Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wrapping Up My Thoughts on "Solving Problems"

Part four of Solving Problems in Technical Communication focuses on developing knowledge about the field of communication. This section follows a section pertaining to approaches to the technical writing field and in my view, adequately provides analyses which turn the theories of how to interact within the technical writing field, as detailed in part three, into practical methods for approaching the field as a technical communicator or teacher of technical communications.

Part four begins with an emphasis on understanding methods to transfer knowledge and information about technical writing to others in the field. From a quick look through the table of contents for this section, it appears as if the editors of this collection arranged the articles in a manner that examined different modes of understanding for the technical writing field. The forth section has articles specifically about genre, knowledge creation, information design, new media, collaboration, and international environments for technical writing that for me, together, represent a small portion of the considerations that are necessary for technical communicators to be aware of in order to be able to come up with the best appropriate means for completing any given technical communication tasks.

This point, that technical communicators can only really be briefed on a few of the circumstances surrounding their technical communication, is one that I feel resonates throughout the book as a message that reminds readers that just because they might feel as if they “know” how to technically communicate, doesn’t necessarily mean that what they know how to do in one context will still be applicable in another. This, I believe, is one reason why scholars like Henze believe that it is beneficial for communicators to understand how different genres can necessitate different responses than others. As Henze explains, “Genres can help technical communicators diagnose a document user’s needs and produce documents that respond to those needs in situationally appropriate ways” (p. 337). This is a sentiment I agree with and would only amend to extend beyond “documents” to include any type of medium used for communication.

Ultimately, after finishing this book and the articles in it, I wonder to myself, how could teachers of technical communication better decide what areas to focus on when teaching students? Is it acceptable to simply rely on what I, as a teacher, believe to be the most important areas to focus or is their some need to have a baseline understanding of certain aspects of technical communication that might supersede teaching, say, ideas surrounding new media? I ask because I just don’t believe a semester is a large enough space in time to teach even the different considerations explored as the subject of the articles in part four, let alone those subjects in addition to a model based on forms and reports. What do you believe the single most important piece of information people should learn in a technical communication class?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Understanding the Tech Comm Field in Terms of Practical Solutions to Common Problems

Selfe and Selfe’s article that begins the Johnson-Eilola and Selber text, Solving Problems in Technical Communication, provides readers with a heuristic for understanding the field of technical communication. Designed for those interested in mapping the field of technical writing and inspired by the wonder of a student looking for a concrete way to describe who profession, Selfe and Selfe first explain the elusiveness of providing a concrete definition for technical communication and offer readers ideas for systematically using text clouds to produce easily digestible data sets from written documents (p. 20).

By creating text clouds, the authors of this article explain how technical communicators wishing to answer the question, “What are the boundaries, artifacts, and identities of technical communication” (p. 21)? can use available computer programs to create a unique, yet distinct, model for understanding the values of their area of interests. To understand text clouds, though, is to interpret ideas from a given position and requires, according to Selfe and Selfe, that users of these creative representations understand the rhetorical implications of such a creation either as a creator of text clouds or end-consumer (p. 33).

The examples this article relies on to make their point are ones centered around the recognition of five key steps to determining whether or not a text cloud represents data in a way that becomes useful to users. While these steps are heuristic in nature, the authors first model them abstractly outside of a specific context and then offer a concrete example of these steps being used to better understand a data set comparable to those one might face in the technical communication profession.

Since this articles main focus is to provide a heuristic method for understanding the field of technical writing, I can see why the authors avoided contextualizing word clouds in terms of how they can be taught as effective tools for our own students’ uses. Also, even though this article focuses rightfully so on the rhetorical implications revolving text clouds, I found myself wondering at some point whether or not I was reading an article that should be interpreted through the lens of a teacher attempting to pick up strategies for teaching effective technical communications or if I was reading about how I myself should consider text clouds when I enter the professional world of technical communication. After looking back through the article with this idea in mind, I see minimal references to student/teacher relationships inside the technical communications classroom and instead believe that I find this article to be geared more towards those wishing to improve their own skills as professional technical communicators.

