Thursday, October 3, 2013

Institutions at(of) Risk

"The Rhetorical Work of Institutions" - Elizabeth C. Britt

The main problem:  There is not enough attention being paid to institutions and how they influence and inform technical communication.

The mini problem(s): Scholars and researchers fail to identify or define institutions (which makes it difficult for the role of institutions to be addressed.  Institutions function in the background, so they are typically overlooked.  Britt suggests institutions are created by rhetoric.

**The description of how institutions develop through analogy and narrative reminds me of urban legends**

Through the example of an analysis of letters from insurance companies that was conducted by Schryer, Britt outlines the holes in the current methods of critique and analysis.  She explains insurance is an institution that has been created or manufactured  (risk exists --> probabilities determine risks --> insurance was created by/for those probabilities).  Schryer's analysis, though it does put the problematic letters into a context of genre, fails to recognize or consider what force or factors created the genre.  Britt claims Schryer should move beyond the immediate and look at how the letters and outcomes were also influenced by the institution of insurance.

The solution:  Since institutions are defined by their technical communications (a point that highlights technical communication as something more than production and consumption), scholars should include the investigation of institutions in their critiques and analyses.  Britt does note that tackling the monster that is institutions is an overwhelming (and possibly impossible) job, so scholars and researchers should work together to allow for specialization.

Question:  Britt frames her argument around research and critique -- scholarly work.  Is understanding institutions something that should/could be emphasized in the classroom?  Would it be more beneficial to focus on organizational awareness?

Connections:  There are obvious connections to both Longo and Grabill.  Longo calls for scholars to look at the ways in which technical communication is connected to and driven by power and power relations (power comes from the establishment of the institution).  Grabill believes there is a need to understand the cultural conditions that help shape the production and consumption of technical and professional writing (technical communication creates different cultures as much as it is influenced by them).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Love Letter from a Luddite

This week's readings gave me nightmares.

Though it may seem futile, I maintain a stubborn resistance against relying on digital technologies for communication.  I refused to get a cell phone until I returned to the woods (rural MN roads will kill you in the winter), and even after I had one, I rarely use(d) it to talk to people.  The phone I have now, which I've had for almost ten years, is not "smart" and can barely send texts.  In fact, I didn't know how to text until I started grad school, and I only started texting because it became a requirement.  I do it now, but I don't like it.  I don't like the immediacy, I don't like the expectations, and I don't like how it's encouraged people to adopt a lackadaisical approach to communicating.  By nature, I am slow, considerate, and careful, and these new modes of communication prevent me from being able to conduct myself in a comfortable way.

Moses & Katz's chapter (which I originally thought was titled, "The Phantom Menace") focuses on emailing instead of texting, but it merely reinforced my fears and frustrations about technological communication.  Below is a list of quotes that made me bite my nails:

"Ideologically, work and leisure have become virtually interchangeable.  But the ideological dimensions of technology are often hidden from or ignored by the people who are too busy in both their professional and personal lives to keep up with the changing technology, never mind fully recognizing and examining the ways technology begins to influence their lives" (Moses & Katz 75).
"Clearly, the ideology of technology is tied to capitalistic goals of production, which cannot help but change lifestyles" (77).

"The speed of email has led to behavioral expectations that are not defined by reciprocal expectations, which are established by social norms of an institutional framework.  Instead, speed... has established behavioral expectations" (89).
"Other behavioral expectations that result from the technical characteristics of email can be framed as conditional predictions or conditional imperatives, such that since email is "always" accessible, people feel like they have to check email continuously... Computer users are constantly interrupted by new email messages.. The characteristic of accessibility also sets up expectations that people are always within reach" (90).
     -Personal and private have been replaced with public.

"Some people may appear to develop an 'addiction' to email, also known as 'emailoholism.'  One symptom may be that people expect immediate responses to their messages; because of the instantaneous nature of email, they feel the need to send and receive messages instantly, and thus constantly check their email just in case messages are waiting... 'communication enslavement'" (90).
     -Enjoy the silence?  Can anyone do this anymore?  Evidence points toward no.

"I feel my life is fading away..." (91).

"Some studies have shows that regular email users speak to fewer friends, immediate family, or neighbors face-to-face during the week and have weaker ties with their communication partners than do people who do not use email" (97).

