Archive | Technical Communication RSS feed for this section

Research Statement: A Draft in Progress

As a technical communication scholar and professional, my research interests reside at the intersection of the human and technological, focused specifically on the way rhetorical agency emerges at these interstices. As technical communication scholarship and practice extends into user experience (UX), UX design, experience architecture, and usability testing, my research offers insights into changing understandings of what we mean by the term “user.” This user identity is less likely to be a human persona and more likely to be a collectivity of human activity and technological influence, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and algorithm-mediated daily experience. We have entered the realm of the posthuman, and our technical communication theory, pedagogy, and practice must adapt to posthuman UX in order to understand and design the systems, communications, and experiences that account for the technological activity intertwined in posthuman agency.

Prior Research

My research focus on the emerging topic of posthuman usability in technical communication is the combination of two primary strands of professional and pedagogical experience.

Web Development

I am a self-taught professional web developer. My only formal instruction in web development came in the form of a free HTML class I took in 1996 while a public secondary English teacher. We coded HTML using a text editor and previewed our code using the Mosaic web browser — which reveals something about my age, but also represents the strong influence Internet technology has had on my professional experience. I worked over a decade as a freelance web developer and have worked as a web manager on a higher education marketing team, either part-time or full-time, for the past 18 years. I now immerse myself in the very algorithms I study and analyze as a scholar, developing and managing search and social media marketing campaigns while improving search engine optimization (SEO) through content creation and marketing. Experience in web development reveals starkly the pervasive influence that networks, hardware, software, and algorithmic procedures have on daily life. As my research into posthuman agency has accelerated, I’ve theorized that SEO represents algorithmic usability, where human-generated content is manipulated for ease and simplicity of use by algorithmic processes that generate top-level search results. I’ve presented and published research from my experience as a technical communicator in the Proceedings of the 34th and 35th ACM International Conference on the Design of Communication.

Composition Pedagogy

Since training to become a secondary English teacher, I have taught students about writing and trained them to become better writers. Deeply influenced by the social turn in composition studies, I have focused my pedagogy on the collaborative social aspects of composing. Given the deeply mediated activity of writing through and with digital technologies, my research and teaching have focused on the collaborative affordances that composing platforms like Google’s G-Suite for Education and cloud-computing platforms like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive provide for practicing collaborative composing. I’ve collaborated with a colleague at Old Dominion University to publish works on using Google Drive for collaborative composing in the Journal of Usability Studies, in the Proceedings of the Annual Computers and Writing Conference: Vol. 1. 2016-2017 (edited by Cheryl Ball, Chen Chen, Kristopher Purzycki, and Lydia Wilkes), and in collections published by IGI Global (edited by Binod Gurung and Marohang Limbu) and Utah State University Press (edited by Rich Rice and Kirk St.Amant).

Current Research

Beginning with a “Theories of Networks” class I took with Shelley Rodrigo and Julia Romberger at ODU, my dissertation topic and research has shifted from a focus on literature and cultural studies (albeit with a technological overlay; my 1998 master’s thesis concluded with a comparison of non-linear narrative strategy in The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy with hypertext theory) toward a focus on networked agency in composing. I refined this focus with a class on theories of Technical and Professional Writing taught by Dan Richards, where I discovered the field of technical communication and realized that I had been working as a technical communicator for years without knowing it. I have honed my research to focus attention on tracing rhetorical agency as its emerges during online research practices. My dissertation seeks to trace, describe, and visualize the emergence of assemblage agency during online research as posthuman user experience. My object of study is a student conducting research using an academic library’s “one search” search interface, and my methods combine ethnographic observation with usability testing combined with mining network activity data from browser HTTP Archive (HAR) files. I’ve published my initial theoretical approach and visualization attempts in a special issue of Present Tense on platform rhetorics (edited by Dustin Edwards and Bridget Gelms) and presented these approaches at recent conferences including the International Critical Media Literacy Conference (Southern Georgia University), the Symposium on Communicating Complex Information (East Carolina University), and the annual Computers and Writing conference (George Mason University).

Research Agenda

I seek to pursue posthuman UX in future research. Assemblage agency consisting of human and nonhuman entities is relatively straightforward to theorize through work by such disparate scholars as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, N. Katherine Hayles, James Brown, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and others. Assemblage agency is devilishly difficult to trace and reveal, and the methods for doing so are clumsy and untheorized. I intend to adapt existing and explore new methods that technical communication scholars can use to uncover the black box of algorithmic and procedural rhetorical influence. The result of this work, which I intend to introduce in my dissertation, is to provide accessible heuristics and pedagogies that can help scholars and students alike recognize, reveal, and understand the shared agency that emerges in algorithm-mediated daily life. While algorithmic literacy is a term that Cathy Davidson and Ted Striphas have introduced to describe this awareness, my long-term research goal is to develop posthuman UX studies as a practical approach to designing products, systems, and experiences that both recognize assemblage agency and make explicit the shared nature of agency that emerges when humans use algorithm-mediated networked products.

