My Teaching Life:Erin Friess

Erin Friess 3Member of ATTW since 2005
Occupation: Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Technical Communication

Institution: University of North Texas, Denton, Texas


desk imageI have my computer set up with two widescreen monitors, which I think improves my productivity. I’m prepping for a graduate level Principles of Technical Communication class, so I have a bunch of books, including Peeples’ Professional Writing and Rhetoric, Tufte’s Visual Explanations, Barnum’s Usability Testing Essentials, Harty’s Strategies for Business and Technical Writing (an oldie but a goodie), and the Microsoft Manual of Style. I also have a tablet (the old-fashioned kind with paper) with my favorite pen because I like to write things out by hand and then revise as I type. And, most importantly, I have a picture of my daughter.

Most dog-eared print reference book

WilliamsFor teaching, my most dog-eared reference books are Williams’ Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace and a couple of usage dictionaries. Ten Lessons always reminds me about how to make my often-convoluted writing more concise and coherent, and I find myself turning to it to help my students figure out better ways of conveying their thoughts. And the usage dictionaries help me remember that while there are guidelines for structure, grammar, and punctuation, Formal Written English is a fluid beast and changes are inevitable and necessary. As much as I believe that “grow” should only be used as an intransitive verb, the usage dictionaries are against me, and I respect that shift when I assess my students’ work.

Currently reading for pleasure

IMG_3538_0I read two magazines for pleasure. The first is The Atlantic because I enjoy reading their long-form pieces (their story on “The Shame of College Sports” was enlightening). The second is Real Simple because it offers tips on making my life simpler, such as 15-minute meals, cleaning solutions, or workout routines. However, I never seem to manage to incorporate those life-simplifying techniques into my life. I also look for glaring editorial mistakes in Real Simple, as there is one in nearly every issue.  This one is my favorite.

Favorite Writing Instrument

penWhen my husband, a software engineer, isn’t coding or watching our daughter while I teach night classes, he likes to woodwork. He has made tables, bookcases, trellises, toys, you name it. A few years ago he started wood turning as well. One of the first things he turned was a pen that I have since coopted for myself. It is just the perfect weight and just feels right in my hand. There’s just something about a well-crafted pen that even the most elaborate stylus can’t capture.

Favorite Typeface

Optimo_Didot_SpecimenMy favorite typeface changes a lot, particularly after I assign a Typographic Scavenger Hunt for my graduate students and I see the typefaces they find. I’m currently enjoying Didot (modern serif) and Eras Demi (sans serif) for headings. For body text, I am currently in a Baskerville phase. My tried-and-true standbys are Gill Sans for headings and Garamond for body. I’m generally of the belief that there is a time and place for every typeface with the exception of Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Favorite teaching technology

PreziI like using two sites during my classroom lectures and discussions. First, I like using Prezi for my lectures. While it might seem a bit like a glorified PowerPoint, I enjoy that it can have a non-linear component to it. Additionally, one semester I did half my lectures in Prezi and half in PowerPoint. Overwhelmingly, students said that they preferred Prezi over PowerPoint (though any increase in academic performance wasn’t seen). Second, I like using polling sites, particularly It is very easy to set up, and it quickly lets me see if students actually “get it” or if they are just saying that they “get it.”


Favorite class to teach

I really enjoy teaching a class we call “Research Methods for the Practitioner.” In this class we discuss basic research methodology and specific kinds of research that technical communicators need to do. We explore best practices for interviewing subject matter experts, crafting surveys, conducting heuristic evaluations, and organizing usability studies. We also discuss how the data that we collect should (and should not) inform the document or the product. I love how often former students will write me to let me know that they used a specific methodology from the class to solve a real problem in their current job.

Favorite teaching attire

cowboy bootsI’m not really the western type, but I was given a special gift of custom-made M.L. Leddy cowboy boots. Not only are they beautiful, they are exceedingly comfortable. I try to always wear those boots on the days that I teach from noon to 9pm to save my feet and back from aching. Additionally, given that so many of my students have rural roots, the boots are a conversation-starter with many of my students.

Best reason for teaching technical communication

I enjoy the diversity of the students. Last year, in one advanced technical communication class, I had 28 students and 20 different majors ranging from vocal performance and dance to computer engineering and biochemistry. In that same class, I had three veterans and two students who had yet to graduate from high school. A good portion of this class is groupwork, and I like that the students must work with classmates who might have very different approaches to study and life than what’s immediately familiar to them. Learning to handle different attitudes makes the students better communicators and collaborators, not just in the classroom, but also in their careers.

Other than teaching…

breaking badIf I weren’t a technical communication teacher, perhaps I’d be a TV critic. Everything in the theaters these days seems to be a sequel or a prequel. But right now we are in a renaissance of television with an amazing amount of excellent original writing and programming, from Breaking Bad to The Good Wife, from Justified to Homeland. I ask my students on the first day of class what their favorite TV show is, and I use my knowledge of their shows to break the ice and make them a little more comfortable in the classroom. A decade ago, students said that their favorite shows were The Simpsons and The Family Guy, but now the answers are much more diverse. Last year, the three shows the students most frequently mentioned were The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, and Archer.