Winsor, Dorothy A. Writing Like an Engineer : A Rhetorical Education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996. Print


  • W. provides some interesting methodological points in her preface.  She notes that, paradoxically, when we research we often make objects out of our subjects (while calling them subjects).  To address this univocal representation of infinitely complex human beings she provides a section called “backtalk” wherein her research objects are provided time to respond to the experience of participating in her study (ix).

Chapter One:  Do Engineers Use Rhetoric?

  • W. begins this chapter by describing how the work of engineers isn’t in the production of any technical artifact; rather, engineers use other sources of knowledge (usually other individuals writings) to produce more knowledge about a technical artifact (not the technical artifact itself).  As such, the rhetoricity of the knowledge drawn upon and produced is always at play: engineers are making science through active decisions about reliability, replicability, and rhetoric (1).  Put another way, W. wants to know how any particular knowledge is agreed upon as valid in a circle of technoscience actors [1. Law does similar work in his book Aircraft Stories.  In this work Law demonstrates how each technoscientific artifact operates as a different artifact for different people based on different epistemologies and different assessments of reliability and relevance. This is STS at work.].
  • W. notes that technoscientific objects (and all objects, really) always need a spokesperson – an agent that stands between the object and what we see – an interpreter that provides data to the observer (us) in order to convince us of an object’s utility.  This is the rhetorical nature of engineering work (2).  W. makes this point all the more real by demonstrating how two different engineering groups considering the O-ring deficiency in the Challenger space shuttle yielded two different conclusions based on the same set of data.  Obviously, this particular technoscientific rhetorical act had dramatic consequences.
  • W. notes that the words persuasion and audience were the most problematic classical rhetorical terms for the study.  What she means here is that engineers are skeptical of the word persuasion because they don’t consider the relationship between themselves and their readers as one that needs persuading; rather, they describe the results of their study as more or less convincing.  W. notes that this is because the words persuasion has shares connotations with manipulation. . . which is obviously something you wouldn’t do with data.  Likewise, W. notes that the engineers she studied didn’t use the word audience because it refers to a temporally defined, limited group who will receive the engineers data.  Because the object of science isn’t to convince a specific audience but to produce universal claims, audience was viewed by engineers as a limited framework – a framework that could not account for the reciprocal, interactive nature of engineer writing and technical writing reading (4).
  • As W. claims, her study “looks at the interaction between engineering epistemology and engineering practice in the area of rhetoric and particularly in the area of writing” (4).  Specifically, W. claims that engineers have a particularly hard time with understanding knowledge as a rhetorical construction.  As such, their writing often suffers.
  • For W., rhetorical “means persuasive work that is part of the activity and asserts that knowledge is formed in interpersonal negotiation over interpretations of evidence rather than simply in the close individual examination of an unambiguous reality” (5).
  • W. notes that science is knowledge that is held “in common”; as such, it might appear arhetorical; however, what makes knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – rhetorical is the fact that this knowledge is shared by a bounded (temporally, spatially, epistemologically, etc.) group. . . a group that knows and makes meaning in a particular way.  The “common knowledge” of any group is a remarkable achievement of cultural consensus – a shared epistemology.
  • Interestingly, W. notes that what makes a particularly effective rhetoric in STS is the denial of any claims rhetoricity.  This guise of objectivity makes claims more solid; however, it refuses to acknowledge the role of language in the construction of a truth-claim (7).
  • Geisler noted in 1994 that students are often very late in taking up the idea of rhetorical knowledge; however, when students do recognize the rhetorical nature of knowledge production they are often ready to begin joining the professions, producing that knowledge in rhetorical ways (even while denying its rhetoricity) (7).  W. notes that MacKinnon describes this meta-awareness of the rhetorical nature of knowledge production as social cognition or the ability to “effectively represent one’s social environment” (8).  Social cognition or meta awareness of the rhetoricity of epistemology is often undermined by particular disciplinary epistemologies and disciplinary practices.
  • W. recognizes the importance of particular discourse communities on the production, reception, and circulation of particular epistemologies in her study (8-9).  She notes that the central component of any discourse community: shared language (via Vygotsky, Haas, Geisler, Lutz, MacKinnon).
  • How is engineering a social activity?  Technoscientific objects are designed as a social activity to meet a practical set of goals that somehow serve human beings in some way; as such, their design is intimately “bound up with economic, military, social, personal, and environmental needs and constraints” (Vicenti 1990, 11, qtd. in Winsor 11).  In other words, engineering occurs in a social context.  For engineers the sociality of knowledge occurs through collaboration, teamwork, etc.
  • Framework of the book:  Chapter Two – examines the way that exposure to practicing engineers and to common engineering genres influenced students’ ideas about both engineering and engineering writing (also suggests that novices are able to use the exterior forms of disciplinary language before they understand them; however, this experimental use leads to an understanding); Chapter Three – looks at audience; Chapter Four – considers Chris’s attempts at persuasion over the course of 5 years; Chapter Five – summarizes the responses of the four research subjects on “what does it mean to write like an engineer?” and Chapter Six – offers speculations about what it means to be in a discourse community and still be able to critique it (17).
  • Questions that guide the work of this book:
    • How was the students’ use of engineering language connected to their sense of themselves as engineers?
    • How did the students account for their own texts?  Did they themselves believe that they were writing rhetorically?
    • What was the relationship between the engineering discourse community they were entering and their beliefs about rhetoric?  To what extend did that community support their use of rhetoric?  What kind of knowledge of rhetoric did it encourage or prevent?
    • How do the writing practices the students encountered lead us to reinterpret traditional concepts of persuasion and audience?

