Tagged: sullivan

11. Examining the Literariness of Dominant Culture

For me, one of the most intriguing elements of technical communication is that this discipline, which might be considered the most scientific of the humanities (alongside linguistics), is pervaded by such subjectivity. Not solely pervaded by subjectivity, but other kinds of non-objectivist and non-positivist lenses (egs., ideologies, hegemonies, implicit classist or capitalist prerogatives, and culturally contained attitudes).

In considering this week’s readings, I am struck most by our textbook’s two essays on the implications of ethics in the technical communication classroom and the way they encourage instructors to think critically about ways to subvert dominant culture in their own classes by simply exposing that (hegemonic) culture (on pg. 217: “Even though we teach the discourse of the military-industrial complex, we can make clear that alternative cultures exist and that we identify with those cultures”). While these texts claim that encouraging the accepted discourse of professional writing implicitly recruits students to an enculturation which may not be a good one, both Dale L. Sullivan’s “Political-Ethical Implications of Defining Technical Communication as a Practice” and Carl G. Herndl’s “Teaching Discourse and Reproducing Culture” gloss over carefully defining the very ethos of the dominant culture they wish to disassemble. Doing so is likely beyond the scope of their articles, so perhaps it would be helpful to analyze why this culture is worth adopting as the standard to which technical communication courses might ideally react.

Sullivan quotes Patricia Bizzell as writing, “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” (222). I take that latter part to mean that once students become professionals they grow jaded and sated by the security of increased finance and find the dominant culture in which they are now operating guileless. But what is so wrong with the dominant culture that we should grieve when the student-turned-professional enjoys it? Because the scope of a blog post is brief and the concept of culture (dominant or no) is incredibly developed, I’ll pick and choose what parts of dominant culture might be apt for critique in the technical communication classroom.

In an essay we’ve read during our ‘Pedagogies’ week of our course, Lee E. Brausser writes that language practices like “passive voice and the decontextualization of information… as well as other aspects of organizational cultures, promote a disregard for the human subject that is problematic for any culture or cultures outside of the dominant one” (476). And that as the dominant group continues to practice these traditions, it will continue to impose order on the Other. So of course, there’s this, that current language practices produce an implicit push on marginalized cultures (and as Sullivan points out, Carolyn Miller argues in “Genre as Social Action” that in some degree, the instruction of specific genres is ultimately classist (214) ). Indeed, the one indoctrination of dominant culture Sullivan singles out in “Political-Ethical Implications” is the inherent problem of teaching genres, that genres enable agency only through those who can write them and know their language. There is also, of course, some of the more obvious and more discussed means of oppression dominant culture is often critiqued for (eg., gender, race, class) but there is one element I wonder is worth including in talking about dominant culture.

Talking about (the lack of) ethics within company-formulated manuals, conversations on the of passivity and objectivity in research writing,  these are manifestations of dominant culture in technical communication that presume maybe the most extreme form of (classist) criticism: that literacy is valued as a signifier of  human safety. In “Contesting the Objectivist Paradigm,” Lee E. Brasseur writes that, “…any assumption by a dominant group of what constitutes common sense only serves to separate ideology and practice of expert knowledge from subsequent human action” (477). In a way, literacy seems like the most basic (and common) form of common sense, that what Brasseur calls human action seems the kind of action that is, on the most basic level, assumed. I realize I am kind of playing devil’s advocate, that in discussing dominant culture, topics like gender, class, race, etc., seem to be the kind of touchstones to be addressed, but I think discussing one ability that is always assumed can be  interesting– raising questions like, ‘Isn’t literacy assumed because it is what dominant culture has deemed good for you because it…is?’. As Jilian pointed out a few weeks ago, IKEA eliminates this  potential site for critique by using a “Less is more” aesthetic to its instruction manuals: it eliminates language. This completely visual document, this sub-genre, maybe, eliminates what Miller and Brasseur might find contestable. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that in an admittedly radical way, privileging not only passivity and ‘objective’ language but language itself in certain documents might be unethical and dangerous to certain users of goods.

As a final and poorly arranged observation: Bizzell’s claim that writing instructors fear that students will not lift up the banner of  change after being direct deposited a certain amount of times in a way implicitly speaks to the dirty discourse of dominant culture, that it numbs the will for change until it atrophies. Any enterprise of discourse able to do this, whether the enterprise of technical communication or otherwise, should, as the above authors make clear, be challenged.

