Wednesday, October 16, 2013

“What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Writing?” by Ann M. Blakeslee & Gerald J. Savage

The article “What do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Writing?” by Ann Blakeslee and Gerald Savage is not so much presented as a solution to a problem, as it is a “how-to” guide as well as a useful primer for what aspiring technical communication specialists should expect upon entering the field. Framed around the story of a plucky young technical communicator named Siena, Blakeslee and Savage build this guide around a series of questions based upon studies conducted about, and interviews with, different technical writers in different companies about the nature of their work. If there is a problem that technical communicators need to be aware of, it’s that, as Blakeslee and Savage report, “In many…studies, the power and complexity of writing as a literary practice sometimes seems to be in the background…Yet writing may be the one competency that really binds together the array of practices we call technical communication” (Location 7208). Or, in other words, the one thing that makes a technical communicator a technical communicator is an ability to write, despite the fact that this may not be the most highlighted (or appreciated) aspect of his or her work.

In order to prepare technical communicators like Siena, the article builds a heuristic around six categories of questions that should be considered when acclimating oneself to a new workplace. These are:
1.       The amount and quality of writing entailed and expected
2.       The nature of writing
3.       Genres and rhetorical strategies
4.       Approaches and processes for writing
5.       Knowledge and skills
6.       Personal traits and qualities.
Ultimately, each of these categories relate to HOW the technical writer spends his or her time on various writing projects, rather than merely laying out a monolithic set of best practices. They write that “Knowing how much you will write…is important for several reasons, not the least of which is determining how best to manage your workload, time, and resources” (7261). Questions a writer must consider include the quality of the work, deadlines, what is at stake for the audience, and how does the organization in which one is working value a given document.

These concerns branch out beyond merely the act of putting text to the page. Under the second category, a writer must consider both what kind (and how much) research they are expected to do for different types (or genres) of documents, and what conventions are expected of them in their field (7294). This also ties to approach and process (category four) and knowledge and skills (five), since if a writer IS expected to conduct research or work with different modalities like visual programs or web design software. They write that “technical communicators also need to possess technical skills and knowledge. What this encompasses is, again, highly variable” (7343) and that, while specific technical skills are important, the true work of a technical communicator is to put a generalized set of skills into “a larger context of other knowledge” (7356). Or, put simply, a technical communicator needs to know how to figure out technologies on demand, and then frame and use them within the rhetorical and generic constraints of their field. They must be jacks-of-all-trades in much the same way that rhetoricians must be: the kairos of the situation determines their tasks.

The final category of questions is, to me, the most interesting, and potentially problematic as well. A technical communicator, in addition to navigating the mercurial demands of writing, genre, research, and multimodality expected of them by different employers, must also be “people persons” (a quality that I got into writing to avoid…). This could involve collaboration with other technical writers, or the use of social media to promote one’s work (or the work of a company).

Ultimately, this article serves as a bridge between the general concept of genres in technical communication and the specific concerns about multimodality, visual design, collaboration, and international concerns posed by the following articles. Siena’s journey through the labyrinth of her office, guided by the Virgil-esque mentor Allison, brings her to confront each of the questions raised in prior and subsequent articles. She learns about design when determining whether she must create documents from scratch, since, “Twenty of our respondents…said they spend at least part of their time creating documents from scratch…[many also] said that they spend at least part of their time rewriting or repurposing existing documents” (7439). She learns about concerns relating to audiences in her journey, local and international, since, “for most technical communicators…everything is driven by the needs of the audiences…technical writers need to be diligent in seeking and obtaining sufficient knowledge of their audiences, and of the rhetorical contexts of their work” (7490). Ultimately, after asking about collaboration and editing, Siena learns the ultimate lesson of technical communication: time management. Since technical writers must learn their technologies and audiences anew with each project, they will be expected to produce high quality work, but ultimately, “projects occasionally have different levels of importance, depending on factors such as audience, purpose, and different stakeholders” suggesting “the importance of understanding just ‘how good’ one’s writing needs to be in any situation” (7409). This also, potentially, ties into issues of user-centered design. Or does it?

I wondered, overall, if these practices, and the considerations of audiences mentioned throughout the article, constitute an emphasis on user-centered design, or the extreme-usability Johnson-Eilola earlier warned against. Though there are frequent reminders that the audience’s needs must be at the forefront of the technical communicator’s mind, the myriad demands of modality, genre, design, and technical literacy suggest that a successful communicator will always be in a hurry; a mode of operating which lends itself much more readily to extreme usability than the slower, more careful design encouraged by previous theories.

