Curious about the future of technical communication in the rapidly evolving AI landscape? Today's episode with our talented guest, Ryan Boettger, a distinguished professor and department chair at the University of North Texas, promises to enlighten you. Ryan is a ‘prompt engineer,’ someone who acts as the valuable link between AI and humans. From his unique perspective informed by a rich background in linguistics and technical communication, Ryan brings you the latest on how socio-linguistics can inform research and curriculum related to AI.
We discuss the value and challenges of Technical Communication as a standalone department. Ryan shares candid insights on the struggle technical communicators face to be recognized within traditional humanities and other fields, like product management, engineering, and user experience. He sheds light on funding challenges that often put Technical Communication departments on the chopping block during layoffs. But, it's not all gloom and doom. Ryan’s passion for ensuring technical communicators are prepared with relevant AI skills sparks hope for the future.
Join us for this enlightening discussion with Ryan Boetger that will surely transform your understanding of the technical communication field and its relationship with AI!
Ryan Boettger is a professor and department chair of Technical Communication. He received his Ph.D. and MA in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University and a graduate certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from Pennsylvania State University.
His NSF-funded research focuses on content analysis, data-driven learning, English for Specific Purposes, and STEM education.
He is the former editor of the Wiley/IEEE Press book series on Professional Engineering Communication and the former deputy editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. He’s an active consultant and a Gallup-certified Strengths Coach.
Show notes generated by AI and curated by me.
Hello listeners, welcome to Inside Techcom with your host, zohra Madhubana, in season 4, i hope to bring to you different perspectives and interests that intersect with our field. Let's get started. Hello folks, welcome to yet another episode of Inside Techcom with Zohra Madhubana. Today I have a very interesting guest who comes from the world of academia. His name is Ryan Bedkar. He is the professor and department chair in the Department of Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. Hey, ryan, welcome to my show.Ryan :
Thank you for the invitation. I'm really happy to be here.Zohra :
Yes, and I'm equally happy and excited to have you on my show and to kind of dig into how academia is thinking about AI and what we can do - the corporate world, academia, and everybody else, all the other stakeholders together. But before that, welcome to my show and share a bit about yourself.Ryan :
I'm one of those rare species in that I actually have three degrees in technical communication. I have a bachelor's degree in techcom from UT San Antonio from 2002, when nobody really knew what a tech, nobody was having techcom degrees. Most of my majors now, who I oversee, often stumble into our degree as well because they're starting in, usually in English. I'm going to then find us. I actually started out in journalism and that's how I found techcom. In addition to getting a really solid nuts and bolts education in techcom, i was very fortunate to get a solid foundation in linguistics. In fact, two of my mentors were both sociolinguists. They looked at large language models and how people actually speak and write versus what textbooks tell them to do. As you can see, my eventual enthusiasm of AI started way back when I was an undergrad. It was actually those mentors that prompted me to go into graduate school. I did my masters and my PhD at Texas Tech And then, just by happenstance, stayed in Texas, ended up at University of North Texas, where I've been for about 16 years, and I am now the department chair. We're a standalone department of technical communication, which is very rare. There's about a handful of standalone techcom departments. It gives us a visibility and a voice that we wouldn't otherwise if we were consolidated in with another department.Zohra :
Thank you for that amazing background. I mean amazingly accomplished. And you bring a very, very perspective to this field, in my opinion, with your linguistics and rhetoric and technical communication. I think we will sort of do a little bit of deep dive into that, because I'm curious. I've taken linguistics way back when I did my graduate studies at Northeastern but I somehow, of course, I didn't go deep dive into really understanding the impact of linguistics on AI. So I would be curious to learn from you What have you gained from that education and background and the mentors that had that impact on that influenced you to do linguistics. So you know what? Why don't we just dive right into that actually?Ryan :
Okay. So first of all, just like technical communicators, there's a whole bunch of different types of linguists. Of course there's the theoretical side and then there's the applied side, and I naturally fell on the more applied side. But I think two of the things that I can say that stand out the most to me is having a solid understanding of the structures of the English language. I diagrammed sentences and loved it. As we're moving into the world of AI, if you don't know how to prompt the AI, if you don't have the terminology, if you don't understand structures, if you don't know what makes something persuasive, you're not going to get the output that you want. It's kind of a garbage in, garbage out model. So I think just having a understanding of language and usage gives me the terminology that I can be to be a more effective what I call prompt engineer, somebody who kind of acts as that specialist between the AI and the human. The other thing that I really gathered, of course, from linguistics is what we call language and use. Especially in higher ed and in the classroom, we are often teaching concepts that are completely abstract from the quote, unquote, real world. That, of course, is the complete antithesis of what technical writing and technical communication is. In fact, we often have to break our students of a lot of the bad writing habits that they got in high school and college because the type of writing that they did these reflective essay writing or the five paragraph essays on a controversial issue, hiring manager, a manager is never going to ask you to do those things in the workplace. With that type of writing comes a whole host of preferences for writing, for speaking to audiences, that aren't necessarily relevant at all to how we communicate in the workplace, something that you know socio or what we call corpus linguistics, which is looking at gobs of text and looking and finding quantitative and qualitative patterns about what common usage patterns exist and how people naturally use language. That has not only informed my research over the past two decades, but it speaks directly to why I am so excited about AI, why I consider myself an AI enthusiast and why I'm really leading my department into being the forerunners of offering a curriculum that includes AI, so that my students have marketable skills. These are the next generation of technical communicators and I want to make sure that they're prepared and that they stay employed in the field that they get their degree in.Zohra :
