Race in Technical Communication

Last week’s readings are exactly what I’m hoping that the broader field of Technical Communication will take up and really consider. In fact, it’s what I want to be a part of. Each chapter takes on a different perspective regarding the relationship between race and the field. Del Hierro’s chapter on hip hop offers us a set of methods that technical communication is missing out on using. Hip Hop has been taken up for some specific kinds of technical communication–education and marketing are two prominent examples. Its utility in these spaces is supported with plenty of research and evidence to point to its efficacy. However, these are also spaces where cultural studies and cultural rhetorics have most likely always been integrated and involved, I think. The topic may not be pervasive or widely accepted, but educators have long explored opportunities for connections between their scholarship and culture. This is a great example of that at work: http://livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/4990989 In the example, Chris Edmin illustrates how hip hop pedagogy and cultural insight in general can serve both pedagogical and evaluative purposes. If you watch, pay close attention to the performances by the students near the beginning of the talk (around 12-13 mins) and then again toward the middle when he talks about what that could do in a classroom (I think around 46-48ish mins).

I also think the critical race conversation is important to have too. As I mentioned briefly in class, black people have conversations in their homes all.the.time about how their race shapes their professional identity. How one chooses to speak, or what Pandora station you listen to, or how you dress can all be called into question. If  you engage in a way that is too raced, you’ll be labeled unprofessional and jeopardize your job. One quote that  was particularly interesting to me is when Edwards talked about the social construction tenet of CRT. She says, “social construction means that those in power in a society invent thoughts and structures when convenient. Social construction allows for those in power to pick and choose what is important and ignore facts when necessary” (383).  This resonated so much because one of the most frustrating experiences is the gut knowledge that the rules just changed because of you. I’m keeping this chapter in my back pocket because I’m sure it’ll come in handy.

Advertisements

Narrative in Tech Comm

A common thread among this week’s readings is a focus on the applicability of narrative as a methodological resource in technical communication. This is uncharted, but exciting  territory. As a group, I think these three chapters highlight some possibilities as well as expose some problems. First, these arguments foreground values other than those that are typically privileged in technical and profession

al communication.  Jones and Walton cite Scott, Longo, and Wills assertion that the field needs “approaches that historicize technical communication’s roles in hegemonic power relations—approaches that are openly critical of nonegalitarian, unethical practices and subject positions, that promote values other than conformity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and that account for technical communication’s broader cultural conditions, circulation and effects” (qtd on pg 336). Their work proposes that narrative steps into this space by responding to that call and achieving “a subjective, reflexive, and critical way of conceptualizing what technical communication is, what technical communication does, and why technical communication matters” (qtd on pg 336). I totally agree. I think this shift is the gateway for what Moore’s and Moeller’s articles achieve. Moore’s work demonstrates the potential narrative has to make connections to the people who will use technical documents and to reflect their experiences in ways that improve design. Moeller’s argument reframes one of the most common and important aspects business structures as a narrative: a brand absolutely creates a narrative that  technical communicators, community members, and documents must all act as characters within. Seeing the usefulness in narrative can help us take the critical stance that Moeller’s adopts in her approach to the Race for the Cure branding of the Susan G. Komen foundation. For me, the exposure of this problem in tech comm was really the most robust space for further exploration. I am more interested in tech comm outside of its traditional science and business spaces. And it is within these government and community spaces, where the goals of technical communication might have more civic-oriented consequences  that we’re are least critical of technical documents and their impact on people. Moeller’s challenge to our blind privileging of altruism at the expense of specific groups of vulnerable people opens up new avenues of inquiry and exploration that I want to pursue.

YES, Haas & Eble. So excited!

Like some other folks have mentioned, I was super excited to read this introduction and Erin’s chapter. The cultural and the social justice turns, on which Eble and Haas have predicated this collection are, for me, really energizing. So many of the arguments that they’re making are super important. First, the way that they position their work and its contribution to the conversation is noteworthy. They suggest that their collection contributes to a growing conversation by, “demonstrating that all technical communication contexts are multi- and inter-cultural and influenced by institutions and systems of power—and distributed agency therein—and that social justice approaches to technical communication better position us in any context to better advocate for technological and scientific change in equitable ways within these contexts.” (7) What an important gap for them to step into!

