communication programs.

Research in Communication Strategies

Introduction to research design and methodology in communication. Emphasis on application of various research methods to particular communication strategies or settings.

Scientific and Technical Communication Course Development: Philosophy and Methodology

Theories and methodologies as they relate to composition and scientific and technical communication. Emphasis on learning to teach first-year college students written or oral persuasive strategies. Students practice assignment and course development, justification, and evaluation.

Scientific and Technical Communication Course Development: Mentored Teaching

Under faculty mentor, students teach course units, prepare and evaluate course assignments, conduct conferences with student writers or speakers, and help oversee the education within an actual course.

Scientific and Technical Communication Course Development: Teaching Seminar

Students share observations and solve teaching problems, usually concurrent with first teaching assignments.

Editing for Technical Communication

Introduction to editorial process; editor-writer relationship; copy editing; preparing scientific and technical documents; handling format, visuals, and quantitative materials.

Procedures and Policies Manual

Problem analysis, process management, gathering information, writing procedures, verification, and constructing finished manual.

Grant Proposal

Writing the grant proposal, including establishing credibility, problem statement, program objectives, plan of action, evaluation, budget presentations, and proposal summary. Serves both real and hypothetical situations.


Newsletter design and production. Writing and editing newsletter articles.  Hands-on experience in typography, graphic design, formatting, layout, and  distribution procedures. Students produce a newsletter using Macintosh desktop publishing.

Document Design  

Designing a document to meet users’ needs, completing draft, and evaluating effectiveness.  Forms and software documentation (user guides, reference manuals, tutorials, and input sheets) for data bases, decision aids, computer-aided instruction, on-line programs, or visual displays. Mandatory lab time as part of project team of programmers, subject-matter specialists, and communication specialists.

Transfer of Technology

Methods of transferring scientific and technical knowledge and practice.  Review of research in diffusion and transfer methods at different technical levels. Tools, methodologies, and assessment procedures for managing program. Assessment and design plan.

Gender and the Rhetoric of Science and Technology 

How cultural gender roles and biological sex attributes influence communication within scientific and technical communities. Communication strategies of professional writers, scientists, and technologists.


Minnesota’s department of rhetoric values the internship experience highly.  Both undergraduates and graduate students are required to complete internships–paid internships.  Internship opportunities are posted on a bulletin board in Haecker Hall, and there are many choices, both on and off campus.  The department has connections with many local corporations and businesses: IBM, Honeywell, Cray Research, Metronics, Kellogg, and 3M, to name a few.  Earl McDowell, director of graduate studies at the time I visited Minneapolis, spoke with mixed pride and frustration about the fact that local employers liked the department’s graduate students so well that they often made them tempting offers before graduation, luring them away into full-time jobs.  This speaks well for the quality both of students and of the education they are getting at Minnesota, but it is bad for numbers–a problem, since some funding for the department is indeed based on numbers of graduates.  In recent years, though, Earl, Billie, and other faculty have been laying the personal touch on students to finish their degrees.  Now, they also focus on the issue of finishing during the process of admitting new students.  The percentage of graduating students has risen considerably in recent years. 

Students may take up to 6 credits of internship (but not less than 4 credits).  They enter upon the internship by writing a proposal for their advisor.  During the internship the student keeps a journal; at the end of the experience the student submits the journal, a report, and samples of work produced on the job.  The internship often provides the site and the research problem that Option B students use for their project.

Computer facilities and computer-based instruction

Internet users have long known the University of Minnesota as the developer of Gopher[5], a powerful Internet tool that allows one to access information and various other tools.  This tool is the product of a large and well-staffed computer support system at the university, Distributed Computing Services (DCS).  The university has over 100 computer labs, one of the most advanced being housed in the Classroom/Office Building (COB), a short distance from Haecker Hall.  This is the main lab for the rhetoric department.  It contains 20 Mac 660 AVs, 17 Power Mac 7100s, and 20 IBM 486s.  It is equipped with a variety of software packages based around Microsoft Office for both IBMs. and Macs, with PageMaker and Quark Express for Desktop Publishing and Macromind Director for Mulitmedia.  The department also has smaller labs in Haecker Hall.

