Embedded Technical Communication Instruction: Understanding High-Context Writing in a Pre-Professional Engineering Program

Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Krista Kennedy


composition, context, engineering, genre, rhetoric

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


The requirement for engineering students to enter their professions with appropriate technical communication competencies has been well-documented (Connors, 1982; Winsor, 1990; Connor, 1991; Adams, 1993; Vest, Long and Anderson, 1996; Conrad, Dusicka and Pfeiffer, 2010; Sulcas and English, 2010; Steiner, 2011; Desjardins, Dore and Chasse, 2012). Highly contextualized technical communication instruction has been shown to allow engineering programs to meet the communication requirements and practices of their students’ future professions (Dudley, 1971; Gwiasda, 1984; Engle, 1989; Freiermuth, 2003; Flammia, 2005; Davis, 2010; Gale, Pitula, and Radhakrishnan, 2010).

High-context technical communication instruction places student writers in design and development environments where they produce artifacts for readers who have real information needs (Cook and Mings, 2005; Paretti, 2006). In this project, I explore how high-context instruction shapes the quality of pre-professional student writing. Additionally, I analyze how rhetorical genre awareness and the quality of student writing are shaped by higher degrees of contextualized instruction.

Chapter One: Addressing the Technical Communication Requirements of the Modern Engineer

In this chapter, I claim that engineers working in design and development environments function as technical communicators engaged in information design activities. I begin with a brief history of technical and engineering writing instruction to identify the ways in which the academy has responded to the evolving communication requirements of professional engineers. I propose that before engineers can improve their technical communication skills, they must first learn how to value the textual and graphical artifacts they produce during design. I then describe how a specific type of undergraduate technical writing course was created at Syracuse University to address some of the issues noted above, and how the course has evolved to address a broader set of engineering communication requirements.

Chapter Two: Situating High-Context Technical Communication

In this chapter, I present a framework of instructional practices and strategies to describe how highly contextualized technical communication instruction exposes pre-professional engineers to the rhetorical, social, and compositional requirements of their work. I use the framework as a bridge between my central claim and the data presented and discussed in Chapter 4. I present and discuss examples of technical communication instruction that move students through disciplinary theories and practices in multiple rhetorical and social contexts for presenting themselves as writers, communicators, and engineers. I also review alternative arguments within Rhetoric, Composition, and Technical Communication that counterclaim the value of contextualized instruction.

Chapter Three: Methods and Rationale

In this chapter, I describe my research method and rationale for coding and analyzing document structures, and instances and types of rhetorical movements, grammatical choices, and mechanical decisions that pre-professional engineers make in specific engineering design deliverables. I then describe my data set and my decisions to select specific design artifacts for coding and analysis.

Chapter Four: Results and Analysis

In this chapter, I present and analyze the results of my coding activities, and then move to a broader discussion of the results. I frame my discussion with the claims and cited literature in Chapter 2, specifically prior research that demonstrates the active role of context and genre in improving knowledge of specialized discourse communities. This literature, coupled with the results and subsequent analysis, support my central claim that embedded technical communication instruction provides useful spaces in which to replicate social and rhetorical contexts for repeatable practice with specialized genres.

Chapter Five: Interpretation and Recommendations

In this chapter, I interpret the results of the coding project within the framework of the various descriptions of contextualized technical communication instruction presented in Chapter 2. My interpretation is significantly influenced by the current version of WRT 401/402 (detailed in Appendix A) and how the course serves as an example of highly contextualized, genre-centric technical communication instruction. My data and subsequent analysis indicate that improvements in quality are realized only at the statement level when the engineering activity is performed as a writing act. Upon these findings I recommend an approach for updating an undergraduate engineering curriculum with a range of genre-centric contextualized instructional options.


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