Course Description

English 421 helps students become better technical communicators, whose work is characterized by the presentation of technical material in written and visual formats that are user centered and aware of audience and context. The course and its principles are grounded in rhetorical theory and informed by current research in technical communication.

Communication across multiple audiences and for multiple purposes continues to be a desired skill set in technical and professional fields. Beyond field-specific knowledge and experience, successful and ethical communication drives the professional world. This class, in content and form, models these successful communication practices. Working individually and in groups, students learn effective strategies for communicating about and with technology, particularly in networked workplaces and through usability testing. To achieve success in this course, students must display the ability to succeed in their future workplaces by developing a variety of informative and visually effective print and electronic documents.

Required Text

There is only one required text for this course:

Professional Writing Online, Third Edition

It's an e-text; you’ll buy the “password” as your text.  Once you've got your password, you can log in at the above link (or the link on the menu bar) to access your textbook.

It's available at Follett’s or University Bookstore.

Course Goals

Writing in Context

  • Analyze the invention, manufacture, and distribution of technologies in context and use writing to communicate these attributes in a variety of media and genres.
  • Write to the different levels of technical expertise of a range of audiences and stakeholders to foster technical understanding.
  • Understand the ethical implications of working within the nexus of technology and culture.


Project Management

  • Understand, develop and deploy various strategies for planning, researching, drafting, revising, and editing documents both individually and collaboratively.
  • Select and use appropriate technologies that effectively and ethically address professional situations and audiences.
  • Build professional ethos through documentation and accountability.


Document Design

Make rhetorical design decisions about technical documents including:

  • Adapting to genre conventions and expectations of a range of audiences including both technical and non-technical audiences
  • Understanding and implementing design principles of format and layout
  • Interpreting and arguing with design
  • Drafting, researching, testing, revising visual design and information architecture
  • Ensuring the technical accuracy of visual content



Learn and apply strategies for successful teamwork, such as

  • Working online with colleagues to determine roles and responsibilities
  • Managing team conflicts constructively
  • Responding constructively to peers' work
  • Soliciting and using peer feedback effectively
  • Achieving team goals



Understand and use the research methods and strategies necessary to the production of professional documents, including

  • Working ethically with research participants, subject matter experts, and technical experts
  • Locating, evaluating, and using print and online information selectively for particular audiences and purposes
  • Triangulating sources of evidence
  • Selecting appropriate primary research methods such as interviews, observations, focus groups, and surveys to collect data
  • Applying concepts of usability research, such as user-centered design



Use and evaluate the writing technologies frequently used in the workplace, such as emailing, instant messaging, image editing, video editing, presentation design and delivery, HTML editing, Web browsing, content management, and desktop publishing technologies.

Course Projects and Activities

1. Employment Project

You will be asked to locate a job for which you are qualified and apply for it. Step 1 of the project asks you to learn about and use various web-based resources for job seekers and ultimately to select one job or internship to pursue. Steps 2 and 3 ask you to prepare the all-important "Job Application Letter" and a resume specifically designed for the job or internship you've selected in Step 1. In Step 4, you will assess your experience in a "Project Assessment Document." In the process of completing each step, you will work closely with your peers and your instructor to shape your writing so that it represents you and your experience fully and effectively, given the rhetorical circumstances. You will also study and respond to examples from the textbook.

(Individual; 15% of course grade.)


2. White Paper Project

The focus of Project 2 is the white paper, a common report genre in the professional world. White papers are used in business, industrial, and governmental contexts to sum up the gist of what’s known about a subject. During this project you will learn about

  • The white paper genre through collaborative creation of a white paper.
  • New writing and communication technologies that support technical writing in college and industry, with attention to open source and other freely available software or writing spaces (online networks, blogging, etc.)
  • Collaboration, project management, and strategies for writing and revising.
  • Producing a text for the web in HTML that integrates visual content, such as screenshots, tables, and flowcharts

 All group members will keep a project log and submit Collaborative Project Evaluation forms.

(Collaborative: 25% of course grade.)


3. Usability Study and User Documentation in Multimedia

 For Project 3, you will work collaboratively in project teams on a client-based service-learning project that teaches you to manage complex writing challenges in real contexts that matter. You will learn principles of project management, collaboration, document cycling, usability testing and study, and client-based research. Because you will work with clients--either in the community, online, or theoretical--you will also learn important principles of professional and ethical communication. The goal will be to start with the White Paper Projects produced already this semester and then, after user-testing and usability study, produce a user-guide that teaches a critical and (perhaps) complex application of the technology to an interested client. You have the choice of thinking of and contacting clients who may benefit from having such your report, or accepting a theoretical client. The project will consist of several components, including a short multimedia, web-based presentation. (Collaborative; 40% of course grade.)


Exercises (both in-class and outside of class)

This portion of your grade will be based on

  •  How well you implement the guidelines and best practices for posting comments and creating reading responses, as presented on our course site and discussed in the textbook.
  • The degree to which your peer reviews and responses offer insightful feedback and suggestions on your classmates' drafts.
  • The degree to which your reading responses and comment posts demonstrate learning of the course content.
  • The degree to which your reading responses and comment posts engage with and contribute to the learning of others in the course.


Much of your writing for this class will be posted publicly on the Internet to your individual weblog or our community weblog home page. Weblog posting assignments will include drafts, project logs, and research notes, among other types of content. The calendar specifies what you should post to your weblog and by when, so let that be your guide.

Comments and Replies

All comments and replies to another's blog post should follow effective rhetorical strategies for networking with others on the Web. (Readings from the course text provide guidelines to follow.)

  • Keep threads alive and relevant.
  • Follow-up comments with further discussion.
  • Think of your comments and replies as part of a lively class discussion in which everyone participates.