The most interesting of these smaller labs is equipped with digital video cameras and microphones; this allows users to see and hear each other as they work interactively.  The document(s) being worked on are displayed on the screen simultaneously with an almost real-time video of the person one is communicating with.  This is called “desktop video conferencing.”  Ann Duin, who has done a great deal of research (and publication) on communication technologies, has been instrumental in getting grants for the department and making connections with industry (such as U.S. West, the suppliers of some of the digital camera technology used in the lab.  Such connections also provide essential technical consulting help).  Ann’s grants and connections have provided many students with research and with teaching assistantships.  Ann has made agreements with a Minnesota high school whereby her undergrad students teach composition to high school students (the high school has been similarly equipped)[6].  This is one form of distance education in which the department is involved (or will again be involved, as soon as Ann returns from her leave in Australia!)  Other forms of distance education are an independent study course on the Web called Writing in Your Profession, and an on-line course for educators that teaches about different types of distance learning technologies (desktop video conferencing, audio conferencing, video lectures, etc.).  Other courses, though still taught in the classroom, will prepare educators to deliver distance education.  An example of this is a course called Managing Information on the Internet.  It covers topics such as file transfer protocols, listserves, World Wide Web, Gopher, and MOOs (Multiple User Dimension, Object Oriented, a sort of “chat room” for real-time interactive e-mailing).

About 50% of the rhetoric department’s courses are lab based.  Many instructors require assignments to be submitted electronically, and collaborative writing projects are common.  The extensive computer connectivity at the university, and especially within the department of rhetoric, is an important feature for working technical communicators coming back to school: they can communicate with teachers and fellow students via e-mail, work collaboratively, do research and submit work from remote locations, and so on. 

Billie Wahlstrom explained to me something about the importance of computer connectivity for the department of rhetoric. 

When I arrived from Michigan Technological University to become chair here, I pushed for computer equipment for all faculty.  Now every faculty member has a Mac, we have a simple LAN so that we’re all in contact with each other and can share files.  We all have POPmail (e-mail).  We’re all connected to LUMINA [Libraries of the University of Minnesota Integrated Network Access], and we have WorldCAT [connectivity to libraries worldwide].

I asked Billie how her faculty learned to use the new information technologies (in my experience, you can lead professors to e-mail, but you can’t make them log on).  She answered that the department receives periodic training sessions, sometimes taught by DCS staff and sometimes by their own graduate students!

One such student is Linda Jorn, an MSSTC graduate and current Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication.  Linda is coordinator of instructional technology for CAFES and acting director of the Digital Media Center, a university-wide multimedia facility.  She had been a nurse for 10 years, and she enrolled in the M.S. program with the idea of going on to Metronics or some other local company as a medical writer.  But she was “sidetracked” during her M.S. work, primarily because she became a research assistant for Ann Duin and worked with Ann to develop courseware (software designed for instructional purposes in specific classes).  Although not all the rhetoric department’s graduate students find (or want) full-time university staff positions such as Linda has taken on, many of them do fill staff positions of some kind while they work on their degrees.


Since support for faculty research is so vital to the health of a program in technical communication, I asked quite a few people about it.  I was especially interested in knowing how faculty kept up with the speeding freight train of technology.  For example, Billie had told me that she is interested in virtual reality (VR), and I asked her how she was learning about it.  Here’s what she said:

It’s a combination of things.  In this particular case there is a group of three of us who are really interested in this issue.  We formed a little task force that meets every Wednesday.  We got a small grant from the Ag experiment station that funds some of our faculty–a Parker Sanders grant, about 15 thousand dollars–to explore the issue of virtual reality.  And we hired a graduate student to get us books and to go all around the university to find little pockets of people who are doing similar kinds of things.  He’s either invited them to meet with us or invited them to invite us.  Sometimes we had to do arm twisting! 

Yesterday we went over to the department of kinesiology and human factors to look at their project on total immersion virtual reality.  They were excited about what were doing and we were excited about what they were doing!  We decided we can cross list some courses, we can share graduate students, and we’d let each other use our facilities.  That’s the kind of thing we do.  We work in informal groups mostly.