Similarly worrying to me was the question of where in the corporate hierarchy a writer is placed. While this article focuses primarily on the technical communicator as a member of a single company or field, many technical writers are freelancers. What concerns must an untethered technical writer navigate? Is it possible to learn the generic and rhetorical and technical literacies when you may be employed by a new company (or several new companies) each week? I, for example, worked as a freelancer for several years in an international company where my supervisor would regularly be rotated. What began as a simple translation-editing job quickly expanded to involve research, original writing, and even some creative work. There were also several complications with expectations, given the international and multicultural nature of the company, and the audience to whom I was writing.

Tying this to the sixth point about collaboration and social media further complicates this. As Anne Wysocki writes, “technical communicators need to know the social-networking software their audiences are likely to use, and, importantly, they need to know how to use the software rhetorically” (8577). While, true, this has some interesting, if troubling, implications for what constitutes writing or rhetoric in the social media age. After all everybody needs to be a social media expert these days, and, further, many already-established companies or celebrities employ technical writers to “ghost tweet” on their behalf. As we move into Web  2.0, how do we use these heuristics to help technical communicators (especially freelancers) retain agency?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Blog Post: "Solving Problems in Technical Communication" or Are Infographics the Future of English Departments?

It was interesting to read this book, coming from so many theory-heavy texts and into the realm of "practice." I was especially intrigued by the ways in which the audience, presumably Technical Writing Majors, influenced the language, structure, and even the overall topic of these essays. It seemed almost like these essays were playing it coy with the theories of user-centered design and cultural criticism that informed the authors' other, scholarly works - like they were trying to slip their messages in with the cheese (thanks Lori-Beth!).

While reading the articles in the first section, I found myself thinking a great deal about infographics and infographic videos. Like the articles, these texts are designed for a "non-expert" or user-oriented audience (if you consider the textbook itself a meaning-making, user-centered technology, the connection only becomes stronger.

William Hart Davidson writes that "Technical communication is more than just writing. Technical communicators make videos, diagrams, websites, and many other types of information resources" (Kindle Location 985). He later writes that "coordination is merely the means by which technical communicators work. Transformation is the end goal. Making something new and adding value are the hallmarks of distributed work in technical communication" (1045). An important task for the technical writer is not merely to explain things or make them usable, but to bridge the gap between a user of technology and a complex (or specialized) device in a way that is useful. This can include using a variety of skills and modalities to remediate important, sometimes complex messages in understandable and more importantly, useful, terms. Like so:

Taken from

Similarly, Jim Henry writes that "One key element in interpreting artifacts is to ask yourself not only what an artifact says...but also how it functions within and beyond the workplace culture" (1737) and according to Longo and Fountain, "Technical communicators...use documents to order knowledge, shape information, and make implicit and explicit arguments about what is to be valued" (3312). Additionally, technical communicators cannot be overly specialized. Since communication between (and considering the needs of) users is paramount to User-Centered technology, a technical writer must be a jack of all trades, drawing from and working with multiple different disciplines and knowledge communities. It seems to me like this also applies to the sciences, since so many science writers have been taking pains to communicate complex or specialized concepts to a wider audience. This can also have important ties to modern politics and economics, like so:

Taken from
This approach also demands cooperation and collaboration from multiple authors across multiple genres, as with this link here.

Though two of the three examples I gave are humorous, I do think that these show a trajectory for technical writing that makes use of multi-modal, collaborative, and user-centered methodologies. Presenting complex or disciplinary information to people using a variety of modalities seems, at a glance, to open up understanding which can lead to critical engagement.

Still, I worry about some long term implications of infograph-mania. Many of the articles describe learning methods and workplace behaviors that, while pragmatic, do venture into some of the frightening bleed-through between work and life posited in the previous book, or demand professional/skill development that may be out of reach for lower income or non-traditional students. For instance, Cook et. al. endorse developing creative, technical, and workplace skills in your spare time, and argue (rightly) that "Internships, whether paid or unpaid, give you the opportunity to learn from practitioners and allow you to take the basic skills you learn in your courses and apply them in specific workplace settings" (2139). How is a student struggling through a non-traditional education supposed to not only develop visual, rhetorical, and technical skills, but to join them together creatively? How are shy or introverted students going to build teams of experts in different fields? Can technology be user-centered AND designer centered? Or is that even our place to explore?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Critical Power Tools: Technical Communication and Cultural Studies" Part 2: Or, The Plank in your Own Eye

The second “half” of Critical Power Tools delves into the uses of critical theory, bringing the methodologies, theories, and pedagogical practices of cultural criticism discourses into the technical writing classroom. In chapters relating to research, we see the ways in which cultural-technological discourses can have wide-reaching impacts on our political and social landscapes, as well as the material consequences of uncritical engagement with these texts. I found the most striking (and topical!) applications of this in "The Rhetorical Work of Institutions" by Elizabeth C. Britt. In discussing the ways in which meanings are constructed within institutions, and how those meanings ripple outward to affect cultural practices (and vice versa), Britt focuses on insurance, writing that, as a technology, it is inherently political due to its function as a “technology of justice” which assigns merit and blame to certain behaviors (risks). Britt writes that such assignments of value tacitly ask “To what extent are individuals responsible for their own misfortunes? What do members of society owe each other? How are these rights and obligations to be managed and by whom?” (Location 1919). Later she writes that “While the genre enforces individual responsibility…it also represents the tension between individual and collective obligations on which insurance rests” (1953) and that the most “effective” insurance documents cast the reader not as a passive victim, but as one who is capable of action.

