Research and Technical Communication, week 1

Posted: September 14, 2008 in Methods, Readings, Review, School
Tags: , , ,

While this is intended to be a reflection of what I have been reading lately, I feel first I should make a confession, one that will make what comes after make a bit more sense.

Last week, I went to my first class on Research Methods largely unprepared. I had missed some of the reading. A rather large chunk of it in fact. This was not wilfull omission on my part; the book had not yet arrived from Amazon. But the fact remains, I had not done some of the reading. So, when I talk about Designing Qualitative Research, I am talking about all four of the first chapters, not just three and four.

That said, my reading this week was largely consumed by that book.

Designing Qualitative Research, by Cathering Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman is thus far a very easy read. Partially that is because I am not reading overly in depth. This is a handbook. As Marshall and Rossman themselves write, “Our purpose in this book is to describe the generic process of designing qualitative research that immerses researches in the everyday life of a setting chosen for study” (9). A generic process. A general overview.

Now, that is not to say that the work wasn’t interesting or important. I have to design a proposal for a research study, and that means I need to know how this works. I need to know how to prove that what I want to study is without personal bias, is feasible, and “fits into theoretical traditions in [. . .] in ways that will be new, insightful, or creative” (35).

The research that I want to do will be creative. It will be new. And it will hopefully be insightful. The question is whether or not it fits into theoretical traditions. The other question, of course, is how do I study things that have not yet been invented?

That’s the purpose, after all. I want to develop strategies, pedagogical imperatives, for integrating and understanding new media technologies that do not exist yet. I can’t very well do an ethnography for that.

I have started working on this idea. I’ve found a number of articles about the history of technology. I figure that I will use another method discussed in the book, the Historiography, to talk about what has come before and how it was used. Then I’ll look at theories for where technology is going, and present several case studies, in which I make suggestions both specific to the cases and with the broader goal of developing methodology.

I’m about halfway through the book (starting chapter 5 of 7), and so far it has been interesting, insightful, and has gotten me thinking about later projects. Which, largely, is its goal.

So leaving that behind, I have three articles to discuss. The first is written by Richard Graff, and entitled Reading and the “Written Style” in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I also have a class with Richard right now, where we are discussing rhetoric in antiquity, so there is some nice tie in there. My one complaing with the article is that due to either my own inability to control the printer or the way the pdf was set up, the text was incredibly small (I’d guess it was at largest 8 point font), so I had to lean real close to read it. It brought a whole new definition to the idea of “close reading.”

While this article was not about how to conduct research, it did seem to me to be a very good example of presenting a broad depth of theory. Richard clearly is well read in the field, and this article shows that he is considering the ideas of many different people and still making an argument. His study is an argument, but oen that is based not only only in logic but also deeply in the theory, the conversation, of the field.

The final two articles I read are both very important. So important that I am both worried and relieved to be reading them. They are A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing by Carolyn R. Miller and The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust by Steven B. Katz. What makes them important, honestly, is purely selfish. Both of these articles are on the reading list for The Exams that I have to take in about two years. It’s a relief because I get to talk about them, and because now I’ll have been exposed to them when I return to them in studying for The Exams.

Miller’s article was interesting in its suggestion that technical writing has always operated under the positivistic view of science, which “destroy its aspirations toward disciplinary respectability and relegate it to its status as a skills course” (50). This, according to Miller, is a bad thing, and the reason rhetoric and scientific and technical communication has always had trouble defining itself. Other important comments in the article included her mention that “audience adaptation too often becomes an exercise in vocabulary” (51), which brings to mind the students I have had who believe that big words=academic respectability. It makes sense that they feel this way, especially considering Miller’s views. What I liked best was her assertion that “Good technical writing becomes, rather than the revelation of absolute reality, a persuasive version of experience” (52). Maybe it’s just my philosophy of science background, but this humanistic question and the debate between positivism and “an overt consensualist perspective” (52) really spoke to me.

Unlike Katz’s article. But I know why his article did not resonate well with me. I have forever had trouble with anything related to the Holocaust. Oddly enough, it’s not because I am of German Jewish descent. No one in my family was still in Germany during the Holocaust, and there are neither survivors nor victims in my lineage. The problem I have with the Holocaust comes, I think, from early traumatic scarring caused by a childhood depressive disorder, a very good imagination and memory, and an overabundance of exposure to all things Holocaust. I went to Sunday School for 10 years, and the only thing I really remember about it was talking about the Holocaust. So I have trouble with anything related to it now, as I unconsciously try to avoid thinking about it anymore.

That said, there were some very interesting parts of Katz’s article. His suggestion that “science and technology become the basis of a powerful ethical argument for carrying out any program” (203) produces some very chilling connections between Nazi Germany, modern America, and Orwellian dystopias (which Katz mentions explictly later on in the article).

There are two other quotes I want to point to. The first “With expediency, the only ethical criterion necessary is the perceptible movment toward the technical goal to be achieved–including expediency itself. Indeed, expediency is the only ethic that can be ‘measured'[. . .]” (204). While I don’t disagree with his assertion, I find myself wondering if that characteristic uncommon to all other ethical theories disqualifies expediency as an ethic. I once tried to formulate my own ethical theory as an exercise in college (where I was a philosophy major). I found, with the help of Theodore Schick, the head of the department, that there was only one universal ethical statement: “All equals should be treated equally” and that differences in theory came when you tried to define “equals.” It’s basically an early formulation of the Golden Rule. But I see no evidence of that in expediency. It seems to disregard the idea of equals (possibly by asserting that there are no equals to expediency), and thus neglects the foremost core of ethics.

The other quote was just a little later: “The holocaust reminds us not only of the potential brutality and inhumanity of the ethic of expediency, but of a rationality taken to such extremes that it becomes madness” (204). This, again, suggests to me that expediency cannot be an ethic. Ethics by nature are humane; they are rules for humane action, for societial survival. Expediency is both inhumane and mad. I will not try to argue that ethics are never brutal; anyone who’s spent any time reading history will easily prove me wrong. And I won’t argue that ethics, taken to extremes, can become madness. But this isn’t a discussion of expediency taken to extremes; Katz is talking about how expediency is rationality taken to extremes. So it is inherently irrational. It is the extreme of something else, in the same way that genocide could be the Categorical Imperative taken to an extreme. This suggests to me that, by its very nature, expediency is NOT an ethic.

  1. timrdoc says:

    Hey buddy. Nice work this week. Here’s my mess of thought:

  2. cbdilger says:

    I regret not reading more about research methods while in graduate school. I should own up now.

  3. cogitas says:

    At the very least, you’ve got a good handle on literature review. You certainly taught me the importance of in depth examination of the field.

    But if you want the reading list for the course or something, let me know.

  4. […] Writing and Steven B. Katz The Ethics of Expediency. Both of these I have read about, and even blogged about before. But that was then, and this is now. So let’s start with Humanism and move to the Holocaust. […]

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