Billie went on to describe other forms of faculty support:

We have a very strong faculty support system here.  It’s called single quarter leaves.  Every three years you’re eligible for one.  It’s competitive, but rhetoric has always done quite well; that’s partly because some of the production agricultural people can’t really get away so that leaves more spaces for us.  It gives the faculty, on a regular basis, the opportunity to have a quarter off to “figure out stuff.”  So Alan Gross is on single quarter leave right now.  He’s working on the history of scientific articles.  Mary Lay will be off next spring.  She’s working on a project on midwifery.  Then we have seminars and people talk about what they are doing.  This week one of the faculty is going to talk about his research on land use on the prairie.  He also got a Bush fellowship to figure out how to bring native American perspectives into his class on the prairie.  There is a lot of support and the faculty here have been very good at getting it.

I discussed single quarter leaves with Keith Wharton.  He had recently used such a leave simply to read a dozen books in his area of major interest (management), in preparation for a course he wanted to teach.  He went out to a tranquil cabin on a lake and read.  No publication was required to come out of this; it was simply leave for faculty development.  Keith, like all the faculty I spoke with, expressed satisfaction with faculty support for research.

The department of rhetoric has 17 full-time faculty.  The list below comes from the department’s Internet site:

J. Michael Bennett, Associate Professor
Ed.D. in Reading Education, University of Georgia Research Interests: Standardized Testing of Reading; Rate/Comprehension Relationships; Scientific and Technical Reading

James E. Connolly, Professor
Ph.D. in Speech Communication, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Computers and Computer Graphics

Ann Hill Duin, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in English Education, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Computers and Writing; Cognitive Processes and Computers; Qualities of Exporting Texts; Readability Issues in Documentation and CAI; Writing   Across the Curriculum

Richard W. Ferguson, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in American Studies, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Rhetoric and Composition Studies; Cross- Disciplinary CultureStudies

Alan G. Gross, Professor
Ph.D. in English, Princeton University Research Interests: The Rhetoric of Science and Scientific Controversy; The Role of Scientific Methods in the Humanities

Laura J. Gurak, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Research Interests: Rhetorical Dynamics of Discourse on Computer Networks; Rhetoric of Science and Technology; Social Issues in Computing; Technical and Professional Communication

Laurie S. Hayes, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison Research Interests: Application of Speech Communication Research and Theory to        Scientific and Technical Communication; Rhetoric of Political, Religious, and             Technical Controversy; Oral Communication in Agricultural Professions; Measurements of Rhetorical Sensitivity and Managerial Communication of TechnicalCommunicators

Richard O. Horberg, Professor
Ph.D. in American Studies, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Creative Writing

Mary M. Lay, Professor
Ph.D. in English, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque Research Interests: Gender and Communication; Collaborative Writing; Feminist Theory and Rhetoric of Science and Technology

Earl E. McDowell, Professor
Ph.D. in Speech Communication, University of Nebraska Research Interests: Technical Communication Apprehension; Technical Communication Programs; Interviewing; Friendship; Conflict; Gender and Psychological Sex

William M. Marchand, Professor
Ph.D. in Speech and Theatre, University of Minnesota Research Interests: History of Ideas; Issues Raised in Conflict Between Science and Religion; St. Paul Campus Theatre

Victoria M. Mikelonis-Paraskov, Professor
Ph.D. in Language and Literature, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Research Interests: Screen Design; Page Design; Intelligent Documentation Systems; Schema Theory

Thomas M. Scanlan, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in American Studies, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Landscape as Index to Cultural Values; Agriculture and Ideology; Family and Literature in America; Technology and the Control of Nature

L. David Schuelke, Professor
Ph.D. in Communication, Purdue University Research Interests: Organizational Communication; Conflict and Management; Dispute Resolution in Science and Technology; Technology Transfer; Evaluation and Assessment of Communication Programs; Strategic Planning of Communication; Distribution and Utilization of Information

Billie J. Wahlstrom, Professor
Ph.D. in American Literature, University of Michigan Research Interests: Effects of New Technology on Communication; Computers and the Composing Process; Gender and Communication

Arthur E. Walzer, Associate Professor
Ph.D. in English, University of Minnesota Research Interests: Rhetorical Theory and Criticism; Eighteenth-Century Rhetorical       Theory; Ethics and Technical Communication

