Critical Power Tools, part one

Posted: February 10, 2009 in Readings, Review, School
Tags: , ,

Today’s post is about the foreword, introduction, and three chapters of Critical Power Tools by J. Blake Scott, Bernadette Longo, and Katherine V. Wills. The reason this is part one is that I will be coming back to the rest of the book in a few weeks.

Part of my interest in this work is that I’m seeking an understanding of “Scientific and Technical Communication.” I’m a Rhetoric person, which grew out of my Philosophy background. I’m okay with sticking with Rhetoric, but I want to understand STC as well. Which is why I was very pleased to read that “technical communication is like Foucauldian power/knowledge system in that it relies on the invisibility of the relationships by which it includes and excludes, by which it orders, measures, and discipline” (x).The book isn’t just about STC. In fact, it’s hard to even claim that STC is the focus on the book. It’s a book about using cultural studies as a way of looking at STC. As Scott et al define it, “cultural studies involves critiquing and intervening in the conditions, circulation, and effects of discursive-material practices that are situated in concrete but dynamic sociohistorical formations, that participate in ideological struggles over knowledge legitimation, and that help shape identity” (5). That’s quite a mouthful. Let me see if I can unpack it a bit. Discursive-material practices seems to me to be referring to the practices of a discipline, a discourse community (Bitzer), which in turn are effected by and effect ideology, whether or not something can be accepted as ‘true,’ and shaping the way that discourse community sees and presents itself.

If I have that part right, then that means that cultural studies is looking at, intervening in, and criticizing the way the practices of a discipline effct ideology, knowledge by its definition, and the way that discipline presents itself. Still a mouthful. But hopefully makes a little more sense. Moving on.

The three chapters I read were 4, 5, and 6. 4 was Bernadette Longo’s “An approach to Applying Cultural Study Theory to Technical Writing Research.” Perfect. Just what I wanted. Bernadette began this article with a fantastic line, one she has used before but that bears repeating: “Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible” (111). In this article, Bernadette goes a long way to helping me understand technical writing. She says that “If technical writing is the mediator between technology and what we have come to term users, technical writing practices work to conquer user’s naive-know-how and reformulate these uneducated practices into scientific discourse that can partake in the cultural power residing in scientific knowledge” (117). One of the things I like about Longo is how clear she is. Technical writing is the mediator between technology and users. Between the scientist and the layman. So good technical writing allows the culture at large to understand and take part in the power of scientific knowledge. Fantastic.

Of course, the point of the article isn’t to help me. It’s to argue that there is legitimate research to be done with technical writing through a lens of cultural studies. Longo argues this very effectively, pointing out among other things that “One point of studying technical writing as a cultural practice is to make visible what seems invisible in technical writing, to view what seems inevitable as a product of culture” (123). This points to one of the frustrating problems of technical writing. If you do it well, no one notices. If you do it badly, everyone can see. So doing it well just seems like that’s how things had to be, like it was inevitable. But Longo is suggesting ways we can examine the good technical writing, and see what makes it invisible to show that it is not inevitable.

I could go on, but I need to move to the next chapter, Elizabeth C. Britt’s “The Rhetorical Work of Institutions.” Britt is talking about the importance of looking at organizations as being effected by rhetoric, not just a place where rhetoric happens (133). Her intention is to show that “we need to become familiar both with social and cultural theories of institutions and with the particularities of the specific institutions we study” (134). So basically, the place where something is studiedmust be examined, must be paid attention to. I can respect and agree with that.

She later says that institutions both rely on and are constituted by rhetoric (137), and that “while institutions can be seen as contexts for discourse, they can also be seen as discursive formations, as rhetorics that can be subjected to criticism” (147-8). This goes back to her initial point, one I think she makes very well. The bulk of the article is an examination of letters written by insurance adjusters to claimants, which does a good job of illustrating her point.

The last chapter I read was Jeffrey T. Grabhill’s “The Study of Writing in the Social Factory: Methodology and Rhetorical Agency.” As he himself says, his view is that “the interplay between studies of technical and scientific discourse in specific contexts and rhetorical studies of culture is necessary, but that this interplay maps a research terrain that redirects both cultural studies and technical and professional writing” (151). Okay. So the connection between STC and rhetoric studies of culture is important, but doing so creates a new direction of research not previously taken. Great.

This article is a discussion of methodology, which has become a scary word for me.  Grabhill seems to mostly be suggesting that we need to look at the research a different way, which is much easier for me to wrap my head around. He says that “Culture is not found, wholly formed, it is created in at least two ways: by the participants in/of the culture and by the researcher making sense of the cultural moment” (156). So he’s warning us that by investing culture, we can change it; that in fact part of its formation is studying it. That’s an interesting Schroedinger-esque situation, I think.

Grabhill also makes a very interesting point later in the article, when he reminds us that “because research must be communicated to various audiences, study design must be, at least in part, driven by those audiences” (163). This seems like such an obvious point, but I think it’s important, because it is often forgotten. You have to study what the people you are studying for want studied. Makes sense.

Overall, what he’s saying is that location is important, and that practices are not just important for research relations, but that they also produce knowledge (166). Or, more succinctly, “Research, then, produces culture and it produces its own possibilities for change” (167). Nicely said.

  1. Michelle says:

    I have not read this particular book; however, as I read your review of those three chapters, the comment that struck me most was that researching a culture (I’m paraphrasing) contributes to the creation of that culture. I’m wondering how that fits in with Ethnographic Research, which deals mainly with the dynamics of certain cultures, specifically African and African American. So then, as I sit and ponder and type, there must be a difference between culture and cultural representation? Or might cultural research differ from ethnographic research?

  2. Michelle says:

    ps…My main souce of study for my Masters is currently a post-bacc certificate in African Studies

  3. cogitas says:

    It’s a good book. Bradley Dilger wrote chapter 2 (Extreme Usability).

    The way I’m seeing the research a culture thing is that basically culture is a living thing. You can’t ever say “okay, that’s the culture, right there.” You have to understand that by studying it, you will change it. And yes, ethnographic research will have that same issue. As part of the ethnography, your interaction will change things, at least a little. It’s not possible to do a real ethnography without altering anything. That’s one of the limitations of ethnographies.

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