Week 5 – Research in Technical Communication is Essential

September 25, 2011

Blakeslee, Ann M., and Rachel Spilka. “The State of Research in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2004): 73-92.


Ann M. Blakeslee continues the conversation about research in technical communication by focusing on the quality and consistency of research in the field, current types of methodology, and quality of training in specific research methods.  Like Charney, Blakeslee also promotes the hope for “communities of scholars in our field to work as a collective whole toward setting goals and suggesting productive agendas for our research” (75).  This idea of a collective body of knowledge is a legitimate concern in the field today; there is often no “shared agenda” for the research which therefore discourages future researchers from building on any kind of solid framework (77).  Additionally, methodology differs between quantitative and qualitative methods, rhetorical and discourse analytical techniques, and other methods borrowed from industrial, scientific, and social organizations (79).  Overall, the view remains that borrowing methodology from other fields is mostly an asset rather than a detriment; however, the danger comes when such methods are not adapted for use in the technical communication field.  Improvement of relationships appeared as a common theme as well in Blakeslee’s essay.  She advocates a need for improving the academic-practitioner relationship within our field as well as the need to improve our relationship with other fields.  Indeed, Blakeslee puts it lightly when she says:  “Unfortunately, the relationship between academia and industry in technical communication has always been somewhat strained” (82).  Somewhat strained, indeed.

Blakeslee concludes the article with a proposed plan of action which includes expanding our problem definition and vision as well as developing concrete solutions.  However, this suggestion made me think back to what we’ve already discussed at length in class:  that these “forums” for conversation about the current state of technical communication often shift away from “understanding . . . why research in our field sometimes has little impact” to becoming a venting session about the current state of affairs in the technical communication world.  I do agree, though, that establishing a set of guidelines and standards for research in the field would yield positive results.  Perhaps if such a set of guidelines were implemented, then the quality and consistency of research could have the potential to reach a level of approval acceptable to the larger scientific community.

This article was written with the hopes of implementing solutions between Summer, 2006 and Summer, 2008.  However, the current issues regarding research in technical writing remains similar to how they appeared at the time this article was written (in 2004).  Why has the research of technical communication not achieved this standard of consistency and quality at this point?  How could the purpose and format of forums be altered to allow for such change to actually be implemented?

Week 5 – Is Empiricism a Four-Letter Word?

September 25, 2011

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” In Central Works in Technical Communication, edited by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A Selber, 281-99. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

The article “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word” reminded me yet again how ferocious the opinions are between not only identifying technical communication as belonging in a particular field but also identifying a consistent definition of “scientific research” altogether.  Charney begins his article by focusing on the two schools of thought within this realm, namely the use of objective methods versus subjective methods for attaining research.  He states that the most beneficial aspects of subjective methods “may also inhibit our ability to attain [an] intensive cooperative focus” but that by engaging in subjective methods “may also be impairing our ability to improve our own work and use it to promote social justice” (283).  In this ongoing conversation, the tension between the “hard sciences” and the “soft sciences” becomes apparent; indeed, most scientists hold tightly to the mentality which seeks to “privilege numbers and disparage words” (284).  However, according to Charney, even the most “absolute” view of science reveals significant injustice and subjectivity.  This becomes evident when observing the sexism of science, indeterminacy, and power politics.

One of the most interesting observations I made while reading this article was Charney’s comments on the collaborative aspects of the scientific disciplines.  Indeed, it is commonplace for scientific researchers “to extend the work of others . . . or to challenge it” in addition to “routinely visit[ing] each other’s labs and us[ing] their own research projects as training grounds for their graduate students” (289).  This aspect is rare in the discipline of English, and it seems to be uncommon in the realm of technical writing as well.  There is something about the technical communication field, whether it be a result of tradition or simply a persistent mentality, which does not encourage this concept of communal knowledge and collaboration.  This unfortunate phenomenon may have developed as a result of what Charney defines toward the end of the article as an “over-reliance on qualitative studies and repeated disparagement of objective methods” (296).  I believe that our field’s resolute emphasis on ethnography and case studies has (unfortunately) disseminated the notion that technical communication is undeserving of a seat at the “science” end of the spectrum.  Because the hard sciences place such value on empirical, objective research, our lack of contributing accordingly has only fed the notion of technical communication’s confinement to the humanities’ discipline alone.

