Note: In May 2021, we interviewed Boise State University's Dr. Jennifer Mallette about the school's M.A. in Technical Communication program. As Boise State University no longer offers this program, this interview has been archived for historical purposes.
About Jennifer Mallette, Ph.D.: Jennifer Mallette is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Master of Arts in Technical Communication program at Boise State University. As Director, Dr. Mallette oversees the mentorship of students in the program while ensuring that the course content stays abreast of the latest and important developments in the technical communication space.
In addition to her roles as Associate Professor and Director of the M.A. in Technical Communication, Dr. Mallette has engaged extensively with the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the American Society for Engineering Education, and the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. Her research explores the pedagogical approaches of engineering programs, the professional identities of female engineers, and how gender impacts experience in the STEM field. Her research has been published in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Engineering Studies, and Communication Design Quarterly.
She received her bachelor of arts in English and Spanish from the University of Central Arkansas, her Master of Arts in English from the University of Arkansas, and her Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arkansas.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Boise State University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication (MATC), and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] A couple of years ago we did a complete overhaul of the curriculum, and one of the things we made sure to focus on was rhetorical theory. And core themes that all of the classes return to are audience and purpose and genre–the idea of how do we appeal to the people for whom we are writing, whether you are writing proposals, recommendation reports, technical documentation, whitepapers, medical instructions, or a scientific research article? Audience is central to many of our rhetoric-focused classes, which include Rhetorical Theory for Workplace Writers and Technical Rhetoric and Applications.
For all of these classes, students are encouraged to take the theories they learn about in class and turn around and see if they have a problem in their workplace setting that they can apply these theories to in order to find a way to better address it. A lot of our students bring in assignments from their workplaces, and that is encouraged because it enables them to practice the skills they’d otherwise only be able to use in a classroom setting to a real context in their own offices. This is really great because it encourages them to think about how they can take theoretical concepts and move them into practice, and to really be thinking about how to communicate ethically and effectively with their users/audience members.
We have a strong focus on ethics, community, and social justice, the idea that we do not have just one idea of an audience member, but rather that we should strive to address everyone’s needs at different levels, whether that is on the level of culture, accessibility, or usability.
We have a Visual Rhetoric class that is very much focused on information design through a rhetorical lens. We also have Technical Editing, which is a required course for the program that many students feel hesitancy around taking, but which is absolutely essential. We recognize that there are a lot of scenarios in which organizations hire you as a technical communication grad and they expect you to edit a piece of scientific writing for them. We want to make sure our students are prepared to take on the editor piece of technical writing, because they will likely be required to do it even if they don’t like it.
In many of our classes, we talk about common genres of scientific writing and the skills that they entail. In my class, for example, I have students complete a proposal and recommendation report in order to practice making really effective arguments for workplace audiences. We want our students to be adept at getting their message across as clearly as possible, and as effectively as possible, and this aim underpins all of our courses, such as our User Experience class, which examines how research can enhance usability and user design.
Those are the five core classes, and once students complete the core they must choose five electives. And this is where the flexibility comes into play. We encourage students to look for courses outside of our program–so if they are interested in anthropology and want to examine and discuss user experience from an anthropological perspective, we encourage them enthusiastically to take courses in that area. We have had a lot of students who are interested in educational technologies. Boise State University has an Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning program that is focused on adult learning and workplace learning situations, or instruction design, and we encourage students to take courses in that program as well. We also offer courses in areas such as Leadership of Writing Teams, Accessibility and Universal Design, Proposal Development, Writing for Social Media and Online Communities, as well as courses that cover some general topics in technical writing and publication including print documentation and content delivery.
There is a lot of flexibility in the classes for students to take the course content and make it relevant to them and their work. When students come from a background of non-profit work or tech or business, they have the opportunity to think about and adapt their assignments to their current or desired industry settings and their education interests and goals.
The demographic of our class cohorts is a great mix, and with that diversity comes great discussions and insights. We have a wide range of ages–we have a handful of students who have come straight from their undergraduate degree, and we also have students who have been out of school for several years.
We also offer a certificate (comprised of the core courses Technical Rhetoric and Applications, Technical Editing, and User Experience, along with two electives of students’ choosing), so students who want to try out our program will sometimes start with the certificate, and then realize they really enjoy and benefit from the coursework and continue on to the full degree. That happens a lot, especially with our students who are employees, because there is a limit to how many classes a non-degree seeking student can take. And the tuition is highly affordable for Boise State employees.
