About James Campbell, Ph.D.: James Campbell is the Director of Graduate Programs for the Department of English at the University of Central Florida (UCF). As Director, he oversees UCF’s graduate programs in English, which include MA tracks in Technical Communication and Literary, Cultural and Textual Studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches courses in British and Irish literature, queer theory, and science fiction. Dr. Campbell earned a PhD from the University of Notre Dame and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program, and how it is structured? What core topics are covered in the curriculum, and what are some major themes of the classes offered in this program?
[Dr. Campbell] The program strives for a balance between rhetorical theory and nuts and bolts approaches to tech writing as a practice. There is a core of five classes that covers research skills, editing skills, rhetorical theory, foundations of technical writing, and production and publication methods. Students also take five electives, which is where they can specialize in theory, practice, or a combination of both. True specialization is possible with the thesis, which is a large part of why we’ve chosen to make it optional: students can control how much specialization they want, and they are not forced to write a thesis just for the sake of finishing the degree. Those who choose the thesis do so out of a desire for specialization and independent work, which results in much better final projects than pro forma efforts.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program is offered completely online. Could you elaborate on the online learning technologies this program uses to facilitate interactions between students and faculty, as well as students with their peers?
[Dr. Campbell] Over the past decade, the Technical Communication MA has transitioned from a fully face-to-face to a fully online MA program. We thus have roots in the traditional classroom, but we’re able to reach a much broader swathe of people with the online modality. We still maintain small, 10-15 person classes just as we did in the f2f days.
Primarily, we use the Instructure Canvas system for online classes. Most of our faculty concentrate on asynchronous learning since that’s largely what students value in online education. Occasional synchronous sessions are fairly usual, but they largely consist of smaller groups and not the whole class at once. Faculty regularly hold online office hours.
Project groups are a regular part of the technical communication classes. We require a certain amount of independent work for each class, but our faculty realize that project groups are a professional reality for many tech writers, so we begin teaching students about the necessity of good teamwork as soon as we can.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program can choose between a master’s thesis, a final project, and additional coursework. Could you elaborate on these three options, and what each entails?
[Dr. Campbell] We have three culminating options: thesis, project, and additional coursework. As mentioned above, the thesis is where a true claim to specialization can be made, but not all students necessarily want that. The thesis process is fairly involved and traditionally academic: there is a committee consisting of a chair and two readers, a proposal, and a formal defense that may now take place over Skype.
The project is a less academic, more professional alternative to the thesis. The committee structure is the same, but the work itself is usually a professional product rather than a research monograph. In many cases, students who are already working as tech writers use the project to produce a deliverable for both their employers and for academic credit. Because it’s not a formal thesis, we have a lot more flexibility over the form it can take. We’ve had people write manuals, design web sites, and provide real-world documentation that gets used outside of our department.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?
[Dr. Campbell] Our graduate class sizes are kept sufficiently small that our faculty are able to get to know students individually. Faculty are able to make their own professional contacts work for our graduate students.
UCF as a whole has been committed to online education for a long time, relatively speaking, so we’ve had time to set up a strong support system for online students. UCF Career Services, for instance, has a number of online workshops and a virtual career center. Other units in the institution, such as financial aid, accessibility services, and the University Writing Center, also have a lot of experience with online students.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in technical communication, and what are some standout aspects of the program that you would like students to know about?
[Dr. Campbell] The uniqueness of our program lies primarily in its placement in an English Department. Within the track itself, I think this is the source of our desire to balance the practical/professional and the theoretical/academic elements. We have great respect for both the practice of technical writing and its connections to philosophical questions about knowledge production, ethics, and politics. It is possible for students to complete the program efficiently by taking only technical communication classes, but they also have the option to participate in courses in our Literary, Cultural and Textual Studies track as well as, to an extent, our creative writing MFA. Moreover, our students regularly take classes in UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric. All of these programs also allow students to take face-to-face seminars as supplements to their online technical communication course work.
Central Florida has attracted a good number of tech companies over the last few decades, which helps our students immensely. We have students interning at Lockheed Martin and Siemens, for instance, as well as getting permanent jobs at these and other companies, including Disney.
We have a student club called Future Technical Communicators (FTC) that has been in operation since 2003. While this group has done many things such as hold on-campus workshops in tools and technologies and business skills, and, in years past, taken a yearly trip to the STC (Society of Technical Communication) conference paid for in part by student government funds, the most enduring and successful element of the club is our mentoring program where we pair students up with the local STC chapter. There is no cost to join FTC. To be in the mentoring program, an FTC member has to be a STC student-member, and this cost ranges from 50 to 70 dollars.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Campbell] First, don’t count yourself out of the program just because you do not have an undergraduate degree in English, let alone in Technical Communication. About half of the applicants we accept in any given year are not English majors. Our faculty are used to receiving applications from people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and having a student body with varied interests and strengths is something we want to cultivate.
Like most graduate programs, we require a personal statement and this can be a difficult genre to work in. My general advice is to build a narrative: tell us where you have been, where you want to go, and how an advanced degree in technical communication fits in to that trajectory. More specifically, let us know that you have done sufficient research into the field of technical communication to know what you’re getting into and how you hope to benefit from the program. The majority of our unsuccessful applications fail because they are too generic: applicants don’t show how technical communication specifically is going to help them get from where they are to where they want to be.
As far as letters of recommendation go, we receive a wide variety. If an applicant is fresh out of undergrad, recent professors are the logical choice. Employer letters can also be helpful if they can address writing ability. It also helps if at least one reference has an advanced degree and can thus speak to the applicant’s ability to complete a master’s program successfully. When you get down to it, that’s what we want from recommendations: assurance that we are not setting up a student for failure when we admit them.
Thank you, Dr. Campbell, for your excellent insight into the University of Central Florida’s Master of Arts in English – Technical Communication program!