How can technical writers help “promote the publication of research that extends and refines previous work”?  Will incorporating this aspect into our field will be enough to convince those at the “science table” that we are deserving of a seat?

Week 4 – Business E-mail Guidelines

September 18, 2011

Munter, Mary, Priscilla S Rogers, and Jone Rymer. “Business E-Mail: Guidelines for Users.” Business Communication Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2003): 26-40.

E-mail has become so widespread in both the private and public sector that most people do not take the time to thoughtfully consider its implications, uses, and pitfalls.  These guidelines for business e-mail articulate the complexity of its form and offer suggestions and norms of protocol to follow.  The bulk of these guidelines focuses around two key aspects: clear communication and understanding audience needs.  Indeed, nearly all of the aspects covered in this article could fall under one of the two headings.  As simple as it sounds, considering these elements and then “thinking twice before you hit, ‘Send”” could eliminate many of the detriments associated with e-mail communication in business.

As a teacher in a high school, I communicate with administrators, other teachers, and parents with high frequency via e-mail.  I have to make a conscious effort to keep my reader in mind for each e-mail I send.  For example, my communication with my team leader is quite informal because we e-mail each other multiple times a day and because we work so closely together.  However, communicating with parents involves allowing sufficient time to revise and rethink the content of my e-mails.  When I first started teaching, my mentor teacher told me, “Never say anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want posted on the school wall or read aloud over the announcements.”  This has probably been one of the best pieces of advice I have been given so far in my teaching career.  I have seen firsthand the problems associated with indiscriminately sent e-mails or careless forwarding.   The greatest benefit of e-mail is also its greatest pitfall:  it records the conversation and leaves a paper trail (29).

Currently, I’m teaching in place of a teacher who has been placed on administrative leave.  The details of the investigation are unknown to me, but reading this chapter reminded me that these guidelines for e-mail use are not simply “good practices” for business communication: they are crucial for maintaining integrity in the workplace and for avoiding false accusations.

Because of the popularity of smart phones, it is becoming more common for people to check and respond to e-mails from their phones.  What problems or changes could occur in terms of e-mail communication being dispersed in this manner?  Do you think it would change or eliminate any of these guidelines for the future?

Week 4 – Resumes: Formulaic or Humanistic?

September 18, 2011

Popken, Randall. “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: Resumes in Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914-1939.” Journal of Advanced Composition 19, no. 1 (1999): 91-116. 

The development and dissemination of the résumé as a genre had unusual beginnings according to Randall Popken.  In fact, Popken suggests that what we today label as a “professional résumé” has greatly diverged from its original purpose and form.  Today’s résumé serve the purpose or eliminating the individual and establishing the self as a marketable commodity.

Popken discusses that before the early 1940s, the only people who had direct access to actual résumés were members of a small community of hiring professionals; therefore, the models from which the current standards were built, were just that—models.  They were not an accurate reflection of what actually qualified as an appropriate, functioning résumé in the “world of work.”  This less-than-authentic model of the résumé was disseminated largely due to the instructional context in universities where most of the instructors “scarcely knew what to do with a business course” or “[had] a superficial connection with a business” (97).  The few instructors who truly had business experience were viewed with skepticism by the English Department.  This distrust between literary scholars and the business world continues to be a point of tension today with technical communication: who, indeed, should teach a course of this nature?

In additional to a less-than-ideal instructional setting from which the résumé emerged, the textbooks for the courses represented an inauthentic depiction of the genre’s requirements.  Indeed, “like the instructors, many of the textbook authors had not worked in business contexts,” therefore resulting in theoretical discussions, stock phrases, and formulaic writing as the basis for writing résumés.  The end result consisted of résumés all uniformly equipped with headings, indented sections, phrases, subjectless sentences, and purely factual information (105).  I have been told by my professors (and by textbooks) that these are indeed the essential components of “the professional résumé.”  Additionally, the idea of “selling myself” through me résumé has been reiterated with indisputable certainty, asserting that this is the only way to craft a résumé if I have any hope of future employment.