This seems to have some pretty direct connections to the current kerfuffle in Washington over “Obamacare” (a term I hate) and the government shutdown. It occurred to me that perhaps so much of the passion and vitriol surrounding healthcare reform is tied to this notion of praise and blame of “risk” for the individual, and these questions of what society owes to its members. The notion that one needs regulation over healthcare may imply to some that the individual is not fit to manage his or her own health, which creates an uncomfortable contradiction with American ideologies of individualism. To me, this also demonstrates important connections to ideas presented in "Living Documents: Liability versus the Need to Archive, or, Why (Sometimes) History Should Be Expunged" by Beverly Sauer, who writes that technological documents are “living” in that they must continually be redefined and re-contextualized to serve their function. All “standards” require critical examination beyond just first-hand experience: “If we valorize individual observation and experience…we also place the burden of responsibility on individual actors” to determine “safety” standards (2354). What constitutes an update to the living document of American health insurance, in addition to the numerous ways in which politicians frame empirical data alongside (sometimes strained) metaphors is the subject of an intense rhetorical situation with immediate and profound material implications. This, to me, shows that it’s important to find a strong balance between practices, empirical methodologies, and  situated subjectivities in the classroom (I also plan to use this ongoing controversy as a “teachable moment”).


That said, I wonder about of the ideas presented in the discussion of culturally focused service learning pedagogy as presented by Katherine V. Wills in “Designing Students: Teaching Technical Writing with Cultural Studies Approaches” and “Extending Service-Learning’s Critical Reflection and Action: Contributions of Cultural Studies” by J. Blake Scott. Wills argues that “As teachers, we need to bring to our pedagogy an awareness of the anti-intellectualism operating within universities as we try to teach technical writing with an eye towards the social patterns inherent in the technical communication event” (3498), which ties into institutional critiques by Scott that “The logistical demands of a service-learning course, students’ desire for a practical education, the disciplinary emphasis on uncritical accommodation, and the institutional and cultural emphasis on preparation for corporate success all work to maintain a pedagogy that facilitates praxis but not phronesis” (3249). To provide evidence of the need for an institutionally critical technical writing pedagogy, Wills goes on to state that “Teachers of technical writing courses at the undergraduate level are typically adjunct lecturers or graduate students who have little authentic experience with workplace writing” (3511). This raised my hackles a bit, both for personal and theoretical reasons.

Backtracking for a moment, Jim Henry asks in “Writing Workplace Cultures”, “Can one truly maintain a ‘quality of writing’ when potential layoff is an ever-present part of one’s writerly sensibilities?” (2814) and later that “Enduring above all a discourse that positions their expertise as marginal in the organization’s life, writers yearn for the means to find other organizations where such is not the case or to somehow change local views that see writing as a simple act of communicative packaging. As lone ‘agents’ in a local culture, they stand little chance of doing so, particularly given their low organizational status” (2839). Here, Salvo is referring to technical workers who leave the academy and venture from the critical, postmodern space into a decidedly modern and capitalistic workplace. However, I can think of a more immediate, local example of this disenfranchised writer: The humble adjunct. Though Henry mentions, briefly, the plight of part time instructors, it is framed within the context of an administrative problem that discourages critical pedagogy. Far from being removed from the “new work order” that Henry describes, the University, I would argue, is still very much enmeshed in the devaluing of “service” writers. Replace the verb “writing” with “teaching” and you have an accurate portrayal of the adjunct’s life.

Wills describes these part time and graduate instructors as being symptomatic of the larger problem of devaluing technical writing, however, in doing so she and Scott are guilty of the very sins they rail against. For example, Wills writes that “Creative teaching takes time and risk. If a pedagogical goal is to assist students in becoming better readers and writers of power issues surrounding document production in the workplace, the reliance on textbooks and formulas will have to take a temporary backseat to the instructor’s vision and the students’ effectiveness” (3548). This assumes a great deal about the teacher as author of a classroom: namely that he or she has the professional security and authority – the institutional currency – required to take such “time and risks.” For adjuncts, Blake’s logistical demands are more than just a matter of convenience: lacking job security, institutional respect, or (often) unions with which to collectively bargain, part time faculty survive by their ability to strategically navigate the ever-shifting demands of (often well intentioned) academic policies.