Since I started working as a web developer at the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies in 1999, I’ve engaged in designing online experiences for human and, increasingly, algorithmic audiences. The opportunity to study and theorize the very activities I’ve engaged in daily for the past two decades excites and engages me. I’m extending a long history of pedagogy and professional experience into the realm of knowledge making, and I’m eager to keep advancing.

Slack, Miller & Doak: Technical Communicator as Author

Slack, J. D., Miller, J. M., and Doak, J. (1993). The technical communicator as author: Meaning, power, authority. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 7(1), 12-36. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1050651993007001002

While this article could feel dated (it was published over 20 years ago), its message is as relevant and meaningful today as it was when it was released. And I can only imagine the ripples this article likely started throughout the technical and professional communications community when it was released in 1993.

Summary. Technical communicators need to rethink their role as authors by advocating and adhering to an articulation view of their work, in which meaning is articulated and re-articulated across and through the entire context of the movement of meaning from and among sender and receiver. The goals is to the recognize the ethical responsibilities that technical communicators have and, in doing so, to equip them to make decisions about articulated meanings in ways that recognize, understand, and respond appropriately to the power structures and differentials working in all communications.

In short, this article assigns to technical communicators authority as authors and ethical responsibilities as articulators of meaning among senders, receivers, and stakeholders in communications. More importantly, the article defines meaning as inherently connected to power and power differentials. Technical communicators are tasked with continually (for the job is never complete) articulating meaning in ethical ways to reveal and respond to power politics and differentials that inevitably emerge as meaning is generated and communicated.

My favorite quote from the article:

“In a sense, technical communicators need to be shaken from the somnambulistic faith that their work is linguistically neutral” (p. 33).

Today I lived the ideas from this article. As a web writer, I write quite a lot of unattributed content. Recently we launched a new graduate degree program, and I was tasked with composing copy for web and print to introduce this new program. This morning, I received a note from my dean asking me to “re-read” and “revise accordingly” the pages for this new graduate degree program in light of a particularly limited way an acquaintance, who also happened to be the president of a local institution of higher education, interpreted the audience of this program based on our website description.

I immediately understood the power politics of the message: a dean and a college president had conversed, and the result was that those who answer to the dean must make right an issue whether we believe the issue is, in fact, valid. Responding that the copy was fine and clear as written was simply not an option, even if it were true.

As it turns out, it was possible to read the copy as the college president indicated. There was not a real problem with the language, but we had implied what should have been explicit. We discussed the copy in our weekly team meeting and developed a quick fix to address the issue.

We articulated meaning between two powerful people. That others had not noticed any problem with the copy — that the program chair had approved the copy and the target audience implied by the language — was no longer part of the articulation of meaning because of the power differential. I am a manager, my boss is a director, but the dean and a college president were involved. There was no question about our response; it was simply a matter of whether a quick fix or a lengthy repair was required.

Abundantly clear in this experience is that the copy I wrote was in no way “linguistically neutral.” No less than a president of a local college found the language linguistically exclusionary, and my dean appeared to tacitly agree with that conclusion. Their language, in turn, left little choice to me as author. I wrote the copy and was implicitly to blame for the misunderstanding; my boss and the program chair approved the copy, so they, too, were complicit in the misunderstanding. When we collaborated to implement a quick fix to the language, we were not perceived as authors, but as workers simply applying a patch to an imperfect product that we had created. The power differential drove home that perspective of authorship as simply a transmission function.

Barton & Barton: Ideology and the Map

Barton B. F., & Barton, M. S. (2004). Ideology and the map: Toward a postmodern visual design practice. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 232-252). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Textbook cover

Central Works in Technical Communications. Published by Oxford University Press

Summary: Maps have ideology. This is hardly news at this point. However, the authors’ focus in different ways that inclusion and exclusion reinforce and reify hegemonic power positions is illuminating and remains powerfully valid in today’s info graphic-loving culture. Visualizations have a responsibility to reveal and make explicit their ideological inclusions and exclusions, and to seek new visual representations that reflect lived experience’s complexity and apparent chaos.

Response: Our recent Theory of Networks class took to heart parts of this article’s position. One of those positions is the effort to establish and develop visual representations that reflect the complexity and chaotic organicism of lived experience. As we sought to visualize connections among the various theorists and theories we encountered, the complexity of our visualizations grew and grew. Complexity is part of our lived experience, and our maps should represent that complexity in meaningful ways.

