Reading Notes from February 4 Class

I promised that I would provide some guiding notes on our readings that we didn’t get a chance to discuss. You are welcome to respond to these notes as your assigned response, as long as you hit the goal of about 250 words in your response.

I’ll address each reading separately.

Slack, Miller & Doak, 1999

The Technical Communicator as Author: Meaning, Power, Authority

Summary: Tech communicators need to rethink their role as authors by advocating and adhering to an articulation view of their work, in which meaning is articulated and re-articulated across and through the entire context of the movement of meaning from sender to receiver. The goal is to recognize the ethical responsibility of tech communicators and to equip them to make decisions about articulated meanings in ways that understand and recognize the power structures and differentials working in all communications.

Key Quotations

On the way meaning making is negotiated among the various elements of the Burkean pentad or the actors and agents in a network:

“the articulation view allows us to move beyond a conception of communication as the polar contributions of sender and receiver to a conception of an ongoing process of articulation constituted in (and constituting) the relations of meaning and power operating in the entire context within which messages move” (p. 25).

On the important role that business, professional, and technical communicators play in communication, in negotiating power structures, and in allowing meanings to shift and solidify across social contexts, especially when seeking to write about the science and technology:

“It is essential that we [and I would add ‘and our students’] learn to analyze critically the articulations evoked in the language of technology and science” (p. 33)

Wilson & Herndl, 2007

Boundary Objects as Rhetorical Exigence: Knowledge Mapping and Interdisciplinary Cooperation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Summary: Knowledge maps can function as an integrative exigence for disparate teams working on large-scale, multiply layered and dimensioned projects who may not be able to test the final product in order to conduct usability studies or tests. Knowledge maps that represents parts, relations, and common goals are boundary objects that, rather than focusing on demarcation events as articulated by Miller (2005), focus on trading zones in which disparate teams can recognize the value of other teams’ contributions and connectivity while retaining their own understanding of their relationship to the project. This is an important work because it represents a way that complex projects can be assisted by rhetoric.

Key Quotations

The key problem facing today’s business, technical and professional communicators: the enormity of communication and meaning-making tasks in the face of huge quantities of data and disparate teams that use the data for related, but differing, purposes. This is also the original exigency for writing this article.

“an increasingly common problem—a technical community butting up against a problem they cannot solve, not solely because the problem is large and complex but also in part because of the obstacles imposed by different disciplinary and organizational perspectives on the problem” (p. 131).

One of the reasons we need to seek boundary objects to integrate rather than demarcate differences:

“work as it is typically understood is a rhetorical struggle to differentiate groups, to contest the legitimacy of the other. And this sort of boundary work is driven by a demarcation exigence, by the desire to distinguish one group from another that is typically seen as an imposter (Gieryn, 1983, 1999; Miller, 2005; Taylor, 1996)…. [We] argue that a boundary object can also function as a rhetorical construct that encourages an integrative rather than a demarcation exigence” (p. 133).

Wilson & Herndl draw on Burke to support their understanding of boundary objects as integrative invitations to articulation of meanings (i.e., rhetoric) rather than merely loci of difference.

“The play between the ‘plastic’ and ‘robust’ aspects of the boundary object in Star and Griesemer’s (1989) definition corresponds to the dialectical relation between division and identification in Burke’s (1969) understanding of rhetoric. Burke defined rhetoric as the result of the ‘wavering line’ between division and identification: ‘But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric’ (p. 25)” (p. 139).

The real value of boundary objects that, in the case of this project, emerged organically from the needs of various contingents using the knowledge map: to become a rhetorical space for exchange rather than opposition.

“In this instance, the boundary object went beyond coordinating mutually exclusive discourses. By making apparent the grounds of difference, the different local and immediate requirements and contexts of work, it circumvented the experts’ move to demarcate their particular disciplinary or institutional claims as epistemically superior. Boundaries became more contingent than abstract and absolute. As the maps became the mutual possession of the people involved in the conversation, the boundary object became a rhetorical space in which the rhetorical exigence was one of understanding and difference rather than opposition and denial” (p. 147).

Miller, 1979

A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing

Summary: The rhetorical basis of technical writing does and should reflect the consensualist view of science and language, of writing into, with, and through a community. A positivist view of science leads to a deeply restrictive understanding of the role of scientific and technical writing. Technical writing, because of its rhetorical foundations, should be considered humanistic and should refute the positivist view of science and writing in order to ‘contribute to a more fruitful appreciation and critical understanding’ (p. 617) of science and technology.

Key Quotations

Rhetoric’s approach to reality is to express and define lived experience from a conscientiously subjective position, not to reflect the discoveries of science as if they were objective reality.

“My real point here is that although our thinking about technical writing seems to be heavily indebted to the positivist view of science (and of rhetoric), this view is no longer held by most philosophers of science or by most thoughtful scientists. Among the major objections to the theory are the complete failure of attempts to devise an observation language, the inability of theoretical terms defined as summaries of known effects to account for new effects observed later, the failure to account for the growth and change of scientific knowledge, and the serious limitations of logical systems. In addition, a new epistemology, based on modern developments in cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, and sociology, has challenged the positivist conception of knowledge. This new epistemology makes human knowledge thoroughly relative and science fundamentally rhetorical” (p. 615).

One of the reasons I am so completely interested in the way we work together toward collaborative goals: the importance of consensualist approaches to communication.

“It is the contention of this essay that we can improve the teaching and study of technical writing by trading our covert acceptance of positivism for an overt consensualist perspective” (p. 616).

Final Thoughts

These are seminal essays that say a great deal about the field of business, technical, and professional writing.

  1. The field is built on the foundation of rhetorical theory.
  2. The field is closely related to science and technology.
  3. The practice of business, technical, and professional writing is one of articulating and rearticulating meanings across multiple actors, actants, and contexts toward developing consensualist meaning.
  4. There is power and authority to business, technical, and professional communication, and ethical practice is a top priority in theory and in practice.

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.

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