On a side note, every adjunct that I have ever met, myself included, has a great deal of authentic experience with workplace writing, often because we must do that very writing on the side to make a living wage.

This isn’t really a question, I suppose, so much as a problem that I feel needs addressing: How can we claim the moral authority to teach civic responsibility when, institutionally, academia devalues the very service labor that sustains so many departments? Shouldn’t we remove the plank in our own institutional eye before we presume to pluck out the mote in our students’? 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Critical Power Tools Chapter Two Extreme Usability and Technical Communication by Bradley Dilger

Critical Power Tools Chapter Two
Extreme Usability and Technical Communication by Bradley Dilger

In Chapter Two of Critical Power Tools Bradley Dilger argues, basically, that technology is killing us softly. In differentiating between technical practices of “usability” and “extreme usability” he argues that, though potentially user-centered, the ideology of “extreme usability” that has come to dominate discourses on technology draws our focus away from the mechanisms behind technology and technical discourse and obscures issues of labor, power, and ideology which both users and technical communicators must remain aware of. If usability is like a power plant, providing users a light by which to navigate the dark recesses of technological communication, extreme usability is the gigantic mutated Godzilla-esque monster rampaging across the technical landscape, leveling any attempts at meaningful discourse. At the risk of making things too easy on the reader, here is my customarily bulleted breakdown of the argument:

The Problem
Dilger writes that “Practitioners of extreme usability repeatedly invoke ease…in their definition of usability. This is no accident: extreme usability is, in fact, usability made easy, a simplified usability profoundly and problematically distinct from the robust, more carefully developed concepts of usability from which it was derived” (Location 690). The problem with this growing ethic of “keeping it simple” lies, according to Dilger, in its origins. The concept of ease, he writes, is historically tied to capitalism and the ethic of productivity connected to modern technology. Where before technology was valued for productivity in the workplace and concepts of ease were rooted in the home and leisure (and in the feminine), the rise of automated technologies saw a shift in ideology when the ease and simplicity of technological operation became tied directly to the productivity of the user. Dilger writes  that “As more automatic or ‘computerized’ products appeared, marketing emphasized not only labor-saving properties, but ease of use” (Location 739) and that, despite resistance, “opponents of usability were unable to overcome the massive power of ease, and it has become the most dominant force shaping the design and use of technological systems – following the transactional logic of consumer culture in which it first developed” (751).
The danger of this is that, as technology becomes tied to more and more aspects of our lives (as with email), the lines between technology and ideology begin to blur. Dilger argues that extreme usability “extends the ideological framework of ease… Like ease, extreme usability encourages an out-of-pocket rejection of difficulty and complexity, displaces agency and control to external experts, and represses critique and critical use of technology in the name of productivity and efficiency” (751). In short, ease of use leads to relentlessly pragmatic thinking, which cannot be disrupted because complications are not pragmatic. This removal of agency from the user may seem more gentle than older models, but the disempowerment remains nonetheless.

The Solution
At the risk of going against the very complications that Dilger calls for (now that I think about it, my approach to this blog has been extraordinarily influenced by the need to efficiently “produce” in a short period of time), the solution to this problem lies not so much in what to do as in what not to do.
When streamlining becomes the ultimate goal of technical communication, Dilger argues “the effects of extreme usability become recursive: By advancing a concept of usability shaped by the ideology of ease, the methodologies of usability come under attack as well” (828). Put simply, if ease is king, people will believe everything should be easy (and cheap), including the process of making things easier.
The solution to this recursion, then, is to avoid “best practices” approaches to teaching usability, since this approach “is made easier not only by reducing its cost, time, and complexity, but by restricting or excluding consideration of cultural forces from usability testing and assessment” (Location 878). According to Dilger “if the intent of usability is the development of user-centered technological systems and practices of communication, then despite its difficulty, we need to engage culture” when dealing with and teaching technology (Location 900). We need to root technology not in context-free (and thus simpler) locations like the lab, but in subjective, contextual environments of the users’ everyday life.

There are, throughout the text, clear connections to Johnson’s concept of “user-centered technology.” Dilger cites Johnson directly in attacking the novice/expert binary inherent in extreme usability, and attempts to defend his methodology by arguing that “If we fail to explicity acknowledge culture in our definitions…we risk giving back recent gains in the popularity of user-centered development” (Location 923).
Chapter one seems to locate this idea of extreme usability in an older model of technical communication called the “translation view” which demands that, for communication to be “easy” it must pre-suppose the neutrality of scientific and capitalistic communications (Location 633). It may be easier to ignore the ethics of our technologies, but this can have dire results. The consequences of this are explored further in chapter three where Moses and Katz argue that email’s ease of use is the result of, and the extension of, a capitalistic emphasis on efficiency where “Ideologically, work and leisure have become virtually interchangeable” (Location 1049). Due to the recurring emphasis on productivity and the encroaching “ease” of email, we now, as a consequence, even want our interpersonal relationships to be effortless and quick!