All of our classes are offered at night, and many of them are moving towards online offerings. We have started to incorporate fully online courses as well as hybrid options. A lot of our students are actually Boise State University employees who see the potential for building and enhancing their communication skills to in turn enhance their work experiences and bring them further in their careers. We often have a lot of people coming from a lot of different undergraduate disciplinary backgrounds, who found their way to technical communication and want to advance further in that space.
I’m thinking about my group of students for this cohort, and we have an advising coordinator who is an on-campus employee, someone who works in our research office, and someone who works in our hospital system.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students must complete a portfolio. Could you elaborate on what the portfolio entails, and the process students undergo to complete and present their culminating portfolio of work?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] For the portfolio, students must choose five to seven artifacts, typically from projects they have produced in class, though some students also will use projects from their workplace that demonstrate how they have applied the skills they have learned. Through their portfolio, we want students to tell us the story of their educational experience in the program. What were their goals coming into the program, and what did they get out of the program? What do they feel they are experts in now, and where do they plan to take that knowledge and expertise after graduating?
One of our key outcomes is being able to articulate your expertise as a technical communicator, and the portfolio is an ideal way to elicit that from them. Students have the freedom to choose what pieces to include, though we encourage them to choose from a range of technical communication genres and rhetorical situations to show the breadth of their experience. Students are not required to revise the pieces that they choose to incorporate, but they do have to write a reflection that goes with each of their chosen artifacts. This reflection, though relatively short, should provide context for the project, what the goal was, and their design and writing process. Students should also reflect upon what the strengths and weaknesses of this artifact are, and what were some of the challenges they faced when trying to create it? If they wanted to revise it, what would they change about it?
As communication technologies change so much over the years, a student could have used one type of social media platform or design technology at the beginning of the program to create a project, and in selecting that as part of their portfolio it gives them an opportunity to reflect on how the landscape has changed and what they would do differently. A lot of times our students will choose artifacts from across their timeline in the program, in order to articulate their experience and what they have learned and how they have changed. In addition to these artifacts, students are also required to submit an updated resume that reflects their new experiences and knowledge.
After they submit their portfolio, students are also required to briefly present it to their faculty mentors at the end of their last semester. This presentation is intended to be both an assessment and a celebration of students’ accomplishments. We have found that the act of simply stopping and reflecting on where you’ve been and how you got to where you are now is so powerful. It really helps our students to connect their experiences to our program’s core learning outcomes.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Boise State University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] From the beginning of students’ enrollment, they are assigned a faculty mentor. Each faculty member is actually assigned a small group of students to be their mentees, and this enables students to get a lot of one-on-one attention. These faculty meet with students outside of classes at least once or twice per semester to ensure that students have the opportunity to build those relationships. The faculty who are a part of our program are really student-centered and student-focused, and they think so much and so deeply about student success. It is a point of pride for us in the program, and it is also part of Boise State’s ethos and goal and mission. All of our faculty members have that deep commitment to student success and student learning. I also want to note that for our Teaching Assistants, there is a great deal of structured support for them.
Even though students are assigned a faculty mentor at the beginning, they are also encouraged to connect with all of our faculty members in their classes and to forge other mentoring relationships that can help them in their academic and professional growth. All of our classes are capped at 15 students, and typically classes are between 10 and 15 students so that each student gets the chance to engage in-depth with instructors as well as their peers. I also have a lot of contact with students just by nature of being the Director, so students always have someone to whom they can reach out and receive support and guidance.
I think mentoring is really what makes our program work so well, because students feel like they can really develop and maintain relationships with our faculty members, and these connections last far beyond the program. Our alumni know that they can call on us for recommendations or just to get advice for their careers or even about a particular project or work goal. And on the flip side, many of our alumni are so invested in the community that they will return to talk to our new students and to give them advice.
Another thing I’d like to highlight is how our faculty team really works to create individualized opportunities for our students. As our program is inherently interdisciplinary, we try and connect our graduate students to other departments and resources at Boise State. For example, due to my work with our engineering department, I was able to connect one of our graduate students to one of my engineering collaborators, and our student ended up being able to work over the summer at a paid internship with this engineering faculty member. I was so excited to make that connection, to benefit both parties. It is those kinds of connections that I get really excited about.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Boise State University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] For our application, we require a 1,000 word personal statement, as well as transcripts of all post secondary academic work, a professional resume, and three letters of recommendation. What we look for in applicants is a strong ability to communicate and a desire to learn how to do that better, and how to really understand communication practices and processes. As an application reviewer, I personally tend to be really drawn to students who know they’re not the strongest at something but who are willing to put in the work and devote the time and energy to improving themselves professionally.
