Critical Power Tools

Longo begins this week’s reading by stating: “Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible” (111). Intrigued, I followed the reasoning into cultural rhetoric, an admittedly new realm for me. So many elements of the logic presented made sense. I found myself wishing this section had fallen earlier in the course, but then caught myself. Would I have had the frame of reference to not only understand it, but apply it? Probably not. In many ways, it was a yardstick to measure how I’d grown intellectually over this semester. The examples, too, brought home the impact of power dynamics and decision making processes. The Challenger example carried a lot of weight in her argument. The question remained: what relevance did technical writing play there? The reports were clear that the conditions were ripe for failure; however, the company bowed to the desires of the institution (NASA). As I contemplated that issue, Longo goes on to answer it. “If technical writing is the mediator between technology and what we have come to term users, technical writing practices work to conquer users’ naïve know-how and reformulate these uneducated practices into scientific discourse that can partake of the cultural power residing in scientific knowledge” (117). Knowledge exists in a context…and good technical writing is invisible. With the facts in hand, NASA chose to launch the shuttle. From hindsight, debate has ensued, but it’s easy to point the finger in this situation. By this brings into prospect the limits of study. On page 124, Longo elaborates her view of cultural studies calling for the consideration of five points: “the object of the study is discourse, the object is studied in its cultural context, the object is studied as historically situated, the object is ordered by the researcher for the purposes of the study, and, therefore, the most important relationship in the study is between the object and the researcher.” For me, the most important part of a failed experience in anything is the conversation examining the lesson’s learned. If the situation can be reflected on as a learning experience, it is not a failure. Having said that, consequences are ugly things, especially in light of something like this.

In Chapter 5, Britt takes up the thought process examining an insurance company’s rejection letters in hopes of reducing the cost of appeals. For me, this was particularly fascinating. It brought into perspective tone, syntax, and reader interpretation as a lens for communication. I know the purpose of the chapter was to discuss institutionalization of the companies and how to engage with their data (however limited and incomplete due to the narrowness of the collection field); however, what kept pulling me back was how the letters were deconstructed for effectiveness. How the research determined how to incorporate the legally required bulk information in a way that included personalization and specifics to the individual cases made a great deal of sense to me. Of course, it also left me wondering how effective the new policies were to reduce the appeals process, but that just shows me how much I enjoyed the logistics of the scenario. Again, I wished this chapter had been sooner, but I doubted I’d have been able to fully appreciate the information shared.


7 & 11 Chapters

In Chapter 7, Del Hierro discusses Hiphop practices as they relate to Technical Writing. He opens with this: “First, I will situate this essay among scholars who have been challenging the disciplines of technical communication and rhetoric to recognize why culture, social justice, and decolonality matter” (237). As a social justice issue, hiphop didn’t hit my radar, but he makes an excellent point by pointing out the origins of the genre in New York City. He expands it by saying it broadens the accepted notion of how technical communications work in a cultural setting. He goes on to say “the lack of scholarship paying attention to culture is doing a disservice to our students” (243). After illustrating a compelling example of a digital booklet and expanding his field of conversation to include how the school system marginalized everyone but the dominant white culture, he moves into hiphop pedagogies. In these, students are seen as active participants rather than willing (or unwilling) recipients. This is a way to demarginalize students of color. I will admit that, of all the chapters we’ve studied, this one turned my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of hiphop as a matter of personal taste, not in objection to the subject matter or subculture. By pointing out how it works within the space it occupies as a technical document/social justice ideal, Del Hierro opened my mind to new possibilities. His points are valid, even when he’s discussing the digital booklet about selling drugs. What amazed me most about it is how the content could be taken beyond the rather objectionable subject matter to have a true, realistic application. It’s just not something that ever entered my mind. I am duly impressed with Del Hierro’s reasoning though I doubt I’ll be creating a hiphop channel on my Pandora any time soon.

