Tagged: redefining technical communication

3: Redefining Technical Writing & Communication

I was struck by several things in this week’s readings and was surprised by the number of questions each article sparked in my mind. Before I can delve into those questions or the overarching topic of “redefining technical communication and writing,” I have to comment quickly on my persisting inability to pin down the difference between, or at least how or when to properly use, the terms technical writer, technical communicator, technical writing, technical communication, and professional writing/writer/communication/communicator. It’s truthfully a bit of a conundrum for me, despite our having discussed in class that really these terms are all interchangeable.

That being said, however, the persistence of technical writing scholars’ need to redefine the term/field/inudstry is one part fascinating, one part frustrating to me. Like defining “rhetoric,” I don’t understand why so much time, energy, and intelligence is used up on neatly defining these terms or theories. Part of me wants to argue that rhetoric or technical writing are indefinable, are too many things and everything, and can’t we just let them be. But I know my peers will lambaste me with their retorts. :-) So, on to my questions on this week’s readings.

I tend to like, or fall for, theories that take “a major departure” from original, foundational, or popular theories, so I found myself entranced by Thralls and Blyler’s discussion of paralogic hermeneutics and its “major departure from the social constructionist and ideologic approaches” (140). I, like the authors and the paralogic theorists they focused on, tend to agree that “the idea that collaboration can be used to teach communicative interactions is based on the mistaken notion that communication is a codifiable system” (Thralls and Blyler 139). Too much “hermeneutic guessing” is involved in communicative interactions in order to codify communication and teach it in a classroom, but I liked the concept that “knowledge is an agreement reached with other communicants through the process of interacting” (Thralls and Blyler 137). The authors’ defined the three approaches for us: social constructionist, ideologic, and paralogic hermeneutic, and I found the social constructionist approach had me scrawling the most in the margins. I found our class discussion last week being echoed in some ways: “knowledge results from a community’s consensus about what it will call true” (Thralls and Blyler 128), and questioned a number of times whether I agreed with the constructionists: can “giving students collaborative tasks that require them to use the normal discourse of groups…further enable [them] to learn the conversational values that will effect their transition into professional communities” (Thralls and Blyler 130)? And are teachers and professors actuall reading “studies of workplace collaboration…that can then be used to prepare students to function effectively in their jobs” (Thralls and Blyler 131)?

As I continued into Lay’s article, I, first, appreciated her own recognition that she “simplified the complex thoughts of feminist scholars too greatly” (146). I only read that after I had finished reading the article in its entirety and thought for such a large topic, Lay had covered it so quickly in a mere 10 pages. But as with most gender theory articles I’ve ever read, it takes few words to bring to light serious issues. Until the final couple of pages, I struggled to connect how Lay’s article really had anything to do with technical communication. Workplace and organization communication? Sure. The relationships between and experiences of men and women in the workplace surely differ greatly. But what did that have to do with technical writing? And I guess what I really took away from Lay’s piece is that what a woman brings to a collaborative writing project or a technical document will vary drastically from what a man brings to the same project or document because of her experiences and because of her attitude born from coming into this world and our society as a female, rather than a male. If technical writing and communication are more than just translating language into usable documents, if technical communication is actually also collaboration, invention, and the ability to work well with others, among other things, then studying gender within technical communication is certainly enlightening.

Slack, Miller, and Doak’s discussion of technical communicator as author was very fascinating. I’m hoping I understood it correctly in that the transmission view is a dated view of technical communicators as those with no authority. Technical communicators are transparent, clear channels—simply transmitters of knowledge, a linear movement of info from sender to receiver. The authors, however, did say at one point that the “clarity and brevity” technical communicators strive for “suggests a transparency that belies what they really do” (my emphasis, Slack et al. 165). This course is challenging me, much like we ended up discussin in class last week or even the week before, I think, to think of technical communicators in a bigger picture, not just as these transmitters of info, but as authors of text with meaning that are part of a larger interaction between technical writer, sender of info, and receiver of info. I though Slack et al. did a good job of drawing this out for us, illustrating the movement from tech writer as authorless to tech writer as still authorless but as part of the negotiation between sender and receiver to tech writer as fully part of the articulation and rearticulation of power and meaning.

Finally, with Johnson-Eilola, what I appreciated most was his call for technical communicators to “take action to change their current situation” in order to avoid finding “their work increasingly contingent, devalued, outsourced, and automated” (187). It seems that in many cases, the way technical communicators think of themselves and the work that they do, in such a devalued sort of way, is what perpetuates popular culture’s understanding of the role of technical communication and creates the struggle scholars and even employers have to define the role of technical communicator.


Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Relocating the Value of Work.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 175-192. Print.

Lay, Mary M. “Feminist Theory and The Redefinition of Technical Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 146-159. Print.

Slack, Jennifer Daryl, David James Miller, and Jeffrey Doak. “The Technical Communicator as Author.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 160-174. Print.

Thralls, Charlotte and Nancy Roundy Blyler. “The Social Perspective and Professional Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 124-145. Print.