Designing Documents for the Undocumented: Collective Action in the Technical Communication Classroom

Scene report by
Breeanne Matheson
Matthew Christensen
Diana Lees
Eilen E. Castellano

Bringing collective action to the classroom

Breeanne: The day the news broke about the children at the border being separated from their parents, I attended my regular writing circle. That evening, our facilitator selected a poem as prompt, reading from Jack Gilbert’s (2007) “A Brief for the Defense,” which begins:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else.

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

The poem goes on to suggest that we must “risk delight” despite atrocity, but on that day, I could not find any delight. I scribbled “Sorrow Everywhere” at the top of my page and filled the rest of it with the despair of not knowing how to help.

Months later, a week into our fall semester, an acquaintance involved with a nonprofit sending aid to the border crisis sent out a call seeking partnerships with technical communication classrooms that could design documents to support their work. I volunteered my class to help within minutes even though my course schedule was already written and well underway. After all, if I could not, as Gilbert (2007) suggests, risk delight, I felt that I could at least risk the task of taking action.

I rewrote the course schedule over the weekend, making big changes to the syllabus during the third week. Despite the late start on such an ambitious project, students agreed to adapt to the schedule in order to gain experience working with a real community partner. We began to engage with the subject of immigration and asylum in class, reading about the situation at the border in order to understand the current issues and historical context of asylum and detention in the United States. I selected readings from local and national news outlets and students contributed their own readings to round out my list. We dedicated several class periods to discussing the issues we read about as we began to lay the groundwork to create instructional documents for asylum seekers at the border.

Collective action in the technical communication classroom has roots scholarship that highlights the importance of taking a humanistic approach to technical communication instruction (Miller, 1979; Katz, 1992). Though the field has long been thought of as an instrumental place in which students learn job-related skills, scholarship has increasingly observed that writing work has an obligation to build the collective good (Miller, 1989; Hopton, 2013). Service-learning offers students the opportunity to engage with a combination of foundational theories that underlie the field as well as a chance to develop tactical skills. In addition, this gives students a chance to see how their own behavior can impact their community, allowing learners to develop a sense of responsible citizenship that they may apply both within and outside of their careers (Bourelle, 2012). This can be powerful when combined with an emphasis on cultural awareness in class (Scott, 2004). In the case of my technical communication classroom, designing documents for a real audience with complex, urgent needs offered students an opportunity to engage positively with the difficulties in the world around them while learning the marketable skills needed to do collaborative writing. Further, this project provided the opportunity for students to check in with, and sometimes challenge, their own worldviews and value systems in order to decide how to engage in community-based work.

I approached this classroom project using a feminist pedagogical approach that prioritized the needs and experiences of the students, making their knowledge and experiences central to our discussions, and making our interconnectivity a key part of the classroom experience (Ropers-Huilman, 1998; Light, Nicholas & Bondy, 2015; Rohrer, 2018). In the same spirit of centering student experiences and voices, I’ve enlisted three students, Matthew, Diana, and Eilen, to help me tell the story of our work. Their voices offer perspectives beyond my viewpoint as an instructor and offer a more robust picture of what community-based classroom action might look like in practice from a student perspective. Each author is denoted by name at the beginning of their contribution.

The task: Designing documents for the undocumented

Our community partner explained that asylum seekers often need to represent themselves pro se in court. A number of legal organizations had already developed extensive information on the subject. However, existing instructional materials were so extensive that they were too bulky to be mailed to asylum seekers who needed them. Our task was to create single-page (front and back) documents to allow detainees to receive the information they need to represent themselves in court, which could be sent via the restrictive mail system at detention facilities. These single-page documents were needed in English, Spanish, and Mandarin.

Viewing collective action through student perspectives

Matthew: I became aware of the crisis at the border last Summer. After seeing a picture of a child in a cage, I did a Google investigation and learned that this has been a problem since 1987. I painfully admit that my immediate reaction was spite and fury at the political game being played over victimized families. I had become so invested in politics that I forgot that thousands of people are being harmed.