In Chapter 11, Edwards moves Del Hierro’s ideas forward in my mind. Edwards discusses race and the workplace. “Both language and action give us insight into what it means to be social and what it takes to communicate effectively” (376). Edwards puts forth an example of how language slants public opinion and reinforces racism with headlines focused on the differences between white aggressors, described in softer terms, and black victims, described in a harsh judgmental light. By framing that in a critical race theory, Edwards makes several valid points validating teaching race issues within the Technical Communications field to combat the myth of a non-racial world and expands it by discussing emerging scholarship on the subject. She goes on to say, “…if we do not consider race and racism in our field, we fall short in helping students to connect with the details associated with communicative process that are realities in American society” (379). After defining CRT, Edwards makes a case for application in the technical writing classroom. While I agree that CRT allows for connections to be made to uncomfortable conversations that need to be had, Edwards’ case didn’t persuade me as well as Del Hierro’s.

Ethics and Narrative?

Ethical Practices in Technical Communications

Jones and Walton discuss narrative as a tool for Social Justice research. “In this section, we extend previous research, connecting narrative as a mechanism for social change with narrative as an instructional tool to help students understand the impact of their writing on diversity and social justice” (338). They go on to elaborate on the four capacities of narrative: identification, historicity, context, and reflexivity. At the root of their argument is that storytelling is a valuable tool for both learning and connecting with the social issues around us. They also point out that ethics are understood within the social and cultural context of use. No communication is neutral; thus, the ethics around them becomes fluid based on intent.

The technical communicator as narrator has a great deal of power. They (we?) choose what information is presented, how it is framed for comprehension, and what persuasive element is addressed. Unlike rhetorical communications, technical communication has the power to change lives on a global scale. For example, take the Zika virus ravaging the Americas and Caribbean. On the CDC website, there are specific articles designed to educate travels on everything from what the Zika virus is to how to use insect repellent and avoid bug bites. That information is packaged in a way to be easily accessible and logically placed (travelers planning for overseas trips visit the CDC website for advisories daily) as well as easily used (the language is not complex or scientific). Now, take the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown after the tsunami devastated Japan and the resulting health crisis. That information can be found on the World Nuclear Association’s website. The historical data on the event is easily understood and manageable; however, the resulting health issues are not. No where in this does it say that the US Military required active duty members and their spouses to sign a waiver against legal action in the event future outbreaks of cancer, sterility, or any other medical condition not yet identified and associated with radiation exposure. It does not mention the dependents who were removed from the islands as a protective message. Scientific American took up the cause and wrote a brief article about the environmental impacts in January 2014; however, there isn’t a lot of depth to it.

As technical communicators championing Social Justice, shouldn’t this tory be told? Shouldn’t the information be packaged in a way that can benefit the public masses? What is the ethical obligation? We, after all, aren’t scientists. (I’ll call to point Dr. Sackey’s work)

I’ve, of course, ventured off topic. Narrative has power. We can ask ourselves why until the three-headed fishes wash up, but the bottom line is this: why aren’t communicators joining teams to help drive social justice initiatives or is the approach reactionary?

Responsibility in Technical Communications

“Regardless of the location, rhetoric remains a means (tactics/tools) whereby people come together to solve localized problems in movement that frequently oscillates between local and global foci” (Sackey, 227). Sackey brings out some very nice points regarding environmental justice. Her example from Dearborn, Michigan, is a nice illustration of how globalization is becoming more apparent in American businesses and communities. Here, the company at the heart of the pollution issue is Russian, but the community is predominately Arab-American, an increasingly marginalized population in a post-9/11 America. In her example, Sackey points out that no substantial action was taken to address the corporate violations from 2006 to 2014. Is this because the population affected was considered unimportant or undesirable to authorities? Is this because the problem was so large that no one knew how to address it? Or perhaps it was beyond the technological ability to address? If it were the later two options, the plant should have been closed. This brings in the question of economy as well. The surrounding communities rely on the industrial community to provide jobs. Is this a catch twenty-two situation? Live in the community for the work that will feed your children only to have the air, water, and environment kill them over time? If it is the first, we need to seriously question the foundation of American society. America, after all, was founded to provide all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or origin, the opportunity to live freely to the utmost potential of their ability. Racial bias and marginalization are ongoing problems in the country. We, as technical communicators, can employ rhetoric in our communications that can work to be more inclusive and strive to create change. If everyone one, at every level, advocated for social justice, maybe we would have a chance to eliminate marginalization as we raise the next generation to be more tolerant, more inclusive, and embrace equality.

