Some Broad Thoughts….

Instead of creating a summary of this week’s readings (which others will do much more effectively than I can, I’m sure), I decided to create a list of questions I thought of while reading Part 4. I will admit however, that I sort of failed to stick close to Part 4, and ended up with super broad questions that I think address some thoughts I’ve been having throughout this course. The ideas interest me nonetheless, and I would love to discuss these questions in class if there is time.

– This question has been bugging me for a while now: I wonder coming into a class like 402, how many of our students even conceptualize themselves as technical writers? I just wonder if faced with readings like the ones in Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s text, which are ostensibly aimed at students of technical writing (though we of course problematized that assumption last week), would any of our students think “Hey, I’m an engineer, not a technical writer!”

– Going along with my last question, if our students have trouble thinking of themselves as technical writers, how can we begin to help them to see themselves in this way? Is this even our responsibility, or ethically something we should strive to do as technical writing teachers? (I think it is…)

– Along the same vein, if it is true that some students coming into a class like 402 may not conceptualize themselves as technical writers (and again, I’m not even sure if this is the case…it’s just a thought I had while reading Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s text), how much of that disconnect is the result of the continuing misconception of technical writing as somehow being authorless?

I may add to this list as I think of more questions before class on Thursday, but these are just some ideas I had as we come to the end of the readings for this course.   


Analyzing Workplace Cultures, or Becoming the Nigel Thornberry of Your Job Site

In Henry’s opening gambit of “How Can Technical Communicators Fit into Contemporary Organizations?” he argues that, “Every contemporary organization possesses an organizational culture that distinguishes it from others, and technical communicators who seek to fit into any organization must develop skills as cultural analysts” (75). He goes on several pages later to contend that as “Workplace cultures in the twenty-first century are dynamic and in flux…technical communicators who best fit into a contemporary organization are those who become adept at analyzing its culture – the better to shape that culture even as they are shaped by it” (77).

In essence, the goal of Henry’s article is help technical writing students to learn how to analyze their own workplace cultures, in an attempt to better fit within these societies. It is at its heart a heuristic continuation of what Henry proposes in “Writing Workplace Cultures – Technically Speaking.” For example, Henry employs the same pedagogical techniques of using autoethnography to analyze one’s position as a technical writer within the larger cultural framework of the workplace in this article as he proposes in his earlier, more theoretical piece. This article focuses less on the theoretical underpinnings of his argument for autoethnographic analysis and postmodern pedagogies, and more on the implementation of these these pedagogies in real life.

In his argument for an autoethnographic approach, Henry quotes Boyle and Parry’s article “Telling the Whole Story: The Case for Organizational Autoethnography.” Boyle and Parry note that “this approach has the ability to connect the everyday mundane aspects of organizational life with the broader political and strategic organizational agendas and practices” (qtd. Henry 79). Henry goes on to elaborate that, “By understanding these broader political and strategic organizational agendas and practice as they interrelate with your day-to-day work, you will not only fit more successfully into your workplace culture, you will also shape your professional identity as an active influence in that culture – and in those that will probably follow” (79).

He notes that “The basis for your [cultural analysis] will be the everyday practices that you can observe, document, compare, and ponder in order to understand the many aspects of this local culture as they shape writing,” and that while the concerns of fitting into a workplace culture are often relegated to “the (seemingly secondary) category of social skills,” we are always consciously or unconsciously thinking about we fit into our workplace, in order to best accomplish the goals of the organization, as well as our own personal and professional goals as a part of that organization (76-77).

Therefore, after grounding his work in theories and practices of autoethnography, Henry goes on to elaborate on a heuristic he has developed to help technical communicators analyze their workplace cultures. This article in particular is aimed at technical communication students who would potentially employ this heuristic in their own workplace, but I think it connects well to his more theoretical article from last week, in which he proposes a pedagogy of autoethnography that technical communication teachers can employ to give their students the ability to analyze their workplace cultures.