W. Keith Wharton, Professor
Ph.D. in Educational Measurement and Research, Colorado State University Research Interests: Leadership; Managerial Communication


On the first floor of Haecker Hall is a commodious student lounge.  Naturally, it is graced with refrigerator, microwave oven, coffee maker, couches, big easy chairs, and a variety of house plants.  But it also has a large conference table, a well-stocked bookshelf, a Macintosh computer (LAN and Internet connected, of course), and a printer.  Understandably, the lounge is a frequent hangout for students.  I spent some time in the lounge chatting with graduate students about their studies and their experience in the department.  When I asked them about things they’d like to see change in the department, a few named items on their wish lists: for example, several students wanted even better computer equipment to be made available.  Some confessed that being connected to fellow students by computer, although wonderful, was not always the optimal form of contact; sometimes one wants to be physically face to face with colleagues for planning or collaborating or just plain socializing, but the high percentage of non-traditional students in the department makes this a problem.  Often, such students can come to campus only at night.  But overall, the students I talked with seemed quite pleased with the technical communication program, with the support they were getting, with the facilities available to them, and with the departmental faculty. 

Beyond their sense that the faculty is well prepared is their sense of “being looked out for.”  For example, when I asked Mick Souder, an MSSTC student holding down a full-time job as a teacher at a local private school, how he’d found his thesis topic (Representational Space in Computer-Mediated Communication), he replied,

Well, Billie took me aside and said, ‘Hey, you’ve just about got all your course work done; now are you going to do a project or a thesis or what?  I’ve got some ideas here . . .  .’  She had been reviewing what I’d done in coursework and she had a list of topics to discuss with me.  That’s what got me focused on the topic I’m investigating now.  I’ve just finished a lit search and I’m really getting into it now.

Also in the lounge was Laurie Gardner, who at that time was just finishing her stint as editorial assistant  for Technical Communication Quarterly.  Laurie’s topic was “Reaching a Consensus about the Appropriateness of Humor in Instruction Manuals,” and I remembered having recently filled out a questionnaire on this topic that she had mailed a couple months earlier.  It was a well-designed questionnaire, and her sense of research methodology impressed me. 

Other students spoke up and told me about their research.  Ron Stone, for example, told me in very polite tones about his research on the topic of “Patterns of Politeness in Computer-Mediated Communication” (he says he’s studying “netiquette”).  Anyone who has been “flamed” on screen can appreciate the relevance of this topic!–but Ron’s research goes considerably beyond this phenomenon.

As I listened to MSSTC students talk about their research, I noticed a fundamental theme in many of their projects: they are interested in the social dimension of communication technologies.  How are the new technologies affecting human interaction?  How well are people adapting to these technologies?  What are some of the communication problems the technologies are introducing, and how can they be overcome?   As one student put it, “How can we wrestle this stuff to the ground and make it serve humankind?”  It was obvious that the humanistic foundation of the department had infused their thinking profoundly.  They weren’t impressed with technology for it’s own sake; they wanted to know how communication technology could be effectively and ethically used

Here is a list of some projects and theses done by MSSTC students:

•  The Rhetorically Useful Document:  Visual Structuring Cues and Effective Use of Color

•  The Design and Development of an Interactive Learning Resource Prototype

•  Developing a Framework for Evaluating Health-Related Print Communication

•  User Interface Design and Testing

•  Graphical Techniques to Create Visual Maps for Information Retrieval

•  Document Cycling Processes of a Manuscript Team

•  Composite Transducers for Medical Ultrasonics:  NIH Grant Proposal

•  Analysis of a Case Study in Human Resources Communication

•  Evaluation and Implementation of a Desktop Documentation System

•  Research on the Use of Advance Organizer:  Information in Word Processing Software Tutorials

•  Using Audience Analysis as a Strategy to Reduce Information in Video Modeling Displays

•  Usability Testing at Cray Research

•  Effects of Message Design and Nutrient-Related Health Conditions on Food- Producing Decisions

