As a technical communication scholar interested in rhetoric and style, I’m always wrestling with the following question: How do experts in technical fields build (or break) trust as they communicate with public audiences? For example, one of my past projects investigated how scientists earn the trust of jurors when they testify as experts in homicide trials. The most surprising answer I found is that scientists who are experienced at being witnesses (and not just at being scientists) tend to talk openly about how they know what they know and about what they don’t know (Redington, 2017).
One of my current projects investigates what expertise sounds like to engineering students. They know that someday soon, they must write like experts in their field, but many feel their writing must undergo a substantial, mysterious transformation to reach that goal. A university is both the best place and worst place for them to experience this transformation. Why the best? That’s easy: Universities offer engineering writing classes that are fun, useful, and versatile. Why the worst? That’s a little trickier, but researchers from a variety of fields have offered some important clues. Some cognitive psychologists contend that the human brain is ill-suited to learning something new and writing about it well at the same time (Piolat, Olive, & Kellogg, 2005). If you have ever been an engineering student or met one, you know they are asked to learn a lot during college. Engineering students are frequently required to write about what they are learning while they are learning it to show they are learning it. It’s a recipe for trouble. Linguist Susan Conrad has recently published research describing what that trouble looks like: Excessively long sentences, imprecise use of words, and over-reliance on passive voice (Conrad, 2017a, 2017b). In other words, university seems to be bad for their writing. So, Conrad asked them why they wrote this way. Their responses suggested a widely held misconception that if they really want to sound like they know what they are talking about, they should “Make it fancy” (Conrad, 2017a).
I was struck by this response. My current project builds on Conrad’s work by searching for the origins of this misconception. I’m exploring the notion that engineering students can unlearn some of the bad habits we never intended to teach them if we build curriculum that helps them continue to hang on to the good writing practices their university has offered them even while they manage information overload.
Conrad, S. (2017a). A comparison of practitioner and student writing in civil engineering.
Journal of Engineering Education, 106(2), 191-217. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20161
Conrad, S. (2017b). The use of passives and impersonal style in civil engineering writing.
Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 1050651917729864.
Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. T. (2005). Cognitive effort during note taking. Applied
Cognitive Psychology, 19(3), 291-312. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1086
Redington, L. (2017). Methodology on Trial: The Rhetorical Function of Toulminian
Warrants in Expert Testimony. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 47(4),