Getting the Job Done: Questioning Assumptions in Technical Communication Practices.


Our panel attempts to discuss the crucial intersection of various exigencies in rhetoric and technical writing, intersections which concern technical communicators as they engage with their work as symbolic analysts. Each of us begins by questioning a current assumption of technical writing practice as it manifests itself in the classroom, the workplace, or both. Our papers deal specifically with the treatment of ethics in technical writing pedagogy and textbooks that provide frameworks for those pedagogies, the relationship between scientific literacy and technical communication, the theoretical framework of systems mapping in technical writing pedagogy, and the function of the author in collaborative technical documents in the workplace. While these papers vary in topic, they all share the common thread that not challenging the current assumptions that permeate the technical writing field and classroom does a disservice to students, readers, and writers of technical communication. In addition to simply questioning these assumptions, we also attempt to offer fresh perspectives aimed at disrupting current beliefs, practices, and habits; In doing so, we are able to provide innovative strategies that technical communicators in the classroom and the workplace can put to practical use and effectively accommodate the unique audience, purpose, exigence, etc, of each communication situation. We offer new frameworks, ideologies, and theories to revise current classroom and workplace issues in a way that better meets the needs of the multiple and complex audiences of technical writing.

Use the hashtag #GTJD while following our presentation.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the situational and applied ethics discussed in Paul V. Anderson’s Technical Communication: A reader centered approach. In this paper I attempt to suggest that adding a theoretical lens may open the possibility for a logic of ethics which both informs and expands upon the current discussion of ethics in these books. The specific theoretical lens I suggest is John Stuart Mill’s sense of Utilitarianism through the greatest happiness principle which neatly fits the need to make audience centered communication and documents and helps define why writing for multiple audiences is crucial.

This essay aims to provide an overview of how novice technical communication teachers can promote scientific literacy in the classroom through classroom activities analyzing scientific discourse. I argue that written scientific discourse includes discourse about science, often authored by nonscientists, as well as discourse by scientists, and that the two cannot be separated. I offer a popular media article written in response to “Climategate” as an example of scientific discourse to share with students. I then propose two interrelated approaches to understanding scientific discourse: a theoretical lenses drawn from the rhetoric of science and practical guidelines for identifying “junk science.”

In this paper, I will argue that applying the terminology and framework of actor-network theory to the description of a complex process or system can afford technical writing students a unique opportunity to reimagine strategies for effective communication within that system.  By allowing students to describe and critique all actors within a system’s network using abstraction and systems thinking, a system description guided by actor-network theory can encourage their role as symbolic analysts in having power to shift information structures.  This type of powerful interpretation and synthesis can be initiated in the classroom through system descriptions guided by actor-network theory.

This paper seeks to answer the question: How does the idea of collage challenge/extend/amplify what we know about authors and authorship, as well as collaboration and plagiarism?  In this paper, I look at how the author is defined and how authorship is negotiated in the workplace in regards to collaboration both with other writers and collaboration with the text. By evaluating the ambiguous roles that professional communicators now have in the workplace, I discuss pedagogical strategies already in place and how they can be improved while also implementing other strategies for a more practical application in the classroom.
Throughout the paper, it becomes evident that authorship and documents are a collage of personal experience and how we collaborate with text and other writers to assimilate all of these pieces into writing.

Panel Discussion: Lifting the Veil

Lifting the Veil: Interrogating Coded Relationships of Power in Texts of Professional and Technical Writing

This panel interrogates relationships of power that are often hidden from view. In technical communication, certain relationships evade easy examination. Independently and as a group,  our research reveals that things– especially in the fields of technical communication and in the larger discourse known as professional writing– are not as they seem. This panel attempts to better understand what lies beneath the surface level of our primary texts to wrest an interconnectivity to surrounding mutable texts that is not necessarily apparent.

Aaron Dawson looks at the connections between professional writing programs and the universities that house those programs, specifically the rhetoric of their mission statements. Often, we consider questions about these separately: What is the role of the university? What is professional writing? Dawson will examine at how the two elements engage with one another in both land-grant and non-land-grant universities.

