Docta E: PHD to Ph.D.

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Ci/ypher Circle for Science and Technical Literacy

This week, I’m adding to a post I put up in class last week as I was finally able to fully read Edwards and Del Hierro and reconsider my possibly errant spelling of “cypher.” Del Hierro uses “cipher,” and that’s preferred, but “cypher” is not wrong. According to some, cypher is reminiscent of the “y” in “cyber,” which might make sense for me and our project, given that we’ve been circulating ciphers through a Massive Open Online Collaborative, as described below. What I’m wondering, though, given Del Hierro’s discussion, does the move from “i” to “y” ignore a pre-digital history of cipher circles or re-write this traditional African American rhetorical practice in the same way that Hass notes that digital rhetorics subsume predigital, indigenous practices of hypertext in beadwork that are pre-colonial ways of communicating technical information? Is i/y or i(y)holding onto a syncretic tension or just being too Vic Vitanza?

What I found particularly useful in Edwards was the breakdown of the five key tenants of Critical Race Theory: ordinariness, interest convergence, social constructionism, differential radicalization, and legal storytelling (383-384). Ordinariness is, I think, linked to the everyday experiences of people of color as they encounter microaggressions in language, representation, relationships, and the built environment. As Edwards notes, what keeps this system of oppression going is that whites benefit from the oppression, a phenomenon that I know too well growing up as a rural, poor, white southerner who remembers hearing, “At least we ain’t Black!” We know that race is a social construction, having no basis in biological science, but we invent it to serve our interests, to deny privilege, to mark difference, to mark boundaries and to create segregated and unequal societies.

But what happens once we know? Is knowing enough? The last tenant of CRT moves use from an interpretive frame to a productive frame as people of color are called to speak about their experiences and interrupt the single and stock stories of living in a non-white body. As a white ally, I wonder, then, what role I can play in this schema? Is there one?  Is teaching storytelling for social justice (Bell, 2006) part of this work? Is providing tools and technologies for digital storytelling in my classroom a way to make room for emerging and transformative stories? What can I do to amplify people of color’s voices in technical communication, or in other civic contexts?

This brings me to Del Hierro’s chapter and the discussion we had last week about cultural appropriation versus culturally-sensitive pedagogies. I don’t think these are binaries, in fact, I think they are parts of the same spectrum. Anytime we teach, we are appropriating culturally-specific ways of sharing and building knowledge. The traditional academic lecture is rooted in Medieval  University culture, a culture in which wealthy, white, male Europeans were invited into the inner sanctum of academe. When we teach with those methods, taking a page from Dr. Frost’s chapter, we should make our cultural appropriation just as apparent as when we teach with Hip Hop Pedagogies, making visible the history, the people, the bodies, and the labors built particular rhetorics of learning. Then we have to get critical– whose interests do these knowledge making protocols serve? How? A critical pedagogy would not ignore the ways that black women artists such as Lil’ Kim have always been second class in the hip hop nation, a condition that  Elaine Richardson writes about in Hip Hop Literacies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Del Hierro’s chapter, but his examplars–Afrika Bambattaa, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G–are all male, and a critical approach would consider how all hip hop artists — Salt N’ Pepper or Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliott or Ms. Lauryn Hill–communicate technical information, including information about sex, sexual violence, and the everyday oppression of women.

Finally, I’ll end with the videos I shared last week. You’ll in the videos below that our spoken word poets from our Year One programming are all male, and I was adamant that we remix demographics in Year Two, brining two female poets into the mix. Katherine and Jha’ have brought so much to our work, and I’m reminded of Edwards’ call to reject color-blindness as we work hard to achieve what Mellody Hobson calls Color Boldness, working purposefully to surround ourselves with a diversity of bodies with radically different experiences. As Del Hierro calls on Anzuldua and hooks to move beyond racial diversity to gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, (dis) ability, etc., we should work to surround ourselves with a diversity of expression of the human (cyborg?) form, always paying attention to the power dynamics that limit some people’s expressions and ability to live a full and autonomous life.