(Individual; 10% of course grade)

Grading Summary


Employment Project: 15%

White Paper: 25%

Documentation Project: 40%

Exercises: 10%

Attendance: 10%


All major assignments will be graded on the standard plus-minus letter-grade scale: A+=100-98, A=97-94, A-=93-90, B+==89-87, B=86-84, B-=83-80, C+=79-77, C=76-74, C-=73-70, D+=69-67, D=66-64, D-=63-60, F=59 or below.

The three major projects in the course will be comprised of several components, each of which will be worth a percentage of your final grade. For the two collaborative projects, students will complete the required Collaborative Evaluation Form.

Students must participate in all of the three major projects and complete a majority of the required weblog posting assignments in order to pass this class. Students with questions about final grades should review university policies regarding grade appeals.

Technology Requirements

In order to participate fully in the course, you should already be able to use the technology platform and applications listed below.

  • Mac OS X or Windows XP or Vista
  • Microsoft Office for the PC or Mac (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) or Apple counterparts (Pages, Keynote, Numbers)
  • Web Browser (e.g., Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer)
  • Email Program (e.g., Purdue Webmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, etc.)
  • Adobe Acrobat and Reader (for PDF documents, collaborative review)

Technology Responsibilities

Familiarity with certain technologies is crucial for participation and success in the course. If you need any assistance now or at any point during the semester, please do not hesitate to ask.

During the semester, you'll need regular access to the Internet and email. Because the course home page is the main locus of the class community, you are responsible for reading and keeping current with all content posted there, including what has been submitted by both the instructor and your fellow students. You'll be responsible for configuring your system to access course materials, to read course email and participate in online discussions, and to submit your work. Very early in the semester, you will be asked to demonstrate that you can meet these responsibilities:

  • Register for the course website and complete your profile information.
  • Post a message about yourself and your interests
  • Read the course description and calendar, then ask questions when you are uncertain about requirements or activities.
  • Set up your email or an alternative that you can access regularly and reliably
  • Become proficient sending and receiving email attachments, resolving file compatibility issues, and following email decorum.
  • Check the course calendar before each class meeting.
  • Become proficient participating in the class Drupal space.
  • Become more proficient with unfamiliar computer technologies and applications, including Web editing software, document cycling systems, desktop publishing applications, and graphics programs.
  • Maintain back-up copies of all assignments via your home directory, disks, USB drives, or CDs.

If at any time you have problems accessing the Internet from home, you'll need to find a public lab or connection point. Problems with computers will not be an excuse for falling behind or failing to complete required assignments. If your Internet service goes down, find another connection point. If your computer breaks, use another one. In other words, find a way to complete the assignments on time. Because computer problems are a fact of life, always work to complete your assignments early and make frequent backups to multiple media.

Collaborative Work

Teamwork is a required component of the course. You and your project team members are responsible for updating one another and me about assignment development and progress. In addition, you also are responsible for negotiating together all aspects of your work, including planning, drafting, revising, file managing, and scheduling of assignments. When a collaborative project is assigned, you will receive explicit guidelines for successful collaboration. Individual group members will complete Collaborative Evaluation Forms. For more information about good principles of collaboration, see the brochure, Group Work and Collaborative Writing

Attendance Policy

Attendance is required at all scheduled electronic and face-to-face (F2F) meetings. Since you will be working in project teams much of the semester, you also will be required to attend any scheduled out-of-class meetings with your team to complete course assignments.

The attendance policy breakdown:

One unexcused absence: Freebie.

Two unexcused absences: Two points off of final grade.

Three unexcused absences: Five points off of final grade.

Four unexcused absences: Ten points off of final grade.

Five or more unexcused absences: FAILURE.


Excused absences may be granted for religious holidays or university-sponsored events, provided you make a written request to me no less than two weeks in advance and that you complete any required work before the due date. Being excessively or regularly late for class or team meetings, both electronic and F2F, can also be counted as an absence. 

Instant messaging or playing around on the computer during class (checking Facebook, entertainment sites, etc.) can result in an unexcused absence for that day.

Late Work

The majority of missed class assignments cannot be made up. If a serious and unavoidable problem arises, however, you should contact me in writing prior to the deadline to determine whether or not an extension for the work will or will not be granted.

Academic Integrity

Purdue students and their instructors are expected to adhere to guidelines set forth by the Dean of Students in "Academic Integrity: A Guide for Students," which students are encouraged to read here:

The preamble of this guide states the following: "Purdue University values intellectual integrity and the highest standards of academic conduct. To be prepared to meet societal needs as leaders and role models, students must be educated in an ethical learning environment that promotes a high standard of honor in scholastic work. Academic dishonesty undermines institutional integrity and threatens the academic fabric of Purdue University. Dishonesty is not an acceptable avenue to success. It diminishes the quality of a Purdue education, which is valued because of Purdue's high academic standards."

Academic dishonesty is defined as follows: "Purdue prohibits "dishonesty in connection with any University activity. Cheating, plagiarism, or knowingly furnishing false information to the University are examples of dishonesty." [University Regulations, Part V, Section III, B, 2, a] Furthermore, the University Senate has stipulated that "the commitment of acts of cheating, lying, and deceit in any of their diverse forms (such as the use of substitutes for taking examinations, the use of illegal cribs, plagiarism, and copying during examinations) is dishonest and must not be tolerated. Moreover, knowingly to aid and abet, directly or indirectly, other parties in committing dishonest acts is in itself dishonest." [University Senate Document 72-18, December 15, 1972]"

If you have any questions about this policy, please ask.

In Case of Teacher Seizure

In the unlikely event that I have an epileptic seizure while teaching, don’t panic. It’s not a big deal. I’ll fall to the floor and convulse for a few seconds. Just move me away from anything sharp and then leave me be until it’s over. Class will be over for that day!