In March 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted our life; however, my students and I found a precious opportunity of practicing tactical technical communication in Writing 200, Writing with Digital and Social Media: Technical Writing.
Coined by the technical communication scholar Miles Kimball (2006, 2017), tactical technical communication refers to unpacking complex information and radically sharing it in extra-institutional settings. For example, a YouTuber or a blogger can teach you how to fix your dishwasher. Different from the traditional technical communication, tactical technical communication allows ordinary consumers of information to act as experts and use their (sometimes cunning) wisdom to discover, shape, and disseminate information that could benefit their target audience. Such a way of “massaging” (in McLuhan’s terms) information became particularly important in the early stage of the pandemic when people were anxiously trying to understand how they should act.
To find peace in ourselves and help others surrounding us, we quickly executed a tactical technical project in the last few days in Writing 200. Students actively proposed problems they would like to solve (e.g., offering instructions for wearing masks and completing grocery shopping online), identified their target audience (e.g., low-income people and seniors), located the platforms for disseminating their works (e.g., a blog or a vlog), and efficiently gathered the most needed information for their target audience. Their final projects include blog articles, vlogs, flyers, and infographics.
To help those struggling financially, in the form of a blog article, Sarah Pyykkonen instructed people about how to file for unemployment, while Andrea Wegner and Shanley Corvite explained what a “stimulus check” is and who is eligible for it. Caring for another vulnerable group, Courtney Fortin designed an infographic displaying some simple steps for mental care, and Jordyn Staff compiled a flyer offering comprehensive resources for mental health. From a more practical perspective, Eman Azrak taught people how to create proper homemade masks in her Tumblr page, and Elizabeth Grass shared in her vlog what she did to find everyday joy while “staying at home.” Furthermore, some students took a forward-thinking approach. For example, while we were still in the early stage of the pandemic, Miranda Shilling explained the procedure of anti-body tests in order to help people safely return to their workplaces. Even more radically, Matthew Lesha wrote a blog article, demanding Melania Trump educate the country about safe and responsible grocery shopping, following the campaigns launched by Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama.
Even though the unexpected natural crisis did not allow those students to polish their works, we could clearly see how they discovered, shaped, and disseminated information in two typical technical communication genres—technical description and technical instructions. Most importantly, their goodwill as technical communicators shone.
In Chinese the word “crisis” carries two dimensions: risk and opportunity. Despite the extreme stress imposed on us in this unusual year, I witnessed new opportunities in teaching technical writing and communication. From here, I hope more students could see technical writing and communication as a skill that everyone needs for themselves and for people they care about.
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing