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Dobrin: What’s Technical about Technical Writing

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Central Works in Technical Communication — Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dobrin, D. N. (2004). What’s technical about technical writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 107-123). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Dobrin offers this brief definition of technical writing:

“technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user” (p. 118).

He offers this “new” definition in response to previous definitions that focused too directly on some level of “objectivity,” either formal or epistemological, that simply is not possible given the “fecundity of language” (p. 114). Dobrin connects the battle against considering language “fungible” or “fecund” with a universalist view of language, a view that considers writing pure and directly communicative, rather than mediated, creative, and infinitely interpretable. Universalist perspectives “suspect the experience and language of man” (p. 114) and seek a level of purity that can only be achieved by separating language and communication from the subjectivity of human experience. Instead, Dobrin advocates a monadist perspective on language that recognizes reality not outside human experience but within the lived experience (including communications) of human actors with language. As he puts it,

“Since there is no way of knowing without language—a human construct—there can be no privileged access to the world” (p. 115).

The monadist perspective embraces alternity, a way of conceiving of the vitality of language. Technical writing as currently (at the time of writing) conceived ignores alternity by focusing exclusively on an instrumentalist view of language. This affects descriptions (and presumable histories, too) of technical writing in these three ways, according to Dobrin:

  • Ignores modes of group cohesion, which in turn means that interpreting one group to another results in miscommunication and misunderstanding;
  • Fails to invest technical writing with creativity;
  • Fails to address slackness of technical writing due to writing for a limited future.

Dobrin encourages play in language

“as a way of becoming in the world, to exercise our human will” (p. 117).

Specifically, he appears to encourage play in technical writing, something generally frowned up and unaccepted because of the instrumentalist perspective of language in technical writing circles. The point, however, is that technical writing, like any other kind of writing, focuses on social understandings and experiences. Dobrin’s new definition focuses not on the instrumentality of language, but on the mediated nature of communication between user and writer and between technology and user.

“At every point, the technology must be accommodated to the user or the user must be accommodated to the technology” (p. 121).

In short, the connection of the user and the technology is of vital importance, not the objectivity of the writer or the technology experience.

Several portions of this chapter caught my attention. First, I found in Dobrin’s description of the universalist perspective of language unsettling connections to the Christian, or at least the Church’s, moralist perspective on language: that somehow language as used is distrusted because it reflects the fallen nature of humanity. I push against this conception of language, for I find little in language to consider instrumental or universalist or objective. On the contrary, like Dobrin I find language to be fecund and fungible, capable of constructing experience and understanding. The Church has fought against human language, as if the Gospel of John’s “Word” represented some epistemological or formal objectivity that human “word” cannot achieve. On the contrary, I subscribe to a monadist view of language that embraces alternity and the fecundity and creativity of language. This puts me out of sync, I think, with Church doctrine and dogma. That sobers me.

Second, I found Dobrin’s focus on play in words, language, and communication intriguing and attractive. I love wordplay, because wordplay recognizes the elastic nature of meaning and the fact that our lived experience in social systems assigns meanings to words. Technical writing can be dry, but it needn’t necessarily be so. There is nothing objective or external that requires technical writing to represent instrumentalist perspectives. On the contrary, technical writing, because it’s embedded in socially constructed relations among and between individuals and groups, manufacturers and users, user groups, and other social systems, is playful. Any attempt to dictate otherwise is to deny the fecundity of the language, a denial that withers in the face of any punster or unabridged dictionary.

Third, I found this statement limiting:

“People come into technical writing from two directions: either they are technicians who are asked to write or writers asked to gain technical skills” (p. 122).

I found this statement limiting because I believe myself to be a technical writer, or perhaps more specifically a technical writing teacher, because I work to accommodate my students as users to technologies of composing, from network-computer mediated to pencil-and-paper mediated to speech mediated communications. Maury Brown (2014) noted that, as composition teachers, we work to provide students the tools to use technologies of many kinds in different ways to compose in language:

“Writing is accommodating language to users” (personal SMS communication, 2014, September 8).

As a technical writing, I “fell” into technical writing from neither writing nor technician roots. I “fell” into technical writing from roots in composing pedagogy and constructive/constructed language use. I think there are ways to enter into technical writing that are represented neither by technicians nor writers.

