In this posting I would like to relate observations made during one session at last weekend’s Rhetoric Society of America conference to those featured in our most recent profile of a graduate who is mostly engaged in technical support writing. These observations were quite distinct but I want to take care not to characterize them as contradictory, as I believe they are actually representative of a broad range of experiences our graduates may have as writers.
The session featured an employee of a well-known computer company and a professor from a private college in Kentucky. Both were involved in a “virtual” collaboration between academia and industry on a book project and the intent of the session was to analyze tensions that arose due to differences in “values” among the participants. What struck me was that the “values” generally assigned to the participating academics were not necessarily the values I have often observed in my little corner of the academy, nor those our public relations graduate took from her undergraduate curriculum.
The primary source of tension appeared to be the academics’ assumption that the book should begin with chapters on “theory” and then follow with chapters on “practice.” The industry people thought that examples of practice and narratives featuring practice should naturally precede whatever “principles” (as opposed to “theory”) might be drawn from shared experiences. One problem here is that my own preference, even as an academic, is to work inductively, to discover the practice that might inform an emerging theory or set of principles as they may apply to different writing tasks. The material garnered from surveying and interviewing graduates, as described throughout this blog, attests to this preference of mine.
The technical support writer felt that her current “good practices” evolved from an undergraduate curriculum that allowed her to be more “tech-savvy” than her peers, and to structure a message in a way that makes a heavy information load accessible to readers. In other words, her college writing practices made her both audience-aware and used to composing using recently available digital tools. As someone who obtained a Journalism degree many, many years ago, I’m inclined to agree with her observation that practice in news gathering can increase one’s ability to “structure” information.
Our graduate’s comfort level with new technologies employed in writing and research contrasts with the difficulties encountered by the book collaboration participants when they sought to use various tools to collect, compose, and deliver their content. From what the session presenters reported, it appeared that expectations for the software to enable collaborative invention were too high, that what is primarily a mode of delivery (to use the five classical canons of rhetoric) can be expected to influence invention but not to guide it, especially when multiple writers are involved. The technical support writer might be less comfortable with her software if she was collaborating, especially to the extent that was expected of the folks involved in the book project.
(For the uninitiated it might be useful here to mention that the five canons of classical rhetoric are Invention, Arrangement, Style, Delivery, and Memory. The Public Relations graduate discusses the use of technology when researching or “inventing,” that is, developing the material that will go into her message. The session presenters mentioned challenges they encountered during their project that involved all five of the canons.)
During the session, the professor returned several times to the observation that sometimes an older technology, namely phone conversations, was necessary to negotiate differences among participants regarding development of content, its arrangement within the book, and the style in which content would be presented to readers. Human contact that created trust and broke down barriers often proved more effective than the various digital tools the team had at their disposal. The still larger lesson may be similar to that conveyed in another recent post—that is, no preconceived notions, or theory, concerning arrangement, or method of composing, or style, or delivery, will be applicable in all instances. Every writing task presents its own challenges and the flexibility a constant awareness of contingencies affords is what a writer, or several writers, need.