When the project with our community partner was brought up, I had a knee-jerk reaction. “Greaaaat, more propaganda.” However, I knew this was a real issue, so I sat up and listened anyway. As I heard my professor explain our project, the blame-filled bubble of my personal Twitterverse burst.

My professor removed herself from polarized politics and instead was spending time in the trenches—dealing with a real problem. I admired her ethics, which propelled me to read more about the situation. That’s when it finally hit home that people from countries all across Central America and Asia are struggling—most of whom are good people in dire circumstances. I don’t know the solution, but I wanted to help.

Our project was complicated—at least from my limited perspective. How would we reduce 30+ pages to onto 1 page and retain the necessary information? How would we coordinate to translate it into two other languages, especially accounting for linguistic and cultural differences?

Reducing the 30+ page document to one page was a real challenge. To find the vital information, we did a lot of research. I spent hours being bounced around phone lines, investigating the process of seeking asylum while in detention. Other groups reached out online. With enough information channels, we formed a rough picture of the asylum-seeking process and organized our information accordingly. With the first hurdle finished, I joined a team to translate the document into Mandarin. None of us were fluent in Mandarin, but we collaborated with people in China who helped us.

Despite my concerns about this project’s complexity, I feel privileged for the opportunity to make a real difference—no matter how slight it may be. I felt morally obligated to try, knowing it could literally mean the difference between life and death for someone.

Diana: I had casually read articles concerning border policies. However, my attitude at this point was one of, “yes, there is something terrible happening, but it is beyond my control.” Entering my technical writing class, I did not expect to have a project waiting for me that would change my perspective so drastically. The readings opened my eyes to what had been and is currently happening around me. Yes, we have laws to protect our country and to keep order and balance. However, learning that children are separated from parents, parents are deported without their children, and facilities can be extremely lacking in resources for basic human needs feels frightening.

As I looked at the treatment of immigrants, I saw that they aren’t provided translators and don’t receive clear instruction of what is expected. Facilities don’t keep clear records of who they interact with or record which parents and children belong together. When immigrants arrive at the facilities, the citizenship process is complicated. People have a right to clear information so that they can prepare themselves as best they can for the legal system.

Despite having every resource at our disposal, I was shocked at how difficult it is to get basic information about the immigration process. I have so much more empathy for immigrants, which has propelled my desire to act. Experiencing this project proved that my research and writing skills can help immigrants navigate a system they are thrown into. I am now part of the solution. This is how change is created, and that is powerful.

Eilen: Long before I was a little curly-haired Dominican girl entering the state of New York, immigration was a complicated issue that affected everyone. This project allowed our values to shine as we collaborated to set the stage for change. This project challenged us to take an absolute stand as individuals of different backgrounds against wrong, inhumane practices and to stand together for one cause: humanity.

We are living history, and it is up to us if we will continue allowing lives to be mistreated in our country. I will continue to sympathize, understand, and take a stand with asylum seekers at the border. I underestimated how difficult it would be to find the information for those who seek asylum, even after I had gone through the process myself as a young teenager. Getting on the phone with ICE shook me up and compelled me to be bold. I gave it a fighting chance, and realized what can happen when we really push ourselves with our writing. Our growth has given us the strength to create this one-page powerhouse. This has now become our genuine fight, too.

Collective action at work in the classroom

Navigating classroom values

Breeanne: The goals of a community partner are often imbued with certain values, which are not necessarily correlated to the values of the students in the classroom. To manage this ethically, the use of a feminist pedagogical frame was vital. Students were each given the opportunity to opt out of this assignment and complete a different project for the same course credit. However, once we began reading about the goals of our community partner, no students opted out, despite some voicing initial hesitation. In their project reflections, students cited their experiences in our diverse classroom discussion as formative to their decision to engage with our community action project.

Utilizing student knowledge

Working with a community partner presented specific challenges that might not otherwise be faced in educational settings. For one, technical communication classes in the United States are usually taught in English, and my second language proficiency is limited. Gratefully, our classroom community proved to be multilingual, with several students being fluent and literate in Spanish, and others possessing varying degrees of proficiency in Mandarin. Multilingual students agreed to lead teams that would produce translated documents. We agreed to enlist Mandarin-fluent individuals outside the class to help us translate our work, and I selected readings that would help us manage the task of translation in a productive, ethical way. Students directed these tasks adeptly, with minimal supervision.

