Tagged: kent

Change in the House of Technology

It seems like most weeks’ readings inspire at least one mention of Kent’s ideas from a student in this class. I am afraid that I will have to be that student for this week. So, basically, definitions of terms like technical writing, technical communication, and technology are not set in stone; they can change over time. Changes come about through a discussion of those ideas, like technical writing, technical communication, and technology, and when a consensus is reached about definitions for those ideas (or at least a majority opinion comes to rule the definition roost), those consensus definitions become more commonplace in the social and cultural world.

A few of this week’s readings bring up how certain groups with power, groups with hegemony, define what technology is (Haas) – or they define how texts, be they electronic or in print, can be owned (Howard). In the case of ownership and copyright, the “privilege” of copyright law (Howard 402) is bestowed upon the United States public by its Constitution and governing bodies. The Haas and Selfe & Selfe readings show how a certain group’s agenda sets the tone, through certain rhetorical strategies, for how technical communication and technology itself should be defined. What is cool about the Haas and Selfe & Selfe readings is that some academics are working diligently to redefine certain ideas to better serve underprivileged groups.

Now, a few weeks ago our class discussed scientific methods, particularly ethnographic studies, and I asked a question about how much success some groups, like feminists, who have tried to redefine science’s agenda to better serve the underprivileged, have found during their attempts at changing consensus – or at least forming a different consensus that could serve as a binary to the one in power. I asked that not because I didn’t think the feminists had much to say in their arguments (I pretty much agreed whole-heartedly), but because I was worried whether creating a binary opinion about science and its methods would really change much in a field like science, which was established quite some time ago as a power in the Western world, or technical writing, which oftentimes seems to serve a business agenda (this was discussed in our class’s last face-to-face meeting when many of us wondered how beneficial the “symbolic-analytic” work ideal for technical communicators really is). Can we change any definitions for fields that have long, structured histories?

Thankfully, we were asked to read Bernhardt’s “The Shape of Text to Come: The Texture of Print on Screens”, and, after reading that work, I think that applying cultural theory and criticisms to fields like digital rhetoric and computer technologies will prove very fruitful. Part of the reason it will prove more fruitful is because electronic texts do not seem as well established as ideas like science. For example, electronic texts have changed dynamically (in at least one way) from how Bernhardt described them, mainly through the ways we use them:

Screen-based text differs from paper text in many ways…. We use text on screens under different conditions and for different purposes than we do paper texts.… A real virtue of paper text is its detachment from the physical world. We can read [paper text] on planes or in the car; we can put books in our backpacks or leave them at home. (411)

Bernhardt’s claim here doesn’t stand true anymore, as we have laptops, webbooks, Kindles, and tablets on which we may read electronic text on planes or in the car; we can put those new technologies in our backpacks or leave them at home.

Are digital texts, then, young enough that arguments about them can actually have a lasting effect?

2: What Can Be Taught?

First, this week’s readings did not “come to me” as easily as last week’s did. I’m not sure if it was because each of the readings dealt so heavily with rhetoric—a topic I still feel unfamiliar with, or at least not confident in my understanding of—or if I was unable to connect with or become interested in the topics as much.

I can’t quite grasp what I thought of Rude. I thought she had some interesting points or insight, but I struggled to draw any conclusions or make the connections between her arguments and my real-world life as a writer/editor or our discussions last week of what technical writing is (or technical writers are). Some of her thoughts that caught my attention (and sometimes seemed obvious) were: “writing, thinking, and social impact are closely linked” (71), “one must consider both sides of an issue in order to draw a reasonable conclusion,” (75), “creative problem solving often requires pushing beyond the limits of the known and familiar” (80), “practical decision making requires an expansion of the questioning process rather than the winnowing that leads to a hypothesis” (81), and “real-world writing does not necessarily conform to rigid genre boundaries…learning the genres of reports and proposals is one of the ways students learn strategies for solving particular kinds of problems” (83). Ultimately, however, I am unfamiliar with reports and proposals and could only glean new information from Rude’s article, with very little input in response. The one thought I did have was actually in response to her discussion on page 87 about the consideration of impacts of decisions. Some decisions, she said, are made “because a person with power favors a particular course of action,” and I couldn’t help but think of my boss at the publishing company I work for who seems to make rash and quick decisions based little on her staff and how the decision “will help prevent the creation of new problems in solving existing problems” and largely on how the decision will impact her.