Next, William Deaton investigates how genres become assimilated to the technical communications canon. Deaton describes recipes on as a type of procedural rhetoric that is ripe for study within the field of technical communication. He then speculates why that genre is not accepted within the field, arguing for a reassessment of the generic conventions of instructions and recipes.

Finally, Jay Kirby looks at relationships between economic conditions and technical communication pedagogy. The relationship between technical communication and business has seen much attention. However, these studies frequently focus on single jobs or single businesses. Kirby attempts to show lines of interaction between prevailing teaching theories and overall economic conditions and asks, which is affecting the other?

In laying bare the hidden connections between these elements, we hope to open up new lines of inquiry into the field.

Jay Kirby: “Examining the Power of Pedagogies”

Jay Kirby’s “Examining the power of pedagogies: Historical relationships between economies and pedagogies in the United States and China” asks what has more influence, prevailing economic conditions or technical communication pedagogy? Carolyn Miller tells us we should not only take industry as a guide to our pedagogy, technical communication theory must also contribute to industry. By using Richard Lanham’s theory of an economy of attention, in which rhetorically trained individuals will succeed, Kirby attempts to show how moving toward a study of rhetoric in technical communication coincides with an increase in service-related industries that rely on rhetorical strategies. Kirby frames this in a comparison between the United States and China. While the data prove difficult for clear-cut answers, Kirby shows how an examination fo China in the coming decades might shine more light on the influences between pedagogy and the economy in the United States.

William Deaton: “Discourse is Served”

William Deaton’s “Discourse is Served: Cookbooks as Technical Procedural Instructions” seeks to answer the following question: Do the cooking recipes contributed to the award-winning web resource align with the kinds of work, workplaces, and technologies commonly associated with technical communication? This question is addressed through the examination of, and its recipes, within the framework of Katherine T. Durack’s theories about gender and the technical communication discipline. Thirty recipes were compiled and analyzed for their adherence to the generic conventions of a form of procedural discourse similar to recipes: instructions. While the cooking recipes from prove worthy of classification as technical communication, Deaton’s analysis shows variations exist between what is deemed a good cooking recipe and what is deemed a good set of instructions. He argues that more specific rules are necessary for the subgenres of procedural discourse.

Aaron Dawson: “Theorizing Practice, Stating the Mission”

Aaron Dawson’s “Theorizing Practice, Stating the Mission: Investigating Language at the Industry-University Interface in Professional Writing Program Descriptions and Mission Statements” considers how industrial flows of influence are represented in professional writing program descriptions and if the goals stated there are mirrored in what ideally functions as an academic filter– the university’s mission statement. Dawson suggests we zoom back our critical lens in an effort to recognize that what happens in a classroom happens because it fits within a university setting and has passed through a filter. In this way, the filter (the mission statement) serves a powerful function and (whose rhetoric) is also worth closely examining.

Presentation guidelines

I wanted to say again how pleased I was by both the presentations and the audience response in class on Tuesday. Here are the additional guidelines for the presentation that I mentioned in class a few weeks ago:

  1. Before your presentation, post a description of the panel and papers to the course blog. Panel descriptions should be no more than 250 words, excluding the title, and individual abstracts should be less than 100 words each.
  2. You will have 1:20 for your panel to present. That gives 15 minutes for each speaker, plus 20 minutes for questions.
  3. Someone on your panel should introduce the panel, give the order of speakers, and time them (to help things stay on time). These taks don’t all have to be done by the same person.
  4. Each speaker must have slides or a handout. Both are fine. Follow the guidelines for effective slide use we have discussed in class.


Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., & Welsh, A. (2011). Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation, 67(2), 214-237.

Findings – Conference hashtagged Twitter activity does not constitute a single distributed conversation, but rather multiple monologues with a few intermittent, discontinuous, loosely joined dialogues between users. The digital backchannel constitutes a multidirectional complex space in which the users make notes, share resources, hold discussions and ask questions as well as establishing a clear individual online presence. The use of Twitter as a conference platform enables the community to expand communication and participation in events amongst its members. (p. 214)

During our presentations, I would like you to use our course hashtag, #ENGL605, for one or more of these purposes: making notes, sharing resources, discussion, and questioning. Similarly, I would like individuals who are presenting to monitor this backchannel for questions or feedback on their talk.

