Sunday, November 15, 2009

What is Technical Communication?

When I tell people I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric -- there is often a pause and then they ask "What is Technical Communication?". This is my definition -- still a work in progress -- but perhaps will answer the question for those inquiring minds.

In today's information age, technical communication may well be essential to success in all areas of life. While technical communication has long been linked with professional communication, today a broader and more inclusive definition is necessary to encompass the wide range of technical communication work possible. Technical communication is how the work of life gets done. This begins clearly with workplace and professional writing as well as work to support and use technology but also encompasses knowledge work that takes place in government, community, and private lives.

Many definitions of technical communication place technical communication firmly in the workplace with practical writing – which may or may not be scientific and technical. Rutter; Harrison; Sullivan & Porter; Selber; Brasseur; and Kynell & Tebeaux all connect technical communication with the workplace. Thralls and Blyler include technical communication within professional communication in “business, industry, and the professions” (p. 132). Driskill located technical communication within the business community which she uses synonymously with workplace (p. 57). Durack points out that traditionally technical communication focused on technology and science in the workplace (p. 36) however acknowledges the definition of workplace in today's world is rather loose and flexible. Durack defines the workplace as a “primary location” for “economically productive activities” which could well mean the workplace is the home (p. 41). While technical communication work certainly continues in that tradition today it has expanded to include a wide range of knowledge work – some of which is not for pay.

The old definition of technical communication did not simply limit the location of technical communication but also its scope. In the past, technical communication often seemed limited to work within a particular field, such as engineering, but that perception has changed dramatically. Newer definitions of technical communication now point to technical communication as “multidisciplinary” (Kynell & Tebeaux, p. 136) or “interdisciplinary” (Lay, p. 147). Even more important to shifting the definition of technical communication to knowledge work is understanding how the work of technical communication has changed. While Thralls & Zachry call technical communication “a shaping force” (as quoted in Kynell & Tebeaux, p. 139), Miller says in the past technical communication was often seen as only a “necessary evil” (p. 51). According to Slack, Miller, & Doak; Miller; Sullivan; and Blyler, technical communication was often seen simply as purveyor of information or sometimes as a mediator of information. However, the new definition of technical communication rearticulates the role of technical communication in society and empowers the technical communicator.

Sullivan and Blyler both argue that without this social action technical communication becomes rhetoric appropriate for slaves. Sullivan (1990) argues we must expand the scope of technical communication to include political discourse or technical communicators are powerless to make decision or take action (p. 216) – which is why he calls for making a serious commitment to technical communication as a social act (p. 217). Both Sullivan and Blyler say there is need for technical communication that solves practical problems and serves public needs which moves technical communication from a functionalist ideology to one that contributes to free and open communication while still maintaining its roots in practical rhetoric. Sullivan and Miller each argue that technical communication is more than a set of simple skills. Johnson-Eilola (1996) agrees as he makes the argument that technical communicators are expert at manipulating information and so should be central to the new information economy. He states that we have shifted from an industrial economy to an information economy and that so the model for technical communication should shift accordingly to rearticulate its emphasis from technical to communication with an emphasis on social contexts and processes. Johnson-Eilola’s new technical communicator is a symbolic-analytic worker who is highly skilled in information manipulation and abstraction as well as possesses the ability to identify, rearrange, circulate, abstract, and broker information. The symbolic-analytic worker works within and across information spaces which forever breaks technical communication free of its former confines.

However this new technical communication is not limited to the workplace. Rutter described the ideal technical communicator as a wise person “who can speak and write well” (p. 22) and “contributes usefully” to “practical endeavors” (p. 25). Rutter describes the ideal technical communicator as an “articulate citizen” who can also “accommodate technology to its users and see technology in a broader societal perspective” (p. 32). It is that broader societal perspective that gives Durack pause and ask “if it is possible to construct a single definition for technical communication that can flexibly accommodate past and future changes in the meaning and significance of work, workplace, and technology” (p. 41). Even as she links technical communication to work and technology, Durack warns against making any definition of technical communication exclusionary (p. 42).