Chapter Two – Socialization Through Writers and Genres

  • W. begins by noting that engineering – like most of the sciences – is a social practice.  Recognizing this means acknowledging that as a social practice engineering is communal – something that people do together; and a “community of practice” or the practice of engineering constitutes the engineering community.  This community holds knowledge production (as any community does) as its central practice.  As such, to become an engineer means to learn the knowledge production practices of this social community.  This act of acculturation – the acquisition of epistemologies of social production in engineering (or any community) – is socialization or legitimate peripheral participation (19).  This is the process of any education – especially the disciplining education of graduate school.
  • W. notes, relying on Lave and Wenger, that folks learn this socialization through authentic language tasks or real writing in real situations (20).
  • A striking quote, “Although there are plainly elements of good writing (such as usage) that carry over from situation to situation, a writer is expert not because he or she has learned to write well according to criteria that stand apart from any context, but because he or she has learned to “read” local contextual demands more accurately” (21).
  • W. uses Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to describe how the subjects of her study moved from being enabled to write to knowing how to write as inhabited activity.  The acquisition of this knowledge occurred through writing as a situated social practice (22).  This acquisition also relied heavily upon models and the influence of existing texts – these models included audience consideration as a built-in; as such, they were often successful (even if the student wasn’t considering audience).
  • W. uses Swales, Miller, and Bazerman to draw attention to the ways that genres function as models of discourse community standards and norms.  Yet, these genres are also dependent on audience considerations.  W. noted that when cost or marketability were foregrounded in a technical document the audience was often composed of individuals at the top of an organizational hierarchy (and hence responsible for economic considerations); likewise, when the report stuck to more “internal technical criteria” such as reliability the report was often oriented toward practicing engineers (30-31).
  • W. notes that engineers often change register (Gilbert and Mulkay) – or, the engineers recognized that different explanations are required for different situations (rhetoric!).  As such, two different views of the same data can be equally true depending on the question being asked or the situation being considered.  As such, the data is always rhetorical but is presented as arhetorical.  W. finds the difference in these positions as one of authority: the data is arhetorical in textual artifacts while the data is always rhetorical in lived, embodied experience (34-6).
  • W. notes that engineers might write more rhetorically not because of a particular job position but because of their “circumstance, personal ability, inclination, and attitude toward writing” (41).