Ethics – the individual experience

While the Dombrowski and Gough & Price articles were very different in what they were evaluating in regards to ethics, they both shared a common theme – that ethics is ultimately an individual experience. While yes, companies have certain codes of ethics they stand by, these codes change based upon situation, societal changes, law changes, and changes of opinion. Ethics is personal – something that takes into consideration how you feel about a particular situation, looking at how it affects other people, the environment, etc., and making a decision that is best for everyone. No information processing system could ever be depended upon to make an ethical decision because a machine can ot have emotions, and emotion does play a part in making ethic decision. Like Dombrowski pointed out, “technical information does not determine fully either its own meaning or its own ethicality,” (332) and “impersonal procedures cannot substitute for personal judgment,” (331).

While computers and other technical systems can have all of the information that a person making an ethical decision have, they will never possess pathos capabilities – the ability to understand how people feel about certain situations. Not all decisions can be made based purely upon fact. Dombrowski iterates that in looking at various decisions that were made, that “Repeatedly, decisions show that personal decision-making was much more important than impersonal procedural decision-making,” (331). We as a people have come to depend upon technology for risk evaluation, quick fact processing, but we have to remember that machines can not process emotion, and it is a necessary part of ethics. If we want to “treat others as we would like to be treated,” (which is probably the most basic universal ethical value, we have to evaluate as people how we would feel in a certain situation to decide how to deal with another person in any given instance.

Dombrowski states “Ethics…is problematic. It is not a fixed set of rules but an ongoing human activity that must continually be thrashed out for particular circumstances and people,” (337), which meshes with the ideas of Gough & Price who assert that, “Ethics is lived, not worn like a coat for convenience or appearance,” (327). Textbooks can not teach an ethical decision for a given situation or really give a specific process of how to achieve an ethical decision. Each situation is different, with some factors being more important than others. Certainly, in some cases legality is an important part of the ethical decision making processes, but more often than not doing what is best for the most people and being able to assess outcomes is the primary focus of ethical decision-making. I don’t know that ethics can be taught in a business writing class, or that it should be. Certainly, I see where it will be helpful in the real world, but personal ethics are much larger than just writing at a job. They have been developed for years and are different for each individual. Therefore, I don’t even know that an evaluation of how these books teach ethical decision making is even necessary, because honestly at this point, personal ethics would be almost impossible to change, and no process will ever be “right.”

11. Non-Human Factors in Ethical Considerations

Like Ashleigh pointed out in her post, two readings from this week, “Developing Ethical Decision-Making Skills: How Textbooks Fail Students” by Jim Gough and Anne Price and “Can Ethics Be Technologized? Lessons from Challenger, Philosophy, and Rhetoric” by Paul M. Dombrowsk, focus specifically on approaches to teaching ethics in the technical writing classroom.  In his article, Dombrowski argues that because “raw technical information does not signify its own ethicality,” (332) ethics cannot be reduced to a system of procedures.

In their article, Gough and Price critically review several business communication textbooks’ differing approaches to teaching ethics.  Before reviewing the findings of their textbook analysis, the authors make several sweeping generalizations about the conditions of ethical decision-making and the circumstances in which these decisions may need to be made.  They’ve done exactly what Dombrowski warns us about: they’ve attempted to technologize ethical decision-making.

While I was reading the Gough and Price article, I was struck by one of the circumstances that they explain calls for ethical considerations.  They explain (and I apologize for the long quote) that ethical considerations are necessary when multiple humans’ interests are at stake:

Ethical considerations occur only in a community or social setting where there is possible conflict between competing interests for scarce resources or the satisfaction of more than one individual’s interests or set of interests. . . For example, it is relatively easy to construct plausible desert island scenarios where no ethical choices are made because there is no possible inter-subjective conflict of interests since only one person’s interests are at stake. (323)