In their personal statement, students should talk about their goals and why the program would be a good fit for them. They should also demonstrate an understanding of what it means to be a graduate student in technical communication, and have the foundational communication skills to articulate their goals in such a way that would convince us that they would meet those goals and that our program will help them get there.
For their resume, students should likewise highlight experiences and accomplishments that show they have engaged with technical writing or communication in different ways. This is especially important for students who don’t have an academic background in communication, journalism, technical communication, or English, as it shows us that even though they don’t have the academic background, they have the professional experiences in those areas. For example, one of our current students had a graphic design background, and he had done a lot of professional work in communication at his current job. He was able to bring those experiences to the technical communication program and it was really exciting to watch him develop his writing skills.
The recommendations are very influential. We recommend that students give us a range of recommendations, so a mix of both professional and academic references is welcome. We recognize that students might not fit all of the criteria for our program, but what we are really looking for is potential, and proof that students would be a good fit for our program in terms of their foundational skills and their motivations to study technical communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Boise State University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] Our program is a very student-centered program that enables students to work closely with faculty to pursue their professional and academic goals. Both in the classes and in the one-on-one mentorship contexts, students have direct access to a personalized support system that is dedicated to their success. Another wonderful aspect of our program is how our small classes really offer spaces for students to get to know each other and work with people of different backgrounds and identity groups. And what helps that is the fact that our students tend to really like working with each other, and therefore collaboration and peer-to-peer mentorship and support is something in our program that we are very proud of as well.
During the six years that I have been at Boise State, I have seen our student group grow so much in both skill and capacity. We are seeing these amazing students with fascinating work histories and backgrounds that they are able to bring into the classroom, and when they are all brought into the same space to discuss the result is really productive.
Another thing that makes our program unique is our emphasis of cross-disciplinary collaborations. Sherena Huntsman is one of our faculty members who works in the disability community and is actually working with the state of Idaho to increase disability visibility and support. She actively connects students with those efforts, whereas I am able to connect students to engineering and STEM settings. Our faculty member Roger Munger, also always thinks about ways to connect students to useful resources and opportunities. Additionally, one of our lecturers is our internship coordinator, who connects students to internship and job opportunities. We have these faculty who really care about students and want to help them have a meaningful experience in the program.
Another key strength of the program is that it is set up to work with people’s lives. Students aren’t required to go full-time, and can even take one class at a time if they are very busy. You can make our program work with whatever you are doing outside of the program and there is no pressure to go at any other pace than your own. We actively want students to integrate their work and their technical communication education, so that they can directly apply what they’re learning to their work and to advancing in their role.
Our attentiveness to self-care means that when our students are struggling, our first questions are, “What do you need? How can we make this work for you? How can we best support you?” Our faculty are super attentive to our students and encourage them to think of ways to make the program work for them. We are all about helping each individual student reach the goals that they want to reach, and to work from where they are. People come out of our program feeling really comfortable and confident in their ability to learn and keep growing in the technical communication discipline.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?
[Dr. Jennifer Mallette] Talking with faculty members and making yourself available for their advising and mentoring is key. Transparency and communicativeness are integral to that. If a student comes to me and lets me know that they are having some challenges, and they clearly articulate what it is that they need, I have a ready path to move forward and work with them. So my advice to students is to be willing to talk with your advisor, or really any faculty member in your program whom you see as your mentor.
Graduate programs should be enjoyable, engaging, and fun, and we want students to get the most out of their experience with us. If that means taking fewer classes per term, then that is absolutely encouraged. I always appreciate when students come talk to me and feel empowered to ask for feedback, or support, or simply more time given where they are at and what they are dealing with. We want our students to feel empowered to advocate for themselves and to reach out to faculty to get what they need.
The other piece of advice I would have for students is quite simple–be curious. Ask a lot of questions and just be curious. Sometimes we get students who have worked as editors for many years and they ask to waive the editing class because they believe the class won’t teach them anything. And of course they will not learn anything if they go in with that attitude. I have found that the people who are most successful in our program come in and despite being really well-credentialed and having great work experience they maintain an open spirit of curiosity.
The students I have seen who are the most successful are those who take the time to acknowledge what they appreciate about each other and the interactions they have in the program, whether with faculty or their peers. The students who celebrate the fact that they have more to learn, and who ask a lot of questions and stay open to change are the ones who get the most out of their graduate experience.
Thank you, Dr. Jenn Mallette, for your excellent insight into Boise State University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication program!