4. On Choosing Methods; Statistics are giving me a mild Kurtosis

During our last class meeting, John mentioned that the excuse reason most give as a response in reference to their inability to calculate numbers is that they just kind of don’t think in that special, uniquely logical way that lends itself to crunching numbers. Never have. And never will think in that way. John noted that this is a pure fallacy; if you can set up a microwave you too can calculate. But would you believe that last week I tried to set up a newly Best Bought microwave which had the most unnerving, bite-your-fingernails-in frustration kind of directions? (I also am utterly unable to perform any kind of math that transcends algebra– so go figure.)

BUT: Our readings this week (viz. Charney) have done an exquisite job unpacking the bad rap qualitative methods have received in academia. Especially as they are treated in the explicitly unscientific realms. While this demystification of qualitative studies was elucidating, I found Sullivan and Porter’s attempt to give a phronetic and heuristic treatment to theory, practice, and method a little less thoroughgoing. Especially when it came to their discussion of method.

Prior to this post I was really only (consciously) aware of two research methods: ethnography and census. Sullivan spends a lot time writing about the lofty multimodality method, method-driven research, and problem-driven research, which, of course, also involves the opportunity to appropriate a kind of method, but spends little time discussing the actual method of choosing a method. She writes, “…Methods are given procedures, well-established and trustworthy bases for observing practice, and that properly applying method to practice can help us verify or generate models and theories” (307). Yes, methods complicate theories, test their limits, and help us to easier gain access to knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable through theory, but how do we know exactly which method to apply? In other words, is there a theory that helps deduce which method to choose, or is the choice really only a matter of sheer common sense?

If I had to take a stab at guessing, I’d say the first question to help refine the choice is qualitative vs. quantitative question. Common sense reigns here: If there are numbers involved, quantitative, if you’re interested in researching non-numeric data, qualitative. (This all sounds base, but I’m trying to think/write through this). After this front of questioning, I’m a bit hazy. I think as students with substantial backgrounds in all things literary, qualitative research seems completely innocuous. Methodology re quantitative certainly seems a bit more intimidating.  I found here and here  an aesthetically amateurish, but informative glossary of research methods that has helped clarify, for me at least, what options are available (And with our research proposals due early next month it might not be a bad idea to brush up on some of these methods– for me, at least).

Maybe critiquing this essay, griping that Sullivan, in an effort to exact some heuristic humanity to research, doesn’t closely examine which methods lend themselves to phronetic study is unfair. That wishing her to do so distastefully expects the essay to transcend the scope to which it has been re(de)fined. But deciding to include choice, as a heuristic element, as a serious determiner of how to establish and exercise a successful praxis via research should include what choices we should make as researchers in regards to how to choose a method.  To make this even more complicated, Sullivan quotes E. W Eisner and A. Peshkin as they write that, “What constitutes a problem is not independent of the methods one knows how to use. Few of us seek problems we have no skill in addressing. What we know how to do is what we usually try to do” (308). Does this mean that the more methods we’re aware of means the more problems we’d be not only more likely to address, but to recognize in the first place? If so, and in the meantime until our proposals, I’ll be brushing up on the quality quantity of my methods.

Sullivan, Patricia and James E. Porter. “On Theory, Practice and Method: Toward a Heuristic Research Methodology for Professional Writing” Central Works in Technical Communication. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 300-13. Print.

An Awaited Introduction to the Theory

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)!


Works Cited

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.

1: Liberal arts & technical writing

Rutter writes that “a project manager at a large electronics firm told me…that writers, to succeed at his company, have to do more than just write fluently. Technical writing, he said, is one-third writing proficiency, one-third problem-solving skill, and one-third ability to work with other people” (21). I do not consider myself a technical writer, and would be intimidated to find myself in a position where I had to apply for jobs in the industry, but I agree with this project manager’s conclusion. Being a good writer is not just being fluent in writing; a good writer is proficient, critical and intelligent, and personable. My understanding is that technical writers have become the liaisons between those split in the dichotomy laid out by Connors. According to Connors there were the engineering folk and the English folk, and I’ve come to define technical writers as those who speak “engineerese” and “English” and can get along with, clearly communicate with, and translate for both sides. I argue that, in many ways, technical writers are Renaissance people—they have to excel in many areas in order to succeed in their field.