•  Microcomputer-Based Simulations for Development of a User Interface

•  Evaluating the Presentation of a Technical Writing Seminar at an Environmental Protection Agency Laboratory:  A Discussion of Planning, Presentation, and Evaluation of the Seminar

•  Redesigning a Scholarly Journal:  Guidelines for the Novice and Personal Experience with the Technical Communication Quarterly

•  Developing a Multimedia Process through a Lens of Rhetorical and Learning Theories

Reputation and Support

Associate Dean Mike Martin, who was in charge of the college’s Agricultural Experiment Station at the time I visited Minnesota,[7] began his conversation with me this way:

Not long ago the college of agriculture had to take a $220,000 cutback.  We voted to hold Rhetoric exempt from any cuts.  In fact, we’ve given them new faculty lines and more equipment at the same time we were tightening the belt in other sectors of the college. 

True, he admitted, the rhetoric department isn’t quite as expensive as some of the other departments (this dean is an economist by training).  If a scientist wants to study some disease of swine, he’s got to have the swine and facilities and technical support and feed and manure management and all the rest.  “Even so,” the dean said, “there’s much more to our support of Rhetoric than this simple economic fact.”

This dean explained to me why the department of rhetoric is so vital to the college.  First of all, one needs to understand that the college is very serious about its “land-grant mission” and that Minnesota is a highly “participative state.”  Minnesotans don’t want to support some faculty member’s esoteric hobby.  Their attitude is, “I want to know what you’re doing over there, and I want to know how it can be used–to improve farming and industry, inform the legislature, and strengthen the community.”  The dean stressed to me the obligation of the college to translate science and technology for the public, both in the sense of making it intelligible to them and making it useful for them.  He went on to describe the extensive network of extension agents employed by the university, emphasizing how teaching and research in technical communication is helping university employees both on campus and off to communicate more effectively.  Add to this the desire of the college to communicate well within itself and to the rest of the University of Minnesota, and it begins to become apparent what role a department of rhetoric with a strong program in technical communication might have.

Dean Martin (no relation to the actor) gave me four reasons why Minnesota’s technical communication program works so well.  I quote him here with minimal editing:

1.  “It is integrated into a highly technical college; therefore, students are not only learning technical communication; they’re dealing with people who need to communicate technical ideas.  They’re doing more than thinking about the process of technical communication; they’re immersed in it.” 

2.  “Support for scholarship is strong.  Most of it comes from ‘hard money’: permanent state and federal funding to the college for the purpose of research.  We’ve integrated scholarship and research into the fiber of the department.  Our rhetoric faculty are exploring the future of scientific and technical communication, not just the current state of the art, and they’re building it into teaching and curricular approaches.  We recognize that new communication technologies are changing the nature of instruction and research, and we look to rhetoric to show us how to use those new technologies and methods.  There’s a lot more to it than just installing hardware.  One of my fears is that, for example, without proper preparation for distance education, we’ll open up some facilities–say, in Red Lake Falls–and people will assume that we’re ready to teach animal husbandry or something.  But first, we’re going to have to re-teach faculty to use the new media, and that’s where the rhetoric department can help in a big way.”

3.  “We depend on the rhetoric department to link us, internally and externally, to other thinkers, teachers, and researchers.  And they have done it; they’re created a different community for this college than would exist without it.  A bigger and better community.”

4.  “We’ve been able to attract and retain faculty of a very special caliber, people with considerable “throw weight.”  They’re taken seriously by a lot of people who tend to take seriously only their own science.  And the younger faculty is maturing to that stature as well.  Because we see how valuable they are in helping us make our messages meaningful, we’ve integrated them into what we do.  Not enough, in my opinion, but still to a considerable degree.”


M.S. programs in technical communication are designed to produce professional technical communicators, managers, and educators who are both excellent communicators and competent users of communication technology.  Although they emphasize science and technology more than M.A. programs in this field, they are, at most universities, rhetorically and humanistically grounded.  Even so, most students in these programs tend to undertake application-oriented “projects” rather than writing theses with a lot of theoretical depth.  Real-world experience in technical communication is required, either through an internship or previous employment.  Many of the students enrolled in these M.S. programs are professionals returning to school in order to learn or sharpen skills directly relevant to their present employment.  Students come from both the liberal arts and from the sciences (both hard and soft), and programs are designed to bolster deficiencies that may exist on either side.