Henry begins by outlining the practice of participant observation, and what this entails, including the Five Ws; that is, “who, what, when, where, and how” in regards to one’s workplace. He then goes on to discuss the process of collecting field notes on one’s participant observations, suggesting also that one can interview other members of the culture in order to understand how others understand their place in the larger workplace culture. Henry notes that these interviews can (and often should) be done informally. For example, an interview could consist of just the ordinary questions one asks a superior or other colleagues when on the job, though more formal interviews can be important as well, especially if one has already taken extensive field notes and can tailor the interview questions to interrogate the patterns present within those notes. Henry then suggests collecting artifacts of the workplace, including the dress code, memos and sticky notes, whiteboard writings, the physical layout of the workplace, and other everyday artifacts. He notes that it is important when analyzing these artifacts to think not only about what the artifact is or says, but also how it functions within the workplace culture. Finally, Henry suggests writing one’s autoethnographic observations up as a report, either for one’s own benefit, or for one’s organization.

One question I had following Henry’s article is, where would a busy technical communicator find the time to do such detailed research about their workplace culture? I realize that this book is meant for technical communication students, and that it aims at “providing a vital bridge between thinking and doing,” (Johnson-Eiloloa and Selber) offering heuristics for tackling common issues technical writers might encounter in the workplace. However, is there a way to practice the spirit of autoethnographic research as Henry suggests, in a less formal, less time-consuming manner?

Also, I am interested in the possibilities of thinking about the University as a workplace culture, especially given the wide variety of departments and offices with varying values and goals that exists within a college. Can we think about the University as a whole as a workplace culture, or should we think more specifically in terms of departments and schools?

Postmodernism YEAH!

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,

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.

“Critical Power Tools,” or Technical Communication Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

Instead of giving a summary of what happens in this section (since others will do that in class), in my blog this week I want to highlight some of the things that caught my eye in the readings (mostly, in the Introduction).

I really appreciated that Scott, Longo, and Wills acknowledge that the goals of cultural theory cannot replace the longstanding pragmatic goals of technical communication. They comment that, “Some readers might be uncomfortable with replacing pragmatic goals with these more normative ones. We are not arguing for total replacement as much as enhancement and redirection, however. The essays in the collection powerfully illustrate how cultural approaches can advance both types of goals in helping us create more egalitarian mechanisms for producing and assessing texts, for example, cultural studies approaches can better ensure that these text accommodate their users” (2). I think it’s important to remember that technical communication is a part of many more “practical” fields, that prize pragmatism over high-minded theory – theory that can often seem disconnected from reality outside the academy. However, I do not in any way think this means technical communicators (or the fields they work within) should be uncritical, or that they should be solely pragmatic (as Scott et al. would call hyperpragmatic), but rather that they should consider the egalitarian goals of cultural theory in conjunction with the pragmatic goals of the discipline.

In essence, I appreciate that they established in the Introduction that their view of cultural studies is concerned with critical production as well as consumption, but more importantly, that they do not advocate theory for theory’s sake.

I also found this statement to be key: “The essays in this collection work within this framing of culture, recognizing technical texts as connected to broader cultural practices, as always-already ideological, and enmeshed in forms of power” (5). Several of the articles from Dubinsky’s collection and Johnson in his book commented on the tendency in our society to view technical communications as completely neutral or objective, uninfluenced by culture in the obvious ways other writings are. However, these technical texts are produced by humans, and are therefore both a product and a reflection of the culture in which that human exists. Citing Frederic Jameson, as Scott et al. note later in the Introduction, “When we view technical texts as apolitical or nonideological, Jameson suggests, we misunderstand them and limit our ability to transform them for civic good” (12). Ultimately, I think this myth of neutrality is in part a consequence of the erasure of the author in much of technical communication, as several of the scholars from this chapter have noted.  

