Spurious Coin, Taking a Political Turn, and Undistributed work

Posted: September 25, 2008 in Methods, Readings, Review, School
Tags: , , ,

Surprisingly, I finished my reading early this week. Mostly, this is because I read much of Bernadette Longo’s Spurious Coin ahead of time. I didn’t do much by way of preparatory reading, so I’m glad to have it pay off.

Before I begin talking about Spurious Coin, I should mention that I read only the first four chapters; anything that occurs past that will not be covered. And while I’m at it, “Taking a Political Turn” by Nancy Roundy Blyler and “Undistributed Work Through Writing: How Technical Writers Manage Texts in Complex Information Environments” by Shaun Slattery are unlikely to get a very deep treatment, as I’m not sure I am rested enough to understand them right now, and may have to reread them. That said, let me talk about Spurious Coin. I was intrigued by the very first sentence. “Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible” (ix). I like that idea, making writing something that supports silently, doing a very important job and not getting credit. Almost like the only way to draw attention is to do a bad job. It’s not the greatest way of living, but there is a certain martyr like pride that comes from it.

I thought, based on that sentence, that I was about to read a book about how to better write clearly. Instead, what I got was a book with a very solid history of technical writing. I can’t say that there were fascinating arguments, but it felt like a good comprehensive history, built up slowly and carefully all along the way, and written in a very accessible style. Longo’s first sentence, it turns out, is more of a promise than anything else: she’s going to present what many would consider the dull history of technical writing, but will do so in a way that gets the information across clearly and easily; we’ll only notice her hand when she does a bad job. Otherwise, the writer’s hand will be invisible, as she says it should be.

Longo goes through why technical writing is important, where and how it started as a field, and what the value of clear writing as a ‘coin of the realm’ really has. It’s informative, clear, and important, even if it wasn’t something I was particularly interested in.

I didn’t feel like I could really sink my teeth in to the book. There were a lot of tidbits of interesting information and commentary on technical writing, like that “technical communication practices work to conquer users’ naive know-how and reformulate these naive practices into scientific discourse” (17), or that “modern historians do not consider books before the 17th century to be ‘textbooks'” and that “Textbooks first appear in histories of education in the 17th century with the work of Johann Amos Comenius” (24). While all that is interesting, the book feels like an information dump. Which it is. So it’s important, but not exactly exciting.

Moving on the the Political Turn, I found myself looking at the article a bit differently than I normally would. It’s like this research methods course is teaching me to read all over again. The article started to come apart, but rather than fraying at the edges, it was neatly separating itself, letting me see its constituent parts and dissect both the research and the arguments separately and against one another. I noticed a constant reference when talking about examples of critical research (273-278) to the idea of ’emancipation,’ while at the same time noticed the earlier admonitions that “researchers try to affect the process as little as possible and thereby maintain objectivity” (271), and the way it worked with suggesting that “the primary goal of descriptive, explanatory research is to better understand, in an objective fashion, the phenomenon being studied, using either quantitative or qualitative means” (272).

But I also noticed that the suggestion was that sometimes, maintaining objectivity isn’t possible or even preferred. As Blyler writes, ‘critical research must be undertaken in settings where participants have the freedom and motivation to influence the research and where critical research’s emancipatory goal can be reached” (277), which contradicts the earlier presentation, but in a way that makes Blyler’s argument.

Maybe I’m just not seeing straight, but I feel like I’m understanding these articles on a different level than just content.

Most specifically, the Undistributed Work article by Slattery really strikes me as something to look at in the meta form. I am presenting a summary and discussion questions for this article on Monday, and I read it with that in mind. I found myself identifying the parts of quantitative research we have studied being enacted, and realized that the content of the study wasn’t really important. Yes, it told some things about technical writing and communication, like that “distributed and fragmented writing is problematic for the field of technical writing, not only in that coordination is more difficult to perform, but in that it begins to constitute the area of expertise for the technical writer” (323). But it also starts with a literature review to establish credibility, then discusses why the study is valuable, saying, “Thus, an examination of the work of technical writers can help inform our understanding of the effects of the condition of distributed work on symbolic-analytic activity more generally” (312). It talks about how the study was conducted, looks at method as well as methodology, and even presents limits. It is in a constant state of establishing credibility, and seems to me to be an excellent example of how to present research findings. I think that’s how I will present it to the class.

Again, though, I feel like I’m seeing articles in pieces, pulling them apart and looking at structure as well as content. I think that’s a good thing, and I hope it doesn’t go away when I am more rested.

  1. […] Longo wrote that Technical Writing should be invisible (in Spurious Coin, among other places). Web design is a type of Technical Writing. When a site is designed right, the […]

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