I’m  really impressed with, not just that articulation of the position of tehe text, but also  the range of goals that the collection aspires to. I like that they have goals on both the industry and academic sides of the field, as they describe here: “In addition to better representing diverse workplaces, practices,and practitioners, we hope that this collection will also inspire otherprogrammatic initiatives (e.g.,recruiting and supporting increased representation of, participation from, and mentoring of historically underrepresented and underserved populations, forming social justice committees and special interest groups, etc.)” (9) I think that the emphasis on teaching technical communication is important especially because of the pragmatic nature of our field. The students in our classrooms are not necessarily going to continue in our footsteps and work in the (often theoretically driven) world of academia. Instead, they will walk out into the world and do work that has  materially impacts the lives of diverse groups of people. It is important for programs to take up this task, so that their students will enter the workforce ready to engage with cultural and social justice issues.

One point that the introduction makes that stood out especially clearly to me because it articulates a point that I was trying to make about power last week when Dr. St. Amant visited class. I wanted to discuss the fact that the political and hegemonic nature of globalization makes U.S. centered technical communication always already operating within an imbalance of power. Haas and Eble say this much more clearly than I was able to when they assert that, “[U.S. based technical communication] is a position…of privilege, and we argue that we should no longer feel comfortable in this position”(12). YES! I’m excited because this is an encouraging sign that this collection might give me language to articulate the pull I feel for the kind of work that I want to do.

I think I started to feel that pull in Erin’s class last semester. I really helped me to shift my perspective of technical and professional communication to see it through a much more humanist lens–although I didn’t have that language at the time (gee..look at how I’ve grown). So, it was especially rewarding to read her chapter along with this introduction because her apparent feminist theory really resonated with me (again) because it centers–and make apparent–a cultural stance and experience within spaces that is usually cast as neutral and objective.

I’m eager to continue to read to see if the collection lives up to the promises in the introduction. If so, it will earn a permanent spot on my bookshelf!

Is attention to intercultural rhetoric just lip service in tech comm?

I think the combination of chapters that we read for today can support a really important discussion about technical communication in a 21st century context. More and more, our work environments are global and therefore the writing and collaboration that we do involves people who live in a variety of cultural contexts. Taken separately chapters 15, 18, and 19 all offer us really valuable and practical considerations for technical communication in a 21st century global economy and workforce. But having been assigned to read them together and doing so through the lens of my own interests in power in language and discourse, I began to ask questions about how technical communication, which as a genre has not (before now) produced authorship, as Slack, Miller and Doak remind us, is particularly well positioned to exploit power differentials in the context of intercultural collaborative writing projects.

 

I need to be more specific here. First, I’ll admit that I’m writing speculatively, as I’ve never worked as a technical communicator within an international context. But it seems to me that what globalization has really meant for the rest of the world is that Western cultures impose their values on other parts of the world, rather than a true adoption of the idea that we are all citizens of a global society that includes many, equally valuable cultural identities. So, if in a technical communication situation, my culture (and therefore my values, and my language, etc.) already dominates business, technology, and financial interactions, then that limits the extent to which I have to be sensitive to the cultural expectations of rhetoric and credibility that St. Amant advises me to. Even if I do, on some level, value the cultural perspectives of the other people that I’m working for or with, I’m certainly not approaching the interaction on equal footing in terms of power, am I? The broader context of globalization, has already shaped the writing circumstance in a certain way before I, a member of that same dominant culture enter the situation. It seems that my only motivation in considering culture is to adjust my rhetorical perspective just enough to make my writing project credible enough to monetize it. Beyond that, what is my motivation? I guess this isn’t a problem so much for a business context, but perhaps it’s an ethical one that is worthy of consideration.

 

I think the issue of authorship in the Slack, Miller and Doak piece exacerbates the ethics of this even further. If, as they contend, “authorship is a manner of valorizing certain discourse over/against others” and technical communicators are not authors, then there is no one who takes responsibility for the negotiation of power dynamics in a scenario like the one I described above. All the people and their agency disappears without an author, right? I’m not sure that I’ve got what I’m thinking completely figured out, but its something I want to think more about.

