Mapping the Discipline

This week’s readings took an oblique view at the discipline to map the “where” of techcom as opposed to the “what,” working against a reductive definition of what a technical communicator should do and study.

Both Miller (1979) and Rentz, Debs, and Meloncon (2010) argue that professional writing and technical writing belong squarely in the humanities and can be a good fit in English Departments. In arguing for technical writing’s humanistic value, Miller notes that technical writing teachers must eschew the positivism that carries over from older notions of science and instead acknowledge that all writing is rhetorical, an act of invention as we construct the world and our relations in it through language. Instead of working to transmit some sense of “pure reality,” Miller notes that we are communicating our experiences of the world to other human beings, working for consensus as opposed to objective truth.  In this way, we are using rhetoric to create communities that share common beliefs, practices, and ways of knowing, doing, and being in the world. Picking up on this humanistic approach to techcom, Rentz, Debs, and Meloncon argue that professional writing scholars must perform this stance and continue to underscore this common epistemological ground so that even the most entrenched literati can see the connections and importance of professional writing as a meaning-making endeavor. These authors also caution against trying to meet the needs of other departments on campus by taking on a service-course mentality and instead argue that professional writing programs in English Departments should work to add value first in the department, strengthening its internal mission. One other interesting point Rentz, Debs, and Melcon also make is that professional writing is, essentially, a production-centered discipline, one that works to make useful products as opposed to simply critiquing other texts as is common in the study of Literature.

On the other hand, both Sullivan and Porter (2007) as well as Harlow (2010) argue for the decolonization of technical communication by arguing for different visions of sovereignty. Harlow argues that the strongest sense of sovereignty can be achieved through interdependence with other departments and disciplines on campus. She positions techcom as a partial discipline whose content is a techne but whose cultural values come from taking up residence in other fields. She uses the metaphor of homelessness to argue that our lack of firm disciplinary grounding is an asset as we are able to map all over the academic terrain, helping disciplinary experts to communicate beyond their ever tightening specializations. This notion of techcom’s liminality, however, isn’t shared by Sullivan and Porter who argue for a clean break with both English and other disciplines as techcom has created a discourse community of its own. Revising their argument from 1993, they claim that the discipline is still beleaguered by a lack of respect and material resources when under English’s colonial reign. If professional writing is able to enact a “decoupling from English,” (16) then it can better meet the demands of writing in a digital, networked era by moving toward concerns taken up in communications while still pulling on the disciplinary knowledges of rhetoric and composition that situate it in a humanities framework.

It is this humanitarian framework that Katz (1992) demonstrates as necessary to the act of technical communication. From in-depth analysis of technical memos from Nazi Germany that focus on the upgrade of the mobile death machine through an analysis of our current capitalist technologies, Katz shows how rhetoric’s relativism can run amok when ethics are reduced to loops of expediency when ends justify means. His analysis of Just’s memo shows how “clear and precise” communication can be code words for eliding bodies and labors, creating and inventing commodities that become products of particular technologies. Reaching back through classical traditions, Katz is able to demonstrate how Aristotle’s slippery sense of expediency can lead to very dangerous ideologies, ideologies communicated through technical propaganda meant to indoctrinate as opposed to engaging dialogue.  Finally, Katz turns to the writing classroom to ask how in this particular disciplinary location we, as teachers, privilege technological progressivism, providing many more questions that answers as to how we might resist these rhetorics to find more human ways of teaching.



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