The 21st Century developments in technology, integrated national and internal economies, and workforce demographics create the expectation that the workplace will be a space in which workers are actively learning, developing competencies, and acquiring skills throughout the duration of their professional lives. In response to this future, instructors must envision the classroom, the projects, and the assignments differently. As Mehlenbacher emphasizes in Solving Problems in Technical Communication, “Future technical communicators will operate in work contexts where their work is not well defined for them”(193). Instead of easy to solve, easy to think about assignments, projects in the classroom should embody the messiness of the working world. Assignments, according to Johnson-Eilola, must emphasize system thinking or the ability to “recognize and construct relationships and connections in extremely broad, often apparently unrelated domains” (261). System thinking requires more than simple problem-solving, typified by analyzing discrete parts; instead, system thinking requires being able to see not just the parts, but also the sum of the parts or the holistic system view. To create effective communicators, then, we should adopt pedagogy that responds to the changing conditions of the workplace, one that challenges the inherited notions of communication, media, and modes. This approach supports the realization that assignment deliverables should be rhetorically purposeful and are part of a larger whole embedded both in context and situated in community.
The goal of most technical communication courses is to expose the rhetorical situation for students enabling them to focus on appropriate communication solutions. In the classroom, the instructor asks students to communicate purposefully with a defined audience, eliminating the instructor as the primary focus. Typically, one of three popular models is used: client-based, case study, or simulation. In the simulation model, the professor asks students to fictitiously place themselves in a specific context that necessitates communication. In this model, students must presume their level of expertise as the author. In reality, students are undoubtedly novices in the simulation regardless of what the situation actually demands.
To consider this instructive opportunity, I turned to the concept of a Community of Practice (CoP), where the community as a whole attains varying levels of expertise through collaboration and sharing. Wenger defines a CoP as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (1); a CoP is predicated on the three characteristics:
- The domain describes the area expertise around which the community is built.
- The community itself is composed of members whose activities create interaction and enable them to learn from each other.
- The practice is where members “develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice” (2)
Fostering a CoP in the classroom, to develop and inform rhetorical expertise, provides students the opportunity to produce sophisticated technical communication artifacts. Eyman (2), seeking to avail technical communicators of the rich rhetorical spaces created by large games, developed a framework to categorize the communication artifacts that are related to games and gaming practices. With this framework, as well as Mason’s further delineated list of game related artifacts, students have a wealth of artifacts to choose from, each of which could be generated in the classroom and benefit from the improved rhetorical expertise of students (7).
The CoP concept is difficult to implement in a 16 week classroom. The material must be both engaging and deep enough to sustain the curiosity of young minds. Thus a highly engaging game is a good vehicle choice. Modern day video games provide deep, consuming, and engaging experiences and can provide expansive experiences that accommodate the need for building deeper expertise. Playing World of Warcraft — a wildly popular MMORPG replete with quests, specific roles and races that users inhabit, and built-in collaboration activities — easily facilitates these objectives and can sufficiently provide a domain that binds the community together. Through play, students develop a common language based on the shared experiences; uncover, navigate, come to understand, and use the implicit and tacit set of rules and protocols associated with the game; and understand a complex, interconnected system, so that they can effectively articulate and impart specific technical information to an intended audience.
The Classroom of Practice or CloP has a number of advantages due to the shared practices, sustainable discourse, and inherent collaboration. The main disadvantages are due to time constraints for both the students and the instructor. Expertise requires many hours of game play and sharing. However, If the class is effectively taught, students come away with an in-depth understanding of rhetorical principles, which can lead to better problem-solving and system-thinking evident in complex communication situations. Much like workplace communities, a CloP has the potential to create deep bonds and deeply enriching shared learning experiences.Through this model, students are empowered to create sophisticated, workplace-worthy artifacts. Artifacts that are reflective of a deep and careful consideration of the rhetorical situation, but are not typically attainable under other classroom circumstances.
- Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games and Learning (2008): 117–140. Web.
- Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age.” Technical Communication Quarterly 5.3 (1996): 245–270. Print.
- Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart Selber. “Introduction.” Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and S A Selber. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print. Solving Problems in Technical Communication.
- Mehlenbacher, Brad. Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and S A Selber. Kindle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.
- Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge university press, 1991. Print.
- Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: a Brief Introduction.” (2006): n. pag. Print.