Research in Writing Pedagogy

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Reynolds and Bruch

This article reports the results of a study in which Pat and Tom invited students to participate in the instruction of writing. Bruch and Reynolds outline a theoretical basis resting on the view that writing is part of socially constructed process--that it is not a set of discrete skills but rather "a wide variety of practices through which individuals are shaped by and shape society" (p. 12). They argue that this perspective should be borne out in practice in both structure and content of classes. They acknowledge that emphasis the social aspects and power relationships that pervade writing is sometimes criticized by writing teachers who emphasize the skills-based approach to teaching writing. To support their claims that their participatory approach works well for their students (and to allow their students to have a voice in their own instruction) they conducted a survey to gather student input. They used a four-question survey asking students to rate the importance preferred emphasis of various aspects of their writing classes and asking students to list classroom activities they found helpful and finally to evaluate their own improvement as writers over the course of the semester.

In terms of my research, this paper makes me reconsider the potential of survey research as a tool. I have considered it a relatively shallow tool, but Bruch and Reynolds deploy it to look for complex answers in a rich theoretical framework.

Conners and Lunsford

Conners and Lunsford write about the way that teachers respond rhetorically to student writing. They bgin with a fairly detailed history of the ways in which teachers have responded to student writing over the last century and half. They point out that for many years, the instructors' role was seen as either correcting or rating students' deficient writing.

They then work with a massive collection of essays with teacher comments. Staring with a larger sample of around 21,000 essays, they then drew a random sample of around 3,000 articles to analyze. They then winnowed the sample down to 300 papers (150 for each author) to and come up with a preliminary coding scheme for the 3,000 paper sample.

Their research questions were not concerned with analyzing the way teachers marked up "formal and mechanical errors" (p. 205), but with understanding the ways in which teachers respond to writing: "What we wanted to try to look at was
a sometimes vague entity that we called "global comments" by the teachers. What were teachers saying in response to the content of the paper, or to the
specifically rhetorical aspects of its organization, sentence structure, etc.? What
kinds of teacher-student relationships did the comments reflect?" (p. 205).

This is a very descriptive piece, and although the authors provide a number of numerical tables, they seem to want the reader to take away their coders' impressionistic accounts of what they read. In fact, this makes the paper seem to me to have two unconnected personalities--the first personality is that one that presents a huge selection of data and statistics drawn from that data. The second personality presents a relatively informal analysis of the coders' impressions. I'm not really sure what I would try to take from the paper to apply to my own research.

One thing I definitely do like is the window that this paper gives us into Conners and Lunsford's thought processes. They present their research as a reflective narrative, as though the research simply unfolded naturally from step to step. Although this makes the research seem haphazard and unplanned, it is helpful to have this insight into the way this project came together.

In class discussion
There were a number of concerns that came up in class involving this research: IRB, student consent, inter-coder reliability, and so on.


Connors, R. J., & Lunsford, A. A. (1993). Teachers' rhetorical comments on student papers. College Composition and Communication, 200-223.

Reynolds, T. J., & Bruch, P. L. (2002). Curriculum and Affect: A Participatory Developmental Writing Approach. Journal of Developmental Education, 26(2), 12-20

The Feminist Approach to STC

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Mary Lay Schuster- Notes from Class

In her chapter in Research in Technical Communication, Lay gives a grounding for conducting STC research from a feminist perspective. Lay writes that feminist perspectives can be found in qualitative and quantitative research alike (p. 108). Additionally, feminist research perspective would "include a gender as a major variable" would "critique or revise traditional methodology to accommodate the needs and interests of women," that it focuses on women's lives, and "makes visible those lives and audible those voices that might be neglected in traditional research studies," that it tries to collapse the relationship between "research participants and readers," and that is has an emancipatory goal (pp. 168-9). Lay then describes some of the methods that we've already talked about and how a research might take a feminist perspective to the same method. For example, Lay cites Doheney-Farina's ethnography work as taking non-feminist ethnographic approach. She then writes that "the participant/observer stance challenges feminist ethnographers to emphasize closeness, to eliminate hierarchical relationships, and to focus not only on understanding, but also on possible action" (p. 172). She also notes that some feminist scholars worry that ethnography has "potential for exploitation" because of its dependence on relationships.