Work Habits, Theories, and Histories

I want to combine my responses to readings from this week and last week (playing catch up, ya’ll). The principle idea that stuck out to me from last week’s reading was the work habits of technical communicators. This part of chapter was really refreshing for me because it helped me to find a natural, comfortable connection to professional communication, which is something I’ve been struggling to do. Up to now, it has felt like i keep trying to pull professional communication into a broader rhetorical conversation to connect it to my interests in cultural rhetorics and pedagogy. Chapter two’s outline of work habits in technical communication showed me that I already have these work habits and that they grow out of a rhetorical framework. I already work as an information designer, user advocate, and a steward of writing activity and I didn’t even know it. My affinity for rhetoric has produced these work habits, which for me, show up in my teaching. When I prepare my course materials and even my lesson plans, I am thinking not just about the content that I want my students to grapple with, but also I want to be conscious of how my own teaching strategies shape their access to and understanding of those concepts.

Moving into this week’s reading assignments, the theory and history chapters are adding depth and dimension to the way that I connect technical and professional communication to my research interests. Although the discussion of theory is really broad and general it reminds me that it is rhetorical theory that frames technical communication–at least from an academic perspective. I would also argue that the best examples of technical communication in industry take rhetoric into account. It just helps me to frame technical and professional communication rhetorically. And since I’m so committed to practical application of theory, technical and professional communication is one of the strongest examples of that. The history chapter takes that a step further by introducing questions that demand rhetorical answers. What has always been done? Who has done it? How? What do the people in this place expect? What does the history in this workplace or with this task offer us? How does it limit us? I’m realizing that these are important questions that can be heuristics, but they can also impose unnecessary limitations. So, here’s where I can pull all these strings together: I want to be able to apply work habits and rhetorical theory in ways that take history into account, but then also I want to use them as strategies to break out of history as a constraint.

So, my plan is to take this insight into my definitional project. I want to look at what kind of research interests exist in professional and technical communication, consider how these interests are shaped by the history of the field, and look for occasions when researchers are applying technical communication work habits or theory outside of subjects or workplaces that are historically related to the field.

There are ethical humans in Prof Comm after all…

I paused so many times as I read through this weeks reading assignments and recalled conversations I’ve had with my husband, Jason, thousands of times. Jason is a software engineer and has encouraged me for as long as I can remember to take up technical writing as a profession. As he sees it, it is the most lucrative application of my skill set. He writes code that is designed to automate quality assurance procedures for software products. So in many ways he bridges what was traditionally less technical work, with more technical computer programming skills. Because of this intermediate position, he has often been tasked with writing guides, manuals, and other kinds of explanations of his work. Early on, I helped a lot. But every time he suggested that I consider ending my love affair with the back breaking, low-paying work of education to join forces with him in the technology industry, my answer was the same. “This is fine for someone to do, but not me. It doesn’t matter at all to any real people. I need to know that my work impacts real people. Not software. Sorry, but no.”

I shared the same idea of what technical writing means as the notions that Carolyn Miller describes having to work so hard to resist. I thought of technical writing as devoid of human impact, as a flat representation of some scientific reality. If, as I believed, the GOAL was to avoid all nuance, argument or evidence of human influence, then it was most certainly a task not to assign to me. It is amazing how pervasive that impression is, even for someone who studied English and earned two degrees in it. I had no alternative narrative with which to consider technical writing as a career. Although I am still firmly committed to my career in academia, I have a different stance toward technical writing just by way of these initial readings. The first two made the most dramatic impression on me as they deconstructed, first epistemologically in Miller’s piece and then by way of example in Katz’s piece, the notion of technical communication as without human or ethical components.

The importance of the epistemological framework, not just for individual researchers (as was emphasized in Dr. Eble’s research methods course last semester), but also for fields of inquiry cannot be understated. The positivist view of technical writing imposes, I think, problematic boundaries,  by potentially rendering the work as an academic bastard of sorts–not really valued by the humanities and sort of an afterthought in the sciences (that sounds really harsh when I type it, but its what I thought of as I was reading. Sorry.) I really like the approach that both Miller and Rentz, Debs, and Meloncon take that advocates for the scholars and teachers in the field to be intentional in framing their own work in ways that are accurate and reflect it’s humanistic and scientific value, without relying too heavily on others for its definition.

And then, it kind of goes without saying that the Katz article was a fascinating real life example of the human and ethical component of the technical communication. It conveys the danger in a narrow focus on expediency at the expense of a holistic or humanistic focus on the people involved or implicated in a communication act. The communication can be technically exemplary and rhetorically excellent, and because of that, the consequences of that communication can be even more dire.

This intersection between ethics and technical communication is a space that I’m eager to continue exploring.