My question, as usual, is heretically pragmatic. In calling for a more “situated” method of testing and writing about technology, Dilger writes that, in spite of the difficulty, teaching a slower, less ease-centric method of technological communication is the only way to cleave to Johnson’s original vision of user-centered pedagogy (Location 953). However, as the book’s introduction points out, the University system itself is not immune to the allure of extreme usability: “The corporatization of the university – including the move toward more (economically) efficient pedagogical models…can work to squelch critique on an institutional level” (location 207). Given the short timeframe in which we, as instructors, can interact with our students, and considering the material and economical demands posed by University administration, where do we locate the responsibility for implementing the changes posed by Dilger? Is it the duty of the teacher to “sneak” critical and cultural discussion into the curriculum between the pre-approved best practices model? Or would Dilger put the onus on administrators to push more directly for change? How do you fight the system when the system is so seductively easy? 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Teaching Technical Writing Post 4: Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age by Johndan Johnson-Eilola.

It seems like a big problem facing technical communication, as a field, is one of definition, both in terms of what technical communicators do, and, more broadly, what they are in relation to other workers in their fields. Johndan Johnson-Eilola, in “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age”, writes that “we live and work in an increasingly post-industrial age, where information is fast becoming the more valuable product” (573). This is at the core of many of technical communication’s insecurities, since, according to Johnson-Eilola, many industries use old, obsolete industrial models to define technical communication.

The Problem
The main issue lies, according to Johnson-Eilola, in how technical communicators define themselves (and are defined by others): “Technical communication has traditionally occupied a support position in both academic and corporate spheres…The difficulty here is that real work easily becomes defined in reductive, context-independent ways: small, decontextualized functional tasks rather than large, messy, ‘real world’ projects” (574). This leaves teachers of technical communication relegated to the role of “technical trainers rather than educators” (575) and harms technical communicators by disempowering them in their institutions, and limiting the ways in which they can think about and interact with technology. This also disempowers users by ignoring the “constructive role that users play in the process [of technological development]” (577).

The Solution
Rather than locate technical communication in a “Support Model” of service oriented training, where “the value is located in a discrete, technological product” (576), Johnson-Eilola proposes that technical communicators approach their craft as “symbolic-analytic work.” In defining this new method, he draws upon Reich’s three primary areas of service work:
·         Routine Production: “Technical communicators fall into routine production in cases where their work becomes defined soley in terms of routine manual writing” (581).
·         In-Person Service: In-person service workers are those who deal directly with people. “As most technical communicators have discovered, many users refuse to read printed or online documentation…In essence, these workers read documentation to users unwilling to do so on their own.”
·        Symbolic-Analytic Workers: These are the workers who “deal with situations not easily addressed by routine solutions” (582) which requires more than just service-oriented knowledge, but a deeper understanding of the technical systems – and the rhetorics behind them.
The last category, according to Johnson-Eilola, is the best suited to navigate technical communication in a post-industrial age: “post-industrial work inverts the relationship between technical product and knowledge product: symbolic analysts make it clear – to themselves, to their employers, to the public – that in an age of ubiquitous technology and information, knowledge attains primary value” (583).
In order to rearticulate technical communication, Johnson Eilola argues that teachers of technical communication must emphasize:
·         Experimentation: Where we see technology not in terms of usability according to linear, non-situated designs, but in contextually situated, variable uses (585).
·         Collaboration: Where we “learn from and change existing collaborative practices” and thus “position ourselves and our students as socially responsible experts – in other words, we help students learn to be both effective participants and responsible community members” (586)
·         Abstraction: Where we encourage students not to memorize information relating to specific programs, but to “learn to discern patterns, relationships, and hierarchies in large masses of information” (587).
·         System Thinking: Where we encourage our students to “recognize and construct relationships and connections in extremely broad, often apparently unrelated domains” (587). Or, put another way, to see how technical artifacts interconnect with one another and inform the social situations surrounding them.
Finally, he defines five “key projects” that theorists of technical communication should strive for.
1.       Connect education to work
2.       Question educational goals
3.       Question educational processes and infrastructures
4.       Build meta-knowledge, network knowledge, and self-reflective practices
5.       Rethink interdisciplinarity
In questioning, examining, and crossing disciplinary boundaries, Johnson-Eilola argues technical communication can, in turn, redefine how work is viewed in a post-industrial age, and empower communicators to better examine, and influence, technological development and dissemination.