Scott et al. also comment that “Yet another related limitation of hyperpragmatism is its explanatory rather than critical stance, a stance driven by the goal of accommodation rather than transformation. The goals o hyperpragmatism are conformity, expediency, and success, narrowly defined. These goals can co-opt as well as foreclose critique, as Henry and Katz point out, replacing ethical standards with those of economic expediency” (13). This seems to connect nicely to Thrush’s discussion of the difficulties that arise when technical communicators from capitalist and socialist-leaning countries attempt to communicate. Capitalism is profit-driven, and can be off-putting for socialist communicators who appreciate creating interpersonal relationships with other companies.

I don’t want to usurp anyone’s article, so I’ll just make one comment about the theory itself: I found Moses’ and Katz’s article to be fascinating and increasingly current to what is happening in today’s technological world. I was especially interested in their commentary about the blurring of public and private spaces: “In our society, email has become such a common and expedient medium of communication in both workplace and leisure space that the virtual boundary between work and leisure, has for all intents and purposes, collapsed” (71). With the dawning of the Smart Phone, we are now connected to our places of work every day, all day. Seeing as this collection was published in 2006, before the first iPhone was released, I wonder what Moses and Katz would say about the influence of the Smart Phone on this ever increasing meshing of public and private.

One question I have is, what happens when students of technical communication trained to be critical of hyperpragmatism encounter workplaces full of other technical communicators not trained this way, or companies that prize the goals of hyperpragmatism over civic action? Obviously the goal is to train students who might then become transformers within the field, but I’m just wondering what the clash between transformative and conformative entities in technical/professional communication or technical/professional fields might look like, or what the results of this clash might look like.  

So Much More than just a Language Barrier: Communicating Across Intercultural and International Borders.

The essence of Thrush’s argument is that, as “There is no escaping the increasing internationalization of business” (415), greater consideration must be made in the field of technical communication to communication across intercultural and international boundaries. She notes that members of technical and professional communications communities for the most part agree that there is a need to: 1) “Raise awareness of the differences in communication styles and strategies across nation and cultural boundaries” (416). 2) “Demonstrate sensitivity to those cultures and avoid implication that we are measuring other culture by out own or that we are trying to manipulate members of the other cultures” (416). 3) “Avoid the cultural imperialism implicit even in such statements are ‘people are really all alike underneath,’ because this statement often means ‘people are just like me, want the same things I want, and will eventually leaner to get them the same way I do, therefore I can just continue to do things the way I always have'” (416).

With this in mind, she ultimately argues that, “What is needed is a framework for looking at cultures, a framework that will help technical communicators make reasonable hypotheses about how members of the culture will communicate and how they will receive and interpret attempts at communication” (416).

Thrush goes on in her article to outline what was currently known about international and intercultural communication in 1997. She identifies four different areas from which we can glean information about how social, cultural, or political differences between cultures can make communication across boundaries difficult: these include concepts from Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, and History, Political Science, and Economics.

Here are some highlights: in terms of Linguistics, she notes that the field of Contrastive Rhetoric has primarily been responsible for research into cross-cultural and international communication. These communicators look at how various cultures accomplish communication tasks, specifically by identifying “patterns of organization, length, phrasing, and format,” as well as “how members of different cultures accomplish specific speech acts such as persuasion or requests” (416). Some problems Thrush identifies with the field of Contrastive Rhetoric are that “it deals with individual documents, thereby making generalizations difficult and risky” (416), and that in order for Contrastive Rhetoricians to do this type of analysis, they must have a comprehensive knowledge of the language and the culture, which all told is a fairly rare set of skills. She finally argues that “technical communicators can’t and shouldn’t wait for contrastive rhetoric researchers to examine documents from even the major cultures before the materials on communicating across cultures is incorporated into professional writing classes” (418).

Thrush also notes that differences between cultures that tend to use more “masculine” communication styles (meaning more assertive and confrontational) or more “feminine” communication styles (meaning more “consensus-seeking, more intuitive, and emotional” (418)) can create difficulties or barriers. As a side note, I was a bit surprised that Thrush does not problematize this culturally constructed dichotomy.

