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.