Propen and Schuster analyze Victims Impact statements. They used grounded theory to come up with categories, they then explain these categories through the lens of Activity Theory--which is an extension of genre theory. One question I had about this paper was the method it used. It seemed to be case-based, but it wasn't bound by time.

Schuster's article on Baby Haven looks at the material rhetoric of birth. I actually read this paper last year, and it was extremely influential to me. I read it in my wife's first trimester of pregnancy, and Lay's paper made me understand the medicalization of birth in a profound way.

How would we describe the methodology used in the Propen and Schuster article?
Again (like last week) , is it possible to deploy a grounded theory approach in a way that also leverages the explanatory power of narrative?

Class Discussion

In class, Mary Lay said that data becomes especially rich in an interview when a source starts telling a compelling narrative. This seems in contrast to Chris Haas's claim that grounded theory overcomes the limitations of narrative.

Activity Theory vs. Grounded Theory?

Grounded Theory let you identify themes and commonalities.
Activity Theory is way of understanding/explaining those themes/commonalities.


Lay, M. M. (2002). Feminist Criticism and Technical Communication Research. In Research in Technical Communication (pp. 47-65).
Propen, A. D., & Lay Schuster, M. (2010). Understanding Genre through the Lens of Advocacy: The Rhetorical Work of the Victim Impact Statement. Written Communication, 27(1), 3.
Schuster, M. L. (2006). A different place to birth: A material rhetoric analysis of Baby Haven, a free-standing birth center. WOMENS STUDIES IN COMMUNICATION, 29(1), 1.

Rhetorical Analysis / Grounded Analysis

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This week we read an article by John Logi and one by Christa Teston.

Logie's article was a rhetorical analysis of question and answer sites. They used classical rhetoric combined with Perelman and Olbrecht-Tytecha's re-working of the epideictic genre to create a rhetorical framework for understanding these question types. They came up with a 6-category framework, 2 categories each for the Deliberative, the Epideictic, and the Forensic. I found this article to be a great application of classical and new rhetoric concepts. However, I wasn't completely convinced that the Identification category should belong in the Deliberative genre--I've alway Identification was connected to Perelman's concept of Epideictic. In terms of my own project, I think this is a useful model of rhetorical analysis on a very modern artifact. At this point, I don't necessarily see my proposal for this class unfolding along these lines, but it's interesting to see the explanatory potential of this taxonomy.

Teston's article uses grounded theory to look at the impacts that genre has on cancer care decisions (as the name of the article implies). A good deal of my entry on this article is also based on the in-class discussion we had with Professor Haas. It was very helpful to have Professor Haas in class to talk about grounded theory. Of particular interest for our class is her description that the grounded theory approach is well-suited for writing studies because it does well in complex sites, it is open to a variety of data sources, and overcomes the shortcomings of narrative. This last bit is especially interesting, and clearly comes through in the Teston piece. However, while I agree that narrative does have its shortcomings, it can also be a powerful explanatory tool. Without narrative, I think it's harder to understand the Teston piece. But then again, I think the point in favor of grounded theory is that the real world doesn't actually unfold according to a narrative, instead we weave stories out of our lived experiences to make sense of the past. But as I write that sentence, I think that this is exactly the power of narrative--it is something that seems almost essential to the human condition. I think I'd have to think pretty carefully before giving it up for another explanatory tool.


* Why did Logie put Identification in teh Deliberative Genre?
* How did Logie et al. draw their sample and select which questions they wanted to analyze?
* What was Logie's process for coding, in detail?
* Why did Logie et al. go with Research Goals and not Research Questions?
* What do we really win or lose if we give up the explanatory power of narrative in favor of the grounded theory approach?
* Is there a way to utilize the grounded theory without walking away completely from narrative?

Harper, F. M., Weinberg, J., Logie, J., & Konstan, J. A. (2010). Question types in social Q&A sites. First Monday, 15(7-5).
Teston, C. B. (2009). A grounded investigation of genred guidelines in cancer care deliberations. Written Communication, 26(3), 320.

Textual Analysis

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This week's readings were about textual analysis.

