Four Journal Articles that Best Represent the Field of Technical Communication

I was asked to choose a set of four texts that best represent the field of technical communication. Choosing only four (or ten, or 50) is of course extremely reductive, but it allowed me to really focus on the aspects of technical communication that I think are most foundational.

The four texts I chose offer the broadest overview of the discipline while still addressing the specific components that represent the field of technical communication. I identify four primary topics that both build on each other and overlap, to give a representative view of which topics I see as important for technical communicators, in general.

Miller, C. (1979) Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing

Topic: Rhetoric and Humanism

In 1979, Miller’s article launched the technical communication discipline on a trajectory toward the humanistic perspective rooted in rhetoric. Her paper broke from the earlier tradition of technical writing steeped in the practices of the post WWII technical writing boom that valued the scientific rhetoric approach to writing. Miller, however, was cognizant of her new charge when she wrote, “Making the argument requires articulating some new notions of what science is and does and some corresponding new notions of what technical and scientific rhetoric can be and do (Miller 1979, 610). That is, what Miller argues is that science and technology becomes about language through rhetoric, and this change moves the field away from the positivistic (scientific realism/windowpane theory) approach to language and writing, to one grounded in the humanistic tradition of rhetoric.

The positivist view of science treats writing as an instrumental skill. Over the next 35 years, nearly every major article in technical communication cites her, on every important topic in technical communication (e.g., ethics, agency, power, social/users etc.). For instance, Miller’s article is an early example for viewing technical communication through the “two central forces in our culture, science and technology” (Miller 1979, 617) as well articulating the social/community aspect of focusing on users in that technical writing “becomes, rather than the revelation of absolute reality, a persuasive version of experience” (Miller 1979, 614).

Her notion of communities, users, and experience is seen throughout the literature in the major topics such as user experience, audience analysis, and the rhetorical power that the emerging technical communicator holds as a writer of technology.

Johnson, R. J. (1998) User-centered Technology: A rhetorical theory for computers and other mundane facts. Albany: SUNY Press.

Topic: Users and Usability

Miller saw technical communication as writing for a new end; instead of writing for technology, writing for the community who is the end of the technology. Johnson continues Miller’s thought by arguing that not only should we write for users, but also that users should be part of the writing process.

For Johnson, the issue of how technical communicators approach technology is essential because how we view technology (either the windowpane/positivist as Miller would say or as human controlled), determines how we can situate users within the writing process. That is, if technology is outside of human control, we would take a system-centered approach to writing because users have no control over the development or use of technological systems. However, Johnson believes that we can make technology accessible to people by involving them in the design process. Technical communicators can help users through traditional usability testing, but his user-centered technology goes further by representing and advocating for the users’ needs as paramount. Johnson sees connection “between technology, humans, and agency, between control and ownership” (Johnson 1998, 85) that the technical communication discipline continually addresses in its literature. For Johnson, he writes that “user-centered design must ask questions of the user’s situation” (Johnson 1998, 128) to improve technologies by attending to user’s needs in every aspect of the design process.

Therefore, Johnson’s work is an influential text not only because it articulates a further model for approaching technical communication through users, but also because it addresses integral concepts of technology, agency, ethics, and rhetoric, that are still very relevant (as well as discussed) today.

Slack, Miller, and Doak. The Technical Communicator as Author: Meaning, Power, Authority

Topic: Power of Technical Communication; Workplace

I chose this text because it combines technology, the rhetorical nature of writing, and understanding responsibility (agency, ethics)—which are all essential topics within technical communication, as I have illustrated above—in an important way that puts a focus back on the technical communicator. Of course we recognize the importance that the rhetorical use of language holds; of course we understand that we must focus on users and not the technologies themselves; however, Slack et al. position this argument within the workplace and put the technical communicator under the spotlight to highlight the responsibility they have as authors (Slack, Miller, and Doak 1993).

Slack et al. focus on the dissemination of content and “ethical implications of the meanings they contribute to” (Slack et al., 33). That is, they acknowledge that meaning has power and it is a technical communicator’s responsibility to understand “articulations” (Slack, Miller, and Doak 1993, 33), which is the understanding that audiences receive information differently than the sender’s intention.  They write, “Because the receivers of technical communications have the power to decode differently depending on the contexts within which they operate, the communicator must understand how those audiences decode” (Slack, Miller, and Doak 1993, 23). I see this understanding of language and the effects if has on different audiences as an essential topic in technical communication.

Last, I see that the responsibility for the transmission of content arises because of the “articulations” and this in turn creates an ethical dilemma that technical authors must face. This idea of communications creating an ethical space for technical communicators is one of the most important topics that we face as we see repeatedly through case studies and news reports. I think that Slack et al.’s text is an essential work that firmly establishes this concept within the discipline.

Sullivan et al. On Theory, Practice, and Method: Toward a Heuristic Research Methodology for Professional Writing

Topic: The Theory/Practice Dichotomy AND the Importance of Research Methods

Last, but not the least important, I believe that the combination of establishing solid research methods within technical communication along with connecting them between both academia and industry is important to the field. I think that Sullivan et al. follows from Slack et al. by providing the methodological rigor to justify the increased responsibility and authority of technical communicators in the workplace as we understand and wield the rhetorical power of writing.

Technical communication pulls its methodology and research design from many disciplines and this is both a strength, as it provides flexibility for the variety of work technical communicators do, and a weakness because it does not allow the discipline to codify its own solid methodological framework that we can call our own. Sullivan et al. address this issue and the concomitant issue of how practitioners view the importance of research methods as “moving toward a notion of research as praxis” (Sullivan et al. 1998, 302, emphasis theirs). That is, the authors contend the theory/practice dichotomy is a false one and that we must “recognize the limitations of theory alone and practice alone and lay the groundwork for a dynamic praxis that recognizes the necessary contribution of each” (Sullivan et al. 1998, 304).

Sullivan et al. say that we must accept both theory and practice as working together in order to provide the necessary rigor in the workplace, and to justify and support the theory (i.e., methods and methodology research) in academia.

Depending on the day or prompt, I think I could continue to come up with different articles for each topic, and different topics to address other foundations we should focus on in technical communication. Which topics and corresponding articles do you think best represent the field at this time?


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Filed under Rhetoric, Technical Writing

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