This raises a point of personal interest for me, an opinion I’ve become more and more vested in with each course I’ve taken in WVU’s PWE master’s program. I attended a small, private liberal arts university for my undergraduate degree. There, I was required to dabble in a variety of departments while still declaring a major with an area of emphasis. I declared English with an emphasis in Fiction Writing and for four years took close to a 50/50 load of courses: English with psychology, sociology, art, math, and natural science, to name a few. And when I graduated with that English degree in hand, I had no intentions of being a teacher (skills for which I’d never been trained) or a novelist (skills for which I, arguably, again had never been trained, despite my emphasis in fiction). I wanted to travel, become a photographer, and write for a lifestyle and travel magazine—all skills for which I had experienced no training in my time at this self-touted, diversity-focused, expensive liberal arts university. I realized only after the fact—in my first job at a PR firm and now six years later in my master’s program—that I had few practical skills. And despite current opinions, like Rutter’s and his project manager friend, that a technical writer must be someone who can write well, think critically and problem solve, and play well with others (a sort of well-roundedness one arguably picks up at a liberal arts institution), I find myself reacting to these sentiments with a cry for more practicality! Where are the business letter writing courses of yore? I feel the need for a “complete reaction” against the overly-humanistic training so many college students receive today (Connors 7). Did I choose poorly in attending a liberal arts school? Should I have, instead, looked toward vocational schools or programs, or were public and state universities offering something my small, private university wasn’t?

I think our institutions of higher education are missing the target on a happy balance between “bread and butter” practicality and theoretical practicality (61). The way I interpret Miller’s argument is that the bread and butter is what’s going to get things done, these are the skills that will put food on your table (and the skills I feel I missed out on), while the high-sense practicality is what will keep the world turning, it’s the skills I gleaned from my days at undergrad—problem solving, critical thinking, and… . Of course, Connors illustrated it in his history of technical writing and Miller confirms it is still an issue, that technical writing is considered “practical in the low sense” (62). And as a young college student, and even now, as a young professional, I certainly, personally, don’t consider technical writing the lowest of the low, but rather still have this perception that technical writing, though challenging and important as it seems to be, is dry…dense…uncreative…even soulless (as one friend who worked for a few years as a project manager at an international pharmaceutical company once called technical writing). And that dryness, more than unfamiliarity of the skill/practice, is what I find most intimidating about technical writing.

I don’t know exactly what I’m postulating here (probably the impossible—a technical writing department within all English departments). I understand that I would have had to have chosen Technical Writing as my field of study if that’s what I wanted to do when I grow up. But it’s not what I want to do when I grow up. I’m still holding tight to that traveler/photographer/writer shtick. But what I’m wondering is: why has technical writing not been more a part of my training? Is there a genre of technical writing relevant to lifestyle-magazine writers? If I’m not writing manuals and don’t have a need to write reports, why do I still feel the need for more practical training? And practical training in what? I used to get asked all the time, when people found out I was an English major, what I wanted to do with my degree: teach? No. Write a book? No. Then, what? And it’s a good question, I think. Technical writers can go anywhere, it seems (I still know very little of the industry—technical, professional, or otherwise), and write manuals or work for technology or pharmaceutical or science or medical companies. Right? But what do I do with my ability to make up stories? I feel like I’ve converted, like I’ve betrayed those from whence I came, but fiction writing? I wonder if it’s not more the low sense of practical. (Creative nonfiction—i.e. lifestyle magazine writing—could be placed in that same category as far as its contribution to our world’s better good or its usefulness is concerned.)

Miller says: “We seem, that is, uncertain about where to locate norms, about whether the definition of ‘good writing’ is to be derived from academic knowledge or from nonacademic practices” (62).  I gained some of that academic knowledge in college and have spent many years making up for what sometimes feels like four years of lost time honing my nonacademic practices, and I can’t help but wonder about whether a solid foundation of good writing was laid at my undergrad university, or if I became a better writer because someone took a chance and gave me a (nonacademic) job?


Connors, Robert J. “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 3-19. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R. “What’s Practical About Technical Writing?” Professional Writing and Rhetoric: Readings from the Field. Ed. Tim Peeples. New York: Addison Wesley Educational Publishers, 2003. 61-70. Print.

Rutter, Russell. “History, Rhetoric, and Humanism: Toward a More Comprehensive Definition of Technical Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 20-34. Print.