Carol Berkenkotter's chapter form Research in Technical Communication
provides a thorough overview of how to do textual analysis in STC research. Berkenkotter points out the the term "textual analysis" can mean a lot of different things to different people, but that it should come down to using a "structured and systematic approach" to analyzing text. She acknowledges that "structured and systematic" may seem vague on the face of it, but she provides a helpful pointer on page 48: "Researchers with an empirical orientation will generally agree that structured and systematic procedures are those that can be communicated or taught to other researchers for the purposes of replication and/or independent conformation or disconfirmation."
Making this explicit makes it possible to keep an overarching goal in mind when thinking about textual analysis. I can see this being helpful when considering or planning textual analysis for a project. I might ask question such as the following:

  • What systematic approach can I use to best understand these texts?

  • How can I describe this approach to myself in such a way that I can use it consistently?

  • How can I describe it to others in such a way that they can know what I was trying to do?

Interestingly, Berkenkotter opposed the "empirical tradition" of textual analysis to the "critical theory or cultural studies tradition" in the very next sentence. Although I don't think that this putting these two concepts in opposition to each other undermines her excellent article, I do question the polarity of these two concepts. How are critical studies or cultural studies not empirical?
This may be a decent segue into another article we read, Schryer et al.'s analysis of chile abuse correspondence. Schryer et al. use the concept of "boundary objects" to frame their understanding of the letters that doctors write when providing input into determinations of whether a child's injuries have resulted form abuse or not. The convolutedness o the previous sentence points to how difficult this issue is: the doctors have to make a medical determination without pronouncing guilt. The authors of this paper find that the doctors use certain lexemically based linguistic strategies to put each case into one of the three categories: Strategies indicating abuse, strategies in the grey area, and exoneration strategies. The authors argue on p 221 that the letters represent an emerging genre "attempting to function as a boundary object." Although this observation seems to jibe with the study, in terms of the paper itself it seems problematic, since the authors don't rely on any established genre theory to frame their understanding of genre itself.


  • How can Schryer et. al make claims about genre without being explicit in their use of the term? How problematic is this un-grounded move for the rest of their paper?

  • Does it make sense to put textual analysis in opposition to critical theory or cultural studies? Couldn't you do a critical textual analysis?

Berkenkotter, C. (2002). Analyzing Everyday Texts in Organizational Settings. In Research in technical communication (pp. 47-65).
Schryer, C. F., Afros, E., Mian, M., Spafford, M., & Lingard, L. (2009). The Trial of the Expert Witness. Written Communication, 26(3), 215.

Case Studies

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The authors provide a survey of the issues involving technical communication research both in and on Online Environments. That is, they consider how the Internet impacts the way that STC researchers might conduct research, and they consider the Internet as a site worthy of research in and of itself. The authors detail three methodologies: ethnography, rhetorical analysis, and surveys. They compare the way these methodologies have looked traditionally with how they look in Cyberspace, pointing out, for example, that ethnography in cyberspace is complicated by ethical questions such as how and whether to obtain informed consent from subjects (pp. 232-3), and whether online discussions should be considered conversations or texts when performing rhetorical analyses.(Interestingly on this topic, they cite Cavazos, Cyberspace and the Law, who claimed in 1994 that ' "the existing copyright system seems to hold up rather well" in cyberspace' (Gurak & Silker, p. 237). This seems to me to be a naive assertion, especially in light of James Boyle's 1997 essay "Foucault in Cyberspace" which outlined the complexities of power and surveillance in the early years of the Internet.)

Nevertheless, Gurak and Silker make a strong argument that STC research has the opportunity to "take the lead in examining research in the virtual forum" (p. 245), by virtue of its interdisciplinarity and its rich history.

All of this makes me wonder about possible case studies better understanding technology transfer. I'm thinking of the One Laptop Per Child program as an instrumental case study. (I think this would be the instrumental one.)


  • This week's readings make me wonder about the overlapping of various methodologies. Could you do an ethnographic case study? How about a Cultural Studies Case Study?

Surveys and Such

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Charney, "Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word"

This is an impassioned reponse to what the author sees as a growing trend towards rejecting empiricism in favor of qualitative research in comp studies and stc research: "I will argue here that critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways that have been challenged by others sharing their political commitments" (283).