Like many of the readings from this chapter, I saw several connections to Johnson’s “user-centered” technologies. Especially prominent is the notion of users and technical communicators having both power and responsibility over the course of technological development. Johnson-Eilola calls for us to train our students to become “socially responsible experts” in technology (586). Similarly, in “Educating Technical Communicators to Make Better Decisions” Cezar Ornatowski argues that “in a society increasingly driven by technology, the technical communicator is becoming an important voice in determining how the issues involving technology…are framed and approached” (597). In “Teaching for Change, Vision, and Responsibility” Stephen Bernhardt also echoes this idea of the user-centered technological rhetor as an agent of positive change: “the rhetoric of technical communication encourages individuals to consider those imperatives for acting in the common good entailed in the pursuit of individual or corporate goals” (605). This question of disciplinary identity is raised in other aspects of the field as well. Lee-Ann Breuch calls for a unified framework to approach the concept of technical communication, arguing that “The strength of this framework would not be in finding consensus about key issues of technological literacy…but rather in identifying key issues presented in this literature” (483). Similarly, questions of gender raised by Mary Lay, and economic access by Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher all tie into this question of defining the discipline. Johnson Eilola writes that critical insights about feminism and other fields of socially oriented research can provide opportunity for critical insight into systems of technological and human interaction (588). Increasingly, technological rhetoric is moving towards a “user-centered” pedagogy that concerns itself with issues of access, awareness, and context regarding technology in wider systems. Johnson Eilola argues that, as teachers of technical communication, this is important to keep in mind if we are to serve the public good and identify ourselves as educators rather than mere training specialists.

Johnson-Eilola argues that instructors need to “question educational processes and infrastructures” citing the example of distance education as one of the processes worth critically examining. He writes that, despite the possibilities created by online education, “in the long run, some forms of distance learning may tend to isolate learners… We need to make it clear what the benefits are of residence learning; we need to insist on defining education in broad terms that include more than just seat time and test scores. At the same time, we need to understand ways that networked communication can positively affect education and work and to create additional positive environments” (590). However, as Hawisher and Selfe point out, access to technologies tend to skew unevenly along poverty lines. This  applies as much to distance education as to residence learning, especially when technology makes its way into the classroom.

My question, then, is what do we as instructors do when the technological needs of the students conflict with the infrastructural needs of the university? Without naming specific programs (though the one I’m thinking of rhymes with “z-shmortfolio”), I’ve noticed that the standardized technological tools provided to students tend to favor the research and financial needs of the University over those of the students. This is especially troubling when one considers how the extra costs of certain programs or devices (laptop rentals, etc.) may mean the difference between a student being able to take a class or not. Or what if, for example, a student is able to utilize the reflective, systemic thinking Johnson-Eilola extolls in ways that circumvent institutional systems (such as pirating a digital copy of an expensive textbook and collaborating with his or her peers by sharing it with them)? Where do our loyalties lie when we find ourselves on the receiving end of this questioning?  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teaching Technical Writing Post 3: "Rethinking Genre from a Sociocognitive Perspective" by Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin (or) Stop Me if You've Heard this One Before.

You probably already know what I’m going to say in this post. More importantly, you know, roughly, how I’m going to say it. It will open with a bit of hemming and hawing; a semi-informal introduction that outlines both the content of my post in brief and transitions neatly into the meat of my response. In the following paragraphs there will be reference to, and brief discussion of, the salient points from the reading concluding with an attempt to connect these points to other readings, and to larger issues surrounding my chosen discipline.

Your ability to predict, and thus better interact with, my writing, is due to familiarity with the genre that I am writing in. The semi-formal, online reading response has its own set of conventions, moves, and rules to guide what can be said and how I can say it. It is an evolution of the formal academic essay that evolved in response to technological changes and the interactions between older forms and newer possibilities. According to Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin in “Rethinking Genre from a Sociocognitive Perspective” genres, the “media through which scholars and scientists communicate with their peers” (284) are “inherently dynamic rhetorical structures that can be manipulated according to the conditions of use” (285). Genres, they argue, are not static, inflexible rules, but rather a set of ever-shifting conventions that locate, define, and redefine particular modes of communication.

The problem, according to Berkenkotter and Huckin, is that traditionally, genres have been approached from a limited perspective, focusing solely on the features of texts rather than the “users” of genre as a technology. “Although such an approach enables one to make generalizations…it does not enable us to determine anything about the ways in which genre is embedded in the communicative activities of the members of a discipline” (284) Similar to Johnson’s user-centered method of interacting with technological artifacts, genre (arguably a technology itself) also needs to be studied as an ongoing, flexible interaction between users and technology in order to examine how one shapes the other.