Some other areas of difference that Thrush highlights are high versus low context cultures, differences in whether members of a culture focus on one task or multiple tasks at a time, whether a culture tends to be more group-oriented or individualistic (and therefore more competitive or given to making consensuses), and finally how the historical context and the political system of a culture impact how its members communicates. In this last one, Thrush argues that there are fundamental differences in how members of capitalistic and socialistic cultures communicate, in part because capitalism’s profit-driven competitive nature leads employees to constantly fear for their jobs, while socialism allows companies and workers to focus on long-term goals and interpersonal relationships.

Thrush ends her article by noting that little research has been done on subcultures in the US, which she argues is probably partly a result of racial politics. She then identifies a few of the most pressing questions that remain about intercultural and international communications: “Do certain principles of communication, whether from traditional rhetorical theory or from reading research, cut across culture, national, and organizational differences? Should they be taught universally?” (425) She goes on to note that in terms of the classroom, “One problem with the principles we normally teach in our classrooms is that they are all based on Western culture, whether we are teaching rhetorical principles from Aristotle or Bruffee, or relating research on how readers process texts” (425). In answer to this concern, Thrush states that “Until research can tell us whether members of other cultures process texts in the same way, we cannot be sure that what we know about the advantages of headings, white space, and active verbs holds true for all audiences in all environments” (425).

One question I had about Thrushes article is: this article is a bit dated, especially considering the massive changes that have been made in the last decade and a half in international and cross-cultural communication (the internet connecting us all over the world, especially through social media), and international business. The racial and cultural landscape of the US has also changed considerably, due in part to immigration and population growths in these “subcultures,” as Thrush calls them. Is it still true that little research has been done on subcultures in the US, or that little research has been done on communication across international boundaries? Fast-forward about 15 years, and what does the research landscape of this issue look like today?

Another question I had is: she states at the end that we can “enrich our examination of [workplace-based] research with the framework I’ve suggested in this essay for identifying the values and communities of a wide variety of possible audiences” (425). Perhaps I’m the only one, but was anyone else unclear as to exactly what her framework is? It seems that what she’s getting at is that technical communicators need to acknowledge that communication between different cultures can be dependent on a variety of social, cultural, and political factors. However, I’m not sure that I see her stating this clearly. I would have loved for her to be a bit more explicit…(Please excuse the fact that my low-context cultural values are clearly showing through in this question).

Finally, if relying on Contrastive Rhetoricians is not the solution to understanding the differences in communication habits across cultures, then how do we gather this information? Thrush does not seem to offer a solution to the problem she identifies in this area of the essay.

In terms of connections between Thrush’s article and the other readings, I think the connections to Beamer’s article are pretty clear, considering Thrush is clearly arguing for greater consideration into cultural, social, and political factors when communicating across cultures, be this in international contexts or multicultural contexts in the US. Beamer notes at the end of her article that “Learning intercultural communication competence requires a willingness to acknowledge the frequently unexpected differences in a new culture; it requires willingness to accept the stereotypical characteristics of the new culture for what they are” (412). While I’m a bit wary of that last bit about accepting stereotypical characteristics (stereotypical by whose standards? why are we talking about stereotypes?), I think Thrush really stresses this acknowledgement of unexpected differences between cultures in her article.

James Porter and the Ethical Quandaries of Jerks Online

Porter notes in the very beginning of his article that his purpose is to examine “the issue of ethics on computer networks from the point of view of rhetoric” (188). He notes that his position as a teacher “places [him] in a specific ethical standpoint toward issues involving the rights of electronic citizens” (188). To this end, Porter asks two important and driving questions within the first paragraph of the piece: 

– “What obligations do I have as the teacher of a writing class toward members of a class who can be victimized by the electronic speech of others?” (188)

– “What obligations do I have as a teacher of writing to encourage members of my class to be responsible, fair, and ethical electronic writers?” (188)

In order to deal with these questions, Porter argues for a praxis of “critical rhetorical ethics” that does not necessarily seek answers, but suggests heuristics and “procedural criteria for determining how ethical decisions might be made in [a] particular case” (188). In essence, Porter argues for a position of “postmodern commitment,” or a position that acknowledges the “plurality and contingency of choices” that writers (and students) might make, but accepts that “at some point practical judgment is necessary,” and teachers of writing have an ethical responsibility to act (188).  