Although the author does raise some interesting points, and it probably is useful to remind ourselves that "hard" scientists are people too, and that subjective methodologies are certainly fraught with peril, this may a bit of a "straw man" argument.

For example, in the section "The Social Construction of Quantitative and Objective Methods" Charney points out that rhetoricians have shown that science is a rhetorical enterprise, relying on social construction and persuasion. But she presents this analysis as though physicists and chemists universally shared this viewpoint. I don't believe that this is the case, and if it is, Charney hasn't shown me any evidence that it's the case.

Also, throughout the paper, I get the feeling that Charney views methodologies as value-neutral. Now, she doesn't ever say this explicitly, but she seems to come close, to my ear: "no research method per se can deliver up authority or acceptance" (p. 283). But it seems that a methodology, like any technology (or any social construction for that matter) must be inbued with the values of the people that create it. Charney's analysis seems to ignore this.

However, Charney makes a number of good points, chief among which is this, from page 297: "By producing numerous individual subjective studies, we have constructed a broad shallow array of information, in which one study may touch loosely on another but in which no deep or complex networks of inferences are forged or tested" (p. 297). I think someone mentioned this in class the other day, and it does seem to be a problem with the subjective-type methodologies we've been discussing.

Murphy, "Surveys and Questionnaires"
It's kind of hard to know what to write about this piece. I don't feel like much of it calls for "responding to." If you are interested in doing surveys--especially survey's for your work place, then this would be a good read. It outlines some of the perils, such as sample bias and question bias. It gives some decent advice on writing questions, but it doesn't get deep enough into these topics to be useful as much more than an introduction. I guess what it does is to provide some well-marked warning signs as to the pitfalls to watch out for in survey research, but if I were working on survey research for my dissertation, I imagine that the questions I'd have would be too complex and troubling for this paper to be much use to me. On the other hand, if I were writing surveys for a workplace, then I might use this paper to help justify the survey process itself to stakeholders in the organization.

Eaton, et al, "Examining Editing in the Workplace from the Author's Point of View"
This paper surprised me, since I'd kind of developed the attitude that using surveys (and most other quantitative methods, for that matter) is fine, but that they disallow the asking of really interesting questions. However, the authors of this study were able to ask very interesting, complex questions about authors' attitudes towards editors.

Of special interest to me was the sections where they described how they developed and refined their questions: The questions were based on unproven assumptions that they found by reviewing current literature (and text books(?)) giving advice about technical editing. They used these missing pieces to formulate their research questions, which they state clearly after the introduction. They then wrote up their survey questions such that they would help them find answers to their research questions. Then they conducted a round of piloted interviews, revised, and then performed a pilot study.

While I appreciate that they worked hard to craft and refine their questions, I would have like to hear more about the pilot interviews and pilot study processes (114-115). For example the authors state simply: "We constructed a survey and had nine native and nonnative speakers ... conduct think-aloud protocols" (114-115). I have a guess at what they mean by that, but if they were specific, then I wouldn't have to guess, and I'd have a sense of how they did it. Which would be nice if I wanted to do a sophisticated survey study like this one.

Nevertheless, I felt (perhaps ironically?) that I could use this study to help me craft a sophisticated survey much more readily than I could use the Murphy piece above.


  • Should we consider methods as a tool? Are methods as value-laden as other technologies?

  • Can surveys provide a deep enough analysis to sustain a dissertation-length projecty? Why or why not?
  • How can survey methods be combined with other methodologies to provide triangulation? For example, could you do an ethnographic study and then follow up with a survey to triangulate?