Writing and communicating are still essential parts of technical communication, but more skills are required by today’s technical communication as Rutter (p. 21) and Little & McLaren (as quoted in Rutter, p. 29) point out. Now “judgment” and “problem solving” (Rutter, p. 21), “adapting to changing demands” (Little & McLaren as quoted in Rutter, p. 29), and “abstract reasoning” (Diehl et al, p. 414) are also important to technical communication. But both skill sets also require an understanding of people and the community where the communication is located. We can understand how key that knowledge is to offering “culturally based perceptions to the audience, rather than objective information and data” (Lay, p. 151), “applying broad knowledge to particular problems” (Whitburn as quoted in Rutter, p. 29), and understanding “how people communicate with each other” (Hughes & Hayhoe, p. 77). Rutter points out that “human” communication is essential to technical communication (p. 21). Perhaps it might better to say that technical communication is essential to human communication.

Diehl et al understand “writing as knowledge work” (p. 413) which they define as “analytical activity requiring problem-solving and abstract reasoning” (p. 414). This activity often utilizes advanced information technologies and involves acts of writing. Pointing out that “communities and citizens are entrenched in a knowledge society”, Diehl et al argue that citizenship is a function of knowledge work and citizen knowledge work is a “complex mix of technological and rhetorical writing tasks” (p. 431). Diet et al say “We are interested, therefore, in what knowledge work looks like, in the shape and function of writing as a type of knowledge work, and in the key differences in this activity as it is located in various domains of life” as they point out no domain of activity owns digitally mediated knowledge work” (p. 432). “Writing, as we understand it here, is essential to how work gets done as part of the everyday, but we do not think that the way writing research and teaching is typically bounded and focused enables us to see, adequately, the connections or imagine, boldly, creative and useful innovations” (p. 432).

Technical communication is interdisciplinary and multi-faceted – changing as needs and situations require to solve problems, facilitate human communication, and get the work of life done. Rhetorical skill is still an essential part of technical communication as part of the human communication, connection, and context that Miller, Rutter, and Hughes & Hayhoe describe, but also essential are judgment, abstract reasoning, and problem solving.



References

Blyler, N.R. (1998). Contesting the Objectivist Paradigm: Gender Issues in the Technical and Professional Communication Curriculum. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 268-280). New York: Oxford University Press.
Brasseur, L. E. (1982). Contesting the Objectivist Paradigm: Gender Issues in the Technical and Professional Communication Curriculum. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 3-19). New York: Oxford University Press.
Diehl, A., Grabill, J. T., Hart-Davidson, W., & Iyer, V. (2008). Grassroots: Supporting the Knowledge Work of Everyday Life. Technical Communication Quarterly, 17(4), 413.
Driskill, L. (1989). Understanding the Writing Context in Organizations. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 55-69). New York: Oxford University Press.
Durack, K. T. (1997). Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 35-43). New York: Oxford University Press.
Harrison, T. M. (1987). Frameworks for the Study of Writing in Organizational contexts. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 255-267). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hughes, M. A., & Hayhoe, G. F. (2007). A Research Primer for Technical Communication: Methods, Exemplars, and Analyses. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Johnson-Eilola, J. (1996). Relocating the Value of Work. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 175-192). New York: Oxford University Press.
Johnson-Eilola, J., & Selber, S. A. (2004). Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kynell, T., & Tebeaux, E. (2009). The Association of Teachers of Technical Writing: The Emergence of Professional Identity. Technical Communication Quarterly, 18(2), 107.
Lay, M. M. (1991). Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 146-159). New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, C. R. (1979). A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 47-54). New York: Oxford University Press.
Rutter, R. (1991). History, Rhetoric, and Humanism. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 20-34). New York: Oxford University Press.
Selber, S. A. (1994). Beyond Skill Building: Challenges Facing Technical Communication Teachers in the Computer Age. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 449-465). New York: Oxford University Press.
Scott, J.B., Longo, B., & Wills, K.V. (2006). Critical Power Tools: Technical Communication and Cultural Studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Slack, J.D., Miller, D.J., & Doak, J. (1993). In Scott, J.B., Longo, B., & Wills, K.V. (Eds.), Critical Power Tools: Technical Communication and Cultural Studies (pp. 25-46). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Sullivan, D.L. (1990). Political-Ethical Implications of Defining Technical Communication as a Practice. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 211-219). New York: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, P., & Porter, J. E. (1993). On Theory, Practice, and Method: Toward a Heuristic Research Methodology for Professional Writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 300-313). New York: Oxford University Press.
Thralls, C., & Blyler, N. R. (1993). The Social Perspective and Professional Communication: Diversity and Directions in Research. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 124-145). New York: Oxford University Press.

2 comments:

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