Dr. Brian Blackburne begins the fall 2015 semester at Sam Houston State University as a newly promoted Associate Professor in Technical Communication, where he has worked since graduating from the Texts and Technology Program in 2008. In addition to teaching at SHSU, Blackburne has consulted with local and national corporations (e.g., Baker Hughes, Knoll, and Tubular Perforating Manufacturing) on projects ranging from internal process documentation to websites and digital-media films for consumers.
With 15 years of simultaneous experience in the academic and professional fields of technical communication, Blackburne has acquired a wide range of interests, such as web design, usability studies, process documentation, product development, pedagogy, and digital-media production. Similarly, Blackburne’s research spans a broad range, including pedagogy in traditional and online writing courses, the effects of style on everyday documentation, and issues of professionalization in student writing.
Blackburne has presented his scholarship at regional and national conferences, including SCMLA, CPTSC, ATTW, and CCCC. In 2012, he received the award for Departmental Outstanding Online Teaching from the Sam Houston State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and he continues to explore best practices for using digital learning tools in the online and face-to-face classroom. His article, Overcoming Workplace Writing Norms: Empowering Technical-Writing Students Through Stylistic Analysis, was featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Programmatic Perspectives, and a 10-year analysis of students’ e-mail habits, co-authored with Dr. Carroll Ferguson Nardone, is forthcoming.
Blackburne looks forward to spending time on his current research and working with his students on service-learning and client-based writing projects.
What is your current job title and institutional affiliation?
BB: Currently, my title is assistant professor. I’m in the English department at Sam Houston State University, which is about seventy miles north of Houston, Texas. And I’m currently transitioning to associate professor, which will be official on the first of the new semester.
Was this your first position after receiving your doctoral degree?
BB: It was. I interviewed just a couple months after graduating from the T&T program.
When you were first looking for employment after receiving your doctoral degree, was it a challenge to communicate what exactly a degree in Texts and Technology meant?
BB: For me, it wasn’t a challenge because I graduated in late 2008 and the program had been around awhile. Several of the people on my interview committee were not only familiar with the program but they also knew people who had worked in it and had done research, so I didn’t feel like I had a challenge. My background was in the technical communication side of things, and I find that a lot of the people in tech com are well aware of the T&T program. There were a few people who weren’t as familiar, but I would just explain it to them in a pretty straightforward way, that I think played from my experiences of what it was.
What would you say is the most valuable part of having a T&T degree?
BB: I think that the value I took from it was being able to transition from being a practitioner of just producing technical professional documents (which I had a pretty decent background doing that before I came to T&T) to a stronger role in research and academia. I really wanted to start building a theoretical framework and find a research area and start developing an agenda. None of those things were familiar to me when I was looking at joining the program, and those were the things that really developed in the years that I was there.
How did your coursework in Texts and Technology help develop those skills?
BB: The coursework was fun. I miss it on a daily basis. We had such a fantastic environment in those courses. I’m sure it’s still the same. We’ve got these fantastic professors and these students from varied backgrounds and what I really enjoyed about my coursework was that we weren’t from the same areas. We had filmmakers next to historians next to librarians – all these people from different backgrounds who were really concerned with the way that texts and technology kind of functioned together. I think that in the coursework, just being in that kind of salon atmosphere where every day we just filled our heads with all these readings that have been assigned for the week, and just really got to talk and interact about the research and the theories that we were learning, was a great experience.
Now that you’re leading your own classroom, how do you use technology there, and how do you use technology in your research?
BB: Every day in the classroom I always make sure — I have to fight but I always make sure – I get computer-based classrooms so that my students have technology in front of them. I think that that’s important just because of being able to do things. I can watch them work and I can workshop with them. The thing I like about technology in the classroom is that you can be spontaneous. I might just fire up the overhead and we’ll pull up some website that I was looking at the night before, or maybe I’ll show them a really cool wiki that I think I’d like for them to work with, or we’ll watch a video of something. I like having the flexibility of technology in the classroom. I have taught online as well, whether it’s a hybrid course where we’re mediating half and half of the classroom experience online, or whether it’s exclusively online. I think I use it in a lot of the typical traditional ways, and I think that’s the way that it works best for me.