Basing their own arguments on Bakhtin and Vygotsky, Berkenkotter and Huckin define five principles of genre that locate it among the “situated” or “everyday cognition” of its users (285). These five principles, dynamism, situatedness, form and content, duality of structure, and community ownership, essentially all define genre as recurring forms of communication that develop in response to rhetorical situations  (287). “This knowledge, rather than being explicitly taught, is transmitted through enculturation” of developing participants in a discourse community (289). Primary genres are “embedded in the milieu in which they occur” while Secondary genres are “organized cultural communication” that must be deliberately learned.
To be able to use a genre effectively, learners must have “social knowledge” of their community, which includes an awareness of what is or is not appropriate within the rules of their field, and how best to use them to accomplish specific rhetorical ends. 

These conventions typically focus on wording, structure, and topic, but, I would argue, also include visual rhetoric and modes of presentation. For instance, Kramer and Bernhardt’s article “Teaching Text Design” shows how font and spacing can convey certain ideas to certain audiences: “The threat of [font styles] is that novice designers sometimes end up producing texts that look like ransom notes. A careful book designer decides on a specific use of each type style” (259). Similarly, medium can influence how a genre is perceived, as shown by Lisa Ann Jackson, who describes how simply transferring the conventions of printed memos to intranet hypertext can result in “lengthy pages through which to scroll and sometimes even unnecessary and cumbersome graphic representations of text…when print documents are merely  ‘posted’ to an intranet, there is no value added to the only document, and often the print document is easier to use, a fact that compels users to revert to previously learned methods of performing their work” (270).

Ultimately, Berkenkotter and Huckin argue that a genre is both dictated by the needs of its community, and shaped by them. They write that “our use of rhetorical genres is both constitutive of social structure…and generative as situated, artful practice” (300). Technology, and the features associated with it, (like, for example, the readability and accessibility of blogs leading to less formal reading responses) lead to an evolution in the features of specific genres and subgenres. To demonstrate that one belongs to a discourse community, an author must both demonstrate awareness of generic conventions, but also know when to experiment with them to respond to the changing needs of a rhetorical situation. “To be fully effective…genres must be flexible and dynamic, capable of modification according to the rhetorical exigencies of the situation. At the same time, though, they must be stable enough to capture those aspects of situations that tend to recur” (304).

Regarding classroom practice, this article connects to Aviva Freedman and Christine Adam’s essay “Learning to Write Professionally”.  They write that, in the university, students are able to learn the conventions of professional genres as “facilitated performers”, guided by mentors for the purpose of learning the rules in their “pure” state (322). However, “the workplace operates as a community of practice whose tasks are focused on material or discursive outcomes” (323). Spinuzzi argues that we best serve our students when teaching them to “learn how to learn genres” (346), but given how quickly technology changes, and how quickly genres and subgenres change to match it, this seems like a difficult task.

My question, then, relates to the impact of technology on genre: If teachers are unable to work with every modality that a student will need to engage with when they arrive in the workplace, how can we effectively teach them to introduce themselves into, and then follow, the ever-evolving generic landscape that Berkenkotter and Huckin describe? Is it even possible for us to teach them “how to learn” well enough that they’ll be able to produce new content as their field demands? Furthermore, if genre conventions include visual and modal elements, how can we, as specialists in words, effectively prepare them? 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Teaching Technical Writing 2: Johnson vs. Moore (Teaching Technical Communication Chapter One)

My readings from Teaching Technical Communication this week include “Complicating Technology: Interdisciplinary Methods, the Burden of Comprehension, and the Ethical Space of the Technical Communicator” by Robert Johnson, “Myths about Instrumental Discourse: A Response to Robert R. Johnson” by Patrick Moore, and the aptly titled “Johnson Responds” by Robert Johnson. The three articles represent an extended disciplinary argument (“brawl” might be a better categorization in some instances) about the place of theoretical discourse in the field of technical communication. Essentially, both authors seek to answer the questions that is likely to haunt us as we enter the classroom: is technical communication an art, a science, or a rhetorical philosophy? Are we teaching a set of marketable skills, or a new way of viewing technology and the world around it? Are we doing theory or practice?

Johnson’s Argument

The Problem: Johnson sums up the problem plaguing the field of technical communication as one of focus within the larger scope of academia. He writes that “To define, narrowly, the theoretical disposition of [technical writing] as ‘instrumental’ is to become defensively monodisciplinary…and thus risk becoming subservient to disciplines that occupy the other side, usually the power-side, of the binaries” (25). This, he argues, reduces technology to mere artifacts, and the technical communicator to “a mere scribe.” This makes it impossible to think critically about how people use technology, which prevents the “user centered approach” he advocates, and could even lead to disasters like Chernobyl or the Challenger, which he characterizes as resulting from failures of communication about technology rather than the devices themselves (25).