I was really hoping Moses & Katz would offer a final thought that might assuage my fears.  They failed me.  The point they make in their conclusion (and the one I am still struggling to accept) is communication has become dependent on technology.  It is no longer possible to get by on human interaction alone, at least not in our society.

My questions:

Is this a good thing?
Is this a bad thing?
Is there any other way?

How do we bring humanness back into communication?
How do we separate work from life?
How do we get younger generations to recognize the consequences (and benefits) of technological communication?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Technological Literacy

In the article I read for class a few weeks ago, Carolyn Miller claimed technical communication instructors need to be more practical about the practical.  Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch seems to be doing exactly that.  Written in response to frustration over the lack of a practical pedagogical framework for teaching with computers, Breuch attempts to get a specific conversation started by identifying some guiding questions for scholars and teachers in the technical communications field.

Prompted by inquiries from industry partners ("How are students being prepared to work with technologies in the workplace?"  -- connection to Miller's attention to the relationship between industry & academy, and both sides' assumptions and expectations), Breuch lays out a framework that will not only help tech comm teachers have an easier time articulating their course learning outcomes, but also provide a starting point for making computer pedagogy more meaningful.

The three questions at the core of the proposed framework:

1 - How important is technological performance, or the ability to use the computer

2 - To what degree should we consider contextual aspects of technology, such as political, economic, social, or cultural factors?

3 - How does technology influence linguistic activities such as reading, writing, and communicating?

The answers to the core questions:

1 - It is very important, but what's more important is making sure students think critically about their use of the technologies.

2 - Understanding context is necessary.  Students should be made aware of context and "reflect critically about their experience of and with" the technologies that they are using.  (There is a "context" connection with the Selber/Johndon-Eilola/Selfe article - Breuch is emphasizing the need for students to  acknowledge and maintain an awareness of context, and S/J-E/S emphasize the need for tech comm instructors to acknowledge and maintain an awareness of context and social practices. If the teachers aren't doing it, they won't teach their students to do it).  ** Context analysis assignment **

3 - Reading, writing, and communicating have become almost dependent on technology.  Students should recognize the ways in which technology shapes their linguistic activities and practices.  ** Linguistic activities log **

Breuch calls for a "full integration of technological literacy" in tech comm classes so it can "serve as the basis for pedagological objectives" (492).  She believes we need direct our practices and scholarship toward more of a focus on pedagogy and the practical, and by doing so, we will be able to better equip our students for what they will encounter beyond the classroom, and we'll also be able to tell our industry partners (and everyone else -- administration? ourselves?) what it is that we do in technical communication classes.

What I'm wondering...
Do we teach technologies in 402?  And by teaching technologies, I mean do we actually teach students how to use specific software (Breuch mentions word processing, database management, desktop publishing, web authoring), or do we expect them to show up for class on the first day knowing how to use those programs?  If we do teach technologies, how much time is dedicated to doing so?  If we don't teach technologies, where do students learn them?  In ENGL 101?!  (I kid, I kid... but not really).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Make it Work

"The closer people have to move to the borders of their responsibilities or capabilities because of technological constraints, the more confusion and difficulty they experience in conducting their work" (230).

This might not have been the best week for me to read an article discussing usability and how developers need to pay more attention to what's important to users when it comes to the functionality of the product.  I have spent a ridiculous amount of troubleshooting issues with the online portfolio system our Composition program just adopted.  More than once over the past few days, I have wanted to reply to the reps for the parent company's development team with the phrase, "You clearly do not understand the complex tasks that we want to and need to perform!"  I also thought about referencing the pill-dispenser example Mirel provides in the introduction to her piece (maybe the complexity of our tasks will make sense more sense if I stop using composition/pedagogical terms??), but then I realized how ridiculous I'd sound trying to claim that the "poor usability due to a mismatch with actual work and needs" should be considered a "life-or-death matter" in this situation.

In "Advancing a Vision of Usability," Mirel focuses on the origins and implications of usability issues, and suggests that technical communicators need to become usability experts.  She notes, "[Technical communicators] are trained, perhaps as are no other specialists in human-computer interaction, in the rhetorical perspectives necessary for effectively matching the media and design of software support to particular audiences, purposes, activities, and contexts" (220).

She claims "usability leaders need to" perform certain actions in order to bring about a much needed change in the way software development is approached (I use the quoted phrase because M uses the same signal phrase throughout the entire article).  Below is a list the I compiled of her claims.

