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.