Wicked Problems

I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this post…

I suppose the chapter I most connected with this week is 8. This is the second time this semester that the term and realities of Wicked Problems has shown up. The first time was in the Scientific Writing course I am lucky enough to be teaching this semester 🙂

The fact that wicked problems are so closely tied with globalization and that with technology (Science, Health, Tech Comm, Community Management, they are showing up everywhere) makes the realities attached to solving them particularly interesting for Read More


Week 4 – Reading Response

Theory (to me) has never only represented philosophical thinking. When it comes to science, technically a hypothesis in an experiment is theoretical, especially since trials (forms of practice) are conducted following initial research and inquiry. [I often write these responses as I read. I wrote the previous sentences before I got to the bottom of page 127. Proud moment! 🙂 ] The Max scenario located in the introduction of Chapter 5 notes that it is a lack of theory and practice on Max’s part that keeps him from communicating with customers more effectively. On page 130, Porter asks if “we should keep things as clear and as simple as possible,” but what exactly does clear and simple entail? That which is identifiable as clear and simple to some may not be for others. For example, on page 126 Porter suggests that Max’s problem lies in the fact that Max puts more emphasis and focus into his document than he does his audience. This very well may be the case, but this idea (in itself) can be problematic. The audience of the document that Max keeps making adjustments to IS the entire reason as to why he continuously works on it. [This was mentioned on page 140 – again, I wrote this before I read it too.] I would like to argue that the lack of theorizing on Max’s part has nothing to do with the method of communication he has chosen but more-so with user comprehension of the language the document holds. Max’s efforts into making the document more ‘clear and simple’ could be ineffective because he is being too technical in language. Perhaps he should break his information down another way in order for the audience to get better understanding (and this is where question forums and other suggestions may come into play). Whatever Max chooses to do, these are the ways of thinking and theorizing that he should apply to his job as a technical communicator. [I just realized that in the midst of writing this I, too, am doing what the chapter has been speaking of thus far. Talk about having a ‘meta’ moment!]

Also, I found it interesting that Porter mentions the practice of applying theory as what seems to almost be pedagogical. He didn’t say this directly, but on page 130 he mentions that “if you are working collaboratively on a team to design…for your company, you need a theory of collaboration and teamwork that guides how you work with others.” For some reason, this reminded me of the different pedagogies I studied in ENGL 6625 last semester. No, what Porter is talking about may not necessarily be education or writing related, but what he IS saying is that there should be planning and methodological practice behind whatever you do. Obviously, if your position requires you to collaborate on the regular with your coworkers/colleagues, they are going to have to be able to brainstorm and theorize just as you do. Whether it is the sharing of ideas, diverting/managing potential conflict amongst your very own work group, deciding how a document should be constructed/put together, etc. application of theory (in the sense of comprehension, analyzation, and the production of alternative practices, methods, and conclusion) has proven itself highly useful to the field of tech comm.

As for Chapters 7 and 8 (Longo & Fountain; Mehlenbacher), I found it interesting how both scenarios/examples given within the text display a need to be a thoroughly knowledgeable person as a technical writer/communicator. In Chapter 7, Rita needed to fully understand the history of the protocols in order to make modifications as needed. It is the exact same for Janine, except now (and even more so in the future as well as further down the road in tech comm) the task is probably not as stressful. This is mainly because 1) the information Janine needs is accessible through a number of different resources (past documents, the Internet, her peers/work group, etc.) and 2) the work that comes along with her research can easily be split up. Both chapters demonstrate that the job as a technical communicator has changed from a somewhat isolated occupation to one that requires group effort. I speculate that one reason behind this is the growth of the field and the realization that in order for documents to be more effective they should be handled by a number of people. This is also where the extensive amount of research, writing, theorizing, and collaborating that tech comm requires comes into play. As the field expands, the need for more knowledgeable people in different areas of study and profession will be needed.

I am still not sure what technical and professional communication is. I have been trying to understand what it is exactly from the readings, but they seem to expand the idea rather than limit it. So, if technical communication is about logic and studying the contexts and conditions of a certain situation to effectively communicate a message or information, does this make any activity that is based on logical problem-solving act an act of technical communication? Or if it is about delivering information using variety of media and technology, does it mean that someone who utilizes technology to communicate is a technical communicator? I, as an English instructor who would study a certain classroom situation and based on different aspects of the situation starting with the students and ending with my own experience would plan and design to deliver the information in a certain way (maybe using technology as a medium of delivery); would this activity be included within technical communication? I am still not sure if I grasp the meaning of technical communication, and have been playing the receiver role; just reading responses and listening to discussions. But I hope with time I would be able to have a better idea and be able to contribute to the discussion.