From last week…

Here’s one of the videos we (Tar River Writing Project Teachers, The Poetry Project and Sacrificial Poets, and NC Museum of Nat Sci Scientists) made last year when we first started this NSF-funded project to use culturally-responsive practices to build science literacy. We went on a “bio blitz” of the area, documenting life forms using the iNaturalist citizen science app, getting help identifying species. Then we came together to share what we observed and learned, webbing our knowledge together through the cypher circle. This process got remixed over the course of a few weeks as teachers and students took up this rhetorical form to share what they were learning about their own environments, building an approach to hyperlocal environmental justice.

So check it out, and if anybody wants to propose to an ATTW panel about African/ AA rhetorical practices for communicating scientific and technical communication, HMU!

Also, this massive open online science collaboration is ongoing through the end of April, so lurk in or join and make some noise. The splash page for the collaboration is here.

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Scientific and Technical Writing’s Engagement with Material Rhetorics

While reading Grabil’s chapter, I was struck by his reconsideration of the idea that the field of technical communication needs cultural studies. He argues that both spheres of intellectual practice “share the ‘problem space’ of how to understand and create possibilities for change” (151) and reminds us that cultural studies has been a field investing in interpreting cultural objects and systems while technical communication, like writing studies more broadly, is practice-oriented field. Grabil argues that by better understanding research methodologies and the methods that enact those methodologies, we can better understand how technical writing scholars and practitioners develop rhetorical agency to intervene in hegemonic practices. As such, he brings in Sullivan and Porter’s Framework for research methodology which includes three lenses: ideological, practice or lore-based, and methodological. Citing Nelson, Trichler, and Grossberg, Grabil notes that culture studies creates “a bridge between theory and material culture” and argues that our bridging work has to be about both consumption AND production of rhetorical objects. To demonstrate strong work that combines both cultural and rhetorical theory and practice, Grabil discusses Cintron’s Angel’s Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of the Everyday and Lindquist’s A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working Class Bar. These two texts made such an impression on me when I first read them in the program as examples of culturally diverse rhetorical practice, and I was glad Grabil reminded me of them for my reading list on material rhetorics and made the connection to making as social and cultural performance. As Lindquist notes, rhetoric is the mediator between individuals’ experiences and structural, and Grabil urges us to take a cultural studies approach to our work in technical communication so that we can “account for cultural production as always already taking place within the diverse contexts where technical and scientific discourse is produced and where this discourse circulates.” This is a good leverage point for discussing in my dissertation why cultural studies, particularly queer rhetorics, makes sense for studying maker spaces as places where people are making objects, making relationships, and making cultures, producing and distributing technical objects and discourses. Finally, Grabil lays out a vision for community-based research (CBR) that takes on seven issues of key concern for CBR, noting how these areas focus our attention on our cultural positions, communication protocols, and relationship building. It is through attention to research paradigms, he reminds us, that we can develop our agency to interpret, produce,and perhaps disrupt the material presence and impact of everyday rhetorics.

Similarly, I found Henry’s chapter to be a great primer on the coevolution of free market capitalism and composition studies, noting that the economic logics of Taylorism are rooted in composition’s fascination with product, even though we pay lip service to process. With a Marxist bent, he traces composition’s turn from the cognitive to the social processes of producing cultural artifacts and locates these artifacts not just in organizational or institutional cultures, but takes up Britt’s call to consider the way institutions are entangled with other institutions and ideologies that can’t be explained from a hyperlocal focus on “work place culture.” This makes so much sense as composition is now taking a bit of a “participatory turn” in a remix culture where consumption and production are so tightly linked. These understandings of what it means to compose and the new literacies that accompany processes of composition are wrapped up, Henry argues, with “fast capitalism” that devalues labor investments and the role as the technical communicator as a replaceable cog in the wheel whose job is to translate and inferface knowledge. We know from Slack, Miller, and Doak that this severely truncates a technical communicator’s role in organizations, and Henry argues that the technical communicator should instead be conceptualized as a “discourse worker” (214) using cultural criticism to interpret and intervene on behalf of users.