Porter situates himself with theorists such as Paulo Freire, Iris Marion Young, and on some level Kenneth Burke and Luce Irigaray, noting that he holds “a strong inclination toward the situated and the communitarian, but [is] sympathetic to the postmodern critique and…[posits] difference as a fundamental principle” (188-9). He goes on to note that his position “is that problems are best worked out in terms of a situated and kairotic rhetorical ethics,” which,

     – prioritizes “local practices and the conventions of particular communities,”

     – “accounts for the specific nature of the electronic medium,” 

     – “and which invokes a discourse ethics that is relatively pluralistic in its constitution and heuristic and rhetorical in its methodology” (189).  

Near the end of his essay, Porter posits the idea that a system of critical rhetorical ethics must make a distinction between the legal and the ethical. Through a framework taken from Enrique Dussel, Porter argues that what is legal is not necessarily always ethical, and that cyberwriters must develop their own form of critical rhetorics to combat the dominance of legal frameworks online. This “translates into an ethic of advocacy for one’s audiences – users, browsers, electronic readers – that aims to improve their conditions of learning and ease their conditions of oppression or dominance within institutional settings” (199). 

In sum, Porter argues in this piece that writing teachers should allows students to make their own choices and decisions in their electronic writing, but should not at the same time give up their own rights to intervene in moments of ethical uncertainty. In order to facilitate this, teachers must develop a critical rhetorical ethics that helps them to decide when intervention is necessary.

In terms of questions/issues I have in regards to Porter’s article, I found his criticism of Spivak to be problematic. On the one hand, I can see where Porter is coming from in the context of his argument for a critical rhetorical ethics that advocates action in response to ethical violations. However, I feel like his criticism of Spivak kind of misses the whole point of “Can the Subaltern Speak,” which is about more than just the imperialism implicit in white men riding to the rescue of oppressed peoples. To condense a very long, complicated theory into a couple of thoughts, Spivak points out that the practice of those with power attempting to save oppressed people (the subaltern) from their oppressors causes the subaltern to become invisible as these more powerful forces speak for them, “in their best interests.” I think Spivak is on some level arguing that unless the subaltern are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, to even decide if they need rescuing or not, nothing will ever change – the imperialistic status quo will remain the status quo, and these power discrepancies will never be resolved or even addressed. I don’t think this precludes the privileged (or those with power) from being allies of the subaltern, but that alliance should not be built on the powerful speaking for the oppressed, nor do I think a system of critical rhetorical ethics necessitates advocating this kind of action. Anyone else have any thoughts on this? Any disagreements with my reading of Porter here?  

I saw a lot of connections between Quintilian and Porter. Quintilian proposes that an orator must “be such a one as is characterized by the definition of Marcus Cato, a good man skilled in speaking” (146). I think this idea is fundamental to Porter’s argument, as he posits that cyberwriters and writing teachers should develop some system of ethics when dealing with their own writing and the writing of others (i.e. student writing, etc.) and that this system should be based upon an understanding of critical rhetorics, the power of language to affect others, and an awareness of audience and rhetorical situations. Quintilian also argues that an orator must be a good man because “he…will best implant such feelings in the breasts of others who has first implanted them in his own” (150). In the same vein, I believe Porter argues that in order to instill ethical values in students, writing teachers must interrogate and think critically about their own system of ethics first.

Russel, like Porter, believes the the important question around the subject of teaching ethics is not whether ethics should be taught, but what methodology should be used to communicate ethical standards, or more correctly, to help students develop their own system of critical ethics. Russell comments “The questions is not whether teachers, courses, disciplines, professions, and institutions should promote ethical behavior and critical reflection but how, when and for what purposed they should be promoted” (166). Both emphasize the need to think critically about ethics, and to approach ethics heuristically.

