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’? 

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