"Usability leaders need to":
  • introduce a new vision of what it takes to support complex work-in-context (220)
  • bring about innovation and change in task analysis, task representations, and development processes (220)
  • distinguish between ease of use and usefulness (222)
  • overcome teammates' piecemeal notions of usability and show that partial usability is no more favorable to users than partial system performance (222)
  • bring strong empirical data on users' needs, practices, and boundaries of tolerance (222)
  • need to lay a groundwork to clearly show how the dimensions of usability are related to each other for a given product and what this relationship implies for software design for complex tasks (222)
  • argue that complex tasks are complex because they are not comprised of well-defined, rule-based, serial steps that cumulatively and predictably sum to the whole of a task (225)
  • argue against developing programs that model complex work through a built-in prepackaging of means and ends (226)
  • assure that task representations are framed around task structure and the structure of functional relationships and interactions (227)
  • apply a conceptual framework that encourages ans sustains such a view of complex tasks and leads to adequate support for them(227)
  • promote and encourage a structural approach to design by likening structural task representation to genres of performance (230)
  • show their teams why and how taking one emphasis or another in task representations matters (232)
  • stress that how problem solving is modeled affects how designers interpret what problem solvers do and why, and guides how they design for it (232)
  • introduce the need to design for flexibility and adaptation by proposing a shift in emphasis from actions to structures in task representation (232)
  • move usability concerns beyond interface design (232)
  • assure usability concerns inform program scope, architecture, and feature lists (232)
  • bring usability into front-end decisions to induce changes in the processes of the development cycle (232)
In sum, Mirel believes usability leaders need to step in and, well, lead software developers into gaining a better understanding of and sensitivity to the complex tasks users will need to perform while using the software and products.

What I'm wondering is where these usability leaders are going to come from.  At the beginning of the article (and at the beginning of this post), it is stated that technical communicators -- the students in our classes? -- are the most equipped to take on that role.  Mirel also acknowledges, however, "there is no class [at the university] per se that can teach the ability to create a vision of usability and usefulness, to earn and assert leadership, or to make and influence paradigmatic shifts" (236).  When we develop our syllabus for our tech. comm. classes (specifically 402/3), should we be incorporating training in these areas?  What assignments or activities could we include that would encourage our students to want to take on the position of usability leaders?  (connection to Freedman & Adam vs. Blakeslee)

I see obvious connections between Mirel's discussion of appropriate and effective development and Redish's break-down of information/document design ("Working for its users means that the people who must or want to use the information can 1- find what they need; 2- understand what they find; 3- use what they understand appropriately" 212).  In this chapter of the book especially, there seems to be an emphasis on the relationship between the users and the products, and the relationship between the developers and the users.  I was also reminded a lot of of Johnson's "User-Centered" that we read a few weeks ago.  The common sentiment seems to be good intentions are not good enough when it comes to developing products; in order to succeed, the gap between developers and users must be bridged, and it is the responsibility of the users (or usability leaders as representatives for the users) to guide the change the current approach to development.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dear Prudence, Won't You Come Out to Play?

When I first read the title of Carolyn Miller's "What's Practical about Technical Writing?" I thought the article was going be yet another defense of the significance and usefulness of technical writing classes and technical writing as a field.  It isn't.  Well, it is in the sense that it's mere existence (especially as a "foundational article") helps legitimize technical writing as a critical field, but it doesn't really have to do with emphasizing the importance of a properly formatted memo.  Instead, Miller acknowledges the two different forms of the term "practical" and uses her discussion to illustrate a need for technical writing teachers to evaluate (or re-evaluate) the way they approach the teaching of technical writing.  She believes it is essential that tech writing teachers (and, in turn, their students) consider not only what they are doing, but who they are doing it for.

Let me explain (through an outline of Miller's argument):

Practical can refer to the act of doing something, completing a task in an effective and efficient way. The term can also be used to refer to a certain mindset or attitude, one that is goal or action-oriented.  A practical person is someone who thinks about the most effective or efficient way to do something.  It's possible, then, as Miller points out, to be practical about the practical.  (Give it a minute.... now it makes sense).  Miller takes us to back to Ancient Greece to emphasize the relationship between these two practicals and how they connect first to rhetoric, and then to technical writing.  There were basically two classes in Ancient Greece: the "low" citizens (the workers, slaves, everyday people) and the "high" citizens (the politicians, the affluent).  The "low" citizens were practical because they were actually doing things, while the "high" citizens were practical because they spent their time theorizing about how things were done.  The "lower" class were positioned in the world of work, and that is where the attitude that technical writing is concerned only with the doing (that practical) comes from.  Work < Thinking/Theorizing.