Finally, I appreciated Longo’s exploration of the ways technical communication legitimizes and marginalizes particular kinds of discourse and the knowledges made through those discourses arguing that institutions play the role of cultural agents who mediate and legitimate knowledge and power, excluding ways of knowing such as speculation, emotion, and intuition. As you’ll remember, Kristen Moore’s black feminist epistemology worked against the ways the academy, as institution, has failed to authorize these feminist ways of culturally producing knowledge (thinking here also of Powell et. al’s webbed knowledge making), arguing that we need more capacious and diverse, culturally-constructed ways to interpret and produce technical communication. I like her mapping of “knowledge” and the ways that erudite learning and “know how,” which might be thought of as metis or craft knowledge is marginalized through Bacon’s production of scientific rhetorics– rhetorics that were meant to intervene in Artistotelian and Christian rhetorics of what it means to know. As usual when I read Foucaultian understandings of knowledge-power, I feel uneasy as a technical writer and an academic who legitimates and illegitimates certain ways of knowing, doing, and being, particularly this quote,

“If technical writing is the mediator between technology and what we have come to term ‘users,’ technical writing practices work to conquer users’ native know-how and reformulate these uneducated practices into scientific discourse that can partake of cultural power residing in scientific knowledge” (117).

My questions then, are how can we study metis, makingor craft knowledge in maker spaces and find sites of resistance to knowledge legitimization. Where do scientific discourses fail to take hold and fail to conquer the body and the mind? How can exploring these sites help us understand syncretic tensions between knowing and doing and between legitimate and illegitimate practice? Ultimately, what might technical communicators learn from these sites of failure that can disrupt hegemonic practices and decolonize the practices of science and technology so that agency can arise from a multiplicity of embodied and webbed knowledge-making practices?

Black Feminist Epistemology, Feminist Disability Frameworks, and Narratives in Tech Com

Jones and Walton’s argue that technical communicators must adopt theories and practices that make social justice their primary aim, focusing on direct action that can lessen inequities in the populations we work with. They define social justice research for technical communication as a practice of exploring “how communications, broadly defined, can amplify the agency of oppressed people–those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resources” (337), thereby authorizing technical communicators to take on the role of an “author” (Slack, Miller, and Doak, 2006), one who articulates and rearticulates meaning and relationships in a given context. Jones and Walton focus on the power of story as the primary mechanism of meaning-making through both the production and analysis of narratives of possibility in technical communication contexts and outline four elements of narrative (identification, reflexivity, historiocity, and context) that they believe are essential to helping technical communication scholars understand their and their participants’ lived realities and the agency they have to change them. What I wonder about here, though, is about their Western understanding of story, one that seems a bit restrictive in the focus on Aristotelian conventions like main characters, climax etc., and I wonder how “little narratives” (Bamberg and Georgakopoulou, 2008) might open up even greater possibility for action that isn’t dependent on “climactic” (read: male-centered) language. Similarly, Leah Ann Bell’s work on storytelling for social justice could be added in here to help us explore positioning and privilege and flesh out the idea of the “antenarrative” with richer understandings of stock stories, resistance narratives, and transformational narratives. Hmmm… this piece, however, gives me the frame I need to write about my work with X-ray Goggles, though, and how I use Mozilla tool to help students hack the web to write new techno-narratives. I’m going to hold onto that for later article fodder.

I first read Moeller’s piece in Dr. Frost’s class last semester and quite liked the way she uses FDS (although I can’t not think about “feminine deodorant spray”) to demonstrate how “race for the cure” rhetorics operate on a normalizing logic of bodies that are efficient and expedient. I really appreciated the moves that Moeller made to position herself in the analysis as she shows how she has been personally affected by breast cancer and praises the larger goal of the Komen for the Cure foundation while arguing that the means by which they achieve their goals have real and harmful impacts on the bodies that the foundation is working to help. Following Katz (1993) and Ward Sr. (2010), she interrogates the expediency of medicalized rhetoric that stigmatizes lesbians, women without children, and women with disabilities, arguing that Komen for the Cure’s website design uses a retrofitted approach (323) to account for bodily difference, using outdated information to backwards accommodate for those who don’t fall into the default category of straight, white, American, middle class, able-bodied, cis-gendered “woman.” Her work reminds me of Welch and Scott’s (2014) critical material feminism in that a FDS framework “asks students, to not just pay attention to what is present, but what is absent, as well, and what and how that absence says to real, material bodies (330). Framed as a question on page 333, this is a directive to remember that communication is not just discursive; it is a technology to extend the body that has lived, material effects on our own and others’ bodies.