You presented a webinar to the North Texas Lone Star chapter and that's where I was introduced to prompt engineering through your webinar. So thank you for that and I have, honestly, very intentionally used, I guess, the principles of prompt engineering that I've learned back in school. You talk about persuasive writing and how you need to be persuasive in your prompt engineering, in your prompts. I've intentionally tried that and I definitely see a qualitative difference before and after. So there was before the webinar and then after the webinar. But can you give some examples of what you think is a persuasive prompt, just for my audience as an example?Ryan :
Yeah, it might help if I kind of backtrack a little bit and talk about what I mean by what a prompt engineer is. It's not my term, but it is what I perceive as a professional or somebody who specializes in crafting clear and concise and effective prompts to be used in an AI system or language modeling system, and the primary role is to guide the AI to create an accurate and a contextually appropriate response. And that comes from iteration, from designing and refining prompts based on what the desired output is, and that prompt engineer is really somebody that bridges the gap between the human users and also the AI tools, which creates a more seamless collaboration. And I give that definition because to me it sounds an awful lot like a technical communicator, and part of the reason why I want to introduce this term to the field is because this is the next job, i believe, of what a technical communicator should do, because it really encompasses everything that we've been trained to do And, as you've already kind of begin to suggest, and what I love about it is that it swings us back to the fundamentals of what tech writing is. It's clear and concise communication which takes us back to the structure of the language. What makes something persuasive rhetoric. That's what the field was founded on And sometimes, you know, as we've grown and expanded, we've gotten away from that, but I love that. What AI is doing is it's bringing us back to that in a very different and current way. In terms of your questions about what makes a good prompt, it really is an iterative process and in its experimenting and trying or whatnot, i have a general methodology that I call a do what, how, do, being giving the AI some command, verb create, write, read, and then what. What is exactly what it you want them to do? Read my policy and procedure, create a bad news memo regarding the change in sick leave, and then the how often is the way that you want the information presented, or perhaps in the style that you want. So again, if we're writing bad news or we're delivering bad news, you know, maybe we want a semi detached, legitimate use of passive voice, maybe we don't want an actor in the sentence because we don't want to implicate a particular person. And again, you know, knowing the terminology and knowing the rhetorical elements that go into that, is where the how takes place, one of the things that I'm sure we'll talk about later on, but come up in the how part of the prompt is. A legitimate ethical question that people are facing is do you want to write this in the style of Ryan Bettaker, for example? And you know eventually if you're a known figure and there is enough information about you on the internet. The way that a lot of these models are where they're at is because of web scraping And you know your information was on there Disinvites. A really legitimate ethical question is does Zora want to create policies and procedures in the, in the voice or in the style of Ryan Bettaker? Generally, i say you don't want to use a specific person or a specific title. I think you need to think about not only the ethicality of that but the legality of that. I know perhaps this issue is going to be more prominent in people that write fiction. So, for example, if you're writing a thriller, maybe don't prompt the AI to write in the style of James Patterson, because if we do get into the plagiarism and the ethical issues and whatnot, you want to think about what your prompts are going to say to a court of law If you can show legitimately that you know these are the prompts. This was the process, this was the iteration. That's one thing, but if you say I wanted to write a policy and procedure in the voice of Ryan Bettaker and you're not Ryan Bettaker, you want to think about what that's going to do. So there are ethical issues involved in this And this is why I think it's so important to know language, structure, rhetorical elements, because if you know those concepts, that's not plagiarism, that's not an ethical issue. It's, you know, what makes something persuasive, so you can take it and distill it down to those parts.Zohra :
Wow, the do what and the how. I think it's like a formula that you can follow. And then you bring up the whole ethicality of prompt engineering, which, as a technical writer, it's something that I think about every time I write. Plagiarism is front and center I'm giving credit, but I did not think about ethicality in the prompts that I put into AI. So that's a good reminder. I think for all of us that as we start talking about ethicality, we start paying attention to how are we asking AI for information? Good one, and yes, i do intend to do sort of somebody dive into what you think about ethicality in AI, maybe a few questions away, but again, before we get there. You talked about UNT having probably one of the few departments of TechCom in the US, one of the five. Is that right?Ryan :
Yeah, and in fact I was thinking about that earlier this morning, i can only come up with two more, so we may be one of three. So I mean, it's literally a handful.Zohra :
Yeah, a handful, which is actually sad because when I went to Northeastern in the early 2000s, technical communication did not have its own department at all. It was part of the Department of English And I know that it's TechCom has its roots in rhetoric, but that has sort of also this is my opinion has sort of been detrimental to our field because of funding like a funding. We are working with engineers, we are working with technical, technical subject matter experts, but unfortunately we are housed in a department that is not well funded. What are your thoughts about that?Ryan :
I have many, i have many. It's a wonderful question And it's a very broad question. You're absolutely right. I mean, historically, techcom broke out of English and primarily moved into rhetoric at the detriment of linguistics. In fact, linguistics was a subfield that TechCom specifically shunned because it was seen as too prescriptivist. That was unfortunate, because I think that the things that we talked about, the things that spoke to us from a linguistics level, that was the applied side of linguistics. It wasn't the language and isolation aspect of the field. Yes, historically, techcom programs have been shoved in with English departments And they're not only just English departments but I would say that they are traditional literature based English departments. And truthfully, i know a lot of people, administrators included, don't really understand the difference. But literature couldn't be more opposite of what we do as technical writers and technical communicators. The concept of an English department has always puzzled me because it really is a concoction of linguistics creative writing, it can be TechCom, it can be rhetoric, it can be literature, sometimes it can be world languages And really it's just a silo for humanity stuff. And historically that's how things