Finally, I’m interested in what seemed like a sort of binary set up between Smith and Kent. Smith says: “Because it is conscious and strategic, rather than purely intuitive and inspirational, rhetoric is an art that can be taught and learned, and demands skill with language and close observation of one’s social context” (115). Then, Kent says, “Although specially designed composition and literature courses can sharpen and expand a student’s writing and reading know-how, no course can teach the acts of either writing or reading” (37). I was intrigued by these dichotomous positions because I’m still not sure I understand rhetoric enough to draw an opinion one way or the other whether it’s teachable or not, but I believe writing and reading are skills that can, at least, be taught to an extent, though some people are naturally better writers or readers than others. I, like Christina, noticed Kent’s style of writing and found it remarkably repetitive and at first was distracted by the repetition, then, by the end, felt his style of writing perfectly drove home his argument. Though I feel I followed Kent’s argument as he so carefully laid it out, I feel I have to disagree—I think writing and reading are teachable. And I have to agree that a student’s know-how and their writing and reading practices help them “develop important background skills” (38). I look forward to weeding through Kent’s essay and hope our class discussion will help me draw the lines between this week’s readings and our conversations last week about the workplace and what technical writing and writers are.

Kent, Thomas. “Paralogic Hermeneutics and the Possibilities of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 8.1 (1989): 24-42. JSTOR. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.

Rude, Carolyn. “The Report for Decision Making: Genre and Inquiry.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 70-90. Print.

Smith, Tania. “What Connection Does Rhetorical Theory Have to Technical and Professional Communication?” Readings for Technical Communication. Ed. Jennifer MacLennan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 114-121. Print.

Week Two Response: Intuitive Communication and Audience Participation

Although Robert R. Johnson’s “Audience Involved: Toward a Participatory Model of Writing” calls for a more user-friendly text, I found Thomas Kent’s “Paralogic Hermeneutics and the Possibilities of Rhetoric” to be more open to my own participation as a meaning-making reader of an essay. The other readings this week offer much in the discussion of rhetoric: Johnson furthers our understanding of technical writing as a practical profession, as an art, demonstrated through “real world” classroom activities. Carolyn R. Rude’s “Report for Decision Making” makes wonderful points about maintaining human values in sets of criteria for feasibility reports. And Tania Smith’s essay about the connection of rhetorical theory and technical communication is an extremely helpful guide that defines terms like heuristics and hermeneutics in ways I can agree with and return to.

But there’s something different about Kent’s writing style. First, he often says the same thing in varying ways throughout the essay, which at first might seem like a poor rhetorical move, but what I believe Kent to be doing is exposing the process of his analysis, allowing readers to build his argument by thinking/reading like him. I am often attracted to scholarship that shifts perception, is a little antagonistic about the current state of things, but this essay goes beyond playing devil’s advocate. Kent breaks down communication to its guesswork.

He also doesn’t practice the kind of research-paper formula the others do, marking off sections with overwhelming headings that sometimes eliminate the need for content. Through one fluid format, Kent expresses plainly the truths we often feel: teaching the acts of reading and writing are perhaps impossible; teaching is a collaboration in which we must provide “optimum conditions for communication” instead of teaching a “body of knowledge” (Donald Davidson qtd. in Kent 31; 35). He says that communication is ultimately unstable because it relies on the “paralogical elements of language use, elements like skills, intuition, taste, and sympathy” but also advocates language as a truth we can believe in because it’s how we structure the world (29).

As a creative writer who is often required to rely on intuition as the basis for crafting lines and images to be interpreted clearly by readers, I see the value of viewing communication as educated guesswork (or intuition): I often find that my teaching improves when I forget about creating a science for it and focus instead on guessing in-the-moment what my listeners can grasp. Kent reminds me that communication is guided by our sensibilities about people, not our ability to say exactly what we mean as it might make sense to ourselves.

The only place where Kent’s argument seems to fold in on itself is in his discussion of know-how vs. process, which sounds a lot like last week’s binary: knowledge vs. practice. I consider this a trip-up by Kent because he is calling for the deconstruction of binaries for ultimate knowledge, but in this case, he’s establishing one for us, one that many essays in many fields put forth and then offer the solution of balance.

Of course, Kent soon redeems himself when he concludes that reading and writing teachers could be modern-day Sophists: the real teaching moments take place when the instructor talks about “her own hermeneutic strategy for interpreting the discourse employed in her course” (40). This truth—that the less conscious things I say, that my reactions to the material I provide in class are the most instructive—was the most difficult for me to grasp when I began teaching.

For instance, last Wednesday, I drew the story arc on the board for my students, but when examining a reading, we discovered, of course, that there’s overlap between the parts—that the arc is a mere tool to help us understand stories and is not universally applicable. In my first year of teaching, I would have gotten nervous that my teaching tool didn’t work perfectly with the example. But now I realize these moments of instability are the best chances for students to really learn something. The students who catch those subtleties during lessons—who understand frameworks as merely knowledge-structuring tools that can later be abandoned once enough skill is achieved—are the ones who really learn. If students choose to be passive observers in class, good writers will stay good, bad ones bad. But regardless of talent, the students who participate improve because they pick up on the subtle, unintentional lessons of how to engage with knowledge structures, how to react to material presented to them in the context of writing, and how to become confident in their intuitive impulses in communicating.

Work Cited

Kent, Thomas. “Paralogic Hermeneutics and the Possibilities of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 8.1 (1989): 24-42. JSTOR. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.