The M.S. in Scientific and Technical Communication in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota is a healthy example of such a program.  It is unquestionably a program that works.  My investigation into this program has pointed out several reasons why it works so well. 

First of all, it works because it has designed an M.S. that makes nearly every member of the faculty an important ingredient of the student’s course of study.  I say “nearly” because every department has some folks who don’t join the team with the same enthusiasm everyone else does, or whose interests put them somewhere on the periphery of the department’s most visible activities.  Minnesota is not exempt from this problem.  Yet, for the most part, the faculty of Minnesota’s department of rhetoric are a very collegial group, combining their expertise according to a well-conceived plan in order to provide a particular kind of education.  They have been able to define themselves in such a way that they have consolidated their own identity and made the uniqueness and value of who they are and what they do apparent–to themselves, to their college, and to many others. 

Next, the program works because it focuses on producing graduates who have a balance of humanistic and scientific knowledge, who are computer literate and information-technology literate, and who are skilled problem solvers.  The strong orientation in the program to solving other people’s problems, and to teaching people to solve problems for themselves, works to produce professional communicators who are in high demand–so much so that steps must be taken to keep students out of the grasp of employers until they actually do graduate.

The program works because the department has achieved a high level of connectivity.  It is connected to other departments because of the interdisciplinary nature of its curricula.  Faculty are connected with the vast Minnesota library system, and with the world, through computer technology–and internally, faculty are connected to each other and to the rest of the college through e-mail and file sharing (using a LAN), and through training that they pursue together.  Faculty and students are connected through computer technology as well.  Faculty collaborate with each other in research and publication.  Students collaborate with each other and with faculty.  Because of its internship activity and research into communication technologies, the department is also extensively connected to local business and industry.  Again, it is connected to a strong local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (the Twin Cities chapter).  Finally, it is connected to the people of Minnesota, and surrounding states, through participation in distance education and the extension services of its college.

This is really another element of success: service.  This program works because it has demonstrated to its college that it can help them fulfill its land-grant mission of service to the people of Minnesota.  It has shown them that it can help them make the college’s research and resources more understandable and better available to the people. 

This fact has made possible the third major reason that the program works: the department’s value in the eyes of its college has provided departmental faculty with excellent support for development and research.  This has allowed faculty to create and maintain a rich course offering and to elevate its status through publication.  It has helped the faculty stay current with new developments in communication technology.  Research grants have also increased the numbers of research assistantships available to students.  This helps the program work for obvious reasons: it attracts applicants to the program, it further increases collaboration between faculty and students, it provides grounding for student projects, and it helps professionalize students.

Finally, the program is successful because it has excellent faculty who are working hard to make it work.  A strong and diverse faculty; a unified programmatic goal; excellent faculty support; lots of personal attention to students; well-equipped computer labs; continuing service to the college, university, and state; connectivity of all kinds (enhanced by computer technology)–these seem to be the ingredients for an M.S. program in scientific and technical communication that works.



[1]  Only three of the seventeen schools offering the M.S. in scientific and technical communication also offer a Ph.D. in this field: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Michigan Technological University, and the University of Minnesota.

[2]  Master of Science Degree in Technical Communication: Graduate Study in Technical Communication at the University of Washington, p.1.

[3] Rhetoric and Technical Communication: Master of Science and Doctoral Degrees, Michigan Technological University p. 4.

[4]  Although my facts are based on the visit I made to the University of Minnesota’s Department of Rhetoric in May of 1994, I have continued to be in contact with the people I interviewed (and others), so my material is current as of now, one year later.

[5]   Named for the school’s mascot, the Golden Gopher, it makes for a good metaphor: one pictures the electronic “gopher” tunneling through wires at light speed to retrieve information.

[6]  See Ann Hill Duin, “Structuring Distance-Meeting Environments,” Technical Communication 41:4 (1994), pps. 695-708.

[7]   The college has a dean and three associate deans.  There is an associate dean for resident instruction, for the extension service, and for the experiment station.  Dean Martin has now moved up in the world: he is acting dean of CAFES