have come And as a result of being in a larger department like that, you're always fighting for resources And, in addition, techcom has a messaging problem. We have an image problem in the sense that for a long time nobody knew what TechCom was in high school. It was kind of a pejorative, because it was what the vocational learners were doing, the ones that are like making really good money as plumbers and whatnot right now because they have a trade and they have a skill, but they learn this type of writing. It was also what the scientists were doing And we have quite a few science majors who did STEM education programs in high school and didn't actually know what they'd been doing all that time was technical writing. So everyone knows what English is. That's just kind of something that happens And that's why we have that kind of. There's good and bad about not being part of an English department, but I would say I would not probably be having this conversation with you today if I was part of a traditional English based department, just because there's so many other variables involved. On the other side of that. You know we have You're right, we're training engineers And in fact Mercer is one of the only institutions that I thought about that has a standalone TechCom program and they're in a college of engineering. But with engineers, you also have a very different relationship with those individuals as well, because those are engineers, they're not trained in rhetoric and professional communication And historically, techcom is often seen as the servants or the subordinates. There's these constant dynamic issues that you have. I am very fortunate because, as I expressed, i have three degrees in TechCom and I went into a department of TechCom and most of that was just dumb luck And I am so grateful for that, because I do not think I would function in a department of English. I certainly would not be chair, because that particular department would not necessarily value somebody with my background leading their department, because I'm not passionate about literature.Zohra :
I think I couldn't have explained that better. You gave us a little bit of historical context of why technical communication was part of the English department and it really is like the broader humanities. And But coming back to the now for you, you are actually heading the Department of Technical Communication, which I think is fantastic. That, i think, keeps our profession front and center And probably it helps you. You talked about funding, the lack of funding. Being a standalone department on your own two feet, you probably have more, i'm guessing, and please correct me here, but probably because it's own department, technical communication, is probably better funded at UNT.Ryan :
Yes and no. We're a small department which has its good and its bad, and one of the reasons that we remain as small as we are is for a number of reasons, and it goes back to the messaging issue that I had in that most of our we have very small pool of majors, especially compared to English, because by the time our majors find us, we call them major changers because nobody comes to major in techcom. They start in, myself included, all the way back to 1998. I came to do X and then I took a technical writing course and I took it early enough that I had time to pivot and shift A lot of these kids, especially some of our engineers or our visual arts students that make tremendous technical communicators. They wait until their junior or senior year to take our intro to tech writing course because the concept of tech writing is scary to them and they want to save it until the end of their degree. And then they take it and they're like why didn't I know about this before? And my question is yes, why didn't you know about this before? So we certainly don't lack for resources in terms of. We're a very technology rich department. You know, i'm able to send my faculty on quite a few conferences to present their research but also to learn, and I don't just mean academic conferences but industry conferences like CONFAB, the content strategy conference, where they can bring this knowledge not only into their classroom but into their research as well. But we remain, especially compared to English, a very small minnow in the giant pond And we have to function very differently as a department because there aren't as many of us. And also, content-wise, we're very, very different from the traditional humanities. English history And I often joke that we're the one of these things is not like the other And that can be challenging And it's a professional problem for technical communicators, but it's also a problem for us academics is continually articulating our value, what it is that we do and what it is that we bring to the table, to the point sometimes where I think we do ourselves a disservice because it often sounds like we're just complaining or we're constantly trying to say what we're not. I get that. I get both sides of that issue. So there's goods and bads. And in terms of the funding, you know my people. I try to give them what they need. Our students certainly have what they need to be successful, but we're still working within our very small parameters and our very small undergraduate program.Zohra :
I was thinking that the whole reason why I'm doing this podcast, Ryan, is to kind of elevate our profession and put it in the spotlight that it deserves. It's very unfortunate to hear that we have to fight for resources and that we have to constantly show the value that we bring. And having been part of engineering at some companies, you know in my past, I have definitely run into the experience that you talk about. Where we are at the receiving end of the engineering department. We are an afterthought. They need us. There have been so many cases where, if there was a legal case, the first thing that they did was they came to us. The lawyers came to us for information. They're like hey, pull up everything that you have about the product. Nobody had any information. But guess who gets a brunt of it if the product doesn't do well, It's the technical communicators, because the documentation is bad.Ryan :
Yeah, to add to that too. I mean, we're often the first ones fired. In fact, there have been two companies in the Metroplex that have laid off a swarm of technical communicators. So this is is a real thing And it's something that we've we've really not quite tackled, to be honest, as a profession, both on the professional side and in the academic side.Zohra :
Definitely, and I think when we talk about value, it's something that I still struggle with, even with my podcast. I did a whole series in my season three where we talk about the value technical communication brings to other domains, if I may say so, for example, product management, engineering, i would even say UX, you know, if you look at user experience, i mean it's part of what we do. But if I were to give credit to UX as a broader field we're working with, but just overall, it seems like we do definitely bring a lot of value. It's just that we are not good at marketing ourselves.Ryan :
And which is ironic, isn't? it Because our whole job is to market somebody else, but yeah, yeah, And we talk about rhetoric and persuasive writing.Zohra :
