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?
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).
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?