Chapter Three – Learning to Construct and Interact With an Audience

  • Audience plays an important role in recognizing the rhetorical nature of epistemology/knowledge.  As W. notes, “The writer has to believe that knowledge, and particularly disciplinary or organizational knowledge, is negotiated between people rather than passed from one to another” (45).  As such, a recognition of audience and a step toward meeting audience expectations means an attendant recognition that epistemology is contextual and audience-contingent.  Recognition of this position means an attendant change in how we consider a discourse:  the bifurcation between persuasive and informative discourse is actually something of a false binary.  ALL discourse is persuasive if the speaker is considering the reader’s reaction to a text (45).  So, when engineers strive for clarity (instead of persuasiveness) they are really aiming at a “local, temporary achievement implying a certain amount of persuasiveness” (45).
  • Audience recognition is actually a reciprocal process wherein the audience and rhetor continuously reshape the message to meet the needs and desires of all parties involved.  In other words, even for engineers, the communicative act is always dialogic.
  • W. claims that the subjects she studied thought about audience in two ways:  1) they needed to have their attention drawn to the existence of an audience in the first place (this occurred through advice, positive or negative feedback, document type/genre, and proximity to audience); and 2) they needed to learn what the audience wanted from their texts (achieved through interaction with potential audiences and observation of actual situations where users are using texts).  Put plainly, understanding audience meant understanding writing as a “socially situated achievement” (47).
  • W. notes that audiences were more visible if they were more powerful (a truism).  W. also notes that students were more aware of audience as they progressed from their freshman to senior years (as measured by references to audience).
  • W. notes that the subjects she studied were much more aware of audience when discussing audience-oriented genres (such as the user manual) (51-4).  Further, the organizational histories also played into considerations of audience and persuasiveness of documents.

Chapter Four – The Textual Negotiation of Corporate “Reality”

  • In this chapter W. asks a simple question, “How does persuasion work in a hierarchical situation?” (like a corporation) (70).  In considering the answer to this question, W. claims that a reciprocal up-down negotiation with the powerful and the powerless occurs through the production of organizational documents.  This negotiation (or persuasiveness) allows for those with little power to negotiate with the powerful in the creation of a whole new corporate world (71).  The takeaway:  “representation is not simply determined by reality, nor can writing impose a view of reality.  Rather, writing is part of a process by which a common reality is negotiated” (72).  In other words, writing in organizational contexts isn’t necessarily prescriptive or descriptive; rather, they are conscriptive or they enroll actors in the creation of a different world (74).  Yet, as is the case with most things, power tends to direct that conscription in such a way as to complicate the idea that the common world being created is an equal one.
  • A central (and interesting!) question about manuals:  do they dictate peoples behaviors or are they a documentation of those behaviors?  (71)
  • W. closes this section by considering the question of ethics:  what does ethical writing look like in a corporate environment?  Can ethics be outsourced and jettisoned up the hierarchy of responsibility?  What ethical obligations do technical communicators have in the construction of texts for corporate audiences (audiences composed of multiple parties from the most powerful to the least)?

Chapter Five – Writing Like and Engineer

  • W. begins this chapter by noting that all of her participants saw writing as an engineer (even after 5 years of co-oping) as arhetorical and answerable to the corporate hierarchy (87).  They went on to recognize that engineer’s writing is boring (audience interest isn’t a primary goal – engineer’s writing is authoritative in the Bakthinian sense), arhetorical (persuasion is practiced by mangers, not engineers), only aimed at other engineers (others might read it; however, engineer writing is aimed at a closed, internal engineering audience i.e., the engineers discourse community), and context-specific (the workplace standards they used in corporate settings were appropriate standards – again, suggestive of a closed world) (87-8).

Chapter Six – Conclusion

  • W. begins by recognizing a real fear:  what happens when a student/workers discourse community begins to define the norms of their discourse outside of that community?  Said another way, can the logic of an engineer’s discourse community insinuate itself into the day-to-day life that exists outside of the workplace?  Could engineers produce even better technoscientific artifacts/objects if they weren’t bound by the primacy of data?  Is there a constraining nature to the norms of the engineering discourse community that prevents the cocreation of a better workworld/lifeworld?
  • W. notes that critiquing a discipline/discourse community is easier when one is still something of an outsider to it; as such, I might add that W. is making an argument about the importance of interdiciplinarity here – we must remain skeptical of ourselves in order to continually create better worlds.

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