Is it the training that we receive? You know, we talk about UX writing. we talk about content strategy. Content strategy exactly All these are. I think, if I'm at the liberty of say so, they all originate information, architecture. All these kind of originate from technical communication, but they've branched out. They have somehow lost that that touch with the grounding, with technical writing, and I feel like should we just abandon technical communication as a label and maybe adopt something more cooler? I don't know. I'm just looking for answers here myself because I feel like we are over time. Our numbers are dwindling It's not that we are dwindling in reality, because we are branching out into all these exotic, cool fields. So I think it's really probably time that we start thinking more about should we really continue to call ourselves technical communicators or call something else which is more relevant with the times?Ryan :
Well, and I think that that's one of the points there is, that just challenge about technical writing in general is because it's an everyday thing, it's an implicit thing, and people think, if they can write a shopping list or they can tell somebody how to get into a parking garage, well, i'm a writer. What do you do? technical writer? Like, that's not a real thing, i can write. So I think that is in and of itself and we can't change that. That's part of what it is. The other thing, too, to go back to what you were saying about your training, you know, to an extent. I don't know, are we doing students a disservice? because technical writing really should be invisible When it's done correctly, the user has completed the task that he or she was set out to do. You know, you don't really hear people go hot dog, that was a great coffee manual. No, they have their cup of coffee and they're out the door doing the tasks that they were supposed to do, and that's the whole role of a technical writer. So we're invisible, or good ones are anyways, and we only really hear about it when it's bad. So you know, when Facebook is putting all these really poor grammar, you know billboards and stuff as little jokes about you know what people have put, or a church bulletin with a typo in it or something like that is we draw attention to it negatively, so I definitely think there's a perception and a stigma thing. In other ways too. You know we do ourselves no favor. It's been documented and been tried and tested that the technical communicators, in particular in industry, are not involved enough in the entire content cycle or the project process. They usually come in at the end and, let's be frank, by the time they come in it's just shining and buffing and polishing. It's not contributing ideas and brainstorming and iteration. It's not, you know, part of that. That's where user experience came in, because, truthfully, they weren't getting what they needed out of technical communication. And to your point, you know we were technical writers forever And nothing sounds less sexy than being a technical writer. So I get this rebranding with user experience, with content strategy. Content strategy is the one that I'm most interested in, because a lot of these individuals that are doing content strategy have master's degrees in tech comp, but they don't call themselves technical communicators, they're calling themselves content strategists. They have their own conferences, they have their own professional organizations and they're doing their own things. You know, look at this plain language movement, which is another thing that I mean. If you have plain language training, you join that with AI and prompt engineering, i mean you will have a job for life because you have the methodology of plain language. But the plain language organization, those were monthly meetings where people got together and advocated plain language. It turned into a professional organization. They became a 501c3 and now they're working with the government to create standards to bring clear and concise language to medical and legal and government fields. You look at T-Com over in Europe. It has almost 10,000 members. Meanwhile we don't have those people coming to our national conferences. In fact I think that the most recent summit of our professional organization had maybe 300 people. You can blame economy, you can blame other variables out there, but professional organizations in general have often struggled with what to give in terms of value and how to attract people. A lot of them never recovered as far back as when the World Wide Web came up, because it used to be that professional organizations were a place where a group of people could come and learn the craft and exchange ideas. And then the World Wide Web came up and everybody could do it. And then we started getting these books blank for dummies or the idiot's guide to blank, and you just throw in technical writing. It plays into that stigma that I have already talked about that everybody can do it there's no art to it But in turn, it's not that the professional organizations have the infrastructure to mobilize and to do that. I don't see that as much in the United States, and to the point where I will say is I'm not really a member of most of my professional organizations anymore because there are other things that I want to invest in And, especially with this topic of AI, i'm not seeing much of anything coming out of our professional organizations in terms of standards, things that technical communicators should be concerned about. In fact, all I'm hearing is a lot of fear and not a lot of solutions, and personally, that's not a group of people or a mentality that I don't thrive. Off of that, i guess I should say.Zohra :
Yeah, and I think fear is valid. But then how do we address that fear? How do we overcome that? I think those hard discussions need to happen. We can't kind of brush this fear under the rug and forget about it, and I completely agree that that discussion is not happening within our professional organizations.Ryan :
I think in theory, professional organizations continue to have a lot of value to offer people, but the messaging is going to have to change, And I know that it's possible because look at what the STC did when they got the technical writer added to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They got us classified in there. It was a huge achievement for technical writers. I mean, it brought validity and value We've been talking about that, you know directly to the field, So they have that ability to do that. But we've talked about user experience. It's not so much that those individuals abandoned us, but they weren't getting what they wanted or they needed from their professional organizations, So they went off, they found somewhere else and they formed their own community. This is happening with content strategy too. This is happening with plain language, And so what's happening is all of these different silos that are technically under the umbrella of technical communication are showing up, but nobody is associating those fields with technical communication. Ai is a perfect opportunity for professional organizations to get in on something that is current, that is on the lips and tongues of everybody in the country. You know we are never going to get another opportunity where we can say, oh, I'm a technical communicator and I work with AI or I do prompt engineering, And people go, oh cool, We will never, at least in my professional career, ever have an opportunity like that again. So this is the time. Unfortunately, like you've said, you know, historically it's often easier to not have the conversations and brush everything under the rug. Ai, you can't do that. It's becoming possible, It's going to happen, It's happening whether you like it or not, And