Do you structure your online courses differently from your physical courses because of the technology?
BB: I think you have to. At the same time, there’s always part of me that’s thinking of that meeting two or three times a week during a sixteen-week semester. The traditional classroom is always functioning somewhere in there, and some of the biggest issues I’ve had were trying to figure out ways of mediating traditional aspects of a classroom that I think work really well, like group conversations, small group discussions, and things like that. Sometimes we’ve had technological issues at my university with those. So there is certainly a much different structure to the course for the online version, but I do try to bring in the things that I think really work from the face-to-face.
Can you describe a recent project or publication you have worked on that was particularly exciting or that you are particularly proud of?
BB: Yes, I’ve always got a couple projects going it seems like. The most recent one, and it’s one that actually ties in some of the stuff that I was doing at UCF. Dr. Carol Nardone and I worked together, and conducted a ten-year study of email communication habits that students in technical writing courses were exhibiting when they wrote to their professors. So we had to come up with a coding schema, we had to get blind reviewers in on all these different things (things that I had never been able to do until I was through the T&T program), and set up this really interesting methodology to see, not to quibble over, whether students were writing, literally, different words or using slang or things like that, but to look at rhetorical awareness in the ways that they were approaching their audiences and using the media to their advantage or disadvantage. So we worked on that and that was developed into a pretty lengthy piece that’s now under second review. Hopefully it will be out soon. We found some really interesting stuff from that, and part of the emails that we were looking at were from students when I was teaching in the T&T program, so I was thinking of them when I was going through and trying to fill all this stuff together.
So Texts and Technology definitely shaped your current research agenda?
BB: Absolutely. When I was looking for a Ph.D. program, I really didn’t know what my research agenda was, and I don’t think I really understood what that meant when people were asking me. I found that to be the most intimidating thing – being able to articulate that. And through all the coursework, and all the projects, and funded things that I did outside of school or alongside of my coursework, I really was exposed to what research is and what it can be, and how you can use your own interests and your own experiences and develop those into your agenda. So, absolutely. T&T helped me put all that together.
How do you define “Texts and Technology” to colleagues from outside of the program?
BB: Personally, because it’s what it was for me, I say—if they don’t know—I say it’s technical writing, meets rhetoric, meets media studies or digital media. Because those are the three things that I had experience in or that I’ve now had experience in that are most interesting to me. So that was kind of how I formed my T&T experience, or my personal take on it.
Is there any particular moment from your T&T experience that stands out as an especially memorable (or valuable) moment for you?
BB: There were actually quite a few, but for me one of the most singular ones was the very first semester in my coursework, taking the intro course that for a lot people can be intimidating just because the amount of reading and the theories that we were being introduced to. That was literally the first course that I took, the first semester, the first one that met that week. It was in that course that I stumbled upon a very interesting research topic that I ultimately developed into my dissertation. So, that was something that seemed really enigmatic at the time. How am I ever going to write a dissertation, or find something worth studying, and I did discover it in that course, in that first course, and so it has always stood out. That’s just one.
What was something important you learned outside of the classroom while enrolled in the program?
BB: Absolutely. I know that—I was very privileged to work on some projects that were being funded—NSF projects that were being run out of UCF on a larger scale, such as the Waters Journey through the Everglades project. And some of the T&T faculty were also able to bring in some of the students to help develop things like focus group methodologies, and we actually got to go out to an elementary school and conducted focus groups with these kids just to find out how they viewed an ecological cycle, and what they thought about going to a museum, and what they might want to see in an exhibit. And things like that, even though it felt very classroom-based, it really had nothing to do with the course that I was taking per say. It wasn’t really one of the courses, it was just one of the cool things that you kind of get roped into when you’re working with all these faculty who are doing all these interesting projects on the side.
What would you hope to see from T&T as we aim to continually improve the program?