Finally, Kristen Moore’s chapter “Black Feminist Epistemology as a Framework (for)? Community-Based Teaching” is one of the best pieces I’ve read so far in technical communication scholarship. Moore carefully lays out Black Feminist Theory, tracing its genealogy through hooks, Lourde, Smith, Ogunyemi, and most notably, Hill Collins, to argue that BFT “acknowledge[s] rather then suppress[es] Black women’s experiences, theories, and knowledges” (268). In doing so, she calls technical communication scholars to refuse objectivist notions of the field and recognize four key components of BFT: the importance of lived experience, dialogic knowledge production, an ethics of care, and personal accountability that values the relationship between knowledge-making and claims to knowledge (275-276). In the Terms of Use section, Moore does a beautiful job of situating her own claims to knowledge and arguing for why she, as a white woman, should make knowledge through a BFT framework, stating that reciprocity was a key component of her research with Vortex Communication in which she picked up Hill Collins (2012) call to unify activist scholars to upend the white supremacy of technical communication. I love that Samantha Blackmon urged her to use a BFT so that she wasn’t “laying…white theory on Black bodies” (274) and her discussion of “mindfulness, critical reflection, and care” (274), ideological commitments at the heart of her research. I found her critique of participatory design interesting as well as I’m currently working on a critique of open learning rhetorics that calls bullshit on the idea that everyone has equal access to power structures once we open the proverbial door to information. I’ll be using her quote, “I, too, am a supporter of participatory design, participatory action research, and the many approaches to teaching students to ethically engage with communities, but these approaches fail to adequately integrate theories that raise awareness of the suppression and oppression of particular groups of people in the community of the academy” (277) as it gets at the ways “open” and “participatory” ignore unequal distributions of power and resources that are explicitly taken up in a social justice framework.

Environmental Justice and Feminist Disability Rhetorics

One strand that I picked up on in both Sackey and Smyser-Fauble is the idea that both an integrated environmental framework and a feminist disability rhetoric strive to make the voices and embodied experiences of all users in a system central to technical, scientific, and social problem-solving. Both pick up on Hart-Davidson’s argument that a technical communicator is first and foremost a user advocate, and they map out ways that a feminist praxis can help us listen to and amplify the voices of those that are ignored or excluded from policy and world-making. Smyser-Fauble borrows from Bartholomae as she writes about the othering effect of the University’s Disability Statement,

The University expects students to ‘perform’ by speaking in a voice and through codes of those considered to be in positions of power and wisdom. Student users of the Disability Concerns interface are forced to assimilate to hegemonic institutional processes and rhetoric in order to be granted any support—a process that perpetuates perceptions of people with disabilities as ‘other,'” different, deficient, and abnormal. (115)

Here she underlines the way that differently abled bodies are asked to adapt to material and discursive places and spaces that weren’t built by or with them, instead of working together to remake those spaces to accommodate a diversity of ways of knowing, doing, and being together. This is very similar to Sackey’s critique of science rhetorics as excluding people who could benefit from science as a vehicle for solving environmental justice issues through highly technical and specialized discourse. Sackey writes,

Evelyn Fox Keller articulates that doing science requires the adoption of disciplinary languages and the deployment of specific syntactical structures in writing…If we want to ensure justice so that people on the ground can truly benefit and become the driving force behind research, science must realize that ‘sharing a language means sharing a conceptual universe,’ (210).

In order to make scientific inquiry a human-centered endeavor, Sackey argues that we have to disrupt the expert/ novice binary and get comfortable with the intuitive capacity of people living in particular places, using science not as dispassionate study of environmental objects, but as a relational practice of people who live in and are a part of the natural world. Sackey notes that citizen science is one way that we are making that turn, but he (too) quickly dismisses the movement, explaining that hierarchies of knowledge-making continue to interrupt the practice of science for social justice.

From the work I’ve done with Mozilla Foundation and NC Museum of Natural Sciences Citizen Science lab, however, I have more hope. Mozilla Open Science Lab (MOSL) has been organizing and providing infrastructures for community-based inquiry, bringing scientists and citizens together to generate and share open data around biomedical, environmental, and a host of other domains, and citizen scientists across NC are helping collect and analyze all kinds of data from wolf populations, butterfly migration patterns, and pollutant levels in our rivers, providing pathways for distributed scientific literacies and on-the-ground action. While Sackey is right, this is a paradigm shift for some of the scientists I’ve worked with, the citizen scientists are, however, much more comfortable code switching and meshing, creating public discourse, and blurring knowledge boundaries, moves that are necessary to make science relevant, accessible, and useful to everyone.