(Interestingly, Popken’s reference to résumés which did not fit this formulaic model reminded me of a conversation with an older professor who used to work as a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard.  Though she was teaching us to construct the typical one to two page résumé, she informed us that her résumé consisted of a whopping six pages!  After having read Popken’s history of this genre, however, I wonder what form her “résumé” actually took.)

The end of Popken’s essay suggests a return to a humanistic résumé which could potentially include personal information.  In this day and age, do you think it would be possible for such a formulaic genre to evolve to include personal details?  Or, do you think that the danger of including details of religion, gender, national origin, or marital status would simply encourage job discrimination?

Week 4 – Manuals for Ford and Chevrolet

September 18, 2011

———. “Chapter 6: The Emergence and Development of a Technical Communication Genre, the Instruction Manual (Part 2. Ford and Chevrolet: 1912-1988).” In From Millwrights to Shipwrights to the Twenty-First Century: Explorations in a History of Technical Communication in the United States, 223-69. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1998.

Brockmann continues in the next chapter of his book with his focus on the social roles of men and women as necessary for understanding audience during the development of the automobile industry.  Because the automobile manuals were targeted toward men, the authors of such manuals shifted from presenting information as “instructive” to suggestive; this change reflected how the writers “no longer demand a reader’s attention” (226).  This new relationship with the readers prevailed in both Ford and Chevrolet manuals during the 1900s and directly impacted not only the language in the manuals but also its organization.  In addition to the characteristics of brevity and profuseness of illustrations, automobile manuals also began to incorporate  page-level organization, chapter-level organization, and manual-level organization.  Additionally, extraneous information was categorized into a new “subgenre” of manuals such as shop manuals to keep the focus of the Ford and Chevrolet manuals on the most important aspects of car maintenance.

Interestingly enough, the disparity that existed between sewing machine manuals in the 1800s as well as between mower-reaper during the same time period did not continue with the automobile industry; in fact, the manuals within the automobile industry were quite consistent regarding profuseness of illustration.  This consistency may have occurred because “the 20th century automobile authors began writing within an established genre and understood that manuals should have  a large percentage of instruction and be relatively profusely illustrated” (239).

Today’s manuals are designed to ensure optimal “selective reading.”  The idea that someone would take the time to read an entire manual cover to cover is ludicrous; the quote from the beginning of the chapter indicating the “…only mutants do that” reinforces this idea which has continued to shape the genre of technical writing.  Without this shift in thinking from “writing for Ma” to “writing for Pa,” we would not have elements such as paragraph labels, heading, typographic hierarchy, or whole-manual-level structure.  However, as important as the changes were that occurred from the sewing machine industry, Brockmann notes that “the instruction manual genre changed most rapidly and most dramatically from extra-textual influence” (261).  In the case of the automobile industry, these events consisted of lawsuits and published works “beyond the reader-author-genre-negotiations” (262).

If extra-textual influence welds such power in shaping a genre, what current or future extra-textual influence may dramatically shape the future of technical communication?

Week 4 – Sewing Machines and Mower-Reapers

September 18, 2011

Brockmann, R John. “Chapter 5: The Emergence and Development of a Technical Communication Genre, the Instruction Manual (Part 1. Sewing Machines and Mower-Reapers: 1850-1915).” In From Millwrights to Shipwrights to the Twenty-First Century: Explorations in a History of Technical Communication in the United States, 153-85. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1998.

According to John Brockmann, the development of technical communication as a genre has its roots in the 1850s.  Indeed, the creation and marketing of both the sewing machine and the mower-reaper were complex enough in nature to require detailed instructions in order to use the devices properly.  Additionally, these pioneer manuals incorporated far more information and served a variety of purposes which have now been excluded from the modern-day manual.  Brockmann states that “the instruction manual in its early years was more like a short story than the instruction manual described in the 1880s” (161).  In part, this was because the manual was serving the dual purpose of, 1) instructing the reader on its operation, and 2) persuading the reader of the product’s credibility.

