Connors: “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America”

Connors, Robert J. “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 3-19. Print.

Originally published in JTWC 12.4 (1982): 329-52.



I. the Early Years: 1895-1939


Technical writing been around since people began using tools; systematic technical writing instruction relatively new.


Engineering Education in the Nineteenth Century


Major educational changes. Prior to Civil War, most universities religious based. Growth of liberal arts education, inclusion of mathematics instruction and a lot of technical/ applied instruction, notably engineering. In engineering programs where tech writing courses began. F/x of industrial revolution, increased interest in engineering. Before this, engineers had more of a classical education; no corpus of texts. Humanities courses after 1870s ''drop out of sight'' (5). Freshman comp "left over." Turned out competent but illiterate engineering grads. Starting around 1903 or so (5) engineering journals / letters/ essays appeared speaking out about engineers'' inability to write. Connors charts cause as freshman English coming too early in career... "it was not pracitcally oriented enough, and there was almost no inter-departmental cooperation between English and engineering faculties" (6).


Samuel Earle and Early Technical Writing Theory


1900-1910 "gestation period" (6). Separate English departments established to serve Engineering students. Initally taught only specialized freshman/soph comp sequence, soon started upper level/specialized courses. First notable tech writing textbook: A Guide to Technical Writing (T.A. Rickard, 1908). Dealt mostly with usage. Major text: The Theory and Practice of Technical Writing by Samuel Chandler Earle (1911). Earle''s text a new sort of textbook; "Earle came to be the philosophical voice of the early technical writing movement as well" (6). Defended specialized comp for engineers. Developed courses at Tufts-- shaped English instruction for Engineers, systematic training in tech writing, and ''adapting special means for increasing the efficiency of the work'' (6). Earle attacked the English/Engineering rift.


Earle''s text dissimilar to modern tech writing texts in that he approached from a "modes" perspective" (tech comm was narrative/descriptive/expository/directive). Advocated plain style. Approached issues of audience in sophisticated manner (according to Connors). Was more of a "prototype" and was superseded by other books in the 1920s. Earle died in 1917 (47 y.o.).


In 1916 many more complaints as to writing. Engineering curricula changed in response. Still friction between Engl and Engi. Aydelotte''s aim was to "''humanize the engineering student''s character and his aims in life'' through literary study" (7). Opposed to what Aydelotte called the "broad" view" was the "narrow view"-- reading and writing skills are the practical/proper goal. Seen mostly in Midwest and West, especially the A&M schools. Generally three sorts of Engl courses for engineering students: required freshman comp; soph lit sequence (sometimes required); and junior- / senior level courses in "exposition for engineers" (7) -- prototypes for today''s tech writing. Connors notes that this model plagued with problems: lack of interest in learning; quality and experience of teachers; lack of cooperation between Engl and Engi fac. This was adjunct/ grad student work, not valued on either side. Interesting quote:


In fact, when the English Committee of the SPEE conducted a survey in 1918, they found that although English as "training in thinking," "guarantee against illiteracy," and "a tool for use in technical work" got support from 72 percent of engineering faculty members, the idea of English courses as "a cultural and recreational escape from the monotonous literalism of vocational study" (the English Committee''s wording, not mine) was supported by only 5 percent [12]. Clearly the engineering faculty and the English faculty had different agendas. (8)


The Formation of a Discipline


Interest in tech writing grew. Early twenties, tech writing "beginning to become self-aware" (8). More time, more classes, new textbooks. Rickard published a new textbook in 1920, though still primarily concerned with usage. 1923 English for Engineers by Sada Harbarger (a woman!)-- first textbook organized according to the "technical forms" (8). Not immediately "recognized as the best" (8) (interesting value judgment!).


Mid twenties-- two developments. 1st: practical-- introduction of tech writing texts concerned only with writing of tech reports. Fitting, Trelease, Yule. Dealt primarily with reports, ignored other tech writing tasks. 2nd: philosophical-- younger groups of tech writing teachers who defined selves as tech writing teachers, not lit teachers. These teachers often downplayed call for more literature for engineering students. Bradley and Stoughton (1924) stated "the habit of creative literary imagination is a detriment to an engineer...Literary not desirable training for engineering students and does not help them present engineering data in brief and attractive form...[16]" (qtd. in Connors 9). Still, English an important part of engineering education by 1924.


Expansion and Depression


Time of experimentation, but more secure for English instructors. In 1930 (SPEE survey) 95% approved comp requirements (9).  However, times still difficult with Depression. Still Engl teachers underpaid, work undervalued, even dismissed in English lit departments. Assumed that these were the "those who can''t, teach" folks. However, courses continued to fill and grow. Tech writing texts had highest success rates of any composition texts (10).