Technical Advancement

The first chapter of Solving Problems in Technical Communication really showed the complexity of the field of professional/technical communication. To understand the history of technical and professional communication I had to step back for a minute and comprehend all the information that was thrown at me. It seems to me that the field makes changes almost every chance it gets. Scholars in the field of professional communication must understand that the ability to adapt is very important. What I found that was very useful, “A key skill is understanding how information can move and how it should transfer when it moves from one system to another, from one user group to another, and even from one culture to another” (53). This just gives a clear example of the technical advancement in the field and I find this very intriguing to see the process and how scholars must adapt quicker than expected.

In Chapter 2 Hart-Davidson explains the three work patterns, which I do agree with, but I also want to take the time to challenge patter 1 and pattern 2.

  • Pattern 1: Technical communicators must create information that no longer stays neatly within the boundaries of a single genre. Using multiple display formats.
  • Pattern 2: Technical communicators work to ensure the usability of products in all phases of the user-centered design process.

What I take from this is how technical and professional writers are being more creative to grasp their audience’s attention. Whether it be pictures, bold words, anything that stands out to a reader, but also want to ensure that the user understands the use of a product. And my concern with that would be stepping outside of the box could confuse readers because their have been time when I would read directions that draw attention to what is supposed to be done, but is explained entirely different than what is expected. So, I don’t know how often this is the case for scholars of the field.

From one of our previous discussions in class I remember how Dr. Cox emphasized on the work of academic faculty and this quote showed up in the text and I thought maybe there was some relation to that. “This collection contains works authored only by academic faculty, rather than by work place practitioners” (25). The question that I offered was what is the reason behind this? Is the field more theory based rather than experienced based? Because I would have guessed that technical writers would have greater knowledge based on their work in the field. Then I had to stop myself and continue reading and I found a great statement that supports the quote found on page 25. On page 54 it states, “No, your audience.” Not only must technical communicators lead the research effort to learn about users, they must also represent the knowledge gained about users – their goals, their needs, their preferences – in the design process as well” (54) which makes me go back on my thoughts and agree that scholars who do research on users of products have a greater chance to ensure that the usability of a product is clear.

I always would like to know if anyone agrees with Kelly and Tolley’s comments on technology. “These days students need to master some level of technology as an expected standard of literacy” (105). I don’t really have an opinion on this because I believe it depends on the field of work one is doing, but it would be interesting if scholars of academia agree with this statement.

The Current Landscape

I believe I have been so caught up in the reading that I have forgotten my “ reading for content skills”, and actually enjoying the text. Which I must say, is not the norm for myself. From the introductions continued need to differentiate terms such as process and heuristic framework, bring additional attention. After reading, I realized I was not the only one still trying to define or say what technical communications was or was not. As I completed my research project last semester, my inability to answer this question left me feeling as if my paper was not complete. In chapter one’s discussion on how the field of technical communications is mapped, or historically discussed, I then began to understand why I still have yet to be able to answer the question. I believe one has to take all three of these ways of unearthing technical communication history in order to get closer to our answer of what is technical communication. The introduction also explains the need for diversity in approaches to technical communications, as well as a preparation needed to complete a different range of abilities and goals. The introduction mentioned this about a computer, however I feel this applies to the field in general. The text also recognizes the cliché idea that technical communication is a field that is constantly changing. Again, this idea alone made it difficult for myself when attempting to complete my previous research assignment. How could I advocate for technical communication programs at HBCIU’s if the program would continue to change? (This is a problem because HBCU programs typically depend on stability) Granted, HBCUs have gotten better at being able to adapt, I’m not so sure if they have the tools necessarily to adapt with a tech communications program.

I was also drawn to the idea that technical communicators must learn to become reflective problem solvers ( 3). I never thought of this per say, however I understand how this is the case. I can’t help but think of struggling to put my desk together. It was evident that someone did not take the No, your audience approach.

I am still struggling a bit with understanding heuristics as a whole, in practice. When provided with the example about sorting clothes, I was able to understand because that was a concrete example. I can see or actually perform the act of sorting clothes. However, how does occur in our writing of technical documents? For myself, having a print out of the recursive procedures for adapting heuristics may be beneficial as I can see the process in motion. Chapter one provides the first question we have to look at when “performing” heuristics, but again I am lost on what this looks like in practice.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the reading. I was unable to complete chapter four, but, since we will have an additional day to discuss our readings, I figure I can spend additional time on it to really digest it.

What is Technical Communication, anyway?

