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?  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing a nice blog.
    TWB_ provides #Product, #Learning & #Marketing #content specific for Life sciences, healthcare & pharmaceutical, and corporations for them to create and manage content from different departments, business lines & divisions. A lot of this content is procedural and regulatory. TWB_ has a deep understanding of domain and helps these companies to create differentiation, provide consistency and reuse, or minimize translation and publishing costs.Technical and Marketing Documentation Service Provider.