Dias et al. – Worlds Apart and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts

Dias, Patrick, et al. Worlds Apart :Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print. Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Society.

In this text, the authors explored how writing functioned in academic and workplace contexts in order to determine the correlation between academic writing instruction and workplace writing preparation. The study began in 1992 and one goal of the study was to identify commonalities and differences between writing in academic and workplace settings. They selected four matching university and professional settings: public administration courses and Federal government institutions, management courses and corresponding work settings, architecture courses and a firm of architects, social work courses and social work agencies. The different pairs represented different genres of writing.The researchers used a multiple case study approach to study writers and writing across both academic and workplace settings. They stated that they chose case study in order to ensure that participants’ perspective were an integral part of the study.
The Data-gathering activities consisted of:
  1. Inventorying the genres in each domain
  2. Document tracking
  3. Conducting Reading protocols of designated readers
  4. Ethnographic observation of writers involved in tasks of composing
  5. Interviews
  6. Participant validation (12-13)
For data analyses researchers utilized textual analyses of the writing collected , analyses of oral discourse surrounding production of texts using categories based of systematic linguistics, and sociolinguistic analyses of production and reception of texts within the acts of speaking, reading, and writing occurred (13-14).
Two main questions they attempted to answer were:
  • How do university writing practices relate to writing in the workplace?
  • In what sense and to what extend is writing in university a preparation for writing in the workplace? (15)
Concerns emerging from the research:
  • What changes need to be made in university teaching practices in order to exploit more fully the potential of writing as a tool for learning, and to prepare students to enter more easily into workplace writing practices?
  • Can universities prepare students to write for work?
  • What workplace practices inhibit the full development and use of writing for productive work? What practices support the use of writing to promote workplace goals?

The researchers used a combination of several theoretical frameworks that emphasize the situated nature of writing, including: Genre Studies, Activity Theory (AT), Situated Learning within Communities of Practice (COP), Distributed Cognition, and Semiotic Theory.

Genre studies helped the authors to frame written discourse as “regularized, but not fixed; fluid, flexible, and dynamic; emerging and evolving in exigence and action; reflecting and incorporating social needs, demands, and structures; and responsive to social interpretations and reinterpretations of necessarily shifting, complex experiences” (23).
In this study, language, and writing in particular, are understood as mediating tools:
“Language as mediational means or tool is not a mere neutral conduit; it also puts its own mark on mediated action. Thus, in our case the genres that constitute the mediating communicative means of a community may affect thinking by constraining the sort of thought that can be expressed (and by creating a need to have certain kinds of thoughts in order to fulfill the requirements of the genre). And in general we concur with his insistence on regarding agent, means, and actions as integrally bound and irreducible.” (36)
The authors argued that it is fair to expect academic institutions to prepare students for workplace writing, but that in order to do so, we must acknowledge that there are differences in the act of writing in academic and workplace settings.
“Because with few exceptions writing is a medium deployed in both worlds, such preparation is not an unreasonable expectation. And it is precisely such an expectation that makes acting, the second term in our title, critical. Writing is acting; but in Activity Theory terms, writing at work and writing at school constitute two very different activities, one primarily epistemic and oriented to accomplishing the work of schooling, and the other primarily an instrumental and often economic activity, and oriented accordingly toward accomplishing the work of an organization. In that light, one activity, writing in school, is not necessarily preparation for successfully undertaking the other activity, writing at work.” (223)
These differences can be seen in  real ways, such as through the types of feedback given in response to writing in both contexts: “What seem radically different are the other sorts of consideration that inform the supervisor’s commentary. Whereas the professor’s sense of what is necessary and appropriate derives from ‘the literature,’ or from the curriculum, or from a sense of what is currently valued in the written transactions of the discipline, the intertext on which the supervisor draws is more varied and more diffuse” (225).
While functional literacies are portable in the transition from university to workplace, rhetorical literacy is necessary for the transition from the university to work: “Certainly, skills related to portable tools: computer-related skills, including key boarding, word-processing, and spreadsheet skills, language fluency, abilities related to using and designing forms, charts, and other kinds of graphic displays. Oral skills and the social skills valued in group work ought to carry over as well. Again, we meed to remind ourselves that such skills will be modified in transition; for instance, an individual’s fluency will be severely retarded in the workplace if he or she lack rhetorical savvy” (232).
Based on their study, the authors argued that in order for academic writing instruction to translate into workplace writing success, several aspects of workplace writing should be incorporated into academic writing instruction.