In 1938, first dissertation A Study of Courses in Technical Writing by Alvin M. Fountain. Covered content of tech writing courses in 1930s, texts used, etc. Shows tech writing thriving industry in 1938. However, little chance for advancement, still adunct/contingent/graduate staffing. Few departments of English remained within engineering schools. Dissatisfaction contibued: "Graduate schools still turned out nothing but literary scholars, and only the less talented of them gravitated to engineering English" (10). Complaints as to problems-- too little WAC, essentially, to make the tech writing useful. World War II would be a major factor in changes.


II. A Discipline Comes of Age: 1940-1980


Developments During World War II


On surface, WWII brought engineering/English (at least in journals) to a stop. Actually, business as usual with lower enrollments. Two notable reports that would "change the course of post war engineering education in America" (11): the reports of the SPEE Committee on the Aims and Scope of Engineering Curricula (1940 and 1944). Both dealth with same question and together had important effect. Condemned "narrow vocationalism of engineering curriculum and put a stress on a proposed platform of ''science, of humanities, and of social relationships rather than on the practical techniques of particular occupations or industries''"  plus recommendation for "the parallel development of the scientific-technological and the humanistic-social sequences" (11). Connors notes "by the early fifties the arm-twiting propaganda of the humanistic-stem proponents had achieved final victory" (11). Notes that freshman comp or tech writing not included in this revolution.


The Postwar Technical Writing Boom


Expansion: GI Bill + WWII "technological war." Greater need for technical writers. Tech writing became a job in itself. Industries like GE and Westinghouse opened tech writing departments, but schools seemed to ignore this. When journals started up again, articles more about tasks and techniques than status and conditions of teaching. First "modern" tech writing articles written, but lost was self-awareness.


Demanding time for tech writing instructors. More complexity and more students. New report and correspondence forms. Manual-writing became popular skill to learn in tech writing courses.


A New Professionalism


1950''s-- Tech writing "grows up." STC (then Society for Technical Writers) established. Industry recognized need. RPI created first tech/sci writing master''s (1958). Many of usual problems continued; however, mid-fifties humanistic-stem reqs began being replaced with tech writing reqs at some schools. By 1957, virtually all colleges offered a tech writing course. More experimentation in teaching. Claims "most successful experiments of the fifties were probably the cooperative courses that were team-taught by English and engineering teachers [31]" (13).


Textbooks of time largely derivative. Standouts" Ulman and Gould''s Technical Reporting (1952) popular over 20 years. Gordon Mills and John Walter''s Technical Writing-- "arguably the single most important postware technical writing text" (13). Surveyed tech writing situations in industry, changing approach. Assumptions gleaned from survey: rhetorical approach was best; only good criterion for tech writing is "does it work?"-- writer-reader relationship most important (13).


  • Growing awareness of audience.
  • Expansion of tech writing into fields other than engineering.
  • First published mention of tech writing courses that involve single long project with series of "check-in" assignments (14).
  • Consideration of graphic presentations (Connors credits Iowa State tech writing course).


Breakthroughs and Problems


1959-- proliferation of tech writing texts. Still, though tech writing to stay in English departments, still reviled. After Sputnik, tech war; shortage of tech writers. STC went through name changes to present-day name. 1960s time of upheaval for tech writing as well as in other areas of US culture. "A sort of critical self-examination and desire to define technical writing itself was an important element of the intellectual effort of technical writing teachers during the early and mid-sixties" (15). Hays essay-- "What is Technical Writing?" (1961) and Britton in 1965 CCC article wrote "the most comprehensive early definition of technical writing" (15)-- defined by "the effort of the author to convey one meaning and only one meaning in what he says" (Britton 45 qtd in Connors 15).


Awakening of interest of process/pedagogy. Empirical research. Experiments/studies as to study of error. Still same old problems. (Read/write or "great literature"). CCCCs workshop of time-- difference in vision. One account hopeful of great literature/humanities. Other voice: recognize such a thing as technical presentation that lit doesn''t teach. Little change in course content, except for the interest in teaching the proposal.


Retrenchment and a New Sense of Identity


Late 60s and early 70s-- drop in undergrads in engineering. Still the sense of ''forced duty'' teaching tech writing. However, growth of committed tech writing professionals who considered tech communication primary interest and expertise. In 1970 Journal of Technical Writing and Communication begins. 1973-- ATTW forms.


In 1974, enrollments begin to once again rise. Demand for lit courses fell; tech writing keeping lit programs afloat. MLA first recognizes tech comm in 1976, when first tech writing panel presented at convention. Connors theorizes that this is due in part to unchanging demand for tech comm specialists in industry.


Tech comm instructors not always rewarded by departments, but during 1970s had crowded classes with students who wanted to be there. Instructors began to earn tenure/promotion based on skills and publications. Moonlighting / consulting in industry. MLA Job List -- more TT positions in tech writing.


Connors argues a rosy outlook for the 1980s. Foresees "that technical communication will be an acceptable field of study for English graduate degrees in many schools by the end of the decade" (17).