By Amanda Ortiz-Pellot
Ma-aruf Al’hassan, a graduate Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication, argues that the dichotomy between a concept’s explanation and its application limits how we approach scholarship. There is a common tendency to separate theory and practice. We often forget that the intersection of these two concepts is what helps us understand topics, ideas, and issues. In other words, the relationship of both theory and practice are essential for the development of scholarship. I sat down with Ma-aruf to talk about how he plans to close the gap between theory and practice, as well as to expand on his experience in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program at Iowa State University.
Ma-aruf was born in Ghana and attended the University of Ghana where he did his bachelor’s in psychology and political science. While he planned to move to the United States to pursue a master’s degree, he was still unsure as to what discipline to follow — psychology or political science. After thinking about it for a while, Ma-aruf decided to attend the University of Education in Winneba, Ghana, where he received his master’s degree in Communication and Media Studies with special interest in Rhetoric. As he worked his way through his master’s, Ma-aruf began considering the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. in the states.
Ma-aruf came to the United States and attended the University of Texas at El Paso. Here, he began exploring other courses and areas of studies, particularly Technical Communication and Professional Communication. Ma-aruf explains that after viewing the job trends and demands in the United States, he decided to complete a second master’s degree at El Paso, and search for a Ph.D. program concentrating on Rhetoric and Professional Communication. One of his research works back in Ghana was around Tactical Technical Communication, where he wrote about the strategies ISIS used to recruit members. By exploring their social media, he was able to analyze their communication and persuasion strategies. When he came to the U.S, he recognized his work as Technical Communication research, and decided to continue to pursue this field.
When searching for Ph.D. programs, Ma-aruf received plenty offers from different universities nationwide. “One person that I met in my Composition Studies class at El Paso was Clay Spinuzzi, a former student at Iowa State,” says Ma-aruf enthusiastically, “I admired the way he theorized and explained topics like genre and organizations from a rhetorical standpoint.” His admiration towards Spinuzzi led Ma-aruf to discover more about the Ph.D. program offered at Iowa State University.
Another aspect of the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program that solidified Ma-aruf’s choice to attend Iowa State was learning about the published works of faculty and students. Ma-aruf explains, “Getting into a Ph.D. program where students are doing very well in the job market gives you a sense of direction, I needed a program that synergizes industry and theory.” He also explains that as an international student, it is important to consider how a school or program will benefit his future. After talking with the former program recruiter, Dr. Craig Rood, Ma-aruf says, “I finally decided that the Iowa State English Department was the best place for me.”
Even though Ma-aruf is currently in his first year of his Ph.D. program, he has had the opportunity to manage several different projects. During his first semester, in his Professional Communication Theory class, Ma-aruf wrote a paper on Localization Usability, which examined how to identify the language and technology of a product to fit a particular culture and linguistic context. With this project, Ma-aruf examined a different way to theorize localization. “I’ve come to realize that factors like cultural issues and gender issues are necessary to consider in Localization Usability, but they are treated as static; yet linguistic matters and culture are not static, rather they change.” He posits a different way of theorizing localization, one that considers factors like economic and resource constraints, and treats these factors as dynamic. “The purpose of the work is to broaden the discourse on how technical communicators often make assumptions that tend to marginalize other factors,” says Ma-aruf. Technology, as well as humans, is fluid, thus we should begin theorizing localization differently reflecting these truths.
Another one of Ma-aruf’s projects entails gender issues and Style Guides. By analyzing five different style guides, Ma-aruf aims to decipher how each style guide treats issues of gender, particularly the use of the singular pronoun “they.” With this project, Ma-aruf hopes to highlight the importance of inclusive and bias-free language. Ma-aruf seeks to help authors, writers, and editors to become conversant on issues of gender identity and expression, with the intention to use more bias-free language. “Words have the tendency to impact people,” Ma-aruf explains. “Words can be exclusive, oppressive, and negate a person’s identity. As communicators, we should be socially-aware of these words and their implications.”
As Ma-aruf talked about hiswork, his fervent passion for his technical communication projects was evident. Ma-aruf’s range of work is a great example of the vast, diverse research that can be done as a student in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program.
Although Ma-aruf has accomplished a lot, he laments how much the pandemic has impacted him and his studies. Due to the pandemic, since his move to Iowa last August, it has been harder for Ma-aruf to acclimate to the beautiful city of Ames, and to life in Iowa. Likewise, making friends has been a challenge since gatherings and events were restricted due to public health and safety. Despite this, Ma-aruf is grateful for professors who continued to reach out, either through email or by hosting virtual office hours, to ask how students are handling the class, or if they need assistance. He mentions how Dr. Jo Mackiewizcs, one of Ma-aruf’s professors and the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program coordinator, has supported him throughout the semester. One of his other professors, Anne Kretsinger-Harries, would take time from her class to make sure students were doing okay. He eagerly waits for the time he can meet his instructors face-to-face, which will hopefully happen soon.
Despite the challenges, Ma-aruf feels grateful for the skills and experiences he has gained through the RPC program. “Something that I appreciate deeply about the RPC program is that it prepares you for real-world experience,” he said. The skills that the job industry demands like content management, technical editing, user experience, multimedia interaction design, and professional communication, are offered in the RPC program. For example, he took a class recently about how to use multi-media, an important skill required in many technical communication positions. “Our program aligns with the skills and experiences demanded by the job industry,” says Ma-aruf. In addition to new-gained skills, he is appreciative for the support and guidance he has received from his professors and instructors.
As for whether Ma-aruf has any advice for interested students, “You must have clarity of what you are interested in, and to relate this interest with the program. Do not forget about the demands of the world. The job trends,” he said. When students are applying, they should consider their interests, the job trends, the program’s faculty, as well as the products of the program. Above all, he stressed, “applicants should be critical when applying to programs.”
Regarding his future, Ma-aruf highlights how important it is for him to do more internships. He believes that the more experience he gains, the more skills he will develop to successfully connect theory and practice in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication field. Ma-aruf contends that having experience in the industry and the academy will help him close the gap between the two. “I love theory and I love practice. Thus, I want to highlight the synergy of the two with my work in Rhetoric and Professional Communication.”