Longo and Cultural Studies

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Spurious Coin and "An Approach for Applying Cultural Study Theory to Technical Writing Research"

I put these two pieces together because they seem to me to be parts of the same general project that Longo was working on in the late 90s and early 00s. In some ways, "Approach" helps clarify some of the methodological questions that certain of my classmates raised during class last week.
Chapters 3 through 8 of Spurious Coin take us from Locke to the 20th century struggles over knowledge and power as read through technical writing text books. Some of Longo's stuff reminds me of James Berlin's history of composition instruction in the 20th century, but Longo does much more with her topic, I think because of the cultural approach she is taking, plus the main thesis that "technical writing is the mechanism that controls scientific systems" ("Approach, p. 54).
The invisibility of technical writing as a control mechanism reminds me of the project I am contemplating for 5776. It seems to me that technology writ large can also be an invisible mechanism working to perpetuate ideology and privileged forms of knowledge and ways of knowing. In fact, I think I'm moving towards this as a way of framing and understanding my dissertation project. "Approach" helps to do more with this. If technology becomes invisible through ubiquity, then one way to make it visible again should be the cultural approach as outlined by Longo in "Approach." In fact, Longo points to "The Object as Discourse" (p. 66) as one way to outline a cultural studies object. I've been playing around with the idea of technology as text. I'm not sure where I want to go with this, but there are a couple of things I'm leaning towards:

  • Viewing technology as text. I think this words really well for digital technologies. Without the text (i.e. software) computers are just objects that do absolutely nothing.
  • Understanding technology though text. This may be more amenable to a cultural approach, because we can talk about software, related software, the collaboration surrounding the software, documentation, and so on, in ever-widening circles of discourse practices.


In Human+Machine Longo writes: "If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future" ("How are cultures and activities related?"). It's interesting to read this after reading Spurious Coin and "An approach for applying cultural study theory to technical writing research." The first two seem to be to be aimed at giving the technical writing researcher tools for uncovering power relationships in organizations. I think this approach is meant to emancipatory. The quote above seems to me not to be concerned with power relations in organizations. I think the rest of the article is highly concerned with power relations, so this one quote almost seems out of place. But as I write about it, I guess it makes sense: If the point to the cultural studies approach is to better understand oppressive power structures, it stands to reason that this perspective should not be checked at the workplace door. Perhaps Longo is indicating that these approaches need to be taken to work by technical communicators in order to have more effect in the work-place world>


  • Can taking a cultural-studies approach to technical writing make people better technical writers? How does that work?
  • What place should cultural studies have in undergraduate technical writing instruction? What should that look like?

Critical/ Cultural Studies in STC Research (plus an article on Methods sections)

Ok, perhaps it wasn't really necessary to try to sum up this week's in a snappy title. But I did find them to be cohesive, in a cumulative sort of way. I started with the Blyler article, which advocates for critical (which I read as radical) research in STC. I enjoyed the challenge that this article brings, especially as I am looking at my own research and trying to push it a little further than it has gone in the past. In fact, Timothy O. and I have been talking about how to frame research so that it does more than just apply an analytical tool to a sample. One thing I didn't understand from Blyler's article was a minor point, but she claims that ideology exists outside of the mind (not sure of the page number). This seems to me to be incompatible with a social constructionist view of language => knowledge. Again, I don't know if this a major point worth picking on too much, but it points to some of the inconsistencies that we seem to create for ourseleves in rhetoric/stc. (I was similarly disoriented by our discussion of positivism followed by what I felt to be a reificatino of a highly positivistic scientific method as applied to clinicial drug trials.)

Another issue I have with Blyler is that she seems to ignore what (for me) is a major reason researchers in STC don't do more radically critical research: cognitive dissonance. In other words, I think it is difficult to do research that illustrates the complicity that technical writing has with oppresive economic systems and then go to teach a class such as 3562W. Clearly it's crucial that we do so, especially so that we can follow through on our ethical responsiblities, but it seems that steeping ourseleves in critical research could make us ask uncomfortable questions about the ethicality of our chosen field and our roles in the field.

Next I read the Thralls and Blyler article. This article suggests taking a cultural studies approach to STC research. I found this article very helpful; it kind of took the aspirations I took from the first article and helped place them on an articulate-able foundation. In other words, I felt like the first article encouraged me to take a critical approach to research, and the second article gives me some ammunition for defending such an approach.

I read the Smagorinsky article next. He argues that we need to do a lot more with our methods sections. He writes from the point of view of an article reviewer, but his advice seems very helpful for someone on the other side of the relationship. In fact, he argues that the Research Question need to hold all of the parts of an article together (as Lee-Ann has told us in class.). Smagorinksy writes a lot about coding schemes and grounding them in your theory, rather than just saying "I read the data. I coded the data. And here are my results." This could also be useful in terms of justifying the grounding of coding schemes in theory.