it's not just a drip drip of information. I mean every day. It's like drinking out of a fire hose And I don't see that changing for the foreseeable future. I think things will stabilize, But if you don't have a consistent message now, if you're not working to reskill people or to show them the skills that they already have and how they can apply it, if you're not opening your doors up to the next generation of technical communicators who will have to know these things or they will not be employable, regardless of what your opinion of AI is, that's not doing them a disservice. And so you know, it's very likely that AI could separate off too. I mean, it doesn't belong to us, It doesn't really belong to any field, But prompt engineer in particular. That should be the job my students get. I want my majors to be prompt engineers with a BS in technical communication, And so there are things we can do, of course, at the academic side, but there are things that have to happen at a much broader level, And that's where professional organizations that's why they're there, That's what they need to be doing. I asked a colleague of mine because she attended the summit and I said you know what's the temperature there? And she said yeah, I mean, people are talking about it, but it's fear. And, to your point, when nobody is acknowledging it and nobody is talking about it, that fear just feeds and fear turns into paranoia, turns into anger. Fact constructive certainly doesn't help us And I'm sure this will pop up very soon whether it's through the STC or somewhere else.Zohra :
But a summit on AI and technical communication where people are mobilizing and talking about these types of things, And I think that is the need of the hour that discussion needs to happen, where all the think tanks, the thought leaders within our profession, within our field, need to come together and start talking about it. There are some things that we cannot control right The pace at which AI has impacted our lives already But there are things that we can do to catch up. I mean, i don't want to play catch up, i want to stay ahead of the curve, but what are some innovative ways? like you talk about prompt engineers being at the forefront, you want your students to be the prompt engineers that get the job. I love the fact that we are kind of picking apart the problem with our professional organizations that are not addressing it. Unfortunately, given the time limitations of my podcast, i want to kind of come back to this. What can we do as individuals? I honestly Arayan, i feel, with the way the professional organization is dwindling. The numbers are dwindling. Those members are going to drift away from these professional organizations to other organizations or launch something off on their own to see, because information is available for free now. Another problem that I see is the membership fees that are expected of us. The summit fees is also keeping people away.Ryan :
It's balanced out with what you get in return, and that again speaks to the value problem.Zohra :
Exactly exactly, and I think that value is not being sold to me. That's exactly the point. So these are problems that unfortunately really require a very detailed discussion And, i'm sad to say, i am not confident that the professional organization will survive for too long. Especially with the summit numbers you gave me, i'm really, really concerned. But at the same time, you look at Ride the Dog, you look at the Madcap Flare Convention that happens for technical communicators. There's a lot of energy, there's a lot of innovation that is happening. So there are other platforms where this discussion is happening And I just feel that a professional organization that currently has an authoritative position is just going to lose that. And there are other platforms that are just going to take and run.Ryan :
Yeah, i think you're exactly right. I mean, and I think historically, i mean it's not really hypothesizing that this is going to happen. We've seen it, we've seen it with UX, we've seen it with content strategy. It's logical for us to be coming to these conclusions, though I hope that it doesn't. But we grapple with this at the scholarly or the research end of technical communication because so much focus has now gone into social issues impacting technical communication. Not to say that these things aren't relevant and important, but there was already a disconnect between technical communication academics and technical communication professionals And there was always this kind of give and take about the research that we did and how we disseminated that to practitioners so that they could improve their products and their processes. Well, now it's becoming so disparate that you could pick up a technical communication journal and no practitioner is going to look at the scan, that table of contents and go, oh, that's something that's going to help me do my job better. And so, from the academic side, i find not. In my department we have a fantastic group of empirical scholars who are focused on workplace communication, but in other departments, you know, i'm seeing tech com ironically going by the side of English, where it just becomes this theoretical academic department in name but doesn't have any applied or applicable focus. But to your point about solutions, which I think is a good one, we have all the tools, as technical communicators, to navigate and to lead in this world of AI, and I think the thing that we haven't talked about yet, that I want to make sure that I mention, is, with all of these cool tools and with all of this fun output that we have and all of the new things that are coming out, it's still a computer And we are humans And we are innate storytellers as a species, and technical communicators are storytellers. That is what we do. We take a lot of data, we take a lot of technical information and we tell a story with it, and I think that in this new age, this technological revolution that we are in right now leaning in or doubling down to being human is going to become really important. I saw a list of recent in demand skills And it's interesting to me that gone are these designations of hard skills and soft skills, because we were always the lightweight soft skills. Now it's about things like empathy and problem solving and critical thinking, because we have technology now and we will. That's going to take care of a lot of this automation and this efficiency stuff, but it's never going to be human, it's never going to be able to tell a story, and that is what a technical communicator can do. So I really see if somebody can really embrace how to use the technology but bringing out the narrative you know in a customer story, or understanding rhetorical principles and foundations so that they can tell a compelling story, that is going to be what differentiates your content from your competitors. Content because you know, just sheer volume of content is never going to stop. So there's going to have to be something that tracks people's attention, and I really find that being human is going to be what it does. And I think we all experience that with the pandemic. I mean, even those of us that would classify ourselves as more introverted, we're still craving some type of human connection that, truthfully, zoom wasn't fulfilling. People couldn't wait to get out of their houses or get into places, and I think we have experience with that And, in some ways, having the pandemic, i think, has set us up to approach working with AI much more humanely and much more ethically, because we have had that experience, we know what it's like to be without that, and so we can draw from that with using these AI tools, so being human doubling down. I think that's a huge opportunity for technical communicators to tell their story, to tell their customer story.Zohra :
