Where Is Our Field Going? A Book Highlight

Deborah C. Andrews is Professor of English, Emerita, and former director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. She has published several articles, book chapters, and textbooks on business, professional, and technical communication, especially in an international context. These include Technical Communication in the Global Community and Management Communication: A Guide. A researcher, consultant, and speaker, she is the former editor of Business Communication Quarterly. More recently, she has integrated her communications interests with research in material culture studies. She coordinated and edited an anthology, Shopping: A Material Culture Perspective, based on a colloquium series. Her latest research project, from which she has derived several articles and two book chapters, is a broad study of how the physical environment and digital affordances of a workplace foster or constrain the collaborative communication assumed to help solve messy problems and inspire innovation in the 21st Century. That research grounds the new textbook.

Sushil: We thank you for making time to talk to the Bulletin about your new book. Our business and professional communication readers will appreciate your insights into our field as it stands at this moment. Could we then begin with a description from you about where our field is at this time?

Deborah: You mention “business and professional communication” as our field. The addition of the term professional looks beyond what we’ve called for years a business communication course or, more arguably, the discipline of business communication. This expansion is reflected, too, in the recent title change for ABC’s journal of pedagogy: Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. The new textbook integrates the concept of professional communication within the broad discipline of technical communication, something we discussed at length with our editors. Professional communication is becoming a larger umbrella concept embracing both technical and business as new forms of work blend these more established perspectives. In my work across borders of disciplines, I like to think in terms of workplace communication.

Sushil: Now, could you talk a bit about how your book project came about?

Deborah: I published the second edition of a textbook, Technical Communication in the Global Community, in 2001, and after a few years, moved on to other projects. The opportunity to take another look came in an out-of-the-blue email message I received in early 2018. A grad student I didn’t know who ran across the book in her dissertation research urged me to revise and republish. She asked if she could make a pitch to publishers, and I thought: why not? When eventually Routledge expressed interest, she realized she couldn’t co-author a revision with me because she needed to get back to her dissertation. I took it from there and signed a contract with Routledge in March 2020, just when my part of the US locked down. Jason Tham, an assistant professor at Texas Tech, joined me as co-author in September 2020.

Sushil: How would you situate this book in the broader landscape of business, professional, and technical communication? Why this book at this time?

Deborah. I like the term “landscape,” because it suggests the kind of connections among these fields, as it were, that I mentioned earlier. Traditionally, technical communication encompasses the work done by those in what we now call the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math (including computer science). I started my teaching and research career in that tradition. But along the way, it seemed natural to expand my scope to include business interests more broadly, especially because of changes in the environment of work. Those changes responded in particular to emerging technologies and the growth of technology-oriented businesses.

To over-simplify, technical communication textbooks tend to focus on managing technical and scientific information to solve problems, transforming the results rhetorically into content for delivery to diverse audiences. Business and management textbooks focus more on managing people. They center on the rhetorical activities engaged in by managers, entrepreneurs, and others to make decisions and carry out the functions of an organization or enterprise. That’s the big picture. But as the definition of work shifts, the boundary lines among disciplines are blurring, leading to the emergence of professional communication as a convenient term linked with both business and technical.

Why now? My workplace research intrigued me as I tried to understand these interconnections between technology and business, especially in the mobile, digital workplace of a creative global economy. The opportunity to revise the 2001 textbook provided a new focus for the research, that is, turning the research, addressed to colleagues, into theoretically-based, practical advice for students. The pandemic of 2020 upended many assumptions about how, when, and where we work. Writing during this period challenged us to take a fresh look at the 2001 text with this emerging new definition of work in mind.

Sushil: Could we now discuss the approach, or approaches, this work adopts? How would you describe the significance of the choices you made in this regard to our field at this time?  