In order to establish how this genre has evolved over time, Brockmann examines sewing machines and mower-reaper manuals for elements of brevity, plainness, profuseness of illustration, and correlative illustrations.  His results indicate that in the span of 20 years, sewing machine instruction manual authors “quickly dropped secondary concerns” (such as maintenance, advertising, testimonials, patent information, etc.) and focused on instructions, “[coming] to adhere fairly strictly to the quality standard of textual brevity” (183).  In comparison, mover-reaper manuals never achieved quite the same standard.

One element of Brockmann’s research that especially intrigued me was his emphasis on understanding audience in the time period when the manuals were first produced.  He indicates that the target audience for sewing machines were women and that the technology involved was new and potentially unnerving for the consumer.  In fact, “early manuals had to convince readers as well as instruct them” in how to use the machine (188).  Therefore, the nature of the language and the purpose of the manuals was to teach and convince women who were deemed “fundamentally unsuited to the working of complex machinery such as the sewing machine” (189).  These sexist views carried on as an indicator of how these manuals ought to be written; in fact, the sewing machine manuals “embody the social relations of women” (203).  Brockmann’s observation of a cartoon with “Ma” reading the manual and “Pa” turning his back on the audience still lingers in our society today.  In fact, my own mom, upon buying a new phone, sat down and dedicated her time to reading the manual in order to figure out how to use it properly whereas my dad immediately begin trying different functions on the phone to determine its capabilities.

Brockmann quotes Paradis and Bazerman at the end of his chapter, stating:  “Writing is more than socially embedded: it is socially constructive.  Writing structures our relations with others and organizes our perceptions of the world.”  Do you think that is was the writing that influenced how different sexes respond to instruction or do you believe that it was the accepted gender roles of the time which prompted that particular style and purpose of writing?

Week 3 – Benefits and Detriments of Personas

September 11, 2011

Cooper, Alan. “Designing for Pleasure.” In The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, 123-47. Indianapolis: Sams Publishing, 2004.

In “Designing for Pleasure,” Alan Cooper explains what personas are, why they exists, and how they are most effective.  Cooper summarizes his positive opinion of personas repeatedly by stating that “trying to please too many different points of view can kill an otherwise good product” (125).  His point is that eliminating “the elastic user” and replacing such a nebulous creature with a specific entity enables designers to focus the personas as more effective design tools (125-126).  Giving a persona a name, job, car, family, and goals increases the ability of the design team to be precise in their purpose and goals of the project.

One benefit of personas is that they establish a common understanding between all members of the design team in terms of what the user ultimately wants.  Creating personas helps narrow the scope of the target audience to a manageable three or four “characters” who are representative of the group; from that tiny sample, designers can focus on which “character” is the primary persona – the person “who must be satisfied” (137).

However, relying heavily on personas raises concerns as well.  Cooper is quick to emphasize how programmers are generally reluctant to make the shift from referencing “the user” to referencing a character such as “Rosemary;” the concept of personas is something which is often lost on a programmer.  Therefore, problems could arise if the friction between the design team and the programmers continues throughout the development of the product.  A programmer could develop a product for his or her own idea of “the user” whereas employees from the design team could have something else in mind.  When there is a lack of cohesiveness between different aspects of the team as a whole, there is a danger of producing an ineffective final result.  Additionally, relying on personas can be dangerous if a team selects the “wrong” persona as the primary target; the result could be a drop in sales or negative feedback from users.  Personas are most effective when they are carefully designed and adjusted before implementation and when all members of the team are on-board with the purpose and objective at hand.

Cooper notes that he is “shooting for believability, not diversity” in terms of how he designs his personas.  What problems do you foresee as a result of this mindset, especially in an age where being politically correct is often an unstated norm of the workforce?