This led me top the question of how I might include word clouds in my own lesson plans for a technical communications class so that students were able to realize how useful the creation of these infographics can be? Should this type of representation or model for understanding be taught in the contexts of other infographic-type models for meaning making? Or maybe in a tech comm class instead the focus would be on teaching students how to effectively interpret word clouds and how to assess the underlying rhetorical implications of such a representation? Maybe there are other ways to include word clouds without overtly teaching them as having a five step heuristic model for interpretation/creation……and if there are, what might those heuristic models look like?

These questions alone were enough to make me at least consider the purpose of having this article appear first in Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s collection. Since this text is designed to be a book offering practical models for solving tech comm problems, maybe the idea of easing into practical applications was abandoned in order to focus on real-world possibilities. If so, I’m quite fine with that, but what I am attempting to note is how the seemingly abrupt beginning to this collection struck me as dissimilar to the organization of other texts with relatable topics of consideration. Nevertheless, I ultimately agree with Selfe and Selfe’s conclusions and find myself wanting to come up with some meaningful way to include rhetorical consideration of various representations in my own technical communication classes.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Framework for Tech Comm Research Methodologies Critique

Appearing within the section of Critical Power Tools titled, “Research,” Jeffrey Grabill’s article, “The Study of Writing in the Social Factory: Methodology and Rhetorical Agency,” presents a practical framework for being critical of the cultural and ideological underpinnings of the tech comm field. Building upon the conceptual ideas found in Bernadette Longo’s chapter four article, Grabill explains how critical research methodologies need to develop through community based projects that are, as Longo would put it, “firmly grounded in coherent theoretical rationale” (p. 127), so that material and theoretical culture can develop together to promote better practices in tech comm classrooms (p. 155-156).

Grabill first helps readers understand his argument by clarifying the definitions for the terminology he is borrowing as components from, and for, a framework for critical analysis. Using James Porter and Patricia Sullivan’s critical research framework (p. 153), Grabill elaborates their framework’s distinction between method and methodology in order to show where the complexities of having methodologies lies, focusing on the fact that particular approaches to different situations are already really on a dominant ideology (p. 154). This is important as it allows Grabill to establish where a gap in the research occurs. Mainly, he identifies a lack of application of rhetorical cultural studies to the tech writing field, a field Grabill identifies as key to the formulation of the professional environments we enter.

Grabill continues examining the lack of critique present in research methodologies by claiming the importance of agency to those who will participate in professional communications after their studies (p. 159). The author therefore wishes that tech writings and communicators will be able to critical examine the research they do and understand how their own research, and the agency that accompanies the act of generating new research, reflects the ideology and reality as researchers perceive them. To understand how methodology impacts research practice, Grabill asks readers to focus on seven categories to determine the extent to which a given piece of research might be jaded by the biases and ideologies of a researcher.  Two of the suggested areas of focus warrant discussion on behalf of the author as crucial to the development of the other points. By understanding how research methodologies are initiated, how accessible they are, who participates in the research, how to understand audience, consider local politic, promote effective communications, and encourage ideas for sustaining the validity of one’s research, Grabill believes one can attain, “new and different understandings of a project and should be understood to have epistemological value, not just procedural value” (pp. 161,166).

The main realization I believe Grabill wishes for readers to gain is one that recognizes the usefulness of applying theoretical frameworks to practical situations in order to critically understand the factors that determine the true meaning of a given context for tech comm. In focusing on the development of ideas surrounding access and community, this article comes to a close with an example of why it is so important we understand our role as participants in the cultural construction of the communities we work in by expressing the drawbacks of miscommunication and a lack of communal understanding (pp. 163, 165). Since research is always already tied to methodology and ideology, the importance of a critical approach becomes evident as scholars work to enhance methods for understanding and studying “rhetorics of the everyday” (p. 167).

What I am left wondering is how might Grabill suggest tech comm pedagogy change in order to reflect a new or more developed understanding of the way our methodologies of teaching, and research, reflect our own ideologies and perceptions? In other words, is there a concrete method for reassessing our various practices that moves beyond just making us realize we have agency (power) and extends into more informed, responsible, ethical decisions as educators? How might I blend my need to assist students in becoming critically aware thinkers with the need to provide them with clear instruction on seemingly formulaic structures and forms for communication?

