College Students Play with Legos for Credit: Meet Professor Carol Johnson

Professor Carol Johnson on Teaching Technical Communication


NJIT Humanities Professor Wins Award for Best Technical Communication Book
Carol S. Johnson, associate professor at NJIT, has won the 2010 National Council of Teachers of English Award for writing the Best Book in Technical or Scientific Communication. Johnson’s book, The Language of Work: Technical Communication at Lukens Steel, 1810-1925, traces the rise of technical communication in American culture.

Professor Carol Johnson’s students play with Legos – in class.  NJIT has an engineering and an architecture school, so many of its students grew up playing with Legos.  But Johnson doesn’t teach engineering or architecture: She teaches technical writing.  So after her students assemble Lego projects, she has them write instructions describing how they did it.  It’s an exercise that challenges students to write clearly and logically -- to solve problems with words.     

Johnson teaches in a computer lab and she mostly doesn’t mind if her students use the computer to multi-task, as long as they listen and do their work.  After all, she maintains, they grew up doing three or four or five things at once.  It’s how they prefer to learn – they do it well, so what’s the use in fighting it?  

Johnson is a teacher-practitioner.  Before coming to teach at NJIT, she worked as a technical writer in the computer industry.  So she knows, from experience, what students need to know about communication after they graduate and begin working.  In her research, Johnson focuses on the history of technical communication.  She’s just finished a book, The Language of Work: Technical Communication at Lukens Steel, the first book of its kind to trace the evolution of technical communication at one company.  In this interview she talks about her teaching, her students and the importance of teaching science and technology students how to communicate well.

Can you explain why your students play with Legos in class?
I know it sounds childish, but it’s anything but. It’s demanding. Just try to make something and then write directions for it – using ALL words and NO pictures. It’s an excellent way to teach them to communicate straight-forward information. I also have them do an assignment that we call the “Found Object Procedure.” The assignment challenges the students to be both creative and analytical: They must make an object from simple household supplies such as paper, cardboard and tape. When they are done with the object, they then write directions describing how to build it.  We test their directions in class and photograph the results.

Do you teach traditionally, or do you make concessions to the so-called iPod generation and use technology in the class?
Personally, I can no longer teach without a computer in front of me – so much of what I need to show them is on the screen.  And, if I have one, it’s only fair that they have one too, so I always teach in a computer lab.  Every student has a computer in front of him or her.  I know they multitask – a euphemism for playing online games or reading email – but they pay attention.  It’s how they learn and I understand that. I also make podcasts that are on iTunes U. – I get their attention one way or another.

Employers say they want to hire students who not only understand their fields, say engineering or computing or business, but also know how to communicate.  So how do you prepare your students to be good communicators?
Every student starts from a different place and I bring them several steps forward.  Some students start at L and I bring them to P; others start at N and I bring them to R.  In reality, improving your communication skills is a lifelong process.  I teach them to be clear, to write for translation, and how to stand up and speak in front of a group, whether they like it or not.

You are teaching future engineers and managers and computer scientists and architects.  What kind of writing or speaking will they be asked to do after they graduate and start working?
Every industry has its own type of writing and every job has its own type of writing as well.  Some jobs will call for graduates to write proposals, requests for proposals and technical specifications.  In other fields they’ll be asked to write standard operating procedures, white papers, change orders and construction specifications.  And then there are always manuals, emails, test reports and patents.  It never ends.  Everyone needs to write and communicate clearly these days, and if they can’t do that they can’t get good jobs.

NJIT is one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the nation.  So how do you teach a class of students from such diverse backgrounds?
Many of them come from globe-hopping families.  They grew up with parents who have moved from country to country for better economic opportunities.  I have students from Africa, India, East Asia, South America, as well from around New Jersey and even a few from Europe. There’s no majority anymore. At the beginning of the semester, nobody in the class knows each other.  Through group work, the interviewing assignment (where they interview and write about each other), and oral presentations, we get to know each other extremely well.

Many of them speak many languages, then.
They are linguistically diverse.  Some of them have three or four or even five languages.  That’s why we focus on writing with simplicity and for translation.  That’s why we use visual communication and give three or four oral presentations every semester.  It’s a rich environment for all of us and I know the students appreciate it as much as I do – they tell me – especially the Americans.  It’s like traveling around the world without having to leave home.

This generation of college students is constantly communicating – what with email and IMs and blogs and chats.  Has that helped or hurt their writing?  Do your students write well?
NJIT students ARE good writers.  Students who come here are focused and know how to work.  Engineering students often think that they are not good writers, but it’s not true – they’re easier to teach than liberal arts students.  They are logical and follow directions.

Regarding whether IMs and blogs have helped or hurt writing, I can’t say.  I do remember, however, that when VCR movies were first available there were those who said it was the end of movie theaters; and when the internet took off, there were those that said book stores would close.  The opposite has happened.  That may end up being the case here, too.

You’ve just written a book about the history of technical communications.  Can you discuss what you learned about technical communications --how it changes over time -- and what students can do to stay abreast? 
I did something that has never been done before – I looked at all the technical communication within a single company across two centuries. Thus, I was able to see how it changed.  There was a time when writing was relatively unimportant – and definitely unimportant to workers in the factories. Then it all changed. The tipping point in the company I studied, Lukens Steel, was at the turn of the 19th century, when detailed record keeping became essential and workers started to write.  Around 1910, however, a new worker, the stenographer-typist, took over responsibility for written technical communication. Later the stenographer-typist was called a secretary – another term that many of my students wouldn’t understand today. 

If there was one thing you wanted to tell your students, what would it be?
Technical communication is important – all communication is important.  It makes the difference between being isolated in a Dilbert cubicle or traveling the world and having a corner office; the more you write and speak, the better you’ll be, so there’s only one rule – never stop learning, never stop trying.  NJIIT grads have the potential to design energy efficient cars, rebuild our infrastructure, design new medical devices and help solve global warming.  But if they can’t communicate their ideas to their superiors at work, those technologies will never take off.  That’s why we place so much emphasis on technical communications at NJIT. We want our graduates to not only come up with new ideas, but communicate in such a way that their ideas become the technologies of the 21st century. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)