The Solution: A large part of this problem stems from “the difficulties we face as we cross disciplinary boundaries” (as illustrated by the Sokal affair). These miscommunications across the disciplines stem, in turn, from a fundamental lack of respect and reciprocity between the humanities. To solve these problems and establish a better rapport between the disciplines, Johnson argues that we, as scholars, need to develop a better understanding of the methodologies by which other specializations approach technology in order to better “understand the contexts, values and methods of those from whom we borrow” (28), what he calls fulfilling our responsibility to the “burden of comprehension.”
In an effort to practice what he preaches, Johnson, in a manner similar to the more extended approach he took in User Centered Technology categorizes the different approaches taken by the disciplines of History, Sociology, and Philosophy, outlining the history and evolution of their methods and discussing what scholars of rhetoric may take from them. Overall, Johnson’s solution hinges on finding a way to approach the discipline of technical writing from a variety of perspectives: “Problems of citizenship, ethics, and disciplinary relationships paint brightly colored illustrations of how technology can be questioned, yet preserved” (40). But that to properly communicate across the disciplinary boundaries, scholars of technical communication must foster trust and open-mindedness and a willingness to learn and reciprocate. He closes by arguing that “Without reciprocity, or the attempt to carry it out, we remain voiceless, passive observers, peering into the disciplinary windows” (41) and that “we must practice patience to comprehend what we borrow” (43).

Moore’s Argument
The Problem: Moore writes, in an aggressive response to Johnson, that the problem is not one of narrow focus. Instead, he argues that the marginalization and subservience of which Johnson complains stems from an overemphasis on theory at the cost of practice. He writes that “How academics define technical communication is crucial because definitions influence curriculum design, classroom teaching strategies, financial expenditures, students’ preparation for the workplace, and the heuristic power of theory. If technical communication is defined exclusively as rhetoric, then rhetoricians control the curriculum” (46). This, he argues, is part of “an academic power game which some faculty use to advance their political agendas within the profession and within their academic departments” (47). The consequences of this, he argues, is a devaluing of technical communication as a discipline, since, according to Moore, the focus on theory at the expense of practical communication skills leaves students ill-prepared for the demands of the job market which, in turn, harms the reputation of Technical Communication departments, further marginalizing them and harming students.

The Solution: Moore blames scholars like Johnson for perpetuating the six “myths” about instrumental discourse. Moore responds to these “myths” over six segments, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the disrespect of technical communication as a field is self-inflicted, stemming from a lack of utility, stemming from material concerns. To solve this, he writes that, “Where Johnson appears to be defensively multidisciplinary, I advocate an approach that combines an awareness of the disciplines that impact communication with a sensitivity to the needs of users…we should base our theories on what users need, not on theories from other academic specialties that are distantly related or unrelated to technical communication” (51) and that rather than borrow from "totalizing rhetoricians," Johnson should be borrowing from “the everyday Joes and Janes who have to apply technology to solving their problems…[who] do not want technology complicated. They want it integrated more effectively into their workplaces and their lives” (54).

In his rebuttal, Johnson first argues that he and Moore both want, essentially, the same thing: an approach to technological studies that is “user centered” (58). He argues, however, that Moore is mistaken, first in his definition of “instrumental discourse”, stating that “most disciplines perceive the term ‘instrumental’ as, at best, a very narrow view of technology, and, at worst, a view of technology that is simplistic to the point of being outright dangerous” (59). The goal to Johnson is not to complicate technology for the sake of complication, but to move away from a discourse that takes utterances at face value. He argues that “users should be part of the communication from the beginning to the end of development cycles” (60) and that scientists like Moore, not rhetoricians, are the ones guilty of overreach: “I have had such a hard time imagining a place where the discipline of rhetoric is so powerful that it controls the nature of students, curricula, public institutions, governmental agencies, and private corporations” (61).

Despite the hostility and sarcasm present in Moore’s attack and Johnson’s rebuttal, I do think that this argument does raise some important questions about how we, as technical communications experts, negotiate the assumptions and prejudices of our students, our interdisciplinary colleagues, and the larger world of material concerns.

My question, then, is how do we take Johnson’s method of accepting the “burden of comprehension” for other disciplines and apply it to the needs of our students and their future employers? Moore writes that “Many practicing technical communication professionals are acutely aware that academic theorizing…takes important class time away from studying the fundamentals of writing and editing communication products” (49). Though this, and his other assumptions about the humanities are clearly reductive and hostile, the perception of these stereotypes does not exist in a vacuum. How, then, can we use Johnson’s methodology of comprehension and reciprocity to better help our students and strike up more productive (and less hostile!) conversations with our colleagues in the fields of business and the sciences?

It seems that in these, and in much of the other readings throughout the book, the discipline of Technical Writing butts heads against both other humanistic fields and against the sciences. Throughout questions of definition, technical writing experts seem eager to divorce themselves of accusations of positivism and instrumentalist thinking. Must Instrumental Discourse be antagonistic to Humanistic Discourse? Do technical communicators need to maintain distance from hard-liners like Moore in order to be taken seriously? Can't we all just get along?