One last note on the two chapters…Smyster-Fauble’s piece seems to cohere fairly well, even though the description of how she teaches with a feminist disability framework is not terribly rich, but there are a lot of loose thread’s in Sackey’s piece. I really loved his critique of science rhetorics as well as his explication of ecofeminism, feminist materialist perspectives, feminist political ecologies and their convergences and divergences as well as his case study of the 48217, but we don’t come back to re-see the case study through those theoretical lenses and the super short classroom practice section provides no explicit connections to the really cool framework he laid out. Reading like a (dissertation) writer, I wonder if he wrote the integrated EJ framework stuff for his methods chapter and then did a case study on the 48217 for another chapter in the dis. It seems like the pedagogical piece may have been hastily written to satisfy this manuscript’s call, and these two pieces are quite different from Frost’s and Cox’s whose classroom practice was much more carefully articulated.

Spatial, Decolonial, and Queer Rhetorics in the TechCom Classroom

The three chapters we read this week from Hass and Elbe’s manuscript demonstrated particular ways that cultural rhetorics impact the values, activities, and practices of technical communication and the technical communication classroom. And while Hurley, Agboka, and Cox all facilitated rich discussions of techcom pedagogy, each focused on slightly different aspects of their teaching, showing how particular critical theories can bring about exigence in course offerings, provide inspiration for particular kinds of assignments, and help us rethink the design of classroom structures, relationships, and experiences.

Hurley’s piece on the spatial turn in technical communication was particularly interesting to me as I study maker spaces and hadn’t thought to considered theories of spaciality. Duh! I like that she reminds us that space is not an empty container but a set of ever-forming and un-forming relations, and those relations are what I’m interested in. Working with LeFerve, she outlines a tripartite understanding of space that includes perceived, represented, and experienced dimensions (137) and argues after Soja for attention to “thirdspaces” (138) that offer potential for remaking relations. Interestingly, the term “thirdspace” is often used to discuss para-curriculuar spaces such as museums, after schools, and community centers, places where informal learning can be transformative for young people, and I never knew exactly where that term came from or its implications of use. I think this will be an important frame for my research and for situating this research in the field. I’m totally impressed with the ways Hurley traces out the scholarship on space in technical communication, and I’m interested in following some of those breadcrumbs in my annotated bibliography. Finally, and back to my original point about pedagogy, I like the ways her research was able to translate into course design to promote other research as the intersections of geography, technical communication, and critical theory, and I look forward to the day when I’m in a space to do the same. I also love starting my first class with a mapping activity, often something about mapping our writing lives, to see how students have historically negotiated difficult or compulsory writing spaces, have created space for self-sponsored writing, or have worked at the “borderlands” of formal and informal writing. A big part of my job in Foundations writing is to help students make writing visible to themselves and others, and mapping provides a way to do so.

While I found Agboka’s piece less useful for my own research, I enjoyed reading it because it spoke directly back to this notion that technical communicators should accommodate to the cultural milieux when working in global contexts. Instead, she argues that technical communicators need a deep understanding of human rights issues to be able to negotiate and resist (environmental) racism and colonial hegemony. Her example, like Katz’s piece on the Nazi death machines, shows how technical communicators become complicit in the mediation of these spaces. I like the way she used rhetorical analysis to examine technical communication documents, but I found her explanation of rhetoric to fall a bit short by focusing only on means of persuasion. Finally, her classroom examples were less concrete than the others, but I think she’s right to argue that technical communicators need time and support to engage human rights issues and focus on the the particular issues that they will encounter in particular contexts.

Finally, Cox’s piece outlined a queer rhetorics approach to techcom, focusing on the need for intersectionality in the classroom as we avoid the “ghettoization” of feminism, (dis)ability studies, racial, gay and lesbian issues, etc. I love the way Cox uses Halperin here to make queer politics easily accessible to these readers, and I can see the tentativeness and baby step-approach to offering just a few commitments, including a refusal of happiness and success. I think it’s interesting that these are introduced as useful in a classroom context and not in a work-place of civic context because that’s going to be a harder sell. What does failure look like in tech com practice? Might it be linked to Agboka’s refusal to be complicit? What’s obvious here is that Cox has mobilized queer rhetorics to rethink the relational space of the classroom and in failing to be the “sage-on-the-stage,” has opened other possibilities for agency and reconfiguration of relationships, and there is much, much more to be done with queer rhetorics and theory for technical communication practice.