Finally, I'll write a little about *Spurious Coin*. I've read the first half of this book twice now, and I feel like I'm getting more out of each time I read it. I skimmed the first two chapters for class, and I see now how Bernadette is answering challenges like Blyler's and Thralls & Blylers above. In fact, this helps answer a question I had as I was reading Thralls & Blyler, namely "How can we take a cultural studies perspective of a object of study that exists only in text? (As opposed to the kinds of human interactions they seem to writing about -- workplaces, etc.) Bernadette does this by placing her objects of study in a historical cultural context.

First she justifies doing so in the first chapter by examining a number of studies that have or have not taken the a critical/cultural perspective. I especially appreciated her thought experiment on what Katz's "The Ethic of Expediency" might have looked like had taken an uncritical social constructionist approach to the Just memo. In chapter two, she begins to outline the historical precedents to engineering text books and how these precedents have served to help determine what knowledge is privileged and how that knowledge came to be privilieged and in some cases came to be discarded as superstition (e.g. divining rods).


* What are some ways to push back on my own research. How can I use what I learn from applying existing theory to my object of study to push theory back or try to move it further?

* How is ideology socially constructed? Especially in 2010, what roles do texts play in creating ideologies? How have technological texts stepped in to fill the vacuum left by treatises and manifestos?


Longo, B. (2000). Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing. State Univ of New York Press.
Nancy Blyler. (2004). Taking a Political Turn: The Critical Perspective and Research in Professional Communication. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication. Oxford University Press.
Smagorinsky, P. (2008). The method section as conceptual epicenter in constructing social science research reports. Written Communication, 25(3), 389.
Thralls, C., & Blyler, N. (n.d.). Cultural studies: An orientation for research in professional communication. In Research in technical communication (pp. 185-209).

Mapping Essays in STC

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This week's readings involved two mapping essays. Thralls and Blyler wrote their in the early 1990s, while Rude's essay was published in 2009. I am writing this journal entry a little late (the day after class), so it will be more reflective of the readings as I understood them after the class conversation.

The main idea of a mapping essay is to get a broad overview of a field as a whole. And as Rude tried to make explicit, a mapping essay should act like a map: that is, it should show where things are relative to each other and provide directions for how to get from place to place (I'm writing this from memory away from my books, so forgive me for not
having page numbers to cite). I believe that Thralls and Blyler also point out that maps are inherently political as well. In defining what belongs within boundaries, political power is expressed; even drawing a map about geopgraphical features will involve making judgments about which features are important enough to include and whicih ones are not.

At the same time, as Lee-Ann pointed out, a mapping essay is essentially a lit review. Only instead of functioning as a tightly focussed lit review aimed at carving out territory for a research project, the mapping essay tries to make connections between exisitng projects and schools of thought.

So what do I get from these two essays that I might use in my work?

I am still quite taken by the social constructionist perspective outlined by Thralls and Blyler. But I'm also seeing a lot of value in the Ideological Critique. I think these two perspectives combined will help me as I try to unawravel the collaborations around open source software. Social Construction provides a poweful way of understanding the creation of any text--but for me, open source software is inherently social--it just cannot be written by a single person. Ok, that is an iffy statement, when you look at the way Stallman wrote emacs or even the way Andrew Tannenbaum describes his work
on Minix. But I think those two projects actually illustrate the point: Software can be written by a single person, but until there is a community to work on it as a social construction, it does not thrive in the same way that Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) does. It took Stallman years to get Emacs and then GNU together. I'm not even sure if GNU is a usable product even today. And Minix was useful in only limited ways until Torvalds tried to clone it and created a new development model around the effort.

I didn't find much use in the Paralogic Hermaneutics critique. It may be true that meaning is only created between two people in the act of interpretation, but it seems that Social Constructivism and the Ideological Critique provide better scaffolding for teaching writing and writing about writing.

