Education/Training, Computer Software/Hardware
By Andy Gale
Whether she’s teaching her students how to perform an interview or completing a project for her contract work, Sandy Balkema is a professionally diverse expert in the field of technical writing.
Sandy was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan, in the midst of a family that cultivated her love of reading and music. Her father was a newspaper writer and photographer; the excitement of his occupation greatly affected Sandy’s childhood and later her adult interests. “I grew up chasing ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars,” said Sandy. “The chief of police even had our telephone number in his ‘call list’ for whenever any big crisis took place!”
Following in the footsteps of both her parents, Sandy attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. For graduate school, Sandy traveled to the University of Michigan and acquired her master’s in English Language and Literature. She then taught freshman composition for a year at Calvin College and Grand Valley State College as a teaching assistant, after which she returned to U of M to earn her Ph. D. in English and Education.
While she was a grad student at U of M, Sandy worked at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) where she was the first person to have the title of Technical Writer outside of the computing center. She eventually acquired the title of Senior Technical Writer during the three years she worked at ISR while completing her degree.
Sandy’s first full-time teaching job came in 1984 when she was offered the opportunity to start up the Technical Communication program at Ferris State University, which later developed into the Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) program. This was in the days before tech writing existed outside of the computer world. Sandy has been working in the field for 25 years now, broadening the definition of technical writing and always finding new ways to integrate developing technology into her students’ learning process.
When she started in the field, technology was on a whole different level – one that was much less developed. On the teaching side, Sandy says advances in technology have made it really tough to run the TPC program.
“Things change all the time, and I can’t prepare [my students] to be successful unless I know what’s going on,” Sandy said. Because of this, Sandy has to stay current on all the advancements to printing and communication that may affect her students once they get out in the real world. Not only that, but the actual definition of what technical writing is grows all the time, so she also has to keep up with new jobs that are created as the field grows.
A typical day on the job for Sandy is a little difficult to explain because she has multiple jobs and multiple responsibilities that come with each. As a Ferris faculty member, Sandy teaches tech writing classes and advises students in the TPC program. This year is rather special, because on top of her regular duties, Sandy is editing Ferris’ Higher Learning Commission Re-accreditation Report. The report is a very intensive and important project because it has to be done just right in order for Ferris to stay an accredited university. In regards to this year’s report, Sandy said, “It’s really exciting work – I work with people from across the campus, and I get to write about all of the great things happening at the University.”
Since she started teaching, Sandy has also done some contract work as a technical editor for several publishing ventures. In 2000-01, she took her first sabbatical and worked full-time as a technical writer/editor and instructional designer for several West Michigan companies. Since then, she’s worked part-time and/or full-time (part time during the school years, full time during vacations and summer) for Media 1, a corporate training developer in Grand Haven, Michigan. She also spent all of last year’s sabbatical working full time for Media 1. Even though she always seems to have some project going on, Sandy enjoys the work she does on both sides. “My two worlds come together rather nicely because what I teach and what I do are the same thing.”
Her experience in both the teaching and “doing” aspects of technical writing have given Sandy a pretty good understanding of where the field is headed in the future and how to succeed in it; her advice for new tech writers reflects this: “Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly where you want to go with your career. The world is changing so fast that where you end up in 5 years may not even exist today. Be flexible, be willing to learn new things, and be passionate about being a good writer no matter what you write about.”