Last Tuesday, before our class meeting ended, Dr. Jones asked everyone if they’d had the chance to ask any questions they had about professional/technical writing, rhetoric, or anything else pertaining to the material that would be covered in this course. I chose not to speak up, thinking that my question – which was “what, exactly, is technical writing?” – was somewhat silly. I assumed the texts we would be reading during the upcoming week would answer the question.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be few explicit definitions of technical writing to gather from the assigned articles. A potential definition was found in “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America”. That definition proved problematic, though; when Robert J. Connors cites W. Earl Britton’s definition of technical writing, one of the three essential aspects of rhetorical situation, audience, is missing. Before I continue, I think it is important to note that Connors does not at any point endorse Britton’s definition as applicable to this day and age’s field of technical communication. The reason why this definition is still curious is because Russell Rutter, who considers technical writing the domain of rhetoric, lists “audience” as one of the vital parts of a course on rhetoric (31). With such discrepancies between the articles in the consideration of a technical document’s audience, one might assume that the inclusion of rhetoric into a definition of technical writing is not essential. I was able to find a suitable definition at some point, though. Carolyn R. Miller’s claim that “technical writing is the rhetoric of ‘the world of work’” served as the most encompassing, and discrete, definition provided of all the articles, and it even had the word “rhetoric” included (70).
There at least seemed to be some common threads woven amongst the articles. One of those threads was the concept of binaries. Miller provided a list of binaries common to many discussions of technical writing in her article “What’s Practical about Technical Writing?” (67). Patricia Sullivan questioned the validity of a binary presumably existing in technical writing pedagogical history that supposedly materialized following World War I. Connors mentions many binary factions that opposed each other during the development of the field.
Another common thread was the harshness of the language characterizing the camps entangled in those binaries. Those who viewed technical writing in a utilitarian fashion, according to Miller’s analysis of Connor’s historical work, considered the pursuit of literary study a form of “leisure” (65) and “idle speculation” (67). The word “genteel”, which its high-minded connotations, litters Sullivan’s article (206, 208, 218). English professors suffered the indignity of sexist remarks from their more practically minded students (Connors).
Though it took me a while to find the answer to my question from last week, I did find myself enjoying this week’s reading material, and greatly anticipate reading more critiques of the field. Rutter and Miller’s focus on the ethics of technical communication fascinated me, as ethics is a topic that’s essential to any field, particularly one that consists of so much rhetorical theory. Rutter’s implication of the failings of technical communication in the Challenger explosion really piqued my interest. Furthermore, the readings I’d done prior to the semester, some of which were taken from the textbook because I had received it in the mail the week before classes, not only gave me a fuzzy idea of what technical writing might be, but got me excited about the broadness of the field: Technical writing, which oftentimes includes instructional materials, could, surprisingly, even include arts and crafts instructions (Durack)!
Connors, Robert J. “The Rise of Technical Writing in America.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eiola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 4-19. Print.
Durack, Katherine T. “Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication”. Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eiola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 35-43. Print.
Miller, Carolyn R. “What’s Practical about Technical Writing?” Professional Writing and Rhetoric: Readings from the Field. Ed. Tim Peeples. New York: Longman, 2003. PDF.
Rutter, Russell. “History, Rhetoric, and Humanism: Toward a More Comprehensive Definition of Technical Writing.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eiola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 20-34. Print.
Sullivan, Patricia. “After the Great War: Utility, Humanities, and Tracings From a Technical Writing Class in the 1920s.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26.2 (2012): 202-228. PDF.