BB: I think it’s just important to keep building a kind of brand recognition. One of the first questions you asked me is, “Do people have a hard time understanding what T&T is,” and we would always talk about that when I started in 2004, and so we were always asking, “What is Texts and Technology?” Or the professors would ask us, “How are you going to define that,” or, “What does that mean to you?” And, at the time, it seemed more of a question that we were grappling with, and now to me it feels like a really intuitive thing, but I also would expect that some people might not come to that realization as easily, so I think it’s important to keep pushing the name. And I’m glad the program has kept the name, because some programs just change if they think it’s not as recognizable or such a hot brand commodity. Then they’ll just lose it. So I think that’s important, just to keep building that, and to keep cultivating the types of scholars that I’ve seen go through the program: people who are just doing all sorts of things. Not working only in one area or one discipline or writing or rhetoric or media. I think that those are really the key things. I think the program has been doing that, and that’s what I would like to see it keep doing.
What other advice would you give to current Texts and Technology students to help prepare them for their future careers?
BB: I think if a student is currently in the program and reading this, I would say don’t worry about your career right now. Really focus on the program. It’s such a fantastic experience and opportunity that you won’t always have: to be able to walk into these classrooms and sit with such a collegial and like-minded group of people and have the types of conversations that you’re going to have. I think that’s so important because when you get that stuff down, once you’ve understood what you’re doing there and how you’re in this discourse community, creating knowledge amongst yourselves, and you’re adding to your own personal repositories. Then, you can start filling in the gaps in your own personal professional lives. I think there’s this mentality that all students have where they immediately start looking toward the end of the program. What am I going to do when I get out? How much money am I going to make? Where will I get a job? You can never answer those questions. If you could, I don’t think you would be in the program. You would have just gone straight on to it. So I think it’s really important just to absorb the program while you’re in it, and know that opportunities are there, and I think that there are going to be a lot of people interested in the skills that you cultivate for yourselves. Your knowledge.
How can the program better engage with alumni?
BB: I think just continuity in reaching out to people and the ways that you do it. When I first graduated, I saw a lot from UCF and I didn’t see so much from the program. But I’ve really seen that change in the last couple of years. There’s a Facebook page going now. We’re doing things like this. I’ve gone to the Texts and Technology program webpage. Of course, I’m glad to see that it’s been developed over the years, and it’s changed. That’s important. It’s also a way to keep tabs on what people are doing and where people have gone. I think those are all important, because once you get to the alumni phase, once you’re out there working in whatever field or university you would end up at, it’s easy to lose track. It’s not always easy to read that email as soon as it comes in, but having a clear place to go back to, a website to go refer to, a Facebook page to log on to, those are easy ways to just keep going or to maintain the relationship at your own pace, and I think that’s helpful. I think that’s a strength and I’d like to see that keep going. More ways that I know I can go find stuff on T&T. I love getting emails, but sometimes I may not have absorbed everything. So, knowing where I can go find things, that’s important.
What do you see as the future for the field of Texts and Technology?
BB: I think the field is going to keep growing, because, let’s face it, digital media, social media, texts—however you view them — whether they’re film, written words on a page – we’re certainly not going to see any diminished growth in those types of media, and I think it’s just going to keep going. And as people are starting to ask smarter questions—the general public doesn’t just want to know, “What can I do,” but, “Why should I do,” or, “How can I do,” or, “How can I reach people in different ways with these things?” I think society in general is appreciating the ability to parse all of these messages and to make smart decisions, and the T&T program is, from my experience, interested in producing people who are not just able to do that, but who are leading the way in doing that. I think the need is going to be there, and as long as the program is reaching out to the right types of people and getting people interested, it’s just going to keep going. I think it will continue to grow.
Any closing thoughts? Last advice?
BB: Just enjoy yourselves. I went to the T&T website before I ever really started applying to schools. I went and looked at a lot of programs that I was interested in, and there was an immediate chord that was struck between me and Texts and Technology somehow, and so I would say if you’re in the program, you’re in a great place. Stick with it. If you’re looking for a program, this could be a fantastic fit for you, and I think that you should really look at what this program is doing and how it’s differentiating itself from some of the other Ph.D. programs that are out there, that other people might think, “That’s the same thing.” It’s a special thing and I would tell people to really consider it. If you are lucky enough to find yourself roaming the halls of UCF in the T&T program, then by all means soak it up and make the most of this because it’s a once in a lifetime experience.