Writing is a nebulous field with many individual paths and modes of practice. A novelist is a broad term, but is baked into a firmer identity with genre guidelines, stylistic modes of practice, and market audience expectations. Technical writing is the same. But, ask yourself, why does having a “definition” matter so much? Do we not have a professional identity without a dictionary definition as to what a technical communicator does?

For many people, writing is a magical task. You stare at the page and BOOM! Words appear without apparent effort. Writers make it look easy to twist language into a comprehensible labyrinth of complex ideas presented in a usable way. The layperson, or someone who struggles with the concept of writing, doesn’t see the extreme effort of mental, intellectual, and research oriented preparation that went into that BOOM moment. You move a rock from point A to point B and the work is tangible. It is acknowledged because it can be seen. However, mental work is often disregarded because the average person can’t see it.

A writer takes a walk to consider the tangle of research and comes back to pound out the initial draft of the instruction manual the software designers have requested. The designers see a person read through their jumble of information, take a long lunch break that involved a walk, and then see an end result. What they don’t see because no one has invented a way to peer into someone else’s thought process is the mental process behind the words.

Just as those thoughts cannot be mapped, the field of technical communication also cannot. What is an effective communicator? That’s a subjective question depending on need. For the above mentioned software company, an effective communicator is one who can wade through the jargon, complex information, and foreign language associated with their code to present a clear guide a layperson can use. For a stock market analysist, it is being able to observe, analyze, and predict trends and convey that information to their superiors and the public. To a quality control specialist, it is being able to look at various reports regarding the product they are asked to review and remove the subjectivity laying bear the truth of product’s viability. In each of these cases, the educational background, research approach, professional expectations, and personality bear a strong influence on the end result.

I suppose I argue that communicators in general, and technical communicators specifically, are bound by the expectations of their tasks. Writing technical manuals for Microsoft requires a different skill set than writing instructions to put together a table for Target. Because of the skill specific requirements, I don’t feel the field can be effectively mapped, defined, or condensed into a neat package. There is no pretty red bow, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a field bearing important and critical tasks. Just ask that person turning the instruction sheet upside down to see if the diagrams make more sense because the written instructions were too confusing to follow.

Hardy – Week 3 Response

When I first began reading Solving Problems in Technical Communication, I was immediately struck by Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s comment that “[t]echnical communication is no longer simply communication about technology; it is also often communication as and in technology” (1). This statement concisely shows that the field’s focus has changed over time, or rather it has expanded to include additional dynamics in the relationship between technology and communication. Dynamic, I think, is an important word to describe that rapidly evolving relationship to which technical communicators must adapt. If “the only constant in the field is change,” then adaptability is the most valuable skill a technical communicator can have outside of his/her expertise (2).

Like writing (and research), technical communication is messy and recursive, and there are a number of problem situations to which technical communicators must return and revise their heuristic before trying again. A great deal of thinking about the problem situation is involved, which is why heuristics makes so much sense as a framework for going back and forth between theory and practice. I haven’t had much experience with heuristics (other than washing clothes, perhaps), but the heuristic used to organize the book forced me to frame my own understanding of technical communication through the answering of questions in each quadrant, which was very helpful to me.

The text cloud heuristic described by Selfe and Selfe in Chapter 1 was, well, quite fun to work through. Knowing that this chapter was written by technical communicators made me even more conscious of the creative choices used to present the heuristic. The first three steps are concerned with identification, which leads me to think that much of the front-end work is largely constructed by thinking rhetorically about context, purpose, and audience. In other words, the first few steps involve thoroughly understanding your goal and the process you will use to arrive there (or rather the problem you will attempt to solve). With research, the interpretive part is, I think, the most fun, and the text cloud is a great example of visualizing the frequency of and relationships between particular terms and the patterns they reveal. Selfe and Selfe observe that the text cloud and other visual presentations help technical communicators (and their “user” audiences) to make sense of large datasets (41). Infographics are one example that has become increasingly popular (and creative) over the years, and there are now a number of free, web-based tools for creating them with ease, using a simple UI. I assume that text cloud generators are probably easy to find and use as well.

Hart-Davidson describes three work patterns of technical communicators: they “work as information designers,” “user advocates,” and as “stewards of writing activity in organizations” (51). I liked the author’s heuristic for technical communicators to become better user advocates. They should constantly reevaluate their work based on the intended users/audience, and if possible, get them involved in the process and listen to them closely (62). This kind of close involvement, however, does require strong curating/organizational skills, but what are common methods for keeping such content collections organized? The user forum mentioned in the example (62) provides little context for how this might work, so perhaps this is something we can revisit in class. But I am definitely adopting Elena’s user-advocacy work patterns as my new office pin-up poster: “listen, participate, curate, create” (66).