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A Q&A with Jason Swarts, Part 1

July 10, 2018

Join us for a Q&A with Jason Swarts about his work in technical communication, a field experiencing robust growth.

We're excited to share a new Q&A format here on the University Press of Colorado blog. These Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today, as we talk with Jason Swarts, professor of technical communication.

Why did you decide to work in this field?

A combination of experiences led me to the field of technical communication. I have always been interested in writing, but early on those interests were mostly focused on creative outlets. I dabbled, but mostly out of personal enjoyment. I never had any aspirations to continue in creative writing and looking back at some of those early creative efforts is truly cringe-inspiring.

One formative experience that led me to technical communication was my first serious professional job. I worked in a civil engineering and architecture firm where I was very much involved in writing and revising bid proposals. The experience impressed upon me how people rely on texts to communicate across disciplines but also to bring about material changes in the world. I became interested in what might seem like the mundane genres of writing and the serious work they do in supporting cognition and coordination.

The second formative experience was working with Cheryl Geisler at Rensselaer Polytechnic. She helped me focus my interests through the lenses of rhetoric, literacy, and human-computer interaction research.

What outcomes do you hope will spring from your research?

There are some short-term and long-term outcomes that I have in mind. Regarding my current research on user forums and user-generated content, my short-term aim is to work with companies that support active user communities and help them recognize the kind of knowledge that users are generating in those communities. The companies and I both want to see how that user-generated content can be utilized and preserved, and we want to see how that content can feed back into the development cycles of different products. So, the short-term goal is to help build a sense of the value of user-generated content and to discuss how technical communicators can and should work with users to make their contributions valuable.

In the longer term, I want to continue working with user-generated content and forums but contextualize that activity as part of a broader knowledge creation process by which companies and user bases are creating conceptual and procedural knowledge around a product but also how divisions within a company create knowledge about their products and how companies create knowledge about their products. My aim is to both talk about this broader knowledge production system (as a system of distributed controls) and then work out how to manage the system and its component subsystems. Part of that work will be figuring out how technical communicators can work with computers (e.g., natural language processors) as true collaborators in a knowledge-creation enterprise.

In your opinion, what is the best book or article from your field from the last three years, and why?

It is so hard to choose one book or article, but I’ll answer by noting some people who have been producing some really important and engaging research in the past three years (and earlier). On the topic of genre and genre assemblages, the use of texts to move people to action and to structure and support complex and on information-centric work practices generally, I find work from Sarah Read (Portland State) and Brian McNely (University of Kentucky) to be indispensable. On theoretical work helping move the field of technical communication toward a better understanding of networks, assemblages, and the possibilities of non-symbolic persuasion, Nathaniel Rivers (Saint Louis University). On the subject of new literacies and competencies in the field and the relationship between the academic and industry sides of the field, Rebekka Andersen (UC Davis) and Tatiana Batova (Arizona State) are must-reads.

Is there a book by someone else in your field that you wish you’d written?

I wish that I had written Network, but Clay Spinuzzi wrote it first and with more insight that I probably would have. To say that his book has been influential on how I think about collaboration, coordination, and knowledge work would be an understatement. But what I admire about the book more than anything is the depth of research, the engaging writing style, and the unassuming tone.

If you could organize a panel at 4Cs with guaranteed attendance of everyone you would want to be there, what would the subject of the discussion be?

This might just be a reflection of where my current interests are, but I would love to participate on a panel about emergent technologies and emergent/distributed communities of practice that build up around those technologies. I’d probably want Ehren Pflugfelder, Jo Mackieweicz, and Jordan Frith to join me on the panel because they are interesting people who have done some remarkable and important work in the area. And to make things fun, I’d love to have Stafford Beer as a respondent because there are resonances in this work with some of the mind-blowing research on organic control systems in cybernetics research that the field has yet to explore.

Favorite field/research anecdote?

Research for me is often a solitary process, so I suppose there aren’t too many opportunities for anecdotes about the process. However, there was a time, early in my research career when I was doing research at a veterinary hospital. I was studying the implementation of handheld computers for staff and students throughout the hospital and I was on a rotation with radiologists. I was making field notes while listening in on a conversation between a staff radiologist and a veterinary student who was on the rotation. The conversation started off with a review of patients and a discussion of issues. Most of the discussion was about dogs and cats that were coming in for CT scans and the like. Conversation then steered onto a topic that was apparently a continuation of something from earlier in the day. The student asked, “Did they remove the horn already?” and I tried to imagine what in the world they were talking about. The radiologist responded, “Yeah, and it still weighs 250 pounds.” My mind was racing and it wasn’t until later that I discovered that this was a plan to run a CT scan on a deceased rhinoceros, whose head was too big with the horn attached to fit in the CT scanner.

The second part of our Q&A with Jason Swarts will post next Tuesday, July 17.

Jason Swarts is professor of English at North Carolina State University, specializing in the field of technical communication. He is a core faculty member in NC State’s MS program in Technical and Scientific Communication and in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media PhD program. His work has received numerous awards, including the 2009 NCTE Award for Best Book in Technical or Scientific Communication, and he is the author of Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain: User Support in the Wild and the Role of Technical Communication.

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