I suppose with more than one semester’s time to teach students about critically aware tactics of tech comm we as educators would be in a position that would allow for a greater depth of development regarding what is taught and how it is being taught. I tend to imagine the tech comm classroom as one that is already overwhelmed with the varying needs of students as they pertain to the copious amount of scenarios they should be familiarized with before they graduate and enter the workforce.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Critical Power and Power Tool Power in Tech. Writing

The problem the authors explore in Critical Power Tools relates to the need for a greater level of critique when it comes to methods for implementing effective technical communication pedagogy. As Scott, Longo, and Wills claim, “Cultural studies approaches can help us and our students review technical communication as regulated by and enacted by power” (p. 13). Recognizing the presence of this power dynamic in our practices as teachers is the first step, in the author’s minds, to being able to critically analyze the meanings and reasoning that are perpetuated in our technical writing classrooms.

By using the ideas of famous theorists, the authors are able to apply the thinking used by such famous scholars as Foucault, De Certeau, and Habermas to establish the basic point that it isn’t enough to simply know what to teach and how to teach, but also teachers should understand methods for translating critique into “ethical civic action” (p. 15). Since technical writing has typically been viewed as best taught through a transmission relationship between teachers and students, the authors show that much of the greater meaning embedded in pedagogy gets ignored and taken for granted by the teacher so that they are left unable to articulate the true reasons for communicating in technical settings in a way that goes beyond wrote understandings of forms.

The first section of Critical Power Tools focuses on theories that apply to technical writing. Slack, Miller, and Doak outline student’s transitions “from neutral conduits to implicated translators to responsible authors” (p. 22) to emphasize the fact that students play a crucial role in deciding and forming technical communications-based genres. Dilger talks about how the goal of making technical communication highly user-friendly in fact undermines the intelligence of users and creates users who are complacent in the process of understanding not only what they are doing, but also how and why they are doing it (p. 22).

The section rounds out with discussion surrounding the streamline nature of usability and how email emulates American societal goals of efficiency and minimal distractions. Katz explains that instead of creating a perfect work environment by making communication more fluid, the advent of email has also brought with it new considerations surround how a worker’s time is suppose to be spent and what constitutes the difference between reading work emails and private emails—or those that one is paid to read and those that are just otherwise present in the same inbox (p. 23).

By understanding these situations from a critical theory perspective, the authors believe students would be enable to have a greater foundational understanding of these issues surround technology and usability and therefore will become much more responsible users/authors of various technical dispatches. Some questions that occurred to me as I read are:

·      What do you all think about email and whether or not one should be allowed or able to access private emails during work time if they are appearing in the same inbox?
·      In what scenarios might it be okay for a worker to manage and decide how they use their computer time on their own?
·      Are there situations in current times that you all might see as allowing for workers to do as they please as long as work continues to be done?
·      Have any of you ever felt like something has been made “too” usable?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Getting Started: Understanding Contexts for Development in Electronic Writing and Communication

The article I read, Selber, Johnson-Eilola, and Selfe’s, “Contexts for Faculty Professional Development in the Age of Electronic Writing and Communication,” first appeared in Technical Communication in 1995 and details the discussion that took place among the three scholars at a symposium offered to program administrators. The symposium centered on understanding three different contexts in which the authors believe teachers and students alike can begin to better understand the nature of technical communication.

Most notably, the main points for consideration offered by the authors of this synopsis are that technology consists of a complex set of socially situated practices that involve a variety of different groups and that digital technologies can be innovative, but only when understood as consisting of more than a mere set of skills or strategies which constitute proficiency.

While my article was short in length, it does highlight three main contexts that teachers and students can understand in order to better enable themselves the chance to become proficient teachers and learners of technical communication. By having an expanded sense of tech. comm. as a profession, teachers and students, the articles believes, would begin to see that computers are more than neutral carriers of information but are also devices capable of bringing up more complex issues of ownership, ethics, and information flow that when considered thoughtfully, can help people realize the “larger organizational, rhetorical, social, and ideological contexts” (p. 501) that make tech. comm. more than a bag of skills to be gained.

Understanding the previous context also helps with the development of student and teacher understandings of technical literacies as being more about literacy and less about computers. This, the authors claim, should help account for the “rhetorical and humanistic traditions that inform technical communications studies” (502). Ultimately, this should lead to more effective pedagogies and increased preparation on the part of teachers in their course designs and initiations of the use of computers for tech. comm.

