Artifacts, Contexts, Ethics, and Genres

This week’s readings focused on the sites of inquiry in techcom research and practice, demonstrating a diversity of methods and approaches to inquiry-based practical action.

Using techniques of post-modern mapping (cue Grabil), Blake outlines a way to wade through the messiness ethical techcom practice. Building on Dombrowski (2000), Allen and Voss (1997), and Markel (2001), Blake describes ethical deliberation as a communicative practice of situated negotiation, one that blends art and science as a means of finding a shared course of action. By outlining a process of user-centered designed, Black argues that technical communicators should consider the production, distribution, and use of texts, the technical communicators’ situated or constellated position, and iterative feedback and design loops to achieve consensus about practical action at a particular time and place. Citing Noddings and Bowden, Blake notes how a feminist ethic of care privileges connection and negotiation over abstract theoretical principles in iterative design, and provides heuristics that can assist technical communicators in achieving the practical art of of phronesis among complex and competing obligations, principles. and stakeholder expectation.

Blake underscores the importance of context in any given ethical quandary, and Spinuzzi’s chapter follows up with an attempt to reign in this slippery rhetorical concept by defining context as “the set of observable differences in actors’ material relations within two or more instances of the same action” (265). Spinuzzi then goes on to outline the data collection methods and heuristic models for documenting, understanding, and comparing contexts. The communicative event model preferences event sequences and patterns, working to illuminate communicators’ choices in a communication event while the genre ecology model works to identify how communicators’ use a variety of non-transactional genres and other tools to mediate communication events. Finally, the sociotechnical graph works to blend events and resources to enable a comparative look across contexts using Latour, Mangain, and Tiel’s (1992) and/or approach to show how association and substitution create observable differences in context. Spinuzzi’s flippant mention of the multiple factors of context such as room temperature were interesting in light of Hawke’s (2002) and Rickert’s (2014) work in ambient rhetorics and the ways that ambient forces impact our communicative situations and events in ways that we can only ever partially understand.

In exploring context-based audience and needs assessments, Mirel shows how context impacts the texture of a techcom artifact while Henze focuses on how context affects the formthat artifact can possibly take. Mirel’s overview of usability testing protocols focuses on a kairotic understanding of when particular kinds of document inspection and performance testing are most useful, recognizing the reality that practicing technical communicators can’t always sequence their research in the most ideal ways. What is interesting here is the ways she parses “usability” and “usefulness” noting that the former takes an instrumental or artifact-centered approach while the latter is indicative of user experiences with artifacts. While both are valued approaches in tech com, Mirel argues that usability inspections can save time and lead to more productive performance testing, ultimately making the best use of user time and effort in performance and field testing.

In taking up the patterning of forms, Henze’s chapter shows how a post-modern, social constructionist view of genre can provide a useful frame for the work of technical communication. Rehearsing much of Miller’s (1984) foundational article on genre as social action, Henze shows how genres create useful boundaries for invention. Instead of viewing genres as template or shortcuts for working in techcom, Henze argues that genres make relationships visible, mediate activity in a given system, and function as tools that do work in communicative ecologies.

His example of the class introduction was useful in understanding some work I did this summer with teachers around “unmaking” introductions in a massive, open, online professional development space. During our first week of the six-week programming, we asked educators to defy the genre conventions of an introduction with the following questions,

“Let’s consider the ways we name, present, and represent ourselves and the boundaries or memberships those introductions create. How do we name ourselves in different contexts—personally? professionally? online? What happens when those contexts converge? How might we take apart our introductions to answer some of these questions?”

Over the next week, participants played with MadLibs, photo cutting, image glitching, and other multimodal ways to defy the genre and the ways it asks us to make ourselves in relation to prescribed identity categories. While many people really enjoyed defying these conventions, we wondered as a group when we had pushed the boundaries so far that these playful umakes were no longer part of the genre. We wondered also how notions of professionalism and the context of the MOOC constrained what we could and couldn’t say, and some folks were quite frustrated at the thought of un-troducing themselves before in-troducing themselves asking– where does this “event” start without the shared understanding of the introduction as a kick-starter genre?

Thinking about this now through the lens of Henze’s article helps me to understand why unmaking these genres was so disorienting to some people, but then again, that’s what we were after. After all, “Identity does not come ready made . . . Identity comes through the encouraging, exasperating, consoling, frightening, but finally willful sense making, self-making act of writing [and making]” (Imbrie, 1999). And if we want to play around with new possibilities for identity, we may just have to unmake the (heteronormative, masculinist, white, middle class) genres that are all too often used to socially create it. I wonder if this is the kind of tinkering and fiddling that Sharer is referring to in her processes of “genre work.”


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