“It seems reasonable that the embededness of writing in workplace practices ought to be replicated in school settings as well, if it isn’t for the fact that the process of education does often operate on a model of detaching skills and practices from their workaday settings in order to teach them effectively. Such encapsulation (Engestrom, 1991) of knowledge and skills is quite likely a deterrent rather than an aid to learning to write… If there is one major, obvious-seeming way in which educational courses might prepare people better for the demands of writing at work, it is through constituting the class as a working group with some degree of complexity, continuity, and interdependency of joint activity. Such arrangements will go some way toward realizing the far richer communicative relations that contextualize writing in the workplace.” (235)
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Herndl – “Teaching Discourse and Reproducing Culture: A Critique of Research and Pedagogy in Professional and Non-Academic Writing

Herndl, Carl G. “Teaching Discourse and Reproducing Culture:A Critique of Research and Pedagogy in Professional and Non-Academic Writing.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. J. Johnson-Eilola and S. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 220-231. Print.

In this chapter, Carl Herndl argued for the need to have a more grounded theory of pedagogy in technical writing instruction based in his experience as a technical writing instructor and theories from Composition and Rhetorical Studies, Marxism, Feminist Studies, and critical pedagogy. Because education is not neutral, Herndl asserted that if we are uncritical in our research and teaching “our pedagogical practice will produce students who are ignorant of the ideological development of discourse and who cannot perceive the cultural consequences of a dominant discourse or the alternate understandings it excludes” (222).

Herndl cited Paulo Freire as the most familiar voice of radical pedagogy for writing theory. Several of Freire’s assumptions regarding critical pedagogy, including:

  • to be human is to develop a conscious recognition of your relationship to the social world and that educations can transform this relationship
  • to be oppressed is not only having your economic and political rights violated, but also to be submerged in what he calls a “culture of silence” by the misrecognition of your relation to the social and ideological
  • misrecognition is when you accept the practices and rationalities of your social position as natural and necessary rather than seeing them as ideologically constructed and politically interested; misrecognition leads people to accept and cooperate with an ideological system which oppresses them (223).

The goal of radical pedagogy, according to Herndl and Freire, is to bring students to consciousness where they neither accommodate nor merely oppose the social order, but can actively reposition themselves within it: “From this perspective, teaching a non-academic discourse without a careful cultural analysis reinforces the culture’s dominant ideological structures and makes cultural self-consciousness difficult if not impossible” (223).

Herndl theorized that individuals could use rhetorical and discursive action in order to come to a greater consciousness:

“That is, by recognizing and articulating the medium of their actions, they can affect the outcome of those actions. Thus education becomes a key process for either cultural self-recognition (Freire’s conscientizacao) or the reification of the structural properties as simply ‘the way things are’ (Freire’s ‘culture of silence’).” (224)

In his outline for a pedagogy for professional writing courses, Herndl suggested that instead of taking a theoretical approach, teachers need to begin working with a discourse and institution which is “palpable” to students. In accordance with this grounded approach, Herndl argued that students would more readily “recognize the connections between ideology, power, and discourse, and the value of resistance, if teachers started with a discourse that directly affected student’s lives” (229).

Within this model, difference is only accepted, but encouraged. Herndl drew on John Trimbur’s rhetoric of dissensus which argued that “collaborative learning can develop a ‘rhetoric of dissensus’ which leads students not to a conformity which reifies the existing social and institutional relations, but rather to ‘collective explanations of how people differ, where the differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences’ (610)” (229).