The Rude essay was interesting in that did much more to map out the directions that research in the field is taking. But at times I still felt that it was more of a categorization exercise than a mapping exercise. Rude describes four main veins of research, but I didn't get a strong sense of how to move from one vein to another, or more importantly, how to move from these existing veins into the new territory that I want to cover in my own research. However, my hunch is that if I re-read Rude, I'd have a better sense of those directions.


What would a more "map-like" mapping essay look like? How can you give explicit directions to what is essentially a lit review?

Is the social constructivism (and its ideological critique) current enough to sustain dissertation research in 2010?

Charlotte Thralls, & Nancy Roundy Blyler. (2004). The Social Perspective and Professional Communication: Diversity and Directions in Research. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication. Oxford University Press.
Lay, M. M. (2002). Research in technical communication. Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Rude, C. D. (2009). Mapping the research questions in technical communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 23(2), 174.

Ethics and Humanism

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The readings for this week form an interesting collection of humanistic and ethical discussions in STC. I was especially struck by the tension between Miller's "Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" (and the Rutter paper from last week) and Katz's "Ethic of Expediency." It seems to me that Miller (and Rutter) are trying to prevent the teaching of technical writing from being equated with unreflective positivism, at least in part because humanism should help technical communicators understand how to be "good people" and that they need to be "good" in order to be good communicators. However, Katz turns this on its head. After all, what better way for STC to steep itself in humanism than to turn toward Aristotle and classical rhetoric? Yet, Aristotle's ethics (according the Katz) were completely compatible with the holocaust. To me this points to a concern that was raised in class last week when we were discussing Rutter. I can't remember exactly how it was phrased, but someone said that they were always nervous about relying on humanism and humans to do the right thing. I think Katz's article sounds much the same warning.

I also wonder about the relationship between the ethic of expediency and scientific positivism. There seems to me to be some kind of connection. Positivism claims that truth is out there, waiting to be discovered. As I understand it, anything that pushes us towards those discoveries is considered "good." I read this as the same kind of problematic expediency that plagues technological capitalism as described by Katz. (Or am I simply rephrasing Katz and replacing "technology" with "science"?)

Finally, I think Barton and Eggly help draw out the kinds of fuzzy ethical questions that many people face every day. But again, thinking about expediency and positivism seems to help here. Bioethics would leave all persuasion out of a person's decision to participate in a clinical trial. Medical ethics would have physicians do what's best for each patient. Although it seems clearly unethical for a doctor to push a patient into a medical trial, I do wonder if the physicians' focus on each patient as an individual ethically trumps the bioethical concern for the greater good. I'd love to hear what Katz would have to say about this.


  • What is the relationship between the ethic of expediency and scientific positivism?

  • Given the complicated nature of the bioethic / medicalethic divide, how should we think about
    ethics in our own research? How can we get our students thinking about ethics (whether we teach composition or technical communication or any other kind of writing)?

***Post-class Discussion Edit****
The class discussion for this these readings were, of course, great. It always amazes (and worries) me how people pick up on things in the readings that I didn't notice at all. One person in class was disturbed at the "faux generalizability" (my term) of the Baron & Eggly piece. I agree with him that this is a problem, but I don't think the solution is to change the research to make it truly generalizable. It seems to me that communication (and all human behavior) is too complex to be studied in a generalizable way. What I mean is that if the authors re-worked their study to be truly generalizable, then I don't think they'd find out much interesting about their subject.

Perhaps they would have done better to take a more qualitative approach and get a better sense of the rhetorical/structural context in which enrollment in medical studies occurs.


Barton, E., & Eggly, S. (2009). Ethical or Unethical Persuasion?: The Rhetoric of Offers to Participate in Clinical Trials. Written Communication, 26(3), 295.

Breuch, L. A., Olson, A. M., & Frantz, A. B. (n.d.). Considering Ethical Issues in Technical Communication Research. Research in Technical Communication, 1-22.

Carolyn R. Miller. (n.d.). A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication. Oxford University Press.

Katz, S. B. (2004). The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (pp. 195-210). New York: Oxford University Press.

Russel Rutter. (n.d.). History, Rhetoric, and Humanism: Toward a More Comprehensive Definition of Technical Communication. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication. Oxford University Press.

Recent Comments

  • Lee-Ann Breuch: You raise a good question about overlapping methods. I think read more
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