Just as a general side note, I’m really interested in Porter’s argument in this piece in the context of the recent attention being drawn to cyber-harrassment, cyber-bullying, and cyber-mobs; particularly, I would be really interested to know what he thinks about the ongoing harassment faced by social commentators (particularly feminists) like Anita Sarkeesian, and the fact that social networks like Twitter rarely make any attempt to monitor or police what is said online by their users (even if that content is blatantly racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, etc.). Porter notes that ignoring offensive comments online “constitutes as tacit approval of them” – so, the oft overused advice to just “ignore the trolls” in effect only encourages those trolls to continue their offensive behavior. Thoughts?

Wait…Technology Users Aren’t Idiots?!

The main problem that Johnson posits in his book is that the production of technology, and the technical writing that surrounds this production, operates through a system-centered structure that cuts the user out of the design process. He argues that designers and producers create technologies that employ designs that make sense to them, but often elude the understanding of the users who are ostensibly the end-goal of technology production. He notes that, “The system-centered view is based upon models of technology that focus on the artifact or system as primary, and on the notion that the inventors or developers of the technology know best its design, dissemination, and intended use. In general, the system-centered view holds that the technology, the humans, and the context within which they reside are perceived as constituting one system that operates in a rational manner toward the achievement of predetermined goals” (25).

In essence, Johnson locates one of the main issues with technology production, as well as technical communication, in the fact that “System-centered technology locates the technological system or artifact in a primary position” (26). Because of the proclivity of the system-centered viewpoint of technology, technical communicators (or those who produce the instruction manuals and other technical documents meant to help the user) may write in a way that ignores the perspective of the user and makes assumptions about how user might use a piece of technology, often making these documents more confusing than helpful. Johnson also notes that because Western culture values scientific knowledge over practical know-how, there is a perception in technological fields that the “everyday user” is either an idiot, or too lazy to learn the system. Ultimately, cutting the user out of the design process results in a breakdown between how the designers intended the technology to be used, the how the user experiences that technology.

In order to address these issues, Johnson argues that there must be a shift in what technical developers and communicators view as the end-point of technology development. In other words, the end-goal of a piece of technology should be centered on the user, and not the artifact itself. This is what Johnson calls a user-centered approach to technology development, a design process in which “users are active participants in the design, development, implementation, and maintenance of the technology. This is not meant to imply that users are the sole or dominant forces in technology development. Rather, they are allowed to take part in a negotiated process of technology design, development, and use that has only rarely been practiced” (32). Johnson argues that developers not only need to shift to a user-centered structure that allows users to take part in the design process, but that they also need to fundamentally change the way they think about the production and use of technology. That is, developers must begin to place the value of a piece of technology on the user and the user’s experience, instead of the artifact. One solution Johnson proposes is that developers collect user feedback (reviews and consumer polls, etc.) and actually use that feedback in the development of new technologies.

One question I had about Johnson’s piece is his use of the terms “unconscious” and “know-how.” How exactly is he using these terms in his theory, and how are they connected? I was a bit thrown by this quote: “Thus, as folklore, the appreciation of know-how and of use has been lost because the arts of know-how that were at one time conscious have come to reside in the collective unconscious: not seen, not heard, and not known, a type of knowledge that has been stripped of its ability to consciously voice its purpose, power, and means by which it can make its knowledge visible” (5).

I would also like to talk more about the concept of metis. I’m not sure I completely understand what this concept is, or how Johnson is using it here. Can we go over the relationship between techne and metis again?

I’m interested in his discussion about the valuing of scientific knowledge over practical experience. Given the rise of postmodern skepticism, and the existence of an economy that supposedly values practical application (college degrees are only viable if they can land you a job) over the “theoretical” (education has intrinsic value outside of its practicality), is this idea true anymore?

I’m also interested in how the increase in Internet accessibility due to the invention of smart phones and wifi, and the rise in the prominence of social media, has effected Johnson’s theories of user-centered development. Is technology as system-centered as it was in 1998?