That maps have embedded in them ideological decisions is refreshing, as is the call to make explicit the ideological inclusions and exclusions. I’m reminded of contested mappings of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. And even these terms, much less their mappings, are contested. The West Bank is an indigenous, Palestinian term taken from a Jordanian perspective: to Jordanians, the area west of the Jordan River is, in fact, the West Bank of the Jordan. To Israelis, the area represents the east, not the west; it’s east of Israel proper. Harkening to historical biblical roots, the “Territories” (as they were called when I lived in Israel) are called Judea and Samaria — thus representing, when combined with Israel, the complete territory of the Jewish state. The Gaza Strip has been a less contested term.

Mapping Judea and Samaria/the West Bank/Palestine (as it is unofficially officially known today — more contested names) is hotly contested. Does the “Wall” that Israel has erected along much of the border with Palestine represent the political and territorial border of a future Palestinian state? Does the 1967 armistice line represent the historically accurate borders of the two states, assuming two states eventually emerge? As for Gaza, to what extent is it connected, if at all, to Egypt or to the West Bank Palestinian borders? How does one represent, visually, the political connection between the two Palestinian land masses, separated by Israel?

One interesting outcome of the agonizingly slow birth of the Palestinian state is the decision to call the emerging state “Palestine.” Doing so creates an interesting vacuum among some Palestinians, who have often called what I call the state of Israel “Palestine.” The result is that Israel receives an unofficial official recognition as the name of the country between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, regardless of whether it’s been accepted as a Jewish state or homeland.

Maps contain ideology, and one simply can’t map this area of the Middle East without taking sides in the ideological struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, between Arabs and Jews, and between foreign policies of UN Security Council member nations. Taking sides — and even revealing this level of the ideological background of mapping the region — can be professionally dangerous. There are no objective choices; if nothing else, the ideological struggle of mapping the Middle East demonstrates the lack of objectivity in postmodernism. All mapping is subjective and ideological. Accepting this fact makes mapping much easier and reveals — and revels in — the complexity of lived experience.

Barton & Barton: Ideology and the Map

Barton B. F., & Barton, M. S. (2004). Ideology and the map: Toward a postmodern visual design practice. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 232-252). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Textbook cover

Central Works in Technical Communications. Published by Oxford University Press

Summary: Maps have ideology. This is hardly news at this point. However, the authors’ focus in different ways that inclusion and exclusion reinforce and reify hegemonic power positions is illuminating and remains powerfully valid in today’s info graphic-loving culture. Visualizations have a responsibility to reveal and make explicit their ideological inclusions and exclusions, and to seek new visual representations that reflect lived experience’s complexity and apparent chaos.

Response: Our recent Theory of Networks class took to heart parts of this article’s position. One of those positions is the effort to establish and develop visual representations that reflect the complexity and chaotic organicism of lived experience. As we sought to visualize connections among the various theorists and theories we encountered, the complexity of our visualizations grew and grew. Complexity is part of our lived experience, and our maps should represent that complexity in meaningful ways.

That maps have embedded in them ideological decisions is refreshing, as is the call to make explicit the ideological inclusions and exclusions. I’m reminded of contested mappings of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. And even these terms, much less their mappings, are contested. The West Bank is an indigenous, Palestinian term taken from a Jordanian perspective: to Jordanians, the area west of the Jordan River is, in fact, the West Bank of the Jordan. To Israelis, the area represents the east, not the west; it’s east of Israel proper. Harkening to historical biblical roots, the “Territories” (as they were called when I lived in Israel) are called Judea and Samaria — thus representing, when combined with Israel, the complete territory of the Jewish state. The Gaza Strip has been a less contested term.

Mapping Judea and Samaria/the West Bank/Palestine (as it is unofficially officially known today — more contested names) is hotly contested. Does the “Wall” that Israel has erected along much of the border with Palestine represent the political and territorial border of a future Palestinian state? Does the 1967 armistice line represent the historically accurate borders of the two states, assuming two states eventually emerge? As for Gaza, to what extent is it connected, if at all, to Egypt or to the West Bank Palestinian borders? How does one represent, visually, the political connection between the two Palestinian land masses, separated by Israel?

One interesting outcome of the agonizingly slow birth of the Palestinian state is the decision to call the emerging state “Palestine.” Doing so creates an interesting vacuum among some Palestinians, who have often called what I call the state of Israel “Palestine.” The result is that Israel receives an unofficial official recognition as the name of the country between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, regardless of whether it’s been accepted as a Jewish state or homeland.

Maps contain ideology, and one simply can’t map this area of the Middle East without taking sides in the ideological struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, between Arabs and Jews, and between foreign policies of UN Security Council member nations. Taking sides — and even revealing this level of the ideological background of mapping the region — can be professionally dangerous. There are no objective choices; if nothing else, the ideological struggle of mapping the Middle East demonstrates the lack of objectivity in postmodernism. All mapping is subjective and ideological. Accepting this fact makes mapping much easier and reveals — and revels in — the complexity of lived experience.