Historically Blackberry has hired English’s people; this time, the process was happily reversed when Dr. Megan Selinger agreed to join our department. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have gained a colleague who not only has professional expertise as a technical writer, but also boasts significant experience teaching Communications to STEM and Business students. She has impressed us all, and I have no doubt her students will be equally enthusiastic. However, you don’t necessarily have to take her course to benefit from her wisdom: read on to find out what she has to say about dangerous apps, overcoming a dislike of writing, and more!
JLH: Has your teaching been influenced by your practical experience as a technical writer in industry?
MS: One of the first lessons that I learned as a technical writer was to consider my audience: how are they receiving the information I am trying to provide? Can they parse my language, follow my instructions, and understand the data I am attempting to pass on? How can I write cleaner, clearer, and more concisely?
I’ve continued to ask myself these questions for every communication – and that includes in my lectures. When teaching, I look to the needs of my audience – of my students – to best assess what format I should use, what tone and word choice I need to employ, and, most of all, what method best ensures that I can provide an enriching and entertaining classroom experience.
That’s not to say my more practical tech-writing side doesn’t, on occasion, clash with my more stylistic writing – especially when I’m writing for presentations or to produce particular effect, but I always ensure that the needs of my audience are met before throwing in a dash of alliteration or a hint of humour. It was a hard lesson to teach myself that alliteration doesn’t innately improve interaction. (A lesson I’m clearly still learning.)
JLH: You’ve been teaching a lot of writing and communication courses: what do you think is the most rewarding part of these classes for you?
MS: Teaching any course is rewarding; you gain the opportunity to see students engaging with material and ideas that are new to them. But I would say that writing courses provide an additional benefit as they can change the very structure of a student’s way of communicating. That is, my course could positively improve every future communication a student has. The students write with more confidence; they present material in a manner that is well-structured and sound. Most importantly, once the student can be sure they are communicating effectively, they become more adept at developing their own personal voice and style in order to enhance their writing and presentations. Even requests for assignment extensions are far clearer near the end of the term than they were in those first few weeks. I have to say, it’s a lot harder to turn down requests using the correct format.
JLH: Do you have advice for students who think “I can’t write” or “I don’t like to write”?
MS: I’ve found that most students have only been taught one method of brainstorming, one method of writing essays, and one method of editing. These methods may work wonderfully for students who benefit from those particular learning styles, but they work against students whose main strength resides in a different learning style.
My advice is to first attempt to get over the general fear of writing and “blank page paralysis”. Write 100 words a day – every day – even when you aren’t actively working on an assignment. Train yourself to translate thoughts into language and language into narrative.
Second, try a ton of new brainstorming techniques. Use traditional cluster or word association, but also consider apps like Written Kitten – which rewards you for your writing (http://writtenkitten.co/) – or The Most Dangerous Writing App – which uses the “punishment” side of the reward/punishment dichotomy to ensure you don’t stop writing. (https://www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com/)
Above all, remember that writing is just like everything else. It requires practice, training, and continual learning to keep your communication skills sharp and focused.
JLH: Finally, I generally close on a book question: what was your favorite book (or two!) of the last year?
MS: Late last year, I finally tackled Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It had been on my “to read” list for a number of years, but I was glad I waited until after I submitted my dissertation. Danielewski’s book references many of the texts that I read for my courses, field study, or research. It gives the book that extra bit of uncanniness when you remember a text that is referenced in the footnotes (or even footnoted in the footnotes), remember the section of that text that is being referenced, and yet you’re fairly sure that the quote itself is fictional. But not quite sure. (And as you get further and further in the book, you become less and less sure.)
I’ve also been reading through Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Once I’m finished, I’ll finally be able to watch the movie version of Annihilation. I’ve always felt the need to read the source material before tackling a text’s adaptation, which can create quite a backlog of TV shows and movies. (One day I’ll finally watch The Shining.)