Readings from Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Central Works in Technical Communication

  • Miller, C.  (1979, 2004).  A humanistic rationale for technical communication.  47-54.
  • Rutter, R. (1991, 2004). History, rhetoric, & humanism:  Toward a more comprehensive definition of technical communication.  20-34.
  • Sullivan, D.L. (1990, 2004).  Political-ethical implications of defining technical communication as a practice. 211-219.
  • Lay, M.M. (1991, 2004).  Feminist theory and the redefinition of technical communication.  146-159.
  • Slack, J.D., Miller, D.J., & Doak, J.D. (1993, 2004). The technical communicator as author:  meaning, power, authority. 160-174.

“The Technical Communicator as Author” – Slack, Miller & Doak

  • Slack notes that the fundamental insight of this piece is the “assertion that technical communicators, whether it is acknowledged or not, contribute to the articulation of meaning and thus implicated in relations of power and authority” (161).
  • The author believes that technical communicators yearn for the “level of social responsibility” that their work deserves.
  • Relying on Foucault, Slack notes that the concept of authorship renders some discourses less valuable than others – in particular, technical communication isn’t given the respect it deserves.
  • Slack identifies three models of modes of communication:  transmission (conveying meaning from one point to another – meaning is fixed, use of the technical writer as surrogate engineer, power is possessed by the sender), translation (similar to Latour’s notion, this is the constitution of meaning in the interpretation and reinterpretation of messages, power is negotiated, meaning is produced as an interaction between sender and receiver, miscommunication isn’t the result of poor encoding and decoding; rather, different frameworks of knowledge, production and technical infrastructure might be responsible for communication breakdown – in other words, different social practice.  Also, the encoder holds the power in this understanding ), and articulation (the ongoing struggle to articulate and rearticulate meaning.  Articulation seems to be a far larger way of understanding the communication process.  In articulation, the sender and receiver are considered; however, so are the mediators or the channels of transmission.  In this case, media and technologies.  To some degree, articulation seems to be a recognition of multiplicity in the communication process – see top of 169).
  • Ultimately, Slack is concerned with how to authorize technical communication.  To do so, she focuses her work on the articulation aspect of communication and how the process of articulation is wrapped up in relations of power.
  • Communication is inherently ideological and imbricated in power because of it’s roots as a technology designed to “exercise control over space and people faster and farther” (163).
  • Translation finds many analogues with Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia.
  • Slack’s discussion of “identity trains” seems to have a lot in common with Latour’s “immutable mobiles” – in other words, these are trains or associations that are stable enough to base ideas/things on them.  Their meaning, while not fixed, is fairly static.
  • Power in the articulation model works to fix multiplicity.

Sullivan – Political-ethical implications of defining technical communication as a practice

  • Sullivan notes early on that composition has largely served the needs of capitalist/technological modes of production through objectivity, clarity, problem solving, etc.  In this process, writing has ignored the social responsibility of writers.
  • Sullivan relies heavily on Miller’s conception of tech  comm.  He notes that Miller’s work argues that “traditional technical writing instruction is based on the ‘windowpane’ theory of language, a theory that frames technical and scientific writing as ‘just a series of maneuvers for staying out of the way’” (213).  Instead, Sullivan hopes that technical writing can be a “kind of enculturation” that helps students belong to a community.
  • Sullivan notes that “genres define rhetorical situations”  ; in effect, genres are kairotic.
  • Sullivan argues that teaching standardized formats and forms enculturates students into the military-industrial complex.  To me, this sounds absolutely true; however, is there an escape mechanism?
  • Techne – skill to produce a product.  Praxis – a practice of social action.  Phronesis – the virtue of practical wisdom or prudence.
  • To get out of the bind mentioned earlier, Sullivan advocates rhet/comp folks to “change my course so that it at once teaces the discourse appropriate for the technological world and makes students aware of the values embedded in such discourse and the dehumanizing effects of it” (215).
  • Sullivan hopes to expand technical communication to political discourse and public discourses about technology to escape the genres of military-industrial domination in his classroom.

Rutter – History, Rhetoric, and Humanism

  • Rutter is working to place technical communication in the fields of rhetoric and, more broadly, humanist education in this piece.
  • Rutter reviews the humanist and rhetoric of science traditions to demonstrate how technical communication can learn a lot from both strands of education.  He does this to demonstrate that all communication – even technical – needs the “theoretical” element – the imaginative element – to be useful and good.  If not, it’s merely replication of power. . . something that Slack addresses when describing technical communication as transmission.
  • On pp. 26-8 Rutter provides a nice intellectual history that provides the basis for understanding the development of technical writing courses at the university level.
  • Rutter advocates a consideration of the same elements that Slack assigns to the process of translation and articulation – a technical communicator (and research in technical communication) must consider the writer, audience, mediators and social realities when composing technical writing.  He calls it “culture” (30)
  • A fantastic quote – “What we do need to understand is that majors and careers are by-products of education, not the purposes for which it should be sought” (32).

Miller – A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing

  • At it’s core, this essay asks “could we argue that technical writing has humanistic value?”
  • This essay – like Rutter and Slack especially – argues that technical communication ISN’T an act of transmission.  It ISN’T in service to positivist dreams of complete replication of reality through writing.
  • Miller contends that technical communication is often taught from the “windowpane” view that language is a reflection – completely and wholly – of reality. . . no missteps possible.
  • Postivitism – the conviction that sensory data are the only permissible basis for knowledge (49).
  • Miller addresses four problems in the teaching of positivist technical writing in this article: 1)unsystematic definitions of technical writing; 2) emphasis on style and organization in technical writing at the expense of invention; 3) insistence on certain characteristics of tone in technical writing; and 4) analysis of audience in terms of ‘level’ in technical writing (50).
  • Miller is also aware of technical writing as an instrument of a capitalist military-industrial complex (52).

Lay – Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication

  • Recognizing the positivist and androcentric tendencies of technical communication research and scholarship, Lay argues for a revaluation in this piece.
  • This piece looks at how ethnography and collaborative writing provide new and interesting connections between technical communication research and feminist theory.
  • Characteristics of feminist theory:
    • Celebration of difference
    • Theory activating social change
    • Acknowledgement of scholars’ backgrounds and values
    • Inclusion of women’s experiences
    • Study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship
    • New sources of knowledge – perhaps a benefit of the five characteristics already listed
  • Issues in feminist theory:
    • Should feminists emphasize similarities or differences among men and women?
    • Should these differences be located in cultural or biological traits?
    • Should these first two issues promote or displace binary opposition?
  • Technical communication is not objective; rather, Lay contends that the distinctions between science and rhetoric disappear when truth is conceived as agreement within a community.
  • Because science is inherently masculine (until now anyway), it’s androcentric qualities will be difficult for many tech comm. Folks to recognize.
  • Ethnography and feminist theory are described – especially the shared values toward researcher background, acknowledgement of researcher in research process, discovery of meaning and reflection on process.  Also triangulation, thick description, and effect of ethnography on participants.  All good ideas for researchers in tech comm. Researchers in corporate/organizational environments.
  • Though a bit binaristic, Lay contends that male collaborators need to adopt female approaches toward conflict to conduct effective collaborative writing.

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