Smyer-Fauble discusses inclusion in her chapter on Disability Accommodations. “For technical communicators this should be a priority, as the courses we teach emphasize the importance of constructing documents that are considered usable and accessible to a wide variety of audiences; our classrooms should be no different” (95). One of the points she brought out that hit home for me was how students in need of accommodation “are expected to play the roles of educator, self-advocate, and ‘normal’ student” (108). In the spirit of inclusion, these students have to fight to be recognized and that means standing up against the stigmatization of a disability. In an education setting, this is yet another marginalization factor. Autism diagnoses are on the rise, but many experts, my son’s therapist included, believe the cases aren’t increasing, simply the willingness of parents to have their children tested so they can get the educational accommodations they need for success, especially in a world increasingly dependent on an education. In our role as educators, communicators, and advocates, we should be willing to embrace not only the disabilities we see, but also those that we don’t. Our language, verbal and written, should also reflect that spirit. Smyer-Fauble states that 40% of students who receive accommodations in high school ask for allowances in college. Of those, 88% of the requests are granted (123). A fact I’d like to see is how many of those students who don’t request accommodations have post-secondary success in terms of graduation rates and employment opportunities. I’d also like to know how many of that 60% don’t ask for accommodations based on the way they interpret the language in the policies. By establishing those criteria, we can address the deficiencies in the rhetoric to create a more welcoming environment for those that need it.

Good and Bad in Technical Communications

Agboka states “technical communications may be used for good or bad purposes” (169). This calls to mind the recent Volkswagen controversy. No, it wasn’t the technical communicators that set out to defraud the public; however, they were aware of the situation. Someone had to write the memos that were used in the discovery of the error and the instructions regarding how to work the systems to show false output. Was it right? No. Was it understandable? Yes. The communicators worked for the company who directed them…who paid their salaries which supported their families. They were complicit in their actions; however, were they wrong to stay loyal to the company? That’s not my judgment to make. I’d like to say it would bother me and I’d step forward; however, it wasn’t my mortgage and way of life on the table.

Let’s flip over to spatial justice for a moment. Hurley says it “emphasizes the concrete sites and locations from which social justice work can begin” (139). Spaces aren’t just physical. They are mental, figurative, and positional. Going back to the Volkswagen situation, let’s merge the two thoughts. Social justice says everyone is equal to the same economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. In the positional space of the technical communicators at the company, was social justice applied? They were dependent on the generosity of Volkswagen’s continued employment. In my opinion, it could very well be a situation of economic abuse that kept them silent rather than loyalty. They may have feared not being able to find gainful employment if they didn’t do as they were bid. On the flip side, their actions could also mean they didn’t mind deceiving the public. Only their conscious can answer that accusation. But, though it’s a rambled issue, my point is that their space in the structure of the communications surrounding the emissions controversy confirms Agboka’s point. Technical communications have no intrinsic moral value. It all revolves around how communicators are tasked and used.


The value of a liberal arts education?



A lab manager in the Dynamical Systems Laboratory at New York University’s engineering school. Engineering is a STEM field, along with science, technology and mathematics. CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times 

When the Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, suggested last month that students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education, he joined a growing number of elected officials who want to nudge students away from the humanities and toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.

Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.

When it comes to dividing the pot of money devoted to higher education, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain high-demand degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will,” Mr. Bevin, a Republican, said after announcing his spending plan. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.”


An engineering student in a lab at N.Y.U. A particular focus on jobs and earnings is gaining momentum at four-year colleges. CreditNicole Craine for The New York Times 

Or, as Gov. Patrick McCrory of North Carolina once put it, higher-education funding should not be “based on butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.

What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophersGov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies.

Democrats have, for the most part, avoided denouncing the humanities, but they have argued that education and training should be better aligned with the job market.

The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation. Dozens of states have already moved to performance-based goals that more closely tie a portion of their higher education funding to particular outcomes like degrees earned or courses completed.

But the particular focus on jobs and earnings — originally limited to vocational programs and community colleges — is gaining momentum.

“There’s a deeper question of what public money should be used for,” said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce.

