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Technical Communicators as Researchers, Information Architects, and Cognitive Scientists Informing Global Communications and Interdisciplinary Contexts

Technical Communicators as Researchers, Information Architects, and Cognitive

Scientists Informing Global Communications and Interdisciplinary Contexts

Interview: Kirk St.Amant, Ph.D., Louisiana Technical University 

Article By: Jennifer Roth Miller and Jessica Lynn Campbell, Ph.D. Students, University of Central Florida (jenniferrothmiller@knights.ucf.edu and jessicalynn@embarqmail.com)

     Dr. Kirk St.Amant, Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical

Communication at Louisiana Technical University (USA), visited the University of Central Florida (UCF)

campus on April 11, 2017, to speak with students and faculty in the Texts and Technology Doctoral

Program, as well as to perform other on-site activities. Texts and Technology Ph.D. students, Jennifer

Roth Miller and Jessica Campbell, were fortunate to be able to sit down and discuss with Dr. St.Amant

some of the emerging trends in the field of technical communication and gain insight on how the

profession and discipline have changed in the past few decades, as well as gain perspectives on the

future of the field. The breadth of Dr. St.Amant’s career is evidence of how technical communication

informs many other interdisciplinary areas, such as international, health, academic, and citizen

communication. Dr. St.Amant discussed unique opportunities where the evolving role of a technical

communicator adds value and scholarship to the increasingly globalized and interdisciplinary world.

While Dr. St.Amant offered a great deal of knowledge from his years of experience in the field,

as a professor of technical communication, and from his research on global audiences and international

communication, a few reoccurring themes emerged during the the course of the conversation. The

amount of information and speed with which information can be accessed creates shifts in the role of a

technical communicator from a writer to a researcher with many accompanying functions. Instead of

creators of original content, technical communicators, today, are information architects, whereby they

find, organize, and repurpose content to distribute in a variety of increasingly participatory channels. Dr.

St.Amant describes this process as the “Four Ss:” search, source, sift, and share, which is to find and vet

reputable and accurate information, restructure, and finally, distribute content to specific audiences.

The changing roles of the technical communicator reflect simultaneous shifts in power structures

guiding audience participation.

     A significant focus on global audiences, social media, user context, and enhanced opportunities

for dialogue will continue to influence the work and practice of technical communicators. These changes

have afforded users a more equal role in information creation, design, and use. Demand for information

and the speed by which information must be delivered have increased as the user has become a real-

time participant. Often, technical communicators must deliver information via social media platforms,

such as instructional videos on YouTube accessed through a Smartphone while on the go. In return,

technology consumers increasingly engage in an exchange economy for this information, access,

comfort, and convenience. An unspoken threshold for access guides what users are willing to trade, and

typically privacy and data rather than money are exchanged for convenience, speed (time), comfort, and

complimentary access. In effect, these processes establish an exchange economy, whereby consumers

exchange the right to their information for quick, easily accessible content. Effective technical

communicators today attend to these motivations and progressively meet users on the platforms they

already use and have agreed to their terms of exchange. Across the interdisciplinary topics of our

conversation, this theme of an exchange economy consistently applied.

     Additionally, Dr. St.Amant explained how the changing role of a technical communicator

increasing includes lessons from cognitive science. Script theory, states Dr. St Amant, can be used as a

important theoretical lens for navigating rapidly changing digital, cultural, contextual, and

interdisciplinary information environments. Humans use cognitive blueprints, called scripts, when

encountering familiar, constructed social situations. Scripts encompass the actors, props, interactions,

and dialogue that have been socially standardized for any particular situation. For instance, when

individuals encounter a hostess/host, server, menu, and expected dialogue at a restaurant, diners enter

into an automated mode, whereby they execute the scripted dialogue and behaviors for that situation.

This, in effect, enables humans to multitask and reserve mental power. Script theory, therefore, can

helpfully inform the design, development, and technical communication for any purpose and in any

given context. These scripts are what people do or expect automatically and most importantly, these

scripts generally differ across cultural lines; therefore, across disciplines, physical borders, and contexts,

products and communication can benefit from aligning with the culturally prescribed scripts.

Ethnography and interviews then become extremely important data collection methods in the design,

development, and user testing of products and technical communication. Applying script theory in other

interdisciplinary contexts, such as in the development of health communications, also benefit from

understanding users, the scripts they initiate, and their need for information. Furthermore, working to

understand geographic scripts allows technical communicators to effectively bridge into global

audiences.

     Dr. St.Amant, who holds an appointment at the University of Limerick (Ireland) in

International/Intercultural Medical and Health Communication, delved further into exploring the social

constructions inherent in health, medicine, and care. All three concepts involve data. “Medical,” refers

the kind of data collected such as a patient’s pulse or weight. Alternately, measuring, “health,” involves

the analytical method of creating meaning from raw data, usually by comparing data measurements to

accepted norms. Norms or averages, of course, vary by culture and context. Finally, the term, “care,”

encompasses the actions taken after data is analyzed in an effort to maintain health at or return health

to a certain standard based on what society deems is a healthy state. Thus, health communication

depends greatly on these cultural constructs. The design and development of health communication and

products across cultures requires consideration of these conceptions, as well as the cultural scripts

initiated in the medical and healthcare context.

     Lastly, Dr. St.Amant touched on several aspects of academia—from developing critical

information literacies in students to the citizens of the broad community. Dr. St.Amant highlighted an

important role in communicating the work of academics, or rather, sharing the knowledge gained in

academia with citizens in a variety of pubic contexts. Critical literacies became a focal point in the

development of this conversation. One way to foster and develop critical literacies in technology and

information consumers is to affect the upcoming generations through university curriculum. However,

this excludes large portions of the population—those who have not or will not be captured in the

university system and those generations that studied prior to the significant changes in information

consumption afforded by digital technologies. Regardless, academia holds an opportunity to reach

beyond the walls of the academy by engaging in community outreach. Differing from marketing,

community outreach features academics engaging with citizens in activities such as workshops at local

community meeting places (local libraries) to discuss critical information literacies.

     Understanding how technology consumers access, use, and transform information, via the

exchange economy described earlier, is an essential aspect of technical communication today, and is

guided by script theory. Technical communicators can develop better information, interactions, and

usability by working with and learning local and cultural information consumption scripts. Dr. St.Amant

predicts technical communicators and academics in technical communication will work in increasingly

globalized and interdisciplinary contexts (international health and community outreach for example).

Script theory and critical literacies offer useful theoretical approaches for technical communicators to

bridge changing digital, cultural, interdisciplinary, and contextual information environments in the 21st

century and beyond.

     A grand thank you to Dr. St.Amant for visiting UCF, and for sharing his knowledge and expertise

with UCF students, staff, and faculty. 

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