You absolutely make a fantastic point there. With the challenges that we have talked, where the academia is not sort of, there's this disconnect between the corporate world, the professional organization and academia. What is academia doing with all the discussions that are happening at the moment with ethicality, with responsible use of AI? What is your department doing to address that? Is anything happening there in that space?Ryan :
There's certainly things happening in my space that we're doing right now. I actually formed a research cluster in early fall of three other researchers in my department to explore AI And specifically, we were looking at it as an editor's tool, going all the way back to conceptual or developmental editing, all the way down to using chat, essentially to do proofreading using Chicago Manual of Style, and how that worked. We were exploring this and then, come October and chat came out and the whole thing blew off the top, so to speak, and that completely changed the trajectory. So in some ways, we were ahead of the curve, though I still worry that we're way behind in that we now have courses specifically focused on AI for technical communicators that we have gotten passed through. We have two. We are also, as a faculty, working on an AI acknowledgement statement, because we're techno-optimists in my department, and by that I mean we know that these tools are out there and we know, truthfully, that not only are students going to use them, but they're going to be using them in the workplace. Having said that, there are responsible or ethical ways to use those tools, and one of them is to acknowledge just in the way that you would cite a source if you used a tool to gather information This is, i think, particularly important for technical communicators who have confidential client information or have to sign NDAs You can't just necessarily feed that data into chat. You know you've got to be thinking about how to use these tools, and so, as a department, we are crafting an AI acknowledgement statement that's going to look at AI not only from a writing perspective and an editing perspective, but brainstorming and inception, ideation, design, production, and it will go in all of our syllabi And it's not going to ban AI. I think that that tends to be the overcorrection that we're going to see in higher ed. I'm not surprised, but I am dismayed at some of these organizations, these educational companies that are now adding quote unquote AI detectors to their plagiarism detector. For the record, at this point there is no 100% confident AI detector out there And I don't know that there ever will be, and as these models get better, it's going to be harder and harder to quote unquote detect that something that is AI written. In fact, some of these educational companies are releasing models based on GPT-3. Well, we're already. If you're using the free version of chat, you're using GPT-3.5. And if you're on the pro plan, you're using four And chat. Gpt is not the only language modeling system out there. There are others and there will continue to be others And there's not going to be one tool that's going to catch up with that. And so I'm concerned that in higher ed there are going to be some reckless decisions where people are accused of using AI, and I think that there's still an ethical gray area, that that doesn't make it plagiarism And it doesn't necessarily make it academic dishonesty. But if you accuse the wrong kid, it's going to lead to some interesting legal battles And I think we're going to see those, and it's not going to just be in higher ed. We're seeing that in the music industry, we're seeing that in the art industry in terms of how these things are done. These things will be fought out in court. I just don't want to be the cautionary tale, so to speak, from the academic side, and so part of our reason that the faculty are coming out with this AI acknowledgement statement is that we need to be mindful of this. We're not only training our students how to use them, but we also need to be mindful about what that means and how that impacts their work and think before we accuse or go off on something. So I hope we're taking a more measured approach. I'm hearing, not necessarily in my institution, but in other places, where they're they're overcorrecting, which is what higher ed always does. Their instant thing is to ban something. Ironically, in higher ed is to censor something. But those individuals, truthfully, they will lose in the end, but not without pain.Zohra :
Yeah, it makes sense.Ryan :
I think this is why it's so important to have conversations like you and I are having now, why I just think it's so great that you're devoting your season to this theme, because on LinkedIn, for example, i'm seeing technical writers come out and say I will never use AI. I signed a non-disclosure agreement that all work would be my own. And da, da, da, da, da. And it's like well, do you use Spellchecker? Because Microsoft has had AI and it's Spellchecker all the way back to 2016. So, in part, chances are you're using AI and you don't even know it. And then it turns into this nuance discussion of well, i'll use AI here, but I won't use it here, and if you use it here, you're wrong, and we are getting into that area right now. I think it's just part of the process, but I think education is going to be key And, honestly, it's being much more critical about the people that you let in your ear, so to speak, because there's got a lot of opinions and there's going to be a lot of fake news, so to speak. And you need to be very critical about who you listen to, where you get information from, and then try to limit it to just that, because it is impossible, even for an AI enthusiast like me, to absorb the amount of innovation and change that is coming on a daily basis. It's just too much.Zohra :
It is too much. I mean honestly. I've been subscribed to several newsletters. I'm starting to unsubscribe because there's burnout. I'm feeling this AI tool burnout. I cannot keep up. I think at one point in our discussion you mentioned that there's this pace at which AI has transformed our lives is going to kind of that pace is going to slow down with regulation and the whole ethicality of its impact on our lives As those discussions, i think, gain traction. The tools will come and go, but the impact of how we use AI responsibly is going to be much more long lasting into our future. What I'm really happy about, ryan, is to hear that your department, you and your team are kind of at the forefront where there is this critical thinking that is happening And hopefully the students that are going to graduate out of the program, you know, with AI being included in the curriculum, they will also become critical thinkers, thinking about bias, thinking about ethicality, thinking about responsible AI use. I think that is what is going to determine our future, not whether we are going to be relevant or not.Ryan :