Education tends to be justified in terms of personal exploration and fulfillment, as well as creating informed citizens who make a functioning democracy possible. The humanities have traditionally been seen as crucial to both endeavors.

“The problem is that education is now the principal determinant of earnings, and we pay no attention to it at all. That’s gone too far,” Mr. Carnevale said. “There’s a lot of buyers’ regret out there.”

Mr. Carnevale argues that there should be much more information available to students about employment and wage prospects before they choose a major so that they can make informed choices. “We don’t want to take away Shakespeare. We’re just talking about helping people make good decisions,” he said. “You can’t be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner.”

A graduate with a higher-earning degree could make up to $4 million more in lifetime earnings than other college graduates, Mr. Carnevale said. Most of the top earners in the liberal arts end up matching only the bottom earners in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as the STEM fields — and some will earn less than high school graduates who have vocational skills, like welders and mechanics.

A recent salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit membership organization that connects campus career officers with business recruiters, found once again that new STEM graduates were expected to command the highest overall average salaries in 2016. New engineers, for example, are expected to earn nearly $65,000 a year.

Earnings by Degree

Those who graduate with degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are expected to command the highest salaries.

Projected average salary by discipline

2016 bachelor’s graduates



Computer science


Math and sciences




Agriculture and

natural resources


Health care




Social sciences






The average salary for new graduates who majored in humanities — including French literature — is projected to increase slightly from last year to $46,065, up from $45,042. Although data is more limited, these graduates seem to attract the most interest from employers in finance, insurance and real estate, the survey found. The average for social science majors is $46,585.

But informing students better is one thing. Penalizing certain majors in the form of reduced funding is another.

In his address to the Kentucky General Assembly, Mr. Bevin said, “The net result of putting public tax dollars into education is to ensure that we actually are graduating people that can go into the work force.”

Not surprisingly, humanities professors were among the most vocal critics of Mr. Bevin’s remarks. In an op-ed article last month in The Lexington Herald-Leader, Jeffrey N. Peters, who teaches French literature at the University of Kentucky, noted that Mr. Bevin graduated from the liberal arts university Washington and Lee with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian Studies after studying abroad in Japan.

“I would like to thank Bevin for drawing on that formative experience to remind Kentuckians during his Tuesday budget presentation that the study of world languages, literatures and cultures is a valuable pursuit that has led countless college students to successful careers in education, business, international relations, the arts and — as his own story demonstrates — public service,” Mr. Peters wrote.

Mr. Bevin’s office offered few details about precisely how the funding formula would work. But in general, the trend of reducing funding the humanities and providing added incentives for STEM majors at public institutions would mean that a liberal arts education would be increasingly limited to those who could afford to attend expensive private institutions.

Other critics expressed concerns about allowing government officials to pick work force winners and losers.

“We are not good at predicting what jobs are going to be required in five years and 10 years down the road,” said Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She worries that underfunding the humanities will not only undermine educational quality but be bad economic policy. “You run a huge risk when you say you are going to divert money from this major to that major.”

Research by the association shows that employers are not as focused on individual majors as they are on the kind of broad-based analytic, communications and problem-solving skills that a humanities education specializes in, Ms. Humphreys said.

The question of whether to reward colleges for turning out STEM graduates or for higher job placement rates has generated a lot of debate in Tennessee, where all of the state’s higher education funding is tied to various performance measures, said Russ Deaton, the interim executive director of Tennessee’s Higher Education Commission.

“I’m not sure I trust myself to decide which degree programs or which fields deserve that premium and what that premium should be,” Mr. Deaton said.

“A lot of the feedback we get from employers is not only about the necessity of technical skills, but the soft skills as well — the ability to think creatively, to work in groups, things that you traditionally get in the liberal arts,” he said. “It’s not as simple as STEM is valued and worthy of incentives and everything else is not.”