The final suggestion is that a robust exchange takes place interdisciplinarily to create an environment where scholars inform each other of their ideas and critique their ideas to understand the underlying ideological implications and power relations that are embodied by certain aspects of technically proficiency. Through an understanding of these three contexts, Selber, Johnson-Eilola, and Selfe conclude that the field of technical communications can be best enabled to become enriched by the inclusion of computer-based technologies instead of hindered by such a curricular inclusion.

Learning using computers and technology, in general, has lead to scholarship like that done by Robey, Khoo, and Powers, as they, in 2000, would write about the importance of recognizing the situatedness of the technical communications field. Also, Selfe and Hawisher, in “A Historical Look at Electronic Literacy,” further expand, in 2002, upon ideas surrounding literacy and the reality that literacy means more than the ability to use, but also means understanding the values and meanings underlying communications and methods of technical communication via computers.

A question I wondered during my reading is how much do you think that the arguments in this article ended up shaping the trajectory of the field of professional writing? Another question I wondered about is to what extend did Selfe shape her career by retooling the same argument for different contexts? My assumption is that she did an excellent job informing a number of fields about the need to consider the social and contextual implications of their pedagogies.

Overall, I found this article to be a likely place where the exploration of the underlying implications of the situatedness of the tech comm. field really took off, leading to much of what we think we know today about being rhetorically aware of our students’ past experiences and future needs.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Applied Theory: Corporate Intranets

In the final article of chapter four in Dubinsky's Teaching Technical Communication, Lisa Ann Jackson provides a practical example of the importance of focusing web design on the needs of users instead of overlooking user input in the name of “‘making information available to people who might need it’” (p. 273). Jackson argues that ignoring elements of design like repetition, the need for simplicity, and adherence to an intuitive structure takes away from any attempt by a company to make information available because overlooking aspects of design in such a way makes it so users are more likely to abandon an intranet structure than to continue toiling (p. 273).

Jackson’s article, “The Rhetoric of Design: Implications for Corporate Intranets,” applies theories of user-centered design as they are postulated by Robert J. Johnson in order to show how crucial an adherence to the wants and needs of users can be to the success of a corporate intranet structure. Originally published in the year 2000, Jackson encourages designers of intranets—or communication systems designed to be used and accessed by members of certain discourse communities—to recognize Johnson’s advice to see users as “involved in the actions of practice and production” (Johnson 59), which Jackson reframes by quoting Cate Corcoran’s suggestion “that developers ‘figure out who is communicating and what information they are exchanging’” (p. 272).

The examples use by Jackson are all drawn from corporate settings that use massive amounts of information. Large-scale information management needs to be systematically organization so inefficient use is reduced , Jackson claims (p. 269). Without some type of convention, even possibly a grammar book or a company style guide, Jackson shows how companies like Sun Microsystems can face challenges from users who feel that greater attention to the previously mentioned features of design would “facilitate employees’ use of the intranet and guide them to the information they seek” (p. 274).

The application of a user-centered theory of design is clearly established as important to Jackson and other scholars. While her examples are taken from corporate situations around the year 2000, other articles in chapter four also establish how a user-centered approach works and the greater aspects that make it a viable theory for basing technical and professional communication instruction. Janice C. Redish defines information design through a user-centered lens and echoes Johnson and Jackson’s claims surrounding the importance of having a “clearly visible, separable, and easily identified” (p. 216) web page design. Barbara Mirel elaborates on the definition of usability in general so that Jackson’s article appears as only a practical application of Mirel’s conceptions of usability and those established by Johnson in User-centered Technology.

While chapter four focuses on web design, I wonder how much these principles can still be applied today? Are our notions of design and the general need to adhere to certain concerns regarding contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (C.R.A.P) (Non-designer’s Book of Design) still being actively taught and considered by students in technical and professional writing? Are these features being taught so the rhetorical implications of design are the central focus, like when Jackson’s article was written, or is there a new way to situate the importance of C.R.A.P.? Finally, I wonder, is design something better taught in other classrooms or is it an integral part of technical and professional communication instruction? Jackson would argue that design is central to technical writing instruction, but is that so at WSU?

I personally agree with all of chapter four and also heavily favor a user-centered approach to understanding technology and the best methods for communicating technically and professionally. With underlying structures of communication adhered to, I believe users are more inclined to participate in an intranet and are also more likely to be able to learn the discoursal standards associated with corporate intranet communication expectations, thus encouraging greater user participation.