It's a completely different way of teaching, and it's a completely different way of learning because it's drawing on skill sets. The reason that I started this research cluster focused on editing is because I'm foreseeing that it's the editing skills that are going to have to be really enhanced because, i'll be perfectly frank with you, a lot of the jobs that my less than stellar majors get right off the bat is SEO writing, article writing. I'm sorry to say that chat GPT can replace those students already and truthfully better, with less error, because chat GPT is pretty good at writing grammatical sentences that don't require a lot of editing and proofreading, but it's quite generic. There's no specificity, there's certainly no attention to audience or awareness in there, and that's where the editing skills come into place, and so it's a completely different way of working, and I think one of the things that we're all going to find myself included is that our processes for creating is going to be completely changed because there are certain factors that are going to be automated to us, so we lose the process that led that, but at the same time, we're going to have to draw from different skill sets, like critical thinking, editing, those types of things in maybe ways that weren't part of our wheelhouse or part of our muscle that just needs to be strengthened a little bit more. And so when I say it's a completely different way of learning and teaching, it's a completely different way of learning and teaching. I think tech com, honestly, is going to be fine in this kind of prism of higher ed. I think it's these mega sections of history and sociology and political science that teach these. You know 500 to 700 kids in a lecture hall. You know what. You can get that information from chat and you can control the AI to be a better language tutor and disseminate the information in a way that's going to get you the comprehension that you need much more efficiently. It's those types of traditional lecture based methods that need to be worried. It's the boutique style of teaching that we do with you know 20, maybe 30 students teaching them how to do something versus just teaching them about something, and in the end, in higher ed, i think that's what's going to come down to.Zohra :
Very interesting. You know there have been concerns about lack of diversity and inclusivity in AI development and implementation. How can academia and the corporate world work together, in your opinion, to address these challenges and ensure this fairness in AI Customs?Ryan :
Those are all very legitimate concerns because most of these language models so like GPT. This data was scraped from the Internet from up till about 2001,. I think was when the data set 2021. 21,. I'm sorry, 2021. And it's not so much that the language model is, as some people have said, inherently racist or not inclusive. That was the data that was out there And, as a corpus linguist, i can tell you that I grapple oftentimes with collecting diverse texts from students, because when you are part of a minority, there's less data available and large language models like large amounts of data, and when they don't have a huge data set or corpus to pull from, you're not included. So what needs to be happening is there needs to be more of a focus on finding these populations, collecting their data, inventorying it, attaching it to metadata and then using that to get into those systems. But that's the only way that that's going to happen, and until there is more of a concerted effort to seek out these populations, we're not necessarily going to have that reflected Now. The good news is I think this is another opportunity for technical communication is that a lot of organizations can create their own language modeling systems. That's what's coming down the pipeline. Amazon is starting to do that, and if you know how to code with Python, you can create your own scripts that are only going to help your own processes but can be done in-house. So if you're an organization and you know who your client base are and you have hundreds and hundreds of documents that speak to that client base, you create your own language model, you train your own language model that in some ways gets rid of this NDA, ethical issue, legal issue, because you're all still doing it in-house. Again, that's another skill for technical communicators is skill up. Learn some Python. You know, i remember in 1998, 1999, where I learned how to hard code HTML and there was this new fangle thing called CSS that we all had to learn And we had to learn how to do it in a text editor because it gave us more control than these WYSIWYG programs like FrontPage. And you know, i was a hard coding dinosaur for a long time. And I see that same thing with AI. If you can learn how to create your own language models, if you can learn how to you know script and code with Python, you have that control And you can create these site-specific data sets that you can use And by proxy, you can tailor that to your organization, to your companies, to your population's needs, rather than relying on these vast language models where these other voices and these other populations, just statistically, are going to get more drowned out.Zohra :
From everything that we've touched upon so far, this is one thing that gives me optimism that there is hope for us, and I think you absolutely hit the skills, the exact skills, the precise skills that technical communicators need to be thinking about. That's learning how to code simple Python. Use these tools to your advantage, to teach you how to do that, of course, and then how to leverage it. It's not about whether you can code or not, but how do you put that to fair use, right And to hopefully elevate your value and to be relevant in your profession, because you really will not. I mean, you will be contributing to that data set as well, so think about it. How do you want the AI tools that are being built in-house? What sort of language models are being used or being developed the proprietary language models and what can you do to influence those? I think the conversation needs to move to that space, rather than us living in fear.Ryan :
Yeah, i'm very optimistic about all of this, truthfully, and I know my department and I know our students, our majors. They're going to be the better of it. In a sick, strange way, it benefits us more that the rest of the world might be against this stuff, because that just means my majors have the skillsets to do it. They're going to be the ones that get the jobs. Of course, that's not what I want, but my point is is that this stuff isn't going away And it goes back to a book that I read that was way before AI but was very much touching on. This is Kevin Kelly's book The Inevitable. It's here And, honestly, in two years' time, people are going to go back and listen to this podcast and go. Why were they so worried about this stuff at the time? Because it's going to become so invisible, because it's going to become so part of our work life. You know, just looking at what Microsoft has done with CoPilot, you're going to have AI and PowerPoint in Word and Excel And you're not even going to know when it's going to be in the background And, ironically, that's what's going to happen is there's going to be all of this bubbling up. It's not going to be able to be stopped. So it's, it's harnessing the moment, and we are in this moment. I tell my faculty I think we've got about two years to just really hold on to this AI and do stuff with it and write its coattails, because after those two years' time it's just going to be like yeah, it's, it's AI. The gush of information will stop because it will become so part of our everyday life that it will be hard to disentangle where the AI ends and begins.Zohra :