Navigating Risk in Technical Communications

Haas and Eble, in the Introduction, state “Globalization—and the complex and culturally-rich material and information flows that come with it—has forever changed who we think of as technical communicators, the work that technical communicators do, and thus where and how we understand technical communication happens” (1). This qualification of scope gives us perspective. Once upon a time, technical communicators occupied neat roles in companies with very specific responsibilities. Haas and Eble talk about how roles have changed. Technical communicators have broadened their world, stretched their responsibilities, and created a new space for themselves beyond the expectations created a decade ago. They encourage questioning, searching, and establishing identity within the intellectual, scholastic, and professional landscape. “By using our privilege and skills as nimble, flexible, liminal, rhetorical, and ethical technical communicators, we can intervene in global and local technical communication problems at the macro and micro levels in the face of asymmetrical power relations and limited agency—and teach current and future practitioners to do the same” (3). They move into discussing their social justice approach to the text, preparing us, as the users, for what to expect from the works included in their text. They lead into the first chapter, Dr. Frost’s contribution.

“This chapter situates risk communication in relationship to the field of technical communication; it explains what design and technology have to do with risk and why technical communicators should be paying attention” (Frost 27). She goes on to qualify “Risk communication is an important subset of technical communication, but it also is a robust discipline in its own right” (27). So, how is that worked into our perception of Technical Communication? It is navigating risk through the lenses of our own prejudices, theory foundations, and end-goal aspects of our projects. Dr. Frost discusses how her project in Alabama after the oil spill met with frustration because she wasn’t asking the right question of the right people. She was endeavoring to research a conversation that simply wasn’t happening at the time…the human consequence of the oil spill. There was data about financial repercussions, environmental concerns, and recovery efforts, but not about the health concerns to the population. Having lived in Pensacola at the time, not far from her research area, I can sympathize with her plight. The conversations she wanted truly weren’t happening among those of us caught in the backlash of the oil spill.

Dr. Frost takes this framework and narrows it for application for an online class she gave here at ECU. She works in her own theory approach, apparent feminism, into her research and views her data through that lens. She discusses obstacles and progress among her students as well as resistance. How safe do students feel in public spaces? How does this apply to technical communication? It is in the application of data. How do we use it and move it forward? It’s a subtle shift, but it is there. We decide how to present our findings to the world.

Project Engagement and Collaboration in Technical Communications

Blakeslee and Savage, in Chapter 15, quantify “writing” within the framework of a Technical Communicator. “While writing is always examined in relation to other skills and practices in technical communication scholarship, a few studies have focused on writing more exclusively” (365). They further break down what constitutes writing, how much time is invested in the actual creation of original documents as well as revision of existing ones, and the prospect of collaboration at all stages from concept to oversight. What stood out to me is how the level of engagement of the communicator ties into the equation on both a personal and professional level. Several of the writers surveyed indicated they juggled several projects at the same time, were often involved in conversations and other communications with others in the project (subject experts, supervisors, even audience members). The fluidity of this process and the six fundamental categories they discuss indicate a need for flexibility and adaptation on the part of the communicator to accomplish the expectations placed on them. Each project has an end goal and responsibilities placed on the author.

This concept of adaptability and teamwork is reinforced in Chapter 18 regarding collaboration. “Collaborators working at a distance who report high levels of mutual involvement—more turn taking, more talking than emoting, more referencing work products—often have higher success (Healey et al. 2008)” (462). The chapter examines how problems can arise and be conquered as well as the importance of leadership in collaborative projects. Leadership, however, is an umbrella label rather than a point person. “Task requirements and group membership should influence decision making, rather than a one-size-fits-all process” (465). A successful collaborative approach involves everyone doing their fair share, pulling their weight, and contributing to their strengths.

In Chapter 19, those concepts are taking a step further. How do you adapt a successful collaboration into a global product? St. Amant’s answer is credibility. But how? “Creating such a credibility is often a matter of rhetoric” (479). Various cultures approach communication differently. Understanding and working with those cultural biases is imperative and that is done through manipulation of the cultural rhetoric of the various situations. It can be as simple as revamping a menu or graphic or as complex as a total revision of the material. Material is examined by a cultural expert who can identify the faulty elements and how to revise them to maximize the effectiveness of the documents in question. While this can be time consuming, expensive, and tedious, the focus on audience is worth it from a usability standpoint. As the global market is expanding, more and more technical communicators will be required to put out material that can be used beyond the limitations of their individual cultures whether that’s central Japan or Central America.

As communicators, I felt that this week’s readings were a reinforcement of the importance of working together, accepting outside input, and being willing to work toward an end goal.