Herndly asserted that a rhetoric of dissensus applied to technical writing pedagogy would benefit students:

“Once students see how these issues apply to their academic discourse, they can begin to apply the same understanding to the professional discourses they are entering. This rhetoric of dissensus does not condemn professional or technical discourse as ideologically incorrect, but it does allow students to recognize the ideological conditions and consequences of these discourses, and it provides a practical model of resistance.” (229)

More research is necessary, however, in professional and technical discourse in order to aid students in making the shift from discussing the
discourse of the university to analyzing professional discourses.

“Working from such reinterpreted and reconceived research, students and teachers can begin to explore the sources pf power and authority which condition their disciplinary and professional discourse. When it is successful, this pedagogy will allow students to participate in these professional discourses with a degree of self-reflexivity and ideological awareness necessary to resistance and cultural criticism.” (229)

“Don’t Sweat the Technique”: On Spinuzzi’s Rhetorical Research Approach

Spinuzzi, Clay. “Lost in the Translation: Shifting Claims in the Migration of a Research Technique.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14.4 (2005): 411-46. Print.

“Don’t sweat the technique.”  -Rakim

While I’m sure Clay Spinuzzi has never met Hip-hop legend Rakim, it seems fitting that they rendezvous in this post. Spinuzzi’s claim that as researchers, particularly in comp/ rhet and technical communication fields, our emphasis should be more on technique and its rhetoricality as opposed to rigid and limited views of method. In essence, he urges us to not “sweat the technique,” (Rakim’s terms) but to embrace it or them and employ as needed in response to one’s context and rhetorical situation.

To clarify, Spinuzzi makes his distinction between method and technique by stating:

“Whereas a method (from methodos, way of inquiry) is a way of approaching a problem within a particular problem domain, a technique (from techne, art of knowledge applied to making things) is a step in implementing method – an investigative tool that might be deployed in various methods.”  (413)

Spinuzzi uses prototyping as his technique of choice in this article and “translates” this technique to apply to four different contexts with varying socioeconomic environments, power structures, and goals. For Spinnuzi, translation is the process in which a technique is made flexible, while still retaining enough coherence  (416). This process elucidates the ways in which research techniques are rhetorical and “adapted to the locally grounded and contingent arguments we make, even as those techniques are presented as stable and unchanging building blocks” (413). Spinuzzi’s argument that research must be approached as rhetorical aligns with Johanek’s (2000) view that not approaching research in such a way “ignores the very thing to which we claim to be rhetorically most sensitive: context” (88).

In addition to necessarily being responsive to context in a rhetorical approach to research, this approach also allows us as researchers to reflect on and assert our own agency because we have to consciously and rhetorically adapt our approach for our research projects (414).

Spinuzzi uses Latour’s (2004) breakdown of social power and action to explain a research technique as a token that can only be “moved” and effective when it is translated to fit the new context and goals of the stakeholders (both human and nonhuman).

Lest all of this seem very abstract, the four case studies that Spinuzzi presents work well to illustrate the numerous adaptations made by researchers and other stakeholders in order to use the prototypes in very different contexts. While the details of the particular case studies are not particularly interesting to those working outside of technical communication, or labor movements, the take-aways inform both research methodology and pedagogy.

For one, Spinuzzi makes a strong case, in my opinion, for research to be viewed as rhetoric wherein the research components are arguments, but in my case he was already preaching to the choir. In this light, instead of learning research methods the focus should be learning research argumentation and instead of doing research to researching rhetorically. With this understanding, although Spinuzzi does not address this, we can view the composition process as well as the research process rhetorically. This reinforces the notion that research documents, although they need not be grounded in social science, need to be conceptualized and written about persuasively (Smagorinsky 2008) and that we need to consider all available means when contemplating methods and methodology (Barton 2000, Johanek 2000).

The key to researching rhetorically is remembering our agency as researchers and that our research approaches, must be just that– ours – because they in-and-of-themselves are our arguments, and that we make and structuring the arguments we use (441).

The end result of employing rhetorical research skills behind the scene, such as translation, is the appearance of a smooth and seamless research technique; no sweat.

With this in mind, I wonder why this rhetorical approach to research hasn’t been a given in Rhet/Comp?

What ideas, possibilities, concerns, and questions does this approach raise for the scholarly work you want to pursue?