Developing classroom outcomes

As part of our feminist classroom frame, each team of students developed their own team charter which outlined their objectives, standards for success, and conflict management strategies. These student-led documents served to guide the direction and goals of the project. Each team agreed to revise the instructional documents until they achieved an acceptable standard for use by asylum seekers at the border. As a result of these collective decisions, I eschewed a traditional grading structure in favor of evaluating students based on their participation and engaged effort according to the standards they outlined in their team charters.

Solving problems collaboratively

As a class, we also struggled with the technical difficulty of the subject matter of immigration law, which is complex and required students to read extensively about the asylum seeking process in order to be able to write authoritatively on the subject for a vulnerable population. Classroom members with experience in the immigration system, including Eilen, proved to be valuable subject matter experts. Students worked in teams to try to break the process down into plain language, conducting research by making calls to government agencies and reading extensively online.

Navigating technological barriers

Nonprofit community partners often lack access to the same technologies available in our university computer lab classroom, so we resolved to create our documents in a common, free program that would ensure that our community partners would be able to manipulate the documents themselves. We elected to design our documents using Google Slides creatively to utilize the strong collaborative features in class and to empower our community partner to make changes to the documents as needed at a later date. As we learned the limitations of our technology choice together, students taught one another tricks in the software and used outside design tools to create graphical elements that could be imported into Slides.

Practical considerations

In addition to addressing concerns about their values, students wondered how this project was relevant to the course goals. Instructors engaging in community action will need to make explicit connections between the readings, the course outcomes, and the task at hand instead of assuming that students will naturally make these connections. Additionally, readings that discuss the humanistic nature of technical communication are important for contextualizing community action assignments.

Community partnerships can be formed in a variety of ways: through the university, via existing departmental contacts, or through one’s personal network. I connected to this partnership through a personal acquaintance. This particular community partner was easy to work with, checking in occasionally by email, but primarily allowing my students to make design choices without much additional input. Likewise, the partner organization was supportive and patient when our class missed our target deadline. However, our community partner was pleased with the final results, which were distributed to detention centers and migrant camps in the final months of the semester. I plan to continue collaborating with this partner for another course in the spring, designing a different document to meet different organizational needs.  

Projects like this create valuable student learning,  but may not be feasible in all situations. A project like this would be difficult to manage across multiple sections of the same course. In addition, some community partners may want a larger role in the document design, which would require an instructor to commit to a deeper, more complex partnership.  


Although, at several intervals, both students and I expressed concern or frustration about the messiness of engaging collective action as a classroom activity, I also witnessed an unmatched level of classroom engagement, leadership, and co-creation among my students. Students led teams to produce outcomes that exceeded my own skill set, utilizing and sharing their skills in translation, subject matter expertise, and design technology. In addition, I felt deeply engaged as a learner myself. I gained new experience organizing collective action, working with technology in non-traditional ways, and understanding the frustrating process of seeking asylum in the United States. Together, our collective empathy as writers grew and I experienced deep gratitude for students who shared their knowledge and skills with me and the class. Despite the challenges in developing a classroom structure to accommodate collective action, I have resolved to make collective action an ongoing part of my course design in the future.


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Author Bios

Dr. Breeanne Matheson (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University specializing in technical communication in rhetoric. She has extensive experience conducting international field research in the Global South and aims to engage her students in community action wherever possible. You can find her on Twitter at @breeannem.

Matthew Christensen (he/him/his) is an English major at Utah Valley University with an emphasis in technical writing. He plans on serving in the military after college.

Diana Lees (she/her/hers) is a junior at Utah Valley University. She is studying English with a writing emphasis. She plans to teach Jr. High School English upon graduation.

Eilen E. Castellano (she/her/hers) is a Legal Studies Student at Utah Valley University. She serves as the Multicultural Student Council Liaison for UVUSA. She embarked on this journey with the want to continue to focus on the true diversity of nation, and returning back to humanitarian roots of her home country, the Dominican Republic. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook @eilenelizabeth.