So, to begin, let me apologize for how unorganized this blog will be – I have run out of time and so I have mostly just uploaded the notes I took while reading the article here. Because of this, there are also a lot more quotes than I would normally include. Again, my apologies.
Moving on, Henry argues near the beginning of his article that: “Our students enter a work world in which discursive processes and products have been radically transformed by macroeconomic and technological shifts of the last decade, shifts with which our composition and technical writing epistemologies, curriculum design, and course conceptualization have yet to contend” (200). He further argues that there is a long and well-documented history showing how composition studies have moved from an emphasis on product to an emphasis on process, but that “Less investigated have been the correlations between composition epistemology and workplace literacy demands as shaped by the twentieth-century U.S. economy and its modes of production” (201).
He lays out the impact of what he calls the “fast capitalism” that has taken over the U.S. economy, noting that “Writing processes (and, in retrospect, the worldly concerns of the writing subject) were not only irrelevant but effectively off limits according to the new scientifically managed workplaces” (201). He goes on to link this in part to the effects of fast capitalism (and its culture of production and professionalization) on the University, including the advent of the “term paper” as a product of what a student has “gotten out of” a class, that professors are judged less on their teaching and mentoring and more on their publications, and battles over who has dominion over writing – the University or the workplace?
The response of composition teachers to this focus on product was to shift the focus to process: “At stake in part was the vital issue of writerly sensibilities, what we know them to be, and our conviction that to teach composition must surely entail conveying something about these sensibilities” (202). However, on the institutional level, in the face of this shift toward process, university and college admin only moved to co-opt process writing, by including a new version of product-based writing, termed “new-traditionalism” by composition scholars. Sharon Crowley in particular argues that the ability of product-oriented pedagogy to co-opt process-pedagogy for its own purposes only proves that the two are more related than is generally acknowledged. According to Crowley, this is because process-pedagogy is still based in a modernist understanding of theory and pedagogy; hence, the shift toward post-modernism in recent composition scholarship.
Henry then goes on to talk about postmodernism for a while. He notes that “the terminology of postmodernism is rich with references to textual and social structures and practices and with a relentless focus on the ‘subject,’ a theoretical entity posited in order to depict lived experience as shaped by language practices and by ideological forces. This subjectivity shares much terrain with writerly sensibility, that elusive phenomenon sought through process pedagogy yet only ever partially perceived under that paradigm because of its failure to go beyond modernist epistemology and to break out of conventional university structures” (203).
He goes on to argue (and I quote at length here because I think this is extremely important to understanding Henry’s article), “Key to postmodern inquiry into subjectivity is the notion of discourse. Modernist understandings of discourse see it as a vehicle, as words chosen to convey preexisting ideas and thoughts and which might be said to mark a speaker or speakers as belonging to a specific social group, as in the case of a ‘discourse community.’ Postmodern versions of discourse see language as the very material from which reality is formed: we are born into language and we learn notions of self (and other) only by way of the many discourses we encounter and which provide us with the means to understand and interpret reality. In life, we occupy sequential and overlapping ‘subject positions’ in discourse that open and restrain avenues of action and thinking, and we are afforded these positions differently and unequally, depending on a host of ideological forces. Only by integrating such throes into composition epistemology and practices, say postmodern compositionists, can we truly begin to enable student writers to perceive the complexity of their writerly sensibilities as they shape discourses and as discourses shape them” (203).
Henry goes on to explain that because lower-level (front-line) employees are now expected to be able to understand and learn things previously given to those on the management level, several important facets of the workplace have been lost, including job security, a say in one’s work life (flexibility of labor requires workers to work more and more hours to retain any sense of job security), a say in one’s local work culture, a say in one’s national work culture, though unions, etc.
With this in mind, he argues that “In light of the foregoing discussion, the ‘public life’ of writers in organizational settings appears dramatically predetermined…presenting us with a paradox: we must educate technical communicators to exercise their craft in such settings, all the while equipping them with the knowledge and know-how that enables a broad and deep understanding of the many forces that shape their writerly sensibilities” (206).