Personal Ethics/ Social Justice

This week’s readings threw St. Amant’s visit to class in sharp relief as Hass and Eble (forthcoming) argue that technical communicators are co-responsible for the material conditions that proliferate from global industrialization in an information economy and should adopt a social justice orientation toward improving those conditions. Whereas St. Amant discussed the “reality” of global technical communication contexts with an objective, neutral stance, throwing out figures of GDP and percentage of people who spoke English or other official languages, Eble and Hass argue that as user advocates, technical communicators should intervene in these conditions, working to promote equity and social justice by pulling on critical theories of race, gender, economics, etc.

One line that really stood out to me in their introduction was Rudd’s line that “we have the potential to both “function as agents of knoweldge-making, action, and change” for some and function as agents of oppression—albeit unwittingly—for Others” (2). It underscores the aleatory nature of our well-meaning actions in the world and how an act, practiced with intention, can have quite unexpected outcomes. This was demonstrated in Frost’s (forthcoming) chapter as she designs and implements a risk communication course from an apparent feminist positionally. While her attempt to use open source technologies to create community and foster public intellectualism was grounded in an epistemology that values knowledge circulation outside academe, some students were not comfortable with the lack of privacy and the push to be public, “risks” that she worked to navigate and mitigate with students in the course.

Frost’s double-bind here forces the question of who and what is privileged by what theoretical stance, by what constellations of bodies, and by which political and epistemological regimes, and underscores the notion that Hass and Eble forward that all practice— teaching, writing, making— is political. As Frost notes, we come to the classroom or the computer or the work place with particular bodies and histories who have been constructed from both our experiences and our cultural milieux, and these super structures and lived experiences shape the choices we make.

Refusing Somnambulistic Faith in Neutrality

Six weeks in, and I finally feel like we’re doing graduate level work in tech com! After reading a tech com dissertation this weekend, and wondering if I were really reading a dissertation and whether there was, in fact, any real research methodology or methods, I’m thrilled to get to Critical Power Tools and theorize the communication models that are at work in our understandings of the field and of what it means to be a technical communicator.

While Scott, Longo, and Wills (2006) introduction was vast and broad (as introductions tend to be), I did appreciate their defense of theory for technical communication and their insistence that techcom theory should be praxis-centered/production-oriented and non-imperalist in its tendency toward ethical action. The authors argue that by cross-pollinating cultural studies and technical communication, we can pay attention to both discursive and extra-discursive or material production and reproduction, understanding the ways technical communication participates in a struggle for meaning and is complicit in maintaining the status quo and/or in diffracting or subverting different kinds of inequities.

After reading St. Amant’s “What do Technical Communicators Need to Know About International Environments?”, Scott, Longo, and Wills’ introduction was an empowering call to action as it seemed to permission technical communicators to disrupt as opposed to learn andto conform to particular cultural (and perhaps oppressive) norms that exist in particular places in time with particular groups of people. While I think St. Amant’s cultural exploration heuristics are helpful for understanding how to examine and effectively mimic or reproduce culturally-specific genres, genre expectations, genre arrangements, and forums (genres in settings), the chapter doesn’t open the possibility of intervening in any of those cultural formations, constructing a technical communicator as a translator of information, one who mediates meaning at some form of the translation process by negotiating the power dynamics between communicators and receivers. For St. Amant, the big question seems to be “when” is it most efficient to translate– at the invention stage or later in distribution and delivery of the package?

Reading Slack, Miler and Doak (2006) makes St. Amant’s positioning as an acolyte of the translation view apparent. The authors outline the move from transmission, to translation, to articulation views of the role of a technical communicator, showing how authorship is only is available in the latter model where individuals or groups can remix meaning and in doing so, intervene in ongoing and dynamic relations of power that are often crystallized in genres. This chapter is extremely helpful in understanding the genealogy of tech com and offers other ways of knowing, doing, and being as a technical communicator who isn’t just concerned with “ethical neutrality of thee ethics of capitalism” (43). As such, the authors show how meanings which are always constellated and dynamic can come to be fixed or stagnated through power relationships and the “tenacity” (39) of particular associations between people, objects, media, organizations, etc– think Standard Written English here. What a tenacious investment people have made in that particular identity constellation!