Miller takes technical writing teachers to task for accepting these misconceptions about technical writing and basing their pedagogy on it.  She points out that when attempting to justify the need to offer technical writing classes, tech writing teachers actually emphasize the problems with them.  The contradictions have to do with whether or not tech writing teachers are actually qualified to teach tech writing to students.  Tech writing classes exist because Industry complains that graduates are deficient when they enter the workforce, so students need to learn more technical writing skills while they are in school (because Industry shouldn't have to train their workers to do what they are requiring their workers to do).  As Miller notes, "The justification for academic instruction is that academics know something that can help improve professional [industrial] practices" (156).  But what to writing teachers actually know about writing instruction manuals?  Coming from academia, writing teachers have little to no "real world" experience in Industry, so they rely on their own conceptualizations of the workplace and what goes on in it.  Unsurprisingly, instructional assumptions do not always align with industrial practices.

So, what are tech writing teachers supposed to do about these issues?  Miller says they need to adjust their perspective on the how in addition to the what.  Instead of presenting students with ideals, they need to consider what teaching practices will be helpful for students and what teaching practices might actually hurt them.  After providing a lit review of tech writing scholarship, Miller explains, "This discourse is infected by the assumptions that what is common practice is useful and what is useful is good.  The good that is sought is the good of an existing industry or profession" (161).  So, what are we doing and who are we doing it for?  We're teaching students how to draft memos because that's what their future employers will want them to do.  Is that the best use of our abilities?  Our students?  Miller doesn't think so.  She suggest we move away from thinking of technical writing as a techne (Aristotle's term) "which is concerned with the useful (with the quality of a product given a set of expectations for it)" and give more credence to prudence, which is "concerned with the good (with the quality of the expectations themselves)" (162).

Miller's article brings to mind the balance, or lack of balance, between theory and practice (she even has a section dedicated to saying praxis is where we need to be).  My biggest question is how can tech writing teachers find that balance?  My smaller, more manageable question is how can tech writing teachers shift some of the weight away from the demands of industry (which dominate and provide a need for tech writing classes) and more toward the reflection and consideration that makes up the academic side of the relationship.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

User-Centered Technology

Celebrating the mundane + rhetorical theory + a reverence for technology = my kind of conversation.

An anecdote:

Lindsay's sister came to visit over the summer.  Lindsay was excited about having her sister stay, but she wasn't sure what food she would serve during their weekend together.  Hers is a vegetarian household, and the addition of a meat-eater (her sister) was making her a little anxious.  Thoughtfully, she decided to make a special meal that her sister would like.  In preparation, she read step-by-step instructions on how to cook chicken.  She spent long minutes standing in the poultry section of the grocery store, deliberating over which chicken breast looked like it would taste the best (I know this because I found her there, several packages of chicken in hand).  She purchased the chicken, took it home, and cooked it to the best of her limited abilities... later, I asked her how the weekend went.  Sheepishly, she informed me that her efforts were for naught, as her sister really just wanted to eat pancakes.

While I was reading Johnson's book, I was reminded of Lindsay's chicken-cooking adventure.  Like Lindsay, the people who develop technology often have their hearts and minds in the right place -- they want to make something that the users will find familiar and enjoy.  Johnson's argument is developers need to focus on creating truly user-centered technologies.  Too much of the technology that has been/is being produced is system-centered or merely user-friendly.  Johnson suggests users, as the people actually using the technology,  need to become active participants in the development process as consultants and collaborators.

Some questions:

Can developers ever really divorce themselves enough from their own knowledge to inhabit the perspective of user?  They are still users, right?

Does technology create the culture, or does the culture create the technology?  (more chicken)

To what extent are users responsible for remaining conscious while using technology?


I had very few WTF moments while reading this peace.  I credit that to Johnson's ability to write clearly and explain concepts in a thorough, yet manageable way.

Johnson, Robert R. User-Centered Technology. Syracuse, NY: SUNY Press, 1998.