Deborah: In rereading the second edition, I became aware of how thoroughly one broad concept, design, was embedded in it. A major theme in revising was making the concept of design, and recent developments in design thinking, more explicit. As a mindset and practice, design thinking became the framework for teaching students to be agile, adaptable communicators who thrive in this changing environment. In case your readers aren’t familiar with design thinking: to simplify, it is commonly discussed as occurring in five recursive phases: empathizing (understanding what others need, even if they can’t articulate that need); defining the problem or opportunity, often by engaging a new technology; ideating, that is, generating a wide range of possible solutions or opportunities; prototyping—a major feature as new technologies allow for the rapid and cheap fabrication of models and mockups; testing and evaluating the prototype toward final production. The textbook exploits productive parallels between design thinking and rhetoric, the long-standing theory of persuasion, reinvented for the new workplace.

In an interesting example of kairos, or timing, our textbook is coming out (from the same publisher) shortly after an anthology arguing that rhetoric, although well recognized as a theory and activity by researchers in writing studies and technical communication, has not been seen as similarly central to business communication. In their anthology, Getchell and Lentz (2019) aim to define a rhetoric for our field. In addition, design thinking has become a major tool in business, including project management and entrepreneurship, key topics in our textbook Design thinking is sometimes dismissed as a fad, the next gimmick. True. But the underlying concept of design is hardly new and, properly seen, is really rhetoric, reinvented. The combination of design thinking and rhetoric is the dynamic core of the textbook.

Sushil: If a business and professional communication faculty or graduate student were to pick up this title, how should they approach the book? Could you briefly walk us through some of the chapters of the book?

Deborah: For openers, I should mention that we began thinking of the book as a new edition of the 2001 text. But we had abandoned that idea by the time we signed the contract. It is divided into four parts. The first provides the fundamentals of communicating in a global community in four chapters: communicating by design, communication with diverse audiences in a multimodal environment, communicating ethically and professionally, communicating collaboratively. The second part focuses on managing projects through design thinking by defining the problem or opportunity that launches a project (Chapter 5); generating and evaluating empirical information (Chapter 6); and incorporating sources (Chapter 7. The third part, “Designing Content for Audiences,” retains much of the rhetorical advice that was praised in the 2001 text, updated to a new workplace and new technologies. It includes four chapters: explaining and persuading, composing visuals, composing and structuring text, and revising the design. The last part applies the advice throughout the text to such conventional genres as reports, business plans, proposals, grants, instructions, and correspondence, including career-related communications. It helps students meet specifications and genre norms when appropriate, develop new forms as needed, and know the difference in determining what’s needed in a given situation.

Sushil: If I could ask you directly, where do you see this book fitting into the business and professional communication curriculum?

Deborah: The intended audience is students and instructors of the undergraduate service course in technical or professional communication, taught online or in-person (or both). A major advantage of our textbook over many others in the market is its length (short, approximately 360 pages). That GenZ students, digital natives, have short attention spans is well acknowledged. Getting them to read a textbook is difficult. Each chapter aims to provide just enough material to motivate them and engage their curiosity and critical thinking about the topics at hand. Then, guided by the instructor, they take over responsibility for their own learning, an approach seen as the most engaging and meaningful for students. The core framework of collaborative, project-based design thinking and rhetoric thus aligns well with the problem-based- or discovery-learning pedagogy now key in business and STEM disciplines.

Sushil: If I could now ask, what is there for the business and professional communication practitioner community in this book? Which chapters of the book talk to this audience?

Deborah: Practitioners would probably be most interested in the first two parts, which provide the fundamentals of design thinking and communication strategies, especially strategies for collaboration in a contemporary work environment increasingly characterized by project-based endeavors. Depending on their own background in rhetoric, especially if, as Getchell and Lentz argue, they have little background, they may find that a new world of writing practices opens up to them in part 3.

Sushil: As we wrap up, what else would you like to share with the Bulletin readers about this book?

Deborah: Please give the book a try and let us know what you think!

Sushil: I thank you for making time in your busy schedule for this interview at such short notice and our readers will certainly appreciate the insights you have given us about this book and our field.  


Andrews, D., & Tham, J. (2022). Designing technical and professional communication: strategies for the global community. New York: Routledge.

Getchell, K., & Lentz, P. (Eds.) (2019). Rhetorical theory and praxis in the business communication classroom. New York: Routledge.

Sushil Oswal with Deborah Andrews. (2021). Where is our field going? A book highlight, the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.2.