Multimodal Writing Assessment_Annotated Bibliography

Eidman-Aadahl, Elyse, Kristine Blair, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Will Hochman, Lanette Jimerson, Chuck Jurich, Sandy Murphy, Becky Rupert, Carl Whithaus, and Joe Wood. “Developing Domains for Multimodal Writing Assessment: The Language of Evaluation, the Language of Instruction.” Eds.  Heidi A. McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. Digital Writing: Assessment and Evaluation. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 30 Jan 2014.

This article, written by the Multimodal Assessment Project (MAP) committee for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is…Initiative, identifies five domains they believe are “vital for the assessment of digital writing offers the possibility that the language of assessment can inform—and build upon—discussions more often associated with interaction, instruction, and text creation than with evaluation”: 1) artifact (“the finished product”), 2) context (“the world around the artifact, around the creation of the artifact, and how the artifact enters, circulates, and fits into the world”), 3) substance (“the content and overall quality and significance of the ideas presented”), 4) process management and technique (“the skills, capacities, and processes involved in planning, creating, and circulating multimodal artifacts”), and 5) habits of mind (“patterns of behavior or attitudes that reach beyond the artifact being created at the moment”). The authors elaborate on the definitions of these five domains by centering each one on a specific example of a student(s) project that they feel best exemplifies each domain. My favorite example was that of context with the example being a class/individual project of creating war poems based on The Things They Carried and the class’ microblog. Each example represents a multimodal project incorporated into a grade school classroom and the strengths and weaknesses that were demonstrated in the final “artifact.” MAP, with its emphasis on the five domains as the focal point, suggest that such projects could encourages students to become active producers of rhetoric and more aware of how they and others are using rhetorical strategies, and be a progressive step towards a better understanding of how to evaluate multimodal projects that go beyond the uniform writing skills that are being taught in accordance with standardized testing.

This article was very surprising in just how creative the grade school multimodal project instructions and productions were. The aim of the MAP committee’s project was interesting in that it founded itself upon multimodality, with an emphasis on how students and teachers were operating within rhetorical genres. I was heavily reminded of the reading by Miller (with her idea of fluid motivations for genres) and Popham (with her dissection of boundary genres and the cohesion and tension such meldings can bring). The Google Earth Historical Figures Tour (not quite the right name for the project, but still) was a fascinating boundary genre because students were drawing on skills learned in history and English courses, using technology as the go-between despite that level of technology being an unexpected surprise to the teachers who had simply expected students to use the more traditional PowerPoint. The article itself presented alternatives to the standardized writing assessments that are lacking in many areas that multimodal writing projects could unveil, such as a student’s growing awareness of situational needs that would play into the rhetorical choices they make with their work. By picking and choosing among existing projects being done in various schools (and even a camp setting at a university) the authors did a nice job of uncovering just how well K-12 grade students can learn to adjust and even thrive with writing assignments that go beyond the traditional print platform and the new skill sets that emerge when rhetorical forms are being engaged by youths who are learning to navigate what can be accomplished with advancements in technology while still retaining and honing skills that can be learned with more traditional modes of communication.

In terms of the Theories of Networks course, this article seems especially useful in that multimodal writing assignments create a network unto themselves between different kinds of technologies, students and teachers, students and students, and students, teachers, and larger audiences involved. One particular example in the article that stood out to me in terms of how a project discussed by the authors became more than just a project but a network of skills and participants/creators was that of the website created by the girls at a technology camp. The girls were broken into groups of 3 and given a short amount of time to create a website that reflected their own emerging digital identities but also that of the camp itself. By collaborating so regularly on specific projects, the girls became a network of shared skills and well as a collective intelligence about the project and camp as a whole. This network then grew larger as the website was put on display as the final project to visiting family members, but then attained a greater sense of network as the aim of the project was to be used for potential campers and their parents. The girls involved essentially created a network between themselves as existing campers, the camp leaders, and anyone interested in the camp as a camper or as the guardian of a potential camper. The multimodality of the project is a physical representation of the collaborative nature of the camp and the relationships between the campers that made the website possible.

Music with Which to Celebrate Multimodality