Since I’m working with the “identity” of maker spaces (and by extension makers) in my dissertation, I think this chapter will be useful for articulating the ways that particular actors, like high-tech cutting edge technologies such as 3D printing, come to be seen as indicative of maker spaces because they are the idea of “progress” incarnate and pulsing through the makerspace identity. In order to “disarticulate” those meanings, we have to see be able to glimpse the other people, places, objects, processes, histories, etc. at work in these spacesm and my research methods of aleatory game play are, I think, working toward that kind of disarticulation. My goal is to move beyond the sexiness of the object to understanding of maker spaces as places where technical communicators (experience designers) can and do intervene in science, literacy, and technical knowledge gaps well-documented in particular groups.

 

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.”

Unflattening TechCom

So I’ve been reading Nick Sousanis’s graphic theory book, Unflattening, and much of what I saw in this week’s readings was about “unflattening” our approaches to technical communication.

In Porter’s chapter, he argues for a the usefulness of theory as a means of constructing multiple approaches or ways of seeing challenges. He notes that techcom has historically taken an instrumentalist view of a problem-solving by focusing on the document or text as opposed to the text-in-social context view that brings rhetoric more fully to bear on composing practices. He argues that by focusing our attention on a text or document in this way, we are unable to invent solutions that may lie outside of the boundaries of a single document or genre as we see the problem in one static and flattened way. More recently, and especially with the focus on UX, he notes, we’ve been able to build other ways of knowing and doing that focus on actions, processes, and dialogic negotiations of meaning, brining multiple ways of knowing into a more three (four or five?) dimensional view of tech com work. To help us reimagine practices, he lays out a DEPPA model, but this framework is not very interesting or novel as it is basically a pared down version of design thinking. So while I think his explanation of what theory is and can do is really useful, his theoretical model falls a bit short. Also, while I’m making a critique of this chapter here, I have to ask– why’d he decide to pick on the queers in his critique of “usable theory?” It seems that he’s outlining a model of performativity for techcom that it just so happens was articulated by one of those erudite and “useless” theorists he names on page 127. Awkward.

Longo and Fountain offer another way of unflattening the field by looking at those historical moments of techcom that are running wild and free in socio-cultural contexts. In other words, that small, marginal area of techcom that exists outside of profcom that we mapped on the board that might not been so small or marginal after all. One way that we flatten the field is by lumping all techcom into the profcom bubble, but when we look back through the traditions, we see that techcom has always existed in popular culture. I am eager to read Johnson’s tracing of techcom from prediscusive to discursive as orality and apprenticeship models of techcom can get lost when we shine the light back through our techcom traditions if we are, as Porter argues, only looking at the flat plane of genre. Longo and Fountain offer another heuristic for unflattening history, and I think it is useful for understanding the historical context of how problems have been solved in particular times and places, but I also wonder if strategic forgetting (think Halberstam and the Queer Art of Failure) might be important to unyoke past, present, and future to invent new ways to solve old, wrinkly problems. What else might we see if we bracket off some of that history? What opportunities might exist if we introduce a more playful approach to techcom that highlights the aleatory possibility of the past/present/future?

Finally, Mehlenbacher works to trace out the challenges of working in an open, distributed, and flattened workplace, using flattened to mean the fluidity of roles and positions in contemporary work environments. In this case, to unflatten might mean to consider the particular understandings a variety of colleagues and users will need to interact within and outside of a “genre ecology” (203). as the positivistic role of knowledge communicator moves into a “sociotechnical mediator” (194), one who negotiates multiple understandings of and interactions with people, objects, histories, uses, etc. We can hear echos of Miller in this perspective as Mehlenbacher underscores the complex and dynamic ways users interact with texts and communication systems, making the case for understand specific experiences that can’t be contained in simple knowledge transmission models of communication. So while I don’t know much about UX and where the field is with the theory/ practice of it, I wonder how phenomenology, specifically queer phenomenology, an orientation that acknowledges the co-emergence of objects and identities, might flesh out UX along axes of users’ spatial, temporal, embodied, and relational interactions with technologies, including the “technology” of technical communication. Hmmm…..