That is an amazing perspective, ryan. You know, i think in my head somewhere probably, i've been thinking along the same lines, but now that you've said it aloud, it's like you're writing that wave right now And things are going to settle And then it's just going to be invisible. It's good, and you will not even realize it. You got sucked into it And you've been, you've learned how to swim And you will not even. You know, it'll just be another tool. I think my previous episode. I interviewed a colleague of mine And he says that it's just going to be another tool that's going to be running on your machine And you will be using a lot of your existing skill sets in different ways. And that is where you need to put your thought, not oh my God, i'm going to be out of a job, but more like, oh my God, this is a great opportunity for me to really really push myself and write this wave and come out of it.Ryan :
But it's recognizing that you have the skills, but you're going to have to learn them differently, yes, and then learning again to articulate the value of what it is that you do. And so, like I said, everybody who's in the field right now has this opportunity to ride this same wave. I didn't create this wave, i'm just taking advantage of it. But everybody that wants to get involved has this opportunity, and this is your probably last and best chance within your working career to have a moment like this where you can go. I'm a technical communicator, these are my skills, i know plain language, i understand rhetorical devices, i can code with Python, i can be your prompt engineer And that a hiring manager from a completely different field goes Oh, i know what you do, you're hired. It's not stomping our foot, saying I won't respect. It's saying these are the skills I have. And you can directly see the relevance to what's changing right now in terms of how this will benefit you and your organization.Zohra :
Yeah, I think the way we talk about a profession rather than oh my God, I need value, but more like these are the skills I bring And therefore I bring value, that's great advice, and we have been at this amazing conversation for the past hour And I had all these set specific questions, but we just covered all of that organically at this point This has been a very I guess sort of that moment of nirvana for me where I'm just being enlightened Because I'm reading all about tools and I'm like, oh, how do I use it? And I'm just getting lost in that noise. And this was that moment for me to take a step back and really think ahead, rather than just be overwhelmed by what's happening with this whole AI noise.Ryan :
I think if we can think about processes and skill sets, those are never going to change. The do what, how methodology that I gave. We're now entering a stage, for example, where you can write mega prompts. You can write 2,000 word prompts right now. So think about that from a corporate perspective, in that I want it in short sentences. you know no more than 15 words. I want you to use simpler jargon like put instead of place. These are type of plain language standards. But imagine being able to write all of that out, being able to save that You know it's a different type of style sheet and being able to generate content with those types of things. So those skill sets are never going to change. They're going to expand. But the tools all these tools are, they're just skins. You know, most of what we're seeing right now is running off of one type of language model, GPT. There's another company called Anthropic out there that has Claude, which is a great system. So there's going to be a marketplace out there, a competitive marketplace, where all these different language models are going to come out. There's going to be some language models that speak directly to what you were saying about different populations. that may be more relevant. But all of these tools that you're seeing, they're just fancy skins for essentially the same model. But if you know how to prompt, if you know how to code, if you know rhetorical devices in plain language, you can do this by yourself with a simple chat model. You don't need all of this stuff. And what we're seeing right now, what I'm seeing in higher ed, it's capitalism. It's just people trying to profit off of these things. But if we focus on skills which, by proxy, give us value, that's where I think technical communicators come out ahead.Zohra :
Yeah, And the reality is that are like all of the professions, we have to evolve with the times And sometimes I feel like, for whatever reason, technical communicators are the last ones to evolve. You know just my personal experience and that's not going to help us. But there are jobs that are going to go away, but they're evolving. There will be new jobs where you can stay relevant based on just what you've shared with us. I think we've covered a good amount of ground here. Anything like last minute that comes to your mind that you want to add, Ryan.Ryan :
No, i mean. What I will say to your last point is that if people think back and do their research, we've been down this road before And I always like to kind of think about. When photography became a skill and an art, nobody liked it. Everybody says it's going to put the painters out of business. Everybody was going to lose their job. Well, do we now consider photography not an art form? I don't know that any people do because it's settled. Did people lose jobs? Yes, but those were the people that chose not to innovate or just were so far along in their career that they were just like eh, i'm done, there's no reason for me to do that. We're seeing the same thing here. Are people going to lose their jobs? Yep, but it's getting a different job or getting a new job That's really going to be imperative in terms of do you recognize that you're going to have to reskill and that you can't just keep doing things in the way that you did? And I think to your other point is yeah, i mean, maybe some technical communicators have a complacency issue, but that doesn't mean that you do, because, honestly, that if you can recognize that in other people, it just makes you more competitive for the next job that comes around And there will be more jobs and there'll be better jobs, but they're going to be higher skilled jobs.Zohra :
Yes, absolutely. It's like a pencil. You have to sharpen it. It goes blunt with time.Ryan :
And that's exactly. I think we are in that moment, right now. Yeah so the reskilling, upskilling, all that is happening right now. It's just you're being tested and complacency is not going to take you anywhere, And being an ostrich is not going to take you anywhere. On that note, Ryan, what a fantastic discussion this has been. I have walked away with just a reminder to myself that I need to be upskilling and reskilling and thinking about how do I innovate so that I can be around for the next 20 years.Ryan :
Yeah, me too. I mean, i kind of feel like I'm in the second act of my three act career and I'm learning Python over the summer. I mean I'm we practice what we preach here in the Department of Technical Communication and we've got to keep up on these things in order to teach our students how to do it.Zohra :
So, on that note, thank you so much, Ryan.Ryan :
It was a pleasure talking to you today, thank you, thank you, it was great.Zohra :
Most welcome. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite app, such as Google, Apple or Spotify. For the latest on my show, follow me on LinkedIn or visit me at www. insidetechcom. show. Catch you on another episode.