Is technical communication rhetorical?
The past month has been my summer vacation—yes, I still worked full-time but I enjoyed the break I’ve had between classes and I do call it a vacation. As I began to prepare for my next classes, I reflected on the classes I was taking and the direction my studies were going. This contemplation was aided by a few journal articles that were assigned for my first week of classes.
The first journal article that began this reflection was Back to School for UX by Fred Sampson. Of course, the field of UX and how this relates to technical communications is an ongoing and wide open discussion; however, Sampson doesn’t focus on the myriad and often conflicting definitions of UX (though he does offer his definition, which you can read for yourself). It instead focused on questions about education and how useful it is for those who actually look to practice this discipline someday.
Below is a list of the questions that Sampson asked that made me think about my own degree (M.A. English, Technical Communications) and what these mean to the larger questions about technical writing as a profession and technical communications degrees in general.
What is the state of today’s educational offerings for HCI and UX practitioners and would-be practitioners?
Does a formal education (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) guarantee gainful employment? Or is it real-world experience that gets the job?
Is it possible for one person to absorb expertise in a wide enough range of disciplines to be expert at everything? Do we need to expose those focused on one discipline to the theory and practice of other UX disciplines to ensure good multidisciplinary teams?
Is good HCI and UX training really like the classic liberal education, with exposure to a broad range of theories and concepts? Or do we run the danger of training jacks of all trades, masters of none?
What are employers and clients looking for—education or experience, or both? And just where is the aspiring UX practitioner to get this training?
How are educational programs attracting HCI students? Can traditional universities fill the bill when they’re so rigidly structured around single-discipline silos?
The two classes that I am taking this semester are seemingly in conflict with one another: UX and Rhetoric. The questions asked by Sampson regarding multidisciplinary/liberal arts training for UX (and in my estimation technical communication as well) education is argued from all sides by scholars and practitioners. Is technical communication a multidisciplinary subject best studied through the auspices of liberal arts programs? These were the questions I pondered and even though I don’t expect to answer these questions now or throughout my studies, they served as a good reminder that the theories and ideas I come across always have another side and that it is important to recognize that.
Imagine that you’re a watercolor artist and you’re taking a watercolor class and the first idea presented to you is that “painting watercolor is not art.” Instead, the idea continues, watercolor painting should fall under the social sciences department. There is a similar dilemma that faces technical communication students as we try to balance the classical liberal arts methodology with the more recent UX/HCI specific training that often fall outside of the core curriculum. This is what confronted me when I read an assigned journal article for my Rhetorical Theory Applied to Technical Documents class. I was hit with the idea that instrumental discourse, as applied to technical writing, is nonrhetorical and that by a classical definition of rhetoric that pervades to today, that rhetoric doesn’t have a place within technical communications.
In the past, many scholars have used the term rhetoric to cover all of these areas. But now the world of discourse is so broad, varied, and diversified that trying to stretch rhetoric to cover it all has made the term extremely vague. Moore, Patrick. Instrumental Discourse is as Humanistic as Rhetoric.
This theory is a reaction to the author’s position that instrumental discourse is (or ought to be) objective that classical rhetoric as taught today still adheres to the centuries old definition of ‘persuasive writing’—which is anything but objective.
Today, rhetorical theory and its sister, composition theory, significantly influence-and perhaps even control-the teaching of technical communication.
The influence of rhetoric and composition (and literature and creative writing) on technical communication does not seem to have benefited technical communication students.
This idea, of course, is just one of the normative versus descriptive arguments that educators of technical communication confront as technical communications programs, jobs, and even certifications evolve. However, you can understand my surprise in encountering such strong arguments concerning my chosen field of study. You see, I am a proponent of the other side of this argument—that technical communications is rhetorical.
I will continue to explore this dichotomy between the rhetorical and nonrhetorical methodologies presented to technical communications students and I hope to revisit this topic throughout my studies. But for now, I will end with the first response from the other side of the argument:
Aristotle would also remind us that in the final analysis, rhetoric is one of the liberal arts, and this includes the rhetoric of business as well. “Business” may conjure up images of ledger sheets and computers, but “communication” involves people, and Aristotle never lets us forget that.
 Sampson, Fred. “Back to school for UX?” Interactions 12.3 (2005): 12-13.
 Kallendorf C. “The Figures of Speech, Ethos, and Aristotle: Notes Toward a Rhetoric of Business Communication.” Journal of Business Communication 22.1 (1985): 46.