Henry then goes on to make a case for using autoethnographic techniques for pedagogy. I had to look up this term to remind myself of what it means: “Autoethnography is a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. It differs from ethnography — a qualitative research method in which a researcher uses participant observation and interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of a group’s culture — in that autoethnography focuses on the writer’s subjective experience rather than, or in interaction with, the beliefs and practices of others. As a form of self-reflective writing, autoethnography is widely used in performance studies and English” (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoethnography)
Henry connects the idea of autoethnography with “subjective ethnicity,” or the way a subject positions his or herself within an ethnicity (ethnicity being understood as shared characteristics among a group of people). Through this connection, he posits the term “subjective work identity,” or the way a subject positions his or herself within shared characteristics of identities within a workplace culture.
Here were some of his discoveries found through his student’s autoethnographies of their own workplaces and how they were positioned as technical writers within organizations invested in fast capitalism:
Technical writers are at a second-class status in the organization, since the belief persists in organizations that technical writers contribute little to nothing to the organizational products or services. Also, many organizations and workplaces still do not view technical communicators as “authors.”
Technical communicators remained mostly in the role of the talking handbook for their colleagues. “That is, when approached by these colleagues, they were invariably plied for a grammatical ruling or syntactical arbitration. Issues of organizational goals or developmental projects were reserved for talks with workers in other positions and with different job titles” (208). Henry makes a connection here to Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” as a pedagogical tool. He argues that students should understand the theory, build the rhetorical skills, and cultivate the organizational knowledge needed to prove to organizations and coworkers in these contact zones that they are valuable members that have a lot more to add to the organization than grammar and spelling.
Technical communicators are a “neglected population,” though Henry argues that autoethnographic accounts of neglected technical communicators in the workplace can help to correct this problem. He then analyzes how certain discourses (Discourse being defined in the postmodern sense through Gee, Hull, and Lankshear as “ways of talking, listening, reading, writing, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and using tools and objects, in particular settings and at specific times, so as to display or to recognize a particular social identity” (qtd. 210)) do or do not fit well with this discourse of fast capitalism, leading ultimately to the marginalization and neglect of technical communicators in the workplace.
Henry then introduces the idea of using autoethnography through the use of petit recits, or small stories “that offer ways and means of resistance to the master narratives (or discourses) or modernist ideology, and we can use the knowledge thus gleaned to change and develop our composition and technical communication practices and epistemologies” (211).
Ultimately, one of the main problems with fast capitalism and its relationship to technical writers is that the lack of job security and other consequences of the devaluing of writing by fast capitalism lead to compromised writing as a whole. Hnery asks, “Can one truly maintain a ‘quality of writing’ when potential layoff is an ever-present part of one’s writerly sensibilities? And what my ‘quality of writing’ signify?” (211). If quality writing in fast capitalism is one that maximizes returns on investments and improves profit margins, then “eliminated from the equation are issues of ethics, of worker’s interrelationships with colleagues, of the quality of life in the local work culture, and of the ultimate effects on other populations of the writing in which one is engaged” (211).
Finally, Henry argues that, “To embrace an epistemology that acknowledges communication’s content as the construction and mediation of realities through language, we will need whole programs that focus on writing and communication, rather than departments that offer composition or technical communication under the paradigm of ‘service'” (214).
One question that I have (and this echoes an argument made by Henry in the conclusion of his essay), is how much of the current devaluing of technical writing in the workplace is also a result of the ways in which universities and colleges have increasingly become business themselves – businesses that show every sign of being invested in a form of fast capitalism as well? Part of what prompted this question for me was thinking about the exploitation (at times) of adjunct and instructor faculty as cheap labor – workers who are also expected to be flexible in the face of the very real fact that enrollment and bureaucracy might have serious effects on their ability to pay their bills, which in turn has a serious effect on what and how they choose to teach. Given that the current statistic is that roughly 70% of faculty are non-tenure track (please don’t quote me on that statistic!), I would think that their writerly sensibilities might have an impact on how writing is perceived by their students. Thoughts on this?
As for connections to other texts, I think Henry’s piece really importantly echoes ideas brought up in the Slack, Miller, and Doak article from last week, in terms of technical writers not being seen as authors, and that this is one of the key misconceptions that allows for the malignant and devaluing of technical writing in the workplace.