I was immediately interested in this particular example because it seems to imply that human interest is the only concern in ethical decision-making.  That particular quote made me suspicious of the heavy emphasis of human interest and the absence of all non-human (animals, the environment, etc) interests in ethics.  None of this week’s readings even touched upon the notion that non-human factors could potentially influence ethical decision-making in addition to the interests of humans.  I even looked in the textbook I analyzed for this class, and, like this week’s readings, the textbook implies that human interests are the only interests that deserve ethical consideration.  The textbook I analyzed gives students a list of questions to ask themselves when considering the ethics of a technical document, including, “’Am I reasonably sure this document will harm no innocent persons or damage their reputations?’” (Lannon 90).  Again, non-human factors don’t seem to play a role at all in ethical decisions in technical communication.  Are we okay with the suggestion that human interests are the only considerations in ethical decision-making?  Human interests are, of course, of utmost important in ethics, but aren’t other non-human factors involved as well?

While reflecting upon this issue, I immediately think about the debate of dumping nuclear waste.  I don’t think there’s any question that non-human factors have been considered in this debate (the dangers of radioactive materials to the environment, etc).  I wonder, though, if even those non-human concerns are still driven deep down by the interests of humans: have environmental concerns been taken into consideration in this debate out of pure concern for the environment?  Or are we only concerned about the environment in this debate (and others) because of the environment’s effects on human beings?  Is there ever a situation in which environmental concerns are not a means to a human-centered end?



I liked the connections that Dale L. Sullivan made within his essay “Political –Ethical Implications of Defining Technical Communication as a Practice.” He drew on the ever present debate between humanism and vocationalism. He makes note of the pattern of “indoctrinat[ing] our students in the forms appropriate to their employers…”  and uses the support of others to say that teaching with classical rhetoric in a technical writing classroom  becomes “dangerous” because these principles may not align with the principles of their discipline. This also connects well into the discussion on the role and identity of the technical writer. This fascinates me because it is truly something which can be pondered over. A cycle between society, those who influence society, and those you are taught from society continues to go around and around here. Though I felt that Sullivan did less explaining about ethics than implying about ethics, I enjoyed many of his connections.

He pulls from classical rhetoric to draw the connections between “praxis, virtue, and social action” which culminates in this paragraph:

 Let us not take this depiction of ethics and apply it to our present situation. I have tentatively decided to define technical communication as a practice; therefore I am claiming that it takes virtue to participate in technical communication. I can do this, according to Aristotelian ethics, only by agreeing that my students are developing character traits that enable them to perform their functions well. Moreover, I imply that these functions are good, that they fit in with the ideal virtue that dominates society. (215)

 I want to conclude that Sullivan is saying that by continuing to follow this cycle and by viewing technical communication as necessarily a practice, it would be ethical His path of connections, though they may make sense are  derived from a simple form of ethics, and may not be applicable for today’s society. In this I mean to say that it is even less ethical today. I was a little skeptical about what exactly his viewpoint was until the end of his paper. This was because of his use of the subjunctive tense at the beginning as he speculated.

He uses classical rhetoric to speculate and define our “present situation”. I feel, as I started in the previous paragraph, that if society still worked as it did in the time of Aristotle, things would be much simpler and that method of thought could work ethically. However, these days it does not necessarily take “virtue to participate in technical communication” and this is where is falls apart.

His main ideas revolve around his teaching technical communication and his experience with the curriculum, the students, and the discourse community. Reading between the lines, and trying to comprehend as much of this paper as I can at once, I feel the undercurrent of rebellion. Rise against the unethical and problematic current teaching of technical writing! Redefine the technical writers as purposeful and beyond the discourse of industry! Give the student the power to decide! “…We either teach politically…or we contribute to the mystification that so often in universities diverts and deadens the critical power.” (217)  This of course makes sense if we look back at what the title of this paper is.

I would like to wrap up this response with this quote from Sullivan which he got from Patricia Bizzell’s “What Is a Discourse Community”,

“Our dilemma is that we want to empower students to succeed in the dominant culture so that they can transform it from within; but we fear that if they do succeed, their thinking will be changed in such a way that they will no longer want to transform it.”



Sullivan, D. L. (1990). “Political-ethical implications of